Staff Picks: Books

Recovering Priceless Treasures

I stumbled upon the book Priceless:  How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.  The founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, author Robert Wittman recalls a number of cases when he recovers stolen artifacts or artwork, working undercover convincing mobsters and corrupt collectors that he’ll pay big money for their stolen works.  It can take months, even years, of building rapport with the sellers or middlemen before setting up a sting which involves large amounts of cash, priceless works of art, and, very likely, guns or other dangerous weapons.

Wittman struggles with the widely accepted opinion at the bureau that art crime is less important than other types of investigations.  What is even more perplexing to those investigators that take this stance is that arresting those guilty of the theft or selling the stolen property is much less important than recovering the stolen works.  Regardless of this, each time something is recovered, communities celebrate the return of their lost treasures, whether they have been gone a few months or more than a hundred years.

The book starts and ends with talking about the Gardener Heist. The most valuable collection of stolen artwork in the world, the paintings were cut out of their frames in March 1990 and are estimated to be worth more than $580 million.  One painting, Vermeer’s “The Concert”, is estimated to be worth $200 million on its own!  We learn from the book that the heist is so well known and the paintings so recognizable, they could only ever be sold on the black market.

I really enjoyed reading Priceless.  Most chapters are their own little short stories.  This means the book works well for those with similar scheduled to mine that may not give them an opportunity to sit down with a book for long periods of time.  I greatly appreciate that Wittman rescues different types of art and artifacts all with the same dedication to returning them to their rightful owners.  Hope you enjoy this book as much as I did if it makes it onto your reading list!

American Folklife

Library of Congress American Folklife Center: an Illustrated Guide…the title sounds bland, but the book/CD set is anything but! It covers a wide cross-section of folk art and folk lore in the United States.

Most amazing is the accompanying CD. With 35 tracks in all, there are songs from all over the U.S., including a song sung by Zora Neale Hurston, storytelling, personal interviews with many different people about aspects of daily living and the impacts of war and slavery. Some recordings are over 100 years old. Altogether they demonstrate the richness and variety of cultural experience in our country. This would be a great teaching tool to help bring an American history topic to life for your students.


Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide

Eva and Sadie and the Worst Haircut

Parents, friends and relatives – I know you can relate to this story. Who hasn’t seen a child who has given themselves or a child close to them a haircut and yes it is possibly the worst haircut ever. In-between my professional haircuts, I find myself cutting my own bangs – at best it is a hit or miss job.

What happens in this picture book is that big sister Sadie notices that little sister Eva’s hair is too long, too curly, too big – really just too out of control. So one day Sadie asks Eva if she wants her to cut her hair and surprise -- she does. Sadie wastes no time in getting the scissors and the haircut is done.

When Sadie realizes that there is a pile of hair on the bathroom floor it is bad – but Eva likes it! Eva runs to find Mom and Dad who lose their cool. Sadie realizes she won’t be cutting Eva’s hair again and she has to have a consequence. Eva has to get a real haircut. Not unlike when my hairdresser tells me she can cut my bangs in between my regular cut – hum maybe I should hide the scissors – Sadie’s parents are putting theirs where she can’t find them.


Eva and Sadie and the Worst Haircut

The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water

It’s okay to be different and this book is about a little crocodile (well, maybe), who has many brothers and sisters with whom he wants to play, but he cannot play with them because they all like to swim and play in the water, but this little crocodile does not like the water. He even saves up his money to buy a swim ring in an attempt to learn to swim, but, it just won’t happen. He gets very cold in the water and he begins to shiver, and then, he sneezes FIRE!

This little crocodile does not like to jump, either. However, he is VERY good at doing other things such as… flying and climbing, and something else that if I reveal it to you will give away the surprise ending! The illustrations by Gemma Merino are uproarious and simply convey the emotions of The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water.


The Crocodile Who Didn’t Like Water

Under the Egg

When Theodora’s grandfather dies, he leaves her a whispered message and the responsibility to care for her drifty mother, their Brooklyn townhouse, and $463 to hold it all together.

Over the course of this layered story, Theo and her new friend Bodhi work on deciphering the message, which sends them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jefferson Market Public Library, the Center for Jewish History.

Under the Egg is an adventure story that gives the reader terrific characters, World War II history, good guys and bad guys, and a lot of wonderful information about art.


Under the Egg

The Mad Potter

The arresting photo on the cover of this book caught my eye and I was quickly drawn into the quirky world of George Ohs, who called himself The Mad Potter.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1871, George Ohs was a largely self-taught potter, making items like no one had ever seen before. It wasn’t until long after his death that the art world came to appreciate what he called his “mud babies.”

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius tells his fascinating story and is illustrated with intriguing historic photographs.


The Mad Potter

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster

Vacationing on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s scenic west coast shoreline is a wonderful choice. More than one hundred years ago Buster Keaton’s family and their vaudeville team vacationed in Bluffton, near Muskegon. Matt Phelan wrote and illustrated a graphic novel titled: Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.

The story, told in remarkable drawings, is about a boy named Henry Harrison who lives in Muskegon year round. Henry hears about the vaudevillians and is captivated by the performers and their animals! He and the young Buster Keaton form a summer friendship and they hang out and play baseball with other kids. When summer ends, kids go back to school, but not for Buster! Buster travels around doing vaudeville acts, then returns to Bluffton the next summer. Bluffton offers a glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most well-known silent screen actors and the few summers he lived on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Go back in time and watch Buster Keaton’s black and white slapstick silent films on KPL’s Hoopla site. It’s accessible directly from the KPL catalog, just enter Buster Keaton in the search field.


Bluffton: My Summers with Buster

Inside Out and Outside In

Vermont based, veteran children’s book author/illustrator and artist Lizi Boyd’s latest literary effort is a wordless picture book that is deceptively simple. Inside Outside incorporates cool, slightly hidden, die-cut page openings through which readers can catch glimpses of what’s transpired and what is yet to come. This device is used to slyly, yet gently tie in the future and the past to the present, underscoring the continuity of the passage of time.

By means of bright, sharply colored drawings set in a predominantly muted, light brown background, Boyd tells the story of a seemingly self-sufficient young boy doing inside and outside activities over the course of one calendar year. Inside overlaps outside, and outside overlaps inside with each turn of the page, until we come full circle to the initial season once more.

With a collection of animal friends lending a helping wing, paw or claw, the young boy proves that there is no room for boredom no matter what time of year it is. Together they read, make crafts, fly a kite, plant a garden and engage in more activities than I could list here.

This book is great for a “one-on-one” reading session. That way both child and caregiver can pour over the intricate illustrations that show plenty of action both obvious and hidden, and share in the mutual delight brought about by their discovery.

Lizi’s dogs both agree.



Inside Outside

The Museum

You Gotta Have Art! After reading this simple picture book, the importance of art in our lives is so obvious, you might be inspired to visit an art museum, such as the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts where children age 12 and under are free. Kalamazoo Public Library has many insightful art books for you. We will assist you with finding them.

The Museum is a simple story in rhyme about a girl’s experiences and emotions on a visit to an Art Museum. She is energized and inspired. “When I see a work of art, something happens in my heart. I cannot stifle my reaction. My body just goes into action.” And “Its rhythm exists in all I see. The museum lives inside of me.” The watercolor illustrations blend beautifully with the book’s subject. At the end of her visit, the girl finds an empty canvas and suddenly she realizes that she can fill it anyway she chooses!

