Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Best of 2007: Art & Culture

Architectural Inspiration: Styles, Details, Sources by Richard Skinulis and Peter Christopher (The Boston Mills Press) 528 pages
In a world gone mad with home renovations and new construction, Architectural Inspiration is the ultimate design and wish book. This is the go-to-guide for the homeowner facing rethinking their existing home -- or designing a new one -- helping filling in the blanks that would-be designers without an actual design background will encounter. Are you dealing with double hung or casement windows? What about the roof? Will it be shingle, shake or tile? How about a stone floor, or reclaimed wood, or linoleum? What are all the options? How are they the same? How do they differ? And all of this information is aimed at one goal: how will this work for me? Now, clearly, Architectural Inspiration will probably not hold all of the answers but it’s certainly a gorgeous, well executed path to gathering together all the questions. -- David Middleton

The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation by Judy Chicago (Merrell) 308 pages
When artist Judy Chicago’s landmark show, The Dinner Party, opened in early 1979, 5000 people stood in line at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art to see it. Earlier this year, and nearly three decades later, the exhibit found a permanent home with the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. This book commemorates and documents this monumental exhibit in a grand and appropriate way. Larger in scale, color and production values than previous books, The Dinner Party: From Creation to Preservation does justice to Chicago’s symbolic history of women in Western civilization. A landmark book worthy of a landmark exhibit. Bravo! -- Monica Stark

Dream Homes: 100 Inspirational Interiors by Andreas von Einsiedel (Merrell)
Like Richard Skinulis and Peter Christopher’s Architectural Inspiration: Styles, Details, Sources, another book I loved this year, Dream Homes provides a sourcebook for classic interior design. And by “classic” in this instance I mean enduring designs representing a wide variety of styles, but just about everything shared here is breathtaking and -- as the title suggests -- inspirational. “Traditional or vernacular architecture and design endures, partly because in most countries it still forms the bulk of the housing stock .... As land becomes scarce and planning restrictions become tighter, the building of new homes is increasingly difficult. Instead, the current focus is on reorientation.” And, as just about anyone could tell you, before you begin with reorientation, you’d best have inspiration or disaster will ensue. Dream Homes has all of that in abundance. It’s a delight and a surprise, one I anticipate consulting often in the coming years. -- David Middleton

Frank Lloyd Wright in New York by Jane King Hession and Debra Pickrel (Gibbs Smith) 159 pages
Though Frank Lloyd Wright in New York concerns itself entirely with the years the architect spent in New York City -- 1955 to 1959 -- the defining moment of the book for me comes when Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe -- at the time husband and wife -- ask Wright to design a home for them on piece of property in Connecticut. The 90-year-old Wright mostly napped on the way out to the Miller’s “rundown old farm” but once there he “energetically and without pause” tramped up and down the hilly acreage. “On reaching the summit, Miller explained to Wright that he and Monroe did not want ‘some elaborate house with which to impress the world,’ but rather a home that reflected their desire to live simply. Miller observed: ‘this news had not the slightest interest for him.’” Indeed, the drawings he came up with -- for a house that was never built -- look modern even to the contemporary eye. Rounded wings spread here and there, a huge circular central pod perches at the edge of a reflecting pool: grand only begins to cover it. I like this story because it seems so typical of this architect. (Typical, also, of this couple, when one thinks of it. I mean, if I want to have a simple little place built for me, I would be unlikely to ask for suggestions from the man who called himself “the greatest architect in the world.” What does it say if you do?) Throughout his lifetime, Wright had said he would never live in New York, calling it “the greatest and greediest mouth in the world.” Yet he spent most of the last five years of his life there and, arguably, made the strong impressions that would ensure his place in immortality. Frank Lloyd Wright in New York does a terrific job of documenting these years, managing to say new things in a field that has been so well covered, it’s surprising that there’s anything at all more to say. -- David Middleton

