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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Art Forger: A Gallery Thriller

If you're a painter, and you're as good at forging a classic painting as the original artist was at painting it, are you still an artist? Most readers' initial reaction would be, "Are you crazy? Of course not." Claire Roth, the 31-year-old protagonist of B.A. Shapiro's art history mystery, The Art Forger, throws the seemingly obvious answer to that question into dispute.

Three years ago, Claire helped her mentor and lover, Isaac, complete a painting (actually, she did the whole thing herself, because he was blocked), and the painting, with his name on it, earned critical acclaim and wound up in the Museum of Modern Art. But Claire couldn't handle the misplaced credit — especially when Isaac started believing his own lies, telling everyone it's his painting, and calling Claire a liar for going public with the truth. So Claire is rendered persona non grata in the art community, and has to earn a living making copies of paintings for a website called Reproductions.com.

Isaac's is the same cognitive dissonance, Claire tells us, that afflicts those who authenticate art (including those "experts" who examined Claire's painting and still attributed it to Isaac) — they often see what they want to see and believe what the earnestly want to believe, even though they know the truth.

But then, a lifeline for starving artist Claire? Aidan Markel, the handsome owner of a popular art gallery, has, through mysterious means, acquired a famous (but fictional) painting stolen in the biggest unsolved art heist in U.S. history (this is factual). And he offers Claire a pile of money and her own show at his gallery to paint a forgery (or copy?) that he can sell. His plan, then, is to return the original to the Isabella Stewart Garnder Museum from whence it was stolen. It's a perfect scheme, because only a shady, unethical collector would buy a painting known to be stolen, so when s/he finds out s/he bought a forgery, s/he has no recourse. Claire gets money and a chance to overcome her past, Markel is a hero to the art community. What could go wrong?

Lots, as it turns out. What if Markel's original isn't actually the original painting? As Shapiro's inventive plots careens forward, Claire finds herself smack dab in the center of huge legal and ethical gray area. Will she do the right thing? What even IS the right thing?

At last year's Book Expo America, the folks at the Algonquin Books (the book's publisher) booth raved about this novel. And ever since it was published last October, most readers have, too. I liked it well enough —but it fits in the "good, but not great" category for me. There's some real logical leaps and "conveniences" that made me question how real this seemingly realistic tale could be. Also, in the first half of the novel, Shapiro breaks into the action of the real-time plot to give us snooze-inducing and seemingly superfluous letters from Isabella Stewart Gardner to her niece describing her art-acquiring adventures in Europe. I know why they're there, but the novel would've been fine without them. And finally, there's lots of wooden, eye-rollingly bad dialogue — Claire, it's clear, is a character, not a real person.

But on the plus side, it IS a fun, quick mystery read. If you're interested in painting, there's a lot here about technique, and a lot of name-dropped artists and artworks. So if you're into the brainier-than-the-average-mystery mystery, don't let my dissenting opinion deter you. Give it a shot!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Going Clear: On Scientology, Hollywood, and A Little Bit of Crazy

Without knowing much about them, it's easy to dismiss Scientologists as a cult of crazy weirdos. But to do so ignores the immense influence they have. And not just in Hollywood. Yes, the No. 1 takeaway from Lawrence Wright's fantastic, fascinating, and more than a little frightening "biography" of Scientology is simply the lengths the "church" has gone to over the years to a) Promote its own mythology, and b) Destroy or discredit anyone who says or publishes anything negative.

What I learned is that the principles and practices of Scientology (auditing, studying, E-Meters, etc.), strange and unorthodox though they may seem to non-Scientologists, have legitimately helped many people who were suffering. But just as many (probably many more) have been snared into an organization that only seems to have its own best interests and survival in mind. While the practice of Scientology may seem relatively harmless, the Church of Scientology itself, if Wright's account is to believed (and why not? He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) is corrupt and immensely self-serving, its founder L. Ron Hubbard was a wife-beating, narcissistic, money-grubber liar, and its current leader (David Miscavige), is one of those people so used to lying, he now believes his own stories. (Also, according to many of Wright's sources — ex-Scientologists who have "blown," meaning they've left the church, Miscavige regularly beats up his subordinates. He's not a good man.)

L. Ron
The first third of the book is a biography of L. Ron Hubbard — we follow him through his youth, his Navy service, the publication of Dianetics, and the founding of the "religion" on the principles spelled out therein ("I'd like to start a religion, that's where the money is," he once said). We watch as he sails around the world with his followers, at one point taking them on a literal treasure hunt for gold he supposedly buried in his past lives. We're disturbed as we learn about the doctrine LRH creates for the higher levels of Scientologists — by now, the story is familiar, having first been released in the press in the early 1980s. Seventy-five million years ago, an evil being named Xenu banished his subjects, called "thetans," to the planet that is now Earth. And Scientologists audit themselves both to expel bad feelings from past lives ("engrams") as well as these "bodily thetans" who now inhabit their bodies.