Test your art knowledge and see how many art pieces you can identify in this picture book!


The Museum

My Child Could Paint That!

Are you interested in modern art, but don’t know quite what to make of it? Do you just keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to come across as stupid? Do you wish you had taken the time to take the Art Appreciation class in college instead of rushing through, taking only classes that fulfilled degree requirements?

Well, What Are You Looking At?  by Will Gompertz can help you out a bit in all three of these cases. Gompertz was the director of London’s Tate Gallery and is now the BBC Arts Editor. He introduces you to dozens of artists and art movements from Impressionism up to the present, showing how each fed off those that came before and often were rebellions against the ideas of the earlier artists. My favorite part was a fun story about Robert Rauschenberg asking Willem de Kooning for a drawing so he could erase it. It’s interesting how many of the names that we use to categorize different movements were taken from derogatory reviews of their work.

The book includes some color plates of art work in the middle as well as some black and white images sprinkled throughout the text, but you will find yourself searching the internet for many of the works of art that are discussed, but not depicted. You will want to see what he is talking about and you might find yourself making your own explorations online.

This is a really easy to read and fun introduction to modern art.


What Are You Looking At?


“A dark night. Fox breaks into the henhouse. He reaches in. He grabs a chicken!!! He stuffs it in his pocket. Fox runs!”

Uh oh. When fox gets home and pulls that chicken out of his pocket he gets a big surprise. Outfoxed has comical illustrations that add a hilarious angle to this picture book.



Peck, Peck, Peck

I do love the picture books that Lucy Cousins creates! Her stories and illustrations are perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, featuring strong colors, chunky shapes, and concise yet complete storylines.

The latest is Peck, Peck, Peck, a square yellow book with finger-size holes punched through the heavy cover. “Today my daddy said to me, “It’s time you learned to peck a tree.” But once this essential skill is learned, will the little woodpecker stop at trees? I’ll bet you know the answer to that question!


Peck, Peck, Peck

Ads About Animals

Paul Thurlby, a British illustrator, is making a name for himself in the children’s book field by (among other things) naming the books after himself. And so we have here Paul Thurlby’s Wildlife. This is a visually rich collection of his wonderfully unique, simple yet colorful, drawings of 23 different creatures, each with a fun fact about the animal that helps make witty sense of the accompanying captions. Every animal is represented in a style that is reminiscent of poster ads from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.

One example is “Armed to the Teeth” that informs us that, “Sharks are always growing new teeth to replace those that fall out”. Or how about, “Chill out - KEEP COOL” referring to the fact that iguanas must “...move into the shade to lower their body temperature.”

I read this July, 2013 title during a recent “Tales on the Trail” program that the Powell Branch Library holds along the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. Kids, both young and old, were wildly interested in the text as well as amused by the cool art.

So, Thurlby’s imaginative fusion of strong visual design with wordplay and fragments of information works well on his intended audience. In fact, it should entertain little readers for more than just a single reading.

This book might also appeal to all animal lovers who are young of heart, for there is far more here than first meets the eye!


Paul Thurlby’s Wildlife

Modern Art Desserts

In terms of food preparation, we're living in a time when even the microwave seems too slow. With that thought as a backdrop, please consider this 2013 offering by Ms. Caitlin Freeman. She has written this book of dessert recipes that derive their inspiration from famous artists and their works. I would probably have been one of the last on the library staff to pick up this book; however, I had a wonderful art history course at WMU during my undergraduate days, the memory of which this volume caused me to recall. I think it would take even an experienced cook a lot of time and patience to make these treats, but the pictures make them look so good that I'm sure someone out there will want to give Matisse Parfait, Mondrian Cake, and Warhol Gelee a try.


Modern art desserts : recipes for cakes, cookies, confections, and frozen treats based on iconic works of art

Paw Prints Straight Into Your Heart

In the past, I’ve enjoyed reading many non-fiction books about cats, my all time favorites being Dewey, Kitty Cornered, and Cleo. Now I think that I might have to add a new title to that list, Paw Prints in the Moonlight by Denis O’Connor.

This book was given to me as a pre-publication copy about ten months ago by a colleague, to whom I will always be grateful to for bringing it to my attention. It features the then twenty-nine year old author, Denis, who at the time lived in North Cumberland, England in a stone house circa 1876, complete with three-foot thick walls. One icy, stormy January evening, he discovers a silver grey cat screaming in agony and distress, twisting and turning in a trap, caught by the hind leg. Upon releasing the animal, he retreats back to the warmth of his dwelling. However, guilt induced concern makes him return to the scene and goads him into following the cat’s bloodstained tracks to an old barn. There he finds what turns out to be a female who, despite her injuries, has been driven by maternal instincts to return to care for her two, very tiny and bedraggled kittens. Being a cat and nature lover, Denis scoops up the entire group and carries them off to the local veterinarian. After examining the three creatures, the vet only has grim news: The mother cat is near death and her two youngsters are not faring much better. The vet proclaims that there is no hope for any of them, and suggests to Denis that the humane thing to do would be to put the entire lot down and thereby end their individual miseries.

While talking to the vet however, Denis notices that one of the kittens has moved to his outstretched hand and snuggles up to it. So he decides to deposit the little guy into a pocket of his sheepskin jacket and leaves the clinic. As he is walking out the door, the vet warns him not to get his hopes up for the kitten because, “The wee thing will suffer and die no matter what you do.”

Back home, the writer takes on the role of nursemaid to the tiny, shrew-sized kitten, who barely clings to life; the sole survivor of the storm’s havoc upon his feline family. He fills the ink sac of an old fountain pen with some warmed up evaporated milk, adds a few drops of halibut oil, and then feeds this concoction to the kitten who lays motionless in a blanket-lined box near a blazing fireplace. As he accomplishes that first feeding, Denis realizes that he has accepted a do or die mission that will require plenty of determination on his part, an unyielding will to live on the part of his charge, and a more than fair measure of just plain old good luck for both of them.

After a few stressful days, the kitten begins to rouse. A few weeks later, he seems to be out of the woods, showing a greater interest in his surroundings and becoming much more active. To encourage further progress, while at the same time assuring the cat’s safety while he goes off to work in a nearby college, Denis ingeniously decides to utilize a wide-bottomed, clear glass jug, covering it with cotton wool and placing the kitten within this new enclosure, next to the fire. Upon his return from work, he finds the kitten standing on its hind legs, peering out from inside the jug welcoming him home.

Thusly, the author names the little survivor Toby Jug. He grows into a truly beautiful adult cat with emerald green eyes, and long black fur that extends down to his nose where bloom a white moustache, mouth, throat and chest. It turns out that Toby Jug happens to be a Maine Coon; one of the largest of all domestic cat breeds. He also happens to have a personality all his own.

Author and cat develop an extremely close bond; Toby’s favorite pastime being sitting on Denis’ shoulder. Unfortunately, after only twelve too short years filled with many adventures together, cat and owner are separated by Toby’s death. That day, Denis makes a promise that he would write and publish a story of the life that he and Toby shared together.

