Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K Wittman

priceless cover

This may be one of my most surprising reads of the year.

I'm not sure what I expected when I picked up Priceless, but I didn't expect to learn things about art from it.  I didn't expect to find it so touching or moving it brought me to tears.  And I didn't expect it to be as gripping and un-put-downable as any fictional thriller.

Robert K. Wittman was the founder of the FBI's art crime team and the only full-time undercover agent on the team from 2005 until his retirement in 2008.  Priceless is basically the memoir of his decision to join the FBI, how he founded the crime team, and the more awesomer cases he investigated (including the Gardner Museum heist, which is actually what the book opens with).  Every chapter focuses on one case, and the variety of stolen objects in the book and their history is really fascinating.  The French have a phrase: lieu de mémoire, which is basically the idea that places are imbued with the memory of the events that happened there.  If places can absorb memory, why not objects?  The items Wittman covers in the course of his career are valuable, but what makes them priceless is the history associated with them.  There is no doubt in my mind that Wittman sees himself as a crusader against people who would rob the world of its history.

What sorts of people steal, buy, and sell stolen art?  Like most Americans, when I hear the term art theft I relate it to movies--like To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant or The Thomas Crown Affair.  But Wittman says those involved in art crime aren't just sophisticated art lovers--although they certainly steal and finance art crime, as well.  In fact, you can come across any type of person in an art crimes investigation--educated, idiotic, rich, poor, art lovers and those who could care less; terrorists, petty crooks, and diplomats.  There is nothing that unifies the world of art crime--nothing except greed.

I mentioned that I learned about art while reading this book, but I didn't necessarily mean its history.  I meant the way I look at it and think of teaching it.  Wittman's perspective was something I was totally unfamiliar with; but it was refreshing and really helped me with prepping for my class.  Even if you're not an art historian, I think Wittman can make you look at art in new ways, too.

Aside from all that, what makes this book truly successful is the honesty with which Wittman shares his story.  He's very up-front about his experiences and feelings, even when it's not complimentary to himself or his career.  To be sure, he comes off smelling like roses--but more because the reader sympathizes with him as a "character" and less because he prevaricates about situations to make himself look good.  This is the type of book that could have been "just the facts," but Wittman (or John Shiffman) adds the emotion, anger, anxiety, and triumphs of his personal story, and it pays off by making the book richer and more engaging than I ever would have expected.

Priceless is definitely worth picking up, especially if you're at all interested in art crime.  How can you go wrong reading a book by someone who's actually been in the trenches fighting art crime first-hand?  Apparently you can't, at least not with this book.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen by Syrie James

lost memoirs

The fact that Jane Austen never married apparently bothers a lot of people.  How could a woman who wrote about love so perceptively, who is still making readers fall in love with her characters centuries after the fact, have never loved herself?  But more importantly, if Jane Austen never loved, that means her novels were total fantasy.  We don't want to believe they are fantasy; we want to believe they were based in truth, and our own Mr. Darcy or Elizabeth Bennett (depending on your preferences) really is out there. 

This seems to be the impetus behind several retellings of Austen's life, including the movie Becoming Jane, which I only wish I could forget!  The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is very similar to Becoming Jane, unfortunately--not because it proposes that Tom Lefroy was Austen's true lost love, but in the way it completely white-washes Jane Austen herself and presents a very unconvincing and really rather lame romance.

I had high hopes for this book at the beginning.  The language is very Austen-esque and the author has clearly done her research on Jane Austen's life.  It starts off with Jane having to move from her life-long home in Hertfordshire to Bath with her parents.  Then her father dies, so she and her sister and her mother have to move again and rely on the charity of her family.  Eventually, she meets Mr. Ashford, who is a future baronet and very nice, and who likes to read novels!  And not just any novels, but the same girly novels Jane likes reading.  HOW WEIRD.

This book is very odd, because it seems to assume the reader knows nothing about Jane Austen or her books.  To give it an air of "authenticity," there are scholarly footnotes along the lines of, "Jane's near tumble from these steps... may have inspired Louisa Musgrove's treacherous fall from the Cobb in Jane Austen's Persuasion," or, "Jane Austen included an almost identical speech in Mansfield Park...".  No kidding!  I figured that out all on my own, and I haven't even read Mansfield Park.  Also, being passingly familiar with the Regency era through romance novels, I do know what a reticule and landau are and don't need to be told about it in the footnotes, thanks.

