Sunday, April 28, 2013

Who Knew? Art is Easy!

There is a thin line between hoarding and collecting. I spend most spring and summer Saturday mornings poking around yard sales looking to buy books to add to my collection. Oh heck, truth be told, I never really stop looking! I end up at library sales, estate sales, auctions; like I said, it’s a thin line!

On occasion I have been known to buy entire collections and on one such occasion I purchased a collection from the estate of an art teacher that was loaded not only with spectacular and heavy books of artists work, but had a good number of art instruction books. So when my daughter started to show an interest in drawing I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to put the instruction books to work; I figured anything that got her off the computer and she would spend hours doing was a good thing.

The problem was most of the instruction books where a little too advanced or didn’t take her through the process in a step by step manner, so she became frustrated…quickly. What was once fun and interesting now was hard. And boy was I stupid for giving her those books….just ask her!

Enter Andrew Loomis and Lee J. Ames, who ride to my rescue with books that make art not only fun, but easy!

Loomis originally penned, or should I say penciled? Fun With a Pencil back in 1939 and while decades have passed it’s easy to understand and clearly illustrated steps make drawing normal or cartoonish characters pretty easy. The folks at Titan Books have released a beautiful re-packaged version that runs the gamut from basic faces right through keeping subjects in perspective when drawing more complex things.
While the book takes on an almost coffee table quality, it is definitely a great reference tool for the beginning artist. Loomis provides not only a narrative explanation of the steps he draws each stage of the evolving drawing. This boiled down approach made it much easier for my daughter to see how the drawing evolved from point A to the finished product. It’s good to be a cool Dad again!

Lee J. Ames first job was with Walt Disney Studios at the ripe old age of 18. He went on to a career as an advertising artist, illustrator and animator. His series of 26 different Draw 50 books includes everything from Creepy Crawlies and Birds to Building and Boats, Ships, Trucks and Trains. You name it and Ames has a book that can teach you how to draw it.

Watson-Gruptill/Crown Books is re-releasing the set which features easy to follow, step-by-step renderings of as the titles suggest, 50 different objects in each book in the series. While Ames relies solely on the individually illustrated steps without a narrative guide, the process is so stripped down that it easier easy for even the novice to follow.

Ames books on what I will call the “fun things” like magical creatures or aliens are probably a good starting point for the beginner. His books on building and some of the variety of animals are a little more complex.

Whether you’re a doodler looking to evolve into something more complex or an aspiring artist both Loomis and Ames offer a wonderful guides to get you to where you want to go, but I can’t guarantee that it will make you a cool Dad!  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

John Sexton – Baseball as a Road to God (Gotham Books)

Think about the true baseball fans that you know in your life, the diehards who bring an almost religious fervor to the game; you know the ones who worship at the altar of the Yanks or the Sox and gather to worship in the House That Ruth Built, the ivy covered outfield fence of Wrigley Field or looking out at the Green Monster of Fenway. Think about the level of faith they display on opening day when they proclaim that “this is our year” or in September when they announce “we’ll get ‘em next year.”

Being a true fan of baseball, more than almost any other sport, carries with it a certain wild-eyed fanaticism that can be compared to that of true religious believers. Spread out over a 160 game season, there is an almost Crusade like feel to baseball’s regular season. Those that aren’t caught up in the faith can be viewed as heretics and apostates.

In Baseball as a Road to God John Sexton, the long-time president of New York University examines what he believes are the intersections of baseball and religion. Born out of a course he teaches at NYU, Sexton cites what believes to be countless examples of those crossroads. Sexton spells out examples of those intertwined connections of common ground; blessings and curses, hope and faith, and those aforementioned sacred places.

I don’t get the sense that Sexton’s goal is to convince anyone as much as to open minds to the possibilities. I find it wildly amusing that so many atheists, agnostics and liberals are somehow offended or claim to be that Sexton would parallels between the religious and the secular. It’s made all the more laughable by the simple fact that Sexton leads one of the true bastions of the liberal faith.  

Oliver Horvitz – An American Caddie in St. Andrews (Gotham Books)

I once had a acquaintance, a man-child who lived in his parents basement into his third decade (and may still be there) slyly admit to me the he “carried other men’s golf bags for money.” It seemed an odd admission at the time, but when I learned that he actually ventured from the basement to shag a bag for a pro on the sub-PGA, Nike Tour and that his cut of the winnings amounted to thousands of dollars, I found a new appreciation for caddie. I can’t say the caddie/writer Oliver Horovitz has done much to elevate that opinion with his new book, An American Caddie in St. Andrews, but he has spawned an appreciation for his ability to create a career out of an I don’t wanna grow up approach to life.

