Monthly Archives: February 2023
Books of 2023, #6: Nina Simone’s Gum, by Warren Ellis
First: the musician, not the comic book author. Yeah, it’s weird that there are two niche-famous artists of roughly the same age, and who likely share no small number of fans. The world is weird. (I have ended migrating from a fan of the latter into being a fan of the former, for lots of reasons.)
THIS Warren Ellis is the one famous as Nick Cave’s primary collaborator in the Bad Seeds (see note), Grinderman, and for film score work (most recently on Blonde); Ellis himself also has a band called Dirty Three. He’s a multidisciplinary creative, but he had not yet ventured into the written word (unlike Cave, obviously).
Like many musicians — and people! — Ellis has musical idols and influences that he venerates. Perhaps the most significant for him, it seems, was Nina Simone, but he only ever got to see her perform fairly late, at a festival curated by Cave in 1999, only four years before she passed away.
At the end of her (apparently triumphant, transcendent) performance, Ellis noticed that she’d left her chewing gum on the piano, and on a lark wrapped it in a towel and kept it. In that moment it became a modern relic, in the religious sense; Ellis kept it safe for 20 years, wrapped in that towel and kept in an aging bag from Tower Records, before it became clear that it should be included in the Nick Cave-focussed Stranger than Kindness exhibition in Copenhagen (it’s touring, but there are no plans for a US stop).
This book is part memoir, part discussion of relics, and part the biography of the relic after it emerged from the Tower bag. It is completely delightful, and you should read it even if you’re not a Nick Cave fan. For a book like this, there are no spoilers, so let me include for you Ellis’ final paragraph:
The world you create inside is mirrored outside. Release your ideas and let them land on others’ ears. Enter their hearts. They need them to take flight. Keep the sacred and magical close, and don’t listen to people who tell you it isn’t true. Create your gods, and they will watch over you.
Note: The Bad Seeds released their first record in 1984. Like most long-running bands, has had a number of lineup changes over the years, but a real changing the of the guard happed in 2009, when Cave’s initial main crony Mick Harvey left the band. Ellis stepped into the gap, and the records since then (starting with Push the Sky Away in 2013) are pretty different and, by my lights, suggest a pretty huge artistic and musical leap. The Bad Seeds followed it with the “Arthur” records made in the wake of the loss of Cave’s son: Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen. Both deal mostly (and beautifully) with grief and faith, and which are astonishing documents in and of themselves.
Books of 2023, #5: Dr. No, by Percival Everett
There’s nothing I can tell you about this book that would be an exaggeration. It’s fucking AMAZING — no surprise, really, given that Everett has become a bit of a big deal in recent years.
Our hero is a mathematician who studies nothing. He is the world authority on nothing. He spends all day doing nothing, and nothing comes from it.
He is contacted by a wealthy man who aims to become a supervillain. He believes nothing will allow him to achieve his dreams. Our hero accepts employment with the plutocrat, and madcap hilarity (of a dark sort) ensues.
Everett’s book here is lighter in tone than The Trees, which I read last year (and which was shortlisted for the Booker), but still retains the deadpan lunacy that Everett brings to his work. I can’t suggest this book (and his others) enough. It’s an unalloyed DELIGHT.
This surprises exactly no one
Who’s Got an EGOT?
Viola Davis made history last night by becoming just the 18th person to achieve “EGOT” status: she’s won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.
What’s interesting about the list is how few of these folks are household names — probably because composers and musicians have an inside track here:
Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame, was first.
Helen Hayes, actress
Rita Moreno, actress. My favorite thing about her EGOT status is that she clinched with an Emmy for the Muppet Show.
John Gielgud, actor (though he won a Tony in 1961 for direction after already achieving his EGOT).
Audrey Hepburn, actress (though her Emmy was from a program where she appeared as herself)
Marvin Hamlisch, composer
Jonathan Tunick, composer
Mel Brooks, comedic actor, writer, and director.
Mike Nichols, mostly a director, but his Grammy was for comedic performance
Whoopi Goldberg, comedian and actress, also won a Tony as a producer
Scott Rudin is the first person to achieve this as a producer only. He is also, it should be noted, an enormous asshole.
Robert Lopez, songwriter. Lopez was also the fastest to get there (10 years), and the youngest (39).
Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer and titan of musical theater
Tim Rice, lyricist
John Legend, singer, songwriter, and producer. He hit the EGOT in the same moment as Rice and Webber, as they were all honored for a live TV production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 2018.
Alan Menken, composer
Jennifer Hudson, actress and producer, and youngest female winner
Viola Davis, actress
Note that the list doesn’t count you if one of your awards is non-competitive (e.g., lifetime achievement or other special sort of award). These folks have the four awards, but one of them’s non-competitive:
- Barbra Streisand (Special Tony)
- Liza Minelli (Grammy “Legend”)
- James Earl Jones (Honorary Oscar)
- Harry Belafonte (Academy Humanitarian Award)
- Quincy Jones (Academy Humanitarian Award)
In all these cases EXCEPT Jones, the “special” award was the clincher; for Q, he clinched with a competitive Tony in 2016 after his Humanitarian Oscar in 1994. Obviously, he’s got some Grammys — 28 of them.
(There’s also the notion of the PEGOT, which adds the Pulitzer to the mix; only Rodgers and Hamlisch have this honor, but it’d be foolish to bet against Lin-Manuel Miranda getting there given that he lacks only the Oscar at this point.)
I can already see the memes coming
I’m not sure when this was announced, but: Austin Butler is playing Feyd Rautha in Dune 2.
This is a pretty key role, and much was made of the fact that there was no casting news about it for the first installment, largely because there was no need to show him in the first half of the story, I reckon. Feyd is the nephew to the Harkonnen duke and primary antagonist, and is positioned in the narrative as a sort of anti-Paul. In the 1984 film, Sting played him as if there were no such thing as overacting. (Not for nothing, Butler is the same age now that Sting was in 1984, which is in line with the rest of the primary cast choices I mentioned here last year.)
Given Butler’s recent fame from the titular role in Baz Lurman’s Elvis, it’s easy to imagine the sort of nutbird mashups we’re likely to get, and for once I’m here for it.
Books of 2023 #4: Far from the Light of Heaven, by Tade Thompson
I don’t actually remember why I pulled down the sample on my Kindle, but the other night I finished another book, and found it, and thought “hell, why not read it?”
Yeah, that was a mistake. This is pitched as a locked-room-mystery space opera, but holy hell it’s a mess. There’s way too much extraneous plot, way too many characters without enough to do, and a really muddled ending. It’s very much a chain of Exciting! Plot! Developments! that are generally unearned, and when reveals happen they’re muted and not terribly interesting. I mean, sure, introduce an interstellar conspiracy 2/3 of the way through the book; why not?
This one’s the first one in a long time that reminds me of a quote usually attributed to Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”