One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2011

‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’ – The Book on the Blockbuster

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“When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” – Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. By Andrew Bolton with contributions by Susannah Frankel and Tim Blanks. Photographs by Sølve Sundsbø. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 240 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Americans know Alexander McQueen mainly through the wedding dress his design firm created after his death for Kate Middleton, a gown demure except for its plunging neckline. But he made his name with clothes that took more risks – anatomically correct bodices, trousers that showed “bum cleavage,” a jacket imprinted with an image from the painting The Thief to the Left of Christ. On the cover of this catalog for a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a hologram turns a portrait of McQueen into a skull. It’s visual metaphor not just for his suicide at the age of 40 but for the difficulty of pinning down a man who made armadillo-shaped shoes fanciful enough for Lady Gaga and hand-carved wooden leg prostheses practical enough for a Paralympics champion.

The cover of 'Alexander McQueen,' left, and a red silk coat over a dress of ivory silk tulle from the designer's 'The Girl Who Lived in the Tree' collection, 2008-2009

Alexander McQueen suggests but does reconcile the contradictions of its subject. The London-born McQueen had Scottish roots and professed to deplore the romanticizing of the land of his ancestors. But he created romantic clothes for collections that invoked two of the greatest tragedies in Scottish history. In “Highland Rape,” he used luxurious, torn fabrics as a lament for the eviction of thousands of Scots from their lands during the Highland Clearances, an event he called “genocide.” And in “Widows of Culloden” he embellished tartans with jet beads in memory of the dead in the 1746 battle. If Scottish history isn’t romantic, why honor it with “romantic” clothes? If the Clearances were genocide, what makes “Highland Rape” morally better than designs inspired by Nazi death camps? Any beauty in the clothes co-opts the tragedies that gave rise to them. It’s as though Ralph Lauren’s more aggressive and ghoulish younger brother had created collections called “Antietam” and “Widows of 9/11.”

McQueen’s contractions may reflect his early work as a costume-cutter for London shows that included, he says, Les Misérables. Many of his designs, such as a winged, hooded dress made of black duck feathers, suit the stage better than the street. They look more like costumes than clothes, even for women who attend events that justify spending $20,000 for a gown. And unlike Middleton’s wedding dress, they are memorable less for their elegance than for their theatricality. Conventional elegance seems to have held little interest for McQueen, who said he wanted to “empower” women by making people afraid of them: “When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful.” Middleton showed courage in choosing the firm of a designer who once said of his runway shows: “I don’t want to do a cocktail party. I’d rather people left my shows and vomited.”

Best line: A quote from McQueen: “[I design from the side,] that way I get the worst angle of the body. You’ve got all the lumps and bumps, the S-bend of the back, the bum. That way I get a cur and proportion and silhouette that works all the way round the body.”

Worst line: More quotes from McQueen: “I hate it when people romanticize Scotland. There’s nothing romantic about its history.” And this one about “Highland Rape”: “Fundamentally, this collection is luxurious, romantic but melancholic and austere at the same time.”

Recommendation? This book doesn’t include a photo or information on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, so it’s not for anyone who is looking for those things. But it could make a good gift for people — and there were many of them — who couldn’t get into the Met show or spend as much time as they wanted there.

Published: May 31, 2011

Furthermore: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty was the eighth most popular show in the history of the Met and drew more visitors than any exhibit mounted by its Costume Intsitute. Holland Cotter reviewed the show for the New York Times. The blog for the museum includes a brief video about McQueen and photographs of some of the clothes it displayed, which appear in the catalog.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2009

My Holiday Gift-Book Guide on Twitter

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Looking for holiday gift-book ideas? I’ll post mine  on One-Minute Book Reviews closer to Christmas. In the meantime I’m putting up one or two gift-book suggestions a day for adults and children on Twitter (@janiceharayda) at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, based on reviews posted on this site. Today’s reminder: Fans of Jan Karon’s “Mitford” series might like Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (Harper, 2000), the first of Ann B. Ross’s “Miss Julia” books about a rich Presbyterian widow in a North Carolina hamlet who adopts a child. I reviewed it earlier this year on One-Minute Book Reviews.

