Loot by Sharon Waxman (Non-fiction)

A thorough and comprehensive overview of the world of antiquities — and the seedy underbelly comprised of looting, demands for restitution, greed, and the occasional ruined life in the name of political expediency. The author does a decent job of presenting multiple points of view fairly, only occasionally throwing in her own opinions.

She focusses on four source countries — Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy — each demanding the repatriation of important antiquities currently housed in a Western museum. As an example, Egypt insists the British Museum return the Rosetta Stone — discovered by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 and forfeited to the British upon his loss in 1802. She also presents the story behind the four major museum targets of repatriation claims: The Louvre, the Met, the British Museum and the Getty.

There is much complexity in the stories. Many of the targeted items came to the museums over 200 years ago. Some were rescued from locals who were extracting building materials, others willingly donated by the head of the country at the time, some the spoils of war and conquest, and others a share of goods under the system of Partage that splits finds between source countries and foreign funded excavations. And others, of course, looted and sold to the highest bidder willing to look the other way when faced with questionable provenance.

The book takes us through a muddle of rationales, explanations, and hidden agendas. Some museum directors and curators point out the lack of facilities in many source countries to maintain and protect such treasures, that the local museums are not secure and ill attended, and that politics and media threats have played a large role in pushing museums to give up expensive works that were gained legally. They also point out that this type of nasty legal attacks will only push artifacts underground — away from the public and into private collections where it is much harder to identify and pursue looted objects. They also point out that while foreign governments are demanding big ticket items back — claiming they were looted — they are doing little to clamp down on modern-day smugglers, preferring to go after the deep pockets and easier targets of large, public institutions.

Read the book to find out more about the arguments from the source countries — after reading the whole thing I come down pretty squarely on the side of the museums. While there are some cases of fraud and obvious theft, for the most part I feel museums come by their artifacts as honestly as they can, given the contexts of the time, and I feel like the source countries are pursuing these objects more for political capital than anything else. I’d be interested in other points of view!

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (Literary Fiction)

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Writing: 4.5/5

Brit Bennett’s second novel is just as good, if not better than, her first (which I already loved).

Identical twin sisters grow up in the 1950s in Mallard: a small Southern town that doesn’t even make it onto a map. Mallard is “colorstruck” — a town inhabited by colored people, all obsessed with lightness.

The twins leave Mallard, each for her own reasons. One disappears overnight — “passing” into the white world; the other rebels, marrying a well-educated, sweet-talking, and very dark man . From these beginnings emerge a narrative that spans the 50s through the 80s, extends across the U.S., and incorporates expanding family and friends. It’s an exploration of characters who aren’t completely comfortable in their own skin: a colored woman passing as white; a transgender man in a time predating legal surgical options; a dark child shunned in a negro community valuing lightness above all else.

What I loved about this book was that any dramatic events (e.g. domestic abuse, lynching, cruelty in many forms) were tied to individual characters — how they felt, how they reacted, how their personality was modified — shifting how they made decisions, protected themselves, and made the most of their lives. The point was not the drama of the acts themselves, but how they impacted the characters. The author also embedded the impact of societal trends of the time as well — feminism, civil rights, and many blunt and subtle inequities. I so appreciated that each character was a true individual — no stereotypes — and that no single group was demonized. Each character was both interesting and likable (to me) and I loved watching them develop, learning about their own strengths, disappointments, and fears. The ending was quite realistic — no pat finish artificially tying up all the loose ends — but lives continuing with some aspects resolved and some ongoing.

Incredibly skilled writing — the stories emerge and twine together as each character develops and builds / evolves relationships with others. I didn’t find a lot of quotable sentences in this book as I did with the first — but it’s quite possible this is because I was devouring the book too quickly.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Penguin Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 2nd, 2020.

 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

What a wonderful book! The novel follows 85-year old Lillian’s perambulation around her beloved New York City on New Year’s Eve 1984/85. Alternating chapters expand on her memories of the city beginning in 1926 when she started as an assistant copywriter for RH Macy’s and continuing through her meteoric rise to the “most highly paid woman in advertising.” Walking is not an unusual activity for the elderly Lillian — she has claimed the ancient Greek motto “Solvitur Ambulando — it is solved by walking” as her own.

