Friday, December 30, 2011

Book thirty-four: Girl Hunter by Georgia Pellegrini

I'll admit it; I read Georgia Pellegrini's Girl Hunter because my niece Maggie is one of my soul mates.  From the time she was born, I've know that she was someone different; someone who would surprise me and the rest of the world.  She's a girl who's been hunting for years now.  And unlike Pellegrini, Maggie (who just recently turned 18) started hunting as a girl, not as a woman. I've been mesmerized by Maggie's fearless approach to life, particularly when it comes to hunting and killing large game animals and then butchering those animals to provide food.  Just this past Christmas, I ate venison hunted, killed, and butchered by Maggie.  Don't go thinking she's some butch-dyke lesbian.  No, she's still a silly, funny teen-aged girl.

With all that, how could I not read a book called Girl Hunter.  Pellegrini is a women who worked on Wall Street.  But decided that wasn't her destination.  So she became a chef.  As a restaurant worker, her chef boss sent her to butcher turkeys.  The experience encouraged her to get closer to the reality of being an omnivore.  So she decided to take up hunting.  This book is a memoir of her game-killing experiences.

I liked Girl Hunter more than I expected to.  Pellegrini is a capable writer who creates surprising tension as she takes you on adventures that involve killing. My pulse often quickened as she took me on her hunting adventures.  I'm uncomfortable with killing creatures.  I don't expect to start killing anything other than the occasional spider or mosquito anytime soon.  But after reading this book I feel guilty about that fact.  Pellegrini makes you realize that most of us are in denial about the food we eat.  Her exciting personal stories (and the recipes that follow each chapter) ask us to be more thoughtful about the animals we eat.

I won't be hunting anytime soon.  But I will think more about what I'm eating and what went into making it so easily available to me. And I'll certainly have greater respect for people like Georgia and Maggie who embrace what it takes to eat animals.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book thirty-three: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

I find myself in that uncomfortable postion of having recommended a book to my book club and then not really liking the book myself.  The novel in question; Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf.  Looking back on suggesting this book, I can see where I may have gone wrong.  I don't particularly like books about werewolves, vampires, and/or zombies even though such books seem to be all the rage.  But this novel had the book world all excited for it's literary finesse and brilliant story telling.  I believed the hype even though I'm not sure werewolves, vampires, and literary are words that should find themselves in the same sentence.

Here's the premise of the story: As far as Jake, the novel's protagonist is aware, he's the last werewolf on earth. And after living a couple of centuries, Jake may be ready to cash it all in.  The world's werewolf hunters have him in their sites and he may be too tired and too depressed to put up a fight.  But things change and Jake finds himself once again vested in life. I don't want to give too much more of the story away, but there's a sexy woman involved.

The Last Werewolf features some impressive writing.  Often, the novel reads with a dark, gothic flare; There's a victorian sensibility but it's written with such freshness that there's no mistaking this as anything other than a 21st Century tale.  This is a book that builds on the traditions of writers like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, even Edgar Allen Poe.  Duncan also uses some clever shifts in voice that foreshadow the ending, creating an impending sense of doom that grows more intense as the book moves toward its climax.

Even with all that fancy writing, The Last Werewolf left me cold. I often found myself bored by the long, contemplative passages.  It's too bad.  Because when the action kicks in, The Last Werewolf offers some heart-pounding excitement.  Hopefully, the members of my book club liked it better than I did.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book thirty-two: Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

The first I heard of Chuck Palahniuk's latest book Damned was while listening to the NPR Books podcast.  The reviewer pitched this as a young adult book by the author of decidedly un-young-adult titles like Fight Club and Choke.  That's why I'm not surprised that I found this book less than appropriate for most younger readers.

The book opens with a riff on the title/opening line of another supposed young adult novel, Judy Blume's 1970 novel Are You There God, It' Me Madison?  In Palahniuk's take, "God" is switched to "Satan." That's because  the Madison in this story has died and now find herself in hell.

