Tag Archives: artists

The Teddy Bears Picnic

Hero: The Paintings of Robert Bissell (Pomegranate, $65.00, 140 pages)

Hero-book-3D-layer

Hero bear

“Mystical” and “engaging” and “riveting” are words that only begin to describe the spectacular bear painting gracing the cover of Hero. This is obviously a lush coffee table book. More than that, it is a journey into the world of painter Robert Bissell. Bissell is a master at photorealism with a marvelous twist. Rather than slavishly reproducing the likenesses of creatures in the wild, he grants his subjects an intimate aura.

Hero bears and rabbits

The bears and rabbits (his favorites) have startling anthropomorphic qualities in their eyes, gestures and positioning. These creatures are caught in Zen-like moments. Bissell has provided disarmingly open statements about his works and their inspiration in the paragraphs that accompany most of the paintings reproduced on the pages of this big impressive, high-quality book.

Unlike many of the books of this genre that include explanatory historic notes, the text in Hero serves to draw the reader in and add depth to the paintings. The reading experience is captivating, so much so that the many pages are clearly not meant to be flipped through; rather, they must be savored and revisited to grasp the full meaning of Bissell’s work.

Mr. Bissell, who currently lives in Oregon, was born in the United Kingdom. He was a professional photographer prior to committing to being a painter. The composition of his paintings is impeccable and his photographer’s eye flawlessly translates a mix of fantasy and reality into pictures that hold the viewer’s attention.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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No Regrets

Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy by Judith Watt (Harper Design, $35.00, 288 pages)

“Alexander McQueen has been referred to as the fashion world’s darling, its rebel and pioneer.   He was all of these things…”   Daphne Guinness

“He likes to call his rivals ‘pretentious’…  (his arrogance is) his own worst flaw, second only to his ignorance.”   Daily Mail (London)

“Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution.”   Alexander McQueen

The fashion designer Alexander McQueen was a number of figures in one.   First, he was a fashion visionary – a man who saw the future of the industry and put his daring vision on stage years before the world was ready to see it.   Second, he was an infant terrible, a terribly antagonistic figure who loved challenging authority and upsetting others for seemingly no reason.   (In one instance, he began a fashion show exactly one hour late so that he could see the invited guests squirm.)   Third, he was literally a mama’s boy.   McQueen could so little handle the thought of living without his beloved mother that he committed suicide between the day of her death and her funeral service.

If it’s not already clear, McQueen was both a genius and a troubled figure.   This in itself would present problems for any biographer or tribute writer.   In Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy, Judith Watt does her best to present a calm portrait of a fashion designer most known for his “over the top runway shows,” and sometimes over the top personal life.   If a reader was to simply read the words of this generally complimentary account (clearly intended to present a positive spin on McQueen), he or she might feel the pro-McQueen case was aptly presented.   However, at least half of McQueen is filled with visual images of McQueen’s work and most of them are rather startling and uncompromising, if not unpleasant.   Strike that, they’re mostly unpleasant.

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them.   That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules…”   Alexander McQueen

“I want women to be afraid of the women I dress.”   Alexander McQueen

I began reading this account in the corner with the group that thinks of the late designer as a boat-rocking genius.   One might argue that he was a rock and roll designer, always seeking to rile up the establishment even when it was all for show (and for controversy resulting in P.R., resulting in becoming and being known for being controversial).   But the great majority of the images displayed in this self-proclaimed “in-depth look at the most controversial designer of a generation” are so often off-putting that it’s clear why McQueen had to issue this semi-apology for his work:  “I know I’m provocative.   You don’t have to like it…  you do have to acknowledge it.”

The release of this volume is unlikely to alienate existing fans of the late designer, but it is certainly not going to win him any converts.   It’s probable that some will pick up this book and rapidly set it down.   To give McQueen his due, he designed fashion that was – to use his own prophetic words, “ahead of its time.”   And he remained true to his vision first through failure and then success.

McQueen’s wild, unbridled form of genius sometimes led him to seem like a visitor from another planet – still he was a man, an artist of passion.   It will undoubtedly be many decades before his rightful place in fashion history will be determined.   But Alexander McQueen was fully correct when he told the world:  “If you don’t have passion for something, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 304 pages)The singer Mary Wells had an amazing, crystal clear voice that was to presage what came later with The Supremes and Diana Ross.   Wells’ early ’60s-era singles, such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “Two Lovers” were so perfectly recorded that it’s difficult, even now, to think of anyone attempting to cover them.   (Try substituting another singer’s voice in your mind.   Try it.   It can’t be done.)

The Queen of Motown died all too young from cancer at the age of 49, and in a basically impoverished state.   Wells’ dramatic riches to rags story offered cinematic-style opportunities for the right writer.   In Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Peter Benjaminson delivers an account that falls short of being extensive or definitive.   Biographies of artists – musicians, writers, fashion designers, actors – often come across as flawed when the biographer missed the chance to interview his or her subject.   While Benjaminson interviewed many of Wells’ “friends, lovers and husbands,” he was forced to rely on another writer’s dated one-on-one interviews with the singer.