Even when not pointing them out with insipid footnoting, there are numerous other references here to Austen's novels.  In fact, there isn't a single character or scene in this book that doesn't come out of an Austen novel.  At one point Austen writes, "Little did I know that I was to meet Mr. Ashford again, and soon, in the most unexpected of circumstances."  I found myself thinking, "This is a Regency novel, honey; there are only so many ways for you two to meet!" (And in case you were wondering, yes, it was at a dinner party.)

I'm not against either faux scholarly footnotes or borrowing scenes and characters straight out of other books.  I really enjoyed the footnotes in Little Vampire Women, for example, and I loved how characters from Pride & Prejudice were used in Lost In Austen.  In both of those cases, however, the authors were very creative in the way they adapted the original writings to a new storyline.  It's not enough to just mash together the characters and plot--you have to put your own spin on it, or else what's the point of anyone reading it?  With Lost Memoirs, the way James referenced other Austen books was so literal there were absolutely zero surprises in the novel.

As for the character of Jane Austen herself, I have the same criticism of her in this book that I did in Becoming Jane:  she's not snarky enough to be Jane Austen.  Austen wasn't only smart, she was sharp as a knife: she could assess a person's character and then cut them to pieces at ten paces.  The only thing that kept her from doing so was a sympathy for human foibles.  "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" as Mr. Bennett says.  Austen was fascinated by people and what made them tick; she understood their silly eccentricities even as she made fun of them.  I didn't see any of that fascination or wit in this book.  There is one scene where Jane Austen tries to be clever, but it is reheheheally lame.

Finally, the romance is so stupid as to be incidental, and did not help to further the cause of true love, to say the least.  Ashford is very much like Edward from Sense and Sensibility, only more boring (if that is possible).  It's impossible to buy into him as a real character, and the conclusion of their "romance" left me cold.  If that is what we're supposed to believe Austen experienced in the romance department, then she truly did draw on her imagination for her love stories!

As you've probably guessed, I do not recommend this book.  If you don't know a single solitary thing about Jane Austen or her books, you might be surprised by this novel--but then why would you pick this book up?  The cover, however, is very pretty.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Nevermore by Kelly Creagh

nevermore cover

What if Snape and Lilly hooked up at Hogwarts instead of Lilly and James?

Isobel is a blonde cheerleader.  Her boyfriend is the most popular guy at school, and the football team's quarterback.  Her besties are also cheerleaders and have boyfriends on the team.  Isobel's world may look great from the outside looking in, but it's one that's very insular and brooks no deviation from the norm.  When she's paired with Varen, a super-goth guy in her English class, for a project, Isobel is NOT. Happy.  But she needs to pass English or she'll get kicked off the cheer squad, and Varen at least reads (unlike her), so she begrudgingly agrees to meet him on Saturday in the library.

If I had to compare this book to something, it would be chocolate--dark, addictive, and the perfect thing to devour on a crisp fall afternoon.  It has a deliciously Victorian Gothic feel to it, which is balanced out nicely by humor and real-life teen crises we can all relate to (where to sit in the lunchroom!  OMG, the social minefield!).  And even though it takes a while to get going, it is also very, very romantic.  Le sigh worthy.  There will be poetry.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the romance in Nevermore can be boiled down to if Snape and Lilly from Harry Potter hooked up.  If you're a fan of Snape (as you might have guessed I am--and not just because he's played in the movies by Alan Rickman, although that is definitely a big part of it), you have to read this book.  Varen totally has the attract/repel thing going on that Snape does, and even though this makes him very much an unlikely romantic hero, it works.  Varen is a deeply unpleasant person who puts every effort into demonstrating how little he thinks of Isobel and her opinions--which makes his eventual respect for and attraction to her all the sweeter.

Another unique element in Nevermore is that it has its own visual language.  At one point, Isobel's brother says, "If this were in Japanese, it would so be an animé," and he's absolutely right!  You can see in your head a kind of stylized Edward Gorey/animé scene when Creagh describes things such as, " in a creepy painting where all the figures seem to stare at the onlooker, they turned their heads.  All those outlined eyes chiseling into her..."  The graphic visuals add a lot of character and fun to the novel that makes it distinctive.

The only thing I didn't like about the book was the last third.  During this chunk, Isobel goes into some strange land connected to Edgar Allen Poe.  This might have worked, if the fantasy element had been better integrated into the novel as a whole.  As it was, it felt tacked on and out of place.  Plus, Varen and Isobel were completely separated for the majority of that section.  Since the message of the book was that Varen and Isobel could solve impossible problems as long as they were together, I felt the ending betrayed the theme of the novel.  It would have made more sense if Isobel and Varen had worked together.  And I wanted an explanation for all the WFT crap happening to come from Varen, not Random Reynolds.

Overall, though, I really recommend this book.  It's atmospheric, fun, romantic, and to be totally honest all I've wanted to do since I finished it is go back to the world Creagh has created!  Definitely, definitely worth picking up.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris

i like you cover

I have never hosted a party.  But if I did, I know one thing for certain:  it wouldn't be half as fun as any party Amy Sedaris has ever thrown.

I've been wanting to read this book for a long time, ever since I saw Sedaris on The Daily Show when it first came out.  But I didn't want to actually pay for it.  Fortunately I spotted it at the library and brought it home with me, and let me tell you, I am really glad I didn't pay for it.

Although Sedaris offers very useful information, such as how to exploit your party guests for money and how to make a pantyhose plant hanger, I am now so completely intimidated by Sedaris' party-making awesomeness and creativity that I have resolved to never invite anyone over ever again.  Thus I feel like reading this book was counter-productive.

You might start I Like You thinking it's a cookbook.  This would be understandable since there's a picture of a woman in an apron holding a turkey on the cover.  But it's not.  For one, the pictures (shot by Todd Freaking Oldham, by the way--don't you kind of hate Sedaris now?) make the food look like throw up.  For another, it contains such recipes as, "PUMPKIN PIE: Directions are on back of can of pumpkin.  Follow that." and, "BUTTER SPA-GETTI: Cook spaghetti.  Toss with butter.  And salt and pepper and serve." 

Sometimes I wonder how books get made, and then I think, "Well, the author knows somebody."  Sedaris obviously knows a lot of somebodies.  I have to admit this book was funny, but it would have been funnier if we lived in a time where people put that much effort into parties anymore.  Like if this book had been published in the 1950's--or 70's, even--it would have been totally subversive and hi-larious.  As it was, it seemed like a lot of effort to put into a joke book that recycles a decades-old punch line and contains no real information... but props to the team who worked on it, because the design is pretty fabulous.  I guess that's reason enough for its existence.

In conclusion, this book would have made a GREAT blog.  It feels very blog-y.  I'm still not convinced it makes a great book, though.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wallander: Faceless Killers

white horse

Our favorite pallidly pale detective is back in new episodes of Wallander.  If you don't follow Mystery! (the exclamation mark MUST be included) on PBS religiously, Kurt Wallander is a Swedish inspector who is sad and lonely and grumpy.  What keeps Wallander going?  His daughter and his job--not necessarily in that order.

In Faceless Killers, an old farmer and his wife are murdered.  Before she dies, the farmer's wife whispers something to Wallander, but he doesn't know what it was.  Friend?  Foreigner?  His colleagues leap on the latter, despite Wallander's objections, igniting a spate of hate crime.  Meanwhile, Wallander pursues two other possible leads: the fact that the farmer had a large amount of cash, now missing; and that he had a mistress and son his wife didn't know about.

This was a pretty good episode, although once again the soundtrack is OUT OF CONTROL.  Don't need to be hit over the head with the desolate landscape of Sweden/Wallander, kthanx.  But I do like how Wallander worked his way through the mystery and also the personal journey he goes through in the short course of the 90-ish minutes.

One of the things I found really interesting about this episode was the white horse.  The horse escaped from the farmer's stable when the thieves broke in to search for the money, and appears to Wallander like a vision out of the darkness several times during the course of the episode as it wanders, wild, through the fields. 

White horses are often associated with myth and legend--Odin, for example, rode an eight-legged white horse named Sleipner.  But in this story I think the white horse is more like Captain Ahab's white whale: in one way an unobtainable prize, in another god itself.  For Wallander, the white horse represents the sense of justice that keeps him going and that underpins his dedication to his job (and really his life, since his life is his job).  Throughout the story, Wallander pursues justice for the murdered farmer and his wife, but at what cost?  One large enough to make the justice obtained not worth the pursuit?  When Wallander faces the white horse for the last time, he has his answer.