While other caddies have penned books they mostly fall into one of three categories; a pure golf tip guide, a tale of shagging a bag for a pro and a critical championship round, or shagging a bag for a pro who turns out to be real a-hole. Horovitz gives us a different take with his insights into classic St. Andrews, Scotland, Old Course and the crusty world of veteran caddies, trainees and the pursuit of acceptance in an insular world.

While golf is a steady focus throughout the book and the Old Course characters play primary roles in the tale, An American Caddie in St. Andrews is really a coming of age story. It’s a fish out water tale full of personal growth, humor and real life Caddyshack antics.



Jackie Robinson – I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography (Ecco)

The forthcoming release of the biopic 42 about the epic story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier to become the first black player in Major League Baseball has spurred a re-packaging and release of Robinson’s 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made, the source of the movie.

Many will be surprised that while the book details the Robinson’s heroic career in the bigs, there is so much more to his story; including forays into politics, business, and the civil rights movement. While Robinson is known for biggest “first” before playing big league ball, his well-rounded athleticism made him the first ever four-letter man at UCLA. While Robinson’s athletic prowess is undeniable, it truly is only one part of dynamic and heroic man.

There is a surprising level of honesty laced through this story. While you would think that Robinson would have to be tough as nails to stare down racism and the challenges he faced on and off the field and in the worlds of business and politics, there is an at times heartbreaking vulnerability to his story.

Delving into Robinson’s forays into politics and the civil right movement, he details his public disagreements with Malcolm X, who he took to task for talking a good game rather than taking any actual actions to help African Americans in any way other than pointing a verbal finger of blame at the “white bosses” that X claimed had used Robinson. This insight into Robinson’s character, makes all the more absurd the introduction by Harvard professor and serial race baiter Dr. Cornel West in the 1995 re-release of this autobiography. West embodies all of things that Robinson would have railed against.

While it is baseball and the so-called “Noble Experiment” that Robinson is most famous for, I Never Had It Made displays a level of complexity and depth that most of today’s athletes could never approach, let alone comprehend.

Gabrielle Reece – My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper (Scribner)

Full disclosure upfront: First- after 25+ years working in and around the media I have developed a healthy distrust of the media. I have witnessed firsthand the lazy media types take the easy way out to try to make the biggest splash and get noticed, never bothering to do any heavy lifting like research or preparation. It’s one of the reasons why a skilled public relations person can easily manipulate the media by spoon feeding them the storyline they want out there. Second- I normally avoid self-help or relationship books like the black plague!

But when the storm of “controversy” erupted around the new book from former volleyball champion and model Gabrielle Reece’s new book My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper: A Guide to the Less Than Perfect Life because she allegedly proclaimed that she saved her marriage by being…submissive to her husband! And the lazy media was off and running! I was surprised that some self righteous anchor-ette didn’t rush out and dust off the crusty old feminist Gloria Steinem to proclaim Reece apostate  to all things equally rights for not bowing down at the altar of you can have it all baby!

With that as the setup, I didn’t know quite what to expect when a cracked open the cover, which features Reece not in full model war paint, but with a couple of her kids and what is clearly spelled out in the book, her husband’s dog, hanging out by the water. If you believed the media, you’d expect her to be decked out, Mrs. Clever-style in a dress, heels, string of pearls and vacuum close by.  The book turns out to be anything but a guide to how to please your chest-thumping cave man!

Reece talks about her life; her career, her husband’s career, their family and the pretty much mundane day to day things that most couples go through. She doesn’t attempt to sugar coat the ordinary or detail some fairytale life; she pretty much tells it like it is! In the pursuit of “having it all” we have created this unattainable myth of what life should really be like. She clears the air early, often and with plenty of humor that it’s okay to not have it all; it’s okay to age and not be model perfect and not worry if “this make my ass look big.”

While she does talk about wanting to please her husband, she gets it right; most guys aren’t looking anything too complex or cryptic, in the end we are pretty simple and easy to keep happy. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a two way street and that women shouldn’t have expectations too; or as Reece puts it “Be the Queen.”

In a day and age when bullshit “reality” shows are passed off as “real life” Reece offers up a refreshing reality check for folks who actually live out here in the real world.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Brandon Webb & Glen Doherty – Navy SEAL Sniper: An Intimate Look at the Sniper of the 21st Century (Skyhorse Publishing)

If the U.S. Navy SEALs are the elite special forces, fighters of the U.S. Military, then the Navy Seal Sniper is the elite of the elite. They have passed the grueling, six month long,  BUD/S Training course that is a mental and physical challenge; and then been selected to tackle the next level and become Navy SEAL Snipers.

