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Tag Archives: nonfiction

Another Notable about Mis-Identity, “Provenance”

I’m continuing my reading journey through the current American Library Association Notable Books List. You can also find it divvied up by fiction and nonfiction in the library’s “Books Movie and More” website.

One of this year’s themes from the Notable List  is revealing itself–the impact of multiple identities. They were critical to the novel, “Await Your Reply,” and to the nonfiction book about human smuggling, “Snakehead.” And now here they are again, at the heart of another nonfiction title,”Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art” by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Provenance.” Salisbury and Sujo create a strong sense of story despite having to veer from the story to educate the reader about the art world. With only a few exceptions, they share just enough information to show when something is critical or important, without losing their narrative thread.

The story itself is fascinating. In the 1980s and 1990s, a mastermind named John Drewe teamed up with an artist to sell fake paintings as the real things by artists such as Giacometti, Paul Klee, and Ben Nicolson. Drewe realized that he could not do this on a profitable enough scale without providing the kind of provenance, or documented history, that would convince scrupulous collectors and museums of authenticity. He compromised the archives of London’s Tate Gallery, for instance, inserting pages into catalogs of exhibits from the 1950s, creating rubber stamps from reputable galleries, and using names of people known or unknown to create a history for paintings. Apparently a pathological liar, Drewe developed the persona of an educated and cultured person. He dressed well. He spoke in an artistocratic way. He got people on his side.

Equally interesting are the parts about John Myatt, the artist who could paint in so many styles so convincingly. Drewe spotted his vulnerability immediately.

Salisbury and Sujo begin by telling how Drewe got underway and gained momentum. Then they turn toward the people involved in the unraveling and taking the case to trial. The archivists who weren’t convinced by Drewe. The keeper of the legacy of Giacometti who knew that certain works were wrong. The police officers who had to build a case. Drewe’s spurned common-law wife.

The story’s a fascinating one, and that it’s so well told and documented makes it a perfect choices for the Notables List. It raises pithy questions about identity and what it means to lead people to believe you’re someone you aren’t. Certainly it raises questions about art–what does it mean that a particular person painted something? How much does a piece of art stand on its own apart from its history?

I’ll be recommending this to many readers–to those who love a mystery, who enjoy art, who are generally on the lookout for a well-told story, to lovers of nonfiction. L. Kent Wolgamott mentioned this in an article in Sunday’s Journal-Star as a good one for true-crime readers.

And I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the next Notable I read will be as satisfying as this one.

From the Notables List–“The Snakehead”

Just today, I returned a library copy of “The Snakehead: an Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream” by Patrick Radden Keefe. It’s yet another of this year’s American Library Association’s Notable Books.

I appreciate how the Notables list introduces me to a wide variety of nonfiction. “The Snakehead” is about human smuggling, specifically the smuggling of people from China to the United States. The story begins with a description of a ship running aground off of the Rockaway Peninsula in 1993. The police officers who spot the ship hear screams, and realize that its passengers are jumping into the ocean. The ship, the Golden Venture, is engaged in smuggling over 300 people into the United States. It’s just a tip of the iceberg of human smuggling detailed in this book. Keefe focuses on a group of smugglers from Fujian Province in China, operating primarily out of New York’s Chinatown. In particular, he follows the career of a woman known as Sister Ping.

Sister Ping runs a business in Chinatown and considers herself a pillar of the community. But it’s impossible to be engaged in this kind of smuggling without being involved in some remarkably dangerous relationships with gangs and the underworld. U.S. law enforcement must wait a long time to pull together the information to convict her.

Although primarily the story of SIster Ping, the book broadens in scope to include how political angles such as China’s population policies September 11 impact the destiny of people entering the United States illegally. Keefe also explores the international scope of smuggling, showing how just one country that doesn’t enforce immigration and identity laws allows human smuggling to around the world. Behind all of this is a sense that people are willing to sacrifice mightily to enter our country.

I began the book feeling a strong sense of story here, but as I progressed, I felt that Keefe lost the plot thread of Sister Ping. Had he been able to sustain that narrative, the book would have enjoyed a stronger sense of story. As it is, it’s a perfectly acceptable nonfiction book on a topic of interest.

