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Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Book That Explores the Altered Heart

For all of us who do artwork with “repurposed” materials, it is sometimes hard to explain the sticks, stones, bark and bones; the rusty thing-a-jigs and discarded parts and things picked up in parking lots; the packaging and papers and ratty old books and labels and tickets and….well, all of it. Dubbed “packrats” and “magpies,” we excuse our mania in the name of art, but the little tides of guilt as spouses complain of overflow and friends try to reassure themselves that we are just a little bit sane still sweep over us from time to time.

Now here is a book that offers not only forgiveness, but which also commends our ardor and eggs us on:

Art Making – Collections and Obsessions: An Intimate Exploration of the Mixed-Media Work and Collections of 35 Artists, by Lynne Perrella.

Most of us can only aspire to such “collections,” but the ones in this book are bound to inspire new heights of mania in those of us already touched with the “gift” of seeing beauty in discarded things. While the work of every artist will not appeal to everyone, there is such a wide variety of artistic vocabularies, methods, and themes that there is a lot to appeal to anyone. Seeing how others gather and harvest and organize or store their materials is bound to inspire.

Best of all, we find ourselves in very good company. We no longer have to cringe when someone says “but WHY do you have all this stuff?” or “what do you DO with it?” or worst of all, when a spouse inquires, “what are you going to use it for?” Now we simply wave this book at them and shout THIS! THIS!

Feels good.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Will Bradley Kicked off the 20th Century in Style!

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1868, William H. Bradley was already working as a printer by the time he was 12 years old. A man of many talents, he worked as a wood engraver, typographer, publisher, editor, illustrator, poster artist, type designer, book artist, film art supervisor, designer, and he even designed several family homes.

Often compared to Aubrey Beardsley, Bradley developed a style that drew from the Arts & Crafts movement and William Morris, Japanese woodblock prints, and he is often credited with developing and popularizing the Art Nouveau style in America.

He had wide influence as a poster designer, but also did numerous magazines covers for Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, the Inland Printer, and others. He became a consultant to the American Type Founders, designing type faces (among them Wayside Roman, Missal Initials, Bewick Roman, and others) and he also edited and wrote for their The American Chapbook.

In 1915 he went to work for William Randolph Hearst, among other things serving as art supervisor to a series of Hearst-produced films, and subsequently acting as head art supervisor of the Hearst empire of magazines and newspapers.

Much of Bradley’s illustrative work is done in strong black-and-white images, flat tones, and with the fluid and nature-inspired lines of Art Nouveau. His artwork is as much appreciated today (if not more) than it was 100 years ago.

In 1954, the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) awarded Bradley a gold medal, the highest award for a graphic artist. He died in 1962 at the age of 94.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Remarkable Creatures: The Fictionalized Story of Mary Anning

Right before Christmas I was zooming through a new bookstore looking for a particular gift book, and as I passed the end of a gondola my gaze fell on this: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures. The cover is attractive and the title provocative, and when I flipped the book over and read that it was a novel about Mary Anning it went directly into my shopping basket.

What could be better than a novel based on one of the 19th Century’s most significant fossil hunters? Mary Anning was an uneducated working-class woman in a culture where social stature, breeding, and education were part of a severe caste system. All of which mitigated against her receiving the kind of acknowledgement and acclaim that her discoveries deserved. She discovered the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, and other fossils that turned early 19th-Century assumptions inside out. (Not only did she find the fossils, she recognized them as being different from any living creatures, or previously-discovered fossils.) This was an era when the Church of England was still steadfastly sticking to Bishop Ussher’s proclamations that the world was created in 4004 BC. These fossils, and others like them, led British scientists to examine the concepts of evolution and the great geological history of Earth.

A middle-class spinster - Elizabeth Philpot, who was farmed out with two of her sisters to live in Lyme Regis when their brother inherited the family property and married - developed an interest in fish fossils and became Mary’s fossil-hunting partner and her champion to the scientific community. Mary’s talent for discovering specimens in the fossil-rich cliffs and outcroppings along the Lyme Regis beaches drew many scientists and amateurs to her, without attracting the recognition she richly deserved. A number of recent biographies have helped to rectify this lack of acknowledgement.

