Book: Yarn, Thread, String: Making, Manufacturing and Creating by Janine Vangool

This is one of FOUR covers that come printed on the poster-like dust-jacket

Book: Yarn, Thread, String: Making, Manufacturing and Creating
by Janine Vangool
published by Uppercase Publishing, Inc., Alberta, Canada
2021

Janine Vangool publishes Uppercase Magazine and an increasingly long list of books that have specific art, craft, and design themes. Vangool’s books in her ‘Encyclopedia of Inspiration’ series are collections of profiles + portfolios showing recent work on a given theme. These types of surveys of a creative space are a huge effort to solicit, judge, layout, edit, and proofread! This gorgeous, hefty volume provides nearly 500 pages of full-color, beautifully printed, elegantly designed profiles of artists, designers, manufacturers, and suppliers working with fibers and fiber-like materials.

Vangool and her team included an impressive range of profiles, from flax farmers to wool processors, knitters to fine art portrait embroiders and macrame artists; from people who make natural dyes to those who machine knit; from people shredding used plastic bags to responsibly reuse them for a more durable purpose, to people shredding paper to turn into delicate, nearly lacy fabrics.

I appreciate the effort that went into this compilation and survey, and especially the impressive resulting range of work. Many of us only have a chance to see fiber arts if we happen to be in a region where they are being shown, or have a chance to watch fabrics being made at a textile museum. (I went to an experimental public elementary school, which means I’ve carded and spun wool, but that is a rare experience in a city!) This is a great way to showcase excellent work to a broader audience than most of these creators could otherwise reach, and to give more people a chance to see some great materials and works.

Vangool not only does a great job with the book, but also creates an embedded video for each of her publications on the Uppercase website, so you can view a video of the entire publication before you buy. That takes confidence! You can click on this Vimeo link, or on the book title just below the cover above ,to preview this book.

Summary: this is a high quality publication of some fantastic fiber art manufacturers, suppliers, designers, and fine artists. I recommend it highly if you enjoy well-designed books, textile arts, skeins of freshly dyed yarn (artfully arranged), or understanding how threads and fabrics are made.

Book:The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

Audiobook cover version

Book:The Space Between Worlds
by Micaiah Johnson
audiobook read by Nicole Lewis
published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
2020

Here’s a great premise for a sci-fi story: rather than developing time or interstellar travel, scientists find a way to travel between a limited number of parallel universes with parallel earths, and then use information from those earths to adjust our earth for success. Though not for EVERYONE’S success…

This conceit has a catch, and it is a brilliant one: the only people who can travel to parallel earths can’t be alive there. Those with a living equivalent die a horrific death in transit due to [mysterious law of physics]. So, the most valuable potential multiverse spies alive on earth zero are those who live in dire circumstances. This means interworld travel is NOT safe for members of the ruling elite – only the marginalized, living marginal lives, who have the odds stacked against them in a way that killed them off in other universes.

Cara, our heroine, had a rough upbringing that was fatal to her on most earths, so she can go to more earths than anyone else. She is recruited to the small force of traversers, and finds herself working for the predominantly white elite, living in their fancy walled city, and manifesting on other earths where everyone looks so familiar, but where the other versions of herself are dead. Her position on Earth 0 feels tenuous, her crush is cold toward her, and she experiences racist and classist snubs as a black woman from the desert. A forthcoming scientific breakthrough OR being too ethical about what she sees (and what her bosses collect) could end her job and her chance at a safe life with clean water and fresh food.

When something goes terribly wrong on another earth, she has a chance to shake things up, though she may not survive it, and has no way of knowing what the result will mean…

This book didn’t go where I thought it would go; it wasn’t over when I thought it was over; and it was filled with thrills and surprises in all the best, ultimately epic ways. Cara is a savvy, smart, opportunistic, determined heroine. (I only yelled at her for saying something dangerous when she was delirious/medicated, and it couldn’t be helped. Note: yelling at an audiobook is best done when you are home alone, so as not to startle others.) She isn’t some perfect superhero – she gets hurt, she carries scars, she’s loved/hated terrible people, she’s survived horrific abuse, she wallows in self-doubt and self-blame, she put ethics aside in favor of survival – but her determination and ethical evolution as she makes a place for herself in the world(s) is a solid, stimulating heroic journey.

