Paul Madonna: Everything Is its Own Reward

Have you ever seen Paul Madonna's art?

If you haven't, you're missing out. I read and loved his first collection, All Over Coffee, a few years back, but I didn't know he'd published a new book (Everything Is Its Own Reward)** until I saw while browsing at the library.*

Finding graphic novels and art collections I enjoy is always a bit of a challenge for me. I am not a very visual person (I cannot follow instruction or direction lists that only include pictures), and I never took any art theory or history courses (which I regret), so most of the time I am very content just to stick with words. But when I find an artist I like? I really, really love them.

Madonna is a case in point. He does very simple (well, they look simple, but I am sure they are very hard to do well) line drawings of buildings, homes, and city streets in his city of San Francisco. Sometimes the pictures contain text, and sometimes they don't. But I love them all and could study them for hours.

*I still love browsing the library and bookstores. Searching or poking around online will just never be as fulfilling.

**Well, newish. It was published in 2011.

Book Menage: Shirley Jackson, Day 1.

Welcome to our book menage, where two books + 1 reader = a rollicking good time.

This time out we're considering the works of Shirley Jackson. Your assignment, if you chose to accept it, was to read one work of Jackson's fiction, and one work of her nonfiction (or the biography of her by Judith Oppenheimer).

So we'll open with an easy question today. Which books of Jackson's did you choose to read, and why? What were your initial impressions of the books you chose to read?

Please answer in the comments, and join is as much as you'd like! More questions tomorrow, and the rest of the week, and if you have a question you'd like to pose to the group, list it in the comments and I'll put it in the body of the next day's post, or send it to me in an email (to [email protected]).

Let the Menage begin!

100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Culture

And it's back to our discussion of Time's Best 100 Nonfiction List; or, to be more accurate, our alternate and much more exciting list of our own 100 Best-ish Nonfiction titles!

My apologies for not posting yesterday; the next category up was "Culture," and I didn't quite know what to do with that category. Just reading that heading bores me, frankly. And their choices didn't exactly set me on fire either:

The American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris
A Child of the Century, by Ben Hecht
Within the Context of No Context, by George W.S. Trow
Mystery Train, by Greil Marcus
The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich

I'm completely out of my element here, because not only have I not read any of these books, I've never heard of them. Although I think I've read something by Greil Marcus, and I seem to have okay associations with that name. (Do you remember authors that way too? I couldn't tell you what I've read by Greil Marcus, but I think my overall impression of him was favorable.) So what do we do here?

Well, largely I'm going to wimp out on the list, primarily because I don't understand the heading. Does "Culture" mean "Criticism"? Anything "Vaguely Artsy"? "Liberal Arts Stuff We Don't Know Where Else to Put"? But just because I can't think of many specific titles (I tend to avoid real intellectual criticism, as well as real in-depth works ABOUT art) doesn't mean I can't make some broader suggestions:

FILM: Skip the criticism, for the most part. If you're dying to know about film, just get your hands on an actual (good and readable, I remember it from school) textbook like David Bordwell's classic Film History: An Introduction. But the best thing to do for film is find a good biography of any film person you like: actor, director, etc. I've read a ton of "film biographies" in my time (James Dean, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, etc. ad infinitum) and they were always great reads, in terms of life stories and for providing insight about film.

ART: Just grab some big coffee table books of sculptors, photographers, artists, or periods you find interesting. You'll learn a lot more just soaking up the pictures than you would struggling through a book of essays or criticism in which you're just not that interested. If you're up for watching something, Simon Schama's The Power of Art was a lot of fun.

LIT CRIT: I'll admit it; I've got nothing here. Maybe something in this category will occur to me when we consider essays...Does anyone else have any Lit Crit or Culture titles they want to suggest?

John Hughes in book form.

I know I'm not the only John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, etc.) fan out there because I waited for Susannah Gora's new book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation on hold from the library for a LONG time.

