Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Best of 2009: Art & Culture

Adrift on the Ark by Margaret Thompson (Brindle & Glass) 203 pages
There is something sweet and unassuming in Adrift on the Ark. And the book itself is physically small. These two things -- the sweetness, the size -- work together to mask the power of the topic at hand and, ultimately, of Thompson’s little book. In lush yet charming prose, Thompson examines pets and peacocks, swans and bats, and there’s even a chapter called “Pigs Might Fly” (though they actually do not). These are deeply personal essays that examine, as the subtitle suggests, our connection to the natural world. They look at our relationship with the animals in our lives and what we provide each other. In her introduction, though, Thompson corrects this. “In my mind,” teacher and birdwatcher Thompson tells us sternly, “this is a bestiary for a confused modern world.” -- Monica Stark

The Artist’s Mother, introduction by Judith Thurman (Overlook) 160 pages
Like exhibitions loosely grouped around a theme, books with a themed core seem to come in one of two categories. They’re either lame excuses to connect that which probably shouldn’t have been connected in the first place, or wonderful triumphs that have us looking at the topic in a new way. In almost every regard, The Artist’s Mother falls into the latter camp. “Maternal love takes many forms,” author and journalist Judith Thurman writes in her introduction, “not all of them benign, but one of the most essential is to provide an experience of attunement.” We don’t experience that attunement in all of the work collected here, but one does get a glimmer of what Thurman means as well, in some cases, the connections some painters maintain with where they’ve been as well as how they’re getting where they’re going. The book opens on a fantastic portrait of Albrecht Dürer’s mother, Barbara. Painted when the artist was just 19, it is a masterwork that clearly lays the groundwork for the genius still being developed. For a later glimpse of that genius, a charcoal sketch of Dürer’s mother done just months before her death captures the woman as she was, not idealized as was dictated by the fashions of the time. Both works are remarkable, but it’s terrific to see them almost side-by-side. Delivered chronologically, the book ends on Andy Warhol’s 1974 portrait of his mother, Julia Warhola. In between is a history of art in maternal form: John Constable, Rossetti, Paul Cézanne, Mary Cassatt, and that most famous mother-painter of all, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler whose “Portrait in Gray and Black” has come to be known as “Whistler’s Mother.” The Artist’s Mother is a wonderful short course in art history as well a terrific tribute to one of humankind’s most lasting bonds. -- Aaron Blanton

The Bedside Book of Beasts by Graeme Gibson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Canada) 368 pages
Author Graeme Gibson follows up 2005’s magnificent The Bedside Book of Birds with a less gentle offering. The Bedside Book of Beasts collects some of the very best writing -- ever! -- on the relationship between predators and prey. “They are central to us,” Gibson writes in his introduction, “and to our understanding of our place in nature, because the primal fact of hunting and/or being hunted, and the inescapable demands of hunger, have largely defined animal life on earth, and are undoubtedly one of the key energies driving evolution.” That’s the theme, in the words of the author. The reality is somewhat more beautiful. The work of around 100 artists is represented here, from people as diverse as Franz Kafka and Marian Engel, both Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda, Barry Lopez, Leo Tolstoy. William Blake and Wayne Grady. Slender threads of writing -- fables, stories, sacred texts, essays, travel writing -- wind their way around carefully selected artwork. The resulting book is a work of art in itself, capturing the very soul of the topic Gibson has chosen to editorially muse upon. -- Sienna Powers

The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants by Wolfgang Stuppy, Robb Kesseler and Madeline Harley (Firefly Books) 144 pages
This new coffee table book compiles the very best of three books published in a slightly larger and more spectacular format over the last few years. All three were named to the January Magazine best of the year lists in their respective years. And why? In their class, they are as good as it gets. The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants is slightly more compact in format than the three that went before, but it is no less spectacular. What has contributed to this series’ stellar nature is a combination of dream-team authorship and world class design and production. A seed morphologist at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Wolfgang Stuppy brings straight up solid plant knowledge and the books have all benefited from being filled with rock solid information not readily available from other sources. Artist and art professor Rob Kesseler is responsible for the stunning microscopic photography that really sets the book apart. And so each book -- and this book -- are dynamic tours through a fantastic alien world punctuated by incredible explanation and information. The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants will dress up a coffee table, start a conversation or fill a young heart and mind. -- Linda L. Richards