This audiobook (libro.fm) is performed by the remarkably talented Nicole Lewis, who reads beautifully, acts brilliantly, represents the many characters by voice clearly, and makes a fantastic Cara. The author, Johnson, provided excellent dialog in the unabridged version, and Lewis made it come to life. (I discovered this audiobook on Libro.fm’s Playlist, “Black Narrators You Should Be Listening To” from June 2021. Nicole Lewis is fantastic. She sounds like black women I know, and hearing her perform these characters so brilliantly was a delight. I would have appreciated this list even if I wasn’t half black myself, the same way I research and enjoy great books by Asian writers without being Asian.)

This book is impressive sci-fi, I loved it, I zealously recommend it, and I’m hoping for more brilliant work like this from Micaiah Johnson.

Book: William Gibson’s Archangel by William Gibson, et al.

The hard-to-find hardcover compilation of the comics

William Gibson’s Archangel
by William Gibson, Michael St. John Smith, Butch Guice, and others
published by Idea and Design Works LLC (aka IDW)
2017

This World War II spy thriller incorporates William Gibson’s recent theme of branching alternative futures in an action-packed, dark comic book.

A brief synopsis: a despotic American leader on a toxic earth goes back to 1945 to create a new branch reality in which he has even more power. A small resistance force plans to interfere…

The story is fast-paced, and the action is dense. The compositions are dynamic, with lots of diagonals, fists, kicks, and planes flying at steep angles. The panels are sepia-tinted and dark, with deep colors and deeper shadows. The characters have a lot of texture, shading, wrinkles, coarse fabrics, and the sort of surface definition that comes with harsh lighting. (Or orthochromatic film, which played such a big part in the noir look of movies of past eras.) The faces are expressive and stern. (Characters’ faces sometimes look unfamiliar, which is a minor distraction in a solid series like this). The drawings set a really remarkable mood, and I’m especially impressed that I’m even THINKING about the coarse look of fabrics!

The individual issue cover art by Tula Lotay (tulalotay.com) is more vivid, with a different palette (remarkable greens and purples), and slightly different interpretations of the characters. These look fantastic.

This is a well produced, action packed, very William-Gibson story, but with WWII noir and timeline-splinters that started far back in time, which distinguish it from his other works. There are additional cover art panels and sketches of each of the characters the appendix, to round out your appreciation of the effort that went into this great book. I’m so glad I found the compilation!

Unexpectedly, IDW has very little promotional content on their website about this comic, but did produce a lightly animated preview!

Book: Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Excellent, space-y use of bubbles!

Lagoon
by Nnedi Okorafor
published by Saga Press (Simon & Schuster), NewYork
2014

This ‘first contact’ sci-fi story by Nnedi Okorafor immediately delighted me, because the first earth being the aliens communicated with was not human. Hooray for other species getting their moment to shine!

This is a story of aliens turning up off the coast of Nigeria, and the chaos that erupts when they announce themselves and walk among the residents of bustling, cosmopolitan Lagos, Nigeria.

The aliens are good at making friends, and so three humans find themselves taken by a wave into the sea for deep (heehee) conversations, and then tasked with assisting an alien representative in meeting the public and authorities. The humans have their own messy lives and drama, and get abundant additional drama served up to them by their relatives and neighbors. I hope I would be as smart, curious, and enthusiastic as the marine biologist of the group if aliens dragged ME into the ocean!

It’s a fun ride! Lagos is depicted as lively, corrupt, dangerous, bustling, and nearly addictive; the humans of Lagos are curious, food-obsessed, friendly, opportunistic, self-aggrandizing, helpful, loyal, violent, religious, superstitious, music-loving… It’s a great setting, and the dramatic reactions the public has to the news seem entirely fitting. (Especially now, years later, during this global pandemic, it is even more convincing!)

I enjoyed this VERY much, and having already enjoyed Binti, I’ll now need to find some additional Okorafor (nnedi.com) books to dive into.

Book: Tokyo at Night by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Cover of Tokyo at Night, art book by Mateusz Urbanowicz

Tokyo at Night (translated Japanese title: Tokyo Night Train Works)
by Mateusz Urbanowicz
published by MdN Corp, Tokyo, Japan
2019

This is a beautiful book of NIGHT TIME contemporary, urban watercolors by a professional artist/illustrator for Japanese animation films. If you have ever wondered what animation artists do in their spare time, the answer is: they create MORE ART!

