A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

giacometti-portraitFor school, again: this book informs an upcoming seminar entitled “Process, Image, Form: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists,” taught by Richard Schmitt. A Giacometti Portrait is a record of the creation of a work of art. James Lord sits as a model for his friend Alberto Giacometti, a well-known and successful painter living in Paris. Lord flew over from New York to sit for an afternoon; he ends up sitting for 18 days, during which he takes notes and pictures to document the process. The portrait is not finished at the end of this time – it is central to Giacometti’s theory of life and art that such a thing could never be finished – but they agree to stop.

It is an odd but intriguing book. Giacometti is a real character, and the friends become very close while sitting and talking together through Giacometti’s dramatic crises of artistic frustration, and many other threads of life. While Giacometti’s passionate, pessimistic, but oddly magnetic personality is a feature, the portrait itself is at the center of this book, to the exclusion of characterization of Lord himself, outside events and characters, and all else. The book itself, of course, is also a portrait. The title acknowledges this with its syntactic ambiguity.

The material here for a discussion about art, different art forms, techniques and mutual reflections upon one another is obvious, especially as Giacometti writhes and moans, undoing and redoing his work, experiencing one revelation after another, and every one (to him at least) failing. I am most interested to see where our seminar takes us. It’s not a book I’m necessarily prepared to love on my own; it’s too thin, somehow, too occupied with the one thing. But I suspect there’s more here than meets my immediate eye, so I’m very glad to be studying this with help. An unusual, but strangely compelling portrait.


Rating: 7 hard-boiled eggs.

book beginnings on Friday: A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

This is another I’m reading for school (see last week’s teaser), and deals with a work of visual art. The portrait of the title is both one being painted by the author’s friend of the author himself, and the book I hold in my hands: a portrait of the painter.

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James Lord is in conversation with the painter Alberto Giacometti as the former sits for his portrait.

“But is even a photograph really a reproduction of what one sees?” I asked.

“No. And if a photo isn’t, a painting is even less so. What’s best is simply to look at people.”

And I thought those lines began to capture part of what the book is about. Also, they spoke to me as a writer who tries to capture life. It makes it all a little futile, perhaps; or maybe it helps the artist to refocus. Plenty to think about.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

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Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.

Other-Wordly: Words Both Strange and Lovely From Around the World by Yee-Lum Mak, illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley

otherwordlyWhat a perfectly charming little book.

Other-Wordly is fewer than 60 pages long, and its spreads are adorned with appealing illustrations, so that it is easily flipped through in no time at all. It invites the reader, though, to pause and explore. Vocabulary words from a wide range of languages are offered to satisfy us when we say, I need a word for that thing, you know when… I was delighted to find a word that a friend of mine has more than once looked for. How gratifying, to pass that along!

The words are great fun, and some will be useful (others merely fun). For example, check out Tartle (verb, Scots): to hesitate while introducing or meeting someone because you have forgotten their name. Or Nunchi (noun, Korean): the subtle art of evaluating others’ moods from their unspoken communications and knowing what not to say in a certain social situation. The illustrations are lovely, filled with personality and feeling, and I loved how words are grouped together with a drawing that serves to illustrate each in turn. For example, Sturmfrei (German, obviously), Cwtch (Welsh, perhaps just as obviously) and Abditory (English) share a young girl just peeking out from a door under a staircase, looking pleased with her hiding place. Yes, there are English words in here, too, but only three had meaning to me before reading. (Those were offing, inglenook and scintilla, if you’re wondering.) Other languages featured run from the expected European ones through Bantu and Yaghan (what is Yaghan?). The Japanese language seems to have a special knack for that there’s-a-word-for-it thing.

Brief, informative, great fun, sweetly illustrated: a fine coffee table book and one I will pull out frequently. By all means. My only request now is more, please.


Rating: 8 Erlebnisse.

The Bind by William Goldsmith

This graphic novel celebrates sibling rivalry and the art of bookbinding in a sepia-toned historic London.

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The illustrations and imagination of William Goldsmith (Vignettes of Ystov) adorn a story of bookbinding and family history with The Bind.

