The Bookstore Cafe

The right coffeehouse is one of my great pleasures. Whenever I want to get in a good long spell of uninterrupted reading I head to a coffeehouse. When I have a writing project that I have to concentrate on, a coffeehouse is usually my first choice. Why a coffeehouse rather than home? Well, at home I tend to feel that there are other things I should be attending to, say, all the weeding I'm always meaning to do but never get around to. And, of course, there's that pleasant feeling of being alone but in good company. I'll talk to people in a coffeehouse that I probaby wouldn't talk to elsewhere. It seems that by virtue of being there, you're part of the same club.

Bookstores with coffeeshops/cafes are particular favorites. My very first was in the late 70s when I was in Washington, DC for a conference: Kramerbooks and Afterwords in Dupont Circle (its web site claims that it was the first bookstore/cafe in the country to feature cappuccino and espresso). When I moved to DC in the mid-90s, Kramerbooks had become a full-scale restaurant, and although its selection of books was still terrific, the food had started to wrestle with the books for attention, and the pace was too hectic for the kind of leisurely exploring that I like most.

It didn't take me long to find another great bookstore cafe hang-out, though. (Did you know that DC has the largest number of bookstores, per capita, of any city in the United States?). The wonderful Politics & Prose was one Metro stop and a nice walk north of my Cleveland Park neighborhood. The coffeehouse was downstairs; the seating, besides the usual table and chairs, consisted of a large, old, plump sofa and a couple of mismatched chairs. I was usually there a couple of Sunday mornings a month. I enjoyed my Sunday Washington Post with a cup of coffee and toasted bagel or big slice of pumpkin bread. I rarely left without buying a book (my post-breakfast browsing), but I never felt that it was part of the bargain for spending time there.

I should say that I'm an equal opportunity bookstore-cum-coffeehouse disciple. Given a choice, I'll opt for an independent, but I'm happy to spend time at Starbucks and Barnes and Noble too. (I'm also an equal opportunity book buyer. I buy at independent bookstores, chains, library book sales, flea markets, and online). I'm lucky now to live in a place that values bookstores and coffeehouses and the role they play in building community. As much as I find myself in them, I suppose I've come to take them for granted.

So it hit home today when I read an article in the UK's Guardian that the Iranian government has closed down the coffeeshops in four bookstores in Tehran this week. One of the coffeehouses is in one of the city's best-known bookstores, which regularly hosted readings by writers and had become a popular meeting place for literary types. The government justified the closures by saying that "the coffeehouses constituted an illegal mixing of trade," but critics believe that the move is aimed at restricting the gathering of intellectuals and educated young people, and that more closings will follow.

Such a small thing, I used to think, being able to enjoy books and coffee whenever and wherever you want, and being with others who want the same.


Andrea Dezso

How smitten am I with Andrea Dezso? How admiring am I of her talent, her versatility and her range? How fascinating is it that she's from Romania (Transylvania, no less) and that her Romanian culture and immigrant experience figure often in her art? Let's just say "a lot," and leave it at that. I claim her as a book artist, since she works often in the book form, but, in fact, she is not easily classified, since she is a sculptor, a writer, an illustrator, a designer and a muralist (I'm sure I've missed something -- ah, yes, filmmaker).

The wonderful blog of the Rag & Bone Bindery led me to Dezso's work, and I was hooked. I want to show you every single piece that's on her pages at the Parsons New School for Design site, but I'm limiting myself to just a few. I hope that you'll take a much more extensive look at her work on the Parsons site, which includes detailed information about the both Dezso, her work as a whole and the individual pieces. Here's a recent article from the New York Times.

Dezso, who is 39, came to New York ten years ago after receiving a residency at The New York Center for Book Arts. She teaches at Parsons and takes on projects for clients such as McSweeney's, the indie literary publication (so indie it's now mainstream) founded by writer Dave Eggers. For McSweeney's Issue 23 she masterminded a "poster" which, when folded, allowed each short story in the issue its own individually designed front and back cover. Geesh!

Top right: Pioneers Give First Aid To Their Comrades, Andrea Dezso. One-of-a-kind pop-up book. Paper, board, acrylics, colored pencils. 2007 New York city. "This book was inspired by the first aid classes we were required to take as young pioneers in Romania in the eighties. We learned that if someone has a seizure and becomes unconscious we must pull out their tongue and pin it to their pioneer short with a safety pin to prevent suffocation."

