Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Best Books of 2010: Art & Culture

Editor’s note: This is the fifth segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2010 feature. Thus far, we’ve run our choices for the best Books for Children and Young Adults, Cookbooks, and Crime Fiction, Part I and Crime Fiction, Part II. Still to come: non-fiction and fiction, which will be rolling out over the next couple of days. -- LLR

Alarm 38: Invisible (Alarm Press) 237 pages
It seems to me that Alarm has become for music what Dwell has become for magazines about homes: a rediscovery and reinterpretation. An application really, of art to the discussion of an industry that is all too often devoid of it. Alarm the magazine has now transitioned to Alarm the quarterly series of collector-quality books. Does the world want that? That is, will people buy what Alarm is selling? I don’t know, but I hope so because, if Invisible is any indication at all, what they’re selling is very, very good. Alarm 38: Invisible dedicates itself to Overlooked Albums and Unseen Artists, which is likely all the description you need other than the diversity of musical styles included is almost unthinkable, the writing is sharp and right on the money, the photography and art memorable and just as good as it gets. In some ways, Alarm seems hardly to belong in a compilation of the best books of the year. (Is it a book at all?) In other ways, how could it not be here? If you enjoy reading about music and if music moves your soul, chances are, you’ll love Alarm. -- India Wilson

American Trademarks: A Compendium edited by Eric Baker and Tyler Blik (Chronicle Books) 256 pages
After I left art school I found three books that were to forever change the way I looked at logo design. Eric Baker and Tyler Blik’s Trademarks of the 20’s and 30’s, Trademarks of the ‘40s and ‘50s and Tyler Blik’s Trademarks of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Each a startling and fascinating collection of some of the finest and kookiest commercial logos. These books were the go-to reference when clients wanted something that looked a bit retro or just for inspiration. Now Baker and Blik have done one better with American Trademarks: A Compendium. More than just a collection of all the logos from the previous three, American Trademarks also includes comments by such contemporary design luminaries as Charles Anderson, Eric Strohl and Michael Doret -- plus many more -- and examples of their work to no doubt be added to the historic compendium. Even if you own the other three books, American Trademarks is still a must-have for designers or anybody interested in the history and evolution of the American logo. -- David Middleton

The Art of McSweeney’s (Chronicle Books) 264 pages
There’s a great deal to like about The Art of McSweeney’s. It is dense with ideas, stuffed with creativity and practically choked by talent. But the thing to like best, at least from where I’m standing, is that The Art of McSweeney’s is like a single volume celebration of the book and a thumb of the nose at the sky-is-falling crowd. Did you say the book has no future? Well The Art of McSweeney’s? It says something else. This book has been published at a time when there are some rumblings about the dire future of the book, and of the printed book in particular. There are various rumors that people read less now, and that people will read still less in the future. And that, even if they do read at all, it will be on screens, and not on paper. The Art of McSweeney’s is a coffee-table-style book that takes us through McSweeney’s various publications since -- and including -- the company was hatched out of then bookish wunderkind Dave Egger’s super creative noggin. Included here are art and comments from David Byrne, Sarah Vowell, Michael Chabon, Chris Ware and many others. It’s a fantastic book: a celebration between two covers, one that should mature to become a gorgeous momento from one of publishing’s strangest hours. -- Linda L. Richards

Art of the Middle East: Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World and Iran by Saeb Eigner (Merrell) 383 pages
For about the last 10 years, many of us have been more concerned about the connections between west and east than we ever were before. I’m not sure a book like The Kite Runner, for instance, would have had the grand run it did had it been published pre-9-11. Clearly, the events of that day were awful and have left an indelible mark on so much, but there has been some good and we have to take that good where we find it, I think. For me, one of those places has been in looking for commonalities between the Arab world and the west, rather than listening to those who would always underline the differences. Now all of these things are likely not the best reason to enjoy Art of the Middle East, but it’s a good starting point for those who would like a cleaner view of a world that, for some, seems incomprehensible. Like so much else in life, look closely at the art and you see that it is anything but. These are the things I felt as I read and looked and instinctively understood Art of the Middle East. And then I read the Preface. “In a world filled with misunderstanding,” author, linguist and man of the world, Saeb Eigner, writes, “there can be nothing more fulfilling than to engage -- even in a small way -- in dispelling some of the stereotypes and prejudices that cloud people's judgment.” As he points out, culture makes a wonderful bridge for crossing divides. And we cross those divides here in a stunningly reproduced book of art that is mostly clearly understandable to westerners, yet also clearly of its own time and place. More than 400 photographs in a book that includes the work of over 200 artists, Art of the Middle East is a comprehensive survey of the art of the middle east from the 1950s to the present day. An absolute must for scholars of contemporary art and a real conversation starter for the coffee table. Art of the Middle East will take your breath away. -- Adrian Marks

