The week’s best arts and culture reads – including an attack on The Act of Killing, a biography of Bob Fosse and the touching story of a New York writer’s life.

How much my novel cost me
Emily Gould | Medium | 25 February 2014
Essay on the writing life, which broadens into an essay on life in general. Lyrical and touchingthroughout. Young New York writer gets big advance for memoir that tanks; fails to become Lena Dunham; ends up broke and borrowing from boyfriend; sheds illusions; but (happy-ish ending) completes first novel. “I don’t know if I will ever have any of the things I once considered necessary and automatic parts of a complete adult life.”       

Postscript: Mavis Gallant
Deborah Treisman | New Yorker | 23 February 2014
Her short stories “sit solidly, almost bad-naturedly, in memory”. They “come to dinner, and, no matter how late the hour, you just can’t show them to the door”. She lived most of her life “as a foreigner, in France, childless and husbandless”. She showed no regrets, but she may have felt them. The reader is “haunted both by the moments of beauty and intelligence and by the scenes of devastating loneliness or disappointment.”             

Bob Fosse and the bejeweling of horror
Dina Gachman | LA Review Of Books | 22 February 2014
Sam Wasson’s “fast-paced, fascinating” biography, Fosse, follows the dancer, film director and choreographer through his “excruciating physical struggle in the pursuit of art”. Fosse “had the jazzman’s crush on burning out”. He “lived his life as if he were constantly and intentionally pirouetting himself to death − with the help of Dexedrine, Seconal, alcohol, overwork, and an endless chain of cigarettes and women.”              

Don’t give an Oscar to this snuff movie
Nick Fraser | The Guardian | 22 February 2014
The Act of Killing investigates the massacre of Indonesian leftists in the 1960s by having the ageing killers re-stage their crimes. Imagine if the producers had gone to Argentina in the 1950s and found old Nazis to re-enact the the Holocaust. Yet The Act Of Killing provokes praise, not outrage: perhaps because the history it exploits “is so far away, and so little known, that the cruelty can pass uncriticised.”

Interview: Sir Trevor Nunn
Lucy Kellaway | FT Magazine | 21 February 2014
Conversation − rendered rather wonderfully as a script, with asides and stage directions − during rehearsals for Nunn’s staging of Fatal Attraction. “Misogynist claptrap”, says Kellaway. Nunn demurs: his version will be “genuinely theatrical, genuinely complex and genuinely tragic”. But the bunny stays in the picture: “If you call something Fatal Attraction but rewrite it to the point of leaving out iconic instances, you betray expectations.”               

The cactus and the weasel
Venkatesh Rao | Ribbonfarm | 20 February 2014
Isaiah Berlin’s division of thinkers into foxes and hedgehogs can be extended usefully by the addition of weasels and cacti − ignoble versions of foxes and hedgehogs respectively. “While foxes and hedgehogs are both capable of changing their minds in meaningful ways, weasels and cacti are not. They represent different forms of degeneracy, where a rich way of thinking collapses into an impoverished way of thinking.”            

Content dictates form
David Byrne | 19 February 2014
Reflections provoked by reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, “about how and why he wrote lyrics for so many musicals”. Sondheim says the songwriter should begin by asking: “(1) what it is that the song tries to say; (2) what sort of character sings the song; and (3) what other contingencies might the song need to address in the context of a specific show”. Which is good advice. But other conventions come into play.      

The Parthenon enigma
Mary Beard | New York Review of Books | 19 February 2014
Britain bought Lord Elgin’s ‘sculptured marbles’ grudgingly in 1816. Experts said they were not great art. Some doubted Elgin could have taken them legally from the Parthenon. Parliament paid Elgin half the £75,000 he asked. Opinions of the frieze have since improved; but art historians still debate what story it depicts. Most say a religious festival, the Panathenaia. Others see preparations for a human sacrifice.

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