Gora The book is quite simple; Gora describes each of the "Brat Pack" films of John Hughes in separate chapters (she doesn't bother with his later blockbusters like Home Alone), and also throws in bonus chapters about the magazine article that first named the Pack, what that label did to the actors' careers, and on related films that John Hughes didn't direct, like St. Elmo's Fire and Say Anything.

I didn't actually mean to blow through this one as fast as I did, but I've always been a big John Hughes fan and I must confess it was a lot of fun reliving his movies through this text. I also enjoyed getting the inside scoop on the relationships between the young actors on whom Hughes relied, and other film trivia tidbits. It was also interesting learning a bit more about the youth and personality of Hughes himself--turns out he was a bit mercurial, which, for whatever reason, I wouldn't have pictured. In the end, though, I'm still willing to cut the man who gave us Ferris Bueller's Day Off a bit of slack. Sure, he may have been difficult. But he could sure show joy on film.

If you've ever watched and enjoyed a Hughes film I'd recommend this one. If nothing else it's easy to read the chapters just about your favorite movies and leave the rest (I'll admit I skimmed some of the chapters that focused on the Brat Pack actors).

Not quite sure I liked it until I finished it.

I've never been a big Truman Capote fan, Audrey Hepburn is a movie actress I can largely take or leave, and I was completely bored throughout all of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's when I watched it a million years ago. So why exactly did I get Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Womanout of the library? I have no idea.

Fifth What's even weirder is that I read the whole book, and enjoyed it. It delivers exactly what its subtitle promises: an in-depth look at the making of the classic movie, from Capote's writing of the story on which it's based, through its screenplay development, casting, and filming. It didn't hurt that it was only about 200 pages long.

I would think any film buff would enjoy this book; likewise, anyone who's ever had any interest in Truman Capote or Audrey Hepburn might find a lot to like here. It's a nice look at film and social history, and it's very readable, broken up into workable chunks throughout each chapter. (I particularly enjoyed the bits about how Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to be cast in the lead, and how the screenwriter had to fight the studio/film censors on every teensy little risque item. It must have been a different world. 

Photography by Robert Frank.

The other day when I stopped in at the library to pick up my holds, I decided to browse their new book shelves a little too. Normally I am the world's worst library browser; I can't say my local library does very many or very interesting book displays, so I've gotten in the habit of just going there to pick up books I've specifically requested.*

AmericansBut lately nothing that's been coming in on hold has been doing anything for me; hence, the idea that I might just browse a bit. And I found a great little book titled The Americans, which is simply a collection of black and white photographs that were first published in the 1950s (complete with a short introduction by Jack Kerouac**).

The photos were beautiful, and it was a pleasure just to enjoy leafing through a book and letting it soak in. I'll have to do more browsing in the future to keep finding these little gems that are good for my soul.

*I do try to keep things a bit random; I place most books on hold after perusing the library's monthly "new nonfiction books" list every month.

**I read most of the introduction without looking at who had written the introduction. By the end of it ("Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.") I was thinking, who on earth wrote this strange introduction? When I saw it was Kerouac I just laughed. For some odd reason I love that guy. Maybe I'll try and read a little Kerouac this spring, just to feel young again.

Sadness, illustrated.

I don't have much to say about David Small's graphic novel memoir, Stitches.*

Stitches Small, an artist and illustrator,** did not, by all conceivable standards, have a happy childhood. His mother and father had an unhappy marriage; his mother had all kinds of issues of her own (including health issues: she was born with her heart on the opposite side of her chest, and personal problems: Small describes "her furious, silent withdrawals" that "could last for days, even weeks at a time"); and he suffered from multiple illnesses, including a sinus condition, which his father, a radiologist, treated himself, with (you got it) radiation. The end result of that? At the age of 11, Small developed a cyst on his neck, which wasn't removed until three and a half years later, and which of course was cancerous.

That's right: his dad gave him cancer.

