Tag: Art

by Ursula Murray Husted

My ten-year-old and I both liked this one a lot. It is a very touching story about two young cats who live on an island in Malta (the seaside setting made me think of The Cats of Lamu). Betto is content with their lot- sleeping under a fisherman’s boat and eating fish scraps on the docks. But Cilla wants more in life- a comfortable home with humans perhaps. Another cat tells her about the quiet garden, from an old kitten tale, where humans are always kind and food is plentiful. Cilla is determined to find the garden. Betto doesn’t believe it exists but goes along to make sure his friend is safe. Their journey takes them far from home, through many encounters. They navigate the streets, jump on a bus, ride a ferryboat, have a mishap on the sea, and meet several cats who give them directions. One particularly speaks in obscure riddles. When Cilla finally locates what they think is the quiet garden, it isn’t exactly the paradise they were hoping to find. A poodle tells them a story suggesting they shouldn’t be in want of anything at all. Later when the cats are discouraged and confused, hiding from the rain and feeling their quest failed, they comfort themselves by telling their own story to each other- a story of friendship above all.

I won’t tell you the ending- I did find it satisfying whereas others might think the narrative just went nowhere. But this book is philosophical more than anything else. It’s a story within a story, it’s about finding out what’s important in life. It has nods to The Little Prince and delightfully, pictorial homage to many famous works of art. Sometimes these are in the background as the cats journey through their world, on other pages the cats are actually walking through the art- a tropical fantasy painted by Rousseau, the Bayeux tapestry, ancient tiles from Persia, cave paintings from Lascaux etc- many I recognized, some I did not. On certain pages the artwork depicted seemed to fit what was happening in the cats’ story, but other times it appeared to be a random choice, so I just shrugged and went with it. The author explained in the back which artworks she had chosen to depict, which I appreciated reading. Her own style- well, let’s just say sometimes I thought it looked a bit rushed with awkward lines or poses- occasionally the drawings even appeared childish, but it started to grow on me. They’re certainly very expressive and lively, and there’s lots of detail in the surroundings. Mostly I just really liked the story about the cats, their little arguments, observations on humans, and earnestness in their quest to find what ‘home’ means.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
182 pages, 2020

365 Days

by Anup and Manoj Shah

Brought this book home from a thrift store just last week, and instead of it sitting for years on my shelf like so many others, I started thumbing through it. Read it in between chapters of two other books, the last stretch in a long afternoon outside by the garden, when for once it was cool enough and breezy so the mosquitoes weren’t bad. Hearing birds and watching them bustle about while reading about wildlife and the change of seasons in a very different, also very hot, part of the world- was nice.

African Odyssey is a book of photographs, taken each one day of the year and presented in sequence as a photography team followed the great migration around the Serengeti plains and the Maasai Mara. They go from the rainy season into dry weather and back into rain. They follow the animals as the herds in turn follow the grass- traversing different types of terrain and river obstacles. Each photograph has a bit of text on a facing page- sometimes a description of the animal depicted, or of the weather they experienced that day, or of an interaction they observed between some species. So there are little stories and glimpses into the lives of the animals, which I liked. Reminded me somewhat of The Long African Day. Most of the photos are of familiar, iconic animals- lions and zebra, wildebeest and vultures, hippos, hyenas, giraffe and leopards. There’s also pictures of many birds I’m not familiar with, and one each of a striped hyena and an aardwolf, rarely seen. I learned a few facts I didn’t know before- such as, that giraffes often suffer heavily from parasites, and many of them die from it. But a lot of the info tidbits were repeated- I didn’t need to read twice that wildebeest are so physically efficient it takes them the same energy output to run as to walk. And while I appreciate that the photos didn’t avoid showing the unpleasant or brutal side of nature- prey animals being killed, predators feeding, young abandoned by their mothers or lost, etc- phrases like sudden death is no stranger on the plains felt a bit overused after a while.

My only other quibble is that the book itself is difficult to hold- it’s very thick and heavy, but has such a short spine, my hands got tired unless I propped it up on something and I didn’t want to torque the binding too much. Visually, the photographs are rich and lively, and I feel like I got a broad picture of what life is like for animals in that area of the world, how their struggles for survival depend on each other and intersect, with a nice amount of detail on individual incidents.

