Jan 16, 2018


by Sara Davidson

I read this book. Not my usual type. I'd tried it months ago and it's been sitting on my swap shelf and kept catching my eye from there so I thought to give it another try.

It's a pseudo memoir/fiction piece by an screenwriter for the tv show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Talks about difficulties with her ex, her spoiled kids, and her co-workers on the set. I did find parts about how the show was produced interesting. Kind of on a whim she goes to a cowboy poetry event in Elko, Nevada and meets a cowboy who makes things with braided rawhide- belts, horse bridles. They start dating. Long-distance. She pays to fly him from Arizona to visit her in Los Angeles. All the time. They are very different- in economic and social standing, background and everything else- but have a great time in bed so... what she thought would be temporary and fun turned into something long-term. He teaches her kids to behave, she gets him a job on the film set and helps him rent an apartment. The kids resent him, the co-workers look down on him, and she gets frustrated at always paying his bills. But he's so great at taking care of her emotional needs that it all works out. But it felt like there was a big part missing from the story. I couldn't put my finger on what. And through the whole thing it bugged me that she referred to her relationship as an affair. But she was divorced. I don't get it. Call it a "fling" but it's not an affair if you're not currently already in a relationship with someone, right?

Um. I could have done with less details from the bedroom and more about the troubles with her teen children (she says those parts were all made up, btw), or about her boyfriend's work with cattle and horses. That was more interesting to me, but usually sidelined for the steamy stuff. Oh well. It was a light read. One I probably won't repeat.

Rating: 2/5              270 pages, 1999

Jan 12, 2018


My Life in the Kitchen
by Lucy Knisley

I picked this book up on a whim at the library, knowing I'd seen it mentioned on a few blogs. The first few pages are kind of an info dump on how involved her family is with fine food- her mother was a caterer and a chef, her father a proclaimed gourmand- and I thought how dull is this going to be? But then it starts to tell a personal story, and ended up being rather delightful.

It's basically a memoir centered around food. Knisley tells what it was like growing up with parents who were devout foodies, and how startled she was to discover junk food much later than other kids. How on family trips she and a friend explored a Mexican town pretty much unsupervised and delighted in the street food, and later how disconcerting it was to encounter a totally foreign cuisine in Japan. How family meals shaped her family, and continued to connect them even after her parents split up. Days spent helping her mother in farmer's markets, working behind a cheese counter, getting to tour behind-the-scenes in the restaurant of a fancy kitchen. Describing different cities she lived in via their restaurants and growth in foodie movements. All around ode to our deep connections with what we eat- secret pleasures, handed-down skills, visceral memories. Her struggles to master certain dishes, her efforts to impress or comfort friends with food she made. She shares recipes in a picture format, and gives tips to use in the kitchen. It's not only about how certain culinary traditions lived through her family, but also a story of growing-up, with plenty of funny moments.

Fair warning: in the section where the kids are roaming unsupervised in Mexico, the author indulged in fast food and her friend bought porn magazines. Covers are shown in the pictures. They're not detailed, and not very large, but it's obviously what they are. (Oddly enough, the parents seemed to know about this and ignored the boy's growing collection of magazines until in the airport on the way home they obliquely shamed him into dumped them in the trash). So be advised, not a book for younger readers in spite of the cartoony nature of the artwork.

Must try a few of the recipes!

Rating: 3/5           173  pages, 2013

more opinions:
Beth Fish Reads
Reading Rants
Joyfully Retired
Estella's Revenge

Jan 11, 2018

The Sculptor

by Scott McCloud

One of the heftiest graphic novels I've ever read, but the story moves quickly. It's about a struggling young artist in New York City- a sculptor named David who is seriously down on his luck. Desperate to make his name, he trades his life in - making a deal with Death (personified as his dead great-uncle Harry) in which he can create anything effortlessly with his hands, but within a limited time frame. At first it is thrilling, then frustrating. Suddenly David realizes he doesn't know what to say with his art, and if he does, can it make any difference if no one sees it? The ins and outs of the art scene of New York sound like a massive headache- as I've always imagined. David finally discovers a clever way to subvert the system, and plunges all his energies into creating pieces that will definitely be remembered. But then he falls in love with a theater girl. And finds out that his girlfriend struggles with mental illness. And is suddenly terrified of dying. This book has some heavy subject matter in it- but I didn't always get it.The characters often seemed really full of themselves, too angsty- well, at least the main character was. The girlfriend was nice, but rather shallow- there just wasn't enough of her in the story. Aside from her obvious role as a recipient of David's affections. I don't really share the main character's views about art. And I don't know if I like the way this story ended, at all. Nevertheless, it was a gripping read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                      496 pages, 2015

more opinions:
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books
Reading Rants
Ex Libris

Hollowed Out

Poems on self-life and spiritual blackmail, vol. 4
by Angie Outis

This slim volume of very personal poetry reveals the big question I had from volume 2- what was in the letter from her husband's employer? Yeah, it's frightening. Makes your stomach drop. No wonder she decided to leave him husband. These pages detail her fear and desperation under the thumb of a controlling spouse. Trying to speak out to her therapist, her parents, her friends- little help from any side. Various plans she made, the long struggle for a final break. It's hard. Hard to read it and must have been even harder to live it. I had my own troubles with an ex, but they weren't like this. If there's a fifth or sixth volume upcoming, I do hope it shows light on the other side- getting through the dark times to find something better.