Despite all the aspects that I found very attractive about this account, there was one that bothered me throughout. It was the author’s decision to let Toby wander at will in the fields and woods near his home. Denis states that Toby was his pet, but “...also his own cat who had enough of a wild streak to give him his natural rights and dignity as an animal.” Even though there were several close calls with wildlife and the elements, the cat was still allowed access to the outdoors at his discretion.

Personally, I could not let any of the three beloved felines who currently share our living quarters that same sort of freedom. The many dangers that are out and about, and the inherent risks that they could pose to their health and safety, are concerns that would constantly gnaw at the back of my mind.

This book took over twenty years to write due to the author’s sorrow and pain when he had to recollect their great times together that culminated in the loss of his wonderful friend. It took me ten months to complete reading it, because I found myself re-reading chapters multiple times. Simply put, I did not want the story to come to its inevitable end.

This is a heartwarming tribute that would appeal not only to cat lovers, but to anyone who has ever had a very special relationship with any animal. I absolutely love and recommend it. But make sure you have a box or two of tissues handy when reading. Believe me, you’ll make good use of them.

And if you keep your cat next to your heart like I do, please keep it indoors next to you. That’s the only place where it can revel in and enjoy the natural rights and dignity of being your true friend!


Paw Prints in the Moonlight

Hand in Hand: crafting with kids

I love crafting books and crafting blogs and I always have! Nothing gives me more inspiration than reading stories about projects other people have figured out. At least right now with a full-time job and a toddler at home, that's what works for me. Hand in hand: crafting with kids, edited by Jenny Doh, is a book I really enjoyed recently that gave me lots of fresh inspiration for crafting with my girl at home. Not only is it full of inspiring parents who have simple and effective ideas for crafting with children, each person featured is a blogger with a blog full of other ideas. I love it! I've always loved making things but it can be hard as a parent to involve children in the process. As an adult, I can become product-oriented and it's important for me to remember that young children are more process-oriented. They want to experience things, not just get a finished product put together. And in that experience, they can practice all kinds of wonderful skills like fine-motor development, conversation, measurements, etc. If you're looking for some fresh ideas from real parents who craft with their children, this book has plenty. And if you are a parent who just likes to unwind with a craft book, even though you have no intention whatsoever of adding new projects to your long to-do list, don't worry....I'm right there with you and I won't tell. You can just soak up that inspiration and save it for a rainy day when you need the perfect new activity to keep everybody smiling! Happy crafting! 


Hand in Hand: crafting with kids

One of the Best of 2013

There seems to be a real spike in the number of writers who are taking an interest in blending fiction with nonfiction, memoir and essay. The best of these are often clever and inventive hybrid texts that underscore the creative possibilities and evocative power of blending a traditional, linear narrative with a more fragmentary and poetic approach to language and style. Ali Smith’s new book Artful is simply an undefinable book that like the works of W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn), J.M. Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello) and Geoff Dyer (Zona), strives to dismantle the narrow rules of what literature is and can be. The book is framed as a series of academic essays about art and literature channeled through a grieving narrator who is literally haunted by their dead lover, who we discover was the author of the papers (in reality, it was Smith herself who delivered these lectures). Smith’s project is to show us that fictional storytelling can be a vehicle for expressing fresh ideas about literature without that discourse being academically prose-less and obtuse, that it can explore the complex and beautiful marriage between art and life with originality.





What are ABCers? They are a spunky group of kids in motion in their neighborhood and the park. They are doing all sorts of lively and interesting activities while learning their ABCs.

ABCers by Carole Lexa Schaefer and illustrated by Pierr Morgan is such a fun ABC book – one which stands out from the crowd not only with the creative use of the letter for the word and activity but also for the kid friendly artwork.

As the kids make a b-line around the park they discover “D is for Dogwalkers, E is for Eek! Squealers” as the dogs greet them. The kids are in constant motion.

Join the fun. It is worth sharing again and again from “ A is for arm linkers to Z is zee end.”



Music and Make Believe (M&Ms)

It's time for Music and Make Believe again! This week the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra String Quartet and Kalamazoo Public Library will collaborate to bring you this special program. Preschoolers will enjoy hearing the story, The Maestro Plays, and completing a craft in the children's room. Then we all go upstairs, where the KSO String Quartet will be waiting to illustrate the story again with music. Kids will love the interaction with the orchestra members and the beautiful music.

We'd love for you to join us at one of the 5 Music and Make Believe sessions this week. Tuesday and Wednesday at 9:30 and 10:30 am at Central. And Thursday at 10:30 am at Eastwood.

Register on our website or call 553-7804 for more information.


The Maestro Plays

Sky Color

When I read the new picture book Sky Color, I was reminded of a fascinating piece from Radiolab called "Why Isn't the Sky Blue?". In different ways, Peter Reynolds' new picture book and the Radiolab program acknowledge that the color concept of a clear blue sky may be largely a social and linguistic construction.

In Sky Color, Marisol has the opportunity to share in painting a mural in her school library. When she can't find the color blue, which she thinks she needs for the sky, she thinks a bit more on how to represent the sky on her mural. That night, she has a dream and realizes she may not need the color blue to present the color of the sky after all.

Sky Color is the third in a series of picture books by Peter H. Reynolds about creativity. The first two titles are The Dot and Ish.


Sky Color


Where Do Those Eureka Moments Come From?

How does creativity work? Moreover, how do we harness creativity, both individually and as a group? These are the questions explored in the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, contributing editor at Wired magazine and author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide.

The book is divided into two parts, “Alone” and “Together,” where Alone uses current brain research to discuss individual creativity, and Together explores history to uncover the roots of societal and group creativity. In Alone, Lehrer distinguishes two types of individual creativity. The first is what I call the “Aha!” creativity. These Eureka moments occur most often when one is not overly-focused, letting one’s mind drift and broaden enough to make subtle connections between seemingly-unrelated points of knowledge. In contrast, the second type of individual creativity is reminiscent of the Thomas Edison’s quote, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” That is, in order to materialize one’s new ideas and Eureka moments, one must maintain enough focus and persistence to carry the concept to completion. While these two creative processes, non-focused and hyper-focused, may inhibit one another, they are complementary ways for an individual's creative ideas to be realized.

In part two, Together, Lehrer discusses how creative outputs of societies and organizations often depend on how they are structured, both physically and socially. For example, the dynamics of cities with high population densities almost force their inhabitants to interact with a diverse range of people and ideas, enabling various forms of thought and action to synergize in new ways. On a smaller scale, companies have gone so far as to design their campus architecture in ways that maximize casual communication and idea sharing among disparate departments. There is even historical evidence to show that groups seeking competitive advantage by hiding their innovations from one another (with non-disclosure agreements, etc.) actually hamper the group's own creative potential in the long run. These are fascinating conclusions for both groups and individuals about how diverse experiences and cooperation are often invaluable for creativity.

In conclusion, I’ve learned a lot about "how creativity works." The main concepts I’ve gleaned from Imagine are: on a personal level, a state of non-focus (almost akin to boredom) allows one to see the big picture and let those “Aha!” moments arise. On the other hand, many incredible works of art, literature, and science have been created by persistent focus and sustained concentration. On a social level, exposure to new ways of doing and thinking—often through unintended or casual collaboration—is the best way to create novel concepts among groups. Imagine helped me understand the creative process and gave me some new ideas of my own.

