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Staff Picks: Books

The art of personality

The example of Andy Warhol is often cited as proof that personality and persona can be just as important as the quality of the work itself when it comes to conceptual art and the vacillations of the “art market”. Warhol himself was quoted as saying “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” This concept of the artists themselves being intertwined and integral to the art they produce is at the core of Sarah Thornton’s (Seven Days in the Art World) book 33 Artists in 3 Acts. The book is composed of short chapters that each focus on individual living artists. Many of the artists, or perhaps their work, like Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, and Damien Hirst will be familiar to even those totally unfamiliar with the modern art world, but all of the featured artist offer unique perspective on what it means to be an artist and offer readers a glimpse into a fascinating world. Some of my favorite sections revolve around the Simmons Dunham family, both parents are artists who have been a part of the New York art scene for decades, but over the course of the years that the interviews in this book take place their daughter Lena Dunham goes from recent college graduate to inking a deal with HBO to create the show Girls and then on to cultural icon status well surpassing the public fame and recognition of both her parents combined by the end of the book. The family dynamics were interesting enough with two artist parents! Thornton, who has written about contemporary art for years in the Economist, is trained as a sociologist and this dimension of her background lends an intriguing tone to this really entertaining read.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: now's the time

The american painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the tragically young age of 27, has now been dead as long as he was alive. That fact was shocking to me, as I remember the first time I heard about Basquiat, and saw his incredibly expressive neo-folk, graffiti inspired work in a magazine at the Wax Trax! record store in Chicago during the early 1980's, like it was yesterday (well, make that last week or so). The power in those paintings was somehow apparent to my neophyte's understanding of art at the time. And later, as Basquiat became synonymous with the excessive 80's New York art scene and I saw pictures of the artist - looking impossibly cool with dreadlocks and sunglasses, barefoot but wearing an Armani suit - I knew that he was on a trajectory to fame or infamy that very few either sustain or survive. Looking through Jean-Michel Basquiat: now's the time, a new high-quality presentation of his short, yet prolific career with over 150 color illustrations of his work, many of which I had never seen before, I'm pleased to see that others saw the same power in his paintings that I saw as a teenager and that his influence and importance as an artist have only grown in the decades since his meteoric rise to fame and tragic death.


Hold Still

I think it’s safe to say that Sally Mann’s extraordinary memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs will end up as my favorite book of the year and one that I highly recommend to those interested in memoirs. Meticulously written with intellectual ferocity, humor, raw candor, and a genuine devotion to the subjects she so elegantly explores, Mann cuts no corners in letting readers into her thoughts, sometimes conflicted but always articulate and self-aware. This isn’t simply a “I did this on that particular day” sort of retelling of life events but rather a lyrical investigation into the meaning of family, place and being that deserves to be shelved next to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Patti Smith’s Just Kids

I first stumbled across Sally Mann’s life as a photographer several years ago when I discovered a documentary film called What Remains. The film explores her life and work, the “culture war” controversies that followed her exhibition called Immediate Family, and her passion for creating haunting, lyrical images of family, disease, death and landscape. Now, with the publication of the book, we learn that her talents for writing mirror that of her ability to capture life on film. I was hooked from page one, mostly because her flair for chronicling the past but for her marvelous prose and her openness to dissect through memory (invariably a problematic process), the knotty relations between artists and inspiration, between her love of rural Lexington (Virginia) and the South’s racist legacy, and between the public façade of family and the private secrets buried below. And lastly, the book is full of amazing photographs culled from both her work as well as images of her as a child. Rarely is there a book that I yell from the mountaintop, “read this now”. This is one such work.


Float

In Float we have a wordless picture book about a boy, a folded paper boat, and a storm. Even without words, though, we also have a story about creation, play, loss, comfort, delight, and tenderness.

Take a close look at this small book and then marvel at how Daniel Miyares can give us a complete story with only his wonderful pictures.