Rating: 3/5
744 pages, 2007

by Betsy Byars

A re-read from my childhood. It\’s about a boy named Alfie who likes to draw, especially cartoons. He\’s proud of his work and daydreams about becoming famous, but mostly keeps the drawings secret, working in a private attic space in his small home. Shared with his mother, older sister and grandfather, this house sounds really tiny. Alfie learns suddenly one day that his married brother lost his job and might come back home with his wife, to stay in the attic. His mother, indifferent to Alfie\’s need for private space, has big plans to spruce up the attic for them. Alfie protests, and when no one listens, locks himself in the attic and refuses to come out.

I had remembered vividly a lot of the details about Alfie\’s drawing- how he gets caught in class drawing instead of doing his math, how he imagines ideas and reworks them on paper- frustrated sometimes when they don\’t come out right. I had forgotten how much of the story is about Alfie\’s family dynamics- the older sister seems the most sympathetic and responsible, the mother feels overworked and exasperated by the grandfather, who bemoans his feelings of uselessness and tells the same stories over and over again. The family spends a lot of time arguing or sitting in front of the television- all the programs sound really inane and annoying- no wonder Alfie preferred to spend time alone attic- but it really makes me wonder if the author had something against tv viewing. I guess this is on my mind because my nine-year-old has been reading Roald Dahl\’s Matilda with her class, which also has a dysfunctional family with the parents really enamored of their television.

SPOILER In case you\’re wondering, Alfie does finally come down from the attic, not because of his mother\’s threats, his grandfather\’s cajoling, his best friend\’s attempts to get him to join activities, or his sister\’s expressions of understanding. For another reason entirely that erased the conflict. The sad thing is that the whole experience made Alfie realize he was avoiding things by spending so much time in the attic with his daydreams and his cartoons, and he made a motion to change that. It isn\’t clear at the ending if he stopped drawing altogether, but it did seem like his attitude towards his artwork had changed.

Rating: 3/5         119 pages, 1978

by Edith Holden

I am not familiar with this author/illustrator, but I do know she has written a Country Diary, which this compilation predates by a year. I expecting something like Wildlings, but this book is much simpler and I admit to being slightly disappointed. While it does have daily notes, where Holden jotted down the wildflowers and bird species she saw on walks through fields and hedgerows, it\’s really just like a list. Very few and far between are any actual incidents or descriptions of wildlife behavior. Most of the text is a collection of poems and quotes about the seasons, or flowers, or the beauties of nature. Wordsworth, Longellow, Shakespeare, Tennyson . . . . but I don\’t read a lot of poetry, especially this type, and personally I did not care for much of it. There are a few interesting tidbits about where the names of the months originated, or special holidays and folklore particular to each season. It was slightly reminiscent of the Treasury of Flower Fairies.

What I really like about this book is the artwork. The detailed paintings and drawings of many different types of wildflowers (quite a few I recognize, considered weeds in my yard!) and birds are just lovely. Delicate, lively and carefully done. It\’s apparent from her notes that Holden carried flowers and foliage home to study and paint from; I wonder if she just had a quick eye or some other means to attain the accuracy of her bird sketches. A few mammals: rabbits, ponies, one fox, but mostly it\’s birds and some butterflies. They really are very nice.

The notes and drawings are from 1905; the book was first published in 1989.

Rating: 3/5             192 pages, 1905

Los Diarios de Cereza
by Joris Chamblain

I bought this book while traveling, because the illustratons intrigued me so much. It\’s the first book I\’ve ever read in Spanish and actually enjoyed, rather than struggling to translate every sentence. I did have to look up quite a few words, but not enough to slow me down. The original is in French.

It\’s about a young girl Cereza who dreams of being a writer and likes to imagine other people\’s secrets. She\’s busy decorating a tree house with her friends when they notice an old man come out of the woods in paint-splattered clothes. They\’re nervous and go home. Cereza comes back later on her own and sees the old man again. She decides to follow him and see what he\’s doing. Without telling her friends and lying to her mom, by the way.

