Medium cool

Nov 22, 2006 at 12:00 am


Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kiki Smith
Kelsey Street Press; $29, 47 pp.

This limited-edition book is for frogs and toads, we're told, within the first few pages. Concordance is a collaborative project that presents two pieces of poetry, with illustrations, about stream of consciousness, the consciousness of owls and milkweed and "words with force that gather particles." If this description makes the book seem oblique, consider this: In their pure and playful hearts, both Berssenbrugge and Smith are sculptors, respectively, of language and objects. Even when dealing with abstract ideas, their imagery takes a Play-Doh-y shape; they meld theory with whimsy. Plus, the 47-page book is a lot of fun to flip through, like it's the work of a child weaned on Dr. Seuss who's been recently introduced to an old-school stamp pad. —Rebecca Mazzei

Talking Shops: Detroit Commercial Folk Art
by David Clements
Wayne State University Press; $35.95, 177 pp.

This coffee-table-style book features 130 full-color photographs of original Detroit folk art found on local buildings, in doorways to churches, car washes and more. The book also features a great a foreword and afterword by Detroit legends Bill Harris and Jerry Herron. —M.L. Liebler

Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work
by Britt Salvesen
Yale University Press; $50, hardcover, 192 pp.

Harry Callahan spent 60 years as a photo artist, from the 1930s through the '90s, exploring people and places, seemingly so he could conceal them. His work was about sensing, not knowing. The self-taught photographer, a native Detroiter, snapped pictures of sensual females, blanched by light, shielded by shadow or barely visible, standing yards away from the camera. He improvised with photo processes, amping up contrast, for example, and the results are dreamlike scenes in which some things are slightly askew.

Callahan's photos of nature and man-made landscapes, several located in Detroit, are just as mysterious, framed in a disorienting way that abstracts the image from reality while retaining a reference to it. Even his minimalist decorative photos of a single weed or cattail, from the 1940s, are eerie depictions of something familiar. The gelatin silver prints produced by this midcentury modernist call to mind something that Emily Dickenson once said about poetry: "it makes your whole body so cold, no fire could warm it." —Rebecca Mazzei

Freud at Work: Lucian Freud in Conversation with Sebastian Smee
by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson
Knopf; $65, hardcover, 256 pp.

It's striking how homey and comfortable everything appears in Lucian Freud's studio, considering that the painter is known for rendering "unflattering" nudes in sickly colors. It's true, in some of these shots, Freud looks more like a butcher than an artist. But this book is an engrossing photographic series of the portraitist at work. His painting style isn't as kinetic as other docu-subjects, such as Pollock or Picasso, but seeing him in his studio gives you the immediate sense that Freud's a joker whose tactics pulverize the social divide between the loftiest British royals and his most corpulent models. —Steven Darson

American Hair Metal

by Steven Blush
Feral House Books; $22.95, 180 pp.

Future historians may point to these overly hair-conditioned dinosaurs as the source for the now infamous phrase: "Dude, that looks so gaaay." And this picture book will be the essential text. Hair metal was the first rock genre to look stupid from the get-go and its premature death knell was predicated on a false belief that it was the music and not Aqua Net that was keeping these careers aloft.

Hair metal will never be the subject matter for a serious tome with lots of footnotes; it demands a glossy color picture book with limited text — which makes for perfect bathroom reading. Author Steven Blush includes one stupid vainglorious quote after another from each of these Cowardy Lion-tressed bands, the more forgotten, the better. A couple examples:

"Someday we'll be known as one of the biggest bands in the world." —Tommy Thayer, TNT.

"I can see us over a long period of time being like Queen or Jethro Tull or Yes." —Kip Winger, Winger

"I'm not worried about our audience disappearing because we can always count on our fans." —Kevin DuBrow, Quiet Riot

"Me and Bruce and Southside Johnny, we know a little about the streets." —Jon Bon Jovi.

