Saul Steinberg by Harold Rosenberg

When The Paris Review reprinted Harold Rosenberg’s review of Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth, I was delighted by the simple yet complex drawings and headed to the library to inhale more about Steinberg.

Born in Romania, bopping around Europe pre-WW2, studying architecture in Italty before washing up on the shores of New York. Fairly immediately he was recruited to go to China to confuse the spies there with his drawings as part of the war effort.

Steinberg photographed wearing a mask of he’d drawn on a paper bag

Paging through the hundreds of plates, admiring his portraits done by fingerprinting, I was struck by the thought that both he & Ralph Steadman came at their art by way of technical training (Steinberg as architect, Steadman designing planes at the factory he loathed going to).

Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet (vol 2)

This second volume is filled with more of Julie Doucet’s genius, panels crammed with adoration of tampax and cats and dismembered bodies and blood gushing from monster women. The frenzy of her early years comes across, her migration to and from New York, Berlin, Seattle, and finally settling in Montreal and giving up comics in 1999, the comic world too limited for her imagination and talents. She’s since branched out into other visual arts, writing, poetry, collage, etc. Extreme talent!

The Bride’s Kimono

Another improbable and slightly idiotic mystery from Sujata Massey, but I’ve chosen my drug of choice to end the year on, and I continue to dose with her dumbed down stories. This one focused on Japanese historical item: kimono, with Rei traveling to the U.S. to deliver a lecture while accompanying 10 priceless kimono, one of which goes missing/stolen. A woman who sat beside Rei on the plane from Japan gets killed, Rei hooks up with her old British/Scottish boyfriend again, her Japanese boyfriend shows up and she breaks things off (he dramatically lurching from the restaurant intent on humiliating her), her parents fly in from California, she’s accused by DC police of being a prostitute. It’s all very muddled and only reaches fever pitch in the last 20 pages when the assistant director of the Tokyo museum where the kimono are on loan from is busted almost killing Rei. Meh.

Dirty Plotte : the complete Julie Doucet

Just finished volume 1 of The Complete Julie Doucet, all 12 issues of her comic, originally published between 1990-1998, including stories about her fraught year in New York with a crazy possessive boyfriend who ended up mooching from her when he ran out of money and couldn’t find work. Lots of sawed off body parts and strange dreams immortalized in comic form. Amazingly detailed drawings, crude stories, raunchy dreamlike panels that occasionally border on not making sense but are mostly coherent. Excited for volume 2 which looks to have tons of interviews and essays about Julie.

The Floating Girl

Another Sujata Massey book, this one a dud. Her approach seems to be to focus on one stereotypical thing about Japan and build a book around it. She’s already covered Zen (Zen Attitude), flower arranging (The Flower Master), and this one was centered around manga. Toss in a bit of steamy romance, add some very improbable crime solving, and you’ve got a Rei Shimura book, paint-by-numbers style.

Calypso

David Sedaris is the perfect antidote to the late-Fall blues. It may be getting darker earlier, but that just gives you an excuse to close your blinds, turn on the lamp, and curl up with his latest collection of stories (? essays ?) and laugh the night away. Brutally honest and hilarious, Sedaris chronicles life with his husband Hugh as they jet from their cozy cottage in England to the North Carolina beach house David bought a few summers ago, dealing with his sister Tiffany’s suicide, his aging father (restricted to not listening to right wing radio or watching Fox news while in David’s beach house), his goofy sisters. This book provides a necessary jolt of joy and is not surprisingly on many best-of lists for the year. I tried to sip it slowly but couldn’t resist finishing it up this morning.

The Flower Master

Another Sujata Massey mystery following the hijinx of Rei Shimura. In this one, she’s swept into the action at the flower arranging school her aunt studies/teaches at. One of the particularly crabby teachers gets murdered, Rei herself gets poisoned with arsenic, there’s a new dude on the scene to capture Rei’s heart, and all the usual hubub and nonsense. Utterly pointless, exactly what I need to end the year.

Zen Attitude (A Novel of Suspense)

End of year luxuriating in mindless mystery novels has replaced my usual mid-century British novel fetish way of unwinding the year. I enjoyed Massey’s mystery, The Widows of Malabar Hill, so have been haunting the shelves of the library to grab as many of her other works as possible.

This was my first of her Rei Shimura series, an American half-Japanese, half-white woman living in Tokyo working as an antiques reseller and struggling with a relationship with a wealthy Brit. In this one, there’s a scroll hidden inside a piece of furniture she acquires for a client, which leads to the death of several people. After her Brit boyfriend hits her, she squats in an abandoned temple to try to pull her life together, and unravel the mystery. It’s dumb, it’s fine, it’s just an entertaining read.

