Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book eight: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

I might as well get this out of the way.  I didn't like Peter Heller's The Dog Stars.  You may be wondering why I chose to listen to this audio book (performed capably by Mark Deakins) when I've committed to reading books about art and artists.  Well, this was a selection by my book club. And to be honest, I didn't really pay attention to the suggestion of this book and agreed to read it without looking at the description.  Had I done that, I could have guessed that this would be a tough book for me to love.

The Dog Stars is a story about the post-apocalyptic demise of the human race. And not many of those stories appeal to me. When book critics and readers alike were gaga for Cormac McCarthey's The Road, I was wondering why.  This book feels a lot like The Road, although I think Heller's work offers a more interesting story line.  After a deadly virus has decimated the human population, Hig (our central character and narrator) finds himself alone in a dangerous world with only one companion to help him survive the occasional attacks by others hellbent on killing everyone and everything in sight. He's a pilot, a hunter, a fisherman.  Oh and a wanna be poet. The books tracks his travels as he navigates this dangerous and unpleasant environment.

There are a lot of things I didn't like about this book.  Let me mention a few:

The story:
This is bad on me.  I certainly can't blame Heller for my dislike of the story.  I just don't react well to stories chronicling the downfall of humanity.  Good grief, I even had a problem with the Hunger Games books for their assertion that in the face of extreme adversity, humans tend toward evil, like kids killing other kids.  Here the violence, and the suggestion that every other person is the enemy is unbelievable.

The sexism:
I'm likely to get skewered for this argument.  But really, am I the only one who thinks this book is antiquated in its portrayal of women and their role in society.  Let's start with the fact that almost no women appear in the book and if they do, they're sickly or in shorts and a sexy shirt, working in the garden, happy to cook dinner, and waiting for the man of their dreams.  Most romance novels offer stronger, more assertive female character than The Dog Stars.

The book seems to suggest that women are just too frail to survive an apocalyptic environment as most of those remaining are men who are blood-thirsty power mongers out for domination.  Sure there's a brief mention toward the end of the book that one group of marauders may have included women. But it didn't meet my standards of understanding modern women.  Because I'm positive that when the apocalypse arrives, there are a whole lot of powerful, smart women who will definitely outlast me. This book would benefit from a bad-ass female character.  And Cima, our damsel in distress protected aggressively by her ex-military father, isn't her.

The writing style:
Heller isn't a bad writer.  But it's obvious that he fancies himself a poet.  And certainly the writing style of this book with it's super short, staccato sentences, is in vogue right now and has a poetic feel.  (Although can you really call them sentences when many of them only imply verbs or nouns?) Granted, I'm not an avid poetry reader so this hyper-stylized way of writing might just fall flat on my ears.  But those moments in The Dog Stars when the writing strays from more traditional forms are often contradictory to the intent of the story.

The ridiculous lines:
Okay, this might not deserve its own category because really, I think it is a result of combining the last two categories. But there are some unbelievable lines in this book.  Lines that had me rolling my eyes and snorting out loud.  Here are just a few of my favorites.

  • "First instinct was to climb down there and murder the f*%@^er and take his woman." And take his woman?!?
  • "My name is Hig. I was born in the year of the rat. . . I am an Aquarius. My mother loved me. She really, really loved me." I can't decide who this channels more,  Shirley MacLaine or Sally Fields.
  • And my personal favorite, "Can you fall in love through a rifle scope? Damn!" I'm from Wyoming and that line still makes me roll my eyes.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A meticulous, salty obsession.

Motoi Yamamoto at Westminster College
I’m a fan of earth art and have gone out of my way to see works located in some very remote areas.  But there are occasional works of art that capture the spirit of earth art but are much easier to see.  Motoi Yamamoto’s Return to the Sea: Saltworks is one such installation on view now at the Meldrum Science Center on the campus of Westminster College.  But you’ll have to hurry because the installation is only up through April 12 after which the whole thing will be swept up and taken to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and cast into the Great Salt Lake.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.  A little context is in order. Motoi Yamamoto’s medium of choice is salt. From massive constructions to intricate, maze-like illustrations his designs are mesmerizing works of simple sodium chloride; in fact Morton was a sponsor providing the 400 pounds of table salt needed for the installation.