Chevalier’s novel captures these characters and richly evokes the atmosphere and muted excitement of the fossil beds, and of the town of Lyme Regis. Needless to say this novel would make an interesting movie, as did the author’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.

NOTE: the fossils shown are just a few of my own collection, and not intended to represent Lyme Regis material.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Serendipitous Reading

My “serious” reading is often focused on a topic that intrigues me at a given time – currently I rotate between geology, history of books and reading, cookbooks, and various art and artists. Sometimes I’ll get caught up with a certain author and want to read a string of his or her books – recent candidates have been Simon Winchester, Anthony Bourdain, Anne Tyler, and Bill Bryson.

My “potato chip” reading – the light stuff that I read just before turning out the light for the night – is often from some mystery series and usually depends upon my colleagues supplying me with cartons of mass market paperbacks by certain authors or in certain categories (bibliomysteries being a favorite, of course).

In between is a category difficult to name – usually literary fiction or non-fiction. I guess I would call it “intellectually engaging pleasure reading.” This category is generally filled with books acquired through pure serendipity – inexpensive copies picked up at the flea market or yard sales or however, where the investment of a dollar or two is not going to kill me if I try something new and find I don’t like it. This is often the most fun category, for I find myself reading books that I really love but hadn’t heard about. Because in my business I deal primarily with old and antiquarian books, I don’t keep abreast of best seller lists or even book gossip as I once did when selling new books.

What is somewhat odd about this process, though, is that sometimes these books coalesce around certain subjects, be they fiction or non-fiction, and quite often their relationship is not apparent from their titles or obvious subject matter when I pick them up. A few years ago a number of my “serendipity” reads turned out to relate, in one way or another, to the American Civil War. Not to the battles and warfare itself, but to some of the issues that led to, fed, and resulted from that conflict. So books such as The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley; John Bailey’s The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans; a biography of Fred Harvey, and a couple of other random picks at the time surprised me by reflecting some Civil War issues between them.

Of course, if books are published within a short time-span you can understand some similarities – author imaginations are stirred, editorial departments are alert to, reader interest is fueled by, whatever issues are in general discussion or investigation at the time.

So it may not be surprising that several of my recent reads by European authors reflect upon the Second World War and subsequent Cold War years – again, not in terms of warfare and battles but more about the human factor and how lives were affected by these events. So consider these brief reviews:

Markus Zusak: The Book Thief. I had no idea what to expect when I snatched up this one to include in some purchases and bring home, but I was very pleased with it. The protagonist (book thief) is a young girl who is fostered by a couple in a town on the outskirts of Munich during WWII. Although illiterate, Lisle Meminger has arrived with a copy of The Grave Digger’s Handbook that she discovered in the snow where her younger brother, who died on the train trip to their new home, was being buried. Her foster father, a likeable accordion player and professional house painter, undertakes to teach Lisle to read, using the Handbook as her first reader. She subsequently steals a book off a Nazi burn pile, and from the library of the town mayor. The life of her adoptive family is complicated when they hide a Jew in the basement where Lisle has taken her reading lessons. Written in a clear prose style that still sometimes borders on poetry, the most surprising element in this book is the narrator. Zusak is an Australian author whose German mother stimulated his interest in this topic with stories from her personal history.

Jim Powell: The Breaking of Eggs. A debut novel by this British author, this one concerns Feliks Zhukovski, a Polish Jew expatriate who took refuge in Paris during the days of Communist idealism. There he has supported himself by publishing a frequently-revised travel guide to Eastern European countries, and has managed somewhat spectacularly to avoid his own history, his family, and change of all sorts. Sometimes this oblivion is quite amusing, in a similar vein to Anne Tyler’s obtuse travel guide writer in The Accidental Tourist.