You may find this book review inevitable, between my fuss over ordering books from Kinokuniya Books in San Francisco, my background in architecture, and my appreciation of the background illustrations in Japanese anime I caught up on during the pandemic. Kinokuniya featured Urbanowicz’ other work, Tokyo Storefronts, prominently in its windows, and those are great, but night time watercolors are definitely within my special area of interest!

There is a lot to appreciate here.

First, Urbanowicz has some conflicted feelings about contemporary urban surfaces in Tokyo. There are a plenty of hyper-modern concrete facades, overhead wires, metal roll-up doors, overpasses, and other functional urban shapes, all of which are both a great visual challenge for an artist AND a sort of painful visual blight for someone who appreciates historic/traditional Japanese design more generally. I like that Urbanowicz embraces this hypermodern chaos, accepting it for what it offers visually, and sharing some of his feelings about it.

On a related note, Urbanowicz isn’t choosing beloved landmarks that would already have a warm place in your heart: he is choosing ordinary urban scenes that you wouldn’t ordinarily go out of your way to glorify. As so many people favor conventionally pretty, “popular” scenes to benefit from existing affection for a subject, I’m all the more impressed for his originality and effort to make remarkable work about ordinary locations.

As a professional illustrator, Urbanowicz takes a very practical approach to these works. He uses waterproof ink where that benefits the work; he uses opaque white paint when that creates an effect he wants; he uses masking fluid; he uses an airbrush when he wants to soften something. He uses watercolor for its strengths, and uses other tools when they contribute. He also revises compositions when the real life arrangement wouldn’t make a great image. He offers and illustrated guide near the end of the book to share his techniques, so we’ll appreciate the human effort that went into doing all this work by hand. It’s quite refreshing that he is so skilled with many tools, and isn’t unduly strict about single tool purity.

I’m especially impressed that he created all of this work on light paper. That required laying down a LOT of pigment, and he chose his materials and approach carefully, so that his washes remained clear and smooth. (My own washes get very grainy in unfortunate ways when I try to work this this kind of saturation, so I really appreciate his fantastic washes – I appreciate just knowing that this kind of saturation is possible!) Many painters render night scenes in opaque paints, especially oils, so seeing this work done in watercolor expands my idea of what is possible in watercolor.

This is an impressive and enjoyable book of great watercolors for fans of watercolor painting, hard-edged urban details, night scenes, Tokyo, Japanese urban environments, and any of Urbanowicz’ other work.

Book: Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Audiobook cover

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
audiobook narrated by Zainab Jah
published by Penguin Random House
2007 (audiobook in 2017)

How could anything as horrific as a civil war make for such an engrossing, heartfelt book? I am touched, moved, horrified, pained, and I zealously recommend this novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of two women, non-identical twins with a privileged background, living their lives in recently independent Nigeria in the 1960s. One is a university professor who is deeply in love with a political firebrand with a scheming, old-fashioned family that wants him to be with an uneducated woman; the other is a savvy businesswoman and fixer, stepping into her father’s role in the corrupt business world. We get to know them, their lovers, and their households well, the steady patterns of their comfortable lives, the awe in which their rural house staff view them…

And then massacres begin. Massacres of the Igbo people, the ethnic group these characters all belong to within a diverse, post-colonial Nigeria.

It’s clear that the new nation, with many of its persistent, colonial-era power imbalances between groups, cannot stand – the Igbo can’t share a government with people who kill them while calling them infidels. Biafra, a new nation for the Igbo and other southeastern groups, is declared… and a slow-motion disaster unfolds, as Nigeria won’t let them go, the military intervenes, and the major powers of the world take sides – and nearly all take the side of Nigeria against Biafra.

By making the decline personal, by seeing these sisters and those they care about take up the cause of their new nation, and then gradually have their world destroyed, is brutal. The decline, the horror, the hardships, the atrocities, reading about their (fictional but representative) experience of it all while knowing how badly it ended in real life – it is gutting.

I listened to the audiobook version, brilliantly performed by Zainab Jah. Her presentation of the Igbo phrases, the local and British accents, pleading children, shouty-old-ladies ordering people around or accusing them of witchcraft, the swearing Americans – her performance was FANTASTIC!

This is a brilliant novel, and a forever timely reminder of both the damage done by the empires of the past and the absence of a peaceful path for self-determination for groups of all types today, who are trapped indefinitely within the borders of a previous century.

