Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Grace Coddington, Ian Cobain and Julian Barnes.

Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington

As its readers have been known to endow US Vogue with a semi-biblical air of authority, the recent release of Grace Coddington’s memoir (Coddington is the magazine’s creative director), has been met with much anticipation. Since shooting to fame following R C Cutler’s Cutlers 2009 documentary The September Issue, Coddington has acquired a huge fan base for her fashion-stereotype defying personality. She "‘thinks that fashion should be transporting, provocative and even intellectual, who bemoans the dominance of celebrities and digital hocus pocus in fashion photography," writes Booth Moore in the LA Times. As a result, her book is "an engaging memoir", which "for anyone with a passing interest in the fashion industry, [is] worth a read for the name-dropping alone".

Although Moore considers Coddington to be "open about her private life," other critics think the book skimps on personal details. Christopher Muther, writing in the Boston Globe, finds her reticence frustrating: "Coddington seems unable to share her inner biography. The same guarded treatment is given to her two divorces, which she describes matter-of-factly, again subtracting emotion from what was likely a difficult time."

Janet Maslin, reviewing the book in the New York Times, notes that Coddington's prose is hardly reaches high literary standards: "Since Ms Coddington has 'barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books', the text here… is light and glossy". However, this doesn’t affect its fundamental readability. "She fills the book with comedic little sketches and handily caricatures many friends and colleagues," such as "Puff Daddy’s wanting to appear smack in the middle of a Leibovitz two-page spread despite being told he would disappear into the fold of the magazine".

The criticsagree that Coddington's "delicious, page-turning life story" makes for an engaging read, both for the swinging-Sixties excesses of her early life, as well as for the insights it offers into "‘how fashion has changed from a small, niche business into a global pop culture medium". Look out for our review in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain

Ian Cobain’s study of the use of torture impresses most of the criticsm with the exception of David Blair in the Telegraph. Although Blair says Cobain’s account of the treatment of German spies by British MI5 agents in 1946 is “a genuine contribution to history”, he says the Guardian journalist’s “treatment of two recent cases is troubling”. Referring to the two Britons who claimed they were tortured in Afghanistan, Rangzieb Ahmed and Salahuddin Amin, Blair criticises the omission of “key elements”, including the fact that, in both cases, the Crown Court and Appeal Court rejected important aspects of their case.

In contrast, Stephen Howe in the Independent says “Cobain's work ... offers a dramatic challenge to official dishonesty and public complacency, past and present.” Clive Stafford Smith in the Guardian calls Cobain’s account “excellent” and adds that it is “a vital contribution to our evaluation of how Bush and Blair – and their heirs – have thwarted the march towards democratic openness”.

 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays (and one short story) by Julian Barnes

Although Julian Barnes is best known for his award-winning fiction, it seems he is capable of entrancing readers with any kind of book. Through the Window delights many reviewers, including the Telegraph’s Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, who praises Barnes’s “ability to make the familiar look unfamiliar, holding pieces of writing up to the light and slowly turning them until they start to glint”.

Likewise, Roger Lewis in the Financial Times enjoys the writer’s “muted, cagey, crafty, close” prose and how “suddenly, almost without our noticing it, a person is put very firmly in their place... I particularly relished the way the hitherto unimpeachable Orwell is dismantled with remarkably little fuss”.

Leo Robson, in this week’s edition of the New Statesman, is rather more critical: “In his fiction, Barnes manages to forge some ironic distance from this perspective; but writing in his own voice, he is confined to it, with unpalatable results.” The critic adds that “[e]ven the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye-pokes.” Robson examines Barnes's apportioning of praise and blame: “In the course of praising Penelope Fitzgerald, he makes various detours to disparage those who disparaged her, never troubling to explain that his knowledge comes from Fitzgerald’s own letters, hardly unbiased testimony.”

Grace Coddington, creative director of US Vogue (Photograph: Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses