Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best Books of 2011: Art & Culture

This is the art & culture segment of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2011 feature. You can see other sections as follows: Best Fiction, Best Non-Fiction, Best Biography, Best Books for Children and Young Adults, Best Cookbooks, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Crime Fiction (part I) and Best Crime Fiction (part II).

Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World by John Szwed (Viking)
For a good part of the 20th century, folklorist Alan Lomax -- at first as apprentice to his trailblazing father, John, and later in his own right -- traveled the United States and then the globe in search of folk music and performers to commemorate and celebrate. Leadbelly was a major find of Lomax Senior; among the figures Alan brought to the fore were Woody Guthrie, the aging Jelly Roll Morton and the young Muddy Waters. Lomax’s Library of Congress recordings of such artists, as well as radio and stage shows he instigated and books that he wrote, had much to do with launching folk-music movements in America in the 1940s and 1950s. Alan Lomax made his mark abroad, too: England’s skiffle-music repertoire was full of tunes he’d collected years before. And the music Gil Evans wrote for Miles Davis to perform on the LP Sketches of Spain incorporated field recordings Lomax made in that country. Without Lomax, who knows where or even if the concept of roots music would be. For 60-some years, he was tireless in his pursuit of folk song: “[T]his flame of beauty,” as he called it, “[t]his sound which matched anything I’d ever heard from Beethoven, Brahms, or Dvorak …” John Szwed (author of earlier books about Miles Davis and Sun Ra) does a fine job chronicling the life of a man whose “enthusiasm was boundless and seemed to grow with age.” Lomax numbered Eleanor Roosevelt, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and English poet Robert Graves among his champions; and his grateful students in the ’60s included the young Bob Dylan. We may never see the likes of an Alan Lomax again; but thanks to Szwed’s excellent book, we can appreciate his achievement all over again. -- Tom Nolan

Architecture Now! Houses: 2 by Philip Jodido (Taschen)
Say the word “house” and everyone creates their own mental picture. A place, perhaps, of comfort. Shelter. Even safety. And those are fine things, maybe even good things. But what we come to understand in Philip Jodido’s book, Architecture Now! Houses: 2, is that “house” can mean so much more. Jodido brings us the idea -- not a new one, but still -- that “house” can be more than the sum of its parts. It can be all of the things we ever thought, but it can also be artform. It can be physical manifestation of personal expression. It can even be an earthly representation of spirit. It can be all of those things, Jodido teaches us. But it can also be less. And so together we explore: what are the elements of “house” and what are its limitations? But though the text is interesting and considered and printed in both English and German, the stars of this particular show are the houses themselves. Houses gives us a voyeur’s eye view of some of the most creative and remarkable new homes in the world. So many of the houses included either take your breath away or make you think about what really is possible when you think about what is meant by that single word: house. It’s an extraordinary book. -- Aaron Blanton

Bing Thom Works (Douglas & McIntyre)
Recently awarded Firm of the Year by the Royal Achitectural Insitute of Canada, Bing Thom Architects seem poised on the brink of even greater international recognition. The Vancouver-based firm’s reputation was enhanced when it was selected to design Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. But designing for real human use on a grand scale was hardly new to Thom. His Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, built in the late 1990s, has been a critically acclaimed concert hall, and Vancouver’s Sunset Community Centre brought sensual concrete curves and distinctive shapes to a very homey use. There have been many, many other projects, most just as grand and seeing the recent projects included in Works is a distinct treat. However the surprise comes from Thom himself, an architect who considered sustainability long before it was fashionable. “Architecture is more than art,” Thom writes in a Preface to Works. “We have a social responsibility as architects; we affect people’s lives; and we can change the nature of our society, but only after digging deep and asking tough questions.” Thom’s passion and beliefs come through, as well. “We just know that our greatest desire is to give people a deeper sense of community. If there are barriers, we want break them down. Meaningful buildings can do that.” Thom also writes that he didn’t want Works to be a monograph and, of course, in some ways this elegant coffeetable-style production that, in part, showcases his work can’t help being that. But in many ways, it truly is so much more. -- Sienna Powers

