Monday, December 10, 2018

Books I Enjoyed in 2018

Year's end is always a prod to take stock on what you did and didn't do. In this case, I'm looking back to see what I read. I read at night, on airplanes, on Saturdays, and because of this in-between style of reading the books tend to blend. If you asked, I might draw a blank.

So with this focal point, I'll give, in no particular order, a brief list and summaries of books I enjoyed this year. And I remember enjoying them!


A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel by Amor Towles. Watch for the sly wit in the beginning; this book cracked me up right away, and I knew I was in for an entertaining ride. Not a fast ride, exactly; it's a long novel, but definitely entertaining. Imagine being imprisoned in the finest hotel you can think of, complete with restaurant and shops. It gives an interesting picture of an era in Russia, the descriptions or clothes and food and people and scenes are vivid, the interactions delightful. I was engaged from the beginning, but when he meets the little girl who wants to be a princess, the book perks up even more.

Rules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles. I enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow so much I wanted to keep reading, and since I have a crush on New York City, I knew this book would be for me. Set in Manhattan in the 1930s, and full of smoke, boardinghouses, champagne, style, and a social scene, it's another story that transports us to another time as we follow a young woman navigating from poor to rich. This was Towles's first novel.

The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. A slim, poetic book of nonfictional prose in diary form documenting the author as he obsessively tracks the life cycle and habits of the Peregrine Falcons near him in England in the early 1960s. He rides his bicycle for miles. He hikes. He waits. He watches carefully. So deeply does he go that the reader learns as s/he waits and watches, too. The beautiful language makes this book like drinking a thick hot chocolate or looking at a luscious painting. The narrator makes it clear that he wants to be the falcon, not own it. A desire for a kind of freedom. 

Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here by Joseph Heller. My cousin tipped me off to this memoir by the author of Catch-22. Why? Because her father, my uncle (and cousin, we have a complex family), is mentioned in it, as are his parents' (my cousins, also) drugstore, which I learned had a lending library as well. All of this on Coney Island in the 1920s and 1930s and '40s, where they grew up. Because of the time period, the book dovetailed nicely with The Rules of Civility, and gave me an actual picture of New York from someone who grew up there. It isn't usual to find a published book that gives you a clear picture of your relative's upbringing. Anyway, the memoir moves seamlessly from subject to subject, looking at school here, or food there, swimming here, social clubs there, working as a telegram courier, and what it meant to be Jewish and poor and living in Coney Island year round. And also what life was like for Heller's single mother, raising three children by herself after her husband died.

The Polish Boxer by Eduardo Halfon, translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Burnstead, and Anne McLean. There was an article in The New York Review of Books, "What Can't Be Forgotten" by Francine Prose, that reviewed all three novels by Eduardo Halfon, a writer I had not heard of. The Polish Boxer is the first, and until I was a few chapters in, it seemed like linked short stories, particularly since each is titled. We learn about the protagonist, his life as a professor, the life of his students, and about his relationships. He then gets a series of postcards from a half-Serbian/half-gypsy musician he's just met and goes on a quest to find him. The translators collaborated to make the prose in English seamless and beautiful and haunting. The protagonist, half-Polish/half-Guatamalan, may be searching for himself as well. A gently powerful book. I'm looking forward to reading the next two: Monastery, and Mourning.

Monsieur Proust by Céleste Albaret as told to Georges Belmont. Although she is described as his housekeeper, Céleste Albaret was really his caregiver and confidante in the last nine years of his life. She had kept a respectful silence about Proust's day-to-day life until she became elderly and decided it was time to set the record straight and tell the world who he really was. It is a gentle, intimate book, published in 1972, translated from the French by Barbara Bray. Even though I knew the ending, when Proust died, I cried. And this was my third time reading it. The jacket flap begins with a quote from Proust: "No one on earth knows me better than you do. You know all about me. I tell you everything."

Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith. I'm only 66 pages in, so far, but as someone who loves libraries, reading, language and the meanings and sounds of words, this is fun for me. Did I mention humor? Smith likes to twist up the language for humorous purposes and to mix fantasy and reality. An example in the story, "The Beholder" in which the protagonist seems to be growing a wooden lump with thorns in the middle of her chest and goes to get an opinion about it: "I'm going to refer you to several consultants at the following clinics: Oncology Ontology Dermatology Neurology Urology Etymology Impology Expology Infomology Mentholology Ornithology and Apology, did you get all that?" (I don't know how many of those are made up, although I'm pretty sure "Mentholology" is, but auto-correct didn't try to change any.)

