Books are beautiful! So often we think of them as perfect objects with spectacular “concept” covers (à la Chip Kidd!) on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, but the old and imperfect have their charm. Recently I came across a small travel guide to Niagara Falls I purchased a few years back. Published in 1893 by the printing concern Knight, Leonard & Co. of Chicago, it has a lot of travel advertising, scenic views, and info on possible vacation spots, but doesn’t give us information about things as they are today.
But to leaf through its pages is to travel back to another time. The ornate typography of the cover with its generous swirling curves and strong knife-like verticals is not something you’ll find in a WordPress theme (no offense–I love WordPress!).
The printing isn’t great, and even the most basic self-published book today is technically superior. But it adds to these images, which seem rendered in a painterly, almost pointillist style.
The color isn’t full-scale, but it’s so pretty! So very green! Even the crumbling binding adds a layer of texture. I wonder if a company like Blurb or My Publisher should offer an “antiquing” option. There might be demand.
Have you ever seen such a classy ad for toilet paper?! A dollar for a 5-pack? Sounds pretty good, even by modern Costco standards.
Talk about not knowing the future… Krupp was the major armaments supplier for Nazi Germany. But in 1893, that dark chapter of history lay ahead.
So this tiny book that doesn’t have informational value today was able, through typography, images, and ads, to take us back to an earlier time. Would we have gotten the same from an e-reader? Probably not. The message is also in the medium, and the medium here is physical print, paper and cloth, which continue to enlighten and endure.
On a haunted, wind-swept plain two sisters meet and embrace, a huge incandescent orb rising ominously behind them. This is no ordinary place and these are not ordinary women.
Thus began the recent production of Sophocles’ Antigone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw it in September with my friend and colleague, Anne Bartoc, and her design students from Pratt. Their assignment was to see the play, then create a poster and other items (web banner, T shirt, or key chain) based on the production. I thought it would be interesting so see how each interpreted the play, maybe learning something about how literature and drama affects each of us in similar, yet different ways.
I visited their class a week ago, and was not disappointed. The students are a terrific bunch, and it was clear a lot of time, effort and imagination had gone into their work. Each one was moved by a different aspect of the production, yet each managed to capture something of the play’s essence. Here are their wonderful designs, with some of their thoughts and mine.
Lee saw the play as “the shame of Creon,” and wanted to bring that character into the artwork along with Antigone. By featuring both, he captures the sense of shared tragedy and fate. In the giant glowing sun, he also conveys the Greek sense of man as small and insignificant in relation to the gods and natural world. Note the dominating red-orange color. You will see it again.
Misra was impressed by the moon, and “embossed” the powerful actress playing Antigone (Juliette Binoche) upon it. In this design, the moon floats in a void, symbolizing how Antigone’s disobedience (and courage) have cut her off from society. The image also suggests the sonogram of an unborn child, not inappropriate for the young heroine who laments that she will never marry and bear children. Her life is short; in a sense, she also is unborn. As in many of the posters, the color red plays a strong role.
Frigura’s design joins the mask of classic Greek theater with a distorted, doll-like face, suggesting both horror and youth. It is bold and pared down, much like Greek tragedy where action is stripped to the bone, language is stark, and the audience knows where it’s going and gets there fast. The face is looking up as if asking “why?” of the gods who in the Greek universe were always in control of individual fates. The red-orange part of the spectrum is utilized, the tones also suggesting Greek red-figure pottery. This design seems almost too big and bold for the computer screen, and would pop off the wall as any good poster should.
Holoman present the funeral materials in a dark void, the flower petals falling like drops of blood. He spoke of wanting to convey “that ominous glow you felt all over the play,” and achieved a beautiful sense of mystery and solemnity that makes the viewer stop and wonder, then take a closer look. The red orange colors suggest human blood and the fire used in the funeral rites, as well as the fire in Antigone’s heart.
While Soojin Joo said she “couldn’t 100% understand the play,” she captured a sense of classical tragedy in the white, mask-like face, and dark hillside from which it emerges which suggests Antigone’s entombment. This is almost an “after” take on the play, with the shadows not solid but made of ashes, the heroine, at peace, gone from the troubled land to join her family in Hades.
Inspired by the production’s first scene in which Antigone moves from darkness into light, Slater used a strongly lit image of Juliette Binoche in motion. The vertical rule on the right (red again!), symbolizes the rigid forces thwarting Antigone, the hard line between what society sees as right and what it judges to be wrong. The figure’s movement is mirrored in the fluid type which to Slater “had an organic feeling,” as well as a sense of femininity.
This poster and the idea behind it haunts me. Chu said that she was “struck by the emotion of the opening,” and wanted to capture it in her art. But she removed Ismene, leaving Antigone embracing a void. As she does on her journey to death. This stark concept is offset by type that suggests ancient Greek lettering, but with a modern look.
In Min Gi Ha’s work we see movement and speed, suggesting perhaps the heroine’s short life. Antigone, almost out of the frame, is running, but pursued by a dark tornado-like shape (the Furies?) which has wrapped itself around her neck, foreshadowing her manner of death. Humans go about their lives, oblivious to the fates that will descend upon them. Though it is hers, Antigone never sees it coming. Again, red plays a big part; its presence in the type fading away as does her human existence.