Damned is at its best when it embraces the absurdity of the situation.  Palahniuk's subversive sense of humor left me laughing out loud.  In particular, I loved Madison's relationship with her hollywood A-lister parents who constantly adopt babies from foreign countries and have an environmental concern that is largely a publicity stunt.   That bitter humor is a wicked reminder that teenagers are really funny and fun to be around, particularly when they're pointing out the stupidiy of an older generation.

On the flip side, the angst and drama so popular with the high school set are at least as wickedly annoying.  It's easy to get tired of the teen mentality in this book.

I know I said this book might not be appropriate for younger readers,  But just like Judy Blume's novel, I'll bet there are plenty of teens who would relate well to this cautionary tale.  Just know that this book is filled plenty of gruesomeness, violence, sex, drugs, and other assorted vices. So let teenagers read this book at their own risk.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book thirty-one: Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

There's a part of me that thinks I should embrace the "Thumper" rule ("if you can't say anything nice . . . ") when it comes to writing about William Giraldi's novel Busy Monsters.  Because I don't have a lot nice to say.  This is a book that's had the critics a buzz, but it didn't do much to inspire me. Busy Monsters is a tale of Ferris wheels and giant squids; aliens and Sasquatch; swindlers and jail birds.  I guess one can look on the bright side; it's a break from vampires and werewolves.

Told from the standpoint of a blowhard named Charles Homar, Busy Monsters is a strange tale that is just a little too strange for my taste.  But I'm in the minority as I've seen this book show up on a lot of year-end, best books lists.

My least favorite part of the book is the dialogue.  The writer constantly reminds us that "nobody talks like this."  I think he repeatedly tells us this to ensure we know that, while the dialogue is painful, the author intends the dialogue to be painful.  I feel like he's trying to ensure that we know it's his way of being clever. But in the end, it may just come off as proof that no one talks like that.

I guess I'll have to agree to disagree with several of my favorite book critics.  Because I just didn't like Busy Monsters.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book thirty: Metzger's Dog by Thomas Perry

A few years ago, an NPR story introduced me to a book called Metzger's Dog by Thomas Perry. Alas the book wasn't available for the Kindle.  So I clicked the tell-the-publisher-I'd-like-to-read-this-book button, added it to my wish list, and picked something else to read.

A few months ago, I was cleaning out my wish list and ran into this book again.  And now, it was available for Kindle so I decided to read it.  I'm glad I did.  This book is pure, crime-caper fun complete with crafty criminals, bumbling thugs, and clueless officials.

Metzger's Dog is the story of Chinese Gordon, a two-bit criminal with big ideas.  After learning a large stash of pure cocaine resides at a local university for research purposes, he devised a plan to steal it.  During the heist, he overhears a conversation that leads him to believe there is something valuable in a nearby office.  So he steals the only thing in a locked file cabinet drawer, a pile of papers.

The papers just happen to include information on some sensitive government experiments and soon Ben Porterfield, a friendly CIA agent is involved trying to thwart an international incident. With neither party really knowing what the other is up to, this book creates the perfect balance of wacky adventures and clever fun.

There are a bunch of other characters who make this book delightful including Chinese's sidekicks and his perfectly lovable girlfriend, Margaret.  And maybe my favorite character is Dr. Henry Metzger, Chinese Gordon's indifferent cat and namesake of the book.  In one brilliant moment, after some burglars have nearly stolen from his home, Chinese seals his house to ensure that nothing and no one can enter.  Maddeningly, Dr. Henry Metzger enters and exits at will, no matter what steps Chinese takes to stop the sly cat.

You know those caper films of the 60s and 70s that you can't help but love?  Well, Metzger's dog provides the exact same engaging pleasure.  And with an ending that I can't quite call happy but that delivers a great big bundle of rewarding reading fun, this book is a must read.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book twenty-nine: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

As regular readers of the Art Lobster know, I love reading books by first-time novelists.  That's one of the reason I decided to read Amor Towles, Rules of Civility.  However, Towles was even more intriguing than most first-time novelists.  He's a Manhattan investment banker who really hasn't written anything other than a few short stories before this book.  And he was born just a year after I was, proving that publishing novels isn't just for the young.  It gives us "writers of a certain age" a bit of hope.