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young (Faber and Faber)
At the same time as American composers and folklorists were uncovering and celebrating our country’s indigenous folk music in the early decades of the 20th century, so were artists and annotators in England doing comparable research and creation. And when the U.S. folk-revival of the 1950s turned into a ’60s folk-rock revolution, English musicians were ready with their own homegrown brand of electric folk London journalist Rob Young’s Electric Eden is a masterful history of “Britain’s visionary music” -- from concert works by Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock that incorporated folk-airs, through the ’50s skiffle-craze (which influenced almost every ’60s UK rocker of note), to post-folk bands and singers such as Donovan, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and even the Beatles (whose “Golden Slumbers” from Abbey Road used the same 17th-century Thomas Dekker poem for its lyric as did Warlock for a 1919 piece). It’s Young’s thesis that English folk-rockers took pagan-rooted music as the foundation for a present-day simulation of Britain’s ancient past. Poets such as Blake and Yeats (significant influences on the likes of singer-songwriter Van Morrison) also figure into this premise. The author’s opinions at times intrude on the narrative; but then again, such a work demands a writer with a strong point of view. Electric Eden is comprehensive and stimulating; it may inspire you to seek your own musical roots -- or at least go looking for a lot of LPs you lost track of in the last 50 years. -- Tom Nolan

The Eugene B. Adkins Collection (University of Oklamhoma Press)
For a very long time -- too long -- Southwestern Art was the illegitimate step-child of American art. Not quite black velvet paintings, not quite outsider art, but still, not as esteemed or certainly as collectible as more mainstream sub-schools. In some ways, of course, the collectibility -- or not -- of this work didn’t impact it at all. At least not in a negative way. And if you’re not sure about that, but would like to experience it in a single sitting, The University of Oklahoma Press this fall produced a book based on selected works of the Eugene B. Adkins Collections, arguably one of the most significant collections of Native American and southwestern art ever assembled. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Adkins was a serious collector for over 40 years. According to one source, the Adkins collection is valued at approximately $50 million and is among the most important private collections of works by the Taos artists as well as Native American works of art. It includes more than 3,300 objects in a number of categories. But never mind the background or the value, the book exposes you to Southwestern art in a way that you likely never have been. Here in a carefully curated book, you see both contemporary and historic pieces and see, also, the way they are connected and informed by each other. Informative essays by art historians and curators whose comments and observations add another level of understanding to an already rich book. Clearly, this is an important work, unduplicatable in other forms. If you have an interest in the art of this region, you won’t want to miss this one. -- India Wilson

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm (Crown)
Twenty years after Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s debut, Ten, Blender senior editor, Mark Yarm, delivers Everybody Loves Our Town, the perfect remembrance/celebration/recollection of an era that some would say never was and others say never left us. After all, as Yarm tells us early on, even the grunge label itself is entirely subjective. But whatever grunge is -- or isn’t -- no one has ever examined it with as much depth and affection as Yarm does here. To create the book, Yarm conducted interviews with grunge’s key players and contributors: over 250 musicians, producers, managers, journalists, and many others. Even wives and ex-lovers have not been left out and Courtney Love appears in several places with startling -- though not always credible -- revelations. If you remember grunge or, like Chuck Palahniuk offers in a blurb for the book, your “memories of the era [are] a little hazy,” Everybody Loves Our Town brings it back, in some ways larger than life: a moment in time when Seattle erupted as the center of the universe… and the music industry was never quite the same. -- David Middleton

Everyday Eden: 100+ Fun, Green Garden Projects for the Whole Family to Enjoy by Christina Symons and John Gillespie (Harbour)
The cover is a little misleading: Everyday Eden looks quite a bit like a garden book. A good one, but still. Even the most cursory glance, however, shows you how little you knew. Want to make a terrific barbecue rub? A lavender wreath? An herbal sea salt scrub? Ferns from cuttings? Salad dressing? A stylish frozen ice bowl? Do you want to grow moss? Or make a live willow fence? This is a fantastic book, filled with great ideas and as good -- and probably better -- than any book I’ve seen in this category. Artfully photographed and lovingly created. -- Sienna Powers

Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes (Akashic)
To be perfectly honest, this was not one of my favorite books of 2011. And though it was certainly well done, I’m not even sure I actually liked the book.The sentiment it conveys seems deplorable to me: a comment on a society gone a little mad. Booksellers, however, had a lot of reason to like it and the sheer ferocity with which it hit an unsuspecting public mid-way through the year and the chord it obviously struck earns it a spot on this list. Any way you slice it, this parody of a child’s picture book, value added with frustrated profanity, was one of the top sellers of 2011 and certainly one of the most talked about books. A bestseller weeks before it came out in June, Go the Fuck to Sleep was certainly one of the most innovative books of the year. That is, love it or hate it, though there have been some copycats, nothing has even come close. -- Linda L. Richards

Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor (Moonrise Media)
Lord knows there are kajillions of making-of books ground out by and about the Hollywood machine. But seldom is one created by a true fan with no connection to the movie or book businesses. In this case, the author was living on Martha’s Vineyard when the film was made, and he’s now spoken to everyone who found themselves touched by the film. Instead of looking at how the film was made from a Spielberg point of view, this book looks at it from the locals’ point of view. It’s a massively entertaining tale of how the making of a movie invaded a small town and changed it forever. Stuffed with engaging prose, interviews with townsfolk, and priceless amateur photographs, this book is a true rarity. Hollywood from a decidedly non-Hollywood vantage point. Spielberg provided a foreword, and there are interviews with actors and technicians who transformed Martha’s Vineyard into the movie’s Amity Island, but that’s the only Hollywood here. This is a loving tribute to the film, to be sure, and a fascinating one at that, including all the tiny stories that make up the much bigger one that we know today: young director making his second feature far from Hollywood, under difficult circumstances, relying in great part on the ability of local people to gather their ingenuity and talent and enthusiasm to make something extraordinary happen. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Logo Design Volume 3 edited by Julius Wiedemann (Taschen)
Your brand, your logo, tells everyone who you are and what you do. The more effective the logo, the more efficient it is at communicating the message you want to put across to the public, your customers, and the easier it will be to recognize and help convey that message. Sounds all too esoteric but there really is a science to it. If it’s for a courier service or a burger joint, your logo should be instantly recognizable, whether it’s on letterhead or a giant road sign. Not just content to simply be a file cabinet full of pretty images, Logo Design begins by showing 11 fascinating case studies on how different design companies go through the process of creating an unforgettable brand. Logo Design Volume 3 is a great -- and arguably necessary -- addition to any designer’s bookshelf or anyone interested in the philosophy behind creating a world-class brand. -- David Middelton

Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim (Knopf)
Last year we saw Finishing the Hat, and this year we have the second half (it’s not really a sequel). The former had a royal blue cover, and this one has a royal purple one, but the truth is that they both should be covered in gold, because what’s inside them is a real and rare treasure. In this volume, Sondheim has collected the lyrics to his shows produced between 1981 and 2001, from Sunday in the Park with George onward. But the lyrics, which can often be found elsewhere, are really only part of the story here. The real treasure of the book is what Sondheim has to say about his work, about critics, about his collaborators, and about the process of putting these shows together: the frustrations, the ideation, the celebration of something as small (or as big) as a perfect rhyme, and the compromises that come with every endeavor. For so many of us, Sondheim is a brilliant, erudite, endlessly creative composer and lyricist. What this book (and the first volume) show is that he is a human being just like you and me, with preferences, foibles, and standards that infect his work. While this is a certainly behind-the-scenes look at how his shows are made, what’s genuinely special about this book is the selfless candor of the man. He’s brutally honest about the work, his partners, and everything else -- and that openness is refreshing when, really, he could have just let the work speak for itself. In this case, he speaks for the work, about the work, and sometimes even despite the work, and the result is less an examination of the shows themselves as it is an examination of the indelible man who made them the insightful, indelible works of art they are. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Magic of Reality: How We Really Know What’s True by Richard Dawkins (Free Press)
Love him or hate him (and most people seem to fall in one of those two camp: not anyplace in between), Richard Dawkins is able to take complicated material and cut it down to its simplest components. He helps us to understand. In The Magic of Reality, he does it in a way that whole families can enjoy together. In some ways, with its brilliant illustrations by Dave McKean (Coraline, The Graveyard Book) The Magic of Reality looks like a children’s book and is described as a “graphic science book for readers of all ages.” And fair enough: this really is a book that could be savored at any stage of life. Magic is what’s under discussion here, but clearly the author of The God Delusion isn’t going to go for the easiest answer on the topic of magic. “The real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own… an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works.” This seems typical of what Dawkins is sharing here: the beauty -- and, yes, the simple magic -- of the everyday. -- David Middleton