There There: A novel by Tommy Orange. In this novel, interlinked short stories with several characters come together to form an overall arc. Orange shows the world as it is for native people living in urban environments, a view rarely shown to or seen by mainstream culture. It's a compelling book about looking for oneself and where one belongs, one's family, and what makes it hard to fit anywhere. While it is a specific flavor, it has general appeal. My heart went out to these characters.

Passwords Primeval: 20 American Poets in their Own Words, interviews by Tony Leuzzi. Talk about process! This book is packed with all the things you didn't learn in that MFA writing program in graduate school, but in a personal and fascinating way. And one of those interviewed was a professor I had, but he never told us these things! Anyone who writes or wants to write should read these interviews with contemporary poets. It's a culturally diverse group of poets, but it is interesting how many of the same poets they cite as inspiration, such as Whitman. From reading about the poets, I went back to the library to check out books by the ones that interested me the most.

In the section, "A Speech at Póvoa" in The Polish Boxer, Halfon writes that the subject of a conference is "Literature Tears Through Reality." After looking through this book list, it occurs to me that even if the stories are imagined or embellished, they can still feel real. That's not a new thought. Each writer invents a world, and if they're good, the reader can walk around on solid floorboards and not fall through.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Star 82 Review Issue 6.4 is Live!

I'm happy to report that the twenty-fourth issue, 6.4 of Star 82 Review, the art and literary magazine I founded, edit, and publish, has just been released. This time it is a collection of mostly nonfiction stories and poems, terrific art and found poetry, among other works that look at how we hide behind masks or make assumptions about others. I was told that the print copy is "visually very attractive and the pieces/subject/sequences are well-curated." Another recent reader of this issue knocked me over and wrote, "Star 82 is a magnifier, makes little things rise, and humbly makes giants of us all."

Star 82 Review 6.4 online: http://star82review.com/6.4/contents.html
Print: Star 82 Review 6.4

Thanks to all the readers and contributors for making this an outstanding year for Star 82 Review!

2018 Print Issues that support the magazine
Star 82 Review 6.4
Star 82 Review 6.3
Star 82 Review 6.2 (reviewed on New Pages [with spoilers])
Star 82 Review 6.1


Printed copies are print-on-demand from CreateSpace, a division of Amazon. I'm also a member of the Amazon Affiliate program so if you go through the print link portal you can also help support the magazine. Thanks!




Contributors
Gale Acuff
Ciara Alfaro
Dianne Ayres
Paula Boon
Reg Darling
Jessica Dunne
Miguel Gardel
Roger Gilroy
Karen Greenbaum-Maya
David M. Harris
Mazduda Hassan
Rachel Hoffman
Rebecca Irene
Mindy James
David Johnson
J.I. Kleinberg
Jessie Kramer
Linda Laino
Midi
Brad Rose
Joanne Beaule Ruggles
Ray Scanlon
Jill M. Talbot
Marne Wilson
Sophia Zhang

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Lichen, Moss, Art, Writing, and a Little Quilt

Lichen, a dual organism (possibly triple) continues to inspire me. It cannot be cultivated, and it only grows in good air. I started drawing it in 2013. I drew it large, on 18 x 24" paper.



I began photographing it and moss in December, 2015 and discovered there is a whole "thing" in Japan: Moss Girls and Moss Viewing. These are lichen:




Lichen became a part of the HOUSEWORK series in spring of 2016. 



The writing for it, titled, "They Must Agree," went on to be published in Fall 2016, issue #7 of Split Rock Review, where you can also hear me read it here

Also in 2016, it became its own artist's book, Alphabetical Lichencounters, which is described here.




At some point in 2016, I started a small embroidered quilt with the poem in mind. It stalled out, but I finally solved the problem and finished it. It was a nice, portable project I took on airplanes. (One needle and rounded scissors are acceptable.) The embroidery was all done freehand. The poem is integral to the piece, but only a snippet of it wanted to be included.


they choose a home together. wanted: clean air, light and dripping water.

And a look at the back, for fun.