The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves by Andrew Potter (Harper/McClelland & Stewart) 304 pages

No matter what you make of Andrew Potter’s path to bring us back to reality, it’s an interesting journey. A philosophical one, in many ways. On a par with the paths of thought taken by the (thus far) better known Alain de Botton, who is, after all, one of our best known contemporary philosophers. Though he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Toronto, that isn’t what Potter calls himself, but that does not change facts. Read his work and you’ll see: this is an artful, gymnastic mind and he takes on some of our biggest contemporary foibles in a book that manages to be both sweeping and intricate at the same time. The author argues that the quest for authenticity in our lives is nothing more than yet another form of status seeking: ecotourism, performance art, the cults of Oprah and Obama and more. Potter weaves elements of history, philosophy and pop culture together in a book that will leave an impression even if it doesn’t necessarily show us the path. Is Andrew Potter one of the great thinkers of our age? He may well be: this is great stuff. -- David Middleton

Finishing the Hat by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf) 480 pages
Before I begin, full disclosure: I am named after Tony in West Side Story. I only mention it because Stephen Sondheim wrote that musical’s lyrics -- and I suppose if Tony had been called Fred, I’d have a different byline. Anyway, after some 50-plus years writing for the musical theater, Sondheim, America’s most celebrated composer/lyricist, has collected the lyrics for 13 of his shows in one fat, miraculous volume, Finishing the Hat. The title is taken from the name of a song in his Sunday in the Park with George, whose lyrics are not in this volume (but will be in the next). The song itself is about how the artist seals himself off from life, even insulating himself from it, to finish what he is creating. Perhaps the title tells us a lot about Sondheim, perhaps not. Either way, the book is a treasure trove. It turns out the lyrics themselves, while they occupy most of the pages, play second fiddle to the endless anecdotes about Sondheim’s shows and collaborators. There are also fascinating photographs of scribbled notes, rethought lines, and much more. Truly, this is a book not about lyrics but a laser-sharp examination of the lyricist himself, by himself. I imagine it’s as close to an autobiography as we’re likely to get, sort of a deluxe Cliff’s Notes about one artist’s musical theater literature. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum (W.W. Norton) 331 pages
There’s something deliciously industrious about Globish, novelist, journalist and premature curmudgeon Robert McCrum’s take on how English took over the world. Compared with the density of thought McCrum establishes in the prologue, the book itself is surprisingly lively. Clearly, the author has a passion for his subject. McCrum takes us through the rise to prominence -- nay: dominance -- of the English language in our modern world. In that way, Globish sometimes feels like a biography -- in this case, of a language. At other times it reads like passionately shared history. At all times, though, Globish is a deeply fascinating book. McCrum brings history -- and language -- to vibrant life. -- Aaron Blanton

Modern North: Architecture on the Frozen Edge by Julie Decker (Princeton Architectural Press) 240 pages
As the topic for a book about architecture, the North seems so esoteric it’s almost ridiculous. How could that possibly be a theme of sufficient glue to connect a book? Especially a book worthy of note? And yet Modern North delivers in every way imaginable. More, really, because there is a vitality and a creativity born of need in play that would have been a difficult thing to factor in. Author Julie Decker (Quonset Hut) points out there is a tradition of deeply created architecture that emerges from the very culture of the north. In the 36 stunning homes and public buildings in Northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia, Decker has chosen to include in Modern North, we have moved quite far beyond simple survival. A research center in Norway seems almost to be part of the hills that surround it. A simple hotel in Finland rises box-like and austere from its seaside lot. A cultural center in Dawson City, Yukon, bends old and new design for a striking rethinking of both. And a grouping of schools in Alaska seem more about survival than design until you take a closer look. Decker and a hand-picked team of essayists who comment on the demands and challenges of designing for the North, do a splendid job of sharing that which many of us have not even previously considered. -- David Middleton

