Duck Duck Book

65 – surfing san onofre
05.31.2010, 7:05 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942 / photographs by Don James.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 1998.
[MCL call number: 797.32 J27s 1998 ; three copies, no holds]

If you were to visit Los Angeles before the Second World War, you probably wouldn’t recognize the place.  It was teensy, for one thing, compared to the vast sprawl of asphalt and low-rises you’d see if you went there now.  And if you went to the beach, that would be different too.

First you’d have to get to the beach — not always easy, since the freeways hadn’t been built yet and the city was so small that everything surely seemed further away.  Once you were wherever the road took you, you’d still have to get to the beach, maybe down a couple of miles of sketchy trail.  If you were there to surf, you’d have to hump your board on your back, your homemade 10′ or 12′ long redwood board weighing about 90 pounds.  If there was a lifeguard, he was probably a volunteer.  Almost no one had a radio, unless it was in their car.  Everyone smoked.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented and people thought a sunburn was a sign of health.

Don James’s pictures are a little window into this world, a series of glow-y 4″ x 5″ snapshots of surfers, sunbathers, and hangers-about amid the sunshine, sparkling water, and ramshackle coastline architecture.   The collection is romantic, for sure, but it shows enough hunger and grit to come off as reasonably honest; and it’s definitely revealing of a place, time, and way of life you might like to visit, but which no longer exists.


64 – tools of the imagination
12.11.2009, 11:47 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Tools of the imagination : drawing tools and technologies from the eighteenth century to the present / Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino, editor.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 720.28 T671 2007; two copies, no holds]

It can be said that tools are simply mundane — they are a means to an end and nothing more.  But it’s also true that a dedicated practitioner of a particular craft is likely to develop a preference for particular types of tools, and eventually to come to rely on a beloved individual ruler or chisel or level or brush or what have you.  Why do artists become so passionate about their preferences for one sort of tool over another, so devoted to their own beloved instruments?  Habit, tradition, the preferences of one’s teachers, and other factors all surely have a role.  But another reason is that people who create know their work.  They are specialists in the fabrication of their own craft, and therefore they understand why one pencil is good for line sketching, while another is best reserved for lettering, and a third for shading. 

Many people who regularly use tools also find themselves building tools, devising new variations on old tools, and sharing their tool-making skills with other craftspeople.  In a sense, these artists have two media: the medium in which they engage their artistic energy (painting, sculpture, music, carpentry, or whatever), and the medium of tool-making.  An appreciation of this latter art is the inspiration for Tools of the Imagination — essentially it is an historical and thematic exhibition of architects’ and draftsmen’s tools.  Tools for inscribing circles, arcs, and spirals make up the first chapter, tools for creating straight lines the next, and so on. Many of the tools included are outdated, but ingenious — like the graceful volutor (on pages 16-17), which draws spirals, or the pantograph (pages 82-83), a mechanical device that looks like a large, frightening insect, which assists the artist with hand-drawn enlargements and reductions.  All in all, the tool portraits are lovely and fascinating.

Unfortunately, though the book presents an elegant array of antique tools and does a decent job showcasing contemporary tools, there seems to be a bit of a gap between tools used before about 1900, and those used after the beginning of the computer revolution in the early 1960s.  While reading I often found myself wondering what lay in that gap.   Would a compass manufactured in 1930 or 1970 or 2000 look significantly different than the compasses from 1850 (on page 8) and 1890 (page 10)?  I might find out elsewhere, but there is very little in Tools of the Imagination to enlighten me.

Tools of the Imagination also suffers a bit from its own high design.  The text is printed in silver ink, which is beautiful but can be hard to read when the light conditions aren’t entirely perfect.  This isn’t really a severe handicap, but it does highlight how endless the pursuit of good design can be — a book is a physical object, part of its strength is its portability; yet this book has been made so that it is hard to read under low light or in bright sun, thus decreasing the strength of portability in this particular book.  I found this rather ironic, considering the topic at hand. 

