Book: Mooncop by Tom Gauld

Yes, it looks like this.

Mooncop
by Tom Gauld
published by Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal
2016

Science-loving cartoonist/illustrator Tom Gauld’s adorable style is evident again in Mooncop, an accurately-titled, single story about… wait for it… a police officer who works on the moon.

The story is a bit melancholy, as our protagonist is living his dream, while other humans have largely lost interest in the place.

It’s charming. It’s spare. The small gestures in Gauld’s style are very expressive. I really like Gauld’s practical-looking, modular architecture, periodically interrupted by transparent bubble domes. I like the boxiness of the robots. And the cover even has the title in fancy silver foil! It’s a nice little book.

Book: Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth

Gorgeous cover of the gorgeous through and through book by Bernhard Edmaier

Earth: Bernhard Edmaier Colors of the Earth
by Bernhard Edmaier
published by Phaidon
2013

Edmaier’s aerial photography work is justifiably famous; Phaidon is my favorite photography book publisher; this oversized photography book combining what I appreciate about each is a fantastic work, especially for those of you who enjoy geology.

This book is FULL of geology. Geology which is composed beautifully and makes me think of the abstract paintings I am so fond of.

This isn’t JUST a book of beautiful photography which happens to be organized by color: it is also filled with scientific explanations for the colors and forms in the images. I hereby give a special shout out to iron oxide, for all the magic it does around the world!

Before you ask: OF COURSE there are images of volcanoes, volcanic cones, and LAVA. And oceans, and coral reefs, and icebergs that have just turned over and are glassy and clear, and glowing blue pools of meltwater, and…

One of countless remarkable images of the natural world, so skillfully captured by Edmaier.

You’ll learn something new about how crystals or mountains formed; you’ll want to fly to remote islands and volcanoes to see their remarkable textures; you’ll have a new appreciation for all the colors a glacier can feature. My tiny, low-resolution teaser images won’t do this heavy, beautifully produced book justice, but I can say that I recommend it with great zeal.

You likely could have guessed this, but Bernhard Edmaier has a fantastic website, which reveals that he did study geology, and which features other books of his, some of which I don’t yet own. (Oh-oh.)

Enjoy the beauty of the natural world, and especially its geology, through the work of this talented photographer.

Book: Machine Art (Museum of Modern Art Catalog from 1934)

What a great cover! What a great band wrapped around it! Great design overall.

Machine Art (Sixtieth Anniversary Edition)
by The Museum of Modern Art
published by The Museum of Modern Art (and Abrams)
1934, reprinted in 1994

I don’t think I’ve written up a review of the de Young Museum of San Francisco’s show & book on Precisionism called Cult of the Machine (which I should do!), but suffice to say for now that I’m interested in how “the machine age” changed how we think about the design of utilitarian (useful) objects. While the de Young show was a retrospective, Machine Art is a catalog of a show DURING the era of fascination with what machines can do.

It’s a pretty funny catalog.

The new preface by Philip Johnson is a light-hearted acknowledgement that the catalog essays he’d written were a bit naive, and that he was very zealous with his ‘machine made = good, handmade = bad’ arguments. The essays are unbalanced in favor of mass production, though there is some acknowledgment that early machine production made inferior products to those of artisans. There is also a decoration-is-evil thread to the writing, because of course there is – this is how we know we are modern! 🙂

A phone photo from my couch of sample illustrations from the catalog

While the Precisionist show I’m comparing this to was a celebration of the best-of-the-best in retrospect, this catalog is far more… happy with chrome toasters of no special renown.

These functional design ideas have stood the test of time – these toasters were for sale in 1934, and models of the same appearance are available now – but aren’t something you’d necessarily buy a postcard of. (I buy some pretty weird postcards, just so you know.) They are plain enough to be shown as examples of a kind of functional purity (aside from the chrome, which is seen as functional rather than garish – I’m more pure than you, and I say this should be sheathed in plain concrete, bwa ha ha ha ha) , but are not glamorous. They definitely do avoid unnecessary decoration (again, I think the high polish IS decoration, but that’s me). The catch is that objects that look like this have become generic and somewhat invisible – which is either a great victory of function over the sentimentally decorative past, or… just the passage of time wearing the shine off these objects.

Oh look, the fancy drip coffee stacked labware setup has always existed! Who knew?

Summary: interesting catalog with essays of a zealous pro-machine/anti-handicraft bent, with objects which succeeded to such excess that the novelty and surprise of them sails past me. (Another thing ruined for me by architecture school and Bauhaus books & shows!)