Hammett’s Moral Vision by George J. “Rhino” Thompson (Vince Emery Productions) 246 pages
Reading Dashiell Hammett can change your life. It certainly changed George Thompson’s. He went from being a bright young academic to a man with an interesting career in law enforcement. In the meantime, he wrote a doctoral dissertation which became (in this expanded, updated form) Hammett’s Moral Vision -- a work which itself helped shape the intellectual lives of those who read it in serialized form in The Armchair Detective magazine in the early 1970s. Thompson’s work was the first serious, comprehensive critical examination of Hammett’s five novels, and it remains perhaps the best -- still stimulating and insightful after all these years. The author sees Hammett’s body of work as displaying a darkening social and moral vision, which ends in the chilly alienation of his final book. “To see the novels as I have argued,” he writes, “points, I think, to at least one reason Hammett never again wrote a major novel after The Thin Man; he had no more to say. He had worked out as far as he could the possibilities of the questions he had raised concerning individual man and society.” -- Tom Nolan

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler (Ballantine Books) 372 pages
It was bound to happen. What with making-of books de rigeur these days -- almost as commonplace as making-of documentaries on DVDs -- someone was bound to realize that one of the great-greats had yet to see such a tribute. This one clocks in at a staggering 314 pages ... and those are way-oversize pages, not your typical 8-by-10-ish leaves. The word for this is exhaustive. It covers everything from the very earliest itches on creator George Lucas’ neck in the years he was making American Graffiti, all the way up to the original’s box office receipts. Throughout, there are hundreds of images, from film stills to behind-the-scenes shots to Lucas’ handwritten notes and script pages to set design sketches. It’s a really a you-name-it-it’s-here kind of thing. Rinzler’s account reads like a filmmaking War and Peace, complete and replete with every possible detail about early drafts of the screenplay, the frustrating intricacies of dealmaking with the studios, the ups and downs and innovations of production and special effects, and the compromises Lucas was forced to make just get the film produced. There have been zillions of words written about Star Wars (and I’ve read my share), but these several thousand more are perhaps the most valuable, a laser-like examination of every little bit of creative energy that went into the film that has become a true force in filmmaking. Finally, a making-of that’s worth all the trouble. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. by Burt Boyar (Regan Books) 352 pages
Sammy Davis, Jr. was an accomplished photographer. Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr. is the first book to collect hundreds of his images between two covers. It’s a powerful testament to another side of the man’s awesome talent. We think of Davis as an entertainer par excellence, a member of the Rat Pack. But if these images are any indication, his passion was the photograph. The book includes some reminiscences, but the photos are the point here, and they don’t disappoint. Here are Davis’ parents. Here’s Davis headlining at Ciro’s in L.A. Here are Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on a movie set. Here are Dean and Sinatra in Vegas, just before showtime. Here are shots of a Sinatra recording session, the singer into his work, the photographer there to document. Here are Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe, backstage on a movie set. It goes on and on. Bob Hope. Jimmy Durante. Early early Sonny and Cher. James Dean. Nat “King” Cole. Phil Silvers. Danny Thomas. Robert Mitchum. Peter Lawford. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bobby and Jackie and Patricia Kennedy. Nixon. Sure, this might look like a book, even a vanity book about a star’s hobby, but it’s much more than that. I wouldn’t even say it’s just a document about Davis’ photographic talent. Rather, it’s an insightful portrait of a period of our history, when black became something other than a four-letter word, when entertainment and politics rocked, when America endured a paradigm shift we’re still feeling today. This is history the way it should be seen: unrehearsed, unaware, as real as it gets. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Shells by Paul Starosta and Jacques Senders (Firefly Books) 379 pages
“Shells have inspired the realm of human imagination, influenced the Surrealist art world, been buried in ancient tombs. Shells have served as geometric and abstract symbols, among ancient civilizations, with spirals and stripes of converging lines having particularly deep significance.” And as lovely and passionate as the words that describe shells in the introduction to this book, nothing will prepare you for the book itself, a majestic coffeetable-sized tribute to the beauty of form and function represented by this “unique and perfect masterpiece of nature.” As the book points out, shells have fascinated humans since the time of Aristotle and most probably before. And it’s possible that this fascination has never been given a more beautiful and complete literary form than in Shells. More than 300 breathtaking photos cover nearly 400 pages. The photos themselves are astonishing, treating each shell like a work of art, which, when considered, perhaps it is: though created by the hand of nature, not of man. Even those who lack a passion for shells will appreciate this book, in itself an impressive, interesting and majestic work of art. -- India Wilson