December 17, 2008

A Coffee-Table Book About African Art from Algerian Pottery to Zulu Shawls — and Ghanaian Coffin Shaped Like a Mercedes

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In the capital of Ghana well-off families often bury their members in coffins shaped like objects important to the deceased — an onion for a farmer, a sword for a tribal leader, a Mercedes Benz for a successful businessman. A photo of a remarkable fish-shaped coffin appears in the new second edition of A History of Art in Africa (Pearson, 560 pp., $150), written by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, and Herbert M. Cole. And that picture suggests part of the appeal of this unusually comprehensive book, which spans thousands of years and topics from Algerian pottery to Zulu shawls: The authors show how much more there is to African art than the representations most familiar to Americans, such wood carvings, kente cloth, and Egyptian tomb paintings.

An intelligent text and more than 700 photographs describe the evolution of the continent’s jewelry, textiles, ceramics, painting, and photographs and other arts. And a new chapter in the second edition covers African artists abroad, including Edmonia Lewis (c. 1843–1909) “the first woman artist of African descent to gain prominence in the United States,” whose marble statue of the biblical Hagar appears in the Smithsonian Institution

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.

December 14, 2008

‘Ozzie and Harriet’ Meets MySpace in ‘Apartment Therapy Presents,’ a Coffee-Table Book for Fans of Back-to-the-’50s Décor – Turquoise Naugahyde Chairs, Anyone?

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Want to brighten your place for the holidays? How about hanging a fake AK-47 on the wall instead of mistletoe?

Apartment Therapy Presents. Real Homes. Real People. Hundreds of Real Design Solutions. By Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan with Jill Slater and Janel Laban. Chronicle, 264 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

A red-flocked Jesus coin bank. A mural of pink flamingoes. A paint-by-numbers picture of a black poodle.

These are a few of the things that stylish young renters and condo owners display in their homes today, or so we learn from Apartment Therapy Presents, a coffee-table book based on a popular Web site. The “current aesthetic,” the author says, aligns with the tastes of a couple who bought a 1951 ranch-style house in Skokie, Illinois: “the’50s are back in style.” Call it Cold War Chic or Ozzie and Harriet Meets MySpace.

If chairs covered with turquoise Naugahyde aren’t to your taste, this book shows other items that could earn you style points: a pair of fake AK-47s framed by a rococo-like mirrors, a scary-looking dental chair made around 1900, a thousand yellow Post-Its stuck to a wall like overlapping shingles.

You can’t accuse the author of making any of this up. Apartment Therapy Presents shows “40 real homes decorated by real people” in more than 400 color photographs. It has floor plans and resource lists long on plugs for ebay, IKEA, and Design Within Reach. Nor can you say you didn’t understand the risks of, say, standing on a ladder for days while you stick a thousand Post-Its to your wall. A notice on the copyright page warns that the author, publisher and others “disclaim any and all liability resulting from injuries or damages caused by imitating the ideas described herein.”

Best line/picture: Some apartments in this book shout, “I’m camping out.” Dana Joy Altman’s beautiful place in a converted circa 1902 single family house in Chicago’s Logan Square, says, “I’m home.”

Worst line/picture: The photo of a pair of fake AK-47s framed by mirrors that a young Manhattan tenant hung on his wall. You hope this man never has guests who have lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recommended if … you’re planning to redo a small space and have a sense of humor. One picture in this book shows a collection of “’50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s freezer doors” that hangs on a kitchen wall in the East Village.

Published: April 2008

Furthermore: This book grew out of the site Apartment Therapy www.apartmenttherapy.com

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2008

What’s Next? Marijuana-Laced Scent Strips in Children’s Books? — A Picture Book Version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’

[If you can't see the book cover at left, you can see it and hear "Forever Young" by clicking on the link to book trailer on YouTube at the end of this review.]

Forever Young. By Bob Dylan. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Ginee Seo Books, 40 pp., $17.99. Age range suggested on Amazon.com: 4–8. Actual age range: 50–70.

By Janice Harayda

Just in time for the holidays, here comes the latest piece of sucker bait tossed to sentimental baby boomers by publishers: a picture book that has no words except for the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth, “Forever Young.” What’s next, Let’s Read and Find Out About “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Or My First Book of “Everybody Must Get Stoned”?

The kindest thing you can say about this book is that it lacks the appropriate special effects: marijuana-laced scent strips so preschoolers can get stoned out of their minds while reading it. Paul Rogers’s coolly antiseptic illustrations suggest none of the heat Dylan’s music generated: A critic for Publishers Weekly rightly said that “the flat, digitally manipulated compositions recall 1960s low-budget animation.”

