Thursday, June 23, 2011

Art Voyeur

Anybody who knows me well knows that while I would never consider myself an artist, I love the visual arts. On a trip to New York, I choose MOMA over shopping. In Paris, I went to the d'Orsay when most of our group went somewhere else. For several summers, I've tagged along to Chicago when my husband had a trade show, and I spent hours each time at the Art Institute. I must give some credit to Mrs. Evans and Mr. Flowers, team teachers of the Humanities class I took in high school. If that class didn't get us ready for Jeopardy, nothing would.

I just finished An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin--yes, that Steve Martin. The comedian, the guy with the arrow through his head, one of the newer members of Steep Canyon Rangers. This book immerses readers in the art world--New York City's art world (with an assumption that there is no other). Daniel, the narrator is an art writer and friend of Lacey Yeager, a larger-than-life character determined to rise to the top of the art field by any means necessary. She starts in the catacombs of Sotheby's and uses her wits more than her scruples to succeed.

Martin has created exciting, believable characters that draw a reader through his story, but he impressively fleshes out the details of the changing art climate and the effects of politics and economics, moving through 9/11 and the more recent banking crisis. The narrator is endearing and ingenuous. I could imagine a young Steve Martin playing him. He maintains a cautiously affectionate relationship with Lacey, while maintaining shrewd objectivity.

I seem to remember that after the success of The DaVinci Code, I saw an illustrated edition, including the works of art that play a role in the story. I could imagine the same with this book. Martin includes enough about real artists, living and dead, that I wondered which were actually fictional. Somehow I can imagine art collectors and gallery owners reading and trying to identify themselves--with Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" playing softly in the background.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Something for Everyone

This seems to be my year for sequels and series. Earlier this year one of my sisters kept recommending Glenn Cooper's Book of Souls. Then before I got to it, she advised that it was actually the second book, so she turned me toward Secret of the Seventh Sign first. As I wrote earlier, this book, set in 777AD, post-WWII, and present time, between the Isle of Wight, New York City, and Nevada, was a cross between the typical suspense-driven airplane book and historical fiction like Pillars of the Earth.

Book of Souls follows the same character, recently retired FBI agent Will Piper as he finds himself drawn into danger and intrigue surrounding a book going to auction in London dated 1527. This time Cooper manages to bring in threads of Shakespeare, John Calvin, and Nostradamus.

The novel addresses some serious questions related to God, fate, predestination, and such without purporting to present a solid answers. The question readers may take away, though, is whether or not they would want to know exactly when their own lives will end. Along the way, the story is entertaining and clever, a good summer read.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Hickory, NC


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Third Time's a Charm

In all my years book clubbing, I think I've only failed to finish the book before the meeting twice, and Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, which won the Pulitzer prize was one of those. The fact that I began it during my busy season (research paper grading, exams, final report cards) didn't help. The book, too, is so firmly researched that it often felt more like a text book reading that escape, which doesn't always hinder me.

I started with my electronic reader version, spinning away at the stationary bike or walking on the treadmill, and I got stuck. Then I borrowed a hardback copy from a friend and ventured a little further before stopping and moving on to more plot-driven books.

But I couldn't abandon the book altogether, so when I found the audio version at the library, I knew I was meant to finish, and so I did. Now admittedly, I was at a disadvantage in some parts listening, since the characters' names and many of the places in those parts of the world--from Rome to Egypt and all in between--aren't standard fare. On the other hand, I had at least passing familiarity with the stories involved via Hollywood and Mr. Shakespeare, as well as the many legends and myths floating around.

I also knew not to expect a happy ending, although I wasn't sure about the asp. Having visited Turkey, and Ephesus in particular, last summer, I was drawn in by the parts of the story that took place there. My familiarity with Herod, the Caesars, and even Caligula from Biblical accounts and from history lessons also drew me into the story.

By the time I reached the end, I realized that not only was I glad to have made my way through the sometimes dense text, but I had more threads I wanted to follow: What did happen to the library at Alexandria? When exactly did Latin become a dead language? How do writers such as Schiff have the stamina to pursue their research so completely and relentlessly?