Why don't I have much to say? Well, other than saying that you should read this book (which I am indeed saying), I just don't WANT to talk about it. There are a few topics I just don't like to explore. Kids suffering is one of them. Health problems of any kind and the scariness of various health procedures is another. And the graphic novel format of this story? Not making it any easier to take, really. Not that I think it should be easy to take. But for some reason I just never have a lot to say about graphic novels of the nonfiction type. I always find them interesting; they just never stand out as my most memorable reads, even when they are very memorable. Maybe the pictures make them too REAL, and not enough like books? I don't know. Evidently I'm just too much of a text girl, and that's that.***

*I know, it doesn't happen very often, so try not to fall over in shock.

**He often collaborates with his wife, children's author Sarah Stewart, as he did on the wonderful picture book The Library.

***Goodness, evidently I had more to say than I thought about this one.

Not smart enough for pop culture.

The other day this book came in at the library for me: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.

I totally don't remember why I requested this book, or where I heard about it. (Sadly, this happens a lot; my memory is a sieve, except of course where BBC miniseries and their stars--about most of whom I can recite their ages, their spouses, and their most well-known roles.) So when I picked it up and saw the cover with the little porcelain doggies, I got excited, thinking maybe it was an actual auction catalog.*

Lenore But then I got it home and saw the blurbs on back from Dave Eggers and Amy Sedaris, so now I'm guessing it's some kind of clever humor book that I'm entirely missing the point of. It's laid out perfectly, just like an auction catalog, with lot numbers, short descriptions, and price estimates, only the artifacts here are the remains of a couple's relationship:

"LOT 1224: Two Aprons. One red-and-white striped cotton, label reads 'Daniel Boulud Kitchens.' One vintage flower print, no label. Laid into pocket of latter is a note on the back of a shopping list handwritten from Morris to Doolan. Reads in full: 'Dear one, Third batch of macaroons definitely the best. X.' 7 x 2 in. Both aprons size small. $5-10." (p. 88.)

So yup, I'm pretty sure that's we have, the story of a couple's break-up (I guess; I haven't looked closely enough to find any evidence of the break-up, most of the blurbs I've seen have been for rather pedestrian couple-type things), in auction catalog form, and now, in real time, I'm going to click over to Powell's and see if that's right...and, yup, here we go: "In Leanne Shaptons marvelously inventive and invented auction catalog, the 325 lots up for auction are what remain from the relationship between Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris (who arent real people, but might as well be)."

I guess it's funny, but it's a bit too far down the rabbit hole for me. Pop culture humor like this usually just ends up making me feel dumber, and if I need that, I'll just go about my daily business--I don't have to read a book for it.

*I am addicted to auction catalogs, and auctions, although the auctions where I live tend to offer primarily bed linens, lawn tractors, and maybe a bit of antique glassware or a few guns thrown in. If you want a totally decadent time sign up for the online catalog service at Bloomsbury Auctions; every now and then I get auction catalogs about rare books and prints and even the catalogs themselves are drool-worthy.

Dream library.

Yesterday I spent a bit of time reading the introduction and looking at the black and white photographs in the oversized book The Photographs of Homer Page: The Guggenheim Year, New York, 1949-50. It was lovely.

Homer I love black and white photography, and I love New York City, and I love the 1950s (okay, it's the very beginning of the 50s, but still). Well, I love the "look" of the 1950s. Actually living in the 1950s probably wouldn't have worked for me. But I do love me some chrome and that lovely low-slung, straight lines, strange pastel colors 1950s furniture. (I have owned a mint-green 50s couch, and do own a 50s coral-colored chair that has most definitely seen better days, but which I can't get myself to throw out.)

So when I saw this book's title in my library catalog, you can bet I had to see it. And I was not disappointed. I've tried to provide a bigger image than usual of its cover image so you can see the photo; four boys playing with a dressmaker's form. The kid on the left just makes me laugh and laugh. Look at his face! He's totally in the moment.

So as I looked through the book, I wondered if there were collections of photographs of New York City from other twentieth-century decades*: the roaring 20s, the not-so-pretty 70s and 80s, etc. And I thought, man, if I was putting together my dream library, I would seek out big books of New York City photography and collect them for it. And then I thought, hm, dream library, that's something to think about. It's a fun fantasy to not only think about what I might like to read but which books as physical objects I might like to own. So far, I have this photography wish, and I'm also always secretly book-lusted after a rare first edition of Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, from the University of Chicago Press. (I saw one once at a rare book sale, and might have lost my head if Mr. CR hadn't been there reminding me of the mortgage.) So there's the question. What would you have in your dream library? Give it some thought. I'll revisit this topic, I'm sure.