Yeah, like maybe you've got to hose down the streets so they'll look good in a video. Bon Jovi is one of the only Golden Girls impersonators in this book that's never missed a Lamborghini payment. The rest of these bandwagon jumpers panicked like Ted Kennedy in a creek when MTV went grunge and terminated the power ballad empire. It's perhaps telling that in the A to Z glossary, that coming after Tuff, Vixen looks positively butch! Now how about an American Receding Hair Metal follow-up? —Serene Dominic

Cholo Style: Homies, Homegirls & La Raza

by Reynaldo Berrios
Feral House Books; $16.95, 239 pp.

From the same publishing house that brought us American Hair Metal, but coming from a whole other direction, is this collection of excerpts from the Hispanic street 'zine Mi Vida Loca, which focused on lowrider culture. Author Berrios was once a gangbanger who began writing about himself and his neighborhood when the violence and drive-by shootings misrepresented the culture he loved. I live in a largely Hispanic neighborhood and this year, with immigration being such a hot button topic, I've heard more whites use the word "wetbacks" so often that you'd swear it was a new eatery across from Applebee's. I only wish I could strap my bigoted neighbors down and force them to read Berrios' tales of being treated like a foreigner in his own ancestral land. It's all in here, illustrated with amateur photos and pencil drawings — big ass cars with tiny wheels, car clubs, graffiti murals, guys in wife-beaters and tough chickitas that look like they can kick Jenny on the block's ass, browner and prouder than you're used to seeing it anywhere else in the media. —Serene Dominic

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories

Edited by Ivan Brunetti
Yale University Press; $28, 400 pp.

Brunetti's is the most essential of a recent crop of comics anthologies, with examples of the best work by nearly every notable North American alternative cartoonist of the last 30-some years, plus some obscurities and classic cartoonists, such as Charles Schulz, whom the comics avant-garde have adopted as mentors. The editor's choices are excellent. To represent Robert Crumb, for instance, he avoids "Fritz the Cat" and other iconic '60s stuff in favor of Crumb's more interesting work from the '80s, including a collaboration with Harvey Pekar, "Hypothetical Quandary," that's as close to poetry as comics get. —Sean Bieri

Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture

by Harry Skrdla
Princeton Architectural Press; $29.95, 224 pp.

"History is more or less the bunk. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today." That's Henry Ford; he aspired to a present unencumbered by the past. And he got it — for us all. The ongoing American Century was, and is, dedicated to turning history into bunk, which has left the landscape cluttered with abandoned stuff we've forgotten how to remember needing in the first place. That detritus is the subject of Harry Skrdla's black-and-white photographic anthology Ghostly Ruins.

Skrdla is an Ann Arbor-based historic preservation consultant, and his images will remind Detroiters of home: Michigan Central Depot, the old Packard plant, United Artists Theater, Book-Cadillac Hotel. Not that this book is exclusively about Detroit — we're not the only ones with a "forgotten architecture." And not that this is yet another installment of coffee-table "ruins," a genre represented most notably by Camilo Vergara.

Skrdla is after something a lot more interesting. He's telling ghost stories, 30 of them, linked to the structures he explores photographically, in most cases showing what was there before, and then the remains of what came after —factories, bridges, prisons, mansions, hotels — now haunted by the spirits of vanished life and utility: "If we believe in ghosts, then these are the places we would expect them to walk." The only people in the pictures are the ones we can't see, because everybody else has long since disappeared. In that way, Skrdla's photographic essays are more like the fictions of William Kennedy than the soporific moping of nostalgia merchants.

The subject may be "forgotten architecture," as Skrdla's subtitle says, but more than that, he's investigating the architecture of "forgetting," in the present tense, confronting us with the "ruins" our way of life seems bound to produce. This reviewer's favorites are Detroit images, naturally. One set shows scenes of the Chin Tiki, as it was and now is, like some black-and-white still from The Shining. But it's not a movie set, which is the point. There's a wonderful photograph shot from an upper floor of the abandoned Hudson's building, before it was imploded — a view that none but "ghosts" will ever look out upon again. The effect is meditative and fine; the book will appeal to anybody acquainted with the pleasures of the unseen. —Jerry Herron


Stay at home and see the world

Thailand’s overrun with Brits and Costa Rica with eco-travelers. As travel becomes accessible to more and more people, the road less traveled can begin to look like a highway. The trend is called anti-tourism. The concept has been boosted by book series’, such as Lonely Planet, touting unusual experiences. While useful, how many copies can be sold before that unknown Croatian hostel is head-to-toe Aussie backpackers?