Rogers’s illustrations amount to a visual biography of Dylan from his Minnesota childhood through his early years as a singer-songwriter in New York (though you wonder if he and his schoolmates fist-bumped and wore waist-length backpacks as in this book). The pictures show Dylan playing only an acoustic guitar, but some details nod to his later electric years. And the book has so many images of celebrities that children could well come away from this book with the idea that Joan Baez, Ben Shahn, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Edie Sedgwick, Albert Einstein, DA Pennebaker and Martin Luther King Jr. once stood shoulder-to-shoulder at an antiwar march as they do here. Rogers needs two pages of end notes to explain all the visual references that will sail right over the heads of four-year-olds, which makes Forever Young something rare: a picture book with footnotes.

“Forever Young” is a sweet song from its opening lines (“May God bless you and keep you always” / May all your wishes come true”) through its closing refrain (“May you stay forever young”). But its simple rhyming lines don’t have anything close to the energy or poignancy – or just the poetry – needed to sustain a 40-page book without a companion tape or CD. And the words reflect a point of view few children are likely to share.

Although parents may wish their offspring to stay “forever young,” children typically want to grow up as fast as they can. This why psychologists advise parents to use such overworked as phrases as “big girl chair” or “big boy school” in talking about new and potentially frightening situations. Few things are scarier to many children than the idea that they may stay “forever young,” which they may equate with powerlessness.

So here’s a suggestion: If this book tempts you in the children’s section of a bookstore, don’t buy it for the kids. Buy it as a gag gift for one of those second-childhood–themed 50th or 60th birthday parties where everybody brings Mickey Mouse ears or Star Trek DVDs. For all its faults, Forever Young is still a lot cheaper than a gift certificate for six months’ worth of Botox or Viagra.

Best line: An end note quotes a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview in which Dylan said he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes: “just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records.”

Worst line: Some end notes are glorified product plugs: “Highway 61 Revisited (1965) is a great album to listen to when you’re on the road – or not.”

Editor: Ginee Seo

Published: September 2008

Watch the trailer for this book on YouTube, which has Dylan singing “Forever Young” as the pages of the book turn, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCMgDc2uiWI.

Furthermore: Can’t get enough of the sucker bait publishers throw at boomers? Click here to read about Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s 2007 picture book, The Alphabet from A to Y www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 4, 2008

Jessica Todd Harper – A Photographer of Manners Observes Her Patrician Family’s Christmas, Easter, Wedding and Other Customs

[If you can’t see the cover of this book, please click here www.jessicatoddharper.com.]

Interior Exposure. By Jessica Todd Harper. Foreword by Larry Fink. Damiani, 112 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Jessica Todd Harper’s photographs of her family are what Ralph Lauren ads might be like if they were real. This is a compliment. Unlike Polo ads, Harper’s pictures of her patrician family are warm, engaging and at times witty. They tell — or at least suggest — rich and multilayered stories.

Interior Exposure is the photographic equivalent of a good novel of manners, an art form that shows a well-defined social group at a particular time and place. Its pictures would provide wonderful visual data for anthropologists studying Eastern upper-class kinship rituals in the early 21st century. Harper’s relatives sport clownish paper hats, just extracted from poppers, at a Christmas Eve dinner. Her sister Becky wears an ill-fitting wedding dress in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ house, where the furnishings might have stayed the same for a century. In an amusing self-portrait with her future in-laws, Harper stands at attention as though trying to pass a military inspection.

Part of the charm of Interior Exposure is that it shows how a gifted photographer can bring fresh life to many elements of the high classical tradition in painting. Harper draws on techniques of the Dutch Golden Age: the artful use of natural light, subjects framed by doors and windows, paintings-within-paintings (represented by ancestral portraits within photographs) and domestic objects are that are at once ordinary and freighted with symbolic meaning. But like all good artists, she brings her own sensibility to tradition. Some of her pictures are almost an updated index to the symbols used in vanitas, those treatises-in-oil that comment on the transience of time and earthly life: clocks, flickering candles, half-empty wine goblets. At times you sense that Harper would have loved to include a skull or two, and you wonder what her work will look like when her children are old enough to go trick-or-treating.