*The other day I gave my nephew a book about twentieth-century baseball, and he said, "What's the twentieth century?" I'm old.

Literary fiction worth reading.

Greatman I spent the weekend* reading Kate Christensen's novel The Great Man, and loving it. It's the story of one Oscar Feldman, a well-known American painter, whose only role in this book is to be the man who was loved by a variety of fascinating women. (The book actually opens with Oscar's obituary.)

The women in question are Oscar's wife, Abigail Feldman; his longtime mistress, Claire (Teddy) St. Cloud; his fellow artist and sister Maxine; his daughters (by Teddy) Ruby and Samantha; even his mistress's best friend, Lila. Each of these women relates her own story of her life with Oscar as they take turns speaking to two very different biographers of Oscar's life. It sounds complex; it's not (or it is, but in the best possible way).

I loved this book. What is totally great is that the women in this book could have been caricatures; the "artist's wronged wife with the autistic son," the "selfish mistress who kept her lover away from their own daughters," the "bitter sister." But they weren't. They were all fascinating, strong, interesting women in their own rights, and in their relations with the "great man," the reader (or at least this reader) gets the sense that they paid their moneys, they took their chances, and they lived with their decisions. Oh--and there's a secret too. An art secret that will make the reader wonder (even more) if Oscar truly was a "great man."

Just lovely. As an added benefit, this book made me feel so young. Lately I have been feeling so tired and old (in my thirties; ridiculous, I know) that to read this book about ladies in their seventies, not without their issues and aches and problems, who are still--and this is a phrase that it hurts me to type but it's really the most appropriate one--hungry for life, made me feel very, very good, and perhaps like I should buck up and try to enjoy what's left of my own youth.

I do think this is a novel that will appeal more to women, although I'd be interested to hear when men think of it too.

*I also spent the wekeend going to see the chick flick The Ugly Truth (which was awful, but we were mainly there to see Gerard Butler, so no harm, no foul) and watching the Guy Ritchie movie RockNRolla with Mr. CR (which was really pretty fantastic). Yup, I'm starting to see why I was having some problems hitting my deadlines.

Small town pictorial records, continued.

I really love photography collections, so whenever I wander through my local library's catalog and see a new photography book out, I'll typically request it regardless of its subject matter.

Ely I particularly love photography books about small towns and communities (such as the superlative book The Oxford Project), and Facing North: Portraits of Ely, Minnesota, is no exception. It is filled with black-and-white photographs of (primarily) the small town's residents, and a few short essays about life on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Only 3,700 residents live in the town year round, but the region hosts at least 200,000 visitors each year, which makes for an interesting conjunction of personalities.

Is the book as good as The Oxford Project? Well, no, but then, that's a tough book to beat. This book does include small informative paragraphs about all the subjects in the photographs ("When we showed up to take his picture, he came outside in an old green miner's uniform--something you see a lot of around Ely--toting his oxygen tank"), but the true glory here is the photographs themselves. You'll have to read the introduction to find out about the camera and film used, but it's some kind of special-format camera (and the skill of the photographer) that makes the faces of the people sharp and the other edges in the photographs gently fuzzy. They're beautiful, beautiful photographs, and it's a book well worth looking at.

Ah, serendipity.

Remember how, a while back, I was looking to find the portrait of Helene Hanff (she of 84, Charing Cross Road fame) that Elena Gaussen painted? (The artist and the painting are described in Hanff's sequel to 84, CCR, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street.)

Well, Google had turned up nothing, except for a bit more information on the artist, Elena Gaussen Marks, and her husband, Leo Marks (whose father originally owned the bookshop to which Hanff wrote about in 84 CCR). So I was resigned to never seeing the portrait. However, as I read more about Leo Marks and his career as a codemaker during World War II (and as the author of lovely cipher poems), I became more interested in reading his book, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945.