– spoilers ahead –

He\’s painting scenes of animals on the walls of a derelict, abandoned zoo in the forest. Cereza decides to help him and gets her friends and other kids involved in cleaning up the old zoo grounds. Eventually they get some adults of the town involved as well to make major repairs. Delightfully, the artist not only paints animals on the walls, he renews the paintings periodically to make it look like the animals are feeding, new young are born and grow up, etc. It\’s a constantly evolving art form. Cereza convinces him to let the town see, and they open the doors to visitors, bringing memories alive for many of the older citizens and recognition to the old man for his art. The front and end pages of the book are like a diary (in a hard-to-read handwriting font) and some of the later pages are news articles about the revitalized zoo in its new format, and criticism/praise of the old man\’s art. These articles with more formal language was the most difficult for me to read.

– end spoilers –

The story is a nice tidy mystery, and in spite of some flaws (dishonestly, ignoring and criticizing her friends) I rather liked Cereza\’s character. At the end of the book she determines to find a way to talk more openly with her mother, but isn\’t quite there yet. While a big part of it is about friendship and acceptance, I admit I liked best the parts about the old man\’s secret work. I\’m reading this book aloud a second time round with my teen, so she can practice her Spanish, and she\’s quite enjoying it as well.

Rating: 4/5             72 pages, 2017

by Scott McCloud

One of the heftiest graphic novels I\’ve ever read, but the story moves quickly. It\’s about a struggling young artist in New York City- a sculptor named David who is seriously down on his luck. Desperate to make his name, he trades his life in – making a deal with Death (personified as his dead great-uncle Harry) in which he can create anything effortlessly with his hands, but within a limited time frame. At first it is thrilling, then frustrating. Suddenly David realizes he doesn\’t know what to say with his art, and if he does, can it make any difference if no one sees it? The ins and outs of the art scene of New York sound like a massive headache- as I\’ve always imagined. David finally discovers a clever way to subvert the system, and plunges all his energies into creating pieces that will definitely be remembered. But then he falls in love with a theater girl. And finds out that his girlfriend struggles with mental illness. And is suddenly terrified of dying. This book has some heavy subject matter in it- but I didn\’t always get it.The characters often seemed really full of themselves, too angsty- well, at least the main character was. The girlfriend was nice, but rather shallow- there just wasn\’t enough of her in the story. Aside from her obvious role as a recipient of David\’s affections. I don\’t really share the main character\’s views about art. And I don\’t know if I like the way this story ended, at all. Nevertheless, it was a gripping read.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                      496 pages, 2015

more opinions:
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books
Reading Rants
Ex Libris

by Victor G. Ambrus

Ambrus is one of my favorite illustrators. I really admire his linear style especially the tiny hatching done to show the direction of hair or form. This book of his is just one to drool over (or practice by copying the drawings), it\’s not a step-by-step instruction book. Instead it\’s a showcase of Ambrus\’ drawings of animals. Most of them done on location at zoos or wildlife parks, some are of pets, horses from a friend\’s stable or cattle in the fields. Little notes on the pages describe a bit about his working conditions, his preferred drawing media (graphite and charcoal- he\’s not afraid to smudge!), and something about the techniques he uses to capture likeness of living animals that are moving around. Basically his advice is: start with large basic shapes, work in the details later. There are also brief paragraphs telling some facts about the wild animals, which I read with interest. He enjoys sketching at the zoo, which is also a favorite activity of mine (one I wish I could indulge in more often). So I could really relate to his comments about dealing with crowds and curious children. It\’s a book I return to again and again to admire someone else\’s skill and hope to emulate.

This alternate cover shows a few more of the drawings:

a few more samples:

Rating: 4/5             120 pages, 1990

by Janet Scudder

Janet Scudder was one of the first acclaimed female American sculptors. But her start was not easy and I believe she wrote this book in part to show how much hard work being an artist can take! She started out with drawing classes in school but when first had a beginning course in sculpture, realized it was her thing. At the Chicago World\’s Fair in 1893 she saw the work of Frederick W. MacMonnies and determined this was the master who would teach her. She simply travelled to France (with hardly a penny to her name), eventually found his studio and wouldn\’t take no for an answer. Her descriptions of early work in studios in France are just delightful, especially the discovery of self and development of her own style. Initially she did a lot of decorative wood carving (because it paid bills), then bas-relief seals and portrait medallions. Finally got comissions doing statues and funerary urns, but decided she didn\’t want to spend the rest of her life \”doing work for the dead\” so instead began making wonderful figures of happy chubby dancing children, to decorate fountains and gardens. And ultimately that\’s what she became known for.