I note that, in "reading" the audiobook version of Imagine, this is the first audiobook I’ve heard that was narrated by the author themself. Thereby, I have no basis for comparison, but if you’re interested in the audio version of this book, I think that the author does a pretty good job of narrating the stories, conversations, and research throughout.

Publication Issues: Self-Plagiarizing and Quote Fabrication

Imagine—or rather, its author’s reputation—has been marred in the media by the author’s oversight on two critical publishing issues. The first is that Lehrer “self-plagiarized” by virtually cut-and-pasting portions of his magazine articles into the book without citations. Second – and most infamous – is his fabrication of a quote by folk rock legend Bob Dylan. It seems that, in centering the first few chapters of the book on Bob Dylan’s creative process, Lehrer basically conjured up a short but non-existent quote by the artist, perhaps to bring the narrative together. Not a good move.

Jonah Lehrer, as a fairly young but brilliant journalist and author, received ample notoriety and job opportunities prior to finishing Imagine. Did Lehrer simply stretch himself too thin as an impressive new writer? Whatever the case, I strongly think that (omitting the Dylan quote) Imagine is an excellent book that I would strongly recommend to readers interested in the creative mind, the artistic process, and the ways that groups can innovate.


Imagine : how creativity works


Peter McCarty is a Caldecott honoree illustrator; that is, he won an award for his artwork for his picture book: Hondo and Fabian. His most recent picture book is Chloe, featuring a little bunny who has a mother and a father and twenty brothers and sisters; Chloe is in the middle.

One day, Chloe’s dad surprises everyone and brings home a new television set for some family fun. After dinner the family watches a television program. However, watching television is definitely not fun for Chloe who decides that playing with the tv box and bubble wrap packaging is much more entertaining and imaginative. Soon, each of Chloe’s siblings dumps the tv show and joins their sister Chloe. Even mom and dad can’t resist Chloe’s bubble-wrap popping and bigbox playtime!

Peter McCarthy’s calm, ethereal, sometimes comical illustrations are adorable. He’s written several children’s books and the first book that got my attention is Honda and Fabian, a story about a dog and a cat. Baby Steps is based on a month by month chronicle of his daughter Suki’s first year of life with the most beautiful, delicate life-like drawings of a baby.



Young Michelangelo

I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo".  A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork.  I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries.  The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.

Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici.  We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio.  These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums.  The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II.  We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.

The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists.  The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time.  Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio.  Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists.  Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope.  Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.

Spike has done a lot of research to write this book.  I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants.  In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end.  There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael.  The format of the book also seems a bit strange.  The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer.  It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book!  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though.  It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!


Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine


My Teacher

I’m always drawn to picture books illustrated by James Ransome. In September, 1994 Mr. Ransome visited KPL and we found that he was not only a terrific artist but also a warm and engaging man. In the years since then, it’s been interesting to follow his career as a creator of children’s books. The Children’s Book Council has named him one of the 75 authors and illustrators everyone should know.

One of Mr. Ransome’s newest books is My Teacher, a loving look at a special elementary school teacher. This warmly-told story is a nice reminder that back-to-school is coming soon.


My Teacher

Water Sings Blue

What caught my eye was the cover . . . it looks like summer. Mielo So’s watercolor painting of a beach scene promises lovely things inside. Here are the first and last couplets of the poem called “What the Waves Say”:

“Shimmer and run, catch the sun.
Ripple thin, catch the wind.

Roll green, rise and lean—
wake and roar and strike the shore.”

Kate Coombs’ poems are a mix of playfulness and mystery; Water Sings Blue is a lovely collection that is just right for reading aloud with kids.


Water Sings Blue

House Held Up By Trees

Even though the cover of House Held Up By Trees has a melancholy look, the soft and gentle words tell a story that feels like a magical secret . . . an abandoned house that is lifted off its sterile foundation by the trees growing up around it. Poet Ted Kooser and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a quiet and thoughtful picture book that deserves to be seen beyond the walls of the Children’s Room.


House Held Up By Trees

25 Years of Brilliant Essays and Reviews

There are several elements that I feel, that while not required, certainly make for better reading when it comes to essays, reviews and personal reflections. They are: 1.) an energetic prose that flows well and that doesn’t become bogged down in obtuse jargon and esoteric detail 2.) an economy and focus (most pieces should not exceed 7 pages in length) when summarizing a particular subject’s value or importance to either the audience or the writer 3.) a calm passion and genuine curiosity for the subject matter and lastly 4.) an engagement with complex ideas or cultural values by mixing together an element of wit with a fierce and independent intelligence.

Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction prose really hits the spot for me and for those who love writers willing to tackle a multitude of subjects with a fresh perspective, check out his Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Fans of the late cultural critic John Leonard or those who enjoy the inventive observations of Greil Marcus may also enjoy Dyer’s work. Dyer tackles the books of writers like Richard Ford, Don Delillo, Lorrie Moore, and John Cheever along with personal takes on comic strips and life as an only child. He delves into the inner essence of works of art like J.M.W Turner’s painting Figures in a Building, linking its evocative power with that of Tarkovskii's masterpiece, Stalker. Along the way, you’ll learn about the impact of Richard Avedon’s mixing of high art with fashion photography and how Susan Sontag’s fiction pales in comparison to her contributions as a cultural critic. Dyer is never boring even when you may take issue with his opinions. You’ll never end up with just a straight, descriptive review with Dyer. He’s a deft craftsman with a talent for bringing out new readings on old subjects. Highly recommended.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Def Jam Recordings

To recognize the first 25 years of the label, Def Jam Records has released this huge coffee table style book that celebrates the artists and personalities that helped take Def Jam from a scrappy young label that focused on getting the fresh new sound of hip hop on record to a bonafide pop culture icon. With photographs from across the labels first quarter century and essays from its founders, artists, and top executives, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label chronicles all that has made the label what it is today and walks those of us who grew into adulthood alongside Def Jam down a beautifully constructed rap music memory lane.


Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label

Never Forgotten

Leo and Diane Dillon have been illustrating children’s books together for most of their married life. They are icons in the world of children’s books. Patricia McKissack is also revered in the same world. Together, these talented folks have given us Never Forgotten, the story of Musafa, who was taken captive, sent across the sea, and sold into slavery.

Richly illustrated with oil paintings that look like woodcuts, this is lyrical story reminds readers that family is more important than anything and that our ancestors are with us always.

This book won a well-deserved Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year.


Never Forgotten

In Search of Lost Rembrandts and Leonardos

In preparation for a day when I would be spending a lot of time in the car, I took a short visit to the audiobook collection at Central Library.  For me, commutes or road trips become much more enjoyable when I have a good book to listen to.  I gathered up a few titles, including a favorite I have listened to a number of time, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, and headed to the self check-out.  At the last second, one more title caught my eye titled The Art Detective: fakes, frauds, and finds and the search for lost treasures by Philip Mould.  I quickly snatched up the title knowing it was right up my alley and could likely keep me intently listening for hours.

The author, Philip Mould, is an art dealer from London.  He has gained popularity through his dealings over the years and has been an appraiser on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.  He spends much of his time researching and examining paintings that are up for auction all over the world judging their worth by considering their subject, attribution, state of preservation, popularity, and provenance.  His book tells stories from during his career when lost paintings have been identified and forgeries uncovered.  Through art historical research in libraries and archives, and scientific innovations, art connoisseurs are able to learn more about how a work of art originally looked and functioned than ever before.  Mould, his colleagues, and his many friends in the art world painstakingly follow leads and try to trace back a painting's history to determine its' origins.

