Book Recommendations–Graphics

When I first became aware of manga (essentially, Japanese comics of all genres)  and other  books termed “graphics” that young people seemed to be reading, I thought “now they let school kids read comics instead of books?” I was Horrified, having conveniently forgotten how faithfully I had followed Dick Tracy, Dondi, and Archie every Sunday growing up. Graphic novels and nonfiction as a genre have exploded in the past few years; they are obviously not a passing fad.  So I hopped on, tried out a few, and was instantly converted.  Here are some of my favorites–mostly memoir.


9781596433755_p0_v1_s114x166The Photographer: into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Frédéric Lemercier

Here is a vivid picture of Afghanistan you will see in no other way– it gave me a perspective that news analysis or reading books never did.  The now-famous Doctors Without Borders was founded in France in 1971, and this book is an emotionally gripping mix of Lefèvre’s intimate, empathetic photographs and Guibert’s colorful graphic interpretations of a 1986 mission in Afghanistan, when the Soviets were still at war in that country.  The story details a mission Lefèvre took with a group of daring French doctors (known as MSF teams) to illegally supply a hospital in eastern Afghanistan.  Lefèvre was naive about the risks of this undertaking, and almost died after making a decision to leave the group on his own right before winter. His open-hearted innocence, belief in the mission, and passion give an eye-opening and mind-altering view of the country before the U.S. declared war. A fantastic, award winning book that sold over a quarter million copies in France, and deserves even more exposure in this country.


Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast9781608198061_p0_v3_s114x166

I have long followed Chast’s drawings in the New Yorker, bought her books, and always recommend them to others, as her very quirky sense of humor speaks to me profoundly.  Jenny brought back a signed(!!) advanced copy for me from ABA’s Winter Institute in January, and I could not be more thrilled. This new memoir of her dealing with aging parents, not due out until May, and is a must-read by anyone who ever has, will, or might, deal with parents. I felt not quite so alone after helping care for my 95 year old mother, (who died last February), and you will laugh hysterically even as you cry.  Chast was an only child, growing up in Brooklyn with parents who saved everything–need I say more? Her memoir is a unique blend of her hand printing, photographs, and of course, those delicate and twisted drawings I so love!


Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh 9781451666175_p0_v13_s114x166

This amazing book just showed up on the IndieBound (independent bookseller’s) best seller list seemingly out of nowhere last fall.  However, the author has been blogging since 2009, and has a huge following (think James Patterson of the internet).  Wow!  Not only do her graphics, done in vivid, childlike color (using Paintbrush software) capture me, but her stories–ranging from training unruly dogs, to growing up with her sister, to dealing with her own depression, are hilarious and poignant. I often see younger people in the store looking at the book and laughing while viewing it, but even those who religiously follow Brosh’s blog ( buy the book.  A great gift for yourself, or others you may know with a slightly skewed view of the world.  Not at all dystopian, absolutely delightful and just the thing for a grey, rainy almost-spring day.


Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo & Me, by Ellen Forney9781592407323_p0_v2_s114x166

You may be starting to think I read too much about depression, and I have good reason, with a family member who struggles with this tragic illness.  So do 1 in 10 other Americans–an incomprehensible number.  A therapist friend of mine told me her office waiting room will now be graced with copies this book. It is one of the best things I have ever read about bipolar disorder, and the complexities of diagnosing, treating and accepting this illness in a person’s life.  Filled with more laughter, pathos, and information than traditional self-help or textbooks about the illness, I highly recommend it for those who have struggled with depression, know someone who has, or just want to know what it can be like to deal with.  Not at all depressing (ironically) but wryly humorous and very unique.


Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

9780618871711_p0_v1_s114x166-1 Bechdel’s books are few but powerful; The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (2008, and based on her long-runing syndicated comic strip), and Are You My Mother? (2012) are already classics in the genre.  In 2006, Bechdel published this autobiographical “tragicomic” tale of her childhood and the years before and after her father’s death. It is essentially the story of growing up with a perfectionist father (can anyone relate?) who she finds out has more in common with her than she realized: they are both gay. This title catapulted her onto the bestseller lists, and received numerous awards: named one of the best books of 2006 by The New York Times, The Times of London, Time magazine and  Publisher’s Weekly, to name a few.  Her commentary is smart, cryptic and authentic, and her line drawings are an incredible, graceful counterpoint to her voice. I certainly hope to hear more from her–she is unique, even in the very unique world of graphics.


Persepolis, by Marjorie Strapi

This was my first graphic read, and now considered a “classic” in the genre (along with9780375714832_p0_v1_s114x166 The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman, who is the “grandfather” of graphics here in the U.S.) Strapi grew up in Iran, before the overthrow of the Shah, and these two books (combined into one for this edition) follow her life from a young girl to a woman who marries, divorces,  moves to Austria before finally returning home.  Her memories of the pre and post-revolution chaos and challenges in a predominantly Muslim country left me frequently awed, and very, very grateful for the freedoms I have. Marji is rebellious, outspoken, torn between loyalties to family and her strong need for freedom.  It is a universally human story, told by an engaging, bold and candid woman.

Book Recommendations–Older, Now


Even being relatively healthy and still a tad under 70, I am beginning to get a bit grumpy about aging. No longer am I anxious to tell people how old I am, as their reaction is usually to give me a slim grimace of pity.  So I have resorted to doing what I know how to–reading about aging, trying to keep moving and frequent bakeries less often, and keep laughing.    The following books have helped me better understand my universal predicament and laugh about it more. All aspects are necessary, I am finding (except maybe the bakery ban).


9780896728233_p0_v2_s114x166The Fifth Season, by Lisa Ohlen Harris

The discovery of this lovely book was purely accidental: a woman writer came to the bookstore last month, and gave me a bookmark with her email on it.  I was curious, because the topic was a memoir about caregiving of the author’s mother-in-law during her last years. I had spent years helping my own mother as she aged, so I could relate.  So I ordered it because of the topic, my instant liking of the author, and the book’s beautiful cover. Harris’ writing has that rare quality of balance between the emotional and rational.  She was given a tough challenge–Jeanne, her mother-in-law lived with them, had advanced lung disease because of a life spent smoking, and was by no means a sweet and compliant woman. Plus, Harris and her husband (who works full time) had four daughters at home to raise.   I wish I had read it sooner, and anyone with the challenge of caregiving of an aging loved one will learn and feel support from reading this honest and beautiful story.


Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill


Our book group read this about a year ago, along with Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending–a great pairing, although most of us preferred this title.  Athill, who at this writing is in her 90′s, writes unabashedly about the things one gives up as they age, and her feelings about those losses.  Finally!  A book about aging that tells me something beyond “keep exercising”.  She tackles topics as diverse as sore feet and sex with a directness that is refreshing, and unusually reassuring at times.  For instance, she reminds me that there are some perks to not living forever, such as not worrying about global warming, the military industrial complex, or the National Debt anymore. And I’m quite sure those dilemmas will be with us long after most of us are gone.


9780143116059_p0_v1_s114x166Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

Not all books about aging are grim–Lodge is an under appreciated writer who always makes me laugh (and sometimes cry).  As the title suggests, the central character is a somewhat grumpy, aging former professor of linguistics who is particularly stung to his hearing loss. His life is not what he had hoped for in retirement: an 89 year old father who is a constant source of worry and frustration, a wife who is getting younger with the help of cosmetic surgeries and a new career, and an emotionally erratic graduate student who badgers him about helping with her thesis on suicide!  What more could saddle this poor man, you might say. But his challenges are more complex because he cannot hear well, which leads to even more complications.  If you do not know Lodge’s witty and hilarious style now is the time–this is his 14th novel, and his writing is still just as strong, if a bit darker and more poignant.


Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan

O’Nan is another of those writers, somewhat like Lodge, whose work is not as widely 9780143120490_p0_v1_s114x166known as I wish it would be.  His body of work is just as large, but he is American, and quite a bit younger than Lodge.  All of the books I’ve read of O’Nan’s are very real and tender, what one might call quiet, with exquisite detail.   I particularly liked Last Night at the Lobster, and this more recent title. How he created Emily, such a believable aging widow whose world has become smaller and less vibrant, shows off his immense talent as a writer.  Emily’s worries are her children, who live away and visit infrequently, the changes in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where she has lived so long, and the failing health of her sister-in-law and only friend.  Lovely, with a character who in the end musters spunky resolve not to end her life by simply fading away.


At Seventy, by May Sarton

9780393310306_p0_v1_s114x166Now here’s a writer whose books have been on my shelves and often reread for at least 30 years.  Her years living alone have been chronicled in a number of her books, and her Journal of a Solitude, which I adored, is considered classic. Sarton’s take on aging was also classic: when asked what was good about getting old, she answered “Because I am more myself than I have ever been.”  Her journals are so intimate, sharing not only on the small beauties of life–daffodils from her garden, for instance–but the struggles of being an artist, and balancing solitude with relationships that nurture her.  Sarton died in 1995 at the age of 83, and lived alone in New England for much of her adult life.   This particular journal reflects on a past relationships, her writing life, and the natural world.  Her writing always transports me, makes me reflect and appreciate how vert rich my own life is.


Shouting Won’t Help, by Katherine Bouton

Anyone who has hearing loss, knows someone with hearing loss, or ever knew someone with 9780374263041_p0_v1_s114x166hearing loss or deafness could benefit immensely from reading this book.  I know you may think this the most bizarre recommendation ever, but I refer to this book all the time in conversations with others.  Not only is Bouton a science editor for the New York Times, she has struggled to hear most of her adult life, and now has cochlear implants. She lost a job at one time because she was afraid to talk about her hearing loss, which may have spurred her on to become somewhat of an expert on the subject. The latest research and scientific discoveries about the deafness are interwoven with her own story.  I found all of it fascinating, and what I wish is for all of you to have a copy of this book on your coffee tables!  When you read it you will see why–and why I do not shout or raise my voice anymore if someone says “what?”.  I look at them straight in the eye, enunciate clearly, and hope they will do the same when talking to me!


Book Recommendations–Hawaiian Culture

The temperature on this island is in the 20′s and 30′s, but the heat inside  is cranked up to 74° because my heart and physical body are still in Hawai’i.  We just spent several glorious weeks swimming, surfing, eating fresh food from farmer’s markets, walking the beach, and of course, reading. I visited the local independent bookstore in Kailua so often I had to ship some of the books home!  The store had a marvelous collection (new and used) of books about Hawai’i.  I had read a number of them, added some new ones, and have more stacked on the bedside table, waiting for me.  Here are some favorites.


Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony 9780312422608_p0_v1_s114x166Horwitz

Horwitz is a writer in the Bill Bryson tradition–an intelligent and experienced journalist whose well-researched history smoothly integrates personal anecdote and humor.  While not only about Hawai’i, the Horwitz follows most of Cook’s incredible global explorations, ending with his somewhat mysterious death on the big island of Hawai’i.  It is a place I have visited myself, but had no idea of the complex backstory until I recently read Horwitz’s book.  The story of Cook’s modest upbringing in Yorkshire, his three epic voyages which covered more of the earth’s surface than any other explorer, and his experiences in Hawai’i as the first European to visit in 1778 kept me turning pages much as I do with great mystery novels.  Besides, Horwitz is married to my favorite contemporary female author–Geraldine Brooks, so how could I not want to read him?


