Tag Archives: art

By the Book

I am the kind of person who likes to do things by the book. At least at first. Tell me the rules, tell me exactly how to do it. Later, I’ll bend or break the rules and make my own way. But first, I like to know what I’m supposed to be doing.

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I began knitting when I was nine or so. My mother sat down with me and Steve, who is a year older than me. She taught us the basic knit stitch, which is all she knew. Steve and I made row after row of stitches.

I don’t know what Steve thought of this new hobby. I imagine he stopped after being teased about it. There is no end to the things children will be teased for, and boys who knit must be pretty high up.

But I loved the orderly rows, and the sense that I was making something. My fingers were stitching together something you could see and touch. Something beautiful that would last.

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When I ran out of yarn, I abandoned the hobby. Then, in college, I was paired with a roommate who was awful but who nonetheless reminded me of my old pastime. I took it up again.

When I grew tired of the knit stitch, I watched a video on YouTube that taught me to purl, too.

Now I knit and purl and knit and purl to my little heart’s content.

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Yet there is always the niggling fear that I’m doing it wrong.

First, there was the awful college roommate, who laughed at the way I held my yarn. That’s how I learned my mother had taught me the continental stitch, as opposed to, I dunno, the transatlantic stitch. (I know there’s a name for it, but I don’t care enough to look it up.) I hold yarn in the left rather than right hand. I couldn’t unlearn it, even though I tried. It seemed so wrong.

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Now I know it doesn’t matter. No matter how you hold it, the stitches still come out row after row. But back then, I was intimidated by all I didn’t know. So I stopped knitting again for a few years. I definitely don’t remember knitting again in college.

College was really hard. I mean, I know it was hard for everyone, but for me it seemed like a unique and exacting punishment. Punishment for what? I suppose I thought it was for wanting more. More than I deserved. For believing someone like me could become someone else, through the simple alchemy of learning. Someone better.

I’ve devised my own system for tracking stitches. I’m very proud of it. If one day I find that I’ve absorbed this by osmosis–if I discover that every other knitter does this too, and I picked it up without realizing it–I will be sad. This is my one original contribution to knitting, or so it seems.

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And that roommate. She really was awful. She never missed the opportunity to tell me I was white trash, that I didn’t belong at that school and never would.

I imagine at some point I began to believe her, because the evidence was everywhere. I worked late at odd jobs while everyone else partied. I ate macaroni (no cheese) for a week straight while my friends took Daddy’s credit card to the mall. I was miserable, and so I decided that I needed to push harder, learn more. I was pot committed. All in.

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One day, when I got tired of the color I was using, I decided to switch to another. This time, I didn’t have access to the internet, so I devised my own system for stitching colors together. When one row neared the end, I cut the yarn I was using and tied it to another color. Then I kept knitting, tucking the little knot inside the next row.

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Is this how everyone else does it? I still don’t know.

The drawback to this method, as I see it, is the line of colors that mix together. It’s only on the purled side, never on the knitted side. It drives me crazy; it’s so messy, asymmetrical. It taunts me. But I have no idea how to fix it.

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My siblings were never much for school. It was too limiting, too imposed-from-without, too authoritarian. They were confident they knew everything they needed. What they would need to learn, they all seemed to feel by some instinct, they could not learn in a classroom.

But I put all of my faith in education. It was my way up and out, my ticket to a new life. A better self. If I just worked hard enough, learned enough, I could become someone else.

Another thing that bothers me is the roll. This doesn’t always happen, but it happens enough to annoy me. The sides of a piece will roll inward. Is it because I am pulling too hard on the stitches? Not hard enough? I can’t figure it out. It seems to depend on the kind of yarn I’m using.

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I will use an iron to smooth out these rough edges, but it makes me feel like a cheater. I wonder what will happen if other crafters see the shortcuts I take, the imperfections of my amateur work. Will they see these pictures and laugh at me? “That’s such a simple mistake, everyone knows how to fix that!” You see how deep these insecurities run.

Is there a YouTube tutorial that would cure me of my self-learned ways? A book I should be reading? Maybe. Probably.

Yet I don’t seek them out. I’ve come to take a perverse pleasure in these imperfections. There is something very freeing, I have learned, about going your own way. Making your own mistakes, and finding your own epiphanies. Yeah, I know. Everyone else already knew that; I am, as usual, late to the party. But at least I’m here, right?

The thing is, I was wrong. Yeah, my education helped me into a different life. I went to a good school, and a good grad school, and I got a job that I never would have dreamed of before.