So I checked the book out at the library, brought it home, and looked at it for a few weeks, longingly, as I didn't have time to start it right away. Finally I decided I would just have to get it back some other time, but before I returned it, I opened it up to check out the pictures in the middle. I don't know how you feel about this, but I am fundamentally unable to put a nonfiction book down before I have looked at its pictures (if any are available). Even if I don't get them read, I always look at ALL of the pictures in whatever nonfiction books I drag home. I don't know why. They're usually the first thing I look at when looking at new nonfiction books in bookstores, too. So before I returned Between Silk and Cyanide, I went to look through the pictures, and guess what I found?

"Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, by Elena Gaussen Marks." A picture of the portrait! Or at least I'm guessing it's the portrait. (As my sister says, how many can there be?) It's not at all what I expected, but it's beautiful in its own way. So there it is, and if you want to see it, all you have to do is check out Leo Marks's book. All I can say is, suck that, Google.

And a very interesting world it is.

I'll admit it, I did not read all of Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World (it's overdue, and I just want to get it back so the next reader can enjoy it). But I did read the first several chapters, and I really enjoyed those.

Artworld It's a simple enough idea: Thornton visited seven very different arenas of the art world, and reports back on them. (These are often my very favorites types of books; the investigative ones where the authors give us a look behind whatever scenes they've chosen.) The seven chapters of her book feature details on art auctions, artists' studios, a university art seminar, a prize announcement at the Tate Museum, the editorial offices of Artforum International magazine, and...well, I forget the rest right now, but you get the idea. I actually thought the first chapter, about an auction, made the whole book worthwhile; it was a really interesting consideration of how art is collected, sold, valued, and, basically, a good just like any other commodity. It's also fascinating (to me) to read about the world of big money and what and how it spends its time:

"The salesroom seats a thousand people, but it looks more intimate. One's seat is a mark of status and a point of pride. Smack dab in the middle of the room, I see Jack and Juliette Gold (not their real names), a pair of avid collectors, married with no kids, in their late forties. They fly into New York every May and November, stay in their favorite room at the Four Seasons, and arrange to have dinner with friends at Sette Mezzo and Balthazar. 'The truth is,' confides Juliette later, 'you've got standing room, the terrible seats, the good seats, the very good seats, and the aisle seats--they are the best. You've got the big collectors who buy--they're at the front, slightly to the right. You have serious collectors who don't buy--they're toward the back. Then, of course, you have the vendors, who are hiding up in the private skyboxes. It's a whole ceremony." (p. 16.)

It's an interesting book, and it reminded me a lot of The Billionaire's Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, which I also enjoyed. I find it much more relaxing to read about collecting things, wine, art, etc. than actually to collect anything.*

*Although I used to collect kitty knick-knacks when I was little, only to be rather stymied by the collection now. Periodically Mom asks why I don't hang a knick-knack shelf and display them, and I don't have the heart to tell her I don't want to dust around them, but I can't quite get myself to give them away, so they're in a box in my basement.

Fifty bucks well spent.

I haven't spent it yet, mind you, but I think I will.

The pending purchase in question is the oversize book from DK Publishing titled Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary.* It's gorgeous.** For a girl who wishes she'd taken an art history course, it's an art history course all by itself, with representative artists from numerous countries over the course of human history. Each page includes five to fifteen major artworks, along with timelines, short artist bios, and short facts about each work of art.

Art It's wonderful, and the slick pages are beautifully printed. This is certainly a case where looking at a book is just hands-down better than looking at the Internet (faster, too), and if you know anyone with young kids, I'd suggest this book, just so they can leave it laying around and their kids can learn about art from an early age.

I'll admit I spent most of my time in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, primarily in Europe, but there's also sections on art from other parts of the world, and the latter pages on modern art (although it's not my favorite) were also very informative. Even if you don't want to buy it, I would check it out.

*Do follow the link to Powell's--there's a video there you can watch and see inside the book.

**Take care when you carry it home. It's heavy!