9780679776413_p0_v1_s114x166My Old Sweetheart, by Susanna Moore

The sense of place so thoroughly infuses this first novel of Moore’s that I can hardly name another writer who has been able to move me from my world to another so easily.  From her first sentence: “That night the fields were on fire. The smell of the cane woke her: it was like sugar burning in the bottom of a pan.”  Lily, who grew up in Hawai’i with her younger siblings and eccentric, stylish mother, tries to construct a full portrait of her patchwork past when she becomes an adult and has her own daughter.  Moore herself grew up in Hawai’i; how else would she have been able to vividly portray such a languorous, exotic place and equally exotic family ?  I went on to read several of her other books, love her writing and deeply dimensional characters, but this is still my favorite.

The Whiteness of Bones, her second novel, is almost as memorable, but for different 9781400075041_p0_v1_s114x166 reasons.  In this novel, her protagonist Mamie grew up in Hawaii but moves to New York and lives there during the perilous 1980′s.  With the somewhat cynical eye of an outsider, she learns to navigate fast and fabulous city life with more wit and acumen than most.  She has left Hawai’i geographically, but is still haunted by the spirit of place–fading traditions and fears of the dying Polynesian culture.  Her irreverent sister Claire accompanies her to NY, adding to Mamie’s challenges in her adjustment to adulthood.  Moore’s memoir, which I somehow missed when it was published, is now at the top of my “want-to” list.  Look for I Myself Have Seeen It.  An author worth discovering, although her books have become rather scarce.


Honolulu, by Alan Brennert

9780312606343_p0_v1_s114x166Brennert has written two books on Hawai’i that I enjoyed a great deal–this and his book about Molokai.  One of the charms of Honolulu was the time setting–1914, and the story of Jin, a young “picture bride” from Korea who relocates in search of a better, more affluent life.  Instead she succumbs to the fate of most young women who emigrate to marry–she ends up with a poor, often angry husband who denigrates and cannot support her.  Exploring the “dark side” of paradise, the story follows the developing friendship of four “picture brides” and their struggles to survive in a foreign city among a culture that presents two faces–one for the just-developing tourist business, and one for those stuck in poverty and the slums of a young but promising city.

Moloka’i is also based on historical events, this time related to the tragic and complex story of the leper colony at Kalawao, a remote, inhospitable place on the north shore of the 9780312304355_p0_v1_s114x166island (also see my review of The Colony, by John Tayman, from March 12, 2012, for a non-fiction version of this story).  In Brennert’s story, a young Rachel is diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, taken from her family and removed to the settlement when only six years old.  Brennert develops a number of characters, some of whom lead fairly happy lives, and some who are rendered hopeless because of the living conditions and stigma attached to a disease about which little was known.  For a richer, more in depth view of what it was like, I recommend reading both books. I am glad I did!



9780345434944_p0_v1_s114x166Song of the Exile and Shark Dialogues, by Kiana Davenport


Davenport has a distinct following and style.  She was raised in Hawai’i by a native Hawaiian mother and Navy seaman father, so can write about the mixed culture of the islands with tremendous credibility.  While her writing sometimes verges on the overly descriptive, her stories are more emotionally vibrant than most. Song traces the devastation of WWII on two Hawaiian families, and spans three decades in the lives of Sunny, a Hawaiian/Korean, who falls in love with Keo, a native and jazz musician during the 1930′s. It is not only an unusual story, but also a common one during a war which separated thousands of lovers and family members from each other, many who never reunited.  Shark Dialogues, her best-known work, is harder to describe–a mix of mythical story, generational saga, and a rich historical framework.  Pono, the great matriarch of this story, is a most memorable character, the scenery is intoxicating, the indictments about Hawaii’s  history powerful. Those wanting to delve deeply into the culture and history will be impressed by this epic.


Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, by Isabella Bird


This title has been produced in various forms since 1875, when it sold out right after it was published.  Bird, a Victorian era woman way ahead of her time, first went to Hawai’i almost by accident, on her way home from Australia and New Zealand.  A short while after arriving on the islands, she started to recover her previous poor health, and wrote a series of long letters to her sister back in Scotland, which became the basis for this classic title.  The version I have was published in the 1960′s, and includes unique black and white photographs.  Bird, a seemingly undaunted and passionate traveller, has written many other classic travel books: about Japan, China, Korea, and the Rocky Mountains in the U.S.  I learned more, and was more charmed, by this book than any other Hawaiian history I have read.  If you don’t know her, you two must meet!



Fierce Heart, by Stuart Holmes Coleman

9780312638313Far be it for me to not include a passionate book about surfing, my favorite spectator sport!  Although I did not discover this book until after we returned from Hawai’i, and we visited this specific place, I had no idea of the fame of some of its boys from the ‘hood.  Makaha–a small, fairly isolated town on the Western coast of Oahu is the home of world-class surfers like Buffalo Keaulana and his sons Rusty and Brian; skin diver and surfing pro Rell Sunn; and the late singer/songwriter Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole.  The book combines stories of deep friendships, wild surfing adventures, and a look at the history and origins of one of the world’s most thrilling extreme sports. For me, it described the “heart” of the North Shore, home of famous surfing competitions (and waves), a hippie vibe, and don’t forget the famous shrimp truck plate lunches, served outdoors on makeshift picnic tables. This is a piece of Hawai’i that I will never forget.








Book Recommendations–Best of 2013

Having kept a reading journal since 1974, writing down at least the titles and authors of every book I’ve read since, I have a rich trove to delve into when writing this blog.  Considering the number of books I read each year–this year it was 64–it is surprisingly hard to pick “the best” of a particular year–there are not very many that knock me for a loop, but the ones that do make up quite an eclectic list (3 non-fiction, 1 YA, and 2 Fiction).  Apologies in advance to those of you who have already heard me rave about these books!  And on to the next year of more rich reading pleasures.


Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand9781400064168_p0_v4_s114x166

After hearing about this book for almost two years (still not yet in paperback!) I decided to tackle it knowing there would be a number of hard parts that might be painful to read.  There were, and what I came away with was such a rich reading experience: a new understanding of the Pacific theater of WWII, and the life of an infinitely amazing man.  Raised in a not so upscale California town, Louis Zamperini was wild and out of control during much of his youth. It was his brother who steered him toward running, and he became an Olympic star in the famous 1936 Berlin games.  He joined the Army Air Corps when WWII broke out, was shot down, taken prisoner of war by the Japanese, and by all accounts should have died.  A story of survivorship like few I have ever read!


9780312429980_p0_v4_s114x166Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Here is what willfulness will get you: missing a writer whose ability to bring history to life is beyond my experience or imagination. For several years I refused to read Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize Winner  because “who needs to read still another book about King Henry VIII?”  I only accidentally picked the book up on CD this winter, started to listen, then got the book, which I could not put down.  What a feast!  Mantel’s work focuses on Thomas Cromwell, the powerful politician whom the King (and many others) relied on to negotiate many of the most challenging issues of Henry’s rule.  Mantel is brilliant in her ability to bring historical characters to life in a way I have never read.  They are nuanced, complex, and only too human. With Mantel’s pen, they are fully fleshed out in a way that does not judge, only illuminates in ways I had never known.


Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon9780743236720_p0_v2_s114x166

The measure of a writer, to me, is one who can take a subject I have little or no connection to, or interest in, and make me love it and want even more.  And in a book with 700 pages, this is no small feat.  Solomon first got my attention for his award winning book on depression, The Noonday Demon, a number of years ago.  This fascinating tome is written about the parents of those children who did fall “far from the tree”, unexpectedly so, by being deaf, autistic, transgender, mentally ill, or any number of other things.  Each chapter covers a different “apple”, delving into the experiences of parents who have these children, rather than what it is like to be that child.  Having two autistic nephews myself, I thought I knew about the subject, but I was only a kindergartener, as it turns out.  Solomon himself chose to adopt children during the course of researching and writing this, which adds more depth to this amazing, fascinating book.


