Book Echoes Artist’s Spare Style
Another book about a woman, and this time it is the book that is unconventional. March, the International Woman’s Month.
Book: Mumbai New York Scranton (NEW March 12, 2013) by Tamara Shopsin
I’m fumbling a bit as I figure out what to say about this intriguing book. First, you should know despite the title which hints at a journey, it is not a travel memoir, even though it describes three places. But on the other hand, the first third of the book could be considered a memoir of travel in India, until you read the last third of the book and discover that the first third was not quite what it seemed to be. Yes, Tamara Shopsin and her husband, Jason, travel in India, and yes, the country comes under the sharp observation of a gifted artist, but it is not necessarily ABOUT travel. Her observations of herself and other people are similarly clear-eyed.
But I hesitate to even say anything that definitive, because Mumbai New York Scranton is like a painting by Juan Gris–the artist combines simple objects and each viewer recreates meaning as they view it. So this memoir of a year in the life of a native New York artist leaves plenty of room for the reader’s own thoughts.
Shopsin illustrates newspaper and magazine articles with a minimalist, sharply observant, artist’s style. She writes the same way. Throughout the book she talks about the creative process of getting just the right combination of lines and colors and objects into an illustration. It can take days for a seemingly simple illustration that is so right that we don’t even think about it when we read the article it illustrates. We may not even be aware we saw it, and if we are, we think “That was easy.”
“Easy reading is damned hard writing.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne. If Shopsin had not shared with us how difficult it is to achieve that “easy” result in her art, we might assume that she just tossed this book off like flinging a worn sweater on the back of a chair.
Here is one of her longer paragraphs, in a place called Ooty:
Breakfast is held in a wood-paneled room from another era. There are three large buffet tables of food labeled: INdian, British, and Healthy. My eyes light up at the last table. White bowls of balanced green beans, fresh fruit ,and cereal. There no sauces. Nothing is stewed, fried or overcooked. I fuel the fuck up and eat three meals’ worth.
Her return to New York from India:
The flight is full and smells like curry. Sixteen hours till New York.
And here is a typical short paragraph, about an illlustration idea that struck her as she traveled on the subway, back in New York City:
I’m finished. I wash off my pen nibs. If the idea still looks okay in the morning, I will e-mail it.
I particularly honed in on this one because its the way I think about writing assignments. It is safest to let them sit over night.
Besides the spare prose, the book includes illustrations and black and white photographs of odd moments in the story. The illustrations make it look like a book that would like to be a graphic novel, if only it had more time. But Tamara Shopsin not only has an eye for the perfect illustration, she also has a unique voice as a writer. You may wonder what is going on, and even get a little impatient with the flat narration, but the book is funny, moving and thought-provoking. You’ll read it in a few hours and think about it for much longer.
Travelers will particularly be thinking about her observations of India, and how returning from a foreign place affects our observations of our own land.
Tamara Shopsin’s background, hinted at throughout the book, is even more fascinating in detail: illustrator for prestigious publications, including New York Times and illustrator and designer of some books, including one about her father (Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin); a 2012 Code for America Fellow (look it up!); and a cook at her family’s restaurant, Shopsin‘s in the lower East side of Manhattan. Check out that menu and you’ll see she did not necessarily inherit her spare style. And then you look at her own web page, which is anything but minimalist. Except for the FAQ about the book, which reflects the style of the book and her facility with programming in a very stylish prsentation. I particularly liked this about her motivation for writing the book:
I used to repair printers, and in order to make sure they were fixed we would print 100 pages. I think it was kind of like that.
And she creates novelties. (see pencil)
If you’ve ever eaten at Shopsin’s in New York, or read the founder’s book , I’d love to hear a first hand report. And were you aware of Tamara Shopsin’s contribution to books and magazines before this? Let’s talk. (If you get this by e-mail, please click over to A Traveler’s Library.)
Note: The publisher, Scribner, sent me a review copy of this book, but of course my opinions are my own. I have inserted links to Amazon for your shopping convenience, and also because when you shop that way A Traveler’s Library makes a few cents. (Even though it costs you no more.) I have borrowed photos from various sources, but you can learn what those sources are by clicking on the photo.