The six chapters each tell different stories of discoveries - identifications of "sleepers" (works by great masters who have somehow been forgotten or misidentified as belonging to a lesser artist), exposing forgeries of great works, and uncovering the greatness of a masterpiece by removing extensive overpainting or darkened varnish.  A great storyteller, Mould is able to keep your attention easily.  The audiobook is very enjoyable, however, I might recommend the book because it includes before and after restoration pictures of the paintings mentioned in the book.  The pictures of the Rembrandt Self-Portrait depict an especially delightful transformation (note: if you like Rembrandt, you don't want to miss the current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts)!

If you are interested in art history mysteries, you may also enjoy the video titled The Da Vinci Detective about Maurizio Seracini, the director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego.  Seracini has done extensive research on Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi and has been instrumental in leading the search for the possibly lost fresco, The Battle of Anghiari.  Though this search has been halted for a few years, it seems as though research has once again commenced using somewhat more invasive, but also more telling, procedures.  (Hopefully soon, this search for Da Vinci's lost fresco will be forever solved!)  I hope you'll enjoy these stories about the quest for lost art!


The Art Detective: fakes, frauds, and finds and the search for lost treasures

Books Not Just for the Coffee Table

On a recent trip to Chicago, I had the pleasure of visiting both the Art Institute of Chicago (for the first time!) and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Having never been to this venerable depository of some of the most esteemed pieces of art and sculpture, I wanted to do some pre-trip research on the Art Institute’s wonderful collection. Their web site was very helpful at highlighting some of their permanent collection’s genuine treasures but I also supplemented my knowledge by browsing our wonderful collection of art books (located on the second floor). We have several titles directly about the Institute’s collection as well as many biographies and critical monographs covering the lives of individual artists and their works. After several hours of wandering the galleries, I returned to the library’s nonfiction shelves with an even greater appreciation for our diverse assortment of art books and have subsequently jumped into several titles about the artists whose work really struck a chord with me. And if we don’t own the book, there’s always a chance that I may be able to have it sent here via our Melcat Services. It’s a win, win!


Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting


“Stars are everywhere. Not just in the sky. Look . . .” Beginning and ending with looking for stars in the night sky, in between are other times and places to find stars. You can cut out a star and put it in your pocket, you can put it on the end of a wand and hope to see a wish come true, there are stars in dandelions and moss and snowflakes.

In Stars, Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee have created a beautiful, thoughtful, poignant picture book. Even if you don’t have preschoolers in your life, you should take a look at this book.



It is our Nation’s heart and soul

Kadir Nelson is my favorite illustrator and now he has illustrated and written a new book! I especially like his historical portraits. In Heart and Soul he writes about the lives that belong with his expressive faces, some of them fictional and some of them biographical, but all of them speak to me. They tell stories of injustice, unfair laws and the struggles and determination it took to rally against them. 

 Heart and Soul: the Story of America and African Americans is very nicely done in an old storytelling style that says "that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of it's weight in gold. It is our Nation’s heart and soul."


Heart and Soul: the story of America and African Americans

Best American Comics

I typically prefer novels over short stories. I like to sink my teeth into a story and chew on it for a while. However, sometimes I’ll read anthologies of short stories, to get some ideas about new (to me) authors, whose novels I might like to read.

Sometimes I’ll pick up an annual Best American Comics for the same reason -- to be exposed to some new graphic novelists.  Series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden choose a guest editor each year, who picks some 25-30 graphic novel excerpts or comic strips to be included. Some strips are chosen from “online only” comics; some are published in traditional print fashion. Best American Comics 2011, published this fall, was edited by Alison Bechdel, one of my favorite cartoonists.

Check it out, but don’t stop there. If you’re intrigued by a strip, find more works by your favorite artists from among almost 3500 titles held by KPL!


Best American Comics


Pumpkin Eye

Don’t you love the cover of this Halloween book? Denise Fleming’s artwork in all of her books is so rich and vibrant...and this nighttime sky is the perfect background for the pumpkins and creatures.

Pumpkin Eye is a great choice for pre-schoolers: the slightly scary mood balanced by costumed friends and deliciously descriptive words. It’s such a fun Halloween treat!


Pumpkin Eye

A New History of the Papacy

I was turned on to the history of the papacy through my college art history classes.  It is simply impossible to separate the stories of some of the great European artists from the happenings of their contemporary leaders of the Catholic Church.  When I heard about John Julius Norwich’s new book, Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy, I immediately put a hold on it.  Norwich gives us a chronological history of the popes (and antipopes) throughout the two thousand year history of the church, detailing many of their endeavors and challenges such as struggles with secular rulers, church reforms, family scandals, monumental building projects, and much more.  The earliest popes, of whom there remains little information, have rather short sections dedicated to them while some of the most influential popes receive much greater discussion.

When I think about Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, I have a hard time imagining them leading armies of soldiers in order to conquest new regions of Italy as Pope Julius II did, or holding romping parties at the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI did for his daughter Lucrezia.  (Wait, did you catch that…daughter of a pope…that’s not supposed to happen!  For another interesting read though, take a look at Lucrezia Borgia’s biography.)  These two late 15th to early 16th century popes fall in Norwich’s chapter titled The Monsters.  What is evident from the book, though, is that the number of popes who took on this position in hopes of genuinely spreading the Word of Christ and making the world a better place, far outnumbers those who saw it as simply a position of wealth and power.  But this task is not a simple one and the political upheaval that the popes were often involved in could be debilitating.

I appreciate Norwich’s work for its broad coverage of people and events.  In understanding the evolution of the papacy and how it has become what it is today we must first recognize the influence of people outside of Rome such as the emperors of the Byzantine Empire and the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the political climate of places such as 14th century Avignon.  Norwich does not limit his discussion to just those who have been elected to the papacy but also grants discussion to the number of antipopes who have tried to get their hands on the papal tiara over the years and the myth that there was once a female pope named Joan.  Pope Joan, myth tells us, disguised herself as a man and made an illustrious career for herself in Rome before being unanimously voted pope.  Her disguise was apparently given away when she gave birth to a child one day when mounting a horse for a papal procession.  An interesting discussion, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan ever truly existed.  What seems even more unlikely, though, is that she could have given birth to a child while mounting a horse!

All in all, this is a very interesting book.  You can read just the chapters you find most interesting, or you can read the book in its entirety.  The stories of these men (and possibly one woman!) will shed new light on this illustrious position that you are sure to find captivating.


Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy

Up North: a path to freedom

Some men took their families; some left them behind hoping to send for them later. They left for uncertain futures afraid of what they might find. They left the cotton fields, tobacco, corn and beans behind. They left because they heard that there were jobs, nice homes, food for the family and no Klan.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North is a book of poems and short stories that tell about strength, hope and determination that causes people to survive. Eloise Greenfield showed that you can say very little to still say a lot.


The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Ten Years Later -- Remembering 9/11

I was doing my morning stretches and listening to NPR, when the news came on. I remember the feel of that September day—sunny, blue skies, warm with no humidity – just like the weather in New York City. I know whom I called, what we said, what I did the rest of that day. And I remember which books I read over the years, to help me make sense of the event.

