Saturday, October 27, 2012

300 (2012 #45). The Art Forger

by B. A. Shapiro

Back in 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed of 13 works of art , some by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas, that have never been found.  Author B. A. Shapiro takes this real-world incident and builds a novel around it that, substituting a fictional work by Degas for one of his (lesser-known) works actually stolen. 

Claire Roth is a struggling young painter who is a bit of a pariah in the art world.  She's been reduced to making copies of famous paintings for an online company that sells reproductions, and has become rather good at the task.  She is approached by Aidan Markel, an attractive art gallery owner, who claims to have intercepted one of the museum's stolen works.  He wants Claire to paint a reproduction that he will sell as the original, then he will return the actual original to the museum.  Claire will get $50K (a third up front), plus her own art show at his gallery.

Claire agrees - partly for reasons that become clear in a second narrative line, set three years earlier.  By page 93 (of the 355-page novel), she realizes that the "original" Degas is actually a forgery - which starts the mystery, as Claire tries to figure out where the "real" original is.  That also brings in the third narrative line - a number of fictional letters by Isabella Stewart Gardner to her fictional niece, from 1886 to 1898 - that provide clues to what really happened.  I was able to figure that part out pretty quickly.

The best part of this novel was Shapiro's descriptions of the techniques (and some real examples) of art forgery - it was fascinating!  She also did a good job with evoking the lifestyle of a struggling artist, and with her settings - especially place and weather (although I have never been to Boston, and can't vouch for their accuracy).

The book also poses some interesting moral questions.  Claire justifies what she's doing with these thoughts (from page 31):

There's no crime in copying a painting--obviously, as this is how I make the money I dutifully report to the IRS every April--the criminal part doesn't come until a copy is put up for sale as the original.  Ergo, the seller, not the painter, is the crook.

Yet it's clear she knows something is wrong.  Her previous experiences make what she does understandable, but not necessarily right.

I would recommend this as a fun read (character development and the mystery are a little weak), and possibly as a good book for a group discussion, due to the art history and the moral questions.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received copies of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and as a winner in the Bookreporter.com Fall Preview contest.  The hardbound copy will be donated to a library, and the advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

Saturday, October 20, 2012

299 (2012 #44). State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett,
read by Hope Davis

I listened to this audiobook mostly because it won the 2012 Audie Award for Literary Fiction, and a little because the book had been (hesitantly) suggested for possible discussion in my local book club.

First, the good.  The audiobook is totally deserving of the Audie Award. Actress Hope Davis gives an outstanding performance, creating voices for the main characters, Marina Singh and Annick Swenson, that reflect their personalities (mostly submissive and mostly domineering, respectively).

The artwork on the cover of the novel (and audiobook) is gorgeous.  In an interview, author Ann Patchett said, "When I first started writing this book, I came downstairs one night and found my husband listening to “Horowitz at Carnegie Hall." The album cover has a very lush filigreed border....the exact the feeling I wanted for my book--half jungle, half Baroque period. When I was finished writing the novel I sent the album to my editor, who sent it to the art department. They understood exactly what I was talking about."

Now, the bad.  In the same interview, Patchett admits to disliking the Amazon.  "I absolutely loved the Amazon for four days. It was gorgeous and unfamiliar and deeply fascinating. Unfortunately, I stayed there for ten days. There are a lot of insects in the Amazon, a lot of mud, surprisingly few vegetables, too many snakes. You can’t go anywhere by yourself, which makes sense if you don’t know the terrain, but I enjoy going places by myself. I can see how great it would be for a very short visit, and how great it would be if you lived there and had figured out what was and wasn’t going to kill you, but the interim length of time isn’t great."

And that's the heart of the problem with this book.  I felt Patchett's research was sloppy.  Everything from the premise that a pharmaceutical company would continue to pay all expenses for a rogue scientist (Swenson) who refused to stay in contact with them, to Marina's preposterous trip to the Amazon to look for the remains of her coworker (walking around the jungle in FLIP-FLOPS??) was just unbelievable.

I could go on and on with examples.  The idea that a drug company wouldn't support a malaria vaccine because there's no profit in it is crazy - the military would pay big bucks for such a vaccine.  Dr. Swenson taught at Johns Hopkins four days a week and then went to the Amazon for a long weekend to conduct research. She then took the "red eye" back to the States to teach the following Monday. Not realistic (if even possible). A well-equipped lab in the middle of the jungle, with generators to power freezers and computers?  Rather ridiculous.

In the same interview mentioned above, Patchett says her good friend Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the awful Eat Pray Love) was writing a novel set in the Amazon about the same time as she was, but Gilbert abandoned her novel.  Later they compared notes, and found they "had remarkably similar story lines, to the point of being eerie.  I thought this must be because it was an incredibly banal idea and we had both come up with a generic Amazon novel, but then you [Gilbert] told me that ideas fly around looking for homes, and when the idea hadn’t worked out with you it came to me."  If that's the case, Patchett should hope none of Gilbert's ideas ever land on her again.

