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Staff Picks: Books

The art of personality

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


Let Your Geek Flag Fly!

I have no problem admitting my love for all things considered “geek” – fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, role-playing, board and video games. Many of these loves I have passed down to my two daughters. Unfortunately the “geek” world can be dismissive and dangerously cruel to females (see Gamergate). This is incredibly surprising to me because many of these “outsider” passions celebrate diversity and possibilities. Author Felicia Day, in her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), painfully describes her experience with Gamergate backlash and the meanness that followed her for months. This all happened at the height of the success earned from the web show The Guild and caused her to fall into a deep depression. Fortunately, Day was able to crawl her way out of this funk to go on to start Geek & Sundry, a network of web shows that celebrate pop culture and geekdom. Readers will also discover how a home-schooled (not for Bible thumping reasons), violin prodigy became one of the most successful and powerful women on the Internet. My hope is that my daughters will someday recognize Felicia Day as the trailblazer that helped them raise their own geek flags.

 


Rising Strong

Self-described researcher-storyteller Brené Brown is well known for her research and writing on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed. Several of her books, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead are bestsellers. Her fourth book, Rising Strong, published earlier this week, deals with what happens when we exercise courage and fail. Resilience is a hot topic right now, and Brown's new book is definitely worth checking out.

 


The Fire Next Time

I recently read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates in preparation for his visit to Kalamazoo in November. Coates has garnered much praise for his latest book, Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his son that explores the racial history of the U.S. and its impact on black lives today. Coates’ work has me reminiscing about one of my favorite books, another book about being black in America: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time is a letter written to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the book, Baldwin discusses growing up in Harlem and his experiences with racial injustice. I read the book when I was about twenty years old, and it moved me in a way I can’t describe; it was a matter of reading the right book at the right time—my ears and heart were open to really listening to what Baldwin had to say. It was one of my first realizations as a white person that my experience of life in the U.S. was vastly different from black Americans. It pains me to think that this book is as pertinent as ever, and that racial injustice is legacy we Americans are left to handle. The Fire Next Time galvanized my deep respect for Baldwin and his writing and made him a forever favorite of mine.


The Light of the World

 Elizabeth Alexander has written a powerful memoir of her life with, and then without, her beloved husband Ficre.  Through telling her own story in The Light of the World, Alexander gives the rest of us something to consider about the relationships we have with those who are dearest to us.  Read this to be reminded of the power of love.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: now's the time

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


The American Plate

Here I am again, the library's non-cook, writing about a cookbook. But, this one is so much more than a book of recipes. As the subtitle indicates, it's 'a culinary history in 100 bites.' Not only are recipes included, but also background information on the ingredients and on the way the people who prepared and ate these foods lived. Bite 59 is celery, and Kalamazoo is mentioned for its role in the early production of that commodity. Bite 41 is entitled 'Lincoln's Favorite Cake' and has the recipe for 'Mary Todd Lincoln's White Almond Cake,' which is to be served with cherry ice cream. Now doesn't that sound tasty for a warm August day? Not only does this 2014 book cover historic foods that I wouldn't even consider eating, like eel (even though my ancestors did eat it), but more recent developments such as TV dinners and microwave popcorn. It's obvious that an incredible amount of research went into this book, and it's good for reading straight through or casual browsing.


finding out you're a psychopath is not fun

Incredible story about a neuroscientist who accidentally finds out that his brain scan is identical to a psychopaths brain scan. At 63 years of age, this guy finds out he has a psychopath brain. And, in fact, the more you get to know him, you realize that he is one. Except for actual violence, this guy has all the traits. It's a weird experience to read this book. At the beginning, you like the guy. But, gradually, when he talks about the antisocial things he has done to his friends and family, you dislike him.

Not only is the writing great, but the science is explained perfectly and easy to understand. What is a psychopath? You are about to find out. I loved this book. 


What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Ever wonder what would happen if you could throw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light? (Hint: it doesn't end well for the batter, the pitcher, or for that matter, anyone within about a one mile radius.) How would the Earth change if you were to open up a drain in the bottom of the ocean and drained the world's water out through it? (The Netherlands would be very happy about the whole thing.) Could you get drunk by drinking a drunk person's blood? (Answer: ewwwwwww.) The answers to these utterly ridiculous hypothetical questions, and many, many more, are answered in Randall Munroe's book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Munroe is a former-NASA-roboticist-turned-internet-cartoonist and hunts down the answers with a trained scientist's eye, no matter how bizarre. The book, already hilarious, is made even funnier by the addition of cartoon illustrations featuring the cast (and geeky oddball humor) of Munroe's XKCD comic strip. If you're looking for the answers, or if you just need a good laugh, check out What If?


Hold Still

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

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