The November Mindful Reader** column is up at the Concord Monitor‘s website. My main review covers B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger and I also wrote short reviews of The Paternity Test by Michael Lowenthal, My Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos, and Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography by Dana Wilde.
It was a busy weekend in the bookconscious household but I did read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane. Clay Jannon, a laid off art school graduate in San Francisco, stumbles across a help wanted sign at a strange “vertical bookstore” in which some of the shelves are accessed by climbing ladders. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner, hires him for the overnight shift.
Clay soon realizes that Penumbra’s is actually two stores: a conventional bookstore in one small section, and the vertical stacks or “Waybacklist,” strange old books that appear to be written in code. “Customers” who ask for these books by name are members (of what he’s not sure at first) who borrow volumes, as Clay figures out, in a particular order.
With his own background in web design and the advice and influence of his friends (a geeky start-up CEO whose company specializes in virtual breast animations for video games, an artist who designs strange and wonderful stuff for films, a Google genius who believes the company will eventually unlock the secret to eternal life) Clay figures out how to create a digital visualization of the store and reveals a strange pattern in the regular customers’ book borrowing. Penumbra is pleased, but promptly disappears.
Clay and his pals track him to New York where they get to the heart of a secret society, the Unbroken Spine, which is covered by a front company, Festina Lente (motto of the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius, who is the group’s messiah). I don’t want to give away too much because this in an ingenious story, but suffice to say our heroes embark on a quest and the rest of the book involves the resolution and results of said quest.
Can they protect Mr. Penumbra, who embraces Clay’s technological innovation at the risk of alienating the Unbroken Spine’s old fashioned leader? Can they harness technology to solve what 500 years of scholarly effort have not? You’ll have to read to find out — and it will be a pleasurable few hours. Clay has an artist’s eye for detail.
Here he describes Penumbra’s codex in the Unbroken Spine’s subterranean library: “This book is beautiful. It’s taller and skinnier than its neighbors, with super-stiff binding boards. Its dimensions remind me more of an oversized children’s book than an occult diary. The cover is pale blue, exactly the color of Penumbra’s eyes, with some of the same luminescence, too: the color shifts and glimmers . . . . It’s soft under my fingers.” And that’s just an example picked at random; this novel is filled with rich descriptions of things real and imagined.
Books coexist in this novel with their high tech cousins, parts of the story are set in a dusty bookstore and others in Google’s campus. Community is both Clay’s ragtag tribe and the whole world — Hadoop‘s “distributed computing” and a hacker site run by a mysterious person called Grumble are important to the success of Clay’s quest. There are references to history and phrases in Latin as well as descriptions of all kinds of futuristic research at Google. Clay’s favorite childhood fantasy trilogy is key to the story and so is advanced computing.
Sloan’s joy in presenting the old and the new (and even the not yet conceived) as complimentary forces for good makes this novel a very happy one — there is some tension, and a couple of characters face disappointment, but overall it’s a book that will make you feel good about human progress. In Sloan’s fictional world there is no real villain. If there’s a flaw here it’s that everyone seems pretty darn smart, but then maybe Sloan adheres to the idea that everyone has something to be brilliant at if given the chance.
Spend some time in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s a delightful place to hang out for a little while.
** Column text as it appeared in print:
‘The Art Forger’ keeps the mystery going
By DEB BAKER The Mindful Reader
Monday, November 12, 2012
(Published in print: Sunday, November 11, 2012)
Boston novelist B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kept me up late wondering what would happen to Claire Roth, the deliciously complicated character at the center of this “literary thriller.” Last summer I read Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist, about the unsolved theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Shapiro doesn’t get into the heist itself but imagines what might happen if one of the stolen works surfaced.
Claire is a young artist scarred by a professional and personal scandal involving her relationship with a well-known painter. She’s been shut out of the art world and works as a “certified Degas copyist” for Reproductions.com. Prominent art dealer Aiden Markel visits her studio and offers her a solo show at his Boston gallery.
The catch? She has to copy one of the Gardner’s missing works.
Aiden promises to pay her more than she’s ever made, sell her copy and return the original to the museum. Claire is nervous about the scheme but can’t resist the opportunity to redeem her reputation and see the stolen art returned.
Aiden brings a large Degas entitled After the Bath to her studio. She dives into the work, studying Degas paintings, pouring over his sketchbooks, and analyzing the work of great forgers of the past. It doesn’t take Claire long to realize that After the Bath is a fake.
But is it the painting that was stolen? And if so, was Isabella Stewart Gardner aware of the forgery?
Shapiro weaves together details about painting, art forgery, museums and galleries with her absorbing story and a fictionalized account of Isabella Gardner’s relationship with Edgar Degas.
Her writing is vivid and entertaining, illuminating the mysterious and rarified art world and how human nature – particularly a desire to protect one’s reputation – can overwhelm logic, professionalism and even morality.
A few of the minor characters are somewhat typecast, and Aiden is a bit flat at times, but the storytelling made up for these flaws and book clubs would enjoy The Art Forger.
‘The Paternity Test’
by Michael Lowenthal
Former University Press of New England editor Michael Lowenthal’s new novel is a searing psychological drama. A gay couple, Stu and Pat, hire a married Brazilian immigrant, Debora, as a surrogate mother for their baby.
The novel probes the emotional turmoil of a couple trying to become parents, as well as the consequences of following sexual and emotional impulses, what it means to be committed, and whether domestic habit can seal the cracks in a relationship.
While Pat and Stu are the heart of the story, Lowenthal deftly draws their family and friends and Debora’s family into the tension.
The ending is anything but neat and tidy, as Lowenthal leaves readers with plenty to ponder.
by Corinna Vallianatos
Jhumpa Lahiri selected this short fiction collection by Vermont author Corinna Vallianatos for the Grace Paley Prize. The characters in these stories, mostly women, are almost all acting counter to the world’s expectations of them.
Vallianatos explores their inner lives, exposing their choices and desires, the hard edges and soft comforts of their lives.
Age and illness, infirmity and death, love and betrayal, motherhood and youthful indecision – Vallianatos sculpts this ordinary stuff of life into stories that make common human frailties beautiful.
‘Nebulae: a Backyard Cosmography’
by Dana Wilde
This self-published book of essays collects Wilde’s Bangor Daily News “Amateur Naturalist” columns with longer pieces.
Besides making astronomy and physics clear to the layman, Wilde muses on science history, psychology, philosophy and mythology.
His observations about the emotions star-gazing induces – “awe, strangeness, fear, humility, and sometimes dreams of untold infinities” – and the strangeness of space-time are intriguing, as are the parallels he draws between contemporary science and ancient knowledge.
Some passages are quite beautiful, such as this one describing late afternoon sunlight on fall leaves: “The angle of the light pries something loose. The mind finds itself inside those shafts and colors. . . . For a moment there is a sense that this autumn afternoon is the whole of autumn, all autumns from childhood up through autumns yet to come.”
A few pieces seemed a bit too similar, but this is a well-written, erudite and interesting collection.
(Deb Baker can be reached at email@example.com)
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