But knowledge didn’t change me.

I’m still the same girl. Still scared that you will look closely enough at me and see that I am faking it. When you examine my seams, you will see that I have no idea how to hold this life together. That I have no idea what I’m doing. Scared that you will find reasons to mock the beautiful things that I am trying to make with my own hands.

A few days ago, a friend came over for dinner. She stood by the coffee table and reached out to touch this scarf, my current work in progress. She ran a finger down the mixed line, that blending of colors that so maddens me. I winced and waited for her judgment: “How… interesting,” I expected her to say.

“This is so cool,” she said. “How did you get it to do this?”

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“The Printmaker’s Daughter” by Katherine Govier

Title: The Printmaker’s Daughter
Author: Katherine Govier
ISBN: 9780062000361
Pages: 512
Release date: November 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Historical fiction
Format: ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours/Netgalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

Oei is a painter in her father’s studio, his oldest and most faithful disciple. Her father, Hokusai, is a famed artist throughout Edo, and his influence is reaching other parts of Japan as well. Despite the shogun’s censorship of art and free speech, Hokusai’s work only grows in popularity, and he even sells his art to the Dutch traders who are allowed limited engagement with Japan.

From the day she was born, her mother—Hokusai’s second wife—gave Oei up to her father, and the two became a pair. As Oei grows older, she becomes more and more like her father, and as the old man’s fame increases, he depends upon her steady hand and eye for vibrant color—though he rarely acknowledges their symbiotic relationship. The charismatic Hokusai claims Oei’s talent as his own even as it begins to take on its own life and outshine the old man’s famous style, and Oei submits to him out of duty.

Hokusai is eccentric, to say the least:

Myoken [the north star] was his master. His master said he need not eat when others ate. He need not sleep when they slept. He need not paint what other people wanted. He must paint what he was driven to paint. He must not perform the act of creation strictly for money, or for our convenience. He must dance to the master’s tune.

After his second wife dies and he is gripped by palsy, Hokusai depends upon Oei to support him. “Suddenly he was all I had, and I was all he had,” she says. Her support of him is physical, emotional, and artistic, and it leaves Oei no time to branch out on her own. Such independence would be a betrayal. Hokusai’s life improbably stretches twice the length of the average Japanese man of his times, but after the old man’s eventual death, Oei is offered a chance to claim her many works under Hokusai’s name. Will she leap at the chance for greatness, or will she continue on as a ghost brush?

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the unstoppable influx of foreigners into a closed Japan. As Oei ages and becomes more and more independent, the world seems to be opening up to her. “My old life and its people were becoming relics,” she comments. “A new world was advancing on us.”

The author explains in the afterword that she first became interested on Oei—“the ghost brush”—after seeing an exhibition of Hokusai’s many works in D.C.’s Freer Gallery of Art. Comparing his works side by side, it becomes apparent, she writes, that the painter known as Hokusai could not have done this alone. Especially not the final painting, said to have been completed in his eighty-ninth year, with fine details and a total departure from the old man’s style.

She writes, “I knew then that no matter how difficult it would be for an amateur and a non-speaker of Japanese to crack this world, I would write the story.” Employing short, staccato sentences for much of the book, Govier explores what Oei’s life might have been like. Govier appears to have done her research into the fascinating theory that there were two artists painting under the seal and signature of Hokusai.

But a theory a story does not make. I need conflict, I need shape, I need to feel that this is story and it is going somewhere. Instead, we see a woman’s life stretch and meander over six decades as she grapples with her and her father’s identities as artists. That’s a cool idea, but where is the rising action, the climax? I feel like a high-school literature teacher asking that, but the fact is that this book has little narrative shape. Without a sharp direction toward climax, there is little conflict and tension in Oei’s story. Such rising action—the hurtling toward a crash—builds tension. It makes you want to read more—which would be helpful for this book, because it spans 500 pages.

Anything would have spiced up the narrative. Will Oei confront her father and either strike out on her own or learn to submit to him? Will the arrival of the foreigners in Japan’s ports set her free or hold her prisoner with their trade? Will her dalliances with married men come back to haunt her when she is old and lonely? Will she confess a long-nurtured love for Shino, a noble courtesan who inexplicably adores Hokusai? Any of these questions would have made the book more interesting, and though you may find them in the book if you look hard enough, the force of their clash is muted down to a whisper. (OK, maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch… but it certainly would have been an interesting development!)