I happened to be reading the novel, “Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon at the same time I was reading this. I’m often surprised by the connections among otherwise unrelated titles. Both of these books revolve around people who use multiple identities. Both raise the question of what we’re willing to give up in order to thwart the law, and the degree to which we’re willing to sacrifice friends and family in the process.

I’d recommend “Snakehead” to people interested in China and to those interested generally in politics and current events.

Not sure this one’s Notable–The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

I’m coming to the end of my annual exercise to read most of the books on the American Library Association Notable Books list (for adults).

I’m disappointed in “The Dark Side: the Inside Story of how the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals” by Jane Mayer. I knew that this book was about torture, U.S. participation in torture, and the politics surrounding all that. I didn’t expect a pleasant read. I did expect sound journalism and nonfiction writing. Mayer fell short of my standard.

Mayer’s credentials are as a newpaper reporter, and a writer for the New Yorker. Too often, she included what struck me as hearsay information without following up on it.  For example, when she introduces Timothy Flanigan, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, she concludes, “A friend said he drove the family in his own school bus.”  (p. 50) Granted, this seems an insignificant detail, but did she not follow up by learning if a bus was registered to him? Did people observe Flanigan driving the bus?

I also see her language as often biased. One paragraph begins, “As the Bush Administration swept away the old rules, becoming unfettered and unchecked, it began to authorize the rendition of suspects for whom it had little or no solid evidence of guilt.” (p.125)  That language (“swept away,” “unfettered,” “unchecked”) leads me to question Mayer’s objectivity.

I understand that in the course of her investigation, Mayer came to believe that the Bush administration went widely astray in regard to torture and treatment of detainees. It’s fair for her to share that point of view. I would have preferred that she present the information she found in a way that lets the reader make his/her own conclusion.

To be clear about my own point of view, I probably agree with Mayer’sconclusions that the Bush administration was wrong here. But I still want her to present this information differently.  I want her to use less-charged language.  I want her to show that she’s followed up on information that could be considered hearsay. I want her to present the factual information in a way that both sides would consider fair.

I’d like to know what you think of this…what responsibility do you believe this writer has to her information and her readers? IS it possible for a writer to develop a strong point of view as a result of investigation, and not employ language charged to bolster that view? IS that what readers want?

Another Notable–In Defense of Food

A few months ago, I read “In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto” by Michael Pollan, one of the titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

Pollan explains how decades of nutrition science, as covered in the media especially, have confused us about how to eat healthfully. Pollan wants people to eat food, and by eating a variety of food, they will receive the nutrition that they need.

I probably agree with his advice overall. I parted ways with him when he veered toward advice that seemed illogically anti-science or anti-modern. For instance, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” My great-grandmother grew up in a sodhouse in rural Nebraska. I don’t believe that limiting myself to her range of foods constitutes a good way for me to choose what to eat.

Even so, something about this book was oddly compelling. Especially in the first half of the book, I had that “I can’t wait to get back to that book” feeling about it. Pollan held my attention. In the time since I read this, I’ve thought of it often.

This year’s Notables List includes a couple of titles about everyday things–eating and driving, for instance. I appreciate these books that lead me to know more about these things that I already ought to know well.

Love that nonfiction!

I’ve heard a few comments from readers who are SO EXCITED that our list of One Book One Lincoln nominees includes nonfiction titles, “The Color of Water” by James McBride, and “River of Doubt” by Candice Millard.

My annual reading of the Notable Books list over the years has shifted my preference toward nonfiction. Every year the nonfiction section of that list includes  titles that are true pleasures to read, with the added bonus of imparting information. I’ve re-structured my former reading groove of choosing fiction almost exclusively. I appreciate the way that nonfiction sometimes reads differently. I so admire writers who take technical information and make it available and meaningful to non-experts.

In the arena of youth reading, some experts have pointed out that many boys prefer nonfiction, and yet many classroom book collections emphasize fiction for recreational reading. Michael Sullivan refers to this issue in “Connecting Boys with Books 2.” We need to recognize the diversity of reading tastes in young people as well as adults. School Library Journal devotes a monthly blog and column to highlighting nonfiction reading for children.

What’s your preference? Do you lean strongly one direction or the other? What have you learned from going outside of your usual reading groove? And what inspired you to do so?