There are trends like Dark Tourism, whose practitioners base trips around death and/or the macabre (Holocaust death camps are obvious examples, as would be a tour of Jack the Ripper’s London haunts). Or "Experimental Travel," in which participants might, for example, suss out dining and lodging destinations by solving puzzles (i.e., your own Amazing Race). In this vein, good travel books serve as inspirations for treks to exotic destinations you may never be able to pull off, but are still willing to explore.

In Theatre of Fish: Travels Through Newfoundland and Labrador (Vintage Books, $15), John Gimlette ditches life as a lawyer in London to spend time in some of North America’s most isolated places. He introduces us to a history not told in most schools and to terrain that is touch, to say the least. Life on the eastern shore of Canada is not for the faint of heart nor for the social butterfly, but Gimelette’s affection for the salty individualists he meets shines through.

While Paul Theroux might be best-known as the author that brought us Mosquito Coast, the terrifying vision of a genius-cum-madman and his off-the-grid Central American dystopia, he initially built his reputation as a travel writer. In Dark Star Safari ($15, Mariner Books), Theroux returns to his roots, recounting his overland journey through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town — via truck, bus, canoe and even armed convoy. Theroux’s exceptionally vivid descriptions of the continent’s natural wonders, cities and people set him apart from other chroniclers. But most powerful are his pointed opinions on the effect foreign aid agencies have on the continent’s ability to heal itself.

Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut ($13, Scribner) is nowhere near so heavy, but that’s not a bad thing. Kalder, a thirtysomething Scotsman who’s lived in Russia for almost a decade, tells of his visits to four of the nation’s most obscure provinces. In Mari El, he finds pagans and a booming mail order bride industry. He goes to Udmurtia "on the basis that it had a strange name that echoed the words ‘ugly’ and ‘mud’." Kalder is acerbic, always a fine quality in a travel companion, but what keeps him from spiraling into the territory of jaded world traveler is his attention to Russia’s sweeping and little-known history. His book lets us know that it’s much bigger than the vodka-filled glass through which we Westerners view it. —Kelli Kavanaugh

The Greatest Story Ever Sold

by Frank Rich
Penguin Press; 352 pp., $25.95

Being a cultural critic for The New York Times is reason enough for many Americans to dismiss you as a partisan. Moving to the op-ed page from the theater section probably won't help push copies of your book with them either.

But Frank Rich's perspective as a theater critic is germane here. Where many anti-Bush books tirelessly chronicle canards, Rich keeps his focus on the stagecraft — specifically, spin and stunts performed by the administration in the name of winning public opinion.

Rich's analysis is relentless and well-argued, and it boils down to this: The Bush administration has done an unprecedented job in manipulating a wide spectrum of media to sell the war in Iraq to the American public.

The author chronicles it all — from fake reporters to bribed commentators to the release of patently false news. All of it is presented, contextualized and debunked. Rinse, wash, repeat.

At times The Greatest Story feels more like a malfeasance catalog than a sustained narrative. But Rich argues something bigger: Manipulation can turn a free press into a conduit for an administration pitching more than it can deliver.

Of course, Rich raises questions that probably require another book to answer. In an age of partisan news and a metastasizing blogosphere, is public perception easier or more difficult to tweak than in the past? Would the tactics of Karl Rove and company have worked as well before Internet users could check a news story faster than George Allen can say "macaca"? Will their tactics become even more underhanded?

