mini-reviews: the art of the con and a false report

Like many people, I’m fascinated by true crime, and often the genre dominates my non-fiction reading. In May, I listened to two different but equally interesting true crime books on audio:

The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore was an interesting look at modern fraud and forgery in the art world. The profiles are pretty fascinating: a woman who sold fake art she claimed was real and procured from a wealthy estate, one person who employed Chinese immigrant artists (in the country illegally) to copy famous works, a high-quality scanning (giclée) operation, faked “antique” photography, and more. There’s a pretty good chapter on web-based schemes too. Amore’s writing leaves something to be desired—it’s less narrative and more news reporting. I got through it in just a couple days on audio while drawing, but I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily be a page turner on paper. I would have liked a little more information on the techniques the forgers used to recreate the masters’ style in their fakes. Still, this may be a decent place to start if you’re interested in true crime in the art world. Basically, the old proverb stands true for art, too: a fool and his money are easily parted. And if a deal on a piece of art is too good to be true, it probably is. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America came out this year, and couldn’t be more important or timely. T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong crafted a very engaging and fascinating examination of not only one specific rape case, but also some psychology and history on the subject. In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported that she had been raped. Within days, Marie’s honesty and integrity was called into question, as much under investigation as her rapist. She eventually broke down and said she made up the rape. The situation she was in was really horrifying and enraging. A few years later, Marie’s rapist, who was a serial predator, was caught and convicted. There is a profile of Marie’s rapist—his habits, history, and mental state. But he is not the focus of the book. The authors describe the misogynist history of rape investigations and how women pretty much have never been believed. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

mini-reviews: vacationland and instant replay

More non-fiction! Here are a couple of great, diverse celebrity memoirs I recently listened to on audiobook:

I’ve wanted to read Instant Replay for years, the diary of inside linebacker Jerry Kramer of his experience of the Green Bay Packers’ historic 1967 season. I’m sure my dad has a copy somewhere but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. When Kramer was recently inaugurated into the NFL Hall of Fame, though, my interest was renewed and I was able to listen on audio. What a great book! It’s definitely for a niche audience; if you’re not familiar with the team, key people involved, or the game of football, you will likely not be interested. Kramer may not have the most eloquent “voice,” but he’s a straight-talker just like Lombardi was, and Kramer’s day-to-day account here of his last season playing, as well as Lombardi’s last season coaching the Packers, is full of great stories from both on and off the field. A must read for any Packers or football fan for sure. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

I listened to John Hodgman‘s Vacationland on audio while flying back to the States from Singapore a couple weeks ago. I enjoy Hodgman’s humor in small doses, so maybe listening in one long sitting wasn’t the best for me, but I’d definitely recommend audio over paper for this one. His sly delivery makes all the difference on many of these stories. Sometimes he meanders off-topic and much of it is navel-gazing white privilege, but at least Hodgman acknowledges this and his self-deprecating humor makes it work. I enjoyed it and it was a good way to pass the time, even if it won’t be very memorable in the long run to me. [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

mini-reviews: creative quest and bored and brilliant

I was on a non-fiction bender the last few months, and perhaps it’s because I’m sort of embarking on this new “career” as a freelance artist, but I was really interested in reading about creativity lately.

As soon as I saw that Questlove had another book coming out I requested it right away from the library. If you’ve read his fantastic 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues some of the stories will be familiar to you, but here Quest relates them to unlocking creativity within. He’s even more full of questions in Creative Quest than in Mo’ Meta, and it’s like he’s having a conversation with you, especially if you listen to the audiobook version: how can we figure out how to practice creativity together? I do wish I had been more proactive about listening along to all the music he references, but it was tough with the audiobook. I think he fixated on curation-as-creativity a bit too much for my taste, but I LOVED the “micro-meditations” method he talks about, which I use all the time while drawing. Many of the techniques he goes through are not revelations—much is common sense—but Quest’s inquisitive, warm nature makes readers feel like creativity is something we can all practice, not just gifted musicians, artists, etc. Just a fun, encouraging, quick read I totally recommend. [Read ebook and listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

Bored and Brilliant came up in my library suggestions after I finished Creative Quest, and I thought it might be a good companion read. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to Quest’s book, and neither did it live up to its own subtitle. Where Creative Quest is more about the creative process, Bored and Brilliant is more about ditching distractions, specifically your smartphone. I thought this would be more about the meat of allowing your brain to explore ideas and think deeply, or techniques to do so, but it was more about how to stop being so addicted to your smartphone. While I agree that we all need to cut back on our devices and social media, and I also agree that spending some time being bored is a good thing, I don’t agree that simply doing so is like the Field of Dreams: “if you put down your cell phone, creativity will come.” It’s not quite as easy as that. If you have trouble disconnecting from your phone, then this could be a helpful book for you, but if you’re looking for insights into actually unleashing creativity in yourself then maybe skip this one. I loved that while I was playing video games while listening to the section on the pros and cons video game play has on creativity, lol! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]