Non-Fiction

  • Blue Nights

    Joan Didion

    A few months ago I saw a reference to Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” and read it again and remembered that I still hadn’t read this semi-follow-up to The Year of Magical Thinking about her daughter Quintana’s death. While the first book is primarily about grief, this one is focused more on mortality, and, more specifically, Didion facing hers without her daughter. It’s a much sadder book to me, especially the time Didion spends documenting her increasing frailty and difficulty with writing. It’s not too hard to imagine that this could be her last book.

    I was happy to read this book when I did, as the title refers to the twilights that happen around the summer solstice,...more

  • Good Mail Day

    Jennie Hinchcliff & Carolee Gilligan Wheeler

    The news about the USPS a few weeks ago was dire, so I bought some new stamps (I recommend a couple panes of the Pioneers of American Industrial Design — they’re good forever!) and picked up this book for a little inspiration. I met the Pod Post girls Carolee and Jennie years ago at a Portland Zine Symposium, where they worked their table, as they do, dressed like mail art Girl Scouts, complete with merit badges.

    While this is mostly a practical guide to create art-by-mail — from what should be in your kit to etiquette — there’s a bit of history as well. I actually would have liked even more history and stories, but then I have already spent many years...more

  • Consider the Lobster

    David Foster Wallace

    After reading Infinite Jest two years ago, I didn’t become a DFW fanatic, settling instead for a measured respect for a writer who manages to be incredibly brilliant and hilarious at the same time. I’ve been meaning to get to this collection of essays, especially since I’m not sure when I’ll embark on another epic novel, namely his posthumously published Pale King.

    My favorite here by far is “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense present: Democracy, English, and the wars over usage”), which is ostensibly a review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but turns into a sort of treatise on language usage comparing other texts and...more

  • Girls to the Front

    Sara Marcus

    I became aware of riot grrrl late, mostly from a distance through zines and records. I can still conjure some sadness that Huggy Bear actually played a show in northeastern Connecticut, but on a Tuesday night when there was no way I could go. What I experienced influenced me greatly, but I never felt like I was a part of the movement in the political sense. There was a lot that I didn’t know about the origins and history. I’m glad this book exists now, though it doesn’t feel like the “definitive” record it claims to be.

    Marcus opens the book by establishing her own relationship to riot grrrl, so it’s clear from the beginning that this is a personal project...more

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

    James Agee & Walker Evans

    Words could, I believe, be made to do or to tell anything within human conceit. That is more than can be said of the instruments of any other art. But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of record and communication, and that they come at many of the things which they alone can do by such a Rube Goldberg articulation of frauds, compromises, artful dodges and tenth removes as would fatten any other art into apoplexy if the art were not first shamed out of existence…

    Agee and Evans originally traveled to Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine; Fortune declined to publish the result, and their documentation of three white tenant...more

  • True North

    Rebecca Solnit

    True North was a 2008 exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim; this catalog is technically not by Rebecca Solnit, but I borrowed it to read her opening essay, “The Needle Points, the Ice Melts: Thoughts Facing North.” Solnit manages a fairly broad survey of the north, framed through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, based on an adolescent memory of a made-for-TV version’s polar climax. She breezes through colonialist explorations, draws in some Cold War references, and finishes up by drawing a parallel between Frankenstein and climate change. Brilliant and poetic. The art is lovely too....more

  • On Photography

    Susan Sontag

    Although photography generates works that can be called art — it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure — photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.

    About halfway through this book, you might start to wonder if Sontag appreciates photography at all, and potentially you’ll wonder further exactly when her relationship with Annie Leibovitz started (in the late 80s, well after the publication of this book, though her...more

  • No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4'33"

    Kyle Gann

    John Cage’s 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written and yet, at times, one of the the avant-garde’s best understood as well. Many presume that the piece’s purpose was deliberate provocation, an attempt to insult, or get a reaction from, the audience. For others, though, it was a logical turning point to which other musical developments had inevitably led, and from which new ones would spring. For many, it was a kind of artistic prayer, a bit of Zen performance theater that opened the ears and allowed one to hear the world anew.

    Kyle Gann prefaces this look at Cage’s most widely recognized piece by addressing his own background with Cage and 4'33", namely that...more

  • Just Kids

    Patti Smith

    A memoir for anyone who gets a little romantic about New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, Smith sketches out her early years in the city and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Early on they were lovers, but for most of their time together (and up until Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989), they had what could be called an artistic partnership. They shared their early, struggling years, both knowing they wanted to be artists but not knowing exactly how to go about it. The process of their experimentations and insertion of themselves into the art scene as well as the battle to just stay afloat with very little during a time of growing crime make up most...more

  • Ways of Seeing

    John Berger

    Kind of the Camera Lucida on fine art, this book is based on the BBC documentary of the same name. Seven essays, three composed entirely of images and four primarily of text that aren’t too heavy with the theory. Of those that are textual, they look at the mystification of art —

    Many of these assumptions no longer accord with the world as it is. (The world-as-it-is is more than pure objective facts, it includes consciousness.) Out of true with the present, these assumptions obscure the past. They mystify rather than clarify. The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its

    ...more

Pages