Rules of Civility is a clever story about a whip smart young lady named Katey Kontent trying to make it in late 1930s New York City.  Katey is our guide through the story; it's stunning how convincing a character she is, particularly considering that the writer is a 47-year-old man.

Katey takes on a series of secretarial and writing jobs allowing her to explore the social society and brilliance of New York. This book embraces the culture clash of Charles Dickens.  It captures the glitz and glamour of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  And it delivers the excitement of a Busby Berkley night on the town.

Then there's the dialogue.  The quick, smart, and witty conversations  would be right at home in the most classic of Hollywood films.  The only person I know who writes dialogue this delightful is Armistead Maupin, and you know how I feel about Mr. Maupin.

I loved this book.  The writing is snappy.  The characters are intoxicating.  And the plot is nearly perfect.  Sure, I might like this book because I spent much of junior high and high school wishing I'd been born several decades earlier so I could spend an afternoon in Busby Berkeley's New York or hanging out in Manhattan with Fred and Ginger.  This well-written book offers a literary vibe that helped me live out those dreams. And I had a damn good time! That's why, Rules of Civility is getting the highest honor the Art Lobster can bestow: Five Jeffies.  It's only the second book to achieve such greatness.  This may not be the absolute best book I've read this year, but it is my absolute favorite.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book twenty-eight: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

If you like literary characters who are young, smart, and stupid all at the same time then Jeffrey Eugenides latest novel is definitely for you.  The Marriage Plot is set in the 1980s and follows the lives of three college students: Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead.  As the three graduate from college and begin their lives, their relationships become more (and less personal) and true love seems to fall in just the wrong places.

I can't go much farther in this review without talking about Eugenides' writing; it's flawless.  Seldom do I read a book where the writing never gets in the way.  Even in the most well written books, it seems I'm occasionally shaken from the story and forced to nit pick the writing.  Not in this book.  The words are so seamless, so effortless, that I got lost in the story and never had to come up for writing air.  I also loved the way Eugenides weaves the story from character to character, allowing us to see what's really happening and what's perceived to be happening.  And he does this without ever making me feel like I've been subjected to a jolting flashback.

Eugenides' brilliant writing allows us to become engrossed in the lives of the three core characters. And they are characters that make some bad choices. It would be easy for me to not like these characters.  That is if they didn't remind me so damn much of friends I like and interact with.  And just like the frustration I experience when some of my friends repeatedly do stupid things, these characters can be infuriating.  But in the end, just like in my interactions with other, you end up focusing on the good and trying to ignore the bad.

I recently told a friend I like the fact that this book has a happy ending.  She corrected me suggesting that this book offers the hope of a happy ending.  I have to concede she's right.  But I'm good with just the hope.  Maybe that's because I hold out hope that all my crazy friends' lives will somehow end in happiness.  Maybe that's why I liked this book.  Because rather than giving me the perfect ending, it gave me hope that things just might turn out all right.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is it design or is it art?

Yes, my museum dash to SFMoMA was organized to see Jim Campbell's Exploded View. But they have other stuff at the museum that I just couldn't resist.  Stuff like a whole exhibition dedicated to the design genius of Dieter Rams.  More and Less: The Design Ethos of Dieter Rams features brilliant designs created by Rams as well as other products influenced by him.  And certainly you can see his influence even in today's most popular products like those created by Apple.

There's a lot to enjoy at this show, particularly some of the designs from the 70s.  Take this Design Model for the Mobilis HiFi System.  Rams was an early champion of making quick design models to help refine products.  It's a practice that is now standard in most industrial design studios.

I also liked these iconic Braun hairdryers (1970).  In fact, if you're a fan of Braun's best product designs, this is a must-see show.