64 – simple shelters
12.11.2009, 11:42 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Simple shelters : tents, tipis, yurts, domes and other ancient homes / written and illustrated by Jonathan Horning ; with additional material by Brock Horning.
New York : Walker & Co., 2009.
[MCL call number: 728 H8163s 2009; six copies, no holds]

Sound housing is one of humanity’s most basic needs, and yet city people here in the developed world often have very little notion of how even the most traditional and well-tested simple structures are actually constructed.  If you find this troublesome, begin your own self-education with Simple Shelters.  Jonathan Horning describes twenty or so traditional structures, geodesic and other domes, straw bale houses, provides a brief explanation of a variety of cladding types, and a short discussion of house orientation.  The text is useful, but Horning’s drawings of each structure are the real lure of the book.  His illustrations are lucid; particularly the detailed diagrams of the joints, ties, braces, and other component parts of each different shelter.  Simple Shelters is itself quite simple — short, quick, and earnest — but it is well worth your attention.

54 – cities from the sky
12.11.2009, 11:33 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Cities from the sky : an aerial portrait of America / by Thomas J. Campanella ; foreword by Witold Rybczynski.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2001.
[MCL call number: 779.36 C186c 2001; one copy, no holds]

There is something magical about the way the earth appears as you look out from an airplane.  If you’ve flown before, you know what I mean, even if your only experiences have been in commercial jets with teensy little windows. Flying home to Portland, I nearly always find myself taken aback at the familiar but fairly awesome vista when the plane comes through the last layer of clouds and I can see the Willamette River stretched out along the valley, and the clutch of downtown skyscrapers snug between the river and the West Hills; or, approaching from the east, the incredible view of mountains all around as the plane descends over the Columbia.  Flying over your hometown in a small plane is often even better — little planes are able to dart about a bit, and they fly low, so you might be able to pick out the apple tree in your front yard, a familiar church steeple, or the playground in a local park.

Aerial photographs can give you a taste of this feeling of flying without ever leaving the ground.  Before Mapquest, before Google Earth and Multimap and all the other amazing mapping services on the world wide web, aerial surveys were special, restricted resources that most folks had very little chance to enjoy.  You might have gone to a library to look up a United States Geological Survey orthophotoquad, or you might have seen the occasional aerial survey photograph illustrating a news article or in a historical museum; but comprehensive aerial surveys used to be the provenance of specialists.  Engineers, city planners, military officials, land developers; people with a clear practical need for the information aerial photographs could provide, and with the money to fund them.

When specialists needed aerial photographs in decades past, often as not they hired Fairchild Aerial Surveys to provide them.  Cities From the Sky begins with an introductory essay explaining Fairchild’s history — and it was a pretty interesting company.  Its founder, Sherman Fairchild, spent his youth tinkering, building things, and inventing small devices of one sort or another.  After developing a new and greatly improved aerial camera for the U.S. Army Air Service, he founded the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920, which made cameras, accepted commissions for aerial images, and took aerial photographs on speculation for use in newspaper stories.  The spec photos were preserved in the company’s picture library whether or not they sold, and this vast collection of images (more than 200,000 by 1935) are the pool from which most of the content of Cities From the Sky is drawn.

The book includes about 100 giant pages of reproductions of aerial photographs, most of them angled views showing a panorama rather than the map-like earth-from-space kind.  They capture cities and towns across the United States, though about 40% are of communities in the Northeast.  The photographs would be interesting to look at just for their vantage points, but in fact they are fascinating for their historic value as well.  The great majority were taken between 1930 and 1955 or so, and so they often include geographical, urban, and societal elements that are no longer present, or that have been irrevocably changed by later developments: the San Francisco Bay has no bridges; Monterey, California’s harbor is full of fishing boats resting from their labors in the still-active sardine industry (page 108); a U.S. Navy dirigible floats above the Hudson River in New York (page 35); downtown St. Louis is missing its Gateway Arch (page 84); Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway is actively under construction (page 115); and the trains leaving Boston’s North Station are sending out enormous, picturesque plumes of steam (page 21).

* * *

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. left a considerable record of its activities, and several libraries and archives have digitized part or all of their collections of Fairchild photographs, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Collections of the New York State Archives, Museum, and Library, Whittier College, and the Santa Monica Public Library.