Book: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A book that rightly earned great acclaim

Between The World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
published by One World (Penguin Random House)
2015

The best book I’ve experienced so far this year is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This memoir, written as a message to his young son, is both a sensitive, insightful autobiography and a thoughtful dissection of the constructs of race within the United States.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition of this work, read by the author. Coates is a very natural speaker/reader, and it was a pleasure to listen to him in this format. He is also an extremely gifted writer, and this book (especially in his voice) feels both brilliant and extremely personal. Like listening to a friend pour out his soul in a deeply meaningful and very penetrating way.

Coates shares his insights on his experience growing up in a tough neighborhood, on displays of fear, on how the racial dynamics of this country permeate parenting, daily life, physical presentation… On the extremely artificial construct of a “white” American identity, on the infrastructure that sustains a completely different reality for people who claim that identity… And on the crushing loss of police brutality, not only experienced by those who are arbitrarily murdered by the authorities on half-baked pretenses, but on the way those murders and the lack of justice that follows them scar entire communities.

This book manages to be thoroughly enjoyable while still touching on some of the most painful and tender topics in our current time. I gained some insights. I misted up. I felt shared joy over some of the author’s experiences. I appreciated the way Coates described his own personal growth in areas he hadn’t anticipated. The book feels remarkably contemporary at an up-to-this-second level, and I feel like my life is richer for having heard it from the author. I recommend it zealously.

Book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Cover of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian
by Han Kang
published by Penguin Random House
2016

“Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”
– The Husband, after his Wife’s spontaneous suicide attempt after she is physically attacked by her family.
(OMG, the lack of self awareness for this character is SO CONVINCING!)

The award winning novel, The Vegetarian, translated into English from Korean, tells the story of a woman living in a strictly conformist, patriarchal society, in a traditional marriage, from a domineering family, who decides to change just one thing about her life. After a dream of animal suffering, she decides to stop eating meat.

All hell breaks loose.

Our protagonist is nameless at first, and is initially defined only by her relationships to others. Her story is told primarily through the eyes of her self-absorbed husband, her obsessive brother-in-law, and her deeply concerned sister, each of whom sees her quite differently and has a completely different experience of knowing her and watching her change.

The story (or up to four stories, depending on how you view it) is a dark view of obligation, conformity, and custom, with glimpses of vivid, delicate, fleeting freedom.

(As a vegetarian who LOVES the vegan Buddhist temple food of Korea, the lack of understanding in this setting by her conformist family was especially striking. The precedent and ethics of her choice were not relevant to anyone at the time, which is more indicative of her situation than the specific choice she was making. )

Manga: Appleseed by Masamune Shirow

Covers of the Eclipse editions of Appleseed Books One and Two by Masamune Shirow

Appleseed Book One: The Promethean Challenge
Appleseed Book Two: Prometheus Unbound
Appleseed Book Three: The Scales of Prometheus
Appleseed Book Four: The Promethean Balance

by Masamune Shirow and Seishinsha (and many translators)
published in English by Eclipse International (books One and Two) and Dark Horse Manga (a part of Dark Horse Comics) (not shown, Books Three and Four)
1989, 1990, 2008, 2009

I was recently chatting with an architect, and discussed how 1980s manga from Japan had some interesting conceptual architecture. The 80s were an era when the idea of “arcologies” (large sustainable, self-contained or partially self-supporting construction projects) was all the rage in architecture theory magazines, and some famous Japanese architects made some wild sculptural drawings which got a lot of press. On this topic, I loaned him the first two volumes of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga.

Two panels from Appleseed Book One

Now it’s my fault that architecture students at a local UC have to create an architecturally-themed manga as one of their assignments. (Sorry, kids!)

The architecture in the manga IS really detailed – these aren’t just backgrounds for wild action, but an entire portfolio of theoretical architectural design work in its own right. The end papers of each comic are always architectural, and whether the images are of the ruined high rises of the old world, or the solar-paneled developments of the new one, they are all done with pleasing attention to detail.

There are also lots of 1980s touches to the futurism – there are tons of 45 degree angled walls and buildings just because that’s what we all thought was cool at the time, and things are only barely rounded, just a tad. Our futurism always gives away when we really made something! But it’s NICE. It’s internally consistent from a design standpoint. It’s always done ALL THE WAY.

Should I say something about the manga itself? (What, there is a story?) Okay. Shirow, who is more famous for Ghost in the Shell (which has been turned into feature films at least four times now) was really at his peak (architecturally – ha!) for the Appleseed story. It follows a pair of soldiers, Deunan Knute and Briareos Hecatonchires, who were living in the ruins of cities in the aftermath of a devastating world war, as they are recruited to live in a new civilization that has risen from the ashes. They become police in a seemingly utopian society, but are put off a bit by the fact that most of the peaceful, educated residents of their new home are bio-engineered, and no longer completely human.