This is hardly light-hearted television viewing, but it is interesting and well-done, and Kenneth Brannagh is simply brilliant as Wallander.  I can't wait to see what happens in the next installment!

Powered by ScribeFire.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Last Book

a bucket cover

The other night while perusing my shelf for my next book, I noticed that A Bucket of Ashes was still sitting there.  It was released three years ago and I bought it right away (pre-ordered it, actually) because I freaking love this mystery series about an Irish governess living in Gilded Age Boston. 

I fully planned to read it right away.  But before I could, I heard that it was actually the last book in the series--the author just suddenly decided it was time to end it.  And the book has sat on my shelf ever since.

It's not that I don't want to know what happens, or that I don't like the series anymore.  It's just that it's THE LAST BOOK.  And after I finish reading it, the series will be done.  Ergo, if I don't read it, there will still be one book in the series I have to read.

As far as I can remember, this is the only book I've had this problem with.  I read the last Harry Potter book right away.  But at the same time, I had time to mentally prepare myself for that being the last book.  With this series I was expecting it to go on and on and on. 

I need some motivation to read this book.  Or maybe I'll just let it sit there forever and ever, in complete denial.

Have you ever put off reading the last book in a series because you didn't want it to end?

Powered by ScribeFire.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wicked Company by Ciji Ware

wicked company

[From the back cover:] In 18th century London the glamorous Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were all the rage, beckoning every young actor, actress, playwright, and performer with the lure of the stage lights. But competition and back-biting between theatre owners, patrons, actors, andwriters left aspiring playwrights with their work stolen, profits withheld, and reputations on the line. For a female, things were harder still, as the chances of a "petticoat playwright" getting past the government censor was slim.

In this exciting and cutthroat world, a young woman with a skill for writing and an ambition to see her work performed could rise to glory, or could lose all in the blink of an eye...

Once upon a time, the earth cooled.  Then Sophie encountered much sex and wickedness in Scotland as a young lass.  Then at some point I assume she goes to London to be an actress, although to be honest I didn't get that far.

The main reason I picked up this book was because I'm fascinated by the stage and celebrity in 18th-century England.  I actually wrote a paper about the painting on the cover of this book once; it's pretty interesting!  The painting is Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, famous for his allegorical portraits.  The subject is the most fêted tragic actress of her time, Sarah Siddons, in the guise of Melpomene (the tragic muse... ergo the title.  Why not just call it Sarah Siddons as Melpomene?  I really don't know).  Her career marked a shift in thinking of actresses as being part of the professional middle-class rather than courtesans. 

She made her first London debut in 1775, which failed dismally.  Undaunted, Siddons went to Bath to hone her skills, and it quickly became apparent that she had a talent for tragic roles.  As soon as Siddons made her second London debut as Isabella, she caused a sensation.  A SENSATION, I tells ye!  Hester Thrale wrote upon seeing her performance, “The Town has got a new Idol—Mrs. Siddons the Actress:  a leaden one She seems, but we shall make her a Golden one before ‘tis long.”  The public was so hungry for glimpses of “The Siddons” that without prints and miniatures, she would have been mobbed on the street, or even in her own home (in fact, she occasionally was); so she went out of her way to accommodate artists who wanted to paint her.  In 1783, Mary Hamilton reported that she’d spent the day devoted to “Siddonimania,” in which she and her friends visited a series of artists’ studios to look at Siddons’ portraits, and concluded the afternoon by seeing the real version up on stage. 

While the artists were free to display her portraits as they liked, Siddons took charge of the prints:  she had her own favored printmakers, and liked to distribute her prints to fans like a Hollywood star would dole out eight-by-ten glossies.

Siddons sat for Reynolds’ portrait in 1784, two years after her debut; and though she had established herself as a tragic actress, she had not yet become the Queen of Tragedy.  Indeed, in Siddonian literature, this portrait is repeatedly marked as a turning point--a metaphorical crowning of Siddons, after which she is the undisputed leader of the tragic stage.  According to Siddons' version of the portrait’s creation, Reynolds took her by the hand, gestured to the chair, and poetically stated, “Ascend your Undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some grand Idea of The Tragic Muse;” at which Siddons seated herself in the chair and instantly assumed the pose which appears in the painting.

There are actually two versions of this work, one a copy probably made by one of Reynolds' studio assistants.  You're probably wondering how you can tell the difference--the one on the cover of the book is the original.  It's more luminous than the copy and the asymmetrical pearl necklaces are slightly different, as is Siddons' slightly lifted finger.