Book: Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women by Jane Hall

Cover image via Phaidon’s gorgeous website

Breaking Ground – Architecture By Women
by Jane Hall
published by Phaidon
2019

The premise behind this book is that lots of women are designing impressive buildings you recognize, buildings that are worth celebrating, but you may not be aware of this because their work is often shown under a firm name or misattributed to men. To correct this gap in your knowledge, this book collects excellent projects, both recent and historical, and tells you about the architects behind them.

So many gorgeous projects, including projects you have seen in magazines or in person! (Via Phaidon’s website)

The selection of projects neatly tilts toward my favorite types: large public works, plus large private projects, both of the type that are experienced by a lot of people: concert halls, offices, museums, schools. Each architect is represented by a brief biography and one or more excellent project photos with key details for further research. Collaborations between men and women are recognized and celebrated in an acknowledgement of the team effort that contemporary architecture ordinarily requires for large scale projects.

Hall is very modest about her research and the limitations of the Europe-centric architectural awards processes that favor Europe and selected other regions, but I am delighted by the geographic range of her selections.

The essay and quotes in the book underline the importance of spotlighting these high quality projects to correct for the erasure of women in the field. Hall calls out the 2014 scandal around having architect Patty Hopkins photoshopped out of a photo of architecture award winners, while her husband was left in for a BBC show about their shared firm’s work – even though she co-founded the firm, and their shared name is on it! (See the article in Architects’ Journal entitled, “BBC slammed for ‘bias’ after Patty Hopkins is sidelined in TV show” dated March 5, 2014 by Richard Waite and Laura Mark.) It isn’t just about the photo, it’s about the program’s premise that men were exclusively responsible for the shape of contemporary design – the photo was just a reminder that the facts did not support that narrative. If your are actively edited out of discussions about the firm you co-founded and the projects you worked on, just to indulge some stranger’s all-male hero narrative, who is safe? The lone genius theory is bad enough, but diminishing key founders because of their gender is outrageous.

“No matter how my work was published or credited, it was seen as Venturi’s. The notion that we might both design seemed inconceivable.”

–Denise Scott Brown

(This issue is, unfortunately, relatable: a male teacher happily gave my boyfriend/classmate credit for my architecture work because just once I used my bf’s woodworking tools to build a model, though if he had borrowed equipment from me, the reverse would NOT have been suggested. My bf told me he took it as a compliment (to him). Their creepy camaraderie over rewarding him for my work made quite an impression on me.)

This is a beautiful, oversized book of great projects with lovely photos. The core details about the firms behind the designs are enough to send you in the right direction to learn more. The presence and success of the women behind these projects is encouraging and satisfying.

This book also gives you an excuse to visit the Phaidon website, which is GORGEOUS and has many wonderful temptations, especially the fine art monographs and design books.

Book: Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami

Breasts and Eggs
by Mieko Kawakami
translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd
published by Europa Editions, New York
2019

This award-winning novel tells the story of Natsuko, a young-ish-but-not-young writer who survived her youth of poverty and hardship, only to be uncertain of her purpose and judged by her peers for not living a conventional woman’s life, as they have.

While Natsuko’s dear older sister struggles as a single mother by working at a failing bar, repeating some of their mother’s choices and hardships, Natsuko wonders if motherhood is the relationship that will fill her own life with meaning. While trying to come to a decision, Natsuko approaches those around her with something close to an interviewer’s curiosity, as they reveal their own views, compromises, and dissatisfaction with their choices and obligations.

This novel manages to describe so much: abuse, living hand-to-mouth, the limited options available to women who leave their marriages, they way you can go back to your hometown (but it will NOT be the same), dreary literary readings, creepy pressures from relatives to bear children and tend to thankless in-laws, the (unnecessary and ruinous) shame associated with adoption and artificial insemination, and the atmosphere of countless rooms near train stations where people meet for coffee, rounds of cocktails, deep confessions, and inappropriate offers! (I am transported back to gray November days in Tokyo just writing this…)

The novel covers many years, and so many conversations, Throughout that time, season after season, the pressures on Natsuko to resolve her life situation (and/or finish her new book) never let up.

Breasts and Eggs is a well written, engrossing book about struggling to make a life that works while withstanding (gendered) societal pressures and writers block. It’s well told, and I’m glad I read it.

Book: Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green, by Deanna MacDonald

How is that for a cool cover?

Eco Living Japan: Sustainable Ideas for Living Green
by Deanna MacDonald
published by Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont
2015

This is a beautifully illustrated survey of Japanese building projects which show a commitment to environmental sustainability.