So the book is a lot about her road through life: early studies and struggles living in poor neighborhoods and dismal studios, seeking work all the time. In fact some descriptions of Paris and New York (when it felt unwelcoming to her) remind me a lot of Down and Out in Paris and London. On the other hand, her pluck and unremitting determination are also very reminiscent of Betty MacDonald\’s voice in Anybody Can Do Anything… She tells about her first exposition, her first inclusion in a museum, her first big comission, her first home purchase- in France- she lived in France just as often as in New York and seemed to feel more at home there. Later parts of the book are more about her observations of New York social circles, her work as a suffragette and later volunteering in the war effort, and her ideas on color theory- how it affects people\’s moods and could be used in public spaces for cheering effect. Some parts are just plain funny, others more serious, but always her strong personality is core. I didn\’t absorb quite as much information about sculpture as I\’d expected, but a lot about her personal ideology as an artist. Good reading indeed.

This book is on my e-reader. And here I have a complaint. The copy itself is horrid. It\’s another one I acquired free as a digital file because it is old enough to be in the public domain… but it\’s obviously the file was created by some automated means. There were jumbled letters and nonsensical words on nearly every page- most of the time I could decipher what the word was supposed to be, but not always. Frequently one end of quotation marks was depicted as cc. Chapter titles that must have originally been at the top of every page instead interrupted paragraphs a third of the way down each screen on my e-reader. Photos were all grainy, dark and indistinct- better they had been left out entirely.

It says a whole lot for how much I enjoyed and treasured the words of this artist, that I got through the entire thing regardless of all these distractions and flaws. Definitely one I\’m going to try and find a hardcopy of, then I can erase the file.

Rating: 4/5           297 pages, 1925

by Frederick William Pitcher

This is an outdated aquarium book that I swapped for, sight unseen. It\’s old enough that it talks about angle-iron frame tanks with all-glass aquariums being the new thing. There is no mention of an actual cycle, although it recommends to \’age\’ the water. I was a bit shocked to find no warnings against ammonia poisoning and it said ok to introduce fish when nitrites test at three or four ppm. Wow. So the info in here about husbandry, growing plants and the like is fairly basic. I\’m keeping the book because I like the illustrations. It\’s fun to look at the paintings in the guide that makes up most of the volume here. I amuse myself by guessing the species name before reading the text- some have them have changed in form and color over the years of selective breeding. There are a few- must have been popular or common for aquariums at the time- which I didn\’t recognize at all. I compare the notes on fishes with my own experience: this book says serpae tetras will only eat live foods and are difficult to breed. Not the case anymore. (Other old books I have on the subject note that serpaes are entirely peaceful: NO! and another that they are so prone to disease that not worth keeping. And in contrast I\’ve often read they\’re supposed to be really hardy!) This book: nice for the pictures if you like art and fish, fun for a bit of comparison to how things used to be.

Rating: 2/5           60  pages, 1977

by Amy Goldwasser

This is a fun, quirky little book featuring black cats. Real black cats, whose owners or caretakers or slaves offered their names and details to be included in the book (it was a kickstarter thing). Each page shows the cat\’s face and tells some little tidbit about their quirky habits and personalities. There are cats that hate people, or love them. Cats who despise their own kind, cats who rule. Cats who like cheetos, lick plastic, stick their noses in people\’s ears. Endearing cats, annoying cats, all of them very much different from each other. What I didn\’t care for in this book were the occasional references to popular culture or famous people, which never sits well with me. It feels a bit snarky, New York- style.

The illustrations by Peter Arkle really make the book. You think -of course- at a glance that one black cat is very like another- there\’s one down the street from us that I often mistake for my own when I see it walking on the sidewalk. But the faces are so distinct here- the slant and expression in the eyes, the shapes of their noses, tilts of their ears, texture of the fur. The artist really captured their individuality. I like how the spread of the inside cover shows them all. Here\’s a sample:

Rating: 2/5           120 pages, 2016


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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