Motoi Yamamoto during the installation of Return to the Sea.
I went to visit the exhibit during its creation.  It was almost a religious experience.  I was there over the weekend and the Meldrum Science Center was nearly empty with just a few students helping create the time-lapse video and overseeing an empty “public participation” space. Amidst that silence, Yamamoto padded about in stockinged feet and repositioned a mat on the floor.  Methodically he laid down an intriguing pattern that felt perfect even for its apparent randomness.

It's hard not to draw parallels to the art work of Yayoi Kusama, but that might be because I just finished reading Kusama’s autobiography, Infinity Net.  Both artists use meticulous repetition to create works that have an inherent Japanese attitude; an attitude that’s thoughtful and imbued with a deep, quiet emotion. And both artists’ work comes from very painful, emotional experiences.  For Yamamoto, that moment is the death of his sister at age 24 from brain cancer.
Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto (2014, salt)
The work is also spectacular for its use of line.  Yamamoto can draw a perfect line, in salt no less.  And he works quickly, faster than it appears from his quiet movement.  I spent a little over an hour watching him work and while it seemed like he was moving at a slow pace, he filled in a substantial portion of the design while I was there.  His lines are so fluid and precise, they reminded me of Keith Haring, another artist who was brilliantly adept at using precise, free-form drawing to create engaging art.

In the end, all of Yamamoto’s works are swept up and returned to the “sea.” In this case, the “sea” will be the Great Salt Lake at the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.  This seems like the perfect location considering Smithson’s embrace of entropy and a desire to allow his works to change with the environment around them.  Yamamoto’s act of destroying each work is an even more dramatic embrace of the theoretical, ethereal side of art.

You can participate in the destruction of the work on Saturday, April 12.  Something I would be doing if it weren’t for a conflicting commitment.  Find more information here. Here are a few more photos from of Return to the Sea: Saltworks.

Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto

Motoi Yamamoto at work

Installation of Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Book seven: Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen.

It's surprising how hard it is to find a book that is just an easy, pleasant read; a book that is well written and engaging without being simplistic; a book that reminds you how much fun it is to curl up with a good book. Anna Quindlen's Still Life with Bread Crumbs is just that kind of book.

Rebecca Winter is an aging photographer who once enjoyed significant fame and fortune thanks to a series of iconic images that many considered feminist statements. But sales and royalties from the images have nearly dried up, leaving Rebecca in a financial bind.  In response, she rents out her New York City apartment and moves to a small New York town and rents a cheap, run-down living space.

While in her new home she meets a variety of classic small-town characters that are easily appreciated for their humor, especially if you've lived in a small town.  It's that small-town setting that makes the book quaint, but not in a sappy, saccharine way. The book's quaintness evolves from characters who have known each other most of their lives; who care about each and are always ready to help.  Take the local bakery owner who loves all things British and fancies herself somewhat of a matchmaker. She's always willing to help her neighbors whether it's loaning out her large ovens to cook a too-big Thanksgiving turkey or sending some fresh-baked goods to provide a little cheer.

And then there's roofer Jim Bates. He's a big, warm-hearted character with a sister whose That  issues play a pivotal role in the story.  Jim also tracks birds for the state wildlife bureau and finds himself in need of a photographer. That interaction ultimately results in a relationship that while romantic, I hesitate to call a romance.  Why? Because I've seen this book referred to as chick lit, and it's much more than that. It's a book about the nature of humanity.

Of course it's also a book about art since that's my reading theme of 2014. This books feels like an honest discussion of art and artists in the modern world.  The way artists achieve success and then somehow lose it only to be lauded again later in life.  The way gallery owners are able wrest so much power from the art world. And the way artists find the inspiration to create new work. It's also a fresh take on the topic thanks to the mashup of small-town life with the highfalutin, New York art world.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Book six: The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin.

Say it isn't so, Armistead Maupin! You've threatened that past books in the Tales of the City series were the last.  But this time you seem serious. And (SPOILER ALERT) with Anna Madrigal's final transformation complete, it seems the story may have run its natural course. But it doesn't have to be the end.