I've read most of Patchett's other books - Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty, The Magician's Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars - I especially liked the latter.  Unfortunately, this book does not measure up to the others, and I won't be recommending it to my book club, especially with its unlikeable and unrealistic characters.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

298 (2012 #43). Winter Garden

by Kristen Hannah

I was rather disappointed in this book, which I read for an online book discussion (and probably would not have chosen otherwise).  The first part of the book feels like a lot of chick lit (not my favorite genre), with a rather dysfunctional family.  Anya, a Russian immigrant, has just lost her husband Evan, but she has always been a cold, distant mother.  Her two daughters are also stereotypes.  Meredith is the long-suffering (and insufferable) older sister who is the responsible one that married her childhood sweetheart, Jeff, and stayed home to help run her father's Central Washington apple orchard.  Nina is the globe-hopping photojournalist free-spirit (and also insufferable) younger sister, who can't seem to settle down.

After Evan's death, Anya seems to have a mental breakdown, as one day Meredith finds her tearing off the wallpaper in the house and purposely cutting her fingers.  This sets up a dispute between the sisters, as Meredith puts Anya in a nursing home, but Nina pulls her out.

Before his death, Evan tries to get Anya to tell the "rest" of the "fairy tale" she was never able to finish telling in their daughters' childhood.  Fairy tale is a misnomer - it's the story of Anya's life before coming to America, during the Siege of Leningrad.  These flashbacks to the past made for a much better tale than the contemporary storyline.

It's obvious that Hannah researched the Siege, and I think if she'd stuck to the historical fiction, I would have liked this book better.  Additionally, for someone who supposedly specializes in writing about the Pacific Northwest (where I lived for 21 years), I didn't get the feel for Central Washington that I'd hoped to from this book.

I found the ending to be a bit too neat and unrealistic.   A better book for some of the issues Anya faced was Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  A better book about the Siege of Leningrad was The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Monday, October 15, 2012

297 (2012 #42). Dead End in Norvelt

written and read by Jack Gantos

This is a semi- autobiographical historical fiction tale, with a little bit of mystery thrown in. It won the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction  as well as the 2012 Newbery Medal.  It’s set in the summer of 1962 in the real town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Jack Gantos is 12 and has been grounded (partly because he’s caught between the conflicting wishes of his parents), but he’s allowed to help an elderly arthritic neighbor, Miss Volker, to write her obituaries as the original settlers of Norvelt slowly die off.

Sounds rather grim, doesn’t it? But Gantos combines fun fiction with (sometimes crazy) truths (according to the author),  such as spending part of his childhood in Norvelt, Miss Volker’s character (not her real name), his childhood tendency for frequent nosebleeds that “spray out of my nose holes like dragon flames" (page 8), and a dad who had Japanese souvenirs from World War II and won a Piper J-3 Cub airplane in a poker game. This creates a book where, as he explains in a video interview included on one of the audiobook’s CDs, "one of the prime motivations…is this notion that history, our history, is so vastly important."

Norvelt (named for Eleanor Roosevelt) is a real town with an interesting past. According to Miss Volker (page 214-215),

Jefferson believed that every American should have a house on a large enough piece of fertile property so that during hard times, when money was difficult to come by, a man and woman could always grow crops and have enough food to feed their family. Jefferson believed that the farmer was the key to America and that a well-run family farm was a model for a well-run government. Mrs. Roosevelt felt the same. And we in Norvelt keep that belief alive.

In his Newbery Medal acceptance speech (Horn Book Magazine, July/August 2012, page 45), Jack Gantos noted:

The "obit'" is a very tidy literary form and one that Dead End’s Miss Volker generously stretched to also include some meteoric moment in history that intersected with the life of the deceased in order to point out how, in life, we might feel like but a speck of dust on the planet but in truth we are all tied together in one massive hand-holding of humanity—for better or for worse. 

These obituaries, Miss Volker’s “This Day in History” feature in the local newspaper, and Jack’s fondness for Landmark history series books, combined with the comedy and humor, reinforce the message that (as Miss Volker says, page 214), “if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking," and (as Jack realizes near the end of the book, page 340) “the reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again."

I liked the end of this book (despite its surprise), and I feel it was deserving of the Newbery.  Aimed at students from ages 10-14, grades 5-8, I think it will especially appeal to boys. I found myself wondering as I read it how my son would have reacted, 12-16 years ago.

The audiobook is fantastic! It made me laugh (and sometimes cry). Gantos is perfect as the narrator. His somewhat whiny voice fits a 12-year-old boy. In a Booklist interview, Gantos acknowledged boys’ frequent preference for male readers: “I think there is a sense that if a man is reading the book, then it is entirely cool to sit and listen to it. It’s a man-to-man relationship around a good story. Perhaps it’s like sitting around a campfire and hearing a good tale.” The audiobook makes a good alternative for younger or struggling readers who might have difficulty with its fifth-to-sixth-grade reading level.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]