I have to give a nod to the show's curators.  One of the best parts of the exhibit are the Dieter Rams quotes artfully applied to the walls.  These quotes would be an inspiration on any wall.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An explosion of lights at SFMoMA.

Business trips can be tedious.  Mostly because you fly into a city, have a bunch of meetings and then you fly out.  I recently had to go to San Francisco with just such an itinerary.  But there was an installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that I really wanted to see.  So I carved out just one short hour to pay a visit to the museum.  It was a classic example of the museum dash.

I went to see an installation in the atrium of SFMoMA.  I've come to love the impressive installations in the lobby of the museum.  I think my respect for the curators that choose the lobby installations started when SFMoMA let loose a common household electric fan dangling from the ceiling.  It was part of the museum's show featuring works by Olafur Eliasson.

Since then, the museum has been willing to go to extreme lengths to display brilliant works of art that dazzle visitors the moment they walk into the space.  None of those works is more dazzling than Exploded Views (2011, 2,880 LED lights and custom electronics) by Jim Campbell.

To prove my point I'm posting several videos and photos that will in no way demonstrate the magic of this work of art.  I'll start with two really cool videos taken from the museum's first landing, probably the best place to experience this mesmerizing work.

What these videos don't express is that this is not some strange video projected on an LED screen.  It's actually a cloud of LED lights suspended from the ceiling.  It's amazing how different this piece is in person than it is on video.  In hopes of demonstrating that difference, here is a video and some photos to show what the work is really like.

I love this work.  Maybe it's the contemporary dance elements of the video (or whatever you call the imagery). Maybe it's the hypnotizing quality of the piece.  Or maybe it's the spectacular technology.  Whatever it is, it's strangely pleasurable.  Thanks SFMoMA for another inspiring experience.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The shrine next door.

Yes it's been over a month since we returned from Japan.  But as you've noticed I'm still writing about the trip.  That's because as I catalog all of my photos and mementos from our visit to Asia, I'm realizing how many things I didn't have time to write about while I was there. So there may be a few more posts about Japan.  Posts like this noting that in Kyoto, you can't walk very far without running into a shrine.  In fact, as you stepped outside the entrance to our Ryokan, you just had to turn right and you ran into this, the Yasaka Shrine:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Missing the modern art.

While biking through Kyoto, we took a detour to the National Museum of Modern Art.  This was a museum that was surprisingly sparse when it came to art.  But maybe that's because there were no special exhibits open at the time we were there.  And while there wasn't much in the way of Art that inspired me, it did offer a couple of inspirational things including something for the bicycle fans.

First, there was this spectacular view of one of the best Japanese gates I saw on the whole trip.

But my favorite thing at the museum was a delightfully placed sculpture outside the museum.  In a brilliant bit of curating, there was a sculpture right behind the bicycle parking area.

This is Bird in Cloth Saddle, a 1974 sculpture by Makio Yamaguti.  And it does look like a bird and a bicycle saddle.

Although I'm not positive of the title.  The marker seems to read Bird in Croth Saddle and someone added the "l" later.  Is it just me, or does that seem like someone making fun of an Asian accent, "did you see that bird in a croth saddle"?

Whatever you call it, it's some fantastic Art-world whimsy.

The return of the Disco Cowboy, a Heel Toe Project event.

I recently posted about my participation in Shalee Cooper's Heel Toe Project.  It involves taking pictures of a pair of cowboy boots.  With that in mind, and with a bunch of invites to Halloween parties, I decided to break out a costume I created about a decade ago, the Disco Cowboy.  And this time, I featured the boots from the Heel Toe Project.