Wright gives us some really interesting discussion on Scientology vs. psychology, and why the mental health community was the first vocal critic of Scientology. We learn about cult vs. religion, brainwashing, and how those can be applied to Scientology and its history. And we're shocked to find out about the lengths Scientologists have gone in order to suppress anything bad written about them (for the cliff notes, read about Paulette Cooper, and also Operation Snow White).

And then, the juicy Hollywood gossip — John Travolta's apparent homosexuality, and Tom Cruise's "auditioned" girlfriends. What's interesting here, though, is Wright's explanation for why and how Scientology is (and always has been) so adept at courting celebrities. And then Wright wraps up with the story of Paul Haggis — and his leaving the church because of the church's apparent support for Proposition 8 in California. Wright originally told this story in a long New Yorker article in 2011 — and the last chapter of this book chronicles the meeting he and the New Yorker staff had with a Scientology spokesperson named Tommy Davis, and the church's lawyers. This is when it becomes apparent how self-serving and loose with facts the church is.

I can't recommend this book more highly — it's utterly engrossing. It's long, but it reads more quickly than just about any non-fiction book I've ever read. It's one of my favorites of the year so far.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: A Menagerie of WTFery

Karen Russell seems to inspire quite her fair share of WTFery. Much of this started when her novel Swamplandia! — about which readers, me included, had very different opinions — was nominated for a Pulitzer. And the WTFery continues with her latest collection of short stories titled Vampires in the Lemon Grove. When she's good, man, is she good. But when she's off, she's almost maddening.

Indeed, for exactly half of the eight stories in this collection, I put down my Nook upon finishing, looked at the wall, and went "WTF?!" Russell's common strategy in this collection is to use really creative (even the stories I didn't like, I'll admit are immensely original) plot/characters to explore more "mundane" aspects of humanness — like memory, regret, overcoming notions of normal, and just being nice (or not) to your fellow humans (or human-like creatures). Here are some examples of Russellalia: The title story includes, well, vampires, who hang out in a lemon grove in Italy. Another story, "Dougbert Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating," is a strange, kind of dull, satire about rooting for lost causes. It's kind of a jab at obsessive sports fans, too. "The Barn At The End of Our Term" is about a bunch of ex-presidents — Rutherford B. Hayes is the narrator — who are reincarnated as horses. And "Proving Up" is about preteen who has to ride his horse through a snowstorm to show an Inspector a window (yes, literally a window — because if your family has a window, it means they're anchored to the land?) to prove his family's claim on their prairie property under the Homestead Act. All weird, right?

But, as I said, when Russell is on, her stories worm their ways into you skull and don't leave. My favorite two stories in the collection are "Reeling for the Empire" and "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach 1979." The former — about indentured servants in 19th century Japan who drink a soup and become silk worms — is about breaking conventions and being yourself. The former, about a nerdy poetry-writing kid, is, well, really about the same thing. These are the two stories from this collection I'll most remember.

The longest story in the collection "The New Veterans" is about a massage therapist who works with an Iraq war veteran who lost a buddy to an explosion. Could he have prevented it? Did it actually even happen? And why does the therapist suddenly have the same PTSD symptoms he did?

Finally, the last story, "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," is good, not great — but it's haunting; a fitting story on which to end the collection. It's about cruelty — about a group of four bullies who terrorize a new kid at school, who suddenly disappears. Did they cause him to disappear? And what's the deal with the mysterious scarecrow that appears in the park that looks like the kid?

My recommendation for these stories, if they sound remotely interesting, is to definitely give them a try. As Kit says in this terrific Book Riot post about this collection, there are wildly varying opinions about each of these stories, so you never know which may resonate with you. (Kit gave "The Seagull Army" a C, but I'd give it an A. She gave "Proving Up" an A+++, but I'd give it a C- with added exclamation of WTF?!)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: Pop Stars Are People, Too

Kids sure grow up quickly these days. That's especially true if you're an 11-year-old pop star with legions of pre-teen female fans. No, it's not Justin Bieber, it's Jonny Valentine — the star of Teddy Wayne's sadly funny (or funny, but sad) new novel.

Chronicling the ups-and-downs of a cross-country arena tour (ending on Valentine's Day at Madison Square Garden), this novel puts Jonny's too-early collision with drugs, sex, hipsters, rejection, and loneliness on full display. Clearly, these are all things a bit above his age-grade. And he's confused. He wants to be a humble, normal kid — but that's impossible, thanks to his fame and his ridiculous fake-boobed mother/manager Jane, a stereotypical over-controlling parent/manager.

Jonny's only real friends are his bodyguard Walter, his tutor Nadine, and Zach, the mid-20s lead singer of the opening band on Jonny's tour, and the subject of a newly developed hero-worship. But these aren't his real friends, because they're paid to be near him — and they can all be replaced on a whim, as his mom/manager does throughout the tour. And that's sad — both for Jonny and for the reader.

The best/funniest parts of this novel are the frequent commentaries on and examples of how celebrity is often staged and disingenuous. For instance, Jonny goes on a "date" with another pop star/actress for publicity, and of course, is carefully coached on how to answer interview questions. But we all willfully ignore how stupid Hollywood entertainment executives think we are. And we're obsessed with these manufactured celebrities anyway.

