Friday, October 2, 2009

Slow and Steady Burn

Book Review / New Fiction

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Reviewed by Sarah F. Cox

Wells Tower’s first book captures families layered thick with misfortunes beyond their control. Dysfunctional characters led by poor judgment, immaturity and the slow steady boil of deeply repressed emotions rising to the surface describe the tyranny of emotional attachment in this collection of nine short stories, Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Each story presents a different uncomfortable, yet relatable setting in which relatives and strangers collide, often disastrously. A disgruntled ex husband drives his ex wife’s injured lover on a long car trip. A demented father, his much younger second wife, and an alienated son have dinner with the chess-playing hustler they picked up in the park. In a remote cabin, a jealous and insecure investor coaxes his fiscally conservative brother into discussing a real estate gamble.

Towers gets at the fundamentally sinister underbelly of familial ties with an entourage of irksome people doing things you can’t condone. What’s simultaneously frustrating and brilliant about this collection of misfits and schemers is how well you come to understand, sympathize with, and even justify their self-destructive and damaging behavior. Towers ability to simmer sympathetic and lamentable characters until they boil over as raging assholes is so artful and realistic that he somehow convinces you not only not to hate these people, but that you’d probably act just as irrationally as they do. In fact, the Viking warrior in the final story encapsulates the collections’ attitude towards its characters: You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.”

The increasing tension makes for a compelling read, even as you cringe thinking about what might unfold. Though most of Tower’s stories build obviously and gradually towards destruction (as should be no surprise given the title of the book) the conclusions are never trite or overplayed. The string of irrational and ill-conceived decisions often carry you through the story until it ends abruptly, just short of the subsequent remorse and regret. Escaping the scene of catastrophe at the crucial moment, you almost feel guilty for leaving behind the mess in which you’ve become so invested. But, of course, when it comes to sticky family situations outside your own, it’s best not to meddle.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Seems like old Times

Gloomy advance obituaries are already being written for the print version of the New York Times, with Michael Hirschorn predicting in the Atlantic Monthly ( that the paper may not have enough cash on hand to survive past May of 2009. I love everything about the linear rhythm of a newspaper—its early morning arrival on the stoop, mastering the origami fold needed to read it politely on a crowded subway, scanning it in fits and starts over the course of a day, polishing off the crossword puzzle after dinner—and will feel bereft without these little rituals. Like it or not, now is the moment to get acquainted with other formats for the paper of record. As the Russian proverb states, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

The digital Times Reader, a downloadable version of the Times available free to daily subscribers, was created in 2007 as a hybrid of online news and the “real” paper. It gives you the ability to read digital news offline and re-sync the content, updated every 30 minutes, throughout the day; a seven-day archive (think of catching up on a week’s worth of news during a long airplane ride); text searchability; legibility on any size screen. And no ink smudges on your fingers, or loose sports sections sliding all over the floor!

The bloom fades a bit when you consider that only subscribers get Reader for free. (Though it IS less expensive than buying the daily paper: $14.95 per month or $169 per year.) But if you just got the paper on your doorstep this morning, why would you need a digital version? Especially when there’s the Times’ very excellent website available, a more timely way for news hounds to stay current? Saddest of all, Reader only works well for PC users; the beta Mac version requires installing Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in which doesn’t support either Firefox or Safari.

Nevertheless, Reader is a much better option than the Electronic Edition, an exact digital replica of the printed paper, ads and all. It’s schizophrenic to expect that a digital newspaper would or should look anything like a physical one. You browse information from a site in a very different manner from the way you read a paper, after all. News is the greatest beneficiary of the web’s immediacy and accessibility, and referring its design back to the print format is futile. The whole idea of a digital newspaper as opposed to a news website is a little odd in itself, when you think about it.