Natural Houses: The Residential Architecture of Andersson-Wise (Princeton Architectural Press) 176 pages
At first glance, Natural Houses seems very specific. And it is, I suppose. It’s a very tight and beautifully published portfolio of the work of a single design firm: that of Andersson-Wise in Austin, Texas. But those passionate about a new design vernacular will do well to have a close look at the living visions of Chris Wise and Arthur Andersson. This really is design for the 21st century. And it’s not that they are the only designers bringing a new and more conscious vision to the homes they are creating. But they do it so very well. The book that results from this aesthetic is a series of soaring visits to Andersson-Wise designed homes. It’s an interesting journey, too. Opening our minds to the possibilities not only what can be but what, in some cases, already is. -- David Middleton

The Near-Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly) 225 pages
Though I’ve not always been a fan of Lynda Barry’s crudely drawn and sometimes self-indulgent comic art, The Near-Sighted Monkey Book (Drawn and Quarterly) is a work of genius. In this generously proportioned book, Barry uses the most outlandish of her art to muse on some truly important issues and, in the process, she opens the possibility of meaningful discussions on the importance of art in our lives and why -- and when -- we stop making it. Though I would hazard that there’s no right or wrong way to read this book, on your first pass, I would recommend you sit down with the book and begin at the beginning, following all the possibilities of narrative from start to finish, as I’m guessing the author intended. It really is only a guess, though: with the generous flow she’s shared with us here, all things are possible. Long-time fans will recognize Marlys, Barry’s most beloved character. Here she is joined by the Near-Sighted Monkey, a character that various clues had me thinking was autobiographical, at least in part. But don’t look for anything as mundane as story, Marlys and the monkey are merely guides. Barry asks questions: “What is a picture? What is it made of?” and “When we see the water-stain creatures, are we inventing them or is the ceiling inventing them?” and most importantly, “Why do we stop drawing? Why do we start?” The questions are scattered through the book -- and some of them repeat -- along with other questions as well as exercises involving form and color, all of which seem designed to help you open a vein of creativity, especially if this is something that has become difficult for you. “Why do we stop drawing? Why do we start?” I defy anyone to give the book an honest read-through and not feel inspired -- and, yes -- enriched. -- Linda L. Richards

Star Trek: The Original Series 365 by Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann (Abrams) 744 pages
Star Trek: The Original Series 365 touts itself as a definitive guide to the original program. But, really: how can anything about a show that has survived in one incarnation or another over 44 years be that definitive? There is bound to be more Star Trek stuff to come which could be just as definitive. No matter. This book on the original Trek is quite fascinating. It is also what a fan of the original series will love. It not only contains a synopsis of each to the 79 episodes but also includes behind-the-scenes histories combined with what any true Trekker (or have we gone back to being called Trekkies? I can’t keep up) loves to hear: never-before-seen images -- as well as really cool before-seen ones. Neither sappy nor overly romantic, Star Trek: The Original Series 365 is really just a wonderful little book about an iconic television series. True fans will love it. -- David Middleton

Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake: The Life of Artie Shaw by Tom Nolan (W.W. Norton) 430 pages
When Artie Shaw died in 2004 at the age of 94, I was among those surprised that he was still alive: he had quit performing half a century before. “I did all you can do with a clarinet,” Shaw said about his early retirement. “Any more would have been less.” Tom Nolan’s account of Shaw’s life in Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is both respectful and in-depth. Author and journalist Nolan interviewed Shaw many times while he was alive and since then, “spoke with a hundred other individuals willing to share memories and insights regarding one of the greatest popular artists of the twentieth century.” Nolan takes us through Shaw’s life in chronological fashion, including a string of ill-fated marriages. There were eight wives in all, including actresses Lana Turner, Doris Dowling, Ava Gardner and his widow, Evelyn Keyes and Kathleen Winsor, author of Forever Amber. It is not the many failed marriages, however, that Nolan uses most to transport us. That place is reserved by art in various forms and the way it manifested in Shaw’s life. Three Chords for Beauty’s Sake is a portrait of the King of Swing, sure. More than that, though, it is a jazz biography and a celebration of “America’s indigenous artform.” -- Aaron Blanton

