Lit up

The World Has Changed
Conversations with Alice Walker
Edited with an introduction by Rudolph P. Byrd
The New Press, $25.95, 339 pp.

Here we have an exceptionally unusual biography, if we can even call it that. A lineage of Alice Walker interviews conducted by a succession of writers from 1973 to 2006, The World Has Changed is more of an occasional read than a front-to-back blast-through. 

For such a formidable subject — a woman with severe passion for writing, a direct line to the civil rights movement and the vital roots of African-American literature — we might've expected a traditional autobiography by now. But The World will more than suffice. There's no doubt that Walker's enduring ruminations are great fodder for an autobiography — the woman has lived — but perhaps anything she'd have to say, she has already said. 

The preference to curate and reprint these specific sessions is a gentle testament to interviewing and rich conversation. Walker's voice is instinctively poetic, but direct. She is a storyteller, after all. 

Often asked to comment on her upbringing in Georgia, Walker, to some extent, redundantly recalls the time her brother unintentionally shot her in the eye, leaving her disfigured for several years before having surgery at 14. 

As expected, and not entirely annoying, The Color Purple is a well-trod topic too. Walker is often asked about Zora Neale Hurston, a writer she's an expert about, and other African-American, mostly female, authors. What she has to say to these interviewers sometimes reads like a transcript from an impassioned college professor. Other times, it's Walker coming off as more interested in the interviewer's thoughts than her own. 

When Walker meditates aloud on her writing process (creating characters, revising, etc.), when she's asked to comment on any number of political and social injustices (from Fidel Castro to the habits of the American slaughterhouse) she fights against, about sex and sexuality, spirituality and voodoo, or the list of authors, civic leaders, and teachers whom she most admires, The World is at its best.

Hearts of the City
Herbert Muschamp
Knopf, $50, 885 pp.

Herbert Muschamp was an outsider — suburbanite, a Jew, a gay, a youthful habitué of Andy Warhol's Factory. He wrote free-ranging architectural criticism for The New York Times from 1992 till his 2007 death, and this mammoth book contains 182 Times columns, plus work from the New Republic and Artforum. He was part of the cultural establishment, obviously. 

The Times columns encourage picking and nibbling; buildings from Paris to Japan to Spain are examined, and microcosmic looks at New York City neighborhoods bring the travelogue home. 

Muschamp evaluates architectural figures, both central and fringe, including Donald Trump, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and several contemporary architects he favored. His style can be scathing or worshipful, but is best served drawing visions, such as the cliffs of the Isle of Capri, '30s home of the writer Malaparte. Practically every square foot of this landscape was arranged for the resident's grande ego. A critic's dream.

Then there are what I call Muschamp's "wild ones," out-of-the-box essays in which he, for example, cuts down royally the wrongheaded architectural ideas of Prince Charles. His tender evocation of Jacqueline Kennedy praises her integrity and independence.

The New York critic briefly mentions Detroit: RenCen (bad), Hart Plaza (good). A 1996 column on Times Square nostalgia-tripping brought to mind cute and nostalgic retailers who pop up and out of today's Cass Corridor. Can suburban-oriented businesses survive in Times Square or off Detroit's Second Avenue?

Hearts of the City is not architecture simplified, but beyond shop talk of modern, postmodern, new modern, etc., Herbert Muschamp was an understandable and entertaining writer.

The toilet reader
Lit for shit situations!
by Travis R. Wright

The Little Book of Beards ... and a Couple of Mustaches!
By O.S. Belgie, illustrated by Simon Stephenson
Spruce, $9.99, 96 pp.

Dig this comp of hairy-faced cartoon dudes and funny factoids. Did you know about the CIA's attempts to rid Fidel Castro of his iconic beard? Dozens upon dozens of bearded bros are labeled and analyzed in these pages. From the chinstrap to the ducktail and the wizard, from the R.I.S. (rap industry standard) to the "hulihee" (fat chops connected to a mustache), we get the shavedown on what type of man wears what style of beard, what grooming techniques say about those who sport them, and how to go about growing them. 

PersonaliTrees: Let the Human Spirit Awaken in the Presence of Trees
by Joan Klostermann-Ketels
Findhorn Press, $14.95, 112pp.

Outhouses in forests should come equipped with this hippie-dippie quote-and-pic book. That and a book of matches. But while you're fertilizing the earth, you can read this about searching for human faces, bodies and souls in the trunks and branches of trees (dead or alive). On one side of the page, we have color, sepia-toned and black-and-white photos of trees printed in varying degrees of resolution. At the top of the mostly blank opposite page are trite titles, such as "Resilient," "Defiant," "Speechless," "Mystical," "Resolute" and, my favorite, "Achilles Heel." The bottom of each page features a quote from such shit-don't-stink luminaries as Emerson, Dickens, Einstein, Lincoln, Frost and da Vinci. Porn for tree-huggers; guffaws for all. 

Look! It's Jesus!
by Harry and Sandra Choron
Chonicle Books, $6, 96 pp.

From finding human souls in tree trunks, we move to finding Jesus ... in the singes of a pan-fried pierogi. And look, there's the Virgin Mary in a rotting grape, and Moses is a wooden plank. Or is that Charleton Heston's soul waiting to be reincarnated as a rifle butt? Claims of discovering religious icons in naturally occurring images has become a mini-phenomenon but, like overalls, fluorescent hues and drop-top Chrysler LeBarons, people were really into it in the '90s. That we have no actual portraits, carvings or statues of any of these religiosos made during their time is of no concern to those who can see God's son in a Cheeto. Zealots shout, "God is everywhere!" Yes, even in processed cheese-flavored trans-fat snacks (or is that Elvis?). 

Look at This Fucking Hipster
by Joe Mande
St. Martin's Griffin, $11.99, 208 pp.

Look for fixed-gear bikes, indescribable brand loyalty to Pabst Blue Ribbon and American Apparel, teste-squishing cut-off jeans, vintage spec rims (thick), tacky-ironic T's and overpracticed expressions of indifference. These are but a few ways to spot a hipster. Writes author (and master) and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, resident, Joe Mande: "Go snort some more Ritalin and jerk off to your Murakami collection. Hipsters dominate my neighborhood. I smell their Tom's of Maine deodorant when I'm in line to get coffee in the morning. I hear them discuss the work of Krysztof Kieslowski while I wait for the bus. I see them play organized kickball in the park. And it's not just Brooklyn ... pretty much anywhere (white) people live. There's a hipster pandemic. They're spreading. They're multiplying. They're taking over. Look at these fucking hipsters and laugh. Before it's too late." Amen.

by Michael Cogliantry
Chronicle Books, $12.95, 24 pp.

In the event you're as vanilla as yogurt, don't watch Entourage, Real Sex, and don't engage at all in lowbrow pop-culture, then you might not know what a Furry is. Bluntly, Furries are men and women who like to dress in head-to-toe outfits that bring stuffed animals to life, like a college mascot, and then fuck. As if the fuzzy gloryhole image on this book's cover weren't enough of a hint. The anthropomorphic kink captured in Cogliantry's collection of photos is silly, peculiar and fleetingly amusing. Maybe even sexy.

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