Anyway, I just bored all of you with that information because I found this book to be pretty boring.  To be entirely honest, it kept putting me to sleep.  And everything in it was INSANELY obvious (unlike the portrait of Mrs. Siddons, which takes a while to fully appreciate *extended metaphor high-five!*).

Take, for example, this passage from page 8:

"'Tis time, my dear, with all good cheer to Pay the Piper well..." he repeated in a soft, caressing voice, and Sophie found herself taking the measure of his enormous height, broad shoulders, tapering waist, and well-shaped thighs clad in tight red and navy tartan trews buckled at the knee....  When the charmer stopped in front of Sophie, their eyes locked and she found herself unable to pull away from his riveting gaze.

Gee, I wonder if this guy's going to be a love interest?  It's a good thing the author hit us over the head with it, since she probably wouldn't have had time in the course of the next 600 pages to develop that relationship organically.  Oh, and the creepy aristocrat/villain was also insanely obvious.  There's just really no subtlety or mystery going on with this book at all.  The back cover synopsis also makes me wonder whether or not there is a plot.

Wicked Company might deal with an interesting subject and be set in a fascinating time period, but the way the story was told wasn't for me.  I would disagree with every quote on the back of this book, most especially, "masterful storyteller." 

I can't recommend this novel except as a soporific.

Powered by ScribeFire.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

JK Rowling and Oprah: The Interview (In Scotland!), Completely Unnecessary Post-Event Analysis

rowling and oprah

Rowling so rarely grants interviews.  But no one says no to The Oprah!  So the two billionairesses sat down, with questions burning in fans' minds.  Why never any romance between Harry and Hermione?  Does Rowling think the books would have been better if she'd killed off Arthur Weasely?  And most importantly, any future Harry Potter books?

First, the recap:

  • Rowling and Oprah are surrounded by posh elegance, from the high tea service and fancy drapery to what appears to be an Aubusson carpet.  Rowling's make-up is expertly done but her shoes are distractingly inappropriate and an ugly color.  Oprah gets points for having classy-yet-professional shoes, but looks hugely uncomfortable on the spindly chair.  Where's an armchair when you need one?
  • Four minutes into interview.  Rowling starts tearing up talking about how she felt when she'd finished the seventh Harry Potter.  Also discusses why she changed her mind on the last word in the series being "scar."
  • Oprah says she thought JK was Rowling's name.  What?  Have you ever met anyone with two capital letters for a first name, Oprah? 
  • Rowling talks about her mother's death.  Tears up again.
  • Moving on to happier subjects:  how has your life changed since you won the literary lottery?  Rowling says she dresses much better.  Then she adds that might not have anything to do with it, since, " meet lots of rich people who dress atrociously."  Oprah laughs uncomfortably and touches her sweater.  Apparently the O wasn't confident with that fashion choice!
  • More blah blah about being rich.  Have you read the books, Oprah??
  • Apparently Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard.  This is officially the first and only time I've wanted to attend Harvard, lucky bastards.  She talks about how failure made her a better person and the Dementors represent depression (duh!).
  • Rowling tears up again, I forget why.  Only ten minutes left in the interview, WILL YOU START ASKING ABOUT HARRY POTTER PLEEZ!!!!!
  • Finally, the clincher question!  "Will you be writing more?"  Rowling says, "Definitely."  But is she speaking of Harry Potter books or in general terms?  Oprah doesn't press.  Rowling and Oprah bond over a Michael Jackson interview  they both read.
  • Awkward high-five moment.  The interview is over.

The analysis:

Although it's always good to see an interview with Rowling, this one felt like a wasted opportunity.  Oprah spent most of the hour talking to Rowling about personal things in her life.  While that's all well and good, I really don't care about Rowling's personal life and wish Oprah had asked her more probing questions about the books.

As for the issue of whether or not there will be more Harry Potter books, I know the verdict in newspapers and elsewhere is yes, but to me it didn't sound like it.  Rowling seemed to be speaking in general terms when she said she was going to keep writing, and spoke of a "new phase" and not chasing the phenomenon.  I know none of us want Harry Potter to end, but I would be surprised to see Rowling publish a new Potter book at any point in the near future.

Oh well.

Powered by ScribeFire.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...