Of course, by 1991 when the story takes place, the Berlin Wall is gone and Communism has collapsed. Now in his sixties, Feliks is suddenly forced to confront a half-century of personal history. Along the way he finds a long-lost brother and his family, the real story of what happened to his mother, his own unsuspected legacy, and the fact that his idealism obfuscated truth and reality. It is, in a sense, a “coming of age” novel of the second coming – the elderhood that sums up our lives. Feliks not only survives this exposure, he emerges victorious and a good deal more cosmopolitan.

Per Petterson: Out Stealing Horses. This novel takes us to a Norwegian riverside cabin with Trond Sander, a sixty-seven year old man who has retired to reflect on his life and perhaps to test himself in this rustic environment where he must learn to fend for himself, often using skills that his father taught him when he was still a teenager. A novel that unfolds in the mind of the protagonist, part of this story is set in the period of World War II where Trond’s father was clearly a member of the resistance, helping to smuggle political prisoners out of the country; and part is in his present, where shadows of the past become solid flesh and blood. There is a good deal of understated passion in this book, and a certain unsentimental poetry. It’s the kind of story you feel in your bones. And, of course, like the last one it’s a late-life “coming of age” story.

Another synchronicity, and I have to wonder if these books appealed because the characters are similar in age to myself.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

White-Washing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – Should They Kill the Nigger Word?

News that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (combined) will substitute the word “slave” for “nigger” has raised a ballyhoo of controversy among scholars, educators, booksellers, and others interested in these iconic American novels.

In fact, Huckleberry Finn is the nation’s fourth-most-banned book. It has been censored for a wide variety of reasons, from atheism and antisouthernism to obscenity and lack of morals and manners. The current thinking is that the term, “nigger,” makes people too uncomfortable, and that it would be more acceptable for reading in schools if it is changed.

Let's think about the context of the book. Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn as a protest, not only against slavery but against the social attitudes that accepted it, and all of the perceptions of blacks that regarded them as less than human beings. This book is NOT just a boy's adventure story. It's more than a coming-of-age. It's a coming-of-conscience story. In the end, Huck has to choose between what is "right" legally, and what is "right" according to his conscience and newly-developed moral integrity.

If the book is properly taught, that is the message that students should be reading for. That message is much more strongly carried by using the offensive language that was none-the-less standard for the time, and that carried all of those social implications of blacks, and especially slaves, being subhuman creatures. Huck is surrounded by abusers, hucksters, rascals, thieves, scallywags of all sorts. The one true and honest friend he has is Jim. Does he allow Jim to be tried and hanged for murder, or does he - knowing the truth and that it will not be accepted by society - rescue Jim and break the law?

I admit that reading it as a teenager I was very uncomfortable with the language, since none of this was explained. I figured it out on my own, but I'm guessing that most of today's students, who no longer are exposed to some of those attitudes and prejudices that still lingered in society in my youth, would understand the protest aspect of it.

We older white folks took a great deal of the African-American experience in mid-20th-Century America for granted, even if we did not subscribe to the prejudices of the times. Growing up in a city with a large black population, I just accepted that the jobs that they filled - railroad porters, stevedores, shoeshine men, elevator operators, maids, cooks, etc. was the natural way of things. Only later did I learn that many of those people (including some who relocated during WWII for jobs in the shipyards) were professionals in many fields who could not find work in their occupations. I didn't really think about how difficult it was, for example, for African-American entertainers to find lodging in the places they traveled to for performances (or restaurants or bars to serve them), or for a black family to travel across the country by car and find accommodations and meals and garages and other services along the way. A recent article in the Ephemera Journal about the Negro Motorist Green Book - a guide that served the black community for many years - described that situation in a way that made my heart ache.