Without conflict, without that certain sense of something about to happen, there can be no true tension. Any tension feels fabricated, false, unsupported. The only tension I could find was Oei’s struggle to find herself and to be true to that self. That’s a nice theme, but you can’t tell a story about themes.

The best part about the book is the end. That sounds cheeky, but it’s true. At the end, Oei’s life as a painter and, therefore, a kind of historian/storyteller culminates in the ultimate ghost story: the story of the ghost painter, the woman who was hidden from history but whose art lives on. A great idea, but one that could have been refined and shaped into a more compact and powerful story.

Quote of Note:

I will remember this forever, I thought. I had no idea what forever would be. I did not know what my life would be, but standing there behind my father as he danced with the waves, I knew that I would always watch him tumble, would always think the ground underneath me tumbled just as the waves did. I would never trust that solid ground.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

November 25: nomadreader
November 28: Raging Bibliomania
November 29: A Few More Pages
November 30: Life In Review
December 6: Life in the Thumb
December 7: The Lit Witch
December 8: Unabridged Chick
December 9: Amused By Books
December 12: Iwriteinbooks’s blog
December 13: A Bookish Way of Life
December 14: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
TBD: Books Like Breathing

“The Conference of the Birds” by Peter Sís

Title: The Conference of the Birds
Author: Peter Sís
ISBN: 9781594203060
Pages: 160
Release date: October 27, 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: Graphic novel, poetry
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Click on any of the images to see a larger version!

Based on and taking its name from the classic twelfth-century Sufi epic poem, The Conference of the Birds is a sweeping, simple story, an abbreviated yet epic tale. In this powerful adaptation, Peter Sís explores pain, faith, love, and the meaning of life, and he does so simply and beautifully.

All of the birds in the world unite under a particularly persuasive hoopoe, who leads them to the mountain of Kaf to find their true king, Simorgh. Along the way, they pass through the valleys of quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement, and death.

Not all of the birds survive the trip. The ones who are left are bound irrevocably to one another, and they discover that they are Simorgh, and Simorgh is each of them.

Peter Sís is a remarkable illustrator. I found myself wondering if I could get away with pulling just a few of the pages from the book to frame on the wall. Evocative and imaginative, his gorgeous illustrations are complex and detailed.

Though his illustrations shine in the book, Sís’s prose is mystical and lyrical. He manages to boil a 4,500-line epic poem down into simple, if enigmatic, language, and the sparse words allow the images of the birds and the valleys through which they travel to be the main focus of the book.

Sís both interprets the gist of an ancient poem and creates new art with stark language and complex illustrations.

This book would make a beautiful gift–it even feels expensive, somehow; perhaps that is because of the rich paper stock on which the images are printed.

Though it does not seem explicitly geared toward children, it is a timeless and ageless tale that anyone would enjoy.

Interested? Check out more pictures of the book below, and see what other reviewers on the tour have been saying!

November 1: Bibliophiliac
November 2: Book Snob
November 7: Sarah Reads Too Much
November 8: Library Queue
November 9: Savvy Verse & Wit
November 10: Col Reads
November 15: Wordsmithonia
November 16: Hungry Like the Woolf
November 21: Unabridged Chick
November 22: Seven Impossible Things
November 28: Alexandra Boiger
November 29: Abigail Halpin
December 14: Layers of Thought

Top Ten Book Covers (and Titles)

I am a firm believer that you can–and should–judge a book by its cover, as well as its title. After working for a book publisher and now as a book reviewer, I have come to the realization that the time spent perfecting a book’s title and cover art is usually a pretty good indication of how successful the publisher thinks it will be.

If they take the time to think about reactions from their intended audience and implement them in the design and promotion of a book, it usually means that they believe the book will do very well. It also often means that the book has clear themes and subjects that translate into attractive titles and covers.

10. The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
The whimsical art on this book contrasts nicely with a darkly intriguing title, setting up the expectation of a book that handles positive and negative elements of a story well–a promise that was delivered in full.

9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The bleak scenes and sometimes harsh, sometimes lyrical prose within the book are echoed perfectly in the stark simplicity of this book’s title and design.

8. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
What a fantastic title! There’s something that tugs at me every time I read it. And the cover design does not try to compete with the beauty of the title, though its Post-it-bright colors are an eye-catchingly novel idea.

7. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
More than the title, I loved this cover. The chaos of the different guns arrayed across the dustjacket is offset by their orderly rows. One can’t help but wonder if living safely in a sci-fi universe requires rows of Day-Glo handguns.