I suspect when the time comes, I will rely on the Times website for my news fix. It's free, it's updated constantly, I don't have to sync it or download it. All I have to do is read it, and that's all I want. Except for my 15 sections of newspaper and a croissant with marmalade on Sundays.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Keep Rocking

A certain house basement in Dubai’s Springs Compound hides an underground talent. Here, Ghassan Zoghbi—a Lebanese art director who works in a big UAE advertising agency by day—realizes his real passion. For the past eight years, Zoghbi has retreated to his home basement to build exquisite electric and acoustic steel-string guitars in his spare time.

His guitars are hand built from blank tone wood with a pure love for rock and roll. His process is modest: “I always use very simple, home-friendly tools,” Zoghbi explained to me. Yet there is nothing crude about his work. Carefully designed to the last detail, each piece of instrument is flawless.

Zoghbi was born with love for music and learned how to play the guitar in his youth. He pours his understanding of great sounds and experimentation of material into his pieces, as he did not have any formal training. Unfortunately, he is located in a place where there was no way to express his flair. The Middle East does not have the market or companies to house such artists. He decided to go ahead with his designs privately, despite all of the hardships and he now sells his work through private connections and word of mouth. His latest guitar, the Galvanised, is an electric guitar made from the finest North American tone woods, priced at $1850.

Zoghbi’s brand, “Zoghbi Guitars,” is a dream, not about money nor profit. Zoghbi wants to make better quality and purer sounds to share a complete product with other music buffs. His custom made guitars are executed with precision, something that is lacking in a lot of our commercialized mass produced world today.

In the most unexpected places, great talent is hidden; design has no national boundaries. Unfortunately a lot of what is produced and sold today in profit-driven industries is not designed well, if at all. In the move to cheaper and bigger quantities of product, big corporations have lost idealistic standards. So many companies could benefit from Zoghbi’s example.

Mainstream media generally follows mainstream topics. Different magazines and TV stations seem to cover similar events, buildings, places, graphics and choice of merchandise. What about the underground activities of the Zoghbis of the world?

It is unfortunate that there is a whole section of the world that is not even considered on the design front. I would hope that one day designers like Zoghbi will be able to have a platform to promote ideas and reciprocally have certain media segments shed light on their work.

I would like to see a column in mainstream newspapers (and their respective websites) covering the likes of Zoghbi Guitars around the world. Maybe then the big corporations will start to understand the need of hiring passionate designers. A model that might be present in some blogs but it needs to be taken to a broader macro level. Hopefully a future kind of exposure for the little people from all over the world will least give Zoghbi an option to come out of the basement.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Typology Watch: Post Cards

In keeping with our effort to record typological approaches to design, we noted a new exhibition at Dia, in Beacon, New York. Last weekend I dropped in onYou see I am here after all, a new work by American artist Zoe Leonard. It will be on view through September 7, 2009. You see I am here after all is made up of hundreds of postcards of Niagara Falls arrayed on a white wall. Leonard was born in the area of the Falls and collected the cars in flea markets and online auctions. It took me a while to realize that the cards are arranged not just randomly but according to several factors. They are organized by a typology: One factor in this typology is the perspective of the viewer with regard to Niagara falls. Another is the age of the car, which roughly corresponds to the evolution of postcard technology ranging from black and white photographs that are crudely color tinted to into later Kodak color photos.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Change of a Dress

It is the Saturday after the 2008 Democratic National Convention, five days after Michelle Obama addressed the DNCC and the country, impressing us all with her eloquence, grace, family stories, and reverence for the United States of America.  I am still reeling from the excitement from the well-orchestrated week of orators, signage, and unified mantras.  And I must admit that style is still on my mind.  I know fashion is not even an issue on the table, but Michelle (I feel I am on a first name basis with her now) rocked the fashion world while her husband rocked the vote.

During and after Michelle's speech on Monday, I studied her turquoise Maria Pinto dress, examining the lines and the color, noting that it appeared asymmetrical at the back, relaxed at the shoulders, carefully adorned with a turquoise starburst brooch, and very different from the typical look of a presidential wife.  This was not a business suit, but the dress of a mother, wife, and lawyer with style.  This look told me that Michelle can manage household duties, run a meeting at Public Allies, join Barack at a rally, attend a dinner meeting with campaign staffers to strategize for the next day, and get home in time to make sure Malia and Sasha brushed their teeth and said their prayers before bed.

