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Still Life With Oysters and Lemons by Mark Doty

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.

I annotated this book last semester for its use of objects. This time around, I’m interested in contrasting its strategy for using things with Terry Tempest Williams’s in Pieces of White Shell.

Where PoWS is a collection of essays or stories, SLWOL is a single essay, just seventy pages. Williams offers a collection of objects and devoted a chapter to each, where each object (or grouping of objects) allows her a way in to discuss the topics she needs to discuss. Doty’s work is initially ekphrastic: he is engaged in a lengthy, unhurried meditation on a single painting, and along the way meanders through a wide variety of places, buildings, objects, and other paintings. Doty refers to the habitual attendees of auctions, a tribe in which he includes himself, as “curators of objects, some of which would outlast us” (33); Williams is employed as museum curator during the narrative present of her book. Both books are concerned with material things, and use those things as a way in to larger topics, or allow them to stand in for less concrete concepts. But they do it both in very different ways and to very different effects, in part because the two writers are pursuing very different subjects.

Williams explores a body of knowledge and mythology that is outside herself (Navajo culture and myth, and a scientific approach–geography, biology–to a specific place) in order to better understand her world, including her Mormon background and her relationship with people and nature; she works to put forward a philosophy gleaned and developed from these sources. Doty wants to develop a worldview as well, of the dualities that engage his curiosity: intimacy versus independence, home versus travel. (He writes in The Art of Description about the usefulness of polarity: “the pull of forces in opposition to one another makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.”) He does this by examining the objects that draw his attention, and the nature of that attention. Thus, he’s not studying a still life painting so much as studying its effect on him, although a study of the painting is involved in a study of its effects.

In this way, Williams and Doty’s use of objects necessarily differs. Williams chooses the objects that head her chapters for their associative value. The Storyteller is a useful object because it opens the door to discuss storytellers she’s known, and the cultural value of storytelling. (The reader takes her word for it that these are also the objects actually on her desk, but whether chosen for the desk or for the book, still chosen.) Doty doesn’t choose objects so much as they choose him. He’s not using the painting, or the blue-and-white platter with antlered deer on it, or the peppermints, because of what they let him talk about. He is rather driven to use those objects because they have acted upon him, and it’s that acting-upon that he writes about in this book.

He also writes at several points about the narrative contained in objects: “I loved best the [auctions] that took place at people’s houses, for then the narrative of a life was most available” (31). The things he’s purchased “are informed for me, permanently, by the narrative of the auction, an experience of participation” (33). Obviously a nonfiction writer interested in composing a larger story through objects, perks up her ears at these mentions of narrative. However, I think perhaps Doty is even more interested in that “experience of participation.” Williams’s approach is more like narrative-through-representative-object (objects for their associative powers), where Doty’s is more the experience of interacting with objects, as the central narrative.

If there were a thesis question at the heart of this book, it might be, “Why do these things make me feel what they make me feel?” The title painting leads him into a lengthy discussion, revisited throughout the book, of how lemons represent intimacy. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten, myself, to a conclusion that lemons represent intimacy; but I’m deeply involved in Doty’s thought process. In the end, this book is not centrally about Doty’s life, any more than PoWS is about Williams’s. Rather, this book is about how Doty looks at (literal, material) things, and by extension how we all look at things.

Rating: upgraded to 9 quinces on this go-round.

The Stampographer by Vincent Sardon

This iconoclastic French artist’s work with rubber stamps is for fans of fart jokes, the f-bomb and political satire.

The Stampographer is a different kind of coffee-table book. Vincent Sardon makes rubber stamps because “the stamp is never neutral”; it generally appears as a tool of bureaucracy, but here subverts authority to play with taboo. The book’s endpapers are filled with repeating middle fingers, its pages with insults, erotic and violent images, the profane and the vulgar. In an interview (the volume’s only text), Sardon denies any such political motive: “My work simply reflects the world, which seems to have been created by an absolute moron.”

These are evocative images and complex references to art and history, showcasing Sardon’s dark, satiric, antagonistic sense of humor. He considers his stamps “both tools and works of art,” and sells them only to amateurs, not artists, from a private gallery in Paris. Readers not local to Paris are lucky to get a glimpse of his work in this unrivaled art book.

This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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: 7 turd blossoms.

This Book Is a Planetarium: And Other Extraordinary Pop-Up Contraptions by Kelli Anderson

This is a work of art, teaching tool, pop-up toy and book that will delight playful lifetime learners.

This Book Is a Planetarium–as well as a musical instrument, a decoder ring, a spiralgraph and more. With a smartphone or small LED light, the galaxy comes to your living room. Graphic designer Kelli Anderson exults in the science and the art in the everyday, here playing with the powers of paper. This short but engrossing large-format book is at once an art object and a collection of teaching tools. Each page pops up and moves, dynamically demonstrating lessons from physics, geometry and astronomy. Brief explanations in small print further expand the didactic element. While the text is written for adults, not children, a little grown-up assistance (and supervision of removable parts) could make this an educational toy for all ages. Sensory play involving touch and sound as well as sight is too often left to the kids, but This Book Is a Planetarium is a physical object and absorbing interactive experience for all curious and young-at-heart readers.

This review originally ran in the November 21, 2017 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: 7 strings.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

I came to this book originally some time ago, from Paul Liscky’s The Narrow Door, though they only subtly name one another. It was a happy continuance when Kim Kupperman recommended it. And, I have a thing about oysters. This book is not terribly much about oysters, mind you, but it still attracted me.

Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is a lovely meditation on a single still life painting which shares the book’s title; but it is also a study of still lifes in general, and a thoughtful retrospection ranging through the author’s life and loves by way of a handful of objects, and finally a study on the topic of attention. Doty returns to the idea that we seek both intimacy and independence, both belonging and exploration, both the comfort of home and the risk and excitement of travel. Interesting as ekphrasis, as study of duality, and as biography in objects–even as a lyric list essay, broadly defined. I found it interesting to note all the references he makes to other paintings and other art forms (chiefly poetry). Also lovely writing, although this will surprise no one who knows Doty as a poet.

Another of my continuing obsessions–even more than oysters–is things or stuff. Think Guy Clark’s song “Stuff That Works” or Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Buckeye.” I really appreciated the attention Doty pays to things in this very short book. It was a rewarding immersion, and I recommend him.

Rating: 8 quinces.

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.

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.


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.
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