6. Coraline by Neil Gaiman
This is the kind of book that you move from side to side for far too long, watching the light illuminate and then hide the shadows of hands grasping for the main character. A fantastic glimpse of what is to come for our heroine!

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Between the entrancing title and the creative cut-out cover art, I was hooked by this book. The title reflects the speech and tone of the rest of the book, while the unusual cover alludes to the black-and-white, cut-and-dried worldview of the main character, Christopher John Francis Boone.

4. The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller
It’s likely that I would’ve bought this book for its clear guidance and unsurpassed wisdom, but such a creative cover sealed the deal. It looks so much like a well-handled (and well-loved) manuscript!

3. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
I simply could not get over the title of this book. It is so sweet, so telling about what kinds of daring, unorthodox animals Sedaris will invent within the pages of this slim book.

2. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
The eerie, mystical feeling that this book imparts–the way the bare branches intertwine like bony fingers to form the letters of the title–I love it! The hauntingly beautiful cover makes up for the fact that I can never say “Her Fearful Symmetry” without stuttering. (But nothing can offset the terrible story itself; this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.)

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The paperback’s frenetically colorful, startlingly multidimensional cover is a wonderful indication of the well-developed and fascinating characters of Egan’s book. Not to mention the attraction of the heaps of awards and praise that decorate the outside and inside covers!

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde
ISBN: 9780199535989
Pages: 229
Release date: June 20, 1890 (the expanded version was published by Ward, Lock, and Company in April 1891)
Publisher: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
Genre: Classical fiction
Formats: Audiobook/e-book
Sources: Lit2Go/Project Gutenberg
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Basil Hallward, an artist, is in love with his latest painting–and his subject, Dorian Gray. In fact, Hallward firmly believes that Gray’s indisputable beauty and charm have taken his art to an entirely new level, to the point that all who gaze upon his image are compelled to fall in love.

Hallward’s theory seems to hold up against the first viewing of the painting by his friend, Lord Henry Wotton. But in this case, Wotton’s interest in Dorian Gray is returned by the young man, who delights in the lord’s cynical hedonism.

Lord Henry is bursting with delightful aphorisms, like “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” and “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating–people who know absolutely everything and people who know absolutely nothing.”

Dorian takes to heart Henry’s suggestion that life is only worth living for beauty and sensory satisfaction, and, as he faces the portrait of himself in full bloom of youth and grace, he wishes the portrait would age rather than himself. He even decides he would trade his soul for it–what does a pretty man need a soul for, anyway?

Dorian clearly never heard the phrase “Be careful what you wish for.” As he descends into ever more unmentionable (and mostly unmentioned) sins, his countenance never changes. His portrait, on the other hand, becomes one of a hideously evil man. The more debauched his actions, the more disfigured his painted image becomes.

Dorian, for some reason, decides it’s not ready for primetime and hides the painting in a locked room of his house, only looking at it after his worst acts with a kind of brutal curiosity–like a kid poking a dead cat.

He becomes a man reviled in even the most disgusting and horrifying places, but his enduring good looks and charm keep him from being discovered for years. Sooner or later, though, debauchery catches up with everyone, and Dorian’s very visible secret can’t stay hidden forever.

In his only published novel, Wilde combines two themes seemingly at odds with each other–Victorian morality and magical realism–to great effect. Classical themes abound in the book. GLBTQ, an online encyclopedia of queer literature, observes that

Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890) pivots on a gothic plot device by which a narcissistic young man makes a Faustian bargain to preserve his youthful beauty.

Moreover, it was refreshing to detect clear homosexual themes in a Victorian novel without enduring endless moralizing. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a seminal work of queer literature.

Wilde’s elaborately wrought prose was difficult to get into as a book; its opulent and flowery opening–as well as passages interspersed with fantastic but sometimes overwrought descriptions–was a bit of a tough sell to my undergraduate self. However, the passion of the one of the audiobook narrators brought the story to life, and I highly recommend the audiobook.

“The Irresistible Henry House” by Lisa Grunwald

Title: The Irresistible Henry House
Author: Lisa Grunwald
ISBN: 9780812973228
Pages: 448
Release date: March 16, 2010 (hardcover); August 16, 2011 (paperback)
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC (of paperback edition)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

A cross between: “Mad Men” and “What Women Want”
Theme song: “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles
Controversial role model: Walt Disney
For something similar but different, try: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Henry House is the practice baby everyone falls in love with.