I received a copy of this book from the author.

Rating: 3/5                  30 pages, 2017

Jan 10, 2018

Drawing Animals

by Victor G. Ambrus

Ambrus is one of my favorite illustrators. I really admire his linear style especially the tiny hatching done to show the direction of hair or form. This book of his is just one to drool over (or practice by copying the drawings), it's not a step-by-step instruction book. Instead it's a showcase of Ambrus' drawings of animals. Most of them done on location at zoos or wildlife parks, some are of pets, horses from a friend's stable or cattle in the fields. Little notes on the pages describe a bit about his working conditions, his preferred drawing media (graphite and charcoal- he's not afraid to smudge!), and something about the techniques he uses to capture likeness of living animals that are moving around. Basically his advice is: start with large basic shapes, work in the details later. There are also brief paragraphs telling some facts about the wild animals, which I read with interest. He enjoys sketching at the zoo, which is also a favorite activity of mine (one I wish I could indulge in more often). So I could really relate to his comments about dealing with crowds and curious children. It's a book I return to again and again to admire someone else's skill and hope to emulate.

This alternate cover shows a few more of the drawings:
a few more samples:
Rating: 4/5             120 pages, 1990

Jan 9, 2018

The Horse in the West

A Comprehensive Picture History
by Bradley Smith

An older, large book full of photographs, that I picked up from a library sale. It's not quite what I expected. There are horse stories, but they're very brief, told in a reporting kind of style. It's a history of several horse breeds and how integral they were to the development of the Western area of the United States. The Arabian, Thoroughbred, Appaloosa and Quarter Horse. Mustangs are mentioned here and there. Quite a bit of early American history, how horses were brought overseas and introduced to the Native Americans, their importance in Native cultures and later in the book, the singular Appaloosa breed among the Nez Percé tribe. It's a lot about where certain breeds originated, great sires, the stud books, and what makes good conformation. I learned some about racing, rules regulating betting that made the sport legal again (it was banned as immoral during the early 1900's). I thought the section on Quarter Horses would have a lot about cutting horses, their skill working cattle and showing in rodeos. But really that part of the book seemed focused on how Quarter Horse racing differed from Thoroughbred racing. The pictures are fine, but nothing spectacular. I skimmed through a lot of the specifics on breeding lineages, admired the photos and am ready to put this book on my swap shelf. It would have been nice to see the artwork of appaloosa horses mentioned in the final chapter, but the descriptions were accurate enough I could find some examples online.

Rating: 2/5            253 pages, 1969

Jan 8, 2018


An Ode to the Crap Job of All Crap Jobs
by Derf Backderf

Slice-of-life story based on the short time the author spent working as a garbage collector. It shows how three twenty-something friends sweat day in and day out at a thankless job. They make digs at each other, groan about the disgusting nature of the work, speculate about local citizens due to what they throw on the curb (some of it shocking), and pitch their ears to gossip around the public service offices. And of course pick items out of the garbage to keep for themselves. Interspersed with the narrative are panels of facts on trash- how much we produce, how it is processed, where it all ends up. I'd like to hope these statistics aren't true- that we recycle more than it says, that conditions have improved in containing leachate contamination- but probably they haven't. Regardless, I enjoyed this book a bit more than the last one, and some of it was certainly eye-opening. It made made me chuckle quite a bit. But the humor is crude in lots of places, as you might expect. Reminded me quite a bit of that tv program, Dirty Jobs.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5            256 pages, 2015

more opinions:
Finding Wonderland


by Max de RadiguĂ©s

I recently discovered my library has an adult graphic novel section. Picked this one up browsing. Don't be fooled by the seemingly visual simplicity- this story is disturbing and not for young readers. It's about a lonely kid Joe, who is relentlessly bullied in school. It's awful the lengths the other boy goes to in order to make his life miserable. It's sad that some adults try to reach out to Joe, but he can't tell them what is going on- afraid of how the bully will retaliate. Who easily twists circumstances to make things look like Joe's fault. Joe suffers mostly in silence, but finds a bit of solace in nature. He cuts through the woods on a walk to school and is thrilled to observe a moose on a few occasions. I did think it rather funny that in detention, Joe was ordered to copy articles out of National Geographic (instead of doing homework) and came across photos of partially-nude tribal women. He happily found an article on moose and so learned something he appreciated while doing the work that was supposed to be punishment. Joe is also a fan of Lord of the Rings, which endears him to me somewhat. So it looks like the bully situation is not going to get any better for Joe until a fateful day when the bully ambushes him in the woods. I'll leave the reader to find out what happens if they want to approach this book. It's not pretty. Joe is suddenly presented with the possibility of enacting revenge. And the bully shows his true colors- he certainly seems to deserve whatever he got. Nasty kid.