I have lived through eras in which the referencing terms changed, from "nigger' (always deprecating in my experience) to the more "correct" "Negro," which was replaced by "colored" in some areas or used more informally, to today's African-American. What has been important has not been the changing of terminology. What matters is that social perceptions have changed. Early television programs perpetuated some of those perceptions, only gradually breaking them down as African-Americans were portrayed in occupations and social situations on an equal plane with their white neighbors.

One of my favorite lines in a TV show ever was in an initial episode (the first, I think) of "Julia," in which Diahann Carroll had been looking for a nursing job, to no avail. She finally calls one last ad - to the doctor played by Lloyd Nolan who needs someone right away and indicates that she is hired. She tells him that there is just one thing....she's colored (the reason she has been turned down so many times previously) and he responds in typical curmudgeonly fashion, "Well, what color are you?" In fact, Julia was the first TV show to feature an African-American woman as something other than a domestic servant, and it became so popular that there was a Julia Barbie doll and various other themed products such as children’s lunch boxes, coloring books and paper dolls and more.

That show did a lot to break down some of the stereotyped perceptions of the era (it ran from 1968-1971). The fact that Julia was the widow of a pilot shot down in Vietnam helped to make it palatable – not to mention that Carroll was an incredibly beautiful woman and talented actress. While some decried the role as “white negro,” Julia went a long way to portray a black woman living a “normal” life but having to overcome many kinds of prejudice and bigotry that still lingered. White Americans became a little more aware of the inequities and premises that previously had existed unnoticed, they were so ingrained in the culture. One other insightful scene in the show that I remember – the young son, Corey, comes home and tells his mother that his friend called him a “name.” Of course Julia immediately is certain that the term used was “nigger,” but as it turns out, it was a word that referred to Corey’s weight (he was on the pudgy side).

Which brings us back to Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, the slave Jim and the term “nigger.” Does it belong in the book? Would it be a better book without it, or would it lose a great deal of its purpose and meaning? Should that purpose and meaning be retained as part of our history and social conscience, or should it now be buried in favor of making an iconic piece of American literature less controversial?

In 2002, Oregon residents were asked to vote for or against removing some “obsolete” material from the State Constitution. This Constitution was written in 1857 and Oregon became a state in 1859, but nearly failed in its bid for statehood because of what has been called the “Negro exclusion act.” This was a complicated matter, put to the citizens who were voting to adapt the Constitution, and with two articles (one dealing with whether or not slaves should be allowed in the new State, the other whether or not suffrage should be allowed to free negroes.) People were uncomfortable that these issues were in the original Constitution, and voted to expunge it. I felt strongly that it should be left – it was a piece of our history and for better or worse, it reflected some of the social issues that were prevalent at the time Oregon became a state. How can we understand our present if our history is cleaned and polished to reflect a later period in time?

So I guess I’m also against changing the terms that Twain very carefully used in his books, for these very reasons of historocity and social implication.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Marianne Macdonald’s Dido Hoare Bibliomysteries

So far I have read the first three books in this series:
Death’s Autograph
Ghost Walk
Smoke Screen

London antiquarian bookseller Dido Hoare is a bit different from the usual “cozy” bibliomystery heroine. Sharp, modern, independent, she likes a good drink, a good roll in the hay with the right man (at one that seems right at the moment) and not long into the series finds herself a single mom with a son by her ex-husband (who is killed before the child is born). In addition, she worries about her father Barnabas, a retired academic (and one-time member of Signal Intelligence) with a strong interest in Dido’s business (both personal and professional) who has previously suffered a heart attack but seems no worse for wear.

Dido, of course, consistently refuses to turn mysterious issues over the police and to stay out of obviously dangerous situations. In fact, her involvement in each of these cases seems inescapable at the outset, a refreshing change from contrived mystery plots. While Barnabas expresses dismay at her antics, he often brings his insights, as well as his professional associations, to bear on the cases that Dido falls into.

For backup, there is babysitter Phyllis who takes baby Ben off Dido’s hands when she’s busy getting herself embroiled in yet another misadventure, and Ernie, a burly young black student from Sierra Leone who is a computer whiz, setting up Dido’s catalogs and insisting that she sell books online. (Ernie also cheerfully offers himself as a bodyguard when the occasion calls for some brawn.)