Apparitions of the Death & Co.is a black and white film noir photo series by Jackie Neale documenting the pre-prohibition cocktail resurgence in New York City, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. These large, grainy, ethereal fiber print photographs capture the intense sincerity of the nuevo-cocktail movement in it’s beginning stages. Consisting of a small but affected set of sincere friends and comrades in a cut throat culinary industry, you will see bar tenders tending with seriousness to their craft and to their loyal customer base. The cocktail boom has made this movement universal, but Neale’s images captured the brief but unique period when bar tenders pushed for its place among the culinary elite.
The NY Book Society had a table at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, and it was great! We were even mentioned in Brooklyn Paper (with a lovely picture by Alexa Telano). We sold a bunch of books and made a lot of new friends, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Best of all, many people who stopped by said we had an awesome table, and we did. Huge thanks to Meryl Meisler, Jackie Neale, Oriana Leckert, Petra Mason, Fredda Gordon, Anna Fox, Diane Smook, and Dallas Athent for making it so.
The NY Book Society will be at Table #321 at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, 9/20! There are some great photo and art books. The text is pretty good too. Friends will be stopping by. We hope you will also.
I didn’t pay attention. Perhaps because the stories always began on Christmas, after presents had been opened and dinner was in the stove. Dad would get a far off look in his eye and say: “In December of 1944, I was crossing war-torn Belgium in an open jeep.” Bitter cold was mentioned, as well as K rations and the Battle of the Bulge, which to my young ears sounded like someone trying to knock off a few pounds. Hoping to keep the day upbeat, we would shush him gently, and jolly him back to the present. He died in 2008 at age 93, with many stories untold. I wish now I had listened more.
Putting the letters in chronological order, she discovered two storylines: a relationship that moved from friendship to love, and the relentless pace of history as WWII drew toward a close. Before that, there was the Battle of the Bulge, a last ditch sneak attack by the Germans in December of 1944 that produced the highest number of American casualties during the war.
The story begins when Arthur I. Smook, completing his undergraduate degree at Cornell, enlists in the U.S. Army. His first letter to Miss Sylvia Rosen of Carroll Street, Brooklyn, dated May 11th, 1942, is sent from Ithaca. The dominant tone is light and joshing; they are just friends, fellow alums, good buddies.
HIs next letter to her comes from Ft. Benning, Georgia, where he is in “the midst of a company commander’s course in heavy infantry weapons.” He speaks briefly of eight exhausting hours spent on the machine gun range in heavy rain, setting the pattern for many missives to come: some news as to his whereabouts and doings, a few tight-lipped lines describing hardships and fighting in a way that makes them seem way lighter than they were, followed by a cheerful close.
The close of the letters is the key to Smook’s deepening feelings for Sylvia, whose parents initially opposed the match. Which according to his daughter, “was a big deal.” But Arthur, like many of his generation, was level-headed and steady in his approach to both love and war.
In the summer of 1944, on a home leave, their relationship took a passionate turn, and that August her parents allowed her to visit him in Texas where he was stationed. In letters back to her to family, small details of the times emerge. Looking “put together” was as important then as it is now, and a huge concern for Sylvia was keeping the orchids for her corsage fresh on the long cross-country train ride. Arriving in Paris, Texas, she learns that hotel rooms are hard to get, one with a shower “an untold luxury” (even if the floor of the shower and the bathroom are one in the same). It was a spare time, with hardships large and small. Amid the minutiae of daily life, there is a sense of larger purpose and shared sacrifice.
After the Texas sojourn, talk of marriage begins to appear in the letters. As Arthur Smook is shipped overseas, this morphs into a dream-like tone of longing and hope for a better time when the war is through, when they will “be together in our own little shack on Long Island.” Their story has a happy ending, but many did not. According to his daughter, Smook’s unit was “decimated crossing the Danube.” There was a “group of forty going in, eighteen coming out.”
She remembers asking her father whether he had killed anybody, and his answer was: “well, yes.” He told her that “the first thing you learn is to stop thinking,” to “put one foot in front of the other and turn off your brain.” You also had to “adjust your brain to the fact that you’re probably not coming back.”
As the war progressed, Smook also worried about returning to civilized life:
“We are men in a foreign country and cannot help feeling that slowly we are being forgotten by the people back home. Men I have met who spent a long time in combat are really in bad shape. They are afraid of the day when they will have to go home for fear that they will no longer fit into the society they came from.”
He had seen terrible things, been devastated when men he had trained or commanded were killed. It affected his nerves and gave him nightmares. In April 1945, he suffered a concussion when a shell exploded in a nearby foxhole. He and many others were affected by a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the time, it was lumped into the vague category of “nerves,” for which many, including Arthur Smook, were treated with insulin. Which didn’t address the psychological roots of the suffering. And Diane’s mother, the former Sylvia Rosen, admitted that “the man she married was not the one she was engaged to.”