The exquisite language — completely evocative of the age — folds in bits of the history of New York, the history of advertising and the history of feminism into the story. Lillian’s stunning rebuttal to her younger colleagues’ endorsement of shifting advertising from clever and witty to manipulative and infantilizing is worth the entire price of admission.

This novel is a love song to the beauty of language, the city of New York, and to Lillian’s idea of civilization. Her true religion is “civility” (see full quote below) and she practices this — and her delicious grasp of language — with everyone she meets: the family that encourages her to join them at dinner, the young immigrant manning his parent’s all night bodega in a dangerous part of town, the night watchman, the young bohemians who invite her to their New Year’s party, and even the thugs who want her money.

Lillian’s character is loosely based on Margaret Fishbeck — the original “most highly paid woman in advertising.” The poems, ads, and two letters are hers, though the story around them is complete invention.

While I’ve listed some of my favorite quotes below, the entire book was filled with language that communicates complex ideas clearly and is utterly stylish — a delight to read and a perfect book on which to end my reading year.
Some quotes:
“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility. Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness.’ That’s part of it, yes, but I say civility because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extent that that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.”

“Then she and I got to work, sprinkling each page of copy, mine and others’, with irresistible little eyedrop-sized points of wit.”

“In the 1950s, when I was freelancing, I was often enlisted as a grocery-aisle Cyrano, a ventriloquist for the new and improved, repeatedly making the case that the way Mother did it was not, in fact, best.”

“The city is dazzling but uncompassionate. It always has been, but I feel it more now.”

“Solutions of style have a greater moral force than those of obligation.”

“A disco rhythm, I suppose. I never warmed to disco — which always struck me as crass yet flaccid, all buildup with no payoff — but rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music.”

“Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.”

“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads, never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant expertise of my two successors. Please, ladies. resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely.”

“We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about — the constant low-grade lunacy of life in the city — but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope.”

“It went by the name of Radio Row before the Port Authority — that practically paramilitary factotum of the odious Robert Moses — demolished it all in 1966, citing eminent domain.”

“We drift — all of us — farther from the fraught spasm of midnight, settling into the fog of another year.”

Girl Gone Viral by Arvind Ahmadi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

An engaging, fun, speculative fiction read blending mystery, politics, and technology in the slightly future Palo Alto, CA.

A Facebook++ VR entertainment platform called WAVE. A father who “disappeared” seven years earlier while working on a stealth startup. A shocking win by a Luddite presidential candidate. It is within this setting that high-school tech wunderkind Opal Hopper (an homage to Grace Hopper?) and her friends start a VR show that goes viral — all based on how people lie — even to themselves.

While the teens get caught up in their instant success and the avid interest of the company that invented WAVE, they are also stressing about college admissions, romances, and a world gone haywire with the election (sound familiar?). Some reasonable discussions about the pros and cons of technology — job losses, fears of a robot president, tracking and privacy loss on the one side and going back to the stone age on the other. At the individual level, there are some good messages about self-awareness as Opal explores her own motivations for doing things that feel wrong in some ways and right in others.

A big theme in the book is “it’s complicated” — and it is! I liked the way the characters kept coming to this conclusion. Nothing is ever as simple and straightforward as the extremists make it sound, and it’s important to face the compromises that must be consciously made.

A well-written look at a future Silicon Valley, America, and world.

Quotes:

“When we make eye contact, he ducks like a whack-a-mole.”

“You look down on people like me,” Matthew finally spits. “People who read and write and appreciate art. Who enjoy irrationality and inefficiency. Who don’t live optimized lives.”

“Anyway. I know how the game is played. Comment sections are less playground, more kiddy pool of pee, and maybe deep down, that’s why I never check them any more.”

“One day, while we were working on a problem set in class, Moyo looked around the room of white and Asian boys, sighed, and turned to me.” You know it’s on us to flip the scripts,” he said. That’s when we promised ourselves that someday, we would build an empire together.”

“It reminded me of how I act around people like Kara — people in your world with power, whose attention you’re almost ashamed of wanting to win.”

“Now, the Luds want to take us back to that old place — where people like us, the coders and the dreamers, are relegated to the loser table.”

“What you tech types need to understand is that humans are the dominant species. We’re storytellers. We don’t just want to listen to perfect stories. We want to create them out of our imperfect lives.” … “So I’ll continue writing my own novels, thank you very much, even if robots might do a better job someday.”

