Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser

Ladies and gentlemen…hold onto your hats for a Book Blogging Bliss first…a nonfiction genre critique!

Ulrich Boser, a writer for the New York Times, the Washington Post and various other publications, devoted several years to solving the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist. Boser’s research culminated in a 233 page book on the case, entitled: The Gardner Heist: The true story of the world’s largest unsolved art theft. The Gardner theft, which occurred over two decades ago, on March 18, 1990, is the largest art crime in history. The two thieves that broke into the Garner Museum in Boston on that fateful night in March so many years ago, stole a total of 13 pieces of artwork, valued at over $500 million. Among the stolen pieces were Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni, five Degas sketches, Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert, Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk, as well as Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and A Lady and Gentleman in Black.

            Boser’s obsession to locate the missing Gardner artwork began after meeting Harold Smith, an independent fine arts claims adjuster (aka “an art sleuth who works for insurance companies”). Smith, in his five-decade career as a claims adjuster “had recovered lost Renoirs, exposed forged Da Vincis, and tracked down stolen Matisses. He had rescued a missing Stradivarius violin in Japan, hunted down the famous Janiece Christner collection of Faberge eggs” (13).  Despite all these brilliant successes, the Gardner theft was a case that haunted Smith for years; the recovery of the Gardner masterpieces alluded detection and the theft remained unsolved. To Smith, locating the missing masterpieces was a labor of love. He once told Boser, “There are hundreds of thousands of people who would be deprived of seeing that art. Losing that art is like losing our history, our culture. I want it back” (14). Boser, likewise found himself drawn to the mysterious Gardner case, and when Smith passed away several weeks after their meeting, Boser found himself “picking up where [Smith] left off” (14).

Ulrich Boser summarizes his journey to uncover the masterpieces in a fairly concise paragraph. He states:
“My search for the Gardner art would take me to four countries, a dozen states, and more cities and towns than I care to count. I would develop a deep and consuming zeal for the case. I would chase countless leads, stake out suspected thieves, and fly thousands of miles to interview underworld figures who swore that they could return the lost paintings. My life would be threatened more than once. And while I would unravel some of the biggest puzzles of the heist, I would eventually discover that the Gardner case wasn’t a mystery like the ones in movie theaters and Saturday afternoon TV specials, a cozy whodunit that wrapped up neatly at the end like an algebra problem. It was more like a mystery with a capital M, the sort of enigma that you find in church pews or philosophy lectures or on the canvas of an Old Master painting, something clear and compelling but also abstruse and obscure, something essentially unknowable” (14).

Throughout The Gardner Heist, Boser writes in greater detail about the missing artifacts from the museum, the robbery itself, as well as the leads he follows in an attempt to recover the pieces. As a reader who usually avoids nonfiction, I found this book to be very intriguing. Boser writes clearly and concisely and overall, his book reads like a novel. Although he includes a great amount of detail, I never found myself overwhelmed with facts. The topic of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist is compelling and beyond interesting. Not knowing a great deal about the heist before I started reading, I can certainly say that I learned a lot about the case itself as well as the history of the art underworld. Boser presents a myriad of interesting insights on the heist, but it is a bit disheartening to know that the Gardner theft to this day remains unsolved (especially after reading about the hours, months and years of hard work invested in uncovering these masterpieces by both Harold Smith and Ulrich Boser).

            If you have a chance, pick up this book and experience the mystery of the unsolved Gardner Heist!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

I honestly can’t make up my mind or my heart about Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, the Mermaid Chair. In my eyes, the Mermaid Chair certainly doesn’t live up to the magic spell cast by Kidd’s first novel, the Secret Life of Bees (which you should read if you haven’t already).

Much like my experience reading the Secret Life of Bees, it took me more than a few chapters to really “get into” the Mermaid Chair (and even then, my enthusiasm was still touch and go for the greater part of the novel). The Mermaid Chair essentially details the mid-life crisis of the central character, Jessie, who experiences a life-altering transformation through coming to terms with a past (and present) tragedy, in addition to having an affair with a monk. At its core, the Mermaid Chair is a story about the never-ending ways in which we as humans struggle to define (and redefine) ourselves with time. Jessie, a woman who is discontent with solely fulfilling her roles as both mother and wife, abandons everything for a love affair. She eventually realizes that she is really seeking a reinvention of self, and the space to grow into and to truly redefine herself.

There is a key phrase that is repeated within the novel: “a solitude of being.” Essentially, the phrase is referring to the human necessity to be alone and have the space to reconnect with oneself (a sort of self-discovery, if you will). I really believe that Solitude of Being (or something a little jazzier) would have encapsulated the thematic significance of the novel much better than the title: Mermaid Chair. While the “mermaid chair” itself does exist as a physical object (and an important one at that) within the novel, as the title, it seems to lack imagination and (let’s face it) it sounds blasé.

It appeared to me throughout the novel that Sue Monk Kidd tried to include too much in terms of her storyline. Right off the bat, readers learn about the strained relationships Jessie has with her husband and her mother, and her borderline obsession with the death of her father. Along with all of this, Kidd details the steamy relationship between the monk, Brother Thomas (including his back-story) and Jessie. To me, the fascinating theme in the Mermaid Chair is that of self-exploration and self-knowledge. It seemed as if the majority of the plot choices did not enhance or support this theme in the best possible way.

I can sum up the few additional problems I encountered along my reading journey in 3 specific points. Firstly, there was a very quick beginning and end to the affair between Jessie and Brother Thomas (or Whit, as he refers to himself outside of the cloistered setting). The whole affair seemed a bit too easy and untroubled…Neither Jessie or Brother Thomas appeared tormented or torn about the repercussions of their actions; and at the end, Kidd explained the entire affair away quickly and without much fanfare or introspection. The entirety of the affair was integral in the formation of both Jessie and Brother Thomas, but Sue Monk Kidd ignored the raw reality of an affair from the points of view of both characters.

Secondly, the novel itself appeared to lack consistency and order. Sue Monk Kidd devoted the majority of her novel to retelling the story from the point of view of Jessie (understandable…since she is the protagonist). However, Kidd also allowed Brother Thomas to share his insights and voice with readers in random chapters throughout the Mermaid Chair. And, near the end of the novel, Kidd even devotes one chapter to share the perspective of Hugh, Jessie’s husband. The chapters revolving around the perspectives of Brother Thomas and Hugh help to transform both characters from flat to round. I personally believe that the chapters which showcase Hugh’s voice as well as that of Brother Thomas gave validity to the story, and made both characters appear more relatable. In an attempt to allow readers to greater relate to the actions/ thoughts of all the characters, Sue Monk Kidd perhaps should’ve allowed Hugh’s voice (or even that of Jessie’s mother and father) to be heard from more often. To me, the delineation of narrative choices for each chapter seemed a bit haphazard and overall, ineffective.
            Lastly, Jessie retells the story of the summer of her affair in flashback form; the story that she weaves has already occurred. Personally, I think that the Mermaid Chair might have been more interesting and attention holding if it had been expressed in the present tense rather than through Jessie reliving her past memories.

I believe that a fantastic writer has the ability to make a reader feel down to the core of their being, a deep connection to a character’s situation and emotions; and a truly talented writer transports a reader to another time and place. And, to be completely honest, I remained firmly planted (mind, body and spirit) in my house while reading the Mermaid Chair (no transporting happened). On the other hand, I also cannot truthfully dismiss this novel; it was an imaginative story line and communicated a clear and important theme. Sue Monk Kidd is a good writer, but she didn’t hit this one out of the ballpark in my eyes.