We each have our own memories of September 11, 2001. KPL has many books and movies that express individual experiences of that day, fictionalized accounts, analytical perspectives. Here are some to consider, as we commemorate the tenth anniversary: 

Before & After stories from New York. Thomas Beller, editor

(Many authors tell stories of New York City, before and after the attacks. This anthology includes local author Bryan Charles’ moving account of the agonizingly long descent down a Tower staircase, after the attack.)

Reluctant Hero : a 9/11 Survivor Speaks Out about that Unthinkable Day, What he's Learned, How he's Struggled, and What no one should ever Forget ,  by Michael Benfante. 

(Benfante’s experience of the descent included stopping at the 68th floor to offer help to a woman in a wheelchair. He and a co-worker carried her down 68 flights to safety, emerging minutes before the building exploded. The media turned Benfante into an instant hero, but in the years following, he wrestled with private anguish, depression and alcoholism.)

9-11 : Emergency Relief , Chris Pitzer, editor. 

(Several graphic novelists joined together to chronicle their experiences of the day. I didn't own a TV on 9/11, so unlike many others, I didn't view thousands of devastating images of the attacks and their aftermath.  This book made 9-11 'real' for me, somehow.)

Arab in America
El Rassi, Toufic. 

(El Rassi’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel gave an honest account of life in the United States growing up as an Arab-American, post 9/11.)


9-11 : emergency relief


Love Part 11: Dante says Love is a Circle

Like Johnny Cash, Dante thinks love is a ring, a circle, a sphere. He depicts love literally as a circle turning the cosmos, powering the world; it's at the center; love makes the world go 'round:

“The nature of the universe which holds the centre quiet, and moves all the rest around it, begins here as from its starting-point. And this heaven has no otherwhere than the Divine Mind, wherein is kindled the love that revolves it, and the virtue which it rains down. Light and love enclose it with one circle, even as it does the others, and of that cincture He who girds it is the sole Intelligence.” And “On that Point Heaven and all nature are dependent. Look on that circle…its motion is so swift because of the burning love whereby it is spurred.”

And, talking about love and the Virgin Mary:

“And when the brightness and the magnitude of the living star, which up there conquers as it conqured here below, were depicted in both my eyes, from within the mid heavens a torch, formed in a circle in fashion of a crown, descended and engirt her [Virgin Mary], and revolved around her.Whatever melody sounds sweetest here below…would seem a cloud.” “I am Angelic Love, and I circle round the lofty joy which breathes from out the womb which was the hostelry of our Desire…Thus the circling melody sealed itself.”

And at end of his creeping and crawling through hell and heaven, Dante concludes:

“O abundant Grace, whereby I presumed to fix my look through Eternal Light…I saw that in its depth is enclosed, bound up with love in one volume, that which is dispersed in leaves through the universe…that of which I speak is one simple Light” and “the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors” and “my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

The Divine Comedy has been called the “summa in verse,” i.e. Aquinas in epic poetry, for good reason. The actual ideas are not original, but the portrayal--the story, the images, the symbolism--is new. Literature is great for this. Aquinas’s doctrine is oozing at the cracks; but it is filled with Aristotle, and the bible, and Saints, Achilles, and various history political figures—all which makes me really appreciate anew how the history of Western thought is connected even more than I thought. This really is a "great conversation." The Divine Comedy has also been called an encyclopedia, which back then meant “circle of knowledge.” Like an encyclopedia, the narrative was meant to be educational on the topics of science (Aristotle), metaphysics and theology, politics (he was writing it as a political exile, which reminds me of Machiavelli), and ethics. Also, like a circle, the narrative begins at one point, goes through hell-purgatory-heaven, and ends at the same point with a new perspective.

Loving well and loving the right things is an art that requires wisdom; this has come up many times. Love is like wax, says God to Dante in purgatory--"the wax be good," "but not every seal is good although the wax is good." The wax is love, which is naturally perfect. The seal is how we use that love, what we attach it to. But Dante responds that, if love does not come from us, how can we be free? “For if love be offered to us from without, and if the soul go not with other foot, it is not her own [the soul’s] merit if she go strait or crooked.” Are we pulled around by love desires, slaves of passion, as Hume would say? God responds no, there is “free will,” an “innate liberty;” the “virtue that counsels,” which “gathers in and windows good and evil loves”—“in you exists the power to restrain it.”

Remember that for Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus, love was a matter of wisdom and knowledge first and foremost—you have to figure out what to love before you can love. Dante says “for the good, inasmuch as it is good, so soon as it is understood, kindles love.” First comes understanding, then comes love. This is very different from simply having a disposition to love everything, whether good or not. This is a picky and choosy love, one that says “this is good” but “that’s not good.” However, we could wonder, how many times are we wrong about what is good? How many times are we wrong about what we should not love?  And what if our “philosophical arguments” and our “authority” figures (Dantes’ sources) are wrong? How does our love suffer? And how should we correct it now, before it's too late?

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love 
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus 
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas 


The Divine Comedy

Everything Is Its Own Reward

Not everyone was amused when the San Francisco Chronicle began running Paul Madonna’s feature called “All Over Coffee” in early 2004. For those who were looking for the traditional cartoons and comic strips, Madonna’s work was not the least bit funny.

A one hundred and eighty degree departure from the ubiquitous newspaper “funnies,” readers were taken on a pen-and-ink tour of San Francisco’s architectural landscape, mixed with witty and sometimes eccentric bits of integrated text. Clearly some did not get it, but others relished this fresh new approach. By 2007, Madonna’s much heralded work had filled a coffee table book, aptly titled All Over Coffee.


Fast-forward four more years and we’re treated to a second batch of Madonna’s sepia tone and watercolor drawings. Everything Is Its Own Reward captures street corners, lamp posts, back alleys, telephone wires, stark landscapes and random bits of architecture in seemingly suspended animation, as if all forms of animal and human life had vanished. Yet strangely enough the human element is still very much present in his drawings, evidenced by the author’s bits of brief (ok, sometimes long and prophetically rambling) textual commentary.


“Does the smell of the air today
remind you of another time?

Inhale through your nose.
And the next time a day like this comes around
you’ll be transported back to now.”

The video here is from Paul Madonna’s talk at the Booksmith bookstore in San Francisco last month. Madonna talks about his new book and gives insight into his creative process. The visuals are rough but the underlying story is fascinating.

Everything Is Its Own Reward is an interesting and thought-provoking visual journey.


Everything Is Its Own Reward

Brunelleschi's Engineering Marvel

There are many churches in the city of Florence, Italy but the most grand and elaborate of these is Santa Maria del Fiore.  The thing that makes this cathedral so amazing is its’ dome.  As a matter of fact, there are many people that refer to the church as il Duomo, “the dome”.  This church and one of the architects that worked on it are the main subjects of Ross King’s book Brunelleschi's Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore began being built in 1296.  Seventy years later, in 1366, the guild of artists in Florence commissioning this vast structure held a competition for the design of the dome.  It was common for guilds to hold these types of competitions among artists in the Middle Ages.  It may seem irresponsible to us today, but it was also common to commence major building projects before there was a plan for how the entire structure would be built.  This was the instance in 14th century Florence; building had gone on for 70 years without a plan for the dome.  The winner of the 1366 competition for the plan for the dome was named Neri di Fioravanti.  His dome was to be the largest ever built.  Vaulting for the dome (that is the actual start of the dome where the walls begin curving inwards as they are built up) would begin at an unprecedented height of 170 feet, and once completed it would stand almost 300 feet tall.  The dome was to span 143 feet.  If you want to put this in perspective, stand in the center of the rotunda in the lower level of central library and look up towards the prism.  From the lower level to the ceiling of the library it is a height of 87 feet and 4 inches. The dome in Florence is almost three and half times taller!