For his own part, Jonny just wants something real. He invites the fake-date girl to hang out with him when they're back in LA, but she just laughs at him because she doesn't like to mix "business" with her personal life. And he spends much of the tour exchanging secret emails (he has to sneak Internet access, though, as his manager/mom won't let him go online) with his estranged father. Will they have a touching reunion at the end?

I hope you get the sense by now that this is far from a bubblegum YA novel. It's actually really smart. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel are when Jonny is "discovering" and telling us some truth that seems to him the most profound thing in the world. For instance, shooting a piece for a TV morning show at his old grade school, all the kids in the hallway are supposed to act natural and walk right by him in the hallway, but they can't help but glance at the camera. Jonny opines: "Everyone wants to be famous more than they want to see someone famous." Well, duh.

But this story is a lot of fun, too. Wayne certainly took a big risk with this novel, because it works or doesn't work for you depending on whether you like Jonny's voice. Young narrators can cause problems, but not here. I really liked Jonny's voice. And I think you will, too. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Dinner: A 300-Page Troll

For some reason, Dutch writer Herman Koch's novel, The Dinner, is being hailed as the European Gone Girl. It's a sad, misleading piece of marketing. Yes, the characters are depraved — but this has novel has none of the craft, fun, or inventiveness that made Gone Girl so awesome.

Indeed, the best way I can describe The Dinner is as a 300-page troll. The characters are despicable —so much so, it's almost as if Koch wrote this entirely to piss off his readers. He spends 300 pages just pressing your buttons at every turn, and he clearly knows he's doing it. His characters spout political nonsense and literally hit each other with frying pans, seemingly for the sole reason of making sure the reader will despise them. And that's all before "the decision," which is the whole point of the novel. But I don't want to spoil the ending, if for some reason, you decide to subject yourself to this steaming pile, as well.

The story is this: In Holland, two couples (the two men are brothers) meet at a fancy restaurant for dinner. We soon learn that their sons (cousins, obviously) have engaged in some sort of very bad behavior — though it's not until after page 100 that we find out what, exactly, they've done. So for the first third of the novel, we get to see them sitting and having appetizers and stuff. Snooze. On the plus side, I learned what an aperitif is.

The rest of the novel is dedicated to backstory about our narrator Paul. His brother (and dinnermate) Serge is the leading candidate to be the new prime minister of Holland, and so the decision will have ramifications beyond their little depraved family. But so the whole point is, what the heck are they going to do about the very bad thing their sons engaged in?

So, yes, The Dinner is a total dud — and not just a dud, a book I actively hated. I rarely take such a negative tone in writing about a book — even one I didn't like — because there's almost always something to like in a novel. Not here, and so I write as public service announcement, so maybe I can help prevent you from making the same mistake I did. (My only consolation is that I got this as an ebook from the library, so I didn't spend a red cent on this travesty of a novel.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

James Salter's All That Is: A Dose of Elegant

Until a month ago, I'd never read James Salter — which, now, after reading two of his novels, including his first novel in 34 years, All That Is, which is out today (April 2nd), seems like a cryin' shame. Salter is often mentioned in the breath just after American masters like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Norman Mailer — and after reading him, much like Rebecca wrote in a Book Riot post we did today, I don't understand why he doesn't get his due, either.

What All That Is is is wonderful! (Using the word "is" three times in a row? Check. I can die now.) It's a celebration of being alive — which sounds cliché, until you see how Salter manages to capture such a range of human experience in a tiny, 300-page novel. Life is a continuous cycle of love and loss, everyone deals with these differently, and truly, everyone is unique.

Salter's novel is told mainly through the eyes of Philip Bowman, a World War II veteran who spends the mid-20th century as a book editor in New York City. We follow Bowman through a marriage and several other affairs of the heart — each meaningful to him in a different way. The plot of the novel really picks up steam in the second half, when Salter really begins to plumb the depths of Bowman's character. We have to decide whether, despite his flaws, we like him. It's turns out to be quite the tricky decision.

Salter also gives us mini-"profiles" of minor characters throughout the novel — again just to illustrate how quirky we all are. And there a several sort of set pieces that lay groundwork thematically for later events.  Normally, these would feel like unnecessary digressions, but Salter writes so beautifully, so elegantly, you're willing to follow him anywhere. And what's more, Salter doesn't skimp on the sex scene — and his sex scenes are about what might happen if Maya Angelou collaborated with Philip Roth: poetic, but a little crass, too.

If you've never read Salter, and you love good books, you have to try him. I am an immediate convert. (The other novel of his I read was A Sport And A Pastime — which, evidently, is the novel he's most known for.) Salter, who is 87, has only published five other novels (but tons of short stories, poetry, essay, and memoir), so I'm experiencing that particular sadness of "discovering" a writer on what is most likely his last novel. But that's okay. All That Is is so good, I'm happy enough that it was late, and not never.