This book grabbed me right away by immediately explaining something that had always confused me: why are homes made with renewable, traditional materials so rare? The answer that explains it all: insurance companies won’t insure old houses. One MUST tear down and rebuild to new codes every 30 years to get insurance. And so houses are basically disposable, and less sustainable materials can be cheaper, faster, less flammable, or more fashionable.

Some of the edgy, innovative Japanese house books I’ve seen are now so easily explained: no one is building for the long term, so being over-specific for a point in time, or taking risks, and being daring makes more sense – you won’t have to grow old in what you build! (Even in the recent Japanese fiction I’ve been reading, families tear down buildings to sell an empty lot – this seems to be considered the best choice almost always…)

This book profiles a range of projects from architects with a range of attitudes and credentials about environmentally sustainable building. It is a buffet of different eco-emphases: some projects focus on energy use, some on thermal insulation, some on traditional wood treatments (like charring to protect against insects), some on attempting to preserve the natural features of a landscape by resting on smaller foundations (which involves using a lot of steel, however), and all result in a range of reasonably conventional homes that wouldn’t jump out as eco-friendly without some explanation.

By showing a diversity of approaches and solutions, the book provides a good survey of concerns that CAN be addressed and SHOULD be considered. You CAN have a normal-looking house while making better choices!

As with all architecture books, I get a better sense for how living in the spaces could be when they have signs of human life in them, such as art or furnishings, so I am relieved that several of the homes are furnished, at least minimally. While a few of the homes are absolutely palatial (the vast, full floor height, insulated windows in some of these projects alone probably cost more than my entire house), there are some modest / practical ones in the mix. I also appreciate the interludes to cover topics such as the use of landscaping, and kit homes (hello, Muji!), and the inclusion of some international projects to tie what is happening in Japan to global trends.

Overall, this is an attractive, nicely presented book showing how many potential approaches there are to improve the sustainability of residential construction, especially in the climate and circumstances found in Japan. I enjoyed it.

Bookstores: Kinokuniya (San Francisco)

Photo from the Kinokuniya website for the great store in San Francisco’s Japan Center.

Oh, how I have missed browsing in bookstores!

While I have been vigilant about ordering books I want online from my local booksellers, visiting an actual bookstore is a very different experience. I go in wanting something in particular, but usually find something within each local shop’s speciality that also interests me, and so I expand my worldview by another, unexpected book.

My first physical visit to a bookstore since restrictions were lifted was to Kinokuniya. I went in to order an illustrated book published only in Japan, and came out with an armful of other books and a box of (intimidating) Japanese kanji flash cards. I have been shopping at Kinokuniya since the 1990s (!), when it was my go-to source for Japanese architecture books, and always find something I enjoy.

Most of my purchases are from their design section, which is what I go to them for most. There is something about the collection that they stock, beyond even items that are specific to Japan, that really aligns with my photographic habits, my ‘collectors eye.’ Many of the books they choose to stock have a savvy, design-documentary bent with great photos/illustrations.

It is the sort of bookstore where you would go if you were looking for a heavily illustrated book about a certain coat, a certain kind of door, a certain font, a certain COLOR. There are entire books that are just about logos that are rendered in metallic silver; there is another book in that same series for logos that use neon colors…

While their collection of Japanese language magazines is impressive, they also stock design-savvy US items, such as the stunning coffee culture magazine, Drift (driftmag.com). A magazine exclusively about one beverage, where all of the urban photography and writing centers on the theme of coffee. Do you see how this fits?

Depth, specificity, great photography, a nearly obsessive focus…

It’s also great to see what is popular for Japanese readers, whether or not those items are ever translated into English. (My Japanese is very basic, but I am someone who periodically buys foreign language publications for the photography.)

While ‘western’ publishers love to publish books about exotic details of Asia, ‘eastern’ publishers put out the exact same books on the exotic details of Europe. I saw great examples here. I love the idea that everyone can find someone else’s location and culture exotic & stylish, and then photograph them in a way that glorifies those other cultural touchpoints. Pale children in chunky-knit sweaters sit on oatmeal colored chairs while holding eggshell textured ceramics to set a Scandinavian tone – this is a design fetish perfectly rendered, with the sort of freshness that we all hope for when documenting for our home audiences. I love it, love it, love it.

I am happy to be able to visit bookstores in person again, and felt delighted (and safe!) during my visit to Kinokuniya. I am looking forward to my order arriving, so I can return to pick it up – and browse again.