This plan was venerated and celebrated as building continued for half a century.  But in 1418, the guild was forced to hold another competition.  You see, Fiorvanti’s plan had been accepted but he had never indicated how it was intended to be built.  Another surprising idea for us modern day thinkers…  Most domes in this time period were built with centering.  This was most often wooden scaffolding that would hold up the construction pieces during their placement and while their mortar dried.  It would be impossible, though, to build wooden scaffolding high and sturdy enough for this dome.  Another apparent method of centering was to fill the area of the church underneath were the dome was to be with dirt.  The dome could then be built with the support of the earth beneath it.  Imagine the time and manpower it would take to mound dirt 300 feet high to build the duomo and then having to remove all of that dirt once it was finished!

The person this book is about is the architect who solved this gargantuan problem, Filippo Brunelleschi.  In 1418 he developed a plan of building the dome without centering and became the new master mason of the church building project.  Through war, sickness, and grating Florentine politics the dome was erected over the next 30 years.  It continues to be an architectural marvel today.  One of the neat things about this dome is that it has two shells, an inner and an outer shell.  Today tourists can climb the stairs (which were built and used by the workers as the dome was being constructed) between the two shells all the way to the lantern at the top of the dome for a view of the city of Florence unlike any other.  On the way to the top, you can see and feel the very architectural elements the author of the book explains. 

The Duomo continues to stand as a majestic and magnificent structure in Florence today.  Author Ross King does an excellent job describing the difficulties with building such a vast structure in his book and the ingenious ways Brunelleschi goes about dealing with these issues.  Anyone who may be interested in Renaissance history, art and architecture, or engineering will find this book appealing.  If you are like me, you will also find yourself in awe of the Duomo and the man who built it.


Brunelleschi's Dome

Understanding Comics: There's More to It Than Meets the Eye!

It’s no secret that I’m a self-professed comic book nerd; my interests span from Alan Moore to Warren Ellis to the classic but still thrilling Stan Lee.  Thus, reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was particularly relevant to my interests.  However, even if you only pick up the occasional comic to read, or even if you don’t read comic books at all, this book will have something interesting and important to say to you.

McCloud utilizes the comic book medium, or “sequential art” to create a meta-comic vehicle for his thesis that comics should be accepted among the other mediums of art such as film, television, literature, and theater.  He makes a compelling case not only for accepting comic books as a legitimate medium of art, but also as a form of art that has the potential to be as influential as the television has been for human culture since its earliest inception.  McCloud spends over 200 pages explaining his point, and uses examples reaching back through thousands of years of history to do so.  From the comics created thousands of years ago by early man to the comics influenced by the more sophisticated schools of art such as Impressionism and Expressionism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, McCloud takes the reader on a journey through the rather unknown but nonetheless extensive history of the comic form.  He references everything from art, to literature, to language, and each time lends even more strength to his already compelling thesis.

 I’ve never been more thoroughly fascinated by a book on theory as I have by this book.  McCloud breaks down the comic components piece by piece, showing how they fit together and why each component is important to the medium.   His genius is that he does so while remaining relatable to the average reader with his rhetoric.  While I clearly already have an affinity for the form, I would encourage any reader skeptical of comics as a legitimate art form to pick up this book.  I would also suggest Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art for further reading.


Understanding Comics


I’ve been looking at alphabet and counting books this week, in preparation for a professional development presentation, and I came across one of my favorite ABC books . . . LMNO Peas by Keith Baker. “We are peas—alphabet peas! We work and play in the ABCs.” These peas have the cutest little faces! They are artists, bikers, and campers . . . plumbers, readers, and voters. The illustrations are full of peas doing all kinds of things; there’s plenty of detail for small eyes to see and the letters themselves are large and colorful and create the environment for doing all the things that busy peas need to do.



We Made a Wampa

Fans of Star Wars of all ages will enjoy the projects in The Star Wars Craft Book.  My family tackled our first project last weekend.  wampa-2-160.jpgWe made our very own Washcloth Wampa!  It took most of the afternoon, but was worth it.  Next on our list to make are: Yoda finger puppets, Han Solo in Soaponite, Wookiee Bird House and a Star Wars snow globe.  The directions for each project are easy to follow and simple to create.  Several of the projects use inexpensive items found around your house or your recycling bin.  The book is filled with fun references for the Jedi in all of us.  Check this book out and let yourself “Give in to the Power of the Crafty Side.  May the glue gun be with you.”



The Star Wars Craft Book

An Early 2011 Favorite

One of the first books I’ve read in this new year, might just end up being one of my favorites of the year!

Patti Smith went to New York City in the late 60’s, determined to make art her life. Through a series of almost unlikely events, she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, and they become life-long soul mates, as they eventually both become famous - Patti ultimately in music, Robert in photography.

Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, 2010 National Book Award nonfiction winner, describes the NYC scene in the late 60’s and 70’s; shares tales of the Chelsea Hotel, Scribner’s ,Brentano’s and Strand bookstores; and relationships with many then emerging artists – Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter among others.

Mostly, however, this memoir is a tender love letter to Robert, their deep friendship and her abiding belief in his genius.

I know it is early to declare favorites of the year – it’s only January - but I will say my reading year is off to a wonderful start.


“Just Kids” by Patti Smith

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Dwight is the weird kid, whose 6th grade classmates tolerate him hanging around, is the owner of Origami Yoda. The paper finger puppet, interestingly, offers cryptic advice to any question asked of it.

So should you take advice that comes from Origami Yoda? Visit the Children’s Room to find the answer to that question PLUS instructions for making your own Yoda.


The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Infinitely Fascinating

There are great writers who harbor brilliant minds but whose works of poetry and fiction reside at the margins of my reading interests or framed another way, these sort of books achieve critical success in pushing art and its ideas forward yet fail to capture my willingness and attention, a prerequisite for engaging any kind of complex work of literature, especially when that book is almost 1100 pages long. One can always appreciate from afar the contributions of an artist who expands our intellectual grasp of what it means to be human while not delving into their work with the sort of zeal that a fan would.

I could spend all day reading about David Foster Wallace or watching the few interviews and public readings that are available on the internet. He was a larger than life sort of writer, who sadly passed away in 2008 at the age of 46. He had both his admirers and his critics, as do all great writers who make a cannonball like splash in the publishing world. His most well known and critically lauded work, Infinite Jest (1996), is a magisterial novel that firmly cemented him as a sort of Kurt Cobain of the literature world.

I’ve been reading a new book of interviews that Wallace gave just at the moment that Infinite Jest brought him notoriety. Wallace possessed a dazzling and erudite mind that is captured here as he discusses a wide range of topics. His quick wit, wildly learned analyses and self-deprecating views on his recent celebrity, along with intimate discussions regarding his battle with depression will help the novice reader understand this key writer prior to engaging his novels and essays or will provide his already established fans with greater insights into his life and works. Here is a clip of Wallace talking to Charlie Rose sometime during the late nineties.