An addition to this year's version of the Disco Cowboy is the mustache.  I was invited to a "Hipsterween" party which threatened to draw a Sharpie mustache on the face of anyone who showed up without one, a mustache that is.  I have to say, I think the crazy mustache adds to the 70s vibe of the Disco Cowboy.  Consider these photos a Halloween tribute to the Heel Toe Project.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book twenty-seven: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

If you like your stories with a dose of happily dark magic, then get thee to a book store and purchase Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  This imaginative tale tells the story of Le Cirque des Reves, a place that seems to magically appear in towns and cities and is open only at night.  Two mysterious children, Celia and Marco grow up in different worlds and learning different magical traditions.  They are bound together and soon find their lives forced into a master magical rivalry.

It's not just the interesting main characters that make The Night Circus a delight to read.  The book is filled with strange, wonderful characters. Widget and Poppet, the twins born on the opening night of the circus give the story a charm that's hard to deny. They may also make you want to get basket full of kittens.  The creators of the circus, particularly the watchmaker, make you want to quit your job and do something more creative.

The circus itself may be the most interesting character with its never-ending tents that contain ever more amazing acts or illusions. And of course there's food; delectable treats like no others.  Yet for all its imagination, this circus seems somehow familiar.  The style and design are ripped from a Tim Burton production.  And I frequently found myself referencing Cirque du Soleil as I read about the various acts.

This book isn't perfect.  Sometimes the writing is thin and redundant.  The dialogue regularly veers dangerously close to that of a paperback romance. And sometimes I felt blindsided by plot points that appeared out of nowhere.  I guess that happens in a world filled with magic.  Even considering its weaknesses, The Night Circus is a fun, fast read that will delight all but the most curmudgeon-y readers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book twenty-six: A Book of Secrets by Michael Holroyd

It's not often that a book makes me feel stupid.  But Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers did just that.  After rave reviews from many of my favorite sources, I was excited to read this book about women breaking the rules.  This "biography of sorts" is a devilish collection of complicated connections, academic literary references, and historical associations all tied loosely together by Villa Cimbrone, a getaway home for the rich and famous of Europe located in the Italian village of Ravello.

The book spends most of it's time tracking the lives of four women: Alice Keppel (a mistress of British aristocrats and royalty), Eve Fairfax (a friend of and inspiration for Auguste Rodin), Violet Trefusis (novelist), and Vita Sackville-West (the lover of Trefusis and general bad girl).  And while these women didn't necessarily live their lives at the same time, Holroyd ties their stories together through their association to Villa Cimbrone and through his own personal story and acquaintances.

Here's what I liked about the book.  Learning more about late 19th and early 20th Century British literary society was engaging and surprisingly fun. This book inspires rich, lush imagery.  Holroyd's writing is more than just descriptive, it transports the reader to distant places and times.  I also liked learning about four women of whom I knew nothing before this book; four women who lived their lives in defiance of the cultural norms of their times.  And I like power women.

But as I said, A Book of Secrets made me feel stupid.  I consider myself fairly well read.  But this book made me realize that I'm a long way from accessing literary and historical references with any real facility.  Holroyd's deep knowledge of his subject matter means he can make allusions to other literature and ideas with ease.  Most of those references went right over my head.  Even attempts to figure out those references proved difficult without hours of study.  In fact, I might not even be qualified to write a review of this book.

A Book of Secrets is also sometimes difficult to follow.  As the story travels through different times and places, and interacts with a myriad of characters, it's easy to get lost.

Holroyd is a talented writer and this story is personal in a way that few biographies are.  Holroyd, who is nearing the end of his career, even notes that this is his last book, which adds a strange melancholy to the story. While I enjoyed the writing, the book mostly soared far over my head.  As much as I hate to admit, that may say more about my literary shalowness than about A Book of Secrets.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The art of the tree

I've already expressed my profound admiration for the gardeners of Japan. But I just can't stop thinking about the endless effort that goes into creating the perfect garden vistas.  One of the most amazing signs of that effort can be found in the trees.  Everywhere we went, there were spectacular constructs used to ensure that trees could maintain the perfect shape; things that encouraged branches to hang in just the right position to frame a view; ropes and posts that when combined with trees created serendipitous archways and gates.

Rather than talk about it, why not just show you a few photographs.