The first two volumes are world-building: Shirow explains world history, the rise of Olympus, the purpose of its population, and the political tensions that arise when you try to decide whether or not humans are really, you know, SAFE.

The second two volumes rely on the first (you can’t just start there), and show the ongoing struggles of our protagonists with their dangerous jobs and complex political entanglements. These are mostly action sequences, and less philosophical than the first two, which had so many meaning-of-life debates among engineered bioroids that they required footnotes. (No, really.)

I have objections to some elements of the manga. A big one: Women’s Bodies. The men are covered from head to toe, or are encased in robotic bodies, but the women show skin all the time, to the point that there are shower scenes (because of course). So, you 100% know this was drawn by a man, what his preferred body types are, and also that he is damned near obsessed with the female pelvic region, because of how often you can see it rendered in great detail even during fight scenes. (Once you see this theme, you can’t unsee it. HOW MANY HIGH KICKS DOES A WOMAN REALLY NEED TO PLACE IN EVERY DAMNED BATTLE, HUH?) I now know that later in his career, Shirow turned to what we (Americans) call softcore porn drawings of shiny, oiled-looking youthful girls/women, so please be careful with your image searches!

Also, as a part black woman, I’m not a fan of how he draws black people. Since most of the characters appear to be heavily stylized pseudo-European (rather than Asian), there is a hazy stylized ethnic ambiguity until black people arrive, and they are suddenly VERY different. I’m not saying we aren’t bigger or can have different features, but between the one black character in Macross/Robotech, or in the more recent Castlevania, there are some great manga-stylized renderings that I find more attractive. I realize that I have access to black people in my own family, and Shirow may not, but I was… confused by several of them, honestly.

So I have positive architectural feelings about Appleseed, and especially appreciate the buildings, machines, and industrial design of the first two books.

On What I’m reading

-I’m reading Supreme Court decisions (which are long, and those take some TIME; I annotate my copies, of course).

-I’m still reading McSweeney’s 54

-I’m listening to The Vegetarian by Han Kang in audiobook format. (It’s GREAT – the husband narrator is especially terrible, so it is a relief that there are others… Also, as a vegetarian, the horror and violence that erupts over the wife’s dietary choice, despite the country’s remarkable Buddhist cuisine and its known benefits, is so many things – familiar, plausible, remarkably foolish, and more.)

-I’m still reading Whitelash

-I want to read: Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister The Serial Killer; Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko; Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything; Zerlina Maxwell’s The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide; and Stacey Abram’s Our Time Is Now.

Book: Mira Schendel

Cover of the Tate catalog for Mira Schendel

Mira Schendel
edited by Tanya Barson and Taisa Palhares
published by Tate Publishing, London
2013

In 2014, I was struggling with my abstract drawing practice, and needed to see how other artists managed some of the geometric ideas/problems/experiments I kept sketching out. By some amazing stroke of luck, I wound up in London on business, and was able to drop by the fantastic Tate Modern to see the Mira Schendel show.

Mira Schendel was a remarkable, Swiss-born Brazilian artist whom I’d never heard of, but whose work was STUNNING and completely on point as a contrast to my own work (and sometimes, it is easier to clarify your own thoughts in contrast to others’!). She worked with text! Translucency! Layers! Perforations! Her work is a revelation, and impressed me with its depth, experimentation, breadth (she has a remarkably diverse practice), and the great presentation of some very delicate work at the Tate.

This book is the sold-out catalog from that show, which I was able to buy YEARS later through a used book shop online. (Every time I’ve tried to stop taking photos as notes, and relied upon a show catalog, I couldn’t get one…) The reproductions, including those of oil crayon on translucent paper – which I was CERTAIN would be too difficult a challenge – are beautifully reproduced.

The essays in this catalog are a bit dense: Schendel was a fan of philosophy, and so folks who aren’t fans of Wittgenstein and others of his era might skim these for key clues about Schendel’s interest in language as an organizing concept for the world, and focus on the one about Immanence before jumping into the reproductions. The reprints of interviews with Schendel at the end are a great way to end.

A reproduction from the book of a Schendel piece incorporating typography, translucency, geometry, and general brilliance.

As with other artists I find “revelatory,” Schendel may have been omitted from the resources available to me while researching art because (a) she wasn’t based in Europe, (b) her work is not in the collections of major US museums, so (c) the major institutional museums don’t promote her as part of the official modern/contemporary art “canon” (which is based on what they have collected, conveniently), and (d) she wasn’t part of a group movement, which is a conveniently self-organizing set of practices or themes that make it easier to file work within a particular era’s “canon.” (It’s all so tedious, though I understand the desire for organizing principles.)