The Book of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley (Vintage) 304 pages
Shockingly lucid, surprisingly good, unexpectedly funny, The Book of Dead Philosophers meets its initial mandate, then passes it by a country mile. I liked it a lot. I find it difficult to imagine anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy who would not enjoy it. Author Simon Critchley looks chronologically at those who dedicated their lives to thinking about intellectual matters of life and death and how they themselves exited the material world. “Very simply stated,” writes the author, “this is a book about how philosophers have died and what we can learn from philosophy about death and dying.” But it’s more than that, too. Critchley points out that we, as a society, are almost ridiculously frightened of death. And what can we do about that? Critchley has the answer: philosophy. The author brings together short profiles of close to 200 philosophers, a little about how they lived and -- more importantly in the context of this book -- how they died. We encounter all that life has to offer: wit and wisdom, tragedy and comedy. There are bizarre ends and others that are pathetically unexceptional. In short, he gives us the tools we need to begin to “learn to have death in your mouth, in the words you speak, the food you eat and the drink that you imbibe.” It’s a remarkable book. -- David Middleton

The Dark Hunters, Vol. 1 by Sherrilyn Kenyon (St. Martin’s Griffin) 208 pages
Everywhere you turn, it seems, there’s another vampire: waiting for teenage love or some other quasi sympathetic situation brought on by a lot of romance regarding princes of darkness. However Sherrilyn Kenyon has risen to the top of the paranormal wave by writing books about vampire killers. In this first volume of her Dark-Hunter manga, Kenyon has worked with Joshua Hale Fialkov (Afro Samurai) and Claudia Campos (Tokyopop) to reimagine the Dark Hunter world as a manga. It really works. Campos’ illustrations are vivid and fierce and, thankfully, the story Kenyon and Hale Fialkov have worked out manages to keep pace. Amanda Devereaux has been mistaken for her sister, the vampire slayer, and is being stalked by the most dangerous vampire that didn’t ever live. And while Amanda’s life is in danger, so is humanity more or less as we know it. Tense stuff beautifully handled, the manga approach here seems fresh, original and exceedingly well done. I enjoyed every bite. -- Lincoln Cho

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim (St. Martin’s Griffin) 288 pages
Elissa Stein and Susan Kim’s marvelous Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation is a tour de force of sub-cultural revelation. So forceful, in fact, that it brings what has long been a part of the dark subculture of shame into the fully-lit culture of womanhood. Menstruation, long misunderstood, long maligned, long cringe-inducing, is finally given its due in this wonderful illustrated book that’s perfect for everyone, whether they have monthly periods or not. (In other words, folks, it’s not just for girls.) Read it and you’ll be entertained, shocked, surprised, and (best of all) educated. Flow is the real deal, a book brave enough to tackle a topic that most people probably think isn't worth tackling. The thing is, now that it's been wrestled to the ground, it's a vital resource, to be referred to again and again. It’s impossible to imagine not having it. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Inklings by Jeffrey Koterba (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 272 pages
The debut work of writer, musician and political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba tells the author’s own story with the aid of strong graphic elements, yet without the maudlin self-pity often associated with works of that genesis. In his bio, Koterba tells us that “during the summer of 1978 [I] was struck by lightning and lived to tell about it.” He makes it sound like an advantage -- a thing to have survived and gained strength from, rather than a horrid obstacle which had to be overcome. That pretty much describes all of Inklings. Koterba’s inky stylings are bright, as is the spirit that drives them. Inklings is an almost rabidly optimistic look at a difficult childhood and coming-of-age from the hands of a fiendishly talented artist. If Inklings is just the beginning, I can hardly wait to see what is yet to come. -- Lincoln Cho

Life As We Show It: Writing on Film edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn (City Lights) 290 pages
Author and filmmaker Brian Pera and critic and fictionist Masha Tupitsyn together help rekindle the wonder and magic of the movies in Life As We Show It: Writing on Film. This is a vibrant collection that uses all of the mediums available to it to tell its vigorous tale. The contributors here pull out all the literary stops: poetry, fiction, essay: you name it. At the heart of things, though, there is a philosophical question at play here. “Thus, the genre of assemblage and insertion, fictions about fictions, fiction from fictions, or more specifically, fictions affixed and inserted into already existing fictions ... might be an interesting and useful way to describe what the writers in this collection are doing.” And though, admittedly, all of this sounds a little too much like someone is trying to wean himself from his leather elbow patches, it’s also -- with all of the extra bits washed away -- exactly what this collection is about. Not necessarily film itself, but film at its essential and highest self. Is Life As We Show It sometimes almost laughably self-indulgent and youthfully self-conscious? Well, yes. But, in the spirit of such things, it also pushes the envelope about what we’re thinking now. With a lot of syllables. But still. A thoughtful exploration on the art and the influence of film. -- David Middleton