14"h x 9.5"w
a quiltlet

Lace lichen is what we have here on the California coast. I saw this near Wright's Beach, from a camping trip in 2017. Some people confuse it with Spanish moss.




We recently visited Charleston, South Carolina, and I was delighted to see the rows of trees with Spanish moss dripping from it. I learned, though, that Spanish moss is really a plant in the bromeliad family, not a moss or a lichen. Although it takes root in the bark, it doesn't harm the tree; it gets its nutrients from the air. And it flowers. It looks more like a lichen than a moss, actually.




And a magnified moss in Berkeley:


I'm interested in these plants that grown on their own, without human intervention, and that let us know the health of the air we share.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Calligraphy in Painting by Muslim Women at Berkeley Art Center

Letterforms have character. You might notice this when you choose a font. Or if you receive a handwritten letter. Writing is part of something larger than each of us, a part of culture, an acknowledgement of communication we agree on and value. Beautiful writing, generally thought of as calligraphy, can also have different meanings in different cultures. Islamic calligraphy, for example, arose as artwork in Muslim cultures, where depictions of God were forbidden, and pictures of animals or objects were viewed as idolatrous. While some created artworks featuring Arabic calligraphy were not religious, many works related in some way to the Qur'an.

The recent exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, Universal Messages: New Vistas, Contemporary Muslim Women Artists in the Bay Area curated by Salma Arts, show how words combined with color, form, and materials can reflect a modern spirituality while still connecting to past works. Here are some of the paintings that spoke to me, beautifully and simply.


Rubina Kazi: Peace Be Upon You (2018)
mixed media on canvas
30 in. x 40 in.

As with many of the paintings in the show, the words are the clear focal point. Here, a banner reaches completely across the layered patterning, the sharp, straight edges in contrast to the soft focus in each of the openings. From her website, Rubina Kazi writes that she loves "Sufi music and the message of peace, love and tranquility across all religions and cultures." Between the links, the variegated textures contain both tranquility and mystery, a view unknowable.

Nabeela Sajjad: To God We Return (2018)
acrylic
24 in. x 36 in.

Metallics, particularly gold, are traditional embellishments in Arabic calligraphy. Here, Nabeela Sajjad uses the curving gold lettering to balance the bold block words that become both the statement and the pattern. The diacritical marks are almost playfully painted in turquoise: accented accents. Nabeela Sajjad, according to her blog, is the founder of Islamic Art Exhibit, which promotes traditional and contemporary Islamic art, hoping to "build bridges between various faith groups through the tradition of visual arts." The bold swooping gold letterform asks us to keep returning to it and directs our eyes up.

Rabea Chaudhry: Fajr (2018)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. by 48 in.

I was drawn to Rabea Chaudhry's work particularly, perhaps for the complex layering and the exploration of many textures. The block lettering provides a sharp edge and contrast to the lacy patterns. Because of the colors and layered textures, these reminded me, in a way, of Miriam Schapiro's works, and the writing and mosque shape, below, add a spiritual layer. Her statement highlights the benefits of "selfless empathy and generosity." The masking technique she uses allows the textures to show through the letterforms, like a curtain opening.

Rabea Chaudhry: Jugni (2017)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. x 48 in.

Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy: The Truth (2012)
acrylic
16 in. x 20 in.

In Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy's painting, the words take on the organic forms of birds, delicate hands, or angels, or currents of air or swirling water. The shine emanating from the top right is a gentle metallic gold, like a beam of light. Since the paint is applied so smoothly we focus on the shapes of the letters and feel that beam. The layering and movement combined with the colors allow the viewer to be part of this world.

I think what makes each of these painting sing is the combination of the careful and sensitive handling of the materials, colors, and calligraphy with a deep sense of how the world is available to each of us, yet larger than each of us. Spirituality can mean different things to different people but feel similar. Words, whether we can read them or not, stand for human beings. These works show how we can connect and communicate, across boundaries, through visual art.

*
I've posted these previously, but here are a couple examples of traditional Islamic calligraphy again (from a visit to The Met, spring 2018).


Panel of Nasta'liq Calligraphy
Calligrapher: Sayyid Amir 'Ali
India
mid-17th c.

Top: 
Folio from the "Tashkent Qur'an"
Syria or North Africa
late 8th-early 9th c.
"based on early form of kufic script with no diacritical marks to distinguish the letters, and with very little illumination"