Sunday, April 26, 2009

Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō

28. Utagawa Kuniyoshi: The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō, by Sarah E. Thompson

Many years ago, I was browsing through a rack at what has become my best source for inexpensive kimono, haori and obi. Of course, the linings are often the best part, and on looking at the lining of one man's haori, I found this:


I did not know at the time what it was, only that it was beautiful and unusual. But a few years later, at an exhibition of Japanese art, I discovered that it was a rendering of one of Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō - specifically, Yokkaichi from the Hoeido edition:

Thus began my fascination with Japanese woodblock prints (aided and abetted, I might add, by being in close proximity to the Art Institute of Chicago's Clarence Buckingham Collection of Japanese Prints).

Sarah Thompson's book, describing the prints of Kuniyoshi's Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kisokaidō from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, is quite simply one of the finest books on the subject that I have come across, for a number of reasons.

Of course, the quality of reproduction is of prime importance in any book about art, and the reproductions in this book are excellent. The lines are sharp, and this is critical, because each print has a series title bordered with images related to the print, and each has an inset landscape the design of which also relates to the images. Any blurring of the lines would detract from the reader-viewer's ability to see and appreciate those relationships. The colors, too, are well-reproduced, of particular benefit in prints such as No. 38 (Fukushima) and No. 43 (Tsumagome), which contain images of dreams or ghosts.

Like the Tōkaidō, the Kisokaidō linked Kyoto, the ancient capital, with Edo (now Tokyo), but by an inland, rather than a coastal, route. All these official routes had designated posts which were required to provide facilities to travelers. There were sixty-nine of the Kisokaidō, so the woodblock series consists of seventy-one images (one of each station, and one for each of the cities that was an endpoint).

Kuniyoshi's prints, however, are more than mere landscape images of the stations. In fact, as noted above, those landscapes are presented as an inset in the larger print. The main content of each is drawn from Japanese history and folklore, with the connection to the particular station being made sometimes straightforwardly, as where the action of the story depicted occurred in or near the area, and sometimes through punning on the place names and names of people and places in the stories. Thompson explicates the connection in short, but information-packed, essays on the facing pages. The reader will learn as much about the history and folklore of Japan as she will about the prints themselves, and the scholar will appreciate Thompson's identification of each print, not only by title, but by publisher, date and censors' seals.

I must comment, too, on the construction and design of the book. It's a dust-jacketed hardback, and very sturdily put together, with the sections sewn (I see too many hardbacks these days that are merely glued, and fall apart too quickly!) and endsheets firmly attached. As mentioned, the colors are beautiful, but I want to note also the design of the small panel with the print number that accompanies Ms. Thompson's essays; it's a small, but telling, indication of the attention to detail that makes this book so valuable. And there's a good index and a good bibliography, too!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

(Note: I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Pomegranate Communications was kind enough to send me their catalogue along with it, and I spent an inordinate amount of time drooling over their offerings. They have quite a varied selection of art and architecture books, and if the quality of this book is any indication, one should look for the Pomegranate name on any such book.)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Speak the speech, I pray you . . .

Good morrow, gentles all!

This day doth mark the birth of that sweet scribe, Will Shakespeare, who oft our leisure hath enlivened, with comedy, tragedie, e'en history hath been made a pleasure by his pen. Therefore hath our good Lord Mayor, Richard, proclaimed this day "Talk like Shakespeare" Day. So shall we add "eth" to verbs, and say "t'was" and "t'will", "thou" and "thee", setting aside the common parlance of "dese", "dem" "dose", and change Sout' Side Chicaga-ese for Elizabethan English.  Haveth thee some cake!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Your Jimmy Choos aren't.

27. The Towering World of Jimmy Choo: A Glamorous Story of Power, Profits, and the Pursuit of the Perfect Shoe, by Lauren Goldstein Crowe and Sagra Maceira de Rosen

Jimmy Choo, the shoemaker, hasn't had anything to do with Jimmy Choo, the shoes, for quite a while now. That's what this book is about - the way a small, artisanal shoemaking company catering to a select group of wealthy women was turned into an international luxury ready-to-wear brand featured on television and the red carpet.

One of Mr. Choo's customers was a young woman named Tamara Yeardye, a socialite with business in her blood. She saw the potential of the business, and used her social and business connections to raise the funds to capitalize on it. Convincing Mr. Choo, though, was even harder, but she did. The saga of Jimmy Choo (the company) is a microcosm of the world of start-ups, IPOs, leveraged buyouts, private equity firms, all the pieces that made up the financial picture of the late '90s and early 2000s. And it's also the story of some very powerful personalities, and how their personal lives and scandals affected the company.