The Moon's Party, Andrea Dezso
One-of-a-kind fold out book about the Moon and her animal friends, 1995

City Ornament, Andrea Dezso
Op Art piece appeared in The New York Times Op-Ed page on December 25th 2006

Above and Below: Of My Son, Andrea Dezso
One-of-a-kind book 1994

Illustration for "Pick Your Poison", Andrea Dezso
, published in The New York Times Op-Ed
page on Sunday, May 14th 2006

Shadow Books, Andrea Dezso
One-of-a-kind multi-layered, hand-sewn and cut paper theaters illuminated with light emitting diodes (LED). Installation of books and photographs exhibited at Flux Factory's Cartunnel Comix Fluxture show in 2004. Four books in the series, all in private collections. Size of each book: 4X6X4 inches

The Mothsucker, Andrea Dezso
One-of-a-kind artist's book. Coptic binding by the artist. Mixed media on 100% cotton
Fabriano watercolor paper. Size: 5X7 inches. 1998- 2000. Book in private collection This book documents my challenging adjustment process of living in New York City.

Kidney Cold, Andrea Dezso.
Embroidered Drawing from the "My Mother Claimed" 2006 series. Cotton and metallic floss embroidery and glass beads on cotton canvas

She Wishes She Never Married, Andrea Dezso
Embroidered Drawing from the "My Mother Claimed" 2006 series. Cotton and metallic floss embroidery and glass beads on cotton canvas

Mamushka, Andrea Dezso
Picture book, 16 pages, written and illustrated by Andrea Dezsö. Published in Esopus magazine issue #3 in 2004

New York Dreams (Carousel Book), Andrea Dezso
One-of-a-kind artist's pop-up book on Lana 100% cotton watercolor paper. Mixed media.
Sizes: variable. 1997-98. Collection of the artist

Above and Below: Andrea Dezsö: McSweeney's ISSUE 23 book and wrap-around jacket folded out into a poster
Illuminated paper cutouts, embroidery, drawing, painting, collage, calligraphy– I created the art for McSweeney's issue 23 entirely by hand.

From the McSweeney's website: Every story gets its own front and back cover, drawn, collaged, or embroidered by the polymathic Andrea Dezsö. The whole thing is wrapped in a jacket that unfolds into five square feet of double-sided glory--spread it out one way for dozens of very short stories by Dave Eggers, arranged in what we're pretty sure is a volvelle; flip it over and witness all those Dezsö illustrations stitched into one unbroken expanse.


Re-reading Jane Eyre

I've had little time to post, what with all the reading I've been doing for my two literature classes, and some writing projects I've taken on. In one of my classes, The Brontes, we're reading one book by each of the Bronte sisters: Jane Eyre (Charlotte, right), Wuthering Heights (Emily) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). I hadn't read Jane Eyre since high school, I think, and reading it this time around gave me a whole new perspective not just on the book, but on Charlotte Bronte. I now understand why it's become such a magnet for feminists. When you consider that it was written during a period (mid-nineteenth century) when women's roles were immensely limited and proscribed, Jane was definitely not a typical young woman of her times.

For one thing, she's always truthful and extremely direct. I was particularly impressed by the latter, since Jane's contemporaries in literature (and, by extension, Charlotte's) were expected to be circumspect and to avoid unpleasantess of any kind (which included saying anything that was less than pleasant or cheerful).

It surprised me how often Jane speaks of wanting freedom, liberty, adventure. Here she decides to leave Lowood (where she's been a student and for two years, a teacher) and advertise for a position as a governess:

"...now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils."
She's practical enough to recognize the limitations placed on her by the fact of her gender and by her circumstances, and that becoming a governess is simply another form of service, but still she yearns:
"A new servitude! There is something in that...I know there is because it does not sound too sweet; it is not like such words as Liberty, Excitement, Enjoyment: delightful sounds truly; but no more than sounds for me."
And when Jane, now at Thornfield, Mr. Rochester's estate, ruminates about her situation, which is, in fact, much better than that usually accorded the typical governess, she says:
"...the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes..." and
"...but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties; and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."
Pretty radical assertions for the times during which Charlotte was writing. It's a wonderful novel for many reasons, most of which I'm sure I missed when I first read it. Now, in a very different way, I'm falling in love with Wuthering Heights and Emily Bronte.

Note: BookGirl is traveling all next week, and will be unable to post. Sigh...
She'll have to content herself late at night reading Wuthering Heights and Howards End (which she's reading for her other class).


Book Collaborations in Cuba

Last Thursday, BookWorks, our excellent resource center for book arts, hosted a fascinating lecture by Steve Miller, head of the MFA program in Book Arts at the University of Alabama. Steve is on a semester's sabbatical and is teaching a letterpress class at the nearby Penland School of Crafts this fall. The class is being held in the school's new letterpress and print studio, in whose development Steve had considerable input. His presentation was on the trips he and his students from UA have been making to Cuba since 2004 to collaborate with Cuban artists -- printmakers, poets, papermakers and bookbinders -- on handmade book projects.

The first project (2004) was Diseno/Design (see top right and first image below), a bilingual limited edition book of poems by poet and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. After their return to Alabama, Steve and his students finished an expanded edition of the same book.
(Note: there's a tilde over the "n" in the word "diseno," which Blogger doesn't have the capacity to insert, but which creates a separate additional consonant in Spanish and alters the sound of the word). In 2005 they followed a similar process with the bilingual Illegal Use of the Soul, with poems by Cuban poet Luis Francisco Diaz Sanchez and linocuts by Julio Cesar Pena Peralta (there's that missing tilde over the "n" again, in "Pena").