This graphic novel opens in 1912, as the ghost of Garrison Egret tours his family business, Egret Bindings, now run by his sons, Victor and Guy. Garrison is frustrated by the way they’ve “tarted it up,” and by the way Guy overworks himself without taking enough credit while Victor takes too much credit without doing the work. Their latest project will showcase the Egrets’ finest talents, and test both their skills and their relationship; it is a poetry collection called A Moonless Land, jewel-encrusted, hand-tooled with leather inlays and gold leaf. Victor, the high-maintenance artist, pulls out all the stops while business-minded Guy worries about the bottom line. Will “the most expensive book in existence” prove to be too much for the most prestigious bookbinding firm in London?

Goldsmith’s illustrations in black and gray, rust and rose, are understated and beautifully evocative. Characterization is accomplished through detail, like a carnation in Victor’s lapel, and the finer points of Egret Binding’s products. In large format on heavy stock, with bonus foldout panels, The Bind is as impressive a physical object as the Egrets’ great creation–minus the rubies and topazes. This carefully presented ode to the craft of bookbinding is also a story of family dynamics and the dilemma of faithfulness to artistry in a modernizing world: a special treat for booklovers, and a lovely work of art.


This review originally ran in the November 15, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 counterfeits.

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Extra-long review for an extra-interesting work; thanks for hanging in there.


My buddy Tassava sent me this book.

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I featured its book beginning, so we all know that it begins in Guantánamo. That fact is perhaps a little misleading, though. Let me explain.

drawing-bloodDrawing Blood is a memoir by Molly Crabapple, a visual artist who has created posters, comics, illustrations and murals; her favorite medium is ink, and she tends toward highly detailed, lush, saturated work. Among her influences are Where’s Waldo? and Toulouse-Latrec. (My attempt to encapsulate, not hers; and encapsulation will always fall short, anyway.)

This is her life story: from childhood, which she rather hated for its helplessness, to world travel, various forms of naked modeling and activism for sex workers, a long struggle to make it as an artist, a political awakening, and a more or less successful (and ongoing) artistic career. She has done a laundry list of strange, improbable and brave things, from living on a bunk in Paris’s storied Shakespeare & Company bookstore, to organizing and event promotion in New York City’s elitist art scene (she founded Dr. Sketchy’s), to covering Occupy Wall Street, London and Greece street protests, and, yes, Guantánamo, with her pen and ink: that is, as a journalist as well as a visual artist. Part of my criticism with her opening lines is just this: she’s done so much odd and impressive stuff that she didn’t need the sensationalism. Also, by the time she makes it to Guantánamo in her book’s final 20 pages, we can feel the story wrapping up. (She’s still a young woman. I just mean that the book wraps up. Her life is going strong.) The Guantánamo storyline is just a snippet at the end; the meat of the thing happens elsewhere, so I felt the opening lines were misleading in a few ways. And ultimately, they sell short what all else she has to say.

That was a long tangent. Let me start over: I really enjoyed this book. Molly Crabapple (a chosen name, not the one she was born with) is a large personality. She had big ideas from a young age. She traveled Paris, Spain and Morocco alone as a teenager. Her emotions loom large, resulting in entanglements and the inevitable hurt feelings; but she lives, sucks all the marrow of life, et cetera. Once we got out of that odd and contextless glass cage at Guantánamo, I remained spellbound for the book’s entire length.

Tassava did not have an entirely positive experience, though. He writes,

Molly Crabapple’s memoir of living on the rough edges of American society in the early 21st century is full of engrossing stories of sex work and social protest, of pointed critiques of the haves by a have-not, and of incredible drawings, both journalistic and artistic. But I (admittedly, a fairly square, middle-aged white guy) thought that the memoir was overall too eager to shock and to scold and too reticent to draw satisfying conclusions about her own life at the micro level and about America as the macro level. Perhaps I am sinning by critiquing the book I wanted or expected to read instead of the book as written. But I don’t think that Drawing Blood delivers on her promise, or her capacity, to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.