Whether a deliberate tactic or not, this shift from business suit to tailored dress makes a statement.  It brings Michelle home to everyone.  Her look, like the campaign message, is the look of everywoman, not solely a high-powered attorney.  And it shows she is comfortable in this role.

I continued my fashion watch during the rest of the week, noting Michelle's choices on each night while assessing the oration.  Michelle continued to surprise with olive and dreamy white concoctions, all with appropriate and matching jewelry.  The night of Barack's acceptance speech, her patterned and again brooched Thakoon Panichgul kimono dress was powerful in its uniqueness, telling of culture and fashion awareness while being extremely approachable.  Bravo.

Today I was standing in my neighborhood bodega, perusing the magazines, and I noticed all of the press photos on the covers of local and national papers of John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, austere in her black skirt suit, and I felt a longing for more color, more stylistic variety.  The suit no longer holds the same power it once did thanks to Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama brought about this change by displaying the work of new and fresh dress designers on the most important stage of all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hot Wheels

Photos: New York City Department of Transportation

Not too long ago, pretty much the only people to be seen on bicycles in Manhattan were messengers. And with good reason: the New York City environment is hostile to bikers. The mean streets in many parts of town are too narrow for today's huge SUVs and trucks trying to squeeze through, midtown traffic is intimidating, double-parking is rampant, and the unpredictability of peds X-ing is a constant hazard for a bike rider. But recently lots of folks riding bicycles can be found tooling along the streets and avenues, on their way to office jobs or lunch meetings or school, sometimes with kids and pets in tow. What gives?

The growing national awareness of the value of green lifestyles has led to wider acceptance and visibility of transportation alternatives. But the city has also made it easier to get around safely, by increasing and improving the number of separate bike paths and greenways, and by conducting an experimental program for the month of August. Called Summer Streets, selected north-south routes are closed to traffic but open to bike riders and pedestrians for 6 hours on Saturdays. These have been well-attended by the public; after all, who doesn't like to play in the street?

Increasing the hipness quotient of the trend, David Byrne has designed a series of bike racks appearing around town, each keyed to its location. The Olde Times Square, based on the female silhouette best known as mudflap Tammy, is genius. The visual of a hot babe with bikes chained to her in bondage works nicely with the memory of the once-seedy triple-X personality of the neighborhood. Almost as good is the irony of a bike locked up to the car-shaped Jersey. Byrne hopes to eventually sell the collection as works of art upon their retirement next summer.

During their year on the street the racks are bound to acquire an accumulation of dents, stickers, graffiti, abandoned locks, and bike frame carcasses. No word on whether they will be sold as-is, but I’m all for it. The reminders of their former public service will reinforce the message that there is art in the useful act of riding around on a bike.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prefab Architecture: Prefabricated or Pretty Fabulous?

“I didn't like what happened to the humans in Wall-E. It wasn't bleak enough. The children need to know that there isn't going to be a spaceship to rescue you from earth,” my friend Zaira said as we were waiting in line for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on prefabricated architecture, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.” After that disturbing comment, I thought, hmmm, I need to get more upbeat friends. Wall-E is a Pixar computer-animated movie (already referred to in the previous post, “Wall-E & Our Humorous Future” by Chappell), which, despite dark undertones, I found rather charming. And seeing this new exhibit—an elaborate exploration of pre-fabricated architecture in the past and present—renewed my optimism about our future. In these supposedly dark times, even when friends have such a bleak view of the future, I can't help but be giddy about new designs that try to solve environmental and societal problems by introducing a much needed “cool factor” to older concepts—like prefabricated homes.