But the pictures in Interior Exposure don’t moralize as vanitas do. They raise questions: Is Becky the diva she appears to be in Harper’s photos, or does she upstage other people by force of her beauty, not her personality? What is Harper saying by giving her such a prominent role? You could return to Interior Exposure again and again and keep seeing new things in it, just as you can with a great novel.

Best picture: No. 1: “Becky in the Dining Room, 2005.” Harper’s sister wears an ill-fitting wedding gown — possibly their mother’s — and stands next to an ancestral portrait in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If you saw this photo out of context, you might mistake it for a movie still from an elegant new film version of a Henry James novel. The picture would show the moment just before the doomed American heiress weds the callow European who, though she doesn’t know it yet, is marrying her only for her money. Everything in the Harpers’ dining room might have existed a century ago except for — a wonderful touch — a plastic bag on the table. Looking at the photo, you wonder how the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny ever got so discredited, because this picture seems to illustrate perfectly a Brahmin version of it. No. 2: “Self Portrait With Christopher and my Future In-Laws, 2001.”

Worst picture: “Self Portrait with Christopher (Rochester), 2000.” In this photo Christopher lies on a four-poster bed and gazes at his naked wife, whom we see from behind. Harper positioned the camera in a spot that allows a wood poster to rise majestically from her husband’s crotch. Christopher is going to take some ribbing about this one.

Consider reading also: Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting (Abrams, 2004), a good introduction to the use of symbols in Old Masters, including those of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you like this book, you might also like … Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989).

Published: March 2008 www.jessicatoddharper.com and www.damianieditore.com.

Furthermore: This book includes an interview with the author by Sarah Anne McNear in English and an Italian translation. Harper teaches at Swarthmore College and has won many awards for her work.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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September 14, 2008

Five Great Reference Books for Your Home Library That Also Make Excellent Holiday Gifts – A Librarian’s Favorites

Filed under: A-to-Z Holiday Gift List,Reference — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:18 am
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Lyndon Johnson recited the presidential oath from it on Air Force One.

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
Musician Tom Waits, as quoted in the Yale Book of Quotations

For years I’ve urged people to consider giving great reference books as holiday gifts, especially to families. Not many $25 bestsellers deliver as much value as the $12.99 World Almanac and Book of Facts, more than a thousand pages packed with sports statistics, election results, the most popular baby names, documents like the Gettysburg Address and more. And in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal Donald Altschiller, a librarian at Boston University, offers a terrific starter list for shoppers in the form of a quintet of reference books that he sees as essential for a home library.

Four of Altschiller’s choices have appeared — in some cases, repeatedly — on my own lists of gift-book recommendations: the Yale Book of Quotations (Yale, 2006), the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the Merck Manual of Medical Information: Second Edition (2003) and that World Almanac and Book of Facts (World Almanac, 2008). So I’ll take his word for the fifth: the Oxford Atlas of the World (Oxford University Press, 2007). Altschiller explains his choices in “Five Best” online.wsj.com/article/SB122125935106030191.html?mod=2_1167_1 (which accurately describes, for example, some advantages of the Yale Book of Quotations over Bartlett’s). His article also contains a few facts that, as often as I’ve written about these books, I didn’t know. One involves the World Almanac: “In November 1963, during the rushed swearing-in ceremony aboard Air Force One, Lyndon Johnson recited the presidential oath from this invaluable resource.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 21, 2007

Find Award-Winning Children’s Authors at the Site for the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie Medals

A great place to browse if you’re looking for top authors or illustrators

By Janice Harayda

The British equivalents of the Caldecott and Newbery awards are the Kate Greenaway and Carnegie medals, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CLIP). And CLIP has a well-designed site www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/home/index.php that’s a great place to learn about some of the best children’s authors and illustrators of the past 70 years. The “Living Archive” page lists all the winners. And if you click on the link that says “Shadow Site,” you’ll go to another site that has reviews and more.

Many books that have won Greenaway or Carnegie medals are available in American libraries if not always in stores. And some of their creators have won worldwide fame and have delighted children in the U.S. for years – Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs, Shirley Hughes, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Edward Ardizzone, Jan Pienkowski and others. So if you can’t find a medal-winning book, you can often find others by the same author or illustrator. The judges of the Greenaway and Carnegie awards tend to take more risks than the American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott committees www.ala.org, which have to satisfy more constituences. So the British medalists often include worthy books that would have had little or no chance of an American prize.