Although of course you end up becoming yourself : a road trip with David Foster Wallace

Just Kids

“Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by faith, and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents” (Patti Smith).

Most of us probably recognize Patti Smith as the rock icon who helped pioneer the CBGB’s era New York underground scene of the 1970s that brought us bands like Talking Heads, Television and Sonic Youth. Her 1975 album, Horses, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 50 rock albums of all time.

Still others might recognize her as an activist, artist and poet, who was highly influenced by the works of William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and Jim Morrison. The Velvet Underground influence might seem obvious – John Cale produced her first record – but she says that wasn’t a conscious effort. 

Regardless, her use of words, be they her own or interpretations of others’, is a craft that few others have equaled. Her take on Teen Spirit is quite amazing... if not articulate.

After decades of publishing her poetry in influential works like Babel and Auguries of Innocence, Patti’s latest book, Just Kids: from Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: a life of art and friendship, is her first foray into prose.

Using stark, simple imagery, much as she does in her music, Smith tells of her relationship with Robert Maplethorp, her lifelong friend, lover, and the genius behind the lens in many of her early photographs. (It’s Maplethorp’s image of Patti that adorns the cover of her first album, Horses.) Described as “a beautiful love letter to her friend,” Just Kids tells of their days exploring (or creating) the New York underground scene of the late 60s until Maplethorp’s untimely death in 1989. A worthy and interesting exploration.


Just Kids

Visions of Paradise

I found the National Geographic publication Visions of Paradise while I was shelving a book right next to it.  I was struck by the photograph on the cover and decided to take it home to enjoy with my family.

National Geographic asked its many photographers, "Where - or what - is heaven on earth?"  Visions of Paradise is a compilation of the photos taken to answer this question.  Some have very short descriptions and others have longer explanations of where the photo was taken and why. 

My favorite picture is what appears to be a tree submerged in otherworldly blue-green water on page 166.  The caption explains that it was taken in the Jiuzhaigou Valley in China and that "Jiuzhaigou" means Fairyland. 

My kids loved the brightly colored emperor shrimp crawling on a sea cucumber near the Fiji Islands on page 177.

Check this one out and choose your favorites.


Visions of Paradise

Here Comes Jack Frost

Although April shouldn’t put a reader in mind of frosty winter days, the weather this week has felt more like winter than spring!

One day in early winter a child yearns for a friend and finds a surprising one outside. Jack Frost, with his spiky features and daredevil challenges, is the perfect cold-weather companion. “Never mention anything warm in front of me,” Jack warns. The child, the dog, and Jack play all winter long, until someone spots a snowdrop pushing up through the snow. And, just like that, Jack’s gone for another year.

Take a look at the woodcut illustrations... the colors are crisp and the design clean and simple. Also look at another book by Kazuno Kahara... Ghosts in the House.


Here Comes Jack Frost

Fashion Meets Function

I love modernist furniture and home design. There is just something about the graceful ways in which the masters of modernism brought both functionality together with the ethos of less is more. Modernism, with all of its varying adherents and specific stylistic schools, emerged roughly in Germany (Bauhaus), the Netherlands (De Stijl), the Soviet Union (Constructivism, Futurism), and France (Le Corbusier) around the 1920’s and continued to visually transform the aesthetic landscape of domestic and work environs through the 1950’s. Often referred to as the International Style, modernist designers and architects sought to streamline the process of creating furniture and homes by eliminating decorative elements and ornamentation. There was a direct correlation between the rise in manufacturing technology and the aesthetic ideas posited by many of the movement’s most passionate advocates. Utopian ideas regarding the “good society” and how the arts and crafts could play a vital role in transforming the everyday lives of citizens were often the underlying force behind the revolutionary impulses of many these thinkers.

Even today, modernist design values continue to inspire and sell (see: IKEA). One only needs to look to the popularity of various print publications like Dwell Magazine and Atomic Ranch or scan the online pages of the popular blog Apartment Therapy to see the vestiges of modernist sensibilities and its lasting influence. Southwest Michigan furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller and Cranbrook Academy of Art were important regional leaders in promoting the works of such visionary artists like Ray and Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, and many others. Here is a short list of important designers and key terms.

Ray and Charles Eames

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Walter Gropius

Marcel Breur

Alvar Aalto

Gilbert Rohde

Arne Jacobsen

Richard Neutra

Florence Knoll Bassett

Philip Johnson

The Bauhaus

The International Style


Warman's modernism furniture & accessories : identification and price guide

Two Titans

The world of arts and letters lost two titans today. Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States and the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, who wrote one of the most widely read books about teenage alienation ever written, The Catcher in the Rye. These two seminal works have been enormously influential in shaping the literary and intellectual life of several generations of writers, scholars and students. Find out more about their lives and contributions here:

Howard Zinn

J.D. Salinger


A people's history of the United States : 1492-present

The Camera's Eye

When conjuring images of New York City, most often we think of the Big Apple as an imposing behemoth of concrete and steel, constructed to suit the architecture of commerce and the needs of infrastructure without deference to wilderness. Joel Meyerowitz’s Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks will go a long way as a visual corrective to the idea that New York City’s evolution as a concrete jungle has purged nature entirely from inside of its borders. Legacy is a coffee table sized book with gorgeous and evocative photographs, composed to illustrate the living results of a long-standing commitment by city officials and conservationists to preserve “pockets of wilderness within the urban environs.” Covering all five boroughs, Meyerowitz creates visual moments that present us with a fresh perspective on New York City’s relationship to the struggle and perseverance of the organic world while “contextualizing these corners of nature as an inextricable part of city life today.”

Just as powerful in eliciting both intellectual and emotional responses, Photo:Box is a wonderful collection of iconic images, both color and black and white works, arranged by categories like war, nudes, portraits, travel, cities, and reportage. Both the drama and the banality of everyday life are captured in celluloid time by both contemporary photographers and well documented masters of the craft. Etched into our public consciousness, many of the image makers and photographs are well known (Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin, Lauren Greenfield, Dorthea Lange, Man Ray, Robert Capa) and have been published hundreds of times, yet they still continue to draw our attention to their curious contents, asking of the critical mind to raise questions about the intersection between media, image and reality.


Legacy : the preservation of wilderness in New York City parks


Sweethearts of Rhythm

Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII  is a book with a CD that tells a story seldom heard. Take-Off is a great introduction to swing music and features recordings of some of the all-women swing bands that came into their own during the war. More than half of the tracks on the CD included with the book Take-Off were performed by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sixteen piece band that was integrated at a time when, in many locales in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was actually illegal for black and white musicians to play together. The Sweethearts toured there, but not much. For the most part, they played sold out shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and other cities in the North. In 1945 they traveled to Europe with the USO. 

Check out the book Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, illustrated by 2010 Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney. Marilyn Nelson’s poems speak in the voices of some of the instruments in the band: Tiny Davis’s trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, or bandleader Anna Mae Winburn’s baton reminiscing from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop about struggles and glory gone by. The Sweethearts, and the other swing bands featured in Take-Off, played music based in the blues and filled with driving energy and joy. Why not place a hold on the books right now?


Sweethearths of Rhythm