Book: Calligraphies In Conversation, 6th Annual Exhibition curated by Arash Shirinbab

Cover of Calligraphies in Conversation

Calligraphies In Conversation, 6th Annual Exhibition
curated by Arash Shirinbab
published by San Francisco Center for the Book and Ziya Art Center
2019

This is a beautiful, fully illustrated catalog of an exhibit of calligraphic writing from multiple traditions, and it is really gorgeous. Work from fourteen artists shows a lovely stylistic and creative range. I had been expecting Chinese calligraphy for its local (SF Bay Area) popularity and long tradition, plus some western-language calligraphy, and was delighted to see those PLUS work in Urdu, Hebrew, Arabic, and more. My favorite piece is in a Devanagari / Sanskrit script over gorgeous shades of blue – the composition and color are WONDERFUL.

This is a beautiful and inspiring catalog.

Book: Artificial Condition : The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Cover of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition: The Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2018

This is volume 2 of the 4-so-far series of novellas by Martha Wells, describing the ongoing adventures of a Security Unit with a bloody past.

In this book, our Murderbot journeys to investigate that ‘bloody past’ story, since its digital memory has been wiped, and its organic memory is confused. Can a lone bot, without funds or travel papers, visit the mining colony where things may have gone so wrong?

The short answer is YES, and Murderbot makes some friends along the way.

Ms. Wells writing is speedy, clear, and direct. (This is not a Lovecraft book, where many pages will be devoted to the way a coffee table was decorated in the middle of a conversation.) Key technologies are applied without dwelling on any boring details about specific codes, just like we use technology in real life – it works, we don’t need to overthink it. Murderbot has endearing qualities which it is largely unaware of, and lots of anxiety, which is completely plausible in its situation.

I also enjoy the depiction of… let’s call it friendship between synthetic intelligences, and their willingness to use their processing power to meddle favorable and to pass the time! The relationship between Murderbot and an assertive (and sensitive) Transport ship gave this story a charming tone.

Book: No One Is Too Small to Make A Difference by Greta Thunberg

Cover of Greta Thunberg's Book

No One is Too Small To Make A Difference
by Greta Thunberg
published by Penguin Random House UK
2019

This pocket-sized book contains the English text of many of Greta’s recent speeches, in which she consistently tells world & business leaders to listen to scientists and reduce carbon emissions immediately. Because world & business leaders do not listen, she has said this in a variety of very clear, concise ways.

She caught on very quickly to the various arguments used by the not listening camp, which can be summarized by me like this:

Naysayer: you are not the right person to listen to, because
you are young (so you aren’t wise),
old (so you have no longer term future),
from the developed world (and I don’t believe you would give something up),
from the developing world (and you want to live like the developed world),
do have a plan (but I don’t like it),
don’t have a plan (so what are you expecting of me),
– are not the right person (but I won’t listen to the right people),
etc.

She breaks through that with a message that we must act, we must all act, and we must all act now. It isn’t about her, no matter how you try to make it about her, and she isn’t having it.

We talk about our children’s future, while destroying it in the same breath.

Also: what the hell is wrong with adults?

This is a quick read, and her speeches are very clear – perfect for our short-attention-span age, and our need to excerpt tiny snippets for the evening news. Ms. Thunberg is admirable, though she would prefer we just snap out of our stupor and DO something rather than admire her.

Books: All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Cover of All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red: the Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells
published by Tor
2017

Do you read Janelle Shane’s hilarious posts on training neural nets at aiweirdness.com? Or perhaps follow her on Twitter? Well, I do, and she kept writing about how much she LOVES Murderbot. And she is so fun! Which suggests to me that Murderbot might be fun.

I investigated. I read. I learned. MURDERBOT IS FUN.

Sorry, I didn’t meant to shout that. 🙂 But it’s TRUE! Martha Wells’ novella about a security unit that’s a little bit cloned human, and a lot of roboty parts, is fun to read. Murderbot itself is fun: it had… a bad run of luck that was very fatal for a lot of people, and doesn’t really trust its makers anymore. And loves video dramas. And is a little too smart for its job. And… then things get VERY INTERESTING in the unmapped bits of the planet that its clients are exploring…

It’s a page turner! (You can read a sample on the Tor website here.) And there are more volumes to turn, and a full length novel coming out, and now I’m going to need to read all of those. Because: Murderbot is fun.

Book: Vija Celmins: To Fix The Image In Memory, edited by Gary Garrels

Cover of Vija Celmins: to Fix the Image in Memory

Vija Celmins: To Fix The Image In Memory
edited by Gary Garrels
published by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with Yale University Press
2018

In late 2018 & early 2019, SFMoMA had a fantastic exhibit of the art of Vija Celmins, and that show led to the publication of this enormous, substantive catalog of her work. It contains essays with a broad range of interpretations of her catalog, high quality reproductions, a collection of insightful interview excerpts, AND a biographical timeline that is unusually well written. It is one of the better catalogs I’ve purchased, and after enjoying it in small servings since the viewing the exhibit in person TWICE (it was that good), I read it from end to end today.