Robertson’s Book of Firsts by Patrick Robertson (Bloomsbury USA)
Who made the first 3D movie? Where was the first public zoo? Who wrote the first detective story? If you’re more into firsts than bests -- that is, if you’re more into innovation than perfection -- then this book is for you. Arranged alphabetically (somehow), this book presents the first attempts at hundreds of things we never quite manage to think about in any real way. Rather than offer up a dry list of facts, Robertson provides the stories behind each of the firsts, and the result is an encyclopedic look at the people who change the world, one idea at a time. A random page will include the first coins and the first collapsible tube (think toothpaste). Another will reveal the first parachute (and the brave/suicidal man who tested it). Another will reveal the first cremation and the first dental drill. Thousands of firsts, gathered all at once for the first time. Crisp and readable and great fun, this is, in an admittedly strange way, one of the year’s must-reads. Don’t miss all the fun. -- Tony Buchsbaum

The Tribes of Burning Man by Steven T. Jones (CCC
When the counter-culture was but a gleam in a few proto-stoner’s eyes, this is what they dreamed of. A glimmering city of art and ideas in the desert. Not Las Vegas, but something near it, yet utterly different. This is only right, Steven T. Jones tells us in The Tribes of Burning Man, because Burning Man and contemporary American counterculture share common roots. The sketch of Burning Man’s history. Award-winning San Francisco journalist Stephen T. Jones delivers an insider’s vision of what has grown to be an important cultural and counter-cultural annual event. Burning Man, Jones contends, is important and has grown beyond Nevada, reaching out into its community in myriad and surprising ways, including Burners Without Borders, the Burning Man alumni who offered their hands and experience in building cities out of nothing after the Katrina catastrophe of 2005. Though the organization gelled for Katrina, it has offered willing hands in international catastrophes since: the massive earthquakes in Peru in 2008 and Haiti in 2010. The Tribes of Burning Man offers a very trenchant look, not just at Burning Man, but at all the event has come to mean and the reverberations it still may have. “Because,” Jones offers, Burning Man “isn’t a counterculture as much as a space that reflects and helps shape a wide variety of distinct subcultures, ultimately giving these disparate groups a bit of shared culture, uniting them into a new American counterculture.” -- David Middleton