“Smartphones ruined our attention spans. Self-driving cars took away our freedom And now, artificial intelligence and virtual reality will take us the rest of the way in rendering humans obsolete. It will make us ignorant. Weak. This technology you’re building will corrupt us further with narcissism and greed, alienate us further from our best selves.”

“He’s the nerdiest of our nerdtastic unit, an honor we liken to being the tallest giraffe.”

Good Talk by Mira Jacob (Memoir / Graphic Novel)

A memoir in graphic novel form. I had read a great review which never even mentioned that it was a graphic novel — so it was a big surprise to me when I got it from the library! I’m not generally a graphic novel fan — I like language — but I found it to be an excellent medium for this book. Most of the content is in the form of conversations between the author and her son, her husband, her parents, her in-laws, and her friends — punctuated by the occasional “letter” or statement. The artwork provides the context which allow for the content to be more pithy — highlighting the essence in a way that is difficult to do with too many words.

The author is East Indian and is married to a Jewish man. Much (most) of the book is about her experience as a person of color, extending from childhood, through 9/11, and to the current Trump era. The opening chapter features a conversation with her six-year old son about Michael Jackson — whom he loves — and whether Michael is black, brown, or white and which of the three he liked best. A brilliant opening. The closing is a kind of letter to her son about the man she hopes he can become given the current political climate.

For me, her descriptions of bigotry and racism as she struggled to explain them to her curious son were both fascinating and educational. The word “racism” is thrown around a lot these days, and her definition (supplemented by some google searching) helped me understand the difference between them in a way I hadn’t previously. I appreciated the many different examples of stereotyping and the confusion that ensues even when people want to treat others the “right” way. In her life, her own extended family in India found her “too dark” to ever be attractive to a good candidate husband; she stumbles over what to say to the first lesbian she meets; and is given a particular job because the wealthy white woman hiring knows they will have a lot in common because she (the white woman) likes yoga and is spiritual. The author has to explain to her son that sometimes Indian people can be mean to others on the basis of race also, which saddens him because he wanted to be one of the “good guys”.

This is a riveting, well-written exploration of one woman’s experience as a person of color and — due to the graphic format — a pretty fast read!

Separation Anxiety by Laura Zigman (Fiction)

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 3rd, 2020.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 2/5

I wanted to like this book — I loved Dating Big Bird and Animal Husbandry — but somehow it just didn’t work for me. What was intended to be “a hilarious, heart-breaking and thought-provoking portrait of a difficult marriage, as fierce as it is funny,” for me was just a thin veneer of attempted humor over a whole lot of neurosis, pain, and sadness. Some stories are too cringe-worthy to be funny.

The book opens with dysfunctional Judy deciding to wear her dog in a baby sling. All the time. Judy is a one-time successful children’s book author who has been suffering from writer’s block for years. She now writes for a self-help website, though she is remarkably unable to help herself. Husband Gary is a self-medicating pothead who has been unable to overcome his intense anxiety and has largely given up trying. They want to divorce but can’t afford to physically separate and so cohabit the family home. And their teenage son is … a teenager. Need I say more?

Zigman writes well and the book does end on a positive note in the very last chapter, but the positive ending isn’t supported by the events and cringe-worthy character actions of the rest of the book. The bulk of the book just tracks our educated, middle-class characters as they continue to not get their act together and irresponsibly run away from their problems (to be fair, Judy really did have to face a lot of depressing things, but I didn’t feel the novel really covered how she handled these things). I’m not a fan of dysfunction – we all have our problems and we all do things we regret — but I’d rather read about how people get a grip and turn things around — not about how they continue to screw up.

A Roomful of Bones by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

Number four in the Ruth Galloway series — they just get better and better. The whole series has great characters, good writing, and intricate plots. Each installment includes some new piece of history and plenty of character banter on current social topics.

This story includes the surprising contents of of a medieval Abbott’s coffin, a drug ring with a creative transport mechanism, the push to repatriate a collection of Aboriginial bones, and of course, a couple of mysterious deaths. The regulars — now single-mom forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway, the gruff and somewhat tormented DCI Nelson, and the intuitive Druid Cathbad — are joined by an Aboriginal visiting scholar, a trans local expert on Bishop Augustine, and the Lord who owns the local museum and racing stables.

Fast, engaging, read. I’ve already ordered number five.