Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Cheese Monkeys

Sometimes, I pick book titles and put them on my request list only to promptly forget why I picked it or what it's even about. That's the result of reading little blurbs about books here and there and decide to read it based on four or five sentences some random person has written. It's kinda fun, actually, like book roulette. Will it be good? Will I hate it and throw it back into my library bag like the dog poo that it is? Will the title or cover be any clue as to what compelled me to read the book in the first place? This was the story of The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd. I had no recollection of picking this book, nor did I have any idea what it was about by looking at it. It was all so mysterious.

I'm not afraid to admit when a book is way over my head. I'm also not afraid to pretend that I get it, even if I don't. I'm shameless like that. Such was the case of The Cheese Monkeys. I didn't get it, but I'm going to pretend that I did. The book is about graphic design. Are you reading this, Caren's husband Andrew? Now, how could you possibly know from the title that this was fiction about graphic design? Hmm? The actual cover might give you a clue, and especially since there was great care taken in the layout of the font, inside covers and the cool visual effect on the pages of the book. Picking up a copy and just looking it over is worth your time, even if you never read it.

I know nothing about graphic design and neither does our nameless narrator until he goes to his first year of college in 1958, where he decides to major in art, mostly to annoy his parents. The story is told over two semesters, the first where he meets Himillsy Dodd, free-spirited artist with a mean streak and a penchant for misbehavior. He adores her and they have some fun adventures, some at the expense of their teachers and fellow students. However, the next semester is where the story really begins. They enroll in Art 127, Introduction to Graphic Design, taught by Winter Sorbeck, a cruel and brilliant professor who is determined to break their conceptions of art and power.

Sorbeck enjoys their misery and discomfort a little too much for my tastes, but at the same time, I kept having flashbacks to my college days and remembered that my favorite professor was the man who demanded that we think harder, reach higher and refuse to be sheep in the fold. He was cruel at times and impossible to please, but darnit if we didn't keep trying. Our narrator feels much the same way, so I could relate to him constantly trying to achieve what is unlikely to ever happen: getting Sorbeck's approval.

There was plenty not to like about this book. Himillsy is shrill, annoying and makes way too much effort to be shocking. Sorbeck is a louse, even if a talented one. Kidd takes way to long to get to what I felt what the real point of the book. Some of the "typical" college kid antics felt unnecessary and the ending was ubrupt and flat. But what I wish I could talk to someone about was the fact that Sorbeck teaches them art can be powerful. I'm a musician, so I know the power than music as art can have, but reading about design made me realize how much power there is in that medium. Some of the points Kidd tries to bring out made me want to just drive around and look at signs, or flip through magazine ads.

Even though I didn't get a bunch of stuff in the book and parts of it annoyed or disgusted me, I'm still kinda glad I read it. I don't often read about art or design and it was a good branch to scoot out onto. This round of book roulette didn't turn out to be a complete dud, I guess. Oh, and as a small spoiler, I never did find out what a cheese monkey was. Guess that means there's probably a sequel, but I don't know if I'm up for much more cheese monkery.


  1. I think I can venture a guess about which professor you were referring to, because he was also one of my favorites. He showed confidence in my abilities, yet pushed me to try things that I didn't think I could do musically. And he was completely and openly honest about what was bad and what wasn't. I haven't ever read anything like this Cheese Monkey book, but I'm a bit interested in reading it, just because of the subject matter. Thanks for the review!

  2. "...Winter Sorbeck, a cruel and brilliant professor who is determined to break their conceptions of art and power....Himillsy is shrill, annoying and makes way too much effort to be shocking. Sorbeck is a louse, even if a talented one..."

    These descriptions remind me of some of Andrew's college experiences too! I think you can find people like that in any subject, but there's something about Fine Arts that seems to attract, justify, and then glorify those attitudes. So irritating. If Andrew had any spare time for reading these days, I would be interested to hear his take on this book.