Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: my year of magical reading

From Catherine Given
Author:  Nina Sankovitch
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: my year of magical reading
I just finished Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch, about a woman who self-prescribes a book a day for a year as a way to re-group after her beloved sister’s death.  It’s a beautifully written story of lessons distilled from 365 authors’ works.  By briefly sharing what she derives from the experience and how she applies writers’ messages to her own life, Sankovitch creates a unique memoir, one that any avid reader of books will appreciate.  She also provides a list of richly meaningful non-fiction and fiction books to add to our own must-reads.  She says:

\”Words are witness to life: They record what has happened and they make it real. . . . Stories about lives remembered bring us backward while allowing us to move forward.  The only balm to sorrow is memory:  The only salve for the pain of losing someone to death is acknowledging the life that existed before.\”

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair will likely be cherished by anyone mourning the loss of a loved one.  For others, it will provide an affirmation of the value of thoughtful reading of good literature.

Sister : a novel

From Catherine Given
author: Lupton, Rosamund
Sister : a novel
Authors of mysteries often employ flashbacks, but Rosamund Lupton doesn’t stop there in her debut novel. Two young Londoners,  sisters  Beatrice and Tess, remained close despite pursuing careers an ocean apart.  Upon learning that Tess is missing, Beatrice, the story’s narrator, rushes in from New York.  Much of Sister is written in the form of Beatrice’s present-day imagined letters to Tess. But a great deal of the story takes place in the murky past, as Beatrice recounts her investigation to “Mr. Wright,” a CPS Lawyer. Retracing her sister’s steps, the normally retiring and polite Beatrice, badgers the London police and medical community, questioning everyone connected with Tess’s last-known words and actions.  She soon realizes that she can trust no one.  Beatrice’s guilt and anxiety-ridden “letters” to Tess trap the reader inside her constant torment. Suspense builds powerfully to the story line’s dramatic final twist.  Sister shares John LeCarre’s distrust of the MedicoPharma Industrial Complex as expressed in his acclaimed novel, The Constant Gardener.  It’s a great summer read.

Tiger Hills

From Catherine Given
author: Mandanna, Sarita
Tiger Hills
Though one might guess otherwise, the book Tiger Hills has nothing to do with a championship golf course.  Rather, it’s a classic saga, so richly spiced that reading it is like enjoying an authentic curry.  Here’s Sarita Mandanna’s winning recipe:  sift together the triumph over adversity of The Good Earth,  the fierce matriarchal determination of Gone with the Wind, and fold in a good measure of Out of Africa‘s coffee-infused life on the plantation.  Then bring the mix to a sizzle in the mountains and valleys of southern India for over a century.  Tiger Hills immerses us in actual life-and-death tiger hunts, as well as in ceremonial festivals, exotic botanical adventures, and the ancient culture’s birth and funeral rites. Mandanna’s vibrant characters may start out in India’s dozing tradition-bound country villages.  But as some members of the clan grow restless, they venture out into unknown territory, only to experience the perversities of life in British boarding school, the squalor of India’s jammed, polluted cities and, in the company of other social climbers, they learn how to behave in a more upper crust British way in the society clubs of the Indian outlands.  Through it all, parents keep secrets and hold grudges, siblings’ rivalries fester, lovers refuse to limit themselves to the partners their parents have chosen, and life gets very messy.  Despite soap opera elements, Tiger Hills is worth the investment, because its characters are well-drawn, its dialogue overall rings true, and intriguing settings are exquisitely described.

A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage

From Catherine Given
author: Brady, Sally Ryder
A Box of Darkness: The Story of a Marriage
When I heard that this book was in the same vein as Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, I had to try it.  The two memoirs share many themes and are equally un-putdown-able.  In recounting the story of the Bradys’ lives, Brady smoothly carries us back and forth from her present-day fear and loneliness as a new widow, through her tumultuous 46-year marriage. Sally Ryder Brady’s intelligence shines through in a straightforward, easy style that rings true.  

As I blazed through A Box of Darkness, I felt that I was spending a weekend with a great new friend.   Like Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, the Brady’s were productive and distinguished writers.  Despite her husband Upton’s increasingly narcissistic and erratic behavior, Sally remains steady and calm.  She’s trapped by her love for a man so self-absorbed that he can only give the family negative attention.   She sticks it out with Brady, whom she calls her “Best Beloved,” but his alcoholism, unexplained disappearances and mercurial moods take a heavy toll. 

As they continue to socialize and conduct business individually and as a couple, they mix with famous people:  bicoastal writers, publishers, actors, producers, and restaurateurs.  Sally’s strength in the face of Brady’s mistreatment is all the more remarkable for her ability to retain her dignity and self-esteem  in these elite circles.

Like so many women of this era, Sally manages her large, active family’s life with vigor and grace, giving her children all she can, thinking little of her own needs.  When Upton dies at 76, she is simply bereft.  Worse, she soon uncovers troubling evidence of a secret life he was leading, and struggles to piece together who her “Best Beloved” really was.