What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by Ricky Riccardi (Pantheon)
Throughout his life and long after his death (in 1971), Louis Armstrong deserved a decent biography. After Terry Teachout provided him with one in 2009, though, many of us assumed there’d be no need or even room for another book about Armstrong for a good long while. We were wrong. Ricky Riccardi, project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, has done his subject proud with this informed and heartfelt chronicle of the trumpeter-singer’s final decades, a period of Armstrong’s career often overlooked or even dismissed by critics unhappy with the early jazz master’s later role as an iconic popular entertainer. Riccardi reminds us, though, in often thrilling detail, of Satchmo’s many artistic triumphs during the years he was pleasing huge audiences all over the planet. Armstrong’s LPs for Columbia Records in the 1950s have more than stood the test of time, and his feat of knocking the Beatles from the top of the charts at the height of their craze with his single “Hello, Dolly!” still seems remarkable. When Armstrong went to the Belgian Congo during its 1960s civil war, Riccardi writes, “[B]oth sides stopped fighting and welcomed him grandly, bearing him on a red throne” to a soccer stadium where “members of warring parties sat together, danced, and cheered the music.” Riccardi, who is also a pianist, writes with a musician’s finesse and understanding about a supreme American artist who performed with everyone from Bessie Smith to Leonard Bernstein to Johnny Cash -- and always remained true to his self and to the unique form he as much as anyone helped to invent. “Jazz is played from the heart,” Armstrong once said. “You can even live by it. Always love it.” -- Tom Nolan

Wood: Architecture Now! by Philip Jodidio (Taschen)
As a one-time student of architecture and carpentry, it’s easy for me to justify the use of wood to build with. Cheap, available, easy to work and shape and you don’t necessarily need specialized skills to create with it. It’s a warm, living material that can be used for everything from structure to finishing. Easily one of the most versatile materials throughout history. And though Wood: Architecture Now! rightfully states that it’s “the material of the moment for contemporary architecture,” it’s really the material for all time. Throughout history there have been examples of wood architecture all over the world from house to churches and beyond, and Wood: Architecture Now! is a beautiful reminder of what can be achieved with this simple but versatile material. Despite new and high-tech materials, wood still shines bright as the go-to material for many architects. Stunningly photographed and a brilliant resource for anyone interested in cutting edge architecture. -- David Middleton

The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (St. Martin’s Press)
If you don’t know about Downton Abbey, the epic UK TV series about the upstairs/downstairs goings-on in a British manor house in the early part of the 20th century, get thee to a DVD shop right away and pick up season 1. And then set your Tivo to PBS in January, to catch season 2. And then get thee to a bookseller to pick up this book, a behind-the-scenes look at what makes the show the show. Written by the niece of series creator Julian Fellowes, this book takes you inside this glittering, politicky world where the mores of British society come alive dramatically, comically, and sometimes tragically. You’ll read about the Crawley family, society at that time, life in service, and all about Highclere Castle, the stunning house where the series is filmed. Rather than a making-of book (though the book does contain that), this is really an overview of the series, presenting the family and the events of the show, complete with photos and sidebars about life at that time. It’s a little treasure about a big treasure. (And if you really want to dial up the volume on the experience, pick up the soundtrack, with extraordinary music by John Lunn.) -- Tony Buchsbaum

Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead by Jovanka Vuckovic (St. Martin’s Press)
Say what you like about zombies, the undead have never been quite as popular as they are right now. Between books -- mash ups and other kinds -- television shows, movies and more, just about everywhere you look in entertainment and the arts, a zombie can be found. So what could the enduring charm of the undead be, to warrant such faithful followings? In her new book, Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead this is the question that writer and documentary filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic strives to explore: “They are lifeless, gloomy, and sometimes smell worse than a meat-rendering plant after a month-long power outage. Some lumber about aimlessly with vacant stares while others sprint -- blackened teeth gnashing -- in hot pursuit of our brains. They are zombies. And despite their offensive odor and relentlessly poor fashion sense, they’ve managed to worm their way into the hearts of the living all over the world.” Vuckovic, who has appeared in zombie movies by Zack Snyder and George Romero, not only explores the cultural phenomena that is the zombie, arguably “the most beloved mythical monster in mainstream popular culture,” she also looks closely at the films, books, television shows and other popular media that have brought us zombies over the last several decades. And George Romero, who also writes the foreword, gets a whole chapter: “Romero’s Flesh-Eater Renaissance and Spanish Zombies of the 1970s.” Zombies! works on every level. Beautifully illustrated and carefully rendered, you won’t realize until read it how much zombies have infected our lives. -- David Middleton

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