I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.
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.
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.
Identity, it’s all about identity. Three strands of story eventually come together. One, a man looking for his missing twin from one state to another, following a tantalizing trail all the way to the Arctic. Another, a young woman who’s run away from Ohio to Nebraska with her former teacher. Finally, a man who engages in illegal financial activities with his father, travelling all over the country under various names. Each strand engages with that missing twin.
I had a particular interest in the Nebraska setting, which is along Lake McConaughy. In the story, Nebraska has been in an extended drought and so the lake is practically dry. The two, George and Lucy, stay in a big old house just back from the abandoned “Lighthouse Motel.” One day, George shows Lucy the remains of the former town of Lemoyne, which was flooded out when the dam went online. Foundations, buildings, and streets of what used to be a town are visible on the bed of what used to be a deep lake. He tells her about his brother who died in the lake. He suggests that they’ll be leaving their old identities behind.
I found myself a little frustrated by the three strands of story because I wanted each one to get my full attention. Each is compelling on its own. Chaon draws people who seem real, especially in the way that they make room for other people in their lives, make adjustments, make accomodations, and then eventually wonder if they’ve gone too far, wonder if that other person is worthy of their trust. He places them in clearly dangerous situations with evil people.
I read this book fairly quickly–Chaon moves the stories along. I’m pretty sure that I missed clues along the way, but I appreciated the sense that Chaon was crafting the story well, leading to a reasonable conclusion. I was not disappointed.
I’ll recommend this to people who like suspense, who appreciate a mystery, and who enjoy thinking about what makes people behave the way they do.
What a great Presidents’ Day! I read a whole book.
“The Anthologist” by Nicholson Baker is my first fiction title from this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. I had to set aside for the moment that I didn’t think much of Baker’s earlier writing about the practices of libraries as they weed their collections.
This is my first Baker novel, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s the story of Paul Chowder, a poet and poetry anthologist. As the story opens, Chowder’s experiencing writer’s block regarding an introduction to an anthology he’s chosen of poems that rhyme. The woman he loves has just moved out. He’s in debt. Frankly, he’s pathetic.
In one of my favorite scenes, Chowder joins his neighbors in a game of badminton. He isn’t especially good. His dog (Smacko–an all-time great dog name) keeps running after the shuttlecock and leaving it dripping with saliva. When Chowder bends over to pick it up, he gets a nosebleed. Nobody is especially sad when he decides to go back home. Pathetic. Perfectly pathetic, in that nothing is over the top but he’s just unappealing.
The novel is written largely as stream-of-conscious, Chowder reflecting on the rhyme and rhythm of poetry, of the writing of poetry, of his relationship to other poets, and of the teaching of poetry. Really, not all that much actually happens, but plenty is happening internally.
Yes, Nebraska’s own Ted Kooser is mentioned a few times.
I had to let go of the idea that this book would move quickly and directly in a particular direction. Instead, I just slowed down and enjoyed Chowder. I find language fascinating, and didn’t mind his reflections. I loved his lines of thought about babies finding words, about the ladder of poets, about rests in the poems. I was a little startled at the end to see how things wrapped up, but even so, appreciated the hopeful note. I was sorry to realize that I’d reached the end.
So I’m going to recommend this one to those who enjoy a clever well-written story, and to every word geek I know…and I’m happy to say that know a few!