One Greenaway winner that’s in stock on Amazon and elsewhere is Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s interactive The Jolly Christmas Postman (Little, Brown, $17.99, ages 3 and up) www.allanahlberg.com. In this sequel to The Jolly Postman, a letter-carrier calls on well-known characters from fairy tales or nursery rhymes and gives them small items tucked into pockets in the book — Humpty-Dumpty gets a get-well jigsaw puzzle – before ending with a visit to Santa. This is an ideal Christmas gift for 3-to-5-year-olds for whom getting mail is still a thrill.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 16, 2007

How to Eat Well Before You Get Electrocuted — Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway’s ‘Picnics’

Filed under: Coffee Table Books,How to — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:21 pm
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You could get fried along with the trout at these outdoor feasts

Picnics. By Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway. Photographs by Audrey Hall. Gibbs Smith, 144 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

Taking my advice on cooking would be a little like taking advice on winning pennant races from a middle reliever for the Chicago Cubs. So I generally avoid reviewing cookbooks and stick to books on subjects I know perhaps too well, such as all the unintended comedy provided by the finalists for the recent Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

But I thought Picnics was my kind of book when I saw that it had a recipe for gorp (trail mix), which basically involves throwing together a few things like nuts, M&Ms and dried fruit. This coffee-table-topper isn’t a cookbook so much as a celebration of meals in the outdoors or other spots that call for portable food – sushi at your desk, dinner in bed, a sandwich on a plane (apparently a private jet, because you’d never get the glass bottle of San Pellegrino on page 24 past airport security). It has tips on defeating bugs, recipes for dishes like chili and grilled trout, and photos worthy of Martha Stewart Living.

The trouble arises when Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway move beyond outdoor, sunny-day picnics. Quoting the novelist Alice Walker, they say that the English see a tea as “a picnic indoors.” That’s true only of a low tea (which includes foods such as cucumber sandwiches and sweet buns). A high tea is eaten at a dining room table – typically, instead of dinner — and involves more substantial fare, such as ham, roast beef and Cornish pasties. Picnics perpetuates American misconceptions about these two types of tea by showing pictures of (and giving recipes for) what the authors call a “high tea” but that the English would consider a “low tea.”

Then there is the bizarre section on what to do when it rains on your picnic. The Heminways suggest that you seek shelter in a convertible or under a gabled roof, then seem to contradict themselves by saying that you could also have your picnic under an umbrella or “in the drench where you are.” The metal parts of umbrellas aren’t usually dangerous because people use them near taller trees or buildings. But they could increase your chance of frying to death on a flat field. And the suggestion that you take cover in a convertible seems similarly irresponsible. So let’s give the last word to a group that specializes in preventing the kind of disasters this book could cause. The American Red Cross says that if no building is nearby, a hard-top vehicle will offer some protection: “Keep car windows closed and avoid convertibles” www.redcross.org/services/disaster/0,1082,0_590_,00.html.

Best line: The old rhyme about how to avoid poison ivy: “Leaves of three, let it be.”

Worst line: “Weather never fails. It may disappoint, but it never fails.” Picnics has many lines like those: They sound pretty, but what do they mean?” The first line of the book exemplifies the flowery writing throughout: “Doomed, a painted skimmer cuts (cuts a hundred bias lines per minute) air rich with midges: curves past blue dashers (out for midges, too); breaks through pickerel weeds; stops short on a nodding monocot: a rush for rest.”

Recommendation? The pictures in this book are easy on the eyes, so you might consider it as a gift for someone who wouldn’t mind the lapses in the text.

Published: March 2007 www.gibbs-smith.com

Furthermore: Hilary Heminway and Alex Heminway also wrote Guest Rooms (Gibbs Smith, 2005).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 8, 2007

Where to Find Lists of Books Recommended for Adolescents and Teenagers

Looking for good books for adolescents or teenagers? You’ll find many suggestions at the site for the Young Adult Library Services Association www.ala.org/yalsa/, part of the American Library Association. Click on the page on the site that says “Booklists & Book Awards” to find librarian-approved titles in categories such as “Books for the College Bound,” “Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults” and “Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.”

This is a repost for holiday shoppers of an item that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in September.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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