The artwork really did nothing for me, though. But I'm sure its simplicity was to make you focus on the events, bare and bleak as they are.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               160 pages, 2015

Jan 7, 2018

Elegy Beach

by Steven R. Boyett

Written twenty-five years after Ariel, this second book of The Change takes place in the following generation. Fred (son of Pete from the first book) is skilled at casting spells and wants to learn more. Cocky and self-sure adolescents, Fred and his best friend Yan push the boundaries of known ability. Yan gets heady with the potential power he can wield, the two friends argue about their responsibilities and Yan is forced to flee the community. Later when creatures come hunting a unicorn horn- key to the most powerful magic that could undo the laws of the Universe- Fred knows what Yan is planning to do- and that he must put a stop to his grandiose plan. So with a few companions he goes off on a mission to confront his best friend. This story arc was so much like the first book. Quest through a decayed landscape full of ruins of civilization, to find and stop the bad guy. Some of the original characters have a large role in it as well. Enough of it was unique- and I especially liked the explanations about the laws of magic, and how Yan and Fred were able to discover new ways to manipulate it, comparing along the way to how computer systems work. It's interesting to me how many stories inside stories were told here. Characters relate stories to each other- for pages- their histories, what happened to others. (Fred does quite a bit of eavesdropping, ha.). In one part telling stories of the past is even part of a large ritual. It was nice to get some details from the first book filled in.

One interesting detail is the very subtle suggestion that Fred and Yan were lovers. It's something I might not have noticed if James hadn't pointed it out. It's just not a big part of the story. I wonder if the author was trying to make a point that in the future after the Change, such relationships were seen as normal, so nobody would even think to mention it? At one point the main character is exploring an old building and remarks how odd he finds it that people in the past used to segregate men and women for changing rooms and toilet areas. He seemed to think it was amusingly quaint. Or was the character keeping it secret- certainly his father didn't know exactly how close he and Yan had been. It's never really made clear.

On the whole I didn't find this one quite as funny as Ariel. A lot of it is built on action- but the narrative seemed to slow down the closer it got the end with the big showdown. At some point I was just anxious for it to get there and making myself read through all the obstacles the characters had to overcome. And unfortunately I didn't feel as connected to the characters themselves. The unicorn in particular wasn't as strong an individual as I remember. I wish there'd been more about Avy. And the centaurs in here? They sound freakishly menacing but I was unable to picture them clearly. Looked about just in case someone else might have made an illustration based on the author's description, but nope.

Sounds like there's another installment coming- I found comments online suggesting the author has a third Book of the Change in store- Avalon Burning. I'd read it.

Rating: 3/5         424 pages, 2009

more opinions:
James Reads Books

Jan 3, 2018

Modeling My Life

by Janet Scudder

Janet Scudder was one of the first acclaimed female American sculptors. But her start was not easy and I believe she wrote this book in part to show how much hard work being an artist can take! She started out with drawing classes in school but when first had a beginning course in sculpture, realized it was her thing. At the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 she saw the work of Frederick W. MacMonnies and determined this was the master who would teach her. She simply travelled to France (with hardly a penny to her name), eventually found his studio and wouldn't take no for an answer. Her descriptions of early work in studios in France are just delightful, especially the discovery of self and development of her own style. Initially she did a lot of decorative wood carving (because it paid bills), then bas-relief seals and portrait medallions. Finally got comissions doing statues and funerary urns, but decided she didn't want to spend the rest of her life "doing work for the dead" so instead began making wonderful figures of happy chubby dancing children, to decorate fountains and gardens. And ultimately that's what she became known for.

So the book is a lot about her road through life: early studies and struggles living in poor neighborhoods and dismal studios, seeking work all the time. In fact some descriptions of Paris and New York (when it felt unwelcoming to her) remind me a lot of Down and Out in Paris and London. On the other hand, her pluck and unremitting determination are also very reminiscent of Betty MacDonald's voice in Anybody Can Do Anything... She tells about her first exposition, her first inclusion in a museum, her first big comission, her first home purchase- in France- she lived in France just as often as in New York and seemed to feel more at home there. Later parts of the book are more about her observations of New York social circles, her work as a suffragette and later volunteering in the war effort, and her ideas on color theory- how it affects people's moods and could be used in public spaces for cheering effect. Some parts are just plain funny, others more serious, but always her strong personality is core. I didn't absorb quite as much information about sculpture as I'd expected, but a lot about her personal ideology as an artist. Good reading indeed.

