Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #12


The Journals of Spalding Gray
Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray was ahead of his time. He was a true genius, a minimalist storyteller, an advocate of experimental theatre, and a bit of a madman.  He had many personal demons that unfortunately haunted him most of his life, and it may have been a devastating car accident in 2001 that was his last straw. In 2004, Gray jumped from the Staten Island Ferry; his body was found weeks later in the East River. For fans of Gray, these journal entries shed light on not only the genius, but of a man struggling with his identity, love, drugs, and the suicide of his mother.  I have written about many books of letters and journals; this is one of the finest. 


Van Gogh
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Random House

First, you should know that these authors won the Pulitzer Prize for their biography of Jackson Pollack.  They do their research, but they also know how to turn that research into compelling reading.  They also choose fascinating subjects.  

Every dorm room in 1995....
When I was a kid growing up in the sticks, without an art museum (or probably an art book) within 100 miles, all I knew about Van Gogh was that he hacked off his own ear.  In East Texas, that's interpreted as akin to Satanic possession and threatening for children.  I couldn't name a Van Gogh piece of art until I arrived at college and every third dorm room had "Starry Night" hanging on the wall. Van Gogh = crazy pants ear hacker who painted swirly night scenes.  Gradually, though, I learned more about his art (sunflowers and self-portraits and big globs of paint) and the man (big into letter writing).  

What Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith achieve in their new biography of Van Gogh is spectacular.  They manage to fill in the swiss cheese holes of a man that many of us know something about, but few know thoroughly.  The Van Gogh Museum fully cooperated with the authors, granting them access to source material previously neglected in Van Gogh biographies, including family correspondences.  Here is the larger-than-life artist, and also the lover, the brother, the writer, the genius who struggled with depression and mental illness.  This is the first serious biography of Van Gogh in 70 years, and it is a compelling read for both art experts and novices alike.

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