Monday, December 21, 2015

Relax and Reflect

Whatever is Lovely: A Coloring Book of Reflection and Worship – WaterBrook Press (WaterBrook Press)

I am amazed by the meteoric rise in popularity of the so-called adult coloring book. In a world that finds itself delivering a fire hose of information to the average person on a daily basis to think that busy adults would take a time out to work within the boundaries and color within the lines seems a bit confounding.

A visit to your favorite book store will find you confronted with a huge assortment of these books ranging from flowers and animals to Dr. Who and Star Wars entries. Taking the phenomenon in a different direction is Whatever is Lovely: A Coloring Book of Reflection and Worship, which mixes hand drawn images with words of reflection, inspiration and worship.

It is an ingenious mix that catches busy folks at a point where they take a breather and offers them the opportunity to reflect on their Christian values and themes. This seeming double dip in the relaxation pool hits on all the right cords.

For those who a rushing to run down that thoughtful last minute gift, but don’t want to get caught in the last minute gift trap, pair this with a pack of colored pencils and you are good to go; it is a gift that friends will remember every time they crack it open.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Curiouser and Curiouser

The Thing Explainer – Complicated Stuff In Simple Words – Randall Munroe – (Houghton Mifflin)

A few words of advice upfront: as much as you may love your Kindle or Nook, or e-reader device, DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK IN THE ELECTRONIC FORMAT! Yes, I feel better now. This book clearly deserves to be viewed in all of its big, bold, hardcover glory.

I love these kinds of books and have spent hours hunched over the how things are made or how things work style books and Pete Frame’s rock music family trees still hold a fascination for the music fan in me. So it’s only natural that I would be attracted to Randall Munroe’s The Thing Explainer – Complicated Stuff In Simple Words.

Picking up where his wildly popular web comic xkcd leaves off, Munroe, the former NASA roboticist churns out explanations for things ranging from “boxes that make clothes smell better” to the bags of stuff inside you…you’ll have to read to see exactly what he’s talking about, Munroe utilizes his blueprint style drawing, doodles and do-dads combined with the “ten hundred” words people most commonly use to explain…well…things!

Deep, impenetrable science? Not hardly. I think Munroe’s goal here and in his other vehicles, or should I say methods of information delivery…is to take the often complex and make it understandable and even throw in a dash of fun/humor. While some deep thinkers may be put off by Munroe’s simplicity and decidedly non-serious approach, I think he truly achieves what he set out to accomplish. This one is perfect for the budding scientist on your list or those whose curiosity you want to inspire.

A Flash of Magic

The Spy House – A Spycatcher Novel – Matthew Dunn (William Morrow)

A special team of spies, gathered from four different security/spy services from around the globe, are tasked with getting to the answer; did Hamas kill the Israeli diplomat to France and push the Jewish state onto a wartime footing. The team is conducting surveillance from a specially constructed, basement vault that can only be opened from within. When communications break down, the group who designed and built the vault cut their way in and discover all four members of the team are now dead.

Did someone snap, did a gun battle break out and why are fingers pointing in the direction of one of his former cohorts in the CIA; those are the questions that Will Cochrane is tasked with finding answers to in the new Matthew Dunn thriller, The Spy House – A Spycatcher Novel.
Dunn, a former MI6 field officer in his own right, brings a level of authenticity to latest installment in the ongoing Spycather series that seems to be missing from other purveyors in in this realm of fiction. While others tend to sound forced when it comes to the action a tools of thrill, Dunn delivers a lean, spare approach reminiscent of the masters of the field.

The locked room mystery is a classic storyline in the world of magic, so it is fitting that Dunn uses a little bit of illusion to tie the storyline together. The Will Cochrane character continues to evolve, at once brutal to the point of ruthlessness and the next a seemingly contradictory, carrying, normal guy which makes him a full-fledged human being.



A View from the Front

The Death of Cancer – After Fifty Years on the Frontlines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer is Winnable – and How We Can Get There – Vincent T. DeVita Jr, M.D. (Sarah Crichton Books)

It is a pretty safe bet to say that everyone has been impacted by cancer. A family member, a friend, a neighbor, or you personally have been diagnosed by cancer. The mere diagnosis can be devastating and often the treatment can be worse; decimating the body and the mind of the patient. Now imagine what it must be like to having to deliver that diagnosis and make it your life’s work to trying to defeat cancer.

