Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Whatever You Do, Don't Think of an Elephant

The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd is best known as a highly successful and influential graphic designer who has done book covers for everyone from David Sedaris to Donna Tartt to Haruki Murakami. If Chip Kidd does your book cover, it will a) look awesome, and b) probably result in you selling more books than you would have otherwise.

Then, just because he's a show-off, Mr. Kidd proceeded to write a book that has no business being as good as it is. The Cheese Monkeys had me at this sentence: "Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch that if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government."

Our narrator quickly falls in with a bad crowd, most notably one Ms. Himillsy Dodd, a kind of art school Holly Golightly, with whom everyone is in love. However, the book doesn't really kick in until second semester, when our narrator and his buddies find themselves enrolled in Introduction to Graphic Design with an eccentric and ill-tempered instructor named Winter Sorbeck. Class sessions with Winter are not quite standard for an Eisenhower-era state university (imagine Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets' Society with a penchant for cheap booze and verbally abusing students).

For one class assignment, Winter tells the kiddies to design a sign that would get them picked up by a passing car if they were stranded miles from campus in the middle of winter. Then he packs them up into a bus with their signs and strands them miles from campus in the middle of winter.

The book turns a little ugly at the end, but class assignments are so much fun to read, you almost wish the book consisted of nothing but various scenes of Winter tormenting his students with madcap graphic design problems. There are two kinds of college art/drama/creative writing classes: the ones where the professor gives everyone A's for showing up and not eating the paste, and the ones where everyone sits around after class pulling at their hair, chain smoking, and asking, "for the love of God, what does the woman WANT from us?"

Some art is definitely good, some is definitely bad, and some is just a matter of opinion. And watching a bunch of students try to figure out what's good this semester (e.g. "throw in some unresolved ambiguous sexuality," "do the sleepwalking scene like a drug-addled 50s housewife with a Southern accent," or "glue some coffee grounds on it and call it 'mixed media'") is always fun to watch.

If you liked...: Dan Clowes' Art School Confidential (comic or film), this book is for you.

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