cultural commentary from the desk of Don Shewey
Yes, it’s farmer’s market season again — yay! And hooray for the clever New Yorker cover with that reminder.
Two excellent pieces in the magazine this week: John Colapinto’s “Strange Fruit,” telling you everything you want to know about the harvesting of acai and the marketing of its (possibly overhyped) medicinal properties; and Rachel Aviv’s “God Knows Where I Am,” the sad tale of a patient who refuses to accept a diagnosis of mental illness and how that plays out in her life. Key quote from the latter: “Today, there are three times as many mentally ill people in jails as in hospitals.”
I was mildly interested in Andrea K. Scott’s profile of Cory Arcangel, whose show at the Whitney I’m mildly interested in seeing. John Lahr is one of those theater critics who so falls in love with artists that he profiles for the New Yorker that I find his always-glowing opinions of their subsequent work to be suspect — cf. his review of Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss in Chicago. But I’ve yet to be grabbed by any of Ruhl’s work. If I had time to read Adam Kirsch’s piece on Rabindranath Tagore, I’ll bet I’d glean stuff that would interest me. And I hope to get around to reading Kate Walbert’s short story “M&M World.”
Every day, I see or hear something
that more or less kills me with delight,
that leaves me like a needle
in the haystack of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over in joy and acclamation.
— Mary Oliver
Several long absorbing articles in this week’s New Yorker:
— Jill Lepore reviews two biographies of Clarence Darrow, in the process delivering a capsule biography of the most famous lawyer in American history and his principled defense of labor unions and organizers. In 1903, representing the United Mine Workers in Pennsylvania, he wrote, “Five hundred dollars a year is a big price for taking your life and your limbs in your hand and going down into the earth to dig up coal to make somebody else rich.”
— Jane Mayer writes a detailed and complicated story about whistle-blowersinside the federal government, focusing on the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency who faces serious jail time for sharing unclassified documents with Congressional investigators about grotesque waste and mismanagement in his agency’s development of surveillance technology. “Even in an age in which computerized feats are commonplace, the N.S.A.’s capabilities are breathtaking. The agency reportedly has the capacity to intercept and download, every six hours, electronic communications equivalent to the contents of the Library of Congress. Three times the size of the C.I.A., and with a third of the U.S.’s entire intelligence budget, the N.S.A. has a five-thousand-acre campus at Fort Meade protected by iris scanners and facial-recognition devices. The electric bill there is said to surpass seventy million dollars a year.” A major point of the story is that the Obama administration has been just as severe in punishing whistle-blowers as the previous administration.
— Kelefa Sanneh’s “Where’s Earl?” is one of those stories that astonish me when they turn up in the New Yorker. It’s an introduction to a pop music phenomenon that I haven’t heard about — the loose affiliation of very young Los Angeles-based African-American rappers who make up the hip-hop crew Odd Future, centered on a performer who calls himself Tyler, the Creator. It’s also a piece of intense, in-depth investigative reporting on the evolution, identity, and whereabouts of a legendary figure in the O.F. domain known as Earl Sweatshirt, who turns out to be the son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, whose work inspired the group of Harlem-based proto-rappers The Last Poets.
Some smaller pleasures: Mark Singer’s Talk of the Town piece about playing the telephone game on the High Line with 200 people passing along a phrase from a Tibetan Buddhist sutra; Michael Schulman hanging out with Kathleen Marshall looking at kinescopes of old performances of Anything Goes to prepare for the Roundabout revival; Hilton Als’ review of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which made me reconsider how much fun it must be for the actresses to perform that show; and then of course, this Roz Chast cartoon:
My review of Tony Kushner’s new play — (take a breath) The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures — at the Public Theater has just been posted on CultureVulture.net. Check it out here and let me know what you think. I had a lot of mixed feelings about the play, but only admiration for the superior performances by Michael Cristofer and Linda Emond (below).
And by the way, if you’ve seen the play and are hungry to know more about it, the 16-page study guide that the Guthrie Theater produced as an audience education tool for the world premiere in 2009 is still available as a PDF online. It’s kind of a masterpiece of dramaturgy.