Both authors; Brandon Webb, a retired Navy SEAL Sniper, who notched combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan among other hot spots and Glen Doherty, a combat decorated SEAL, who was killed in action in Benghazi, Libya while attempting to rescue U. S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, bring a battle tested, authentic feel to the writing of this book.


Navy SEAL Sniper: An Intimate Look at the Sniper of the 21st Century spells out the evolution of the sniper, not only from the historical perspective, but the transition of the U.S. Sniper in particular; from good old country boy who was handy with a hunting rifle, to the research and development of technology that assists and elevates the role of the Sniper to that of one of the most effective and deadly, tools in the military toolbox.

Webb and Doherty detail the training that SEAL snipers go through to work in settings that range from mountainous jungle regions to urban settings. They also dissect a full scope of sniper gear including weapons, optics, camouflage, and technology that has improved accuracy and effectiveness. They spend considerable focus on the characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of a variety of sniper weapons.

While the book is an encyclopedic compendium of all things sniper, it doesn’t read like an encyclopedia. It clear spells out the mechanics of weaponry without getting bogged down in too much technical jargon. The photos and design graphics that accompany the book are amazing and provide a balance to narrative.

It is the clear level of experience and intelligence that Webb and Doherty brought to the project that shines through in the writing; there is a well earned level of pride in the training they undertook and the work that they did on behalf of this country. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Jerry Ross - Spacewalker: My Journey in Space and Faith as NASA's Record-Setting Frequent Flyer (Perdue University Press)

Reading Spacewalker: My Journey In Space and faith as NASA’s Record Setting Frequent Flyer by U.S. Astronaut Jerry Ross, I find myself caught in a bizarre paradox of being excited and intrigued by his story, yet oddly saddened by this true American hero likely being all but unrecognizable accept for those who have not followed the NASA shuttle program. 

Growing up in the 1960s you couldn’t help but be enthralled by the daring, yet clearly intelligent and fit young men who where labeled as possessing the “right stuff.” A Gemini or Apollo launch was a cause to take a break from the day to day, and gather around the classroom television, usually a behemoth, black and white monster to watch the excitement. Kids could recite the names by heart and Walter Cronkite pontificated from the Cape, keeping us abreast of the latest from space.

Despite the amazing contributions that we enjoy as part of everyday life that can be traced to the innovation of Ross and his colleagues at NASA which he details early in the book, for whatever the reason, we lost the fascination with all things Astronaut. Our notice only seemed to be rekindled by loss; with the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Even the engineering feat that is the International Space Station, in which Ross played a major role in the Earth bound development of tools and techniques utilized in the space builds, could not capture our collective imagination. Now like Ross, I fear that the mothballing of NASA due to our focus on dollars, rather than innovation, will completely damper the dream. This made all the more amazing by the billions of dollars of ongoing government waste on programs that haven’t contributed a whit to our lives.

Ross is credited with being among the most launched individuals in space flight; with seven take offs and landings to his credit and a record number of space walks, although that exact number remains a mystery even in this tale. Perhaps the greatest source of my consternation is that Ross spins not only an amazing story of his life as an Astronaut, but he captures the childlike purity of the dream of space flight, which has likely passed even for an above average, Midwestern boy. Hopefully this wonderful story will provide the spark to fuel a dream like the one Ross embodies.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rex Brown – Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera (DaCapo Press)

Full disclosure: before reading this book I would have been hard presses to name an album or song by heavy metal icons Pantera. So I go into this book intrigued by the tale of one of rock’s most infamous moments; the onstage murder of legendary Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott during a show with his band Damageplan, but not from the perspective of a drooling fan.

While it falls into a familiar pattern that many rock biographies tread; you know, band gets together, band gets following, band gets record deal, band tours and tours and tours, band makes pile of cash, band spends pile of cash, band can’t resist life on the road traps like babes, booze and drugs, band breaks up, band regrets breakup and moves on; bassist Rex Brown lays out the tail in Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera.

Clearly the book paints Brown in a positive light, hey it’s his book, so why not. The interesting twist comes in the form of brief anecdotes provided by folks ranging from Dimebag’s long time girlfriend Rita Haney, early band members, producers and record company types. He captures his own decent into alcoholism with a quiet desperation.

While Brown titles the chapter dealing with the news of Dimebag’s murder The Worst Day of My Life, he really utilizes it as a tool to reflect on the band’s long simmering differences. His insider insight into the star-studded funeral and what he sarcastically labels the Eddie (Van Halen) and Zakk (Wylde) show.

Like all bands that form an indelible link to fans and then burn out and fade away too quickly there is an infinite sadness that accompanies their tale. The depth of that sadness really becomes clear based on the bond with this true fans, band forged in cold steel.