Read This: Want an Extreme Close-Up of Ewan McGregor’s Tats? Thank Kat Von D

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Last Sunday, I had my first book review in the Buffalo News in several weeks, and it was a book that surprised me. I would not normally be seeking out anything authored by Kat Von D … But I must admit, I dug it. Read on:

A pop culture pop quiz: Kat Von D is chiefly known for: a.) starring on a popular reality show; b.) having a name that sounds like a disease affecting kittens; c.) being covered with tattoos; d.) having dated fellow reality TV star and national villain Jesse James after his Sandra Bullock break-up, a figure who is to healthy relationships what Amanda Bynes is to rational behavior; or e.) all of the above.

The answer, of course, is all of the above, but now we can add something else, a book for which Von D deserves real praise. The aptly titled “Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing,” written with Sandra Bark, is a 200-page, gorgeously photographed chronicle of tattoo art, and it is a surprisingly involving read.

Kat might be the world’s most renowned tattoo artist. Her cable reality series, “LA Ink,” ran for five seasons, she has authored two best-selling books, and, according to her bio, she even created a makeup line for Sephora, the sweetest-smelling store in many a mall.

“Go Big or Go Home,” interestingly, is less about her, and more about turning the spotlight on others. Call it “Chicken Soup for the Tattooed Soul,” a series of essays in which Kat introduces the reader to some of her clients, discusses their life stories, explains the whys behind their body art, and argues that a tattoo can be truly empowering.

Thanks to the book’s genuinely fascinating portraits, I believe her, despite the fact that I am tattoo-free, and probably always will be – I have difficulty deciding on lunch, let alone what to slap on my arms for the rest of my days.

Consider the case of “Jeffree Star,” an ultra-glam, pink-haired, heavily made-up individual who Kat memorably introduces like so: “Oh Jeffree! Where do I even begin?” Jefree “isn’t afraid of things most people find perturbing. In fact,” Kat explains, “embracing and seeing them as life lessons as opposed to curses are his gift.”

Jeffree’s chest features the faces of Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain (wearing a crown of thorns, with the words “RAPE ME” underneath), and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-era Audrey Hepburn, along with the Mona Lisa, the shark from “Jaws,” and, in a nod to Danny Torrance (and Stanley Kubrick), “REDRUM.”

So far, so relatively normal. But, Kat writes, “With the exception of the Spice Girls … the subjects of Jeffree’s obsession seemed to lean toward portraits of tragic icons.” Wait – the Spice Girls aren’t tragic icons? I suppose not, when compared with JonBenet Ramsey, Princess Diana, Sharon Tate and Elizabeth Short, a.k.a., the Black Dahlia.

On paper, these all sound strange, and, well, they are a bit strange. But Kat sees them as essential to Jeffree’s sense of self. “There is,” she says, “something liberating about embracing your own uniqueness.” She does not delve deeply into Jeffree’s past, but she does indicate that the struggles of his past led to the art adorning his body:

“I think being picked on and even bullied at times for being gay or dressing differently is a big part of why he’s been so outward with his self-expression: his loud hairstyles, extreme makeup, and even all the tattoos he’s collected quickly over these past few years.”

“Duh,” some might say. But “Go Big or Go Home” shouts down that attitude, with authority. Plus, Kat’s got celebrity on her side. One chapter focuses on Obi-Wan himself, Ewan McGregor, and while I had always imagined Ewan with a giant tattoo of the worst toilet in Scotland on his bicep, what he actually has is far more personal:

“His virgin skin was permanently marked with art that represented the most important things in his life, his wife, Eve, and their three daughters. When Ewan and Eve eventually added a fourth little girl to their family, he wanted to add her name to his tattoo.”

It’s an impressive creation, likely the kind of thing that causes nightmares for Hollywood makeup artists. But while the celeb cameos are fun – also included are Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, songwriter Linda Perry, and comedian-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait – it is the “real” people whose stories stand out.

The text is simple, and sometimes surprisingly elegant, but the images are what make “Go Big or Go Home” a worthy creation. Each tattoo tells a story, for the tattooed and for the artist, and even if the book will likely draw in only those already invested in the world of ink, it should still be considered a success.

At the very least, Kat Von D has demonstrated why a tattoo is never simply a tattoo. See that guy, with Alfred Hitchcock on his calf? Yep, there’s a story there.