9780316055437_p0_v3_s114x166The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

And now for some dessert: do not miss this story, and allow plenty of time in case you can’t help but read this (still another) 700+ page delight in one sitting!  It is the story of a boy, Theo Decker, who grows up veering between two worlds after losing his mother in a terrorist explosion; of art, and the haunting painting of a goldfinch that came to him as a result of the explosion which both intrudes on and enriches his life; and of love, on so many levels.  Tartt delivers not only vivid characters, but stunning prose and suspense that does not seem in the least contrived (at least not to me).  She seems to have the whole package put together here that stands up to close scrutiny by critics and general readers alike.  I have never read her earlier works, but after reading this, I will definitely visit those.  In fact, I will definitely visit this book again–it is that memorable and rich.


9780525478812_p0_v1_s114x166The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

If I described this book as the story of three teens who come together in a cancer support group, you may wince (as an older gentleman did the other day at the bookstore).  If I describe it as one of the best books about young people growing up, trying out relationships, and quickly learning to spend their time on what matters most, you would be closer to the story.  Green is one of the top YA authors that I have found from both my own reading, and in talking with many teens and adults.  And this, I believe, is his best to date. I recently noticed that four of his titles are on the NYT best seller list for Young Adult literature this year.  He is one of the few YA writers to bridge the genre and appeal to adults, without resorting to fantasy or dystopian views of the world.  He sets this story firmly in the realities of today’s young people, which is  sweet, difficult, and smart.  Loved it!


Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman9780374533557_p0_v1_s114x166

It is hard to describe this book to anyone who is not familiar with this man’s exceptional intellect and extensive research.  Yes, it is a nerdy kind of book.  I almost dozed off from the amount and depth of studies he describes here.  But forget all that: Kahneman has come to some important conclusions, based on strong scientific research, about the functions of the quick thinking and acting part of the brain, and the slower, more thoughtful part (which is, not surprisingly, the “lazier” of the two).  How they work together and apart is amazing.  But his discussion of random aspects of the universe is what struck me most strongly.  In short, it changed my thinking about a lot of things.  And remarkably, this change has helped me be less judgmental, calmer, more compassionate.  How does a 2002 winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences do that?


Also on the list:  Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, reviewed in my Best of the Northwest posting (August 2013), Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh (to be reviewed with graphic book titles in January 2014), Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell (to be reviewed with YA books soon), and Life After Life deftly woven fiction by Kate Atkinson.

Book Recommendations–Art and Artist

As soon as the rain starts, I seek refuge in my arts and crafts again–drawing, coloring, beading, designing, sewing, and writing.  And, I read about the artists and arts that inspire me.  This collection of books is only a small selection of what I would like to recommend.  There are many, many others, so there will be more book reviews to come on this topic.  If you look at this list and think it peculiar–it is.  Just like some of the following artists, who interpret the world in ways we cannot.


 The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal9780312569372

A family memoir, written by well-known ceramicist de Waal, is as beautiful and compelling as an award-winning mystery.  A unique collection of small Japanese carvings, called netsukes, were acquired by a famous Jewish banker who lived in Vienna and was a relative of de Waal’s.  When the war came, the family was not only routed from their majestic home by the Nazi regime, but their art and priceless furnishings confiscated.  What the family did not know was that their precious netsuke collection was hidden by a family employee and smuggled out of Europe.  It ended up in the possession of de Waal’s uncle (a fascinating man himself) then passed to de Waal when his uncle died.  I love the way most people catch their breath when they mention having read this book, and I still catch my breath too.  It is that unique, that memorable.


