Monday, December 10, 2012

Nick's Picks, the 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 - 78, 77...

#78:  The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.  $23.95.

Ever read a book that touches on one of your own experiences?  And if it's a good book, the journey is that much more rewarding?  B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger is just such a book for me.  The pivot point of her story deals with the 1990 break-in at the Gardner Museum in Boston.

That heist resulted in the loss of thirteen pieces of art valued at more than half a billion dollars, making it the largest theft of property ever - if you discount the Elgin Marbles, but that's another story.

What makes this story for me so personally interesting is that when I was lucky enough to first visit the Gardner - during a trip to see my oldest brother while George was studying in Boston - I was dismayed to learn that Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee wasn't on display, was instead under the watchful eye of a conservator as it was being cleaned.  This painting, and Vermeer's The Concert, were the only two paintings that I knew were housed in the Gardner and I had been especially looking forward to them.

Still got to see Vermeer - one of his only 34 known works - and so many others, got to see them in the splendid vessel that holds all the art there:  the former home of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Love that museum - my favorite anywhere.  I went back to it during that brief Boston trip.  Spent so much time looking, and drawing, and examining - just not the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

A sketch from Paul César Helleu's Woman Threading a Needle, 17 April 1987 

When I tell the story, it was the following year, on March 18, 1990, right after the Rembrandt had been returned to its place on the wall, that a couple of crooks entered the Gardner dressed up as cops and when they walked out again, the museum was 13 pieces of art poorer.


Just gone.  Never to be seen again - except by the bastard that had them stolen.  My one chance to gawk at that extraordinary piece of art had vanished like smoke in the nighttime. 

There's only one problem with my version of the tale - George had been some years graduated from Harvard by the time 1990 rolled around, so it of course couldn't have been the very next year that the crime occurred, or even the year after that.

I haven't knowingly lied when I tell the story - the events simply conflated.  My one chance to see the Storm at the Gardner, the return of the painting to the museum, the theft - the time between one to the other to the other just shrank.  Not willfully.  Not with malice aforethought - it just did.  And to me the short time-frame has always made my experience so much more regrettable

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, right?

Sorry about the digression - but I'll get back to it in #77, coming up next, ok?

Because while this was supposed to be about The Art Forger, not me, Ms. Shapiro's book returns us to the scene of that crime.  Her novel is a contemporary tale set in Boston.  Our hero - Claire Roth - is a down-on-her-luck artist who is given the chance of a lifetime:  will she accept receipt of one of the most famous paintings stolen from the Gardner in order to forge it?

If she does, she'll be paid handsomely (and oh how she needs the money) and the owner of the premier Boston art gallery will host a one-woman show for her (and what artist could turn that down?)

Sound too good to be true?  Well, what if - as she studies the painting she has been hired to forge - Claire begins to have doubts about the authenticity of the stolen masterwork?  Could the forger be studying a forgery?

Ms. Shapiro's novel is layered and luminous - showing off Boston, its art-denizens, and the arcane world of forgers.  It's not a globe-trotting, Da Vinci Code imitation - The Art Forger is introspective, deftly plotted, and will have you impatiently turning its pages until the end.

#77:  Imagine:  How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  $26.

Imagine is listed here because it was notable, yes - notable and tragic.  Jonah Lehrer was a young writer with a trio of bestsellers under his belt and a new gig with the New Yorker - it couldn't get much better for a scribe.  And then - like those beautiful pieces of art in the Gardner Museum - it all disappeared.

Just two months after joining the New Yorker, Mr. Lehrer resigned when it was revealed that portions of his work had been plagiarized or made up from whole cloth.  The most damning bits were quotes that Mr. Lehrer attributed to Bob Dylan at the beginning of his most recent book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works.  So in the first chapter of this, his third book - his third enormously popular book - Mr. Lehrer quoted Bob Dylan.  Except the quotes were fake.

Lesson #1:  If you are going to make up quotes, don't make up quotes from one of the most recognizable voices of a generation. 

It's difficult to read the apology Mr. Lehrer wrote when he resigned from the New Yorker.  He sounds contrite yet erudite, ashamed and painfully young.  It's heartfelt.  It's sad.  He apologizes.  He explains how he continued his lies in a moment of panic when a reviewer asked him to provide attribution for the quotes that weren't.

What made it so difficult for me to read his confession was the fact that I understood.  Lies?  For a writer?  Lying is easy.  It's what we do every day.  Often, it's not malicious.  Often, I'm telling you a story about not ever being able to see Rembrandt's The Storm on the Sea of Galilee - how I visited its museum one year when it was unavailable to view, and how the next year it was stolen.

So close!  And yet so far.  And also, more importantly, not true.  The events - my visit and the theft - were separated by years, not months.  Again, there was no perfidy coloring my tale - I related it exactly how I remembered it.  And part of the reason the theft stung is because I missed my one chance to see the piece, and now my chances were gone, and the sting went deeper because Act One and Act Two were separated by hardly a handful of seasons.

And yet - and yet - this is a lie.

When I tell a story and a certain line gets a good response, I probably make sure to repeat that line the next time.  Do I improve it for effect?  Also, yes - probably.  I like telling stories and I enjoy the praise I sometimes receive and yes my tales get Taller the more I tell them.

Nature of the beast or unscrupulous alteration of the truth?

Honestly - I don't know.

It's ironic, indeed, that in a book that sought to explain the magic of creativity, it was that very trait writ large that demolished its foundation.

It's my hope that Mr. Lehrer is allowed to write again - that we don't sanctimoniously prevent him from doing the thing he did so well.  Perhaps he could use his gifts to explain how we sometimes make the slope so slippery before ever stepping out on the ice.


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