“Go Big or Go Home: Taking Risks in Life, Love and Tattooing”

By Kat Von D

Harper Collins

208 pages, $29.99

Read This: “May We Be Forgiven” is a Bleak but Compelling Story of Dysfunction

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One quick note on this busy Sunday: I have a review of Kat Von D’s “Go Big or Go Home” in today’s Buffalo News, so make sure to check it out — the book proved to be a pleasant surprise.

Speaking of book reviews, here is one that I wrote a few months ago, for a novel that just came back in the news in a big way. In early June, author A.M. Homes won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel “May We Be Forgiven.” This is a major award, and this is a very good book. I’m not sure if a film or TV adaptation is planned, but it is certainly worthy of one.

Here is my review, from December 9, 2012:

A.M. Homes’ “May We Be Forgiven” opens with a Thanksgiving celebration from hell, a gloriously grim cornucopia of secret kisses, eye-rolling lies and unsettling commentary.

As our protagonist, Harold Silver, puts it before setting the scene, “Do you want my recipe for disaster?” That’s a good word for it. You’ll be aching for them all to choke on their turkey by page 3 — Harold included.

And that is why it’s difficult not to have a love-hate relationship with Homes’ novel. It is sad, darkly funny, occasionally moving, but above all, singularly unpleasant. That makes it one of 2012’s most compelling — yet undeniably dreary — literary experiences. Ultimately, it’s a great success.

Homes is the author of several acclaimed novels, most notably “The Safety of Objects,” “This Book Will Save Your Life” and “Music for Torching,” along with a memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter.”

As that title indicates, she is an adept chronicler of American familial dysfunction.

Case in point: The brothers Silver. Harold is a Nixon scholar in midlife, stuck in an awkward, childless marriage to a wife who is perennially working. (“Claire is still at the office; she is always at the office. Another man would think his wife is having an affair; I just think Claire is smart.”)

Harold’s younger brother, George, is, quite simply, nightmarish — almost unbelievably so. This was always the case, Harold explains:

“He entered the world eleven months after me, sickly at first, not enough oxygen along the way, and was given far too much attention. And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods.”

He was taller, stronger, more successful, and married to a woman Harold lusted after. She is Jane, and she is not above surprising Harold with a sloppy smack on the lips, while, just outside the kitchen door, her husband pontificates, her sister-in-law listens, and her children watch TV.

Whatever his flaws, Harold is our protagonist, and, when an already cracked family unit is confronted with crisis, he takes control. George is arrested, and a suburban cop explains why: “He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was still alive at the scene — in the back seat, next to the surviving boy.” After being freed by the Jaws of Life, she soon expired (“Her legs fell out of the car”), and the lives of the Silvers — all of them — will never be the same again.

George is eventually hospitalized. He has cracked, and is increasingly erratic.

But he is let out, and arrives home to find Harold asleep next to Jane, and …The result leaves Jane unconscious (and soon dead), George in even worse trouble, and Harold curiously unmoved. He is a stoic, unemotional narrator who nevertheless takes on the burden of his brother’s household.

As “May We Be Forgiven” moves forward, Harold becomes more of a father figure to his niece and nephew, but also more unpredictable.

He begins a series of random sexual encounters with women met online, yes, but also seeks out Ricardo, the child left orphaned by his brother’s recklessness, at his nephew Nate’s urging.

In the ultimate sign of “growth” — Harold does grow, with much sighing — he takes Nate, Ricardo and niece Ashley to South Africa for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah.

And then, 365 days after the Thanksgiving scene that began “May We Be Forgiven,” the novel ends.

Homes is a piercing writer, and one with the ability to craft a simple sentence with devastating effectiveness. She has written a fiercely original novel, I think, one as fractured, messy and joyous as a story of 20th century family should be.

And in Harold Silver, Homes has created a defiantly damaged American male: flawed, struggling, sexually charged, and, only after much prodding, adult enough to truly grow up.

This is an end result that is not altogether tidy, but is certainly proper. It’s not unsurprising that Homes concludes the novel with a “happy” ending, and I’m glad she did. After all that came before it, it’s not just earned — it’s downright necessary. I’m not sure the reader could handle anything less.