You no longer have to imagine what that is like, because Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr offers up The Death of Cancer – After Fifty Years on the Frontlines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer is Winnable – and How We Can Get There. Dr. DeVita is a pioneer in the field of searching for a cure and treating the disease; along the way he partnered in the development of a combination chemotherapy protocol that put Hodgkins lymphoma patients disease into remission.
Signs that treatments have cancer on the run are all around us; survivals rates are up, many forms the disease that were once a death sentence are now treatable and yet the disease and the dread that accompanies it persist. DeVita spells out his take on the progress we have made in the fight and why he believes there are roadblocks in the way of further progress. DeVita makes the case for bold action in the face of scientists and physicians who are often restrained or timid when it comes to taking big risks that could offer big results.

Those who have been closely impacted by the disease will be inspired by DeVita’s desire and drive to deliver on the promise of the cure. Some, myself included, will be frustrated by DeVita’s descriptions of the of protective nature that some cradle their fiefdoms and the associated finances often at the expense of promising, bold, steps in the search for a cure.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Pile of Rock 'n' Roll

Not sure if it’s due to the holiday gift giving season of just a chance of circumstance and timing, but recently there has been a gold mine of interesting rock music biographies and music related books. The tomes cover a wide spectrum of musical styles and an equally diverse approach to writing.

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography – Fred Schruers (Three Rivers Press)

Having spent the first part of my career working as a radio disc jockey and working as a contributing reviewer and columnist for a daily newspaper I spent countless hours playing music, writing about music, seeing live shows and generally immersed in music. That said, I definitely have a skewed perspective on the subject of music that runs the gamut from an almost visceral hatred to pure joy at hearing certain sounds.

Billy Joel is tends to cut a swath across the entire spectrum; working in rock and classic rock radio, it’s nearly impossible to avoid his music. One more spin of Uptown Girl could put me over the edge, but the fact is I have been a huge fan of his music since I first saw him play live a local university for the grand sum of 50 cents.

Veteran rock writer Fred Schruers serves up Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography; while I’m not sure the book lives up to its gaudy title, it does give us some entertaining insight into Joel’s career and his personal life. I have to admit I tend to lean towards things musical in nature, while it was almost impossible to miss the details of his marriage to super-model Christie Brinkley, I was surprised to learn that Joel is a serial groom.

Schruers stacked his claim in rock journalism writing for Rolling Stone and other high profile magazines and at times the book takes on an articles quality; offering snippets of details on Joel’s career and the characters he crossed paths with, that don’t always hang together in the most cohesive fashion. Overall, I still found Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography to be an enlightening read.

Girl in a Band: A Memoir – Kim Gordon (Dey Street Books)

Rocker, artist, writer, fashion icon and renaissance women, Kim Gordon, a founding member of critics favorite, Sonic Youth offers up her self-penned tale; Girl in a Band: A Memoir, which takes along for the ride through her seemingly never a dull moment life.

As I previously mentioned, having spent so much time inundated with music, I bring a skewed perspective to what I like and dislike. For me, Sonic Youth was one of those bands that critics got all dewy and moist about as they waxed poetically about the band’s dissonant stylings; whatever that is. I remember seeing the band open for someone along the way and the only thing I can remember about their set was the fact that I hoped it would end soon.

Years later, I find it interesting that any number of bands that I do find entertaining, cite Sonic Youth as an influence, so I was intrigued to learn more about Gordon. Girl in a Band, reads like we are allowed to look over Gordon’s shoulder as she journal’s her thoughts on life. At times it’s a cut and dried slice straight out of a tour diary and at other’s Gordon delivers a caustic remembrance of a situation she finds herself dropped into.

The book is chronologically challenged at times as it bounces through various years. Clearly Gordon carries a boulder sized chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ex-husband and band mate Thurston Moore. While Moore’s philandering gives her good reason for hatred, the pathology of it is as striking as a gut punch. Gordon as clearly lead an interesting life.

Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, the Faces… - Glynn Johns (Plume)

Flipping through the pages of veteran producer, engineer and sound mixer Glynn Johns life story, Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits With The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, the Faces…, I was struck by a sense of familiarity in the stories. While I was familiar with much of his work, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why so much of the book was so familiar to me.