This is a well-produced catalog of a truly impressive show, and the Tate and its partners in Brazil and Portugal should be proud of it.

Book: Real Man Adventures by T Cooper

Cover image

Real Man Adventures
by T Cooper
published by McSweeneys
2013

What does it mean to be a man? T Cooper’s delightful biography / memoir / interview collection / essays explore this with depth, humor, vulnerability, and great stories. T wasn’t born male, and so approaches the subject with charming thoughtfulness in a way that many born-male men might not.

The humor of the fantastic cover is a good fit. There are truly engaging stories in here, unsent letters, questions, asides, and observations that had me giggling out loud so many times…

There are many serious moments. Changing one’s gender presentation in the US can be a dangerous, due to misinformation, ignorance, fear of difference, and negative cultural influences – and anyone who is true to themselves in this way risks violence. We should ALL be allowed to be ourselves and be safe, but that isn’t our current situation, and this is acknowledged throughout the book in candid, personal ways.

This is one of the most outright FUN books that I’ve read in a long while, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

Book: Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow

Cover of Doctorow’s book

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age
by Cory Doctorow
published by McSweeney’s, San Francisco
2014

Before I discuss the book, I’d like to say that there was NO WAY Doctorow could have predicted the current coronavirus pandemic, and so the advice early in the book about how you shouldn’t be making a living off recordings of your performances, but should really be touring and making money on live shows was well intentioned. There is more on offer, so don’t stop at that point!

Cory Doctorow’s book extols the virtues of the unregulated distribution system known as the Internet, and advises that we should LET GO of the idea of having our creations protected by copyright and adapt.

His views are practical, but I rolled my eyes a few times while reading a physical copy of his book, which was professionally edited, published by a real publisher, and printed on paper by a printing company that got paid. Full disclosure: my bias here is that I LOVE HIS PUBLISHER, I have been buying things they publish for years, and I WANT THEM TO EXIST. Their existence requires some concessions to the models of business which he is critiquing.

He isn’t saying that traditional content publishing & distribution businesses are BAD for all purposes (except in a few places), he is saying that there are more options now, and we have the Internet to thank for that. And that is true, and is good. This is the core and highlight of the book’s themes.

The catch is that digitized creative work has been deeply devalued, and many people just take what they want without paying creators. Doctorow warns creators that making a living isn’t easy regardless (honest and a fair, gentle warning!), and then paints a sunny picture of the tech environment – if people love you, they’ll find ways of getting money to you, and you should make that easy for them to do!

He devotes lots of page space to the futility of preventing unauthorized copying. I’d feel better about it if I didn’t think my friends were getting ripped off. (I am NOT happy that some dude in Germany was burning CDs of a friend’s band’s new album and selling the CDs to pocket the money himself. That is not cool – my friend and his band had to spend a lot of time/effort/music-love/money to record that album. How many fans who want to support him are getting their money diverted away to this random dude?) I get that we are living in a sort of take-what-you-want age, and I personally mock friends who ‘rip’ content they can easily afford to buy. They are NOT supporting creators. Excuses about not wanting to support the corporate players in the industry ring hollow: these pals don’t need the stuff, but they are taking it anyway (like consuming dessert, but refusing to pay for it because the cafe is part of a corporate chain). Industries employ people and can be useful in promoting and distributing creative work – a writer whose indie publisher failed to promote him insisted that a corporate marketing department REALLY IS a useful service, and he wished he had access to one.

The arguments structured as:
– I can’t do what some of the big corporate tools do by myself
– I insist on using big web corp’s tools for my own purposes
– so this creates obligations on big web corp to fulfill more of my needs, rather than the needs of their paying business customers, and restrictions on me on this corporate tool are oppression….I just don’t see it. I preferred the old argument about how, if you didn’t like a tool, you could build a better one. (I’m an OLD geek.) If we aren’t willing to build a tool, the situation we find ourselves in is: someone else’s house, someone else’s rules. I believe we should regulate the hell out of public resources to ensure they are democratic and access is universally provided for the public benefit; we should let corporate-funded platforms serve corporate purposes – even if they build a big membership which we wish was more publicly accessible. If a popular corporate platform has many users, it does not automatically become a public utility – there has to be some trade off for that to be fair.

This is a thoughtful book, which draws different conclusions than I draw about what corporate stuff is useful for, but which has some fine asides about licensing revenue for content creators. I admire Doctorow’s optimism about technology, and his desire for things to be better for creators.