Because Benjaminson cannot describe what it was like to be in Wells’ orbit or company, he takes the route of writing about “the sex, the violence and the drugs in her life.”   This is unfortunate because writing about Wells’ sexual partners, domestic violence incidents, and her illicit drug use does nothing to flesh her out as an artist.   The story of Wells’ life is told in such a straight-forward, chronological order that there’s no rush to turn the pages.   (It’s a book that I put down far more than I intended.)

The story’s momentum comes late, when Benjaminson deals with Wells’ clearly fatal cancer diagnosis and her poverty.   Wells might have been a multi-millionaire had she taken the deal offered to her by Berry Gordy to remain at Motown as a co-owner of the record company.   Instead, she left to begin what she felt was going to be a highly successful musical career with another label.   It was not to be, and Wells’ later may have repeated her mistake by turning down an alleged offer of $1 million from Gordy when she was quite ill.   (Benjaminson is unclear as to whether this offer was, in fact, ever put on the table.)

Mary Wells, the woman who – in her own words – “helped build Motown” was to survive by playing gigs in small clubs, in hotels such as the Sheraton Airport Hotel at LAX, at San Quentin State Prison, and basically wherever someone would offer her a few dollars to walk on stage.   It’s ironic that, as Benjaminson states, Wells was to pursue fortune, not fame during her lifetime but her terrible personal decisions left her with “no money to speak of.”

Where Benjaminson gets it right is in providing readers with details about Wells’ recording sessions at Motown (with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) and elsewhere.   These details are what draw the interest of music fans.   There are, however, some facts presented in this bio that may be open to question.   For example, Benjaminson insists that Wells was hugely popular for several decades in Latino neighborhoods in California, and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.   This was not evident to this reviewer when I lived in L.A.

As with Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal (2010), which was highly focused on personal issues rather than on the music of the three performers, this bio by Peter Benjaminson left me feeling that I knew little more about the late, great Mary Wells when I finished it than when I opened it.   I suspect that one can discover more about her spirit, her character by listening again to her records, her songs — a life’s work.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This review first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:  http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-mary-wells-the-tumultuous/ .

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The Singer Not The Song?

On First Glance

Novelist Amy Hatvany (Outside the Lines, Best Kept Secret) introduced an interesting discussion on Facebook by asking, “Do you think most book reviews are about the book or the reviewer?”   Interestingly, most of the respondents – a majority of whom seemed to be writers – selected the latter option.   I would like to respectfully disagree with this perspective.

It’s sometimes asked about a great song, “Is it the singer (the artist) or the song (the product)?”   When it comes to a review of a new book, I think the reviews are mostly about the product, before touching upon the author and/or the reviewer.   Why do I say this?   Because I’ve had multiple instances in which I love a book (often a debut or second novel) by an author, only to be disappointed by a later work.   So I know that my judgment is not about the writer as a person – or as a writer in general – but about the latest book he or she has completed.

This does not mean, as I’ve said before, that mine – or another reviewer’s – is the correct view.   It’s simply the one arrived at by a particular reader-reviewer.   I have no problem with considering other views as likely to have merit because each of us comes from a different time in life with different experiences…   Let’s say we were considering two memoirs by women writers.   Would we expect the one written by the 55-year-old cancer survivor to be the same as the one written by the 25-year-old right out of college?   Of course not – yet each would be a valid view on life as she knows it.

It’s All Personal

Someone wrote that music mix tapes/CDs are as much about the person putting them together as the person they were intended for.   I certainly concur with this.   We each demonstrate something of ourselves in the things we love – whether it’s a book, painting or music selection.   Sometimes people can learn more about us, inadvertently or not, by studying our favorite things.   And this begins to explain why book reviews are, yes, also about the reviewer.   The fact that a reviewer likes or does not like a particular book tells us something about him/her, and we hope the connection is revealed in the review and not kept hidden.

One of the highest recommendations for a book is that a friend has read it and loved it.   I recently lost a good friend who sought to convince me, since last September, that I must read the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.   Since the paperback’s over 600 pages, I declined the invitation.   But now I will likely do so.   Why?   Because I will not have the chance to communicate with my friend again; and I suspect that in reading Franzen’s novel I will find something of her in it that will help me to see why she loved it, and what it had to do with her time on earth.

Very Personal

Some innovative new research appears to indicate that our personal views about books and films are even more individual than we suspected.   There are automated programs based on mathematical algorithms that attempt to predict what we might buy.   At Amazon, for example, you might be informed that, “If you liked this book by author Joe Blow, you may also like the new novel by Sally Snow.”   But guess what?   These programs don’t seem to work in practice.