Honestly, I wasn't sure I was going to like this book. The blurbs, and certainly the first chapter, read like a gossip magazine. But slowly and inexorably I was drawn in by the vivid way the authors describe the financial machinations, the growth of the company through multiple sales, the dealmaking. It's easy to be misled by the initial portrait of Tamara Yeardye Mellon posing in "cleavage and stiletto shoes" by her nude photograph. Despite her social butterfly image, and the very real scandals she was involved in, she is one smart, driven and ambitious cookie.

The authors are, respectively, a journalist specializing in fashion and luxury goods, and an equity analyst and founding partner of a private equity firm. It's not difficult to tell who wrote what, and the way in which the book bounces back and forth between Yeardye's personal pecadilloes and high finance is a bit distracting. Kudos, however, to Ms. Maceira de Rosen for explicating complicated financial dealings in a way that makes them clear and understandable to the lay person.

The story of Jimmy Choo is, to me, a sad one. True, he is now a wealthy man as the world measures wealth. But he and his niece (who had worked with him in his shop but now works with Yeardye Mellon) do not speak. And the man who, with his art and careful craft, made the beautiful shoes that first attracted Yeardye's attention now cannot use his own name without someone else's consent.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The World According to Bertie

26. The World According to Bertie, by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest installment of McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series is as delightful as its predecessors. Bertie's mom continues to be obnoxious and oblivious, but Bertie and his dad both seem to be growing backbones. Bruce is back, also oblivious and obnoxious, but he may have met his feminine match! We have the usual philosophical digressions that make the author's books so enjoyable, and of course Edinburgh is again as much a character as any of the humans (or dogs).

There better be more, because we have some new people introduced about whom I was instantly curious, and some relationships (of love and friendship) look to be starting or ending. I want more!

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

25. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan's death was a great loss, not only to the world of science, but to society as a whole. His popular science books were accessible to the intelligent but untrained mind, yet they did not lack in intellectual rigor. This book discusses the importance of approaching matters of science and pseudo-science with that same intellectual rigor.

Sagan addresses here a number of commonly-held, but false, beliefs -- alien abduction stories, crop circles, faith-healing, and the like -- and shows where these fall down in the face of examination. It really is surprising how many people continue to believe in such things, even when fraud is admitted! You can analyze such stories yourself. You don't need Sagan to do it for you, but, in one very valuable section, he provides the tools you'll need, what you need to do, to look for, to develop the ability to think skeptically. They bear repeating, so I will summarize:
1. There should be independent confirmation of the "facts".
2. Substantive debate by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view should be encouraged.
3. Spin more than one hypothesis, and test them.
4. Don't get too enamored of your hypothesis.
5. If what you are explaining as some measure or numerical quality, it's easier to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
6. Every link in the chain of argument, including the premise, must work. If you are going from A to G, and there's a hole between B and C, you can't get there.
7. Remember Occam's Razor (if two explanations fit the data equally well, the simpler is probably the true one).
8. Ask whether the hypothesis can be falsified. You have to be able to check things out., using carefully designed and controlled experiments.

Much of what you need in what Sagan calls your "baloney detection kit" can be learned in any basic logic course. Unfortunately, logic isn't taught in the schools anymore.

Sagan also addresses the disturbing trend in the U.S. (one that hasn't changed since the book was published nearly fifteen years ago) of attacking science, of making policy decisions relating to science based on political considerations rather than the facts. He points out that our founding fathers had a strong belief in science, that Thomas Jefferson, in fact, described himself as a scientist, not as a planter or a politician. These men read, they studied, they argued, they delved into the world of science. That has not been the case in recent decades (there may be some hope, though, in the appointment of a Nobel laureate in physics as President Obama's Secretary of Energy!).

It is, however, in discussing politics that this book is weakest. Sagan's attacks on Edward Teller, while perhaps warranted, seem a bit over the top, and so one naturally questions the objectivity of some of his other political statements. This is, however, a minor part of an otherwise excellent book.

The pity is that the people who ought to read it, won't.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Used Bookstores are Better than Amazon

O'Gara & Wilson, Ltd.
Originally uploaded by mojosmom

Today, dear reader, I am sending you off to another blog, that of O'Gara & Wilson, Ltd., one of my favorite local used bookstores. An excellent post, in the sentiments of which I heartily concur.