I am ready to move on to fiction again (and already have), but for now, I'm glad to have spent this sojourn in that ancient world. I feel ready to travel now.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pullet Surprise

Not usually drawn in by awards (maybe because I'm jaded by Oscars and the like), I am still drawn to the Pulitzer Prize winners each year--not that I always read them, but I at least check them out. This year, I started Cleopatra: A Life as an electronic book then tried the hard back, only to give up for awhile. Now I am listening, and find it much easier to get through--even with, perhaps even because of, the footnotes.

The prize for fiction this year went to Jennifer Egan's novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book recommended to our book club before winning the prize. After reading it, I find that description of the book falls short of the experience. I couldn't even say, if my life depended on it, whom I would call the protagonist. The setting itself ranges from the early seventies at least until a time noted only as 202_, a future less bleak than that of Super Sad True Love Story, but at least more communication dependent and more arid then the present. It also moved from San Francisco to New York.

Each chapter in the book weaves in characters from prior chapters: Sasha, a college dropout, drop in, recovering kleptomaniac, and mother; Bennie, at first a member of a rock band called th Flaming Dildoes, then a music producer, and a washed-up has-been hoping to make a comeback. Other characters, just as significant are childhood friends of Bennie, family members, even a sleazy music producer who preys on younger women, dragging his own children along on trips with the woman of the day. Scotty makes an appearance first as one of Bennie's young band members, then a practically homeless man who brings a huge fish he's just caught to Bennie's office and then--well, no spoiler for you now.

I'd love to know something about the Pulitzer process, since I sometimes find myself surprised to find that I've just read the winner (Edward P. Jones, The Known World and Elizabeth Stout's Olive Kitteredge come to mind). This year, I wonder what books didn't quite make the cut.

I can't help believing that this book has those small incidents and images that will keep coming up in my reading memory for awhile. Maybe that's part of the criteria.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Not Going Ape over Ape House

Without question, I have been a picky reader much longer than I was ever a picky eater (although now only my elementary report cards bear testament to that former affliction, which I wish had lasted into adulthood). There are some authors (whom I will not name for fear of offending others whose literary palates differ from mine) whose works I will not read--or even pick up. I think of one, beloved by high school girls everywhere, who spoke at a national conference I attended a few years ago. I skipped the session and chose, instead, to line up at the UPS office in the hotel to mail home my free books. Right behind me was the woman tapped to introduce the man. She had stayed long enough to do her job--then left without hearing him speak. I understand that.

Sometimes, though, I'll find myself loving a book that my friends or colleagues scorn or criticize. I may understand their opinions and choose to like the book anyway. As a rule, I can buy into "the willing suspension of disbelief." While I am deeply satisfied by a satisfying ending, I don't even require a happy ending, or a tidy ending. No resolution? That's fine as long as it's not just a pretense to make way for a sequel. (I quit reading James Patterson after one book, threads left hanging everywhere.)

I have been listening to the audiobook of Sara Gruen's Ape House. I loved Water for Elephants. This new book has come recommended by people I trust. Maybe the listening experience contributed to my disillusionment, but I think not. The underlying premise was clever and quirky. Who doesn't find the apes who can communicate in ASL fascinating? Gruen also does a remarkable job building uncomfortable tension and suspense, compelling me to keep reading (okay, listening), but the thread of the story involving John Thigpen (derisively called Pigpen) and his wife, the aspiring author, was too unbelievable. Over and over, I wanted to yell, not at them, but at the author: He wouldn't have said that, done that. . . . She would never have acted that way one instant and then this way the next.

I found myself wishing this had been one of those "choose your own adventure" books, giving me some editorial say so. I wanted to give obvious advice to the characters. I don't think the book would have ended far sooner had I done so. Spoiler alert: Who in her right mind would adopt a meth lab pitbull that had escaped a crippling explosion and sneaked his way into an unrelated man's hotel room? A dog named Booger? Who would have made the dog wear sweaters? Who would have been distracted by the dog for an hour or more after finding her husband's hotel room ashtrays overflowing with lipsticked cigarette butts and stinking of smoke and cheap perfume?

But I finished the book, and I'll continue to find the Bonobos fascinating. Now, though, I'm ready to go on to my next possibly great read.