There is, as well, the obligatory book dealer’s cat, Mr. Spock – who so far does little in the series besides providing the opportunity for a joke about naming him because “his ears are pointed.”

Macdonald makes a good effort to understand the ins and outs of used and antiquarian book buying and selling, the peculiarities of book dealers, and the range of interests (and the oddities) of a bookshop’s customers.

Additional books in the series:
Road Kill
Blood Lies
Die Once
Faking it

Monday, January 3, 2011


Christmas morning, 2010. I of course spent a good deal of time in the kitchen, preparing food. I watched out the window, remembering so many similar Christmas mornings when children would start tumbling out into the street, trying out new bikes or skates or scooters or showing off new sports equipment, or just running to tell each other about their gifts.
This year there was not one child. Presumably they were indoors enjoying their wii’s and x-boxes or whatever it is that they do these days. The day outside remained cold, gray, caliginous, and devoid of childish laughter and excitement. I found I missed that.

I remembered some other traditions fondly. Like saving wrapping paper. You really can’t save much these days – the stuff breaks and tears even when you’re trying to use it the first time. But the old stuff held up well – sparse use of tape and careful unwrapping kept it intact. Smoothed out and stored it could be reused year after year. Some favorite pieces were passed around so much that they grew thin and rather limp. As a child, I was always thrilled when one of my favorites came back. I still remember one sheet with an image of reindeer on it – it grew smaller and thinner as years went by but I was always pleased when it came back to me. (As it often did, since I was a child isolated between two generations.)

I got to thinking about other things that have changed….not especially for the better, or worse, just different. Such as wearing a sweater around the house in winter. I don’t see that many cardigans in clothing stores these days – but then, I don’t really shop for clothing much so I could be missing their season. But there was a time when having a sweater (or a few, because they were popular gifts) for winter housewear was just standard. We didn’t expect homes to be heated to tee-shirt temperatures in winter. Socks and sweaters go a long way to keep a body comfortable when the environment is chilly around the edges.

I miss letters – real, physical, stamp it lick it stick it in the mail letters. I miss glass bottles of Coke and Orange Nehi pulled from a cooler with bits of ice and water running down their sides, and milkshakes served in big metal mixing containers with a soda fountain glass to pour into. I miss gas stations where attendants raced to clean your windshield, check your oil and water (and sometimes tire pressure), and handed you a free road map if you needed one.
I miss courtesy – holding open a door for an elder or someone with an armload of packages. Stepping into single file on a sidewalk to let others pass. Making way for other shoppers in the grocery store (these days the aisles are often clogged with people who have stopped to natter on their cell phones while leaning on their shopping carts). Thank you notes.

For some reason now I’m craving a cup of cocoa. I never crave hot chocolate but I seem to be having a nostalgia attack.

If only there were some snow, I’d go make a snowman and then come in for the cocoa. And Campbell’s chicken soup. Well, doesn’t that take you back to childhood! Red mittens – for some reason I feel a need for red mittens……

Saturday, January 1, 2011

HAPPY NEW YEAR! See it in Postcards!

Over the years many images have been used to convey the turning of the calendar year. Calendars, clocks, myths and legends, fables and superstitions have produced a wide variety of imagery. One of my favorites is “Father Time.” My children used to put their shoes outside their rooms on New Year’s Eve in hopes that Father Time would fill them with small treats and coins. (He never failed.) Sometimes the connection between image and holiday are oblique, or lost, or just spring from an inventive imagination.

In the years of the “postcard craze many greetings were sent on a postal card. In the early years they mailed for one cent and the colorful cards were eagerly exchanged and collected. Here are a few to indicate some of the range of iconography, with my good wishes for a healthy, happy, peaceful, and prosperous 2011. (Now where did all that time go?)

And yup, I see that one image reversed on me - well, you get the idea anyway.