If nothing else, Rich offers a primer for those who may not have followed the news as they would've liked these last few years. If you can make it through these pages without becoming enraged, you've either found bipartisan nirvana or you're just not paying attention. —John Dicker

Honey Talks

Various artists
Stripburger/Forum Ljubljana; $23.95

Slovenia's folk art claim to fame is beehive paintings — small religious scenes, fables and social satires painted onto the fronts of shed-sized apiaries. These colorful pictures are the inspiration for the nine comics in this boxed set. Some, of course, involve honey or bees. Anke Feuchtenberger's tale of a mysterious queen bee in human form, illustrated with smoky pencil drawings, could be a storyboard from a Matthew Barney film. Marcel Ruijter's medieval nuns are strangely and humorously transformed after drinking too much mead. But other artists stray further from the source material. An image of flaming hearts inspires a bleak but hopeful vision of life in an L.A. barrio, rendered in a spraypaint stencil style by Danijel Zezelj. The collection, neatly packaged in a cardboard box, offers some tempting glimpses into the widely varied European comics scene. —Sean Bieri

Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour

Chuck Murray
Quirk Books; $40

Elvis may have left the building, but everything else is here, including a pair of wearable shades, an unexploded TV with changable channels and a harvest gold fridge that opens to reveal the King's favorite goodies. Wl'thank yuh vruh much, Santa. —Sean Bieri

WorldChanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century

Edited by Alex Steffen
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; $37.50, 608 pp. was launched a few years back to provide an online repository for progressive, sustainable ideas and practices all over the world. The site has become a must-visit for those interested in technologies, persons and practices focused on making this planet a better place. Well-written by contributors who clearly know their stuff, the site is positive without chirpiness and pragmatic without dogma.

This forward-thinking crew has gone analog with the publication of WorldChanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, an exhaustively researched, far-reaching reference book. With forewords by Al Gore and futurist and writer Bruce Sterling, the book wears its cred on its (beautifully designed) sleeve.

Editor Alex Steffen has assembled an inspiring yet digestible manual for a better way of living on this earth. —Kelli B. Kavanaugh

George Tyspin Opera Factory: Building in the Black Void

by George Tyspin and Julie Taymor
Princeton Architectural Press; $75, hardcover, 224 pp.

As if to ignite a dormant opera fire within, this gorgeous book covers the work of a prop master who single-handedly transforms contemporary trends of dark, cavernous stage space to luxuriant, majestic sets that reference such far-reaching art and architectural movements as primitive sculpture and Russian Constructivism. Tyspin's work has traversed a wide variety of landscapes, from primordial to futuristic, and his designs have awed and inspired audiences at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the Venice Biennale and MTV's Video Music Awards. The book glows with drawings and photos from his portfolio. —Rebecca Mazzei

Unofficial Lazy Slut Cookbook

by Rhoda Carroll Fairman
Xlibris; $20.99, 131 pp.

Rhoda Carroll Fairman knows she's a lazy slut, but she's a lazy slut for reasons other than she thinks — mostly because she can't construct a sentence to save her life, she's laughably unfunny and her solution to every culinary dilemma seems to be cloth napkins and Italian dressing. Got a quartered chicken? Marinate it in Italian dressing. Finish with a nice slice of pie, doused in Italian dressing. The Unofficial Lazy Slut Cookbook is self-published by this stand-up comedian, which means it's a predictable shame. Here's proof:

You're the Boss and you're really trying to bowl over a potential new client. Are you wracked with indecision? Got a bad case of the "um-um's?" "Um-um what shall I do? Um-um whatever shall I make for dinner?" Relax. We've got the answer.

Um-um? What is this, Petticoat Junction? Did I misplace my muffler? Fairman invokes a million and one writing clichés, but her cookbook is even more disappointing because the concept is a good one. Unfortunately, she can't even characterize a "lazy slut" correctly. She describes them as women who have five jobs and don't want to ruin their manicures by plunging their hands in the greasy afterbath of a soaking stew pot. Au contraire — a lazy slut doesn't get manicures, she pens herself reminders on her hand and gets hangnails. She's smart enough to buy organic produce but not to wash it, and calls every teaspoon close enough. A recipe for roasted chicken with field greens and a side of canned asparagus with Italian dressing isn't too complicated — she could probably make a reduction sauce, for Christ's sake. The problem is she just doesn't feel like it. Following directions is too tedious, and the boredom causes recklessness. Almost every lazy slut would jump at the chance to find a book of recipes to rein her in. Unfortunately, this unappetizing alternative ain't it. —Rebecca Mazzei

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