Besides, would you ever see this at Amazon?

Every bookstore should have one

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory and Educational Foundation

     When I was visiting my sister in Cleveland, we went to a triple opening at the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory and Educational Foundation (whew! there's a mouthful!).  The shows were the Art Books Cleveland Salon Show, Monumental Ideas in Miniature Books and Trifold - Book, Print, Pulp.  As with all such shows, there were good, bad and indifferent works.    And the design of the miniature book show left a bit to be desired.  Some of the pieces were crammed together, so that one couldn't get a good look at them, and one tunnel book was so far below anyone's eye level that you had to bend waaaaay down to see it.

Below are some of my favorites:
 Japanese Book Bottom Cut I, by Gene Epstein

Movement VI, by Hyoyoung Shin

Fish Book, by Amy Fishbach (okay, I love it in part because of the pun)!

  I think it's a wonderful thing that Cleveland has a papermaking/book arts place.  But they have some issues.  As you can see from the image at the top, this place is huge!   Too huge, in fact.  I'm told they shut down in the winter because they can't heat it properly.  That's a real shame.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Eat your books!

Every April 1 or thereabouts, there are Edible Book Teas around the country (and the world). I usually go to one held at Columbia College, but this year I was out of town visiting my sister in Cleveland. But never fear! Loganberry Books and Strong Bindery (located in the bookstore) sponsored an event on Saturday, April 4. So we went.

It was an interesting contrast to the Columbia event. There, the entries tend to focus on the structure of the book or punning on the titles. At Loganberry, most of them were very straight-forward interpretations of a book, although with some punning, too. This wasn't a bad thing, just different.

My personal favorite was Origami 101, with actual folded fondant critters!

Also, please note that, on this occasion, Moby Dick lost:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women

24. Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross

In the basement of her Brooklyn home, Sima Goldner has for three decades run a lingerie shop. She has, in that time, struggled with infertility and the secret of her youth that caused it, a secret that she kept from her husband and which has, as a result, made her marriage as barren as her womb. She is something of an outsider, too, in the neighborhood, being a not-very-observant Jew in the Orthodox community of Boro Park.

Then a young Israeli woman enters her shop. Sima is strangely drawn to her, and, when asked, gives her a job. Sima's attraction to Timna is at first described in terms that can only be called erotic, but it soon becomes clear that, in her loneliness, she is treating the girl like the daughter she never had. She so desperately wants to be important to Timna, to be a part of her life outside the shop, that she actually begins to follow her, and to interfere in her personal life.

Stanger-Ross' narrative alternates between the present and Sima's past, with her history explaining her current life. But she gives us very little of Timna's life, past or present, and this results in an imbalance that damages the story. All the weight is on Sima, and Timna seems a stick figure. We get no real sense of what sort of a person Timna is, other than as someone to whom Sima reacts, and, as a result, we don't understand why Sima reacts to her in the manner that she does.

Stanger-Ross' writing does, however, show promise, particularly in those sections of the book delineating Sima's relationship with her husband, Lev, and the vignettes of her lingerie shop's customers, and I would certainly consider picking up future work of hers.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

23. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, by Kate Summerscale

If you have read Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, you have encountered, in the person of Sergeant Cuff, Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard. In other fiction of the period, you may well have found echoes of the murder case about which Ms. Summerscale writes.

In the early hours of June 29, 1860, in the country house of Road Hill, near Trowbridge, England, a three-year-old boy named Saville Kent was spirited from his crib and murdered, his body found the next day at the bottom of the privy. When, after two weeks, the local police were, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, "baffled", they called in Scotland Yard, which sent DI Whicher. All signs suggested that the murderer must have been someone resident in the house. Then, on July 20, Whicher convinced the local magistrates to issue a warrant for the arrest of Constance Kent, the child's half-sister. But after a hearing to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to charge her, Constance was released. On October 1, at the behest of a solicitor who headed a commission investigating the murder, the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was arrested, but the upshot was the same.

The public was fascinated by the case, and everyone fancied himself Whicher's rival in detection. Fingers pointed at the nursemaid, at the child's half-siblings, even at the child's father. Theories suggested adultery and madness. Newspapers alternately and variously supported Inspector Whicher's actions and attacked them. And it would not be until years later, with a confession, that the murder would be solved (though, even then, questions arose as to the reliability or complete truthfulness of that confession).

