A passionate meditation on art wrapped in a hilarious sendup of artistic pretensions.
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A magic elixir that confers stupendous creative powers on talentless people sets the art world on its ear in this satirical novel.
When Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art sets up a “BE AN ARTIST” stunt exhibition that lets ordinary museumgoers try their hands at art, what emerges are the two greatest works of the age: Ragnarök and Roll, a Play-Doh sculpture of a bomb made by a foul-mouthed 10-year-old named Timmy O’Donnell, and Migration, a paper bird mobile by 73-year-old tyro Tabitha Masterson. Art students start worshipping Masterson as the goddess Bitha. Mediocre art critic Jasper Duckworth figures he can make his reputation by championing the two prodigies, but soon a disappointing truth emerges: Their bolt-from-the-blue artistic capabilities are the result of imbibing water from the MCA’s third-floor drinking fountain. The fountain’s potion grants everyone who swallows it the capacity to produce just one magnificent piece—and then kills the artist. The implications roil the denizens of Chicago’s art scene. Struggling sculptor Jawbone Walker drinks the water and makes an arty chair that priapically invigorates an older man who sits in it; Ross Robards, a legless Vietnam veteran and mass-market painter, abhors the fountain’s potential to make anyone an effortlessly great artist, especially because it competes with his own promise to teach anyone how to be a great artist through his instructional TV show. Sculptor Bob Bellio rejects the water but then has his sublime pieces dismissed as products of the fountain; schoolteacher-turned–art-groupie Emma—she specializes in plaster casts of genitalia—sees her libido intensify after she sips the water; and Duckworth schemes to take advantage of the water’s power without consuming it himself.
Hay’s yarn is a cynical, bawdy spoof of an art establishment whose cult of idealism and authenticity barely camouflages a crass hunger for fame and fortune. (“What have you done, Timmy? Duckworth thinks. You’ve ruined this masterpiece and turned it into the media’s culpability in war, genocide, and homelessness....But then a clearer notion: I’ve got an exclusive.”) Yet the raucous novel also takes the artistic life and creative process seriously. (“Once, maybe twice,” Bob “consciously uses a technique he learned from somewhere; the rest of the time it is pure instinct. Pure flow. Pure energy….The earth is a scratched stained wooden table. The sky behind him, a place where the sparks of tiny pieces of metal from the grinding wheel shoot up like tiny rockets.”) The author is given to flights of surrealism: “You’ve been grifting and scamming them with your camera…you’re a fraud,” a talking squirrel says, egging on a suicidal photographer. Hay’s writerly voice sounds a bit like David Foster Wallace in a gonzo vein, with lots of cultural riffs, esoteric footnotes, a profusion of characters and subplots with obscure connections, and imagery that’s sensual and evocative but in a coolly analytical way. (A man “turns and catches Not Trudy loping with a laid back stride, hips swinging freely but not for show. All her movements utilize an additional five degrees of body movement, giving her not an exaggerated effect, but one of a body enjoying being in motion.”) It’s a baggy story with third-act problems, but the author’s gorgeous prose and comic inventiveness make for an entrancing read.A passionate meditation on art wrapped in a hilarious sendup of artistic pretensions.
Pub Date: March 23, 2021
Page Count: 433
Publisher: Whisk(e)y Tit
Review Posted Online: Jan. 7, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021
Review Program: Kirkus Indie
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by James McBride ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 8, 2023
If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?
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Best Books Of 2023
New York Times Bestseller
McBride follows up his hit novel Deacon King Kong (2020) with another boisterous hymn to community, mercy, and karmic justice.
It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. He isn’t at all “feeble-minded,” but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. McBride’s well-established skill with narrative tactics may sometimes spill toward the melodramatic here. But as in McBride’s previous works, you barely notice such relatively minor contrivances because of the depth of characterizations and the pitch-perfect dialogue of his Black and Jewish characters. It’s possible to draw a clear, straight line from McBride’s breakthrough memoir, The Color of Water (1996), to the themes of this latest work.If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?
Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2023
Page Count: 400
Review Posted Online: May 9, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2023
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by Mitch Albom ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 14, 2023
A captivating allegory about evil, lies, and forgiveness.
Truth and deception clash in this tale of the Holocaust.
Udo Graf is proud that the Wolf has assigned him the task of expelling all 50,000 Jews from Salonika, Greece. In that city, Nico Krispis is an 11-year-old Jewish boy whose blue eyes and blond hair deceive, but whose words do not. Those who know him know he has never told a lie in his life—“Never be the one to tell lies, Nico,” his grandfather teaches him. “God is always watching.” Udo and Nico meet, and Udo decides to exploit the child’s innocence. At the train station where Jews are being jammed into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, Udo gives Nico a yellow star to wear and persuades him to whisper among the crowd, “I heard it from a German officer. They are sending us to Poland. We will have new homes. And jobs.” The lad doesn’t know any better, so he helps persuade reluctant Jews to board the train to hell. “You were a good little liar,” Udo later tells Nico, and delights in the prospect of breaking the boy’s spirit, which is more fun and a greater challenge than killing him outright. When Nico realizes the horrific nature of what he's done, his truth-telling days are over. He becomes an inveterate liar about everything. Narrating the story is the Angel of Truth, whom according to a parable God had cast out of heaven and onto earth, where Truth shattered into billions of pieces, each to lodge in a human heart. (Obviously, many hearts have been missed.) Truth skillfully weaves together the characters, including Nico; his brother, Sebastian; Sebastian’s wife, Fannie; and the “heartless deceiver” Udo. Events extend for decades beyond World War II, until everyone’s lives finally collide in dramatic fashion. As Truth readily acknowledges, his account is loaded with twists and turns, some fortuitous and others not. Will Nico Krispis ever seek redemption? And will he find it? Author Albom’s passion shows through on every page in this well-crafted novel.A captivating allegory about evil, lies, and forgiveness.
Pub Date: Nov. 14, 2023
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023
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