Steve shared an interesting difference in the Cubans' approach to printmaking. In marked contrast to the method with which we're familiar, in which the printmaker is in control of the entire process, in Cuba there are separate roles for "printmaker" and "printer": the "printmaker" prepares the plate, then hands it over to the "printer," who works the press.

In all, there have been eight working trips to Cuba under the auspices of UA to work on various collaborative books. From the start, Steve has approached the project as a genuine collaboration, in spite of the fact that the equipment and resources available to his Cuban counterparts are severely limited. To date, at least half (and often more) of the editions have been distributed in Cuba.

Steve brought copies of the editions for us to see. Laurie Corral, BookWorks' director, supplemented these with several books by Cuban artists from the studio's collection. The latter (the last two book images below) were created using paper bags.

On a related note, you'll want to check out the podcasts of interviews that Steve has done, and continues to conduct, with book artists, papermakers, poets, and other "book people. Check out the Podcast link on the UA Book Arts page here.

Design/Diseno, Billy Collins (poetry), Carlos Ayress Moreno (linocuts), translated by Maria Vargas

Uso Ilegal del Alma/Illegal Use of the Soul, Luis Francisco Diaz Sanchez (poetry), Julio Cesar Pena Peralta (illustrations), translated by Maria Vargas

La Caida del Cielo, Cristina Garcia

Ana Mendieta, Nancy Morejon

Steve Miler, right, and book artist Annie Cicale, at BookWorks


C is for Critic

For me, an arts critic is someone with significant experience in both the critical process and the field that he or she writes about. Sometimes a critic's arguments persuade me to see or read something I might have passed by; occasionally, I've even changed my mind about my initial reaction to a movie or a play or a book when a review I read after-the-fact brought out facets or raised issues I'd overlooked. I enjoy good critics even when I don't agree with them.

Yes, democratization of the media is a good thing, and we're certainly all entitled to our opinion -- this is America, don'tcha know? If I'm considering buying a mini-tripod for my digital camera (as I have been recently), it's useful to learn from four people who bought a certain model that it tilts if it's used with a camera that doesn't have a central tripod attachment. And I'm ready to listen to why you did or didn't like The Bourne Ultimatum (I did). But I don't get my book recommendations from the reader reviews at Amazon.

In an article in the UK's The Guardian, R. McDonald writes that "the critic...as objective judge and expert...has yielded to the critic who shares personal reactions and subjective enthusiasms."

"The bloggers and reading groups often claim that they would rather get recommendations from someone they know, someone with similar tastes. One problem with this is that the public are relying on a reviewing system that confirms and assuages their prejudices rather than challenges them. An able and experienced critic...could once persuade readers to give unfamiliar work a second chance, to see things they did not see at first glance. In that respect, critics can be the harbingers of the new.

"...The conviction that educated taste is an elitist ruse, that one opinion is as good as another, and that we should take our lead for our cultural life solely from people like us might seem like an instance of "people power". Yet...If we only listen to those who already share our proclivities and interests, the supposed critical democracy will lead to a dangerous attenuation of taste and conservatism of judgment. Without critics of authority, the size and variety of contemporary criticism may ultimately serve the cause of cultural banality and uniformity."

This is not to say that anything that isn't written by a "critic" is immediately suspect. I've discovered, for example, that some book bloggers I read regularly have reading tastes similar to mine, so I'll probably enjoy the books they've read. There are others whose intelligent comments make me want to buy that book right now (not that I need to add even one more book to my TBR pile these days!). But I think it's important to distinguish between opinion and criticism, and to appreciate that by challenging our tastes and assumptions -- by making us think -- good criticism can be as "democratizing" as those Amazon reader reviews.


So Many Books, So Little Time

BookGirl never thought she'd have to admit to having too many books to read. But I'm starting to feel just a bit overwhelmed about my book commitments. A few months ago, I joined a second book club because I wanted more diversity in my book club menu. Last month, I signed up for two Lit classes because I wanted the opportunity to read and re-read some classics. Not to mention that my own personal list of TBRs (to be reads) grows by the day.

This month, one book club is reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters; the other is reading Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. Over the next six weeks, we're covering Lord Jim, Howard's End and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my Early Modern Novel class. And over that same period, we're reading Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in my class on The Brontes. I'm already nearly a book behind in each.

Right now I'm juggling Fingersmith, Jane Eyre and Lord Jim. I was interested enough in Lord Jim that I opted for my own Conrad mini-fest and just finished Heart of Darkness. And, a page here and a chapter there, I'm reading Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love.

I may have been a titch overambitious when I committed myself to all this. So much for tackling Middlemarch before the end of the year...

Artist Credit: James Tissot, Reading a Book