9781616203160_p0_v2_s114x166The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro

The theme of this story is not new: based on the famous 1990 art theft of Degas drawings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the largest (and largely) unsolved art theft in history. It is a rich canvas to use, and Shapiro has done an excellent job painting it.  A young woman artist, who is struggling to overcome an earlier scandal in her career, paints copies of famous art works for online sale. She still yearns for a foothold in the highly competitive art scene. Then a noted local gallery owner brings her a proposition: if she recreates one of the famous paintings she can have her own art show at his gallery.  As she creates this new painting, she starts to suspect that the copy she is working from is a fake, which twists the story into exploring her multiple suspicions.  A satisfying, smoothly written read!


The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova9780316065788_p0_v2_s114x166

When a famous artist goes mad and attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art, psychiatrist Andrew Marlow is given the job of sorting out why–challenging because artist Robert Oliver won’t talk to him.  Sounds like the making of a mystery, but this book is much, much more.  Shifting back and forth in time to an earlier century, the story is complex and absorbing.  It takes a long time for Marlow to unearth the connection between the painting Oliver attacked and his mental breakdown, and I was captivated by this story all the way.  Particularly intriguing are the psychiatrist’s interactions with Oliver’s former wife, and other people that Oliver, a former art teacher, knew before his breakdown.  Ingenious!


9780760793541_p0_v4_s114x166The Moon and Sixpence, by W. Somerset Maugham

In looking over my overflowing bookshelves recently, I was surprised and pleased to rediscover old Penguin copies of almost all of Maugham’s works–reaffirming what a long-time favorite author he is for me.  This work, published in 1919 right after his famous Of Human Bondage, follows the career of London stockbroker Charles Strickland, who suddenly leaves his family and career behind to become a painter.  Based loosely on the life of Paul Gauguin, much of the story is set in Paris, but toward the end it describes his rich, rustic life in Tahiti, the inspiration for so many of his sensuous, color-saturated works.  Maugham uses, to excellent effect, a curious and wide-eyed narrator, who is both shocked and taken in by the tortured and talented Strickland.


Life with Picasso, by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake9780385261869_p0_v1_s114x166

The first artist’s biography I remember reading as an adult, this book has stayed with me over many years (first published in 1964) n0t only because it portrays a “much larger than life” man, but because of the intricate and fascinating character of Gilot.  She mothered two children with Picasso:  Paloma (a famous jewelry designer) and Claude (executor of his father’s estate and art critic).  Gilot, an aspiring artist herself, met Picasso in Paris during WWII, when she was 21 and he 62.  Their  relationship was detailed in this book, making Picasso so furious he cut off his relationship with their two children in retaliation.  In retrospect, what may have been considered a gossipy story has since become praised for a complex and nuanced portrait of one of the world’s most famous artists–ever.  An even more worthy read now than when first published.


9780520049208_p0_v1_s114x166Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by Lawrence Weschler

Seeing a Robert Irwin show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the early 70′s inspired changes in my thinking about art. The minimalist/conceptual art that was coming on strong during that period was controversial, at best.  The Irwin show was an “experience” that I could not describe to others–rooms of light that changed with the movement from one place to another–it was almost mystical.  When this biography of the artist was published in 1982 I bought it immediately and lapped it up. What struck me was the dichotomy between the amazingly affable character of Irwin and the intense discipline he applied to his body of work. Surprisingly readable and not at all esoteric, this biography captures a time and aesthetic that still strongly influences contemporary art.


The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe9780312427580_p0_v1_s114x166

More a long essay than full-on story, it amazed me that this was first published in 1975. Yet it still seems delightfully relevant and insightful today.  Wolfe, always in the middle of current trends but apparently  never really seduced by them, has his journalist’s eye open to take in all sides of the issues.  This adds layers of interest and complexity to the topics he selects.  In this irreverent piece (a Wolfe specialty), abstract expressionism is about to be toppled by a new movement called Pop Art, and the players in this lively overthrow–art critics, collectors, artists and patrons–make for a fascinating read.  Wolfe is a unique painter in his own right, and even if you have read it, you will enjoy taking it on again.