The man who returned to Long Island to raise a family had a short fuse. His daughter learned this firsthand as a teen when she tangled with him over curfews and rules she felt were too harsh. Her brother Richard also felt a distance, and wished he had done more fun things with his father. Yet reading his letters, they were struck by the depth of feeling conveyed, discovering a side of their father they had never seen.
Diane Smook, a talented photographer, was determined to preserve the letters. She photocopied them and put them in chronological order, then assembled them on her computer, upgrading software as necessary to edit and complete the project. After investigating several publishers and book designers, she decided to do it herself. Love & War is not fancy in terms of size and fonts, but looks fine and is easy to read. There are pictures of some of the letters, and of Arthur, dashing in his uniform, and Sylvia (minus corsage) resplendent in a summer dress and what appears to be a Red Cross coat. Also included is their wedding invitation and pictures of the happy couple, united at last.
Reading the letters is strangely comforting. Though war hovers in the background, they speak of a more modest time when honor and serving the greater good took precedence over self. After a decade of economic hardship, the Greatest Generation faced the ultimate test and rose to it. Through it, they were tough and uncomplaining, as were their loved ones. It was a shared burden with high stakes–the future of the world. Though letters, they dreamed of a better time, yet took a keen interest in the small details of everyday life as they waited for mankind to regain its sanity. Love & War is a loving tribute by a daughter to her parents, a snapshot of the way we as a country once were. It deserves a home in libraries, institutions, and museums dedicated to preserving the history of that day.
(Arthur Smook received two Combat Infantryman’s Awards, a Bronze Star, and four Purple Heart medals for bravery and combat service during World War II)
It’s been a really, really busy spring. Bushwick Open Studios is coming up, so there’s that to get ready for. I also write for Arts in Bushwick, and there’s been stuff for that (see “Chasing History: The 2015 AiB Benefit Exhibition“), then there’s Meryl Meisler. This photo-based artist is at it again, with a new book Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City scheduled to arrive in time for BOS (Bushwick Open Studios for those on other planets).
In it are her first pictures ever, which are very good. She seems to have sprung forth fully formed, immediately creating cohesive and visually compelling bodies of work. It began when she was on break from the University of Wisconsin, and started documenting family and friends in the suburban enclave of Massapequa, Long Island. At the same time, she also began photo forays into New York City, the Big Apple, which at the time was rotting, ridden with crime and decay. She loved it, and the pictures show her love and compassion for the people of its streets as well the people in the sheltered neighborhood where she grew up.
Meryl is a wonderful person, so when she asked me to contribute the introduction (I wrote the one for her first book), I jumped. This year there was that frenemy of all writers–time! I could actually prepare instead of scribbling off the cuff! I read books on the 70′s, looked up icons of its culture, even went back to the 60′s, reading the magnificent, lofty speeches of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I had so much research going that when it came time to actually write, I was overwhelmed. There was enough material for a thesis, but way too much for a 1,100 word intro. Oops.
Less can be more, but less is hard, like packing a small suitcase. You can’t take the whole closet, but need clothes for day and evening, rain and shine, cultural events as well as sports. If this sounds like something a 1920′s lady of leisure would say, you know what I mean.
There were numerous drafts, how many I can’t even say. Too embarrassed. They spilled from my iPad to my iPhone to my laptop. Finally had to use that glorious app, Mellel, the docent of long documents, to sort it all out.
Meanwhile, Meryl and Patty (uber-designer Patricia O’Brien) were frantically editing images with the help of publisher Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. Amy Leffler was composing her reflections on the famed “Mystery Club” (outings to seances and a nudist colony), and I was hacking away at these ginormous text documents I had going. Let’s just say everyone had something to do and was very, very busy.
The book went through several drafts, the feel shifting with each version. When I first saw the pictures, the thing that stood out was the eclectic, outlandish interior design of the suburban homes, that ranged from French Empire to Mid-century Modern, with comic book touches thrown in. Yet in the next iteration (with my draft well underway), other things seemed more prominent. Was I mad? Losing my mind? How could I have gotten things so horribly wrong?
I shifted certain paragraphs of the draft to reflect the new tone, yet had tremendous doubt whether I was still touching too heavily on the wrong things. With deadlines looming, everyone brought their work to an end. The final cut brought even more sass to the project, and restored many pictures featuring the ornate decor that had caught my eye in the first place.
Lesson: I thought I was the only one with sprawling, messy work habits, but I am not. It is a part of everyone’s creative process, no matter how refined and “inevitable” the final product is. Stay tuned for this book–it’s going to be a good one.
There is a new literary genre shaping up, a kind of “came-of-age-now-what” story where young people have graduated from college, seen a bit of the world, held jobs, and had their share of love. But they are hungry for something else, something more significant and mature. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work fits perfectly into this category, chronicling their choices and dilemmas, and the NY Book Society is pleased to reveal (don’t scream!) the cover of her third novel, MAYBE IN ANOTHER LIFE, thatgoes on sale July 7, 2015. Published by Atria Books/Washington Square Press, it sounds like the perfect summer read.
Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of Forever, Interrupted and After I Do. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alex, and her dog, Rabbit (who is very cute and does have ears like a rabbit). You can follow her on Twitter @TJenkinsReid.