There is something remarkable about Celmins’ artistic focus. She has created a range of work to show off her skills, but her long term commitment to drawing and painting certain subjects, such as the surface of the ocean or the depth of the sky, in a very particular method, has led to a profound body of work. It is remarkable to have such a range of skills, to have shown them off through solid early representational work in oil paints and remarkable sculptures (though she considered those drawings or paintings of a sort), and also to perform time-consuming, in-depth studies of a few subjects in graphite with such SATISFYING results, all while bucking other artistic trends, and maintaining a unique “voice.”

I’m old enough to have trained in architecture back when we actually drew (no, really), and so seeing such amazing work in graphite means something to me – it’s a medium I worked in for so many years… and she does wonders with it.

The graphite drawings in particular are inspiring and gorgeous in person. From afar, they are the sea; from up close, they are the texture of graphite on paper; and you can feel yourself slipping between the two understandings, especially around the edges, and being pleased with that experience.

Her pictures of the surface of another planet are also remarkable, and you realize after viewing several that you recognize specific rocks appearing in the drawings, because the rocky landscape is NOT a random drawing of high precision, but a high precision interpretation of a specific NASA image, methodically mapped out and reinterpreted in different weights of pencil, or from a closer point of view.

The reproductions would have been satisfying enough for me, but the texts, including the interview snippets on her NEED to do this work, and on the way drawing and painting on these projects became part of her way of living in awareness… it’s all quite informative.

I love her consistency; the way she challenged herself by changing media when the time felt right; the depths of the blacks in her drawn skies; the inverse skies she created recently… there is a lot to enjoy.

Great artist; great show; unusually satisfying catalog.

Book: Maria Merian’s Butterflies by Kate Heard

Cover of Maria Merian's Butterflies

Maria Merian’s Butterflies
by Kate Heard
published by Royal Collection Trust
2016

I LOVE scientific illustrations – they are a glorious combination of art and science! I received a postcard with a gorgeous botanical illustration on it by Maria Sibylla Merian, and decided I needed to learn more.

This remarkable illustrator was born in 1647, and devoted her life to the study and documentation of insects, along with the plants they feed on. She became fascinated by insects at age 13, and studied them throughout the rest of her life. Her father and stepfather both made their living by painting; she taught young girls (including her daughters) to paint, and her painter husband (one of her stepfather’s former apprentices) helped her publish her first book on entomology of local (northern European) insects. After several complex life changes, she wound up selling most of her possessions and taking one of her daughters to a Dutch colony in Suriname to study insects in their natural environments. That trip provided the content that she developed into the publications that became her major life’s work, which were collected by scientific societies, royalty (which is how this book came to be published by the Royal Collection Trust), and wealthy amateurs.

It’s not ONLY that she was a remarkable observer, or that she could draw and paint: she also had to master printing arts to be able to sell editions of her work (printmaking is another skill set entirely), and business to sell different variations of the results at different price points (discounted advanced subscription prices, higher prices after publication; uncolored prints for one price, prints hand-colored by her and her daughters for a higher price, and painted variations on vellum for luxury editions…) . She also collaborated with a botanist to provide in depth information about the included plants.

While this little book is just about 6×8″, the printing is on heavy stock and of high quality. Not only are her plates shown in their entirety with their original titles, but there are many pages of details, so you can enjoy the precision and skill of both her drawing and coloring. It’s the color and detail excerpts that really pulled me in.

collage of details from Marian Merian's Butterflies

The book covers her early work, as well as her work in Surinam. (Note that, while she was born in Germany, she lived in Amsterdam, and the colony she visited was under the control of the Dutch at that time. There is a lot of discussion now about the meaning of the “Dutch Golden Age,” especially since so much of the wealth of Amsterdam was generated by exploitation (the death rate of Dutch sailors working for the Dutch East India Company was shockingly high), colonialism, and slavery. It’s good that this concept of whose hard work the country’s success was based upon is ongoing.)

The Royal Collection Trust has images of their copy of her book on Surinam, which I’ll link to here for your enjoyment:

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) – Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Maria Sibylla Merian travelled in 1699 with her younger daughter to Suriname in northern South America, to study the flora and fauna. The resulting natural history plates were published in Amsterdam in 1705, at her own expense.

I’m delighted with this book. I even inadvertently learned some things about moths! 🙂

Book: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Cover of On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
published by Tim Duggan Books (Penguin Random House)
2017

This pocket-sized book of about 125 pages is written by a Yale History professor specializing in the Holocaust. Snyder relies upon this historical expertise to compare the language, speech, rallies, actions, and slogans of the US president elected in 2016 to those used by Nazis, Communists, and Fascists in a prior century. He finds many commonalities, and summarizes appropriate responses into twenty themes intended to support civil society over repressive authorities.