Why did this case arouse so much interest, so much public passion and debate and involvement? There were many reasons. The crime itself struck at the most private, protected place of an Englishman: his home. The investigation necessitated prying into a family's intimate secrets, and, worse, that prying was done into an upper-middle-class family by a man of the working class. Detectives were something new in England, and the English weren't quite sure they liked the idea.

Summerscale's great strength here is the way she interweaves the story of the murder with threads about English society in 1860. It's a fascinating story in itself, but is made far more nuanced by the way in which Summerscale relates it to the developments in England at large. I will say that I have seen at least one review of this book that complains that has "too much detail", and doesn't read sufficiently like a story. Hello? It's non-fiction, people! Frankly, I was rather impressed at how Summerscale was able to incorporate what was, in effect, a study of societal mores into the discussion of the murder case, and still make the book flow like a good novel without jettisoning scholarship.

(A note on notes: this book was extensively researched and, while endnotes are given for each chapter, Summerscale has also indicated "main sources" for groups of chapters. My one criticism of these notes is that, rather than having numbered endnotes, there are simply page references with the beginning of a sentence quoted. What's wrong with a superscript number and a corresponding endnote ((though a footnote would be preferable))? I do not understand why editors expect readers to be constantly flipping to the back of a book to see if there's a note or notes. I don't know if this is generally a choice of the author or of the editors, but I wish it would stop.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Passing Strange

22. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss

When Clarence King died in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1901, he was eulogized by friends like John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and historian and memoirist Henry Adams. He was remembered as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, the man who exposed a diamond hoax that threatened the economy of the United States, a devoted son and confirmed bachelor.

He was all those things, except the last. The man who, in 1880, said that he had lost the only woman he had ever wanted to marry through too much attention to duty, in 1888 married a woman so far outside his social circle and standing that he did so under a false name, a false occupation, a false identity and a false race. For Clarence King, son of a prosperous China trader, interlocutor of Ruskin and Turner, guest at the White House, had fallen in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born into slavery. He courted her under the name "James Todd", and told her he was a Pullman porter, a job which must mean that he, too, was African-American.

How this blond, blue-eyed man passed as black is more than a story of love and deception. It is the story of how this nation has interpreted race and how social and cultural assumptions translate into racial "certainties". It was interesting to compare how King used those assumptions to pass as black with way in which Belle da Costa Green used them to live as white (see An Illuminated Life). Although in some parts of the world distinctions were and are drawn between "white", "black" and mixed race ("colored", "mulatto" "mestizo"), in the world of Clarence King/James Todd any black ancestor made you black, no matter how you looked. At the same time, people took their cues about someone's race from their surroundings. So King, looking like this:

could be perceived as "black" simply because he was met in an African-American neighborhood, visited an African-American church, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job for which only African-Americans were hired. (Curiously, though, he was in fact a bit too light-skinned for that to be entirely credible, as light-skinned blacks were more likely to be dining-car attendants.) A census-taker would look at the "white"-appearing children of Ada and Clarence (James) and mark then as "black" upon seeing their mother. (In fact, their two daughters would eventually marry white men and list their race as "white" on the marriage license applications.)

When King was dying in Arizona, away from his wife and family in New York, he finally revealed his secret to her, via letter, and to certain of his friends. Because he had kept Ada in the dark as to who he was and what his real life was, because, in order to keep his secret, he had left no documentation of their relationship other than his letters to her (obviously, though, not under his real name), she had no idea of his true financial situation either. And he had, foolishly, made no provision for them in his will, which left everything to his mother. Based on things that he had told her, Ada believed that he had left money in trust for her and the children, and his friends arranged to have money sent to her each month, which she believed came from that trust. It was not until many years later that Ada sued in court to obtain the funds she believed were rightfully hers. The forces of privilege were marshalled against her.

Ada King died in 1964 at the age of 103. Did she hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak of his dream that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" and think of her own life? Did she hear "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" and think of her husband and children, whose races were judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the company they kept?

Sandweiss has written an engaging account of the lives of King and Copeland, separately and together. She has illuminated their relationship, and Ada's later legal efforts, through the prism of American social, class and racial mores. Her work is thoroughly researched, through interviews and consultation with primary sources, and any speculation (for instance, as to where and how the two may have met) is clearly labeled as such and is backed by credible argument.

Passing Strange is both a love story and a story of the racial and social divides of 19th-century America, and is successful at telling both.