Then I realized, having read so many books about so many of the artists Johns has worked with over the years, I had heard many of these stories from another perspective. It is the early years of his story that Johns offers up some of the most interesting stories about his amazing career. It is astounding the number of times Johns was in the right place at the right time, picking up sessions engineering because someone took ill or didn’t work weekends that put him squarely in the path of some of rock’s future legends.

Johns’ willingness to experiment in those early days helped him to develop and hone the skills that he would bring to so many legendary recording sessions and albums. Along the way he details what amounts to the evolution of the music industry; a process he had a front row seat for.

Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps – Aaron J. West (Rowman & Littlefield)  

Not so much a biography of one of the most successful band’s of the 80s; Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps by Aaron J. West is a textbook look at the musical style and the careers of both the band and Sting as a solo artist. I guess it should come a no surprise that West in a professor of music history, as well as a professional musician when you take in the depth to which he delves to look at the band’s influential path.

While I am a huge fan of both the Police and Sting’s solo music, I was jolted when West mentioned the fact that the band released just five studio albums before they broke up. FIVE! Yet he makes the case that their collective of musical influences gave the trio such a compelling sound that they in turn have influenced a new generation of artists and bands that followed.

West makes his case and it seems almost impossible for a band that gave us Every Breath You Take, a song so widely played on the radio, that it was said theoretically you could drive from one end of the country to the other and tuning around the dial hear the song being played non-stop. If you’re looking for a written version of Behind the Music, offering up the band’s rise and fall, you won’t find it hear. If you’re looking for thoughtful analysis of the band’s music and career Sting and the Police: Walking in Their Footsteps delivers.

Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music- Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson – Ron Weisner (Lyons Press)

What the heck was up with that mullet?! Was one on the first thoughts I had diving into Ron Weisner’s memoir of his career in and around the music business. Photos included in the book show Weisner sporting not only a memorable bad hair day, but some early 80s Miami Vice style threads that left me chuckling.

While Weisner clearly has made a career out being in proximity of some amazing performers, some have raised questions of Weisner’s version of events. Of course when you offer up thoughts on the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna that don’t paint them in the best light possible, then you open yourself up to attack by fanatical fans.

One that I did take away from Listen Out Loud: A Life in Music- Managing McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, was Weisner’s thoughts on music and what separates those who have a hit record and those who have a legendary career. His take on today’s so-called artists and the current state of the music business are right on point.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Tidy House: A Metaphor for a Happy Life

Life Changing Magic: A Journal: Spark Joy Everyday

Marie Kondo is a master organizer. Let me say that again to be perfectly clear…Marie Kondo is a master organizer. So…what is it about being a master organizer that has sparked a firestorm of followers and believers not only in Kondo’s proprietary techniques for whipping not just your closets and drawers into shape, but actually enhancing your life on many levels.

Life Changing Magic: A Journal: Spark Joy Everyday is the follow up to Kondo’ s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, and the precursor to Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.

The journal collects and intersperses inspirational quotes among the numbered and dated pages spread over the course of the calendar year. No matter if you gravitate towards the tidying up, metaphor for a happy life or if your just looking for a sturdy journal to capture your days, this one should spark joy in your life.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Captured Beauty

Art Students League of New York on Painting: Lessons and Meditations on Mediums, Styles, and Methods – James L. McElhinney (Watson Guptill)

Need bona fides? The Art Students League of New York is an art school whose founding dates back to 1875 and along the way the artists who train artists have nurtured the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and Jackson Pollack among many others along the way. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Now James L. McElhinny takes you inside the classrooms and offers insights from the artists/teachers that carry on the traditions of the school in; Art Students League of New York on Painting: Lessons and Meditations on Mediums, Styles, and Methods.

This compendium offers a range of mediums, styles, techniques and artistic insights. The gamut is truly amazing and beautifully illustrated. The artists offer entertaining insights into not only the League, but into the city that it calls home.

While the range of styles is all encompassing and offers some amazing work, easily my favorite is the near photographic rendering of Fredrick Bosen, who offers up classic watercolor realism. Brosen’s works feature watercolor over graphite and capture a richness and texture of classic New York front porches.

Deeply detailed and widely varied, Art Students League of New York on Painting is perfect for the experienced and beginning painter alike or for those who simply enjoy works of stunning beauty.