Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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16 MAY, 2012

Recipes and Household Tips from Great Writers

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Tiramisu à la Proust, hanging wallpaper with Hemingway, weeding by hand with Émile Zola, and other domestic adventures with literary greats.

Household chores. We dread them, we put them off indefinitely, we think of them as anything but entertainment. But here comes The Household Tips of the Great Writers — an imaginative and impossibly humorous omnibus of literary impersonation by parodist extraordinaire Mark Crick, who guides us through the art and craft of cooking, gardening, and fixing up the house with the help of some of modern history’s most celebrated literary icons. The real joy of the book, of course, isn’t so much the specific recipes and tips — though who could resist a quick miso soup à la Kafka? — as the comedic precision with which Crick caricatures, lovingly, each writer’s voice.

From boarding the attic with Edgar Allan Poe (“Working from the corner furthest from the feeble light source, which scarce illuminated my labours, I began to lay the boards. Those dark recesses, unlooked upon since the cloak of slate first enveloped them in eternal night, resisted my intrusion like the densest thicket.”) to putting up a garden fence with Hunter S. Thompson (“He lifted a size-eleven foot onto the spade, his leg peeking coquettishly through the slit trouser leg, and the blade sank into the ground. There was a lot to do.”) to burying bulbs in autumn with Sylvia Plath (“I swallowed trying again to clear the bitter taste from my mouth then I tipped the bulbs from the bag and watched as their fat little bodies rolled around on the garden path.”), Crick has all your household and gardening needs and emergencies covered.

Then there’s the kitchen, with its delectable tapas bar of literary treats. Start with tarragon eggs à la Jane Austen:

40g butter
4 eggs
Ground pepper
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons tarragon (fresh or dried)

[…]

The possibility that her eggs might find themselves cooked with the aristocratic herb sent Mrs. B— into such a state of excitement that Lady Cumberland would have risen to leave were it not for the promise of luncheon. Instead she instructed her host to produce the dish without delay: ‘I suggest you begin.’

[…]

Follow with mushroom risotto à la John Steinbeck:

Extra virgin olive oil
25g porcini mushrooms
3 field mushrooms
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
200g risotto rice
500ml vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
60g Parmesan
1 glass white wine

The porcini lay dry and wrinkled, each slice twisted by thirst and the colour of parched earth. When the water finally fell, at first only in splashes, they drank what they could, but soon they were all covered with the life-giving liquid. The parched fragments recovered an earlier form, their contortions changed, by the gift of the water, into a supine mass, glistening. What had resembled a bowl of tree bark now had the rich colour of cooked meat, the purple brown of wet soil had replaced the dry plaster of Arizona earth.

[…]

Finish with tiramisu à la Marcel Proust:

12-15 Saviardi sponge fingers
4 eggs
100g caster sugar
Amaretto di Saronno
500g mascarpone
2 cups cold coffee
Cocoa powder

[…]

From this ancient past — its great houses gone and its inhabitants dwindling, like the last creatures of a mythical forest — came something infinitely more frail and yet more alive, insubstantial yet persistent; the memories of smell and taste, so faithful, resisted the destruction and rebuilt for a moment the palace wherein dwelt the remembrance of that evening and that tiramisu.

Whether you consider yourself a bibliophile, a culinary connoisseur, or a modern-day MacGyver, The Household Tips of the Great Writers is bound to tickle your fancy and impart a handy tip or two along the way — because who doesn’t want to know how to prune a rose like Pablo Neruda?

Illustration: “Snacks of Great Scribblers” by Wendy MacNaughton

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09 MAY, 2012

Grim Colberty Tales: Maurice Sendak’s Last Video Appearance

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“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!'”

The world is a little dimmer this week at the news that Maurice Sendak has died at the age of 83, he who gave us such cultural treasures as Where The Wild Things Are and such hidden gems as these little-known Velveteen Rabbit illustrations. It is perhaps some kind of cosmic joke that this week also marks the release of Stephen Colbert’s first children’s book, I Am A Pole (And So Can You!), which features possibly the best book blurb of all time, by none other than Sendak himself:

The sad thing is, I like it.

In this two-part interview titled Grim Colberty Tales with Maurice Sendak, recorded in January 2012, Sendak makes his last known video appearance and banters with Colbert, lucid and wryly witty as ever, about everything from the state of children’s literature today to the free market to being gay.

COLBERT: Why do you write for children?

SENDAK: I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them, or easier for them.

COLBERT: Do you like them?

SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults — maybe a bit more, because I really don’t like adults at all.

Maurice Sendak (left) and Stephen Colbert draw a pole. Sendak's drawing, true to his signature wit, depicts a Polish woman holding a pole.

In the second part, Colbert reads from I Am A Pole (And So Can You!) and gets a drawing lesson from Sendak.

COLBERT: What does it take for a celebrity to make a successful (children’s) book, what do I gotta do?

SENDAK: You’ve started already by being an idiot. That is the very first demand.

Top photo via MSNBC

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02 MARCH, 2012

The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes

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What Peeping Toms have to do with failure and the expectations of genius.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss, was a legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, and a lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf — that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

Geisel wrote in the foreword:

A beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement has too long been gathering dust in the archives.”

The humorous story is based on the Lady Godiva legend, according to which in 1037 the Earl of Coventry’s wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry, protesting against her husband’s unfair taxes. The citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain indoors, shuttered, as she rode. But one man, Peeping Tom, peered out and was then struck blind.

The book, however, was a complete flop. Ten thousand copies were printed on the first run, and only about 2,500 were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas eventually went out of print, causing Geisel to later say:

I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.

Absurd as they might be, and oddly unerotic despite the nudity, the illustrations are a treat, perhaps in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, or perhaps because they offer endearing reassurance that even genius can falter.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 2005

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What evolution has to do with unsent letters and everything that’s wrong with war.

It’s hard to define the essence of the great Kurt Vonnegut‘s gift, but it might have a lot to do with the precision of his humor’s arrow, which pierces the very heart of the human condition and contemporary culture. In 2005, shortly after the release of his final* book, A Man Without a Country — a collection of short personal reflections on everything from the differences between men and women to the double-edged swords of technology to the importance of humor — an 82-year-old Vonnegut appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Steward, proving his wit every bit as sharp and his social commentary every bit as astute as it ever was, tackling everything from creationism to the Bush administration to overpopulation to the Iraq war.

Underpinning his sharp satire, however, is a certain kind of sadness, perhaps one only palpable to those who have devoured Vonnegut’s revealing recent biography, one of the 11 best biographies and memoirs of 2011.

Jon Stewart: I always felt in your writing that you were both admiring of man but disappointed in him.

Kurt Vonnegut: Yes, well, I think we are terrible animals. And I think our planet’s immune system is trying to get rid of us and should.

For more Vonnegut gold, see the author’s fictional interviews with luminaries and his NPR interview in Second Life mere months before his death.

* In 2009, the excellent posthumous anthology Armageddon in Retrospect was released, collecting 12 never-before-published essays.

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