 


The Scraps Book; Notes form a Colorful Life

The Scraps Book; Notes from a Colorful Life
By Lois Ehlert

Lois Ehlert is a “go to” author for preschool picture books, children really like her books. Lois is an artist and a writer and she has a passion for the importance of early literacy. She uses an art technique called collage which means she cuts out scraps of paper, fabric, real objects, painted objects, photographs, and then she assembles and glues them into place onto a background resulting in an image. KPL has many of Lois’ books.
Children love to identify exactly what “part” is used in making a picture, such as, what is the snow girl’s mouth made from? What is the snow boy’s nose made from? Lois finds her ideas for books from the world around her… gardens, shopping at the market, watching fish at an aquarium, a squirrel who ran into her home… Lois finds free art supplies from Mother Nature when she goes for walks… “I keep my eyes open. An idea may be close by. “
After Lois writes a story, she sketches out the entire book to decide what to illustrate on each page. Not only does Lois write a story, but she also has very appealing artwork for youngsters.  Lois relays that her mother shared many colorful fabric scraps, buttons, lace, ribbons with Lois and her dad gave her woods scraps and taught Lois how to paint, saw, and pound nails. Lois was given an old table for doing her artwork and she even took it to college with her! Lois grew up in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and now lives in Milwaukee. This is a great line from her biography: Why did I choose to be an artist? I think it’s the other way around. Art chose me.


Chris Stein / Negative: Me, Blondie, and the Advent of Punk

All great rock n roll is about more than just the music. Think of any great rock band and you think about their “look” as a component of the overall feeling you get from them. The band that first illustrated this for me was Blondie. I remember my dad receiving the album Parallel Lines (yes, original vinyl from 1978) as part of one of those mail order record deals that were big at the time, and before the shrink wrap was even off I remember looking at that album cover and thinking “Wow, those guys look so cool in their black suits and who is that woman?” Since that day the notion that a band or artist looking cool adding something to the way you feel about the music has stuck. So when I saw that Blondie founding member Chris Stein had a new book of photographs taken mostly during the late seventies and early eighties – which is visually and musically an era that fascinates me – I was thrilled. The photographs do not disappoint and directly illustrates that visual element in rock n roll that I first felt when I saw the Parallel Lines cover.


Lunch with a Master Storyteller/Faker

The larger than life personality and talent that was Orson Welles is on full display in last year’s My Lunches with Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles. The child prodigy (actor, writer, director) who was every bit the iconoclast he’s been generally labeled bluntly and without filters shares his thoughts on a variety of subjects, mainly in regards to his judgments and attitudes for or against fellow actors and filmmakers. Always brash, sometimes blatantly offensive and with a refreshing honesty (one might say narrow minded megalomania), Welles would seem to have known everyone and done everything first and better than others according to these precious and revealing conversations with friend, agent and fellow director Henry Jaglom. Welles had a brilliant mind to go along with his formidable personality. Striking both a gossipy and intellectual tone, the book’s unique format makes one feel as though the reader is present, a fly on the wall and witness to one of the 20th Century’s most fascinating artists tackling one topic after another with humor, intelligence and bravado.


The Immortal Evening

The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?

 
Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot. 

 
In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb. 

 
If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.


By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?


Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar

Here’s something you might not expect … Keith Richards (yes, that Keith, the Rolling Stone) is now a children’s book author! Books about Richards and his famous little rock & roll band would certainly fill a modest library, but Richards as we now know is quite a fan of books. As a youngster, Richards admits that he always wanted to be a librarian. In his memoir, Life, he said that two institutions mattered to him most when growing up; the church, which, he said, belonged to God; and the public library, which belonged to the people.

But, as John Cleese says, “…now for something completely different.” This is Keith’s first foray into the world of children’s literature, and it’s adorable. Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar tells the story of how young Keith discovered a love for music through his grandfather, who was also a musician. To complete the family circle, Gus & Me is illustrated by Keith’s daughter, Theodora Dupree Richards, and it includes an audio disc with a recording of Keith himself reading his story. It’s a sweet inspiring story that will melt your heart. And so, Grandpa or Grandma, unplug your iPod for a few minutes and add this to your favorite youngsters’ (or grand-youngsters’) read-to list. You won’t be disappointed.


Have You Seen My Dragon?

Have You Seen My Dragon?  by Steve Light

This counting book is great because of the intricate black and white drawings that feature full page spreads of a little boy looking for his dragon amidst busy New York City backgrounds. Kids and adults will have fun searching for the dragon and for the little boy and for the consecutive numbers of items from one through twenty page by page. On every two-page spread the item to look for is in color. The first spread features one green dragon on a detailed black and white New York City background… “Have you Seen my Dragon? No? I will look for him.” The next spread features two orange hot dogs on a different detailed black and white background, and the dragon is drawn in black and white and so is the little boy, the next spread features three purple buses on a different black and white background including the dragon and the little boy, and on and on until the last spread which features twenty red lanterns. 

 
Every time you look at the illustrations you discover something you hadn’t seen before; this book stimulates curiosity, picture puzzle skills, and counting concepts. The inside back cover is a map of the dragon’s route. Stop by any of the Kalamazoo Public Library locations and search for more dragon books, they are forever popular!