The Maxims of Manhood: 100 Rules Every Real Man Must Live By by Jeff Wilser (Adams Media) 224 pages
Sit down with The Maxims of Manhood: 100 Rules Every Real Man Must Live By and you’ll realize it’s more than just about being a real man, it’s about being a real good, decent human -- from a man’s perspective of course. It has nothing to do with eating or not eating that egg pie-casserole-flan thing that was so popular to hate in the 1980s and then okay to eat in the 90s -- who can keep up with that kind of crap? It’s about being clean, polite, loyal and able. It goes over everything from how to treat your fellow guy (maxim 78: Cockblock and die) to how to treat your fellow woman (maxim 87: Being considerate doesn’t make you a wimp) and nearly everything that might fall in between. That doesn’t mean that this book is all froofy and fey and polite . There is still funny-ass stuff like maxim 2: You only recognize primary colors, maxim 94: Your dog must be larger than a toaster or 46: Spend more on beer than haircuts. In fact most of this book, when not being just plain practical about nearly everything having to do with owning a penis, is funny. Pick up a copy and be a better man. -- David Middleton

Planet Ape by Desmond Morris with Steve Parker (Firefly Books) 288 pages
If you wanted to commission the penultimate book on apes, the name Desmond Morris would come up. Many books and paintings and years ago, zoologist, ethnologist, artist and brilliant thinker Morris wrote The Naked Ape. It was 1967 and it shocked the world by writing about man in the same way one would write about animals. It was a ground-breaking work, an international bestseller and it led to a 1973 film of the same title as well as wide-spread reconsideration of the way we think about humans and animals and the little that can separate them. In the meantime, Morris has written about many things, including dogs, horses, cats, babies and other things. Many of those books have been bestselling. But none could compare with that first all-important bestseller and more than 40 years later, and with Morris now into his 80s, he’s come back to some of the ground he covered in The Naked Ape, with Planet Ape. This time out, though, it’s the hairy apes that have focus: the naked ones get the (justifiable) blame. This is a fantastic book. One can not imagine a better one on this topic. A portion of the profits generated by Planet Ape are earmarked for charities who are working to conserve the apes Morris and co-author Parker deliver to us so vividly. -- Linda L. Richards

Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas (Douglas & McIntyre) 120 pages
Even if it were not so skillful, Red: A Haida Manga would be special just for being first. Set in the islands off the coast of Northern British Columbia, Red is a full color graphic novel that references classic Haida narrative. Red is stunning and in its way quite perfect. The traditional Haida-style images have been twisted by Yahgulanaas’ skilled and considered interpretations. This is Japanese-style Manga, yes. But one doesn’t need to be an expert in West Coast indigenous people to see Yahgulanaas’ inspiration and even -- perhaps? -- instruction. His colors are brilliant -- sometimes even lurid -- his lines bold and true and his storytelling instincts without flaw. I loved Red: A Haida Manga for everything it is and is not. It’s a wonderful blend of old and new, all in support of a captivating story. -- David Middleton

The Red Book by Carl Jung (W.W. Norton) 416 pages
What does it say about our culture and economy when one of the hits of the year is a nearly 100 year old book on psychology published for the first time in an almost $200 volume? There are so many possible messages to be gleaned there, Carl Jung himself might well have had a party with it. The Red Book is one aspect of the work Jung called his confrontation with the unconscious, a journey with self he took between 1914 and 1930. The Red Book as presented by Norton is spectacular and provides some deeply interesting reading. Before you even begin to read though, The Red Book is almost startlingly beautiful: an art book on a par with any published this year. But read the book -- especially in a certain frame of mind -- and doors open. This is how modern psychology was created. More: the book exhibits the energy and power that was Jung’s genius. Jung’s archetypes, his work on the collective unconscious and the process of individuation: you see the ideas unfold here almost in fetal form. The Red Book is a rare and important work. It’s exciting that everyone can now share in it. -- David Middleton

Slang: The People’s Poetry by Michael Adams (Oxford University Press) 256 pages
Michael Adams is that guy. He teaches English language and literature at the university level. He is the editor of a magazine that focuses very tightly on speech. He is the author of a book on the slang of the now defunct hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yes, you’ve got it right: Adams is a word geek. So, clearly, if he writes a book called Slang: The People’s Poetry, it’s not going to be the expected compendium of slang that anyone else might do. Especially if said book is published by Oxford University Press. So take those hints, and construct them into the book you would imagine Slang might be and you’re almost there. First of all, there is no aspect of compendium to Slang. In some regards, it is an erudite love letter to a verbal form. With footnotes. And joy. Those things might sound separate -- footnotes, that is, and joy -- but Adams pulls it off. Sometimes Adams is playful, sometimes he is verbose (“Whereas the impletive interposing with meaningful infix is a marginal variety of a marginal feature even of slang, let alone English at large, nonpletive infixings and interposings may be trendy.”), sometimes he is insightful (“Saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing in the wrong way, just generally lacking in social finesse, can mean social isolation.”) but there is never a moment when you think he got it wrong. Slang will not make you laugh from end to end, but I’m quite sure that was not Adams’ intent. This is an intelligent book, executed with passion. Slang offers important comment and documentation on an aspect of our culture that is very often overlooked. -- Sienna Powers

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