The Tulip Anthology by Ron van Dongen (Chronicle Books)
232 pages

There is something inexpressibly lovely about The Tulip Anthology, a book that celebrates that most common and magical flower, the tulip. With an introduction by Anna Pavord who forever changed tulip literature with The Tulip (Bloomsbury) ten years ago, here sets up a physically very different, but spiritually very similar book about tulips. In fact Pavord’s own The Tulip and van Dongen’s The Tulip Anthology would be a perfect set piece. And you certainly wouldn't ever need to learn anything more about tulips. Though the text portions of The Tulip Anthology are very, very good, they’re not the point of this very large, over-sized coffee table book. The book collects various short writings on tulips and intersperses them with van Dongen’s truly remarkable photos. And so, on one huge page: “The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; They are like the mouth of some great African cat.” -- Sylvia Plath in “Tulips.” And opposite is a photograph -- close up and personal -- of a Tulipa “Rococo” (Parrot) tulip that truly does look like some jungle creature. Perhaps, indeed, a cat. Tulips in art. In traditional fashion. Snippets of tulip history. And everywhere massively wonderful photos of tulips. “The tulip is a great seducer,” Pavord writes, “and once it has you in its grasp, it is reluctant to let you go.” -- Monica Stark

The Ultimate Metallica by Ross Halfin (Chronicle Books)
232 pages

No one is more astonished than me to be including a book about heavy metal icons Metallica as one of my picks for the top books of 2010. And this is one time you really can not judge a book by its cover because, from the outside, The Ultimate Metallica looks like just another heavy metal handbook. Between the covers, though, it’s another story entirely. Legendary rock photographer Ross Halfin brings together a quarter century of photographs. And these are stunning photographs: simply the best of their kind. From full on stadium shots to intimate and posed portraits to location shoots the photographer himself set up, The Ultimate Metallica presents as finely drawn a portrait of the band as has ever been displayed. Even non-fans can appreciate the quality of this work, but fans will simply lose it. As I’ve stressed the photos -- all of them -- are great as are written chapters by Halfin, Metallica drummer and founder Lars Ulrich and manager Peter Mensch. If I have a quibble, it’s that I would have liked more information on each of the photos: where, what and when were they? Though, in fairness, I have a hunch that real fans will know exactly what they're looking at. It’s a book of few words, though, and big, bold, well-printed photos. Not much talk but a lot of action, a lot like the band themselves. -- Lincoln Cho

Weddings by Tara Guérard (Gibbs Smith) 176 pages
Anyone who ever dreamed of a wedding, dreamed of one of these weddings: society confections quite beyond the means -- and perhaps even imaginations -- of mere mortals. Yet somehow, the perfection and expense displayed in the dozen weddings profiled here does nothing to detract from both the usefulness and beauty of Weddings. Author Tara Guérard calls herself an “event designer” and, if Weddings is any indication, she’s a pretty good one. Her creds indicate the same thing: in 2005 Modern Bride Magazine selected her as a Top Trendsetter and her work has been featured in every magazine one would think it would be important for her to be featured in: Food & Wine, Southern Living, InStyle Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings and many others. Guérard’s sense of style and what’s right for every occasion shows up again in Weddings, a book quite unlike any other I’ve seen on this topic. Absolutely absent are the endless worrying lists that clutter other wedding books: when to book, when to send, when to fret and -- most worrisome of all -- how much the whole thing might cost. Guérard’s book is about none of that. What we have here are gorgeous photo spreads -- magazine and modern album quality -- of weddings in progress. Included are telling detail shots: letterpress name-tags, perfectly coordinated gift bags, stylishly careless centerpieces, perfect food, perfect food, perfect food. There are hints at how some of the wedding transformations were accomplished: yards of fabric here, spray-painted boxes there, ribbon and gift-wrap fetchingly placed: Guérard shares her secrets and some of her sweetest moments in a way that is both unobtrusive and highly instructional. -- Sienna Powers

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