As noted in an article in the U. C. Berkeley alumni magazine, California (“Taste By Numbers”) – quoting Professor Ken Goldberg:  “When you’re rating or evaluating something like a book or a movie…  you’re doing something that’s a matter of taste.   I think it’s not easily pigeonholed into a series of boxes.   Matters of taste are almost physiological.   It’s literally taste – part of your digestive system.   Or we talk about a gut reaction…”

So the next time you read a review of a book that you don’t agree with, you may want to chalk it up to simple differences in life experiences – or the reviewer’s Irritable Bowel Syndrome!

Joseph Arellano

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Weiss of Sacramento, California.

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Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

“The Great Women Series” by Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees: A Novel

I have always believed in the power of the stories women tell about their lives.   These are the stories that can soften landings, bolster new beginnings, and telescope dreams so that they appear within reach.   These are also the types of stories that were shared by our grandmothers and passed down to our mothers, the stories that came from the heartbreaks and revelations of our great aunts and neighbors, the stories that soothed and inspired.   While many women today lack this sort of community, it is my hope that together we can create it.   This is the purpose of The Great Women Series.

It is a compilation of the best advice from the most outstanding women I know.   Some are authors and artists, like myself.   Others are athletes, teachers, survivors, healers and shining spirits.   Some are well-known.   Others, more private.   Some have touched my life profoundly.   Others only briefly.   Some I have known my whole life.   Others, it only feels that way.   All are women that I admire and whose words and stories I have found inspiring.   I am proud to bring their voices and their uncommon wisdom to the world.   My hope is that their words will awaken and empower girls and women on the journey to becoming who they are meant to be!

Some stories of the journey are not for the faint of heart.   Some are war stories.   Others are stories of incredible grace and good fortune.   Few are unmarked by heartbreak.   Many, by tragedy.   Most hold uncommon wisdom.   Almost everyone has experienced a miracle of some sort.   I have rarely met anyone who didn’t consider herself incredibly lucky in some area of her life.

Several months ago, after finishing up my book tour for The Language of Trees, I started meeting with book groups.   I was impressed and humbled by the candor and the wisdom of the women in these groups as they related to characters in my novel and began to tell me their own stories.   In group after group, I’d look out at these resplendent women and feel an overwhelming sentiment: Gratitude.   And the realization that all of us are so very wise at different times in our lives.

Our unique journeys are our most precious gifts.

Find us at – http://www.greatwomenseries.com .

Yours on the journey,

Ilie

Pictured:  Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer by Nancy G. Brinker and Joni Rodgers.

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In My Life

Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese; $28.95; 336 pages)

Lady Antonia Fraser has produced a memoir that is a loving and memorable tribute to the late Nobel prize-winning playwright, screenwriter and poet, Harold Pinter.   Fraser happened to meet Pinter while he was married to his first wife.   They spent many hours talking until Pinter indicated that it would be wise for him to return to his home.   This was when Fraser, who was also married, asked him, “Must you go?”   Pinter stayed and this, for all practical purposes, was the beginning of the 33-year-period that they spent together – first as an unofficial couple and then as married partners.

The reader never doubts the accuracy of the events recounted in this memoir, as it was based on Fraser’s daily diary entries (most of which were read by Pinter).   Fraser admits that married life was not without conflict, although they made it a rule to never go to bed angry…  Sometimes this meant going to sleep just before daybreak.   And Fraser admits to never quite knowing or understanding the genius that her husband embodied.   At one point a Washington Post reporter asked her a somewhat absurd question, “What is Harold Pinter like about the house, all those pauses and enigmatic statements, I’ve always wondered?”   Fraser’s response was, “Keep wondering.”

“Living with Harold the writer was a rewarding experience since he behaved exactly like artists behave in books but seldom do in real life.”

Pinter was to find true happiness with Fraser, the love of his life but it may well have affected his creativity.   His initial marriage resulted in several successful plays that revolved around, in Pinter’s words, “unhappy frozen married relationships.”   As he was to admit to Antonia, “Happiness is not dramatic.”   But Pinter was to find a new outlet for his energies and his intellect, and this was in taking positions on the world’s political issues.   He was, in a sense, like John Lennon who took strong positions on war and peace even though he knew it alienated many.   Lennon was to say that this was just the way he was.   Fraser writes of Pinter that, “…he took for granted what we might euphemistically call his outspokenness and could not quite see why other people sometimes objected.”

Pinter was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a time, late in his life, when he was too ill to attend the award ceremony.   But he took an ambulance to a television studio in London where he videotaped his acceptance speech.   It seemed that the discontented Prodigal Son had finally been called home.

“Harold and I now love each other more than ever, now and forever.”

If the first two-thirds of Must You Go? chronicles the adventurous life of a man of letters, than the last third documents the struggle of a man who fought cancer and survived it in his seventies, only to eventually lose the good fight.   This last third is a tale of bravery and self-pride and triumph.   Pinter was to leave this mortal coil but only when his body had completely failed him – he never lost his mind nor his heart.   Pinter died on Christmas Eve of 2008.   His life justified the line in one of his favorite poems by Philip Larkin, “What will survive of us is love.”

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Must You Go? was released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on November 2, 2010.

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Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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