This book is on my e-reader. And here I have a complaint. The copy itself is horrid. It's another one I acquired free as a digital file because it is old enough to be in the public domain... but it's obviously the file was created by some automated means. There were jumbled letters and nonsensical words on nearly every page- most of the time I could decipher what the word was supposed to be, but not always. Frequently one end of quotation marks was depicted as cc. Chapter titles that must have originally been at the top of every page instead interrupted paragraphs a third of the way down each screen on my e-reader. Photos were all grainy, dark and indistinct- better they had been left out entirely.

It says a whole lot for how much I enjoyed and treasured the words of this artist, that I got through the entire thing regardless of all these distractions and flaws. Definitely one I'm going to try and find a hardcopy of, then I can erase the file.

Rating: 4/5           297 pages, 1925

Jan 2, 2018

happy new year

I was travelling over the holidays. It wasn't intended to be a bookish trip (aside from the fact that I finally got through some books on my e-reader). We had quite a few flights and I didn't want to haul books around, plus I didn't anticipate finding many English books in the Spanish- and Dutch-speaking countries we visited (or at least, slim chance that among the small English selection there'd be anything I actually wanted). But in spite of that I brought two home:
The first is a YA (or J Fic?) graphic novel El Zoo Petrificado by Joris Chamblain (The Petrified Zoo). Turns out the original isn't Spanish but French, so this is already a translation. I looked it up when I got home and there doesn't seem to be an English version yet. We were in a small newstand/gift shop in a main bus station on Gran Canaria, killing some time and making a purchase to get change for the bus. Picked out a few items for the kids as souvenirs, and this book kept catching my eye. I thumbed through it in the shop- it appears to be about some kids who together with an old man start painting animals on the walls of a derelict zoo- and then I don't know what happens. I was really intrigued by the artwork and apparent subject matter, and I thought I just might be able to understand enough of it to enjoy it rather than struggle at translating every other word, since it's written for youth. We'll see! If I do manage to read it, this will be the first foreign-language book featured on my blog.
The second book has quite another story. On our last day abroad we stayed in a nice but very futuristic-feeling airport hotel, Citizen M. It had lots of large, open areas set up like living room spaces, to relax or eat in. With tons of floor-to ceiling shelves full of fake plants, classy bric-a-brac and books. It looked like someone just bought a ton of unwanted, cheap books secondhand to fill these shelves and make it look homey. But book nerd that I am, I actually scanned the titles while eating, and found one by Peter Dickinson that caught my interest because it has similar subject matter to another book I'm reading right now (Elegy Beach by Peter S. Beagle); in both stories the alteration of the world is called The Change. I like the illustrations, too (but the cover image is pretty awful).

I read the first few chapters while my husband watched the news, and then approached a staff member on the way back to our room. I asked if the books were decorative only, or if I could read this one? He shrugged: Oh, sure, you may keep it for yourself. He probably thought it was funny or odd I wanted this old, juvenile apocalyptic fiction. But I was tickled pink.

Here's another foreign book I've newly acquired. This one is a gift I received in the mail, from the Netherlands. One of my vector artworks is being used by a village association in Westenschouwen to represent their legend of a mermaid. My drawing was included in their book of the village history, and they sent me a copy of it! I've asked my husband to read and translate it to me a bit at a time- so far we've gotten through the introduction (he is fluent in Dutch, whereas I know about four words). I have written more about it over here, on my art blog.
Not to be outdone, my husband also picked up a new book while we were at a museum in Galdar. There was a countertop next to the lockers with a row of books and a notice about Book Crossing! None were in English, but my husband happily picked out a German crime/thriller, and left in its place a Dutch paperback he'd finished reading earlier on the plane.

On a different note, I was disappointed to find I can't do book splurges from Loudoun County surplus anymore. There was a little storefront just outside of town where unwanted stuff from government offices was sold off. Including tons of books weeded out of school libraries. I used to go there once every other year or so, and I could fill up three or four boxes of books for what amounted to thirty dollars- it ended up being less than twenty cents a book. I hadn't been in a long time (since I got so much from The Book Thing recently, and a large regional library sale earlier in the year). I was looking forward to taking my older daughter this vacation week. But it's now closed. They now only conduct online auctions, and unfortunately I don't want to buy huge lots of books unseen. I'm not in the business anymore of selling off used ones on Amzn (tried that already, didn't work out for me). Well, I guess it's better to not overdo it on the used books anyhow. There are two tall piles in my bedroom already since I ran out of shelf space, and I need to work at getting the floor cleared again!