I'm talking, of course about Armistead Maupin's most recent novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal, the purported last novel in the "Tales" series. I'm a long time Tales of the City fan.  I've read all of the books in the series at least once.  (Well, except for this last which I listened to the audio book, performed delightfully by Kate Mulgrew. But I intend to read it as well.) I just recently finished listening to all of the audio books, many of which were just released last year. I've watched both the BBC and the Showtime TV series multiple times. I'm one of a limited number of people to have seen the musical based on the first two novels. With all these experiences under my belt, I can honestly say The Days of Anna Madrigal is the best installment since Tales of the City and More Tales of the City.

The fact that this installment is so good makes sense. After all, Anna Madrigal really is the central character of the entire story. Sure, some might argue that either Mary Ann Singleton or Michael Tolliver are the central characters.  There's probably more of a case to be made for Michael since he plays a prominent role in all the books. But it's Mrs. Madrigal who is the catalyst of the story.  Mary Ann's abrupt decision to move to San Francisco is just like any other naive, midwestern woman moving to the big city.  It's only with the magical, mysterious ways of Anna Madrigal that the story becomes enchanting.
Felix and Me with Armistead Maupin at a book signing
at the King's English bookstore.

The Days of Anna Madrigal finds the grand dame in her 90s.  After suffering strokes she is more frail than in previous stories, but certainly no less timid. Her wise, witty, and surprising remarks are as enchanting and hard edged as ever. And her power as literature's greatest transgendered character has only strengthened.  It's amazing that Mr. Maupin created this character in the 70s, a time when cultural attitudes about the LGBT community were much more sinister than they are today. The book seems to recognize this fact and offers a touching tribute to the courage of Mrs. Madrigal.  It is also a tribute to Maupin's dedication to breaking through cultural boundaries well ahead of his time.

New to this volume in the Tales saga is the use of flashbacks.  The reader is regularly taken back to Anna's childhood when she was a he named Andy. This literary device is perfect for this installment. As I deal with aging parents, I'm fascinated at the way their youth becomes increasingly more prevalent and important. This book conveys an honest sentiment of aging in a modern world. It also provides insight into Anna's mysterious secrets.

While many elements of the book feel fresh and unexpected, The Days of Anna Madrigal still delivers on all those literary delights that you expect from Armistead Maupin. There's all that brilliant dialogue. There are plenty of short, delicious lines that end each chapter and drive you onto the next, making the book immensely readable. There are the crazy plot twists that are completely ridiculous but somehow totally believable. And then there are the adventures.  This time there are two delightful and emotional adventures.  First, a return trip for Anna to her hometown of Winnemucca, Nevada where some of the story's long-standing secrets are revealed.  The second is the ultimate Tales of the City reunion at Burning Man of all places. The result is a novel that is as charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and moving as any in the series.

But just in case Mr. Maupin is listening to this fan, I'd like to suggest that this doesn't have to be the last. There are plenty of stories I'd still like to here.  Take Jake and his new boyfriend.  We have to know what happens to them. And what about Shawna? Oh, and how about the new generation of transgendered characters?  Couldn't one of them take over the mantle left by Anna?  All I'm asking Armistead, is that you consider it.

Until then, you should definitely read The Days of Anna Madrigal.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Five: Art on the Block by Ann Fensterstock.

I can't remember the exact year I first traveled to New York City.  It must have been 16 or 17 years ago. What I can remember is how much I fell in love with the city. I was there for work where we were helping a client host a press event at the Equitable Tower very near Times Square. I still remember walking into the lobby of that building and being overwhelmed by the massive work, Mural with Blue Brushstroke by Roy Lichtenstein. That moment fueled an already developing love for modern and contemporary art. Just a year or two later, I set a goal to visit NYC every year for the rest of my life. Those annual visits have resulted in some amazing art experiences.

It's no surprise then, that in my let's-read-books-about-art phase I was drawn to Art on the Block: Tracking the New York Art World from SoHo to the Bowery, Bushwick and Beyond by Ann Fensterstock. This book tracks the rise and fall of art communities in and around the Big Apple. And it's a fascinating tale.

From SoHo to the Lower East Side and Alphabet City; Brooklyn to Chelsea, this book shows how the art world is almost always a step ahead of the realities of political movements and cultural trends.  Oh, and this book should be a must read for city planners everywhere. Want to rehabilitate derelict or crime-ridden neighborhoods? Bring in the artists, the musicians, the misfits. They're surprisingly adept at fueling gentrification.