Certain American States: Stories

The quality of short stories being written right now is nothing I’ve ever seen before. Another gem from a “Best of” list, this collection from Catherine Lacey. Her long sentences are acrobats defying expectations, you think she’s going to crash but she keeps spinning them out, pages and pages, your nerves on edge, will she land on her feet, yes!

Excellent writing, weird moods and characters, nothing blah about these stories. Her experiments with text never seem to fail, even the parentheses within parentheses: “(A life might comfortably disappear into a well-worn groove between house, school, and grocery store. (All lives disappear one way or another. (All hours get spent.)))”

She even makes you laugh with the unexpected twist of the sentence:

“Leonard, that man who raised me, he is the one who remembers my nervousness. He once told me that on the first day of my life, on that still-dark morning, I looked up at him and he looked down at me and he knew and I knew and we both knew that we’d always dislike each other.”

Shopping: A Century of Art and Consumer Culture

Perhaps there’s such a thing as going too far down a rabbit hole. I’m now mired in work that is derivative of all the other essays I’ve been reading about the history of display windows, where commerce intersects with art. It’s as if there’s a checklist of names they must nod to: Walter Benjamin, Marx, Baudrillard, Zola. I think I still have a few books on this topic headed my way, but this vein is almost all tapped out.

Interesting that KaDeWe turned their rooftop into a pretend ocean liner to let shoppers relax on the “deck” watching Berlin roll around them.

The Bay Area Forager: Your Guide to Edible Wild Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area

B plucked this from the shelves of Bird & Beckett Bookstore this weekend to taunt me with a recipe for Miso Miner’s Lettuce, but the joke’s on him because this book is amazing. In a quick gulp, I learned about scads of things growing in the ground around us that are edible: from preparing acorns (shelled/mashed with mortar-pestle/leeched with water) to gathering blackberries (duh!) and wild radish and miner’s lettuce and nasturtiums (those omnipresence orange flower vine things in GGP). Also: acorns fall (or drop) twice! First drop is usually smaller and has more mealy, wormy, moldy acorns. Second drop is bigger and with healthier acorns. What else is edible: Bay Laurel, Blue Dicks (!! those gorgeous purple flowers near Ukiah- edible bulb is similar to garlic; flower/seeds also edible), cattails, nettles!, thistles!, clover, dandelion, wild fennel, ginko leaves!, madrone leaves/bark/flowers, strawberry tree (these are everywhere in the city), black walnuts, and more. The further away from civilization (and pesticides) you are, the better.

Windows at Tiffany’s: The art of Gene Moore

This was a much better book to slog through about Gene Moore, courtesy of Judith Goldman. Many of the same photos in this as the other, calling out the use of eggs, wire, dolls, balsa wood, etc.

One thing that crops up over and over is the example of how Moore always leaves one thing in the display “wrong” so that audiences can have the satisfaction of telling him what his mistake is, which draws them in, makes them engage with the piece. Also interesting what a different world it was where people actually paid attention to window displays.

My Time at Tiffany’s

What’s confusing about this memoir is that it’s so terribly written and yet it has a co-author. I would expect a barely readable book from someone who’s not a writer by trade (e.g. the artist/window dresser Moore), so what involvement did Jay Hyams have?

Getting past the dreary, heavy, feeling-like-words-are-encased-in-cement quality to the account, if you can hang in there, there’s lots of great detail about the artists Moore worked with to collaborate on windows for Bonwit Teller and Tiffany’s. Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg (aka “Matson Jones”) loom large in the late 1950s windows for both stores. Moore claims Warhol was already known when he tapped him for displays.

Tidbit learned: Maurice Sendak got his start designing displays for FAO Schwartz.

A Big Important Art Book (Now with Women)

Cutesy book that I should have known better than to request, with a subtitle of “Profiles of Unstoppable Female Artists–and Projects to Help You Become One.” The projects are lists of ideas like keeping a notebook by your bed to record dreams (so you can use those stories later) or making a collage out of ripped photographs of yourself or think about being a kid and create from that place. It’s somewhat useful to flip through and see some of the artwork curated for this, some inspiring patterns and weavings and sculpture and paintings by ladies, and the premise is honorable (to shine light on the absent women artist). But mostly this is a coffee table book if you want to flash your feminist art card at visitors, not anything worth sinking your teeth into.

One Dirty Tree

Noah Van Sciver’s highly personal graphic memoir ranks higher on my list than his mopey Lincoln book but still nowhere near as good as the Fante Bukowskis. All about life as a kid in a Mormon family in New Jersey with tons of siblings, a stay-at-home mom who eventually went out to get a job at an art supply store, and a dad whose short fuse resulted in some leather belt whippings and more. He does illuminate some of his favorite comics growing up, like Milk & Cheese (yay!). Interspersed with childhood memories are those from life in Denver where he’s agonizing about breaking up with the girlfriend who doesn’t seem to like him very much, and working a bazillion jobs trying to stay afloat as a cartoonist.