* * *

Those of you who’d like to see more pictures of cities from high up in the sky should be sure to take a look at Bird’s Eye Views, by John W. Reps, (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998, reviewed in number 53), which reproduces 19th and early 20th century lithographs showing American cities and towns.

63 – look of love
09.15.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The look of love : the art of the romance novel / by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 741.64 M159L 2002; one copy, no holds]

Lots of people enjoy romance, but few people in our culture would easily admit to being lovers of the straight-up romance novel, unless they fit a particular profile.  Women can read them, but not feminists.  Girls can read them, but not boys.  You don’t read romances if you’re interested in “real” literature, and you don’t read them if you’re really smart and intellectual.  Romances are formulaic and hackneyed, they present a narrow view of marriage, of love, of a woman’s ability to have a mind and a heart at the same time, and so on.

But still, millions of people read romances, and enjoy them.  Part of the appeal, not surprisingly, is their evocative cover design — like their brethren in the rest of the pulp novel world, romances have long been sold on the strength of their beautiful illustrated covers.  The Look of Love presents a nice exhibit of some of the best, and some of the most typical romance covers from the 1930s to the 1980s, along with a short history of the genre and some discussion of trends in cover design over the years.  The explication is interesting and useful, but the covers are really the book’s reason d’être.

Some are so much of another era that it’s hard to see them as anything but arch and ironic:  Nurse on the Run (1965, page 93) features a beautiful young woman in a whirling, startled pose, with red hair spilling out from underneath her nurse’s cap.  Behind her are superimposed three calm, suave fellows, apparently the source of her turmoil (though none of them appear to have a care in the world).   And the very first Harlequin (1949, page 11) is illustrated with a painting of a woman in evening dress at the top of a curving staircase.  At the bottom is a man in a blue suit with a cap — he looks like a postal carrier to me, but here’s the title: The Manatee: Strange Loves of a Seaman.  So he must be a sea captain, not a mailman; I trust the woman is not actually the manatee.

Irony aside, however, there is a particular beauty about these illustrations.  Some of this is due to the vintage, nostalgic quality of the art, no doubt enhanced by the plain fact that these days it’s unusual for newly published books of any sort to have pulp-style hand-painted covers*, but I think the idea of love itself  is part of the appeal.  The cover evokes the feeling that the story promises to bring out in the reader.  The cover painting shows just a glimmer, a teensy frame out of the story — a longing glance at the unrequited beloved; a bit of labor shared by colleagues who maybe want to know one another better; the second two doomed lovers who are nonetheless magnetically attracted are just about to kiss.  All of these moments are worth looking at, worth fantasizing about, worth mention in life generally; even if the particular situation being described in the cover painting is highly improbable and stereotypical, and even though novel  itself might not be so great.

* Though there are counter-examples to this point — one I think of immediately is Hard Case Crime, which publishes both reprints and new novels in the mystery/crime genre, each with a specially commissioned painted cover.  I have found their books very much worth reading, as well as worth appreciating as lovely objects.

63 – i shot a man
09.15.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

I shot a man in Reno : a history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song / Graeme Thomson.
New York : Continuum, 2008.
[MCL call number: 782.42164 T483i 2008; two copies, no holds]

When I was a teenager, my mother made a mix tape labeled “Death” on one side and “Suicide” on the other.  It was for a road trip, but she had it for years and I always loved it.  Ever since I first heard this tape, I’ve been building a play list in my mind of all the other death and suicide songs I’d use, if I were to make my own tape.  I don’t think I’ll ever actually record my own version, but the songs are lodged in a special place in my brain, asserting their relatedness to me every time the subject arises.  I have other lists — songs about living through a violent revolution, songs that list lots of place names, songs appreciating difficult women, songs about sex that rely entirely on metaphor to get their nasty across, songs describing famous disasters, songs about the historical Jesus Christ, and so on — but the death and suicide songs are the most assertive, and the longest, list.