An Object of Beauty

From Catherine Given
author: Martin, Steve
An Object of Beauty
 Steve Martin – who continues to surprise us with the breadth and depth of his creativity – has just written another book:an illuminating novel providing a rare depiction of the contemporary art scene’s inner workings.  An Object of Beauty brings us along with main character Lacey for a rollercoaster ride from the posh auction rooms of Sotheby’s to the anything-goes galleries of Chelsea.  Beginning in her early twenties, Lacey enters this world in the 90’s and begins her upward ascent as a lowly assistant to a powerful uptown New York City gallery owner.  She quickly distinguishes herself through a facility in cultivating lucrative relationships with buyers and art business icons.  Her quick trajectory into the inner orbits of power and money intensifies her lifestyle overnight. On a three-day jaunt to St. Petersburg, Russia, she reels with culture shock when she learns daily breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as any strolling must be limited to the hotel‘s en  virons – the only safe eatery and neighborhood in that area of the city, she’s warned – then pinches herself during a mindboggling, private tour of the Hermitage. Daniel, an art journalist and her best friend, is the story’s narrator.  As Daniel calmly spins the tale, he shares an insiders’ multilevel view of the art market:  full of economic, intellectual, interpersonal and political insights. In fact, this book sometimes reads like a History of the Contemporary Art Scene for Dummies.  His deliciously sardonic observations –which often read like the Cliffs Notes to Alice in Wonderland — will interest anyone who loves contemporary and modern art, as well as those who are students of art history.  An example:  He describes art hung in Chelsea’s “conceptual galleries”: “It was as if a pitcher had decided it was gauche to throw fastballs but still threw fastballs in a mockery of throwing fastballs.” Further contributing to the fun of reading An Object of Beauty are the relationships between the eccentric collectors, gallery owners, museum staff and buyers.   Beyond this, our familiarity with the multifaceted Steve Martin (comedian, playwright, art collector, novelist, actor and painter) only heightens our interest in An Object of Beauty.

Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm: a Memoir of a Friendship

From Catherine Given
author: Baksi, Kurdo
Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm: a Memoir of a Friendship
If you are among the zillions of fans who devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and The Girl Who Played with Fire,) you may also enjoy Stieg Larsson: Our Days in Stockholm: a Memoir of a Friendship.  This is a slim little biographical book by Kurdo Baksi.  Larsson’s mystique has been enhanced by his sudden death before the series reached record-breaking international bestseller status.  But even readers who haven’t heard the trilogy may well be intrigued by this book.

 Stieg Larsson devoted his life to fighting all intolerance, and stopping violence against women.  He also – despite continuous personal threats from “criminal gangs, angry readers, psychopaths, madmen and opinionated bigots–” conducted a relentless, lifelong campaign against anti-Semitic, racist and neo-Nazi groups throughout Sweden and beyond. Larsson’s best friend, journalist/publisher Baksi explains that he had to grieve five years after Larsson’s death before he could publish this memoir. He marvels at his dear insomniac friend’s ability to write his three books at once during solo writing sessions into the wee hours. After a fourteen-hour day’s labor at his newspaper office, Larsson would turn to the writing he said he found “relaxing.” Baksi tells us that Larsson would first work on a chapter in book one, and immediately write a full chapter in each of the other volumes to assure continuity of character and plot. He also relates Larsson’s appreciation of an early reade  r who astutely described the first book as a self-contained mystery; book two as a police thriller, and book three as a political thriller.  “It’s most satisfying to see that Lasse noticed that I changed the genre from one novel to the next.  Please tell him that he’s obviously an intelligent and sensible person of impeccable taste, and that flattery will get him everywhere.” It’s a privilege to receive such an inside view of this stellar author and human rights advocate.

Priceless : how I went undercover to rescue the world’s stolen treasures

From Catherine Givens
author: Wittman, Robert K.
Priceless : how I went undercover to rescue the world’s stolen treasures
The new book, “Priceless”, by Robert K. Wittman is a fascinating memoir set in the dark world of art thievery and the black market.  Wittman, a 20-year veteran of the FBI, founded the Bureau’s chronically understaffed Art Crime Team.  Most FBI personnel, he explains, place a lower priority on the nabbing of art thieves, compared to the capturing of drug dealers and bank robbers.  Meanwhile, deeply appreciative of the cultural significance of art, he immerses himself in the study of Art History, to sharpen his ability to act the part of an astute art dealer.

He colorfully relates the conflicts that arise when agents whose values
differ are pitted against each other by bureaucratic hierarchies.  With
grace and wisdom, and a highly experienced eye on the prize, Wittman
navigates these obstacles, transcending would-be blockades to repeatedly recover the loot.

Time and again precious paintings and cultural artifacts, both domestic and international, are handed over by clueless crooks to undercover agents, as well as to Wittman.  The effort expended by all the undercover law enforcement players is awe-inspiring.  Meanwhile, the fact that our government places so little value on and assigns so few people to the recovery of stolen art is shocking.  And it explains why art thieves and unscrupulous dealers abound, displaying increasing levels of audacity.

 Full of action and suspense, this fast-paced book is bursting with
bigger-than-life villains, dumb and dumber criminals and unassuming heroes. It would make a fantastic movie.  But I highly recommend the book:  The author’s heartfelt revelations of his inner thoughts as he strives to return art to its rightful owners keep us rooting for him all the way.