Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A trio of books

Somehow I wrapped up three books this week. One I read entirely this week, one has covered two weeks and another four. This is the downside of working at a library. I'm always seeing things I want to read and I'll often sign them out. Then I find myself reading four or five books at a time (not at the same time. I don't hold one in each hand, one in each foot and another with (hey! get your mind out of the gutter!) some other means of propping up a book). Granted, I have the coordination and the high degree of ambidexterity needed to pull it off. I'm just missing the detached eyeballs and the extra pair of them.

I will keep books accessible everywhere which helps in getting reading done. Let's get to the reviews.

I've always wanted to read a book by Chuck Palahniuk and having just read Neil Strauss' concerns about the collapse of society, I thought Fight Club would be a good read. I enjoyed the movie immensely and books are always better than movies so I was expecting it to be awesome.

Not the case.

One of the reasons I like books better than movies is because you're treated to the workings of the mind much better in a book. You can only glean so much from facial expressions and narrator expositions. I honestly think that Fight Club the movie captures the essences of the characters better than the book does. The storylines are different, too. It's like the screenplay writer took scenes from the book and reworked them. I also felt that the movie captured the essence of a fight club better than the book did. The book is almost more about the pursuit of Marla which makes for a rather wacked love story. It also touches on themes of bad fathers which I'm glad the movie left out. I just think the concept of fight club-like organizations make more sense for a bunch of anarchists than for guys raised by single moms.

I do like Palahniuk's prose. It's sparse. He relies on repetition to infer that something isn't quite right with the narrator before we get the whole truth on his relationship with Tyler Durden. I can see myself picking up another one of his books down the road.

There's also mention of a desire to wipe one' posterior with the Mona Lisa. This may not be an easy feat. Perhaps it was easier in 1911.

Why 1911? Because that was the year that contained the day they stole the Mona Lisa. And The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa by Seymour Reit is about that day and the theft.

This book has been on my to read list for a long, long time and I was never able to find it. Published in 1981, it is long out of print and somehow I either missed it before in my library system or forgot to look for it until recently. Again, riding the crime wave of books I'm on, I checked it out.

The timing is surprising as there was an announcement last week that the book may be made into a movie. Strange that it popped up twice in my life like that.

The book is a (possibly) non-fiction account of the theft of the Mona Lisa. The story goes that a wealthy Argentinian, Eduardo de Valfierno, who dealt in art forgeries to keep himself wealthy got it in his head to steal the Mona Lisa. His typical game was to have a forger create a copy of some work of art. He would then bribe a museum guard to let him insert his copy behind the original in the museum. Valfierno would then bring his target to the museum and proclaim that he would steal the painting for the person and that they should go ahead and mark the back of the painting (which would be the back of the copy covering the back of the original) so that the target would know it is the actual painting that hung in the museum or gallery. Valfierno would then bribe the guard again, remove the copy with the mark on it, and then sell it to the target as the original. Valfierno would explain that what hung in the gallery was a fake because the museum would not want the public to know that it was stolen. Besides, what is the target going to do, go to the police?

Valfierno felt that it would be more profitable to actually steal a famed original and then rely on the large publicity surrounding the theft as his "proof" that the painting he had for sale was the original. He would still sell forgeries, however, in this case a half dozen of them.

Valfierno hires a trio of men who enter the Louvre as tourists, hide out in the museum after it closes, and then walk out with the painting disguised as weekend cleaning crew. The one man, Peruggia, keeps the painting hidden in a trunk for years while Valfierno supposedly sells his forgeries abroad to wealthy collectors.

Valfierno never returns to France and the fellow who stole the Mona Lisa decides to try and sell it to a museum in Italy a couple of years later. The museum, of course, calls the cops and the guy is arrested. An Italian himself, Peruggia tells how he was seduced by the Mona Lisa's smile and that he decided to return the painting to it's true home in Italy. He is tried in an Italian court and by this point, no one really cares so he's let off with a light sentence. The painting is returned to France and all is well.

The problem is, there's no proof that Valfierno ever existed. The entire story is based on an article a man by the name of Karl Decker wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. Decker interviewed this man numerous times but that is the entirety of the information on the person. Valfierno's forger also lacks any confirmation of existence which makes the whole story questionable outside of Peruggia's brazenness.

The final chapters of the book deal with the question of the legitimacy of the Mona Lisa, both before and after the theft, and is a fascinating story in and of itself. The Mona Lisa is not signed and so there is nothing to attribute it to DaVinci other than the beliefs of scholars after the fact. Reit looks at the little existing documentation of the era and comes to the conclusion that DaVinci did paint it and at least one other Mona Lisa which is in the hands of a private American collector.

It is interesting to think of forgeries and documentation and the passing of time. Who knows who painted the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre. Who knows how art created in our era will be viewed five hundred years from now. Perhaps the tunes of the Beatles will be attributed to one of their many cover bands. Samantha Fox will be known for her hit Satisfaction. Fun to think about.

The last book completed this week was The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. It is a very unusual detective story that included much more somnambulism than The Somnambulist did. Although unique, I couldn't really care much about it. The story takes place in an unnamed city in an unnamed place. Crime is handled by a group called The Agency which has many tiers, none of which are allowed to communicate with one another. A clerk, whose sole job is to type up the notes of solved crimes by detectives, finds himself unwillingly promoted to detective, presumably to discover what happened to the detective whose cases he was in charge of typing up. This detective has vanished. As the clerk explores more and more, again unwillingly, he finds that all the cases the detective supposedly solved were staged to make the detective seem like he solved them. More and more of these cases are revealed until we learn that some bad guys are trying to get away with something.

While the revelations and concepts are interesting in their uniqueness, the book itself is confusing and the characters, the place, the time, etc. lack any reason for caring about them. It's like reading about some ugly woman from Great Britain who can sing but probably hasn't been kissed. Who cares about that? Bad example. For some reason lots of people seem to care about that. OK, it's like a political figure decides to buy a pet for his children. I mean, really, why is that of interest to the world in general? Oh. Another poor choice for an example.

So maybe this is a much better book than I give it credit for being. It is unusual. I just don't think it's unusual enough to be interesting without having a character captivating enough to care about.

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