I read this when it was quite new, and found its warnings insightful; I read it again recently, and found it to be understated relative to our current circumstances.

What struck me more on the second reading is the idea that we are formally taught to believe that “progress” is inevitable; that the future is bright; that the seeds of the future were planted long ago, and all we need to do is step back and let it naturally grow. I recall being in high school and believing this, despite known systemic flaws in that plan. The idea is appealing, because it requires no real effort on any one individual’s part. If the future takes care of itself – how convenient is that? But I grew up, and could see clearly that having a future I’d actually want to live in requires effort.

Progress is NOT inevitable. Democratic institutions DO NOT defend themselves. People DO commit terrible crimes in the names of ideologies they can barely explain. Civilizations DO collapse.

Effort is always required to maintain good things. Always.

Book: The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

Cover of The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World
by Melinda Gates
published by Flatiron Books, NY
2019

I didn’t anticipate buying this book – I don’t generally think that billionaires do enough for the world, and I’ve read of the Gates’ many grants that appeared to push privatising the public school system – as if the ownership model of the schools, rather than the poverty of the students, the lack of pay for teachers, and the unfair, property-tax-based disparities that create a lack of funding for materials and facilities were not the issues to address in struggling districts! That said, I recalled that it was Melinda who took the initiative to engage in philanthropy, and who should take the credit for turning the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into a philanthropic force. Plus, empowering women IS a great idea! So I stood inside a real bookshop (likely Bookshop West Portal), and opened this book to a random page. I was immediately engrossed, and bought it.

This is a good book.

Melinda Gates writes very modestly about – yes, this is going to shock you – listening to people in difficult situations, and financially supporting the people’s own plans to solve their problems. No, really! This isn’t a, “we are rich, and we float down from the heavens and know best what people need” story AT ALL. Instead, this book involves lots of travelling, listening, supporting ideas that Melinda isn’t entirely sure make sense, trusting people, and then being amazed by the results. (A recurring joke in the book in the form of her asking her husband, “Did you know that we are funding a [community initiative that wasn’t in the grant proposal, but which is a successful intervention]?” in which the answer is no, but the results are great, provides upbeat laughs.)

It also took guts to stand up to the leadership of the Catholic Church, a faith which Mrs. Gates is a member of, to actively support (and fund, and speak on behalf of) family planning. Having the church call her out by name for helping women must have been a shock (WHO DOES THAT?!?), but she stood her ground, and speaks up strongly and with evidence for what a positive difference family planning makes for everyone.

This book is informative, interesting, really well written, and ultimately emotionally moving. People helping women succeed in a way that benefits society is a fantastic subject!

Billionaires aren’t off the hook with me, but this particular one comes across as a really great person who has the right idea and has put her beliefs into action in a very positive, effective way.

Book: Chronicle Books: The First 50 Years

Cover of Chronicle Books: The First 50 Years

Chronicle Books: The First 50 Years
by Julianne Balmain
published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco
2017

This is an inside history of the establishment of San Francisco publishing house, Chronicle Books, and how the company grew and thrived by embracing California style, cooking, and generous illustrations in their publications.

It is organized chronologically, and tells the story of how it grew from a tiny operation to a global brand, with a special emphasis on developing non-traditional (non-bookstore) retail. Yes, it was innovative to suggest selling cookbooks in the same shops where you buy cookware, and the colorful covers of their books fit in nicely in those settings.

Typical for this publisher, the book itself is well designed. It features perforated covers revealing images from the company’s back catalog, colored paper edges on all sides, and lavish photographic illustrations.

I purchased this from the San Francisco Center for the Book’s Online Shop. (If it is in stock, you can, too!)

Book: Turning Over an Old Leaf: Contemporary Palm Leaf Work in South and Southeast Asia

Cover of Turning Over an Old Leaf

Book: Turning Over an Old Leaf: Contemporary Palm Leaf Work in South and Southeast Asia
by San Francisco Center for the Book, exhibit curated by Mary Austin and Betsy Davids
published by San Francisco Center for the Book and Autumn Press, Berkeley
2019

I LOVE PAPER. And I often wonder how people can live without it if appropriate natural fibers and other needed supplies aren’t available to make it where they are, or if they need more than they can make. I learned about one of the answers in this lovely catalog of work on palmyra and talipot palm leaves that have been carefully dried, inscribed, inked, and bound into books or assembled into large, flat work to hang.

The leaves generally have a pleasant, soft-wood-like, pale yellow-cream color, and can support very fine linework. The catalog presents excellent samples of recent work, primarily on religious themes appropriate to their region. I especially enjoy some of the contemporary, non-traditional, gilded Thai compositions, and the Burmese scroll-length pieces that have complex edge treatments.