Sitcoms: The 101 Greatest TV Comedies of All Time by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik (Black Dog & Leventhal) 336 pages
There’s a moment when you know this book will be unlike anything you have ever seen ... and I do mean “ever.” Open the cover, turn two pages, and there it is: a photograph of Laura Petrie, in her signature capri pants, dancing in one of those iconic episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The thing is, the photo is in color! The chair behind Laura is yellow! The sofa: brown. The rug: green! Her shirt: red! It’s unbelievable, really, the instantaneous transformation of world from black-and-white to “living color.” That’s what this book is all about: bringing serious color to the black-and-white memories we have about the shows we all love. There’s a show here for everyone; here are some samples (alphabetically): “The Addams Family,” “Barney Miller,” “Cheers,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Family Affair,” “Get Smart,” “Julia,” “The Life of Riley,” “I Love Lucy,” “M*A*S*H,” “One Day at a Time,” “Soap.” The text is endlessly insightful, covering history, behind-the-scenes gossip, original casts, up-close profiles of the most memorable character actors, sitcom flops, military sitcoms, radio sitcoms, sitcoms from the movies, sitcoms with movie stars and more. The authors know their stuff, and they know how to make all of this material as entertaining as the shows themselves. But as good as all that is, what drew me in was the photos. Mostly, they’re not unexpected fare: production stills, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes stills. But what you remember are those color images of the shows and characters who live in black-and-white. This book is 24 karat gold all the way through, but those color photos are 100 per cent platinum. -- Tony Buchsbaum

This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown & Company) 112 pages
Landfills and library used-book sales are packed to the brim with self-help works, and none seem more insidious at times than books on how to tap your muse and write the Great American Novel/Drama/Screenplay. Many of them are written by either no-name academics who seem to live only within the pages of Poet and Writer and Writer’s Digest, or literary artists who receive glowing reviews but whose books wind up on the remainder tables next to their how-to guides. There are exceptions, of course, including Stephen King’s marvelous On Writing. And in 2007, detective Easy Rawlins’ creator, Walter Mosley, contributed to the pile in a major way with This Year You Write Your Novel. In a tight text that can be devoured in a single sitting (Mosley tells us that it runs fewer than 25,000 words in length), he lays it out for you -- how to show and not tell, the pros and cons of first- versus third-person narrators, research, structure, the distinction between story and plot, the need for multiple drafts and how to know when you’re done. It should be clearly stated that this is not a “how to get published” book. While Mosley briefly touches on markets and agents, this is not a manual on how to crack the bestseller lists or impress the buyers from Barnes & Noble. This is a book about the joy, frustration and ecstasy of writing a novel. Aspiring writers should have this volume near their writing desk. -- Stephen Miller

Why Not Catch-21?: Fifty Book Titles and Their Origins by Gary Dexter (Frances Lincoln) 228 pages
What’s in a name? More than you’ve ever imagined replies author Gary Dexter, who in Why Not Catch-21? answers the questions that some titles ask by their very existence. “Most book titles simply describe the contents of the book they are attached to,” Dexter writes in his foreword. “Crime and Punishment is about crime and punishment, and Brideshead Revisited is about revisiting Brideshead. But a small number of books have a rather odd, separate existence, almost as independent literary artefacts. The stories behind them are quite different from the stories behind the actual books.” Readers of the Sunday Telegraph will know that Dexter’s book has grown out of his column for that paper, “Title Deed” and that it can be deeply interesting to learn of the origins of the title of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming or that of A Clockwork Orange. (Though Dexter’s thoughts are not conclusive on this latter.) And even if some of the included titles push at the edges of the mandate of the book -- like Frankenstein and Lolita -- it’s still fascinating to learn a bit of history about classics whose stories we thought we knew well. If there is, at times, a faint stuffiness to Dexter’s prose and even a vague superiority, it does not, in the end, detract from the richness of the work. This is a book I imagine I’ll be quoting and telling stories from for years to come. -- Linda L. Richards

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