Why prefab? Prefabrication is a process by which the building components are ready-made in a factory —as opposed to on site—thereby greatly reducing construction time, energy and labor needed to build a house. In addition, there is less waste of materials when the process can be controlled in a factory. While many larger buildings have elements of prefabrication in them, the process seems to have a certain social stigma when applied to homes. This exhibition, however, showcases many intriguing constructions from a selected group of architects and designers that manage to create interesting modern design via prefab methods.

The MoMA building, renovated in 2004 by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in his first U.S. work, is is a combination of the modernist International Style (orthogonal, steel structure, extensive use of glass, minimal in style and ornamentation) but filtered through a unique Japanese perspective (framed views, interior-exterior dynamic, material and joint fetishes). Its fenestration is organized around the central courtyard while the building structure is draped in strong, flat, metal-clad planes that seemingly float above the building. It is Taniguchi’s control of materials that make the building a success. While prefab employs different construction methods, it should maintain similar values and be judged with the same criteria if it is to inspire.

MoMA offers an accommodating setting for this exhibit, situated both inside and outside the museum in a neighboring, empty lot. The first half of the show on the sixth floor showcases a history of the prefabricated house. On display is an array of U.S. Patents for building types, like Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic dome. This part of the exhibit was like being in Doc Brown laboratory, the room full of mockups and building types. Still, I was itching to go down and play in the prefab houses outside.

As we approached the outside lot, I was shivering with glee and excitement. This is not an exaggeration—though I did just down a cafÈ mocha to quench my caffeine addiction. The first house we visited, “Burst*008” by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, was the most expressionistic by far, rife with crazy angles and complex geometry. Unlike simplistic prefab houses of yore (which favored the boxy trailer-home look), this house had planes extending in every direction, which made for fun architecture. Its steel frame and plywood walls were painted a light, off-white color that (unfortunately) turned slightly green in the LED light. Inside, a video projecting in the “entertainment” room explained how a basic structural slotting technique can be used to construct various forms. It was almost a contradiction of my entire preconceived notion of prefab houses, and it was only the first house I saw! I give the designers credit for smashing my brain.

Next door, I visited a laser-cut New Orleans style house by architect Lawrence Sass, appropriately titled “Housing for New Orleans,” whose pieces could be slotted together to resemble a traditional local dwelling. Another neighboring laser cut house, “System3” by Leo Kaufmann and Albert Ruf might have brought to mind the infamous rectangular-box kind of prefab architecture that screams: trailer! trailer! trailer! But done well, this one reminded me of more interesting prefab architecture I had seen in the past, by architects such as Rocio Romero ( “System3” was designed with the user in mind, complete with interesting interior spaces, great lighting, and sleek materials. While one of these suckers runs a cool $130K, they can be stacked and arranged in multiple shapes.

The most frustrating house was the “Micro Compact Home” designed by Horden Cherry Lee Ltd of London and Haack + Hopfer. I was a bit put off by its accompanying description, which implied that the architect was enlightening the resident by encouraging him to limit their possessions. But really, he’s just forcing him to live in a a friggin' small metal box! This embodies what would happen if we allowed Apple to design our homes: looks cool, but crushes your soul. However, this house does win the ease of construction medal: it takes two hours to “install.” Basically, they can fly the teensy metal house around on a cable connected to a helicopter and just drop it on people.

Now I come to the masterpiece of the show: “The Cellophane House.” Designed by KieranTimberlake, this house can rise off the ground—five stories to be exact. Like “Burst*008” this one doesn't feel prefab. Its designers are going for modern values of light, materials and spaces. This one would be closest in style to the MoMA itself: the tower with a twist. The metal frame of the Cellophane house has no welded joints, only bolted connections, and many of the windows are—you guessed it—cellophane, with energy-retaining panels attached. My only complaint is that, as Zaira and I were getting kicked out of the house at closing time, I touched the metal wall and felt the built up static electricity of the entire building being transported into my body. I'm okay now.

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at MoMA runs through Oct 20.