Ann Fensterstock is a delightful, friendly writer who takes a subject that could be snooty and makes it accessible.  Sure, she drops names so frequently it gets a bit annoying.  You know those biblical passages where so and so begets so and so? There are plenty of those passages in this book.  I recognized a lot of the names but there were moments when I had no idea what Ann was talking about.  But I forgive her this because as an art fan, this book was super fun.  And it helped me understand why I love and respect many of the artists I do.

If you're not a fan of art, skip this book.  But if you have even a passing interest in the worlds of modern and contemporary art, this is a fantastic read.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Four: The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

Thank God for historians.  I love it when historians bring to life an interesting story that seems like it should be common knowledge and yet has somehow been lost to time.  Such is the case with The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter.  I listened to the audiobook which was performed by Jeremy Davidson. This is a story I feel like I should know about and yet I'd never heard about this smart moment in American and European history.

The Monuments Men tells the story of a small band of "soldiers" (Many from the US with additional soldiers hailing from Great Britain and France) who are tasked with finding, retrieving, and protecting Europe's great monuments and works of art.  There was a reason this was important.

We all know that Adolph Hitler was evil.  This book only adds to that perceptions.  It reveals that Hitler's evil is based in greed.  And the Nazi's were greedy not only when it came to world domination, but also when it comes to their desire to steal Europe's great art treasures, particularly those owned by Jews.  It's this information that made me like this book.  I follow the art world faithfully and the return of art works stolen by the Nazis is an ongoing battle.  Even many upstanding museums have ultimately returned famous works to the people or institutions from whom they were stolen by the Nazis.  What I didn't know about is how extensive the theft by the Nazis was and that the US government put in place a team (albeit a surprisingly small team) to help combat the looting of Europe's cultural heritage.  That's a pretty great story.

I didn't like the chaotic way in which this story is told.  There are a lot of characters and places in The Monuments Men and the writers struggle to create a story that isn't confusing. At the beginning of almost every scene, I struggled to remember which characters were in play and how they related to previous stories. This difficulty is even more surprising considering the fact that I was listening to the audiobook which gave me the added benefit of Davidson's voices to help remind me of which character or place we were talking about. This chaos detracted from the fascinating information included in the book.

The most important thing I took away from this book is that we haven't learned a lesson from this moment in history.  The Monuments Men were a short-lived military group.  It seems to me that this should be a permanent group in the US military.  It might help prevent the looting that we've seen in places like Iraq.  I agree with the Monuments Men; evil wins when wars result in the destruction of our cultural heritage.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Three: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life by Sharon Louden

Here is the idea behind Sharon Louden's Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Ask 40 working artists to tell, in their own words, how they live their lives of creativity.  Since I'm starting 2014 off reading books about art and artists, this seemed like the perfect book to read. And while I see the value of this book, it left me with the impression that being an artist sucks.  Maybe that's true, but as an outsider, I might prefer not to know that.

Sure this book has its place.  It's a place which strikes me as largely academic.  It might be valuable as a text book for art students planning a life-long career as an artist. For the rest of us, the book might come across as too academic.  Or maybe it's just a little redundant. Many comments from various artists were very similar. Here are the things this book will tell you about being a working artist:
  • Studio time is important and you have to protect that time.
  • Having gallery representation has it's pros and cons.
  • You can be a successful artist without having gallery representation.
  • But probably, you want gallery representation
  • Whether it's teaching, moonlighting at galleries or art moving companies, or being involved with a non-profit organization, you'll probably need to supplement your career as an artist with other paying work.
  • Support from family and friends is an important part of being a happy, working artist.
What this book doesn't explore is how artists get to a place where they are creating meaningful work. Maybe it's because I recently read Eric Fischl's Bad Boy which does a brilliant job at helping readers understand how artists develop their ideas.  Creative process may have been intentionally left out of the scope of this collection of essays.  But for me it was a glaring omission.  As I consider increasing the time I dedicate to making art, understanding how other artists develop their perspective is just as valuable as understanding how to survive life as an artist.