There have been and will be other babies, orphans who stay in the Wilton College Home Economics course for two years each to teach young women how to care for children. The practice house is “a testament to the belief that women could replace the mysteries of child rearing with mastery.”

But to all who meet him, Henry House seems different—even to Martha Gaines, the strict director of the home ec program and the resident and caretaker of the practice house where the babies have come and gone for years. So Martha makes an unprecedented move; she adopts Henry and raises him in the practice house.

As Henry grows up surrounded by young, affectionate women in a model home, he strives to make an impression on all of the people who enter and leave his life with the cyclical regularity of a college campus. Early on, he acquires a “primal skill in discerning women’s longings and fitting himself, puzzle-piece-like, into the rounded clutch of those needs.”

While he charms and entertains, however, Henry finds deeper feelings more difficult. He never becomes attached to one woman over any of the others, not even Martha. Throughout his childhood and into adulthood, Henry thoughtlessly plays with the emotions of the girls and women so clearly taken with him.

Henry finds some success as an artist, first in Disney’s California and then in The Beatles’ London. However, he is held back by his utter lack of creativity. He is a copier, an imitator—never a creator. Creation itself would be a choice, and “choosing things, he knew, had been the challenge of his life. Choosing a woman, choosing a[n artistic] style. They weren’t really that different.”

Despite his complex feelings for Betty, his natural mother; Mary Jane, his lifelong friend; Martha, his adoptive mother; and Peace, another practice baby whom Henry believes he loves, Henry in fact seems incapable of caring for anyone but himself.

The home ec program seems to rob him—and other practice babies, like Peace—of their humanity, their very ability to love. He seems spoiled and robotic; less than human; a user of people and never a giver.

Henry carries his bitterness and rage at Martha for covering up his true history for far too long. He blames her not only for “the pretense of his past but also the pretense of a normal life.” He complains incessantly of Martha’s needs, but he is incredibly needy as well. At one point, he wonders with pointed cynicism: “What had Martha’s treatment of him ever been but a bargain to ease the burden of her needs?”

Despite Henry’s negativity toward her, Martha seems no more or less needy than any mother, any person. He resents her simply because she makes demands on Henry’s affection; she asks that he feel for her, but he cannot or will not. He never forgives Martha, even though he does apologize for his treatment of her on her deathbed. When he views Martha’s lifeless body, his appalling selfishness takes over once again:

“What was rising inside him, even as he looked on, was not grief or regret or even self-pity, but rather a raucous, wildly improper sense of freedom, unlike any he’d known.”

In short, for much of the book Henry is not a very sympathetic character. That’s tough to write, and I applaud Grunwald for the warmth she was able to impart. Yet I would have liked Henry’s selfishness to be counterbalanced by another strong character. Mary Jane is the closest to Henry’s opposite, but her presence in the book is limited by her long absences from his story—when Henry arrives in this house and leaves for school, for California, for London.

Martha is a very interesting character in the beginning, someone who it seems will reveal in times layers of despair and hurt long hidden by domestic perfectionism: “The real courage, Martha was starting to believe, was going on when no one cared if you went on or not.”

Catching glimpses into the expectations put upon young post-war women was fascinating. When Martha first gathers a class of ladies around Henry, she solemnly informs them that “’taking care of a baby . . . is the most important job that most of you will ever have.’” As attitudes toward women’s role shift dramatically in the sixties, Martha’s job is questioned more and more. More importantly, her very beliefs in the reassuring comforts of a clean home, a well-made meal, and an orderly household are challenged as feminism takes hold.

However, as Henry’s narrative picks up, hers trails off, and by the end she is robbed of all strength. Once she is seen only through Henry’s eyes, she becomes vindictive and possessive, losing her potential for dimensionality. She simply loses interest in the tenets she once advocated so firmly and resigns herself to being a relic of an age that is now demeaned by modern men and women alike.

The book was a little longer than it may have needed to be—many of the anecdotes about his unusual life might have been shortened or combined—but is well-written and well-researched, replete with authentic details and a contained sense of history. Henry’s transformation, though long in coming and questionable in its authenticity, raises interesting questions of whether a person can change.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

August 8: Unabridged Chick
August 11: The Broke and the Bookish
August 15: Nomad Reader
August 16: Luxury Reading
August 17: Jenn’s Bookshelves
August 19: The Literate Housewife Review
August 22: A Bookshelf Monstrosity
August 24: BookNAround
August 25: Life in Review
August 29: Book Club Classics
August 30: Knowing the Difference
August 31: Write Meg!