As I see it, some of Crabapple’s central points include… the difficulties of being a woman, including the enormous extent to which our bodies precede us and we struggle to be heard over them; the difficulties of making it as an artist without funds, expanded to the difficulties of making it as anything without funds; global economic injustice; and the beauty of art and love. I found her most articulate on the issues that were specific and personal – for example, how women are treated by men, based on her own experiences – and a little less so on the economy of Greece in 2011. By which I mean, she’s only human. And she articulates the difficulty of documenting Greek financial breakdown as an individual woman from the United States: she sees her shortcoming there, which for me to some extent excuses it. (She’s trying harder to understand these things than many of us are.) This memoir does use shock value to get our attention, to a degree. But I think Tassava is wise to acknowledge that mileage may vary: we are all shockable to different degrees, and I suspect I found a few of these details less shocking than he did (others maybe more so, who knows). To be clear, Crabapple has sexual affairs with both men and women, not all of them monogamous. There is no graphic description of the sex she has. There is plenty of discussion of the work of sex workers, and burlesque performances, some of which is described rather more graphically. Frankly, the only place where I felt she used sensationalism to her detriment was as mentioned, by opening with Guantánamo Bay.

In a word, I sort of feel like Tassava and I read the same book and reacted to it in two different ways – rather than feeling that we read two different books, which sometimes happens when two people disagree in their reactions. The only place he lost me a little is in regards to Crabapple’s promise “to use her writing and her drawing to illuminate contemporary America’s special kind of craziness.” I guess I didn’t perceive that as a promise at all. I thought this was a memoir: one woman’s life story, with commentary on what she sees around her. Maybe it’s just that I sympathize with her inability to draw conclusions. I, too, find it easier to see what’s wrong than how to make it right.

And now I’ve ignored the visual aspect of this book for far too long. The text memoir is accompanied by Crabapple’s illustrations, some journalistic, as Tassava noted (illustrating what happened, rather than photographing it, which in some cases is impractical or disallowed, ahem Guantánamo), and much of it artistic. Unsurprisingly, since she’s now largely “made it” as an artist, her work is lovely: expert, detailed, realistic and stylized to different degrees, and clearly expressive of a personal style. Before her political interests took her farther out into a high-stakes real world, her subject matter tended toward the Victorian, fantastic, pin-up, or p0rn-ish. I freakin’ love it. (In fact, I’ve already purchased a print of one of the illustrations featured in this book. You can consider doing so here.) It bears noting that the illustrations here are necessarily smaller and thus have less room for fine detail than the large, intricate pieces that form her later work. What I found in the book served to tease me: I hope one day I get the chance to see some of her grander scale original art someday.

Tassava would like to note that he also loved the art: “Every illustration was great, and I too would love to see her work up close.”

I’ve also failed to note one of the more surprising achievements of this book: for all that Crabapple defines herself as a visual artist, her prose writing is startlingly crystalline, exact, probing and lyrical. “His letters were as fine as spiders. They looked like they might crawl away.” “The bar was blood dark, the walls covered with graffiti and band stickers glazed with beer.” “When I hung the drawings, they seemed like crude little things, staring back at me from the gallery’s walls. Feather-clad homunculi, malformed but proud.” “My step-mother saw me get off the school bus one day and described me as a little black smudge against the bucolic forest leaves.”

A fascinating strange story, an important if imperfect critique of one woman’s life and of the larger world: Drawing Blood is an honest effort gorgeously rendered. This book and its author are not perfect. Who is? I finished this book feeling like I’d made a friend, something only possible with human beings, not saints. The Molly Crabapple I felt like I came to know off these pages is vulnerable, self-doubting, loyal and loving, smart and stylish. I love her, and I love this book.


Rating: 8 nibs.

book beginnings on Friday: Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

A little departure here from paid reviews of pre-pub books: Drawing Blood was published nearly a year ago. A friend asked me to comment on this memory with visual art included.

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It begins:

I was drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

I sat in the courtroom at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, watching a pretrail hearing for the 9/11 military commission in a room bisected by three layers of soundproof glass.

Well, that’s certainly attention-grabbing, and starts us off with the immediate question: who is this person and why is she where she is? I’ll let you know what I learn.

Happy Friday, friends.

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