Graeme Thompson shares this interest in death songs.  I Shot a Man in Reno is his take on the history, meaning, and social significance of death songs.  He considers songs about suicide, murder, drinking yourself to death, the afterlife, mourning, and songs people want to have played at their funerals.  Overall, it’s a pretty useful tour of death songs and what they mean in a cultural context, but I can’t say I loved the book.  Really I think it’s just a question of taste — I didn’t find Thompson to be the most intriguing or well-rounded cultural or musical observer, so his critical analysis didn’t jazz me.  I’m not going to recommend him enthusiastically, but I wouldn’t tell you not to read the book either.  I’m sure it would suit other readers just fine.

However, I didn’t like it much.  The thing I really couldn’t get over is actually quite petty.

Thompson promises in his introduction that I Shot a Man in Reno will not be merely a list disguised as a book.  It is in fact a thematic history, not simply a list, but still it is true that when he gets really in the thick of his subject, Thompson tends to resort to listing songs, and it pretty much sucks.  I can hardly cry foul very loudly here — when it comes to lists-posing-as-meaningful-prose I do, as regular readers have no doubt noted, live in something of a glass house.  But really, Thompson’s listy bits seem designed specifically to invoke a mood in the reader.  It’s as if he wants you to remember the songs, hear their melodies, recall their words.  Great, if you’re familiar with them all, but kind of lame if you’re not.  And I have a hard time imagining how anyone who is not a music critic or historian could possibly know all or even most of the specific songs Thompson mentions.  It’s a pretty widely-ranging catalog.

It’s ironic, really, that this is the part that chafes — I was sort of hoping, when I picked up the book, that I would be exposed to some new songs, right along with a nice bit of analysis of death songs, a history of their roots, some stories about what they have meant to us, why they matter, and so on.  Really I was hoping to learn about songs I’d never heard of before.  And I did, but all I really learned  about the songs Thompson lists is who wrote and sang them, their titles, and a teeny tiny bit about how they relate to the subject of death.  I don’t know how popular they have been or what effect they’ve had on society, I don’t know the lyrics, and most importantly, I don’t know what they sound like.

It might be that Thompson listed lots of songs so that one or two of them would catch in the reader’s mind, and they’d be able to see the specifics of his point at that moment in the narrative.  But for me, reading the list was like the literary equivalent of a conversation with someone who knows tons and tons about something, but can’t lay off the jargon enough to be able to talk with someone uninitiated with that subject.  Perhaps I Shot a Man in Reno could benefit from a companion CD?  It is hard to imagine getting the rights for all those hopelessly copyrighted songs, but it might help solve the problem.

62 – lavoirs
07.12.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Lavoirs : washhouses of rural France / Mireille Roddier ; foreword by Billie Tsien.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2003.
[MCL call number: 720.944 R686L 2003: one copy, no holds]

In the 17th century, local governments in France began to build a new kind of municipal facility: lavoirs, or washhouses.  They were simple, solid affairs (usually built of stone) designed to channel water for from streams and rivers into large basins, or catch it when it rained.  Housewives and professional wash-women came to these communal facilities to launder clothing and linens, and they remained in use, in some places, until the time of the Second World War.

Many, many lavoirs have been demolished, but some remain, especially in smaller and more remote towns, and in towns where the lavoir was built together with another facility such as the town hall.  For those of us who cannot make a tour of lavoirs, Mireille Roddier carefully and beautifully photographed several dozen for her book Lavoirs: Washhouses of Rural France.

I found the images startling — the buildings themselves are lovely in a utilitarian way, but noticing this, I also can’t help but notice that they are not being used.  In every picture, the water in the basins and channels are still, and the large rooms are empty of people and laundry.  The photographs look quiet, exactly the opposite of how they must have been when in use, full of women working, talking, splashing water; maybe laughing or singing or arguing.  It’s eerie to see pictures of these lovely buildings with their picturesque pools and rills glassy and smooth in a way they would originally have been only at the start of the workday, or at night.

The bulk of Roddier’s photographs are preceded by an essay explaining the history of lavoirs as buildings and as civic facilities, regional variations in architectural style, and other architectural matters.  The essay also discusses the social impacts of lavoirs, together with a brief history of their use and a bit of explanation of the place laundresses held in French society during the period when lavoirs were common and in regular use.  All this is fascinating, and useful for explaining just what is represented in Roddier’s photographs, but the book would be worthwhile just for the beauty of those photographs.