"A reader lives 1000 lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one."
- George R. R. Martin

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Annihilation: A Novel (Southern Reach Trilogy)

Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach Trilogy books by Jeff VanderMeer, is as bizarre an experience as I've had with a book.  To begin with, it really is an experience, rather than a story.  VanderMeer's language is thick and luscious, drawing you in like a moth to the flame.  I found myself reading, and re-reading sentences, just to taste them again.  His words have texture.  I experienced this book, I did not just read it.

Annihilation centers around the 12th expedition into Area X.  Our protagonist is known only as The Biologist, and she is accompanied by The Psychologist, The Surveyor, The Anthropologist,  and The Linguist.  They are sent into Area X to explore and discover ... whatever there is to be explored and discovered.  From base camp they can see the landscape, which features two distinguishing landmarks: the lighthouse, and the tower (that somehow goes down).  The explorations of these landmarks, full of the odd and creepy and the sometimes scary, are the basic story/plot of this experience, though we spend a lot of time in The Biologists past, via flashbacks and memory sequences.

About halfway through Annihilation, I realized that I had no idea what was going on.  I went back to skim a few paragraphs, trying to determine whether I had become so caught up in the language that I wasn't paying attention to the actual words, but it soon became evident that this story didn't really have a lot of story.  Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of interesting things that happen throughout the book, but there are not a lot of explanations to go along with them. Now, this is the first book in a series (the following two books will both be published in 2014), so how the story may play itself out in the subsequent volumes, only VanderMeer knows, but at the end of this experience I was left with little understanding of what had just happened.  I had become familiar with the inner workings of The Biologist and how she sees the world around her, but at this point the world around her has no anchor: is it a dream world, an alternate reality, another planet, something happening on our own planet?  VanderMeer has crafted this adventure in such a way that the reader does not know how the expedition arrived at Area X (nor do the members of the expedition), nor how the members of previous expeditions get back home.  There is much talk of "the border" throughout this book, but Area X seems to have none.  

All in all, it was a pleasant experience, the language was nice and juicy and the imagery crisp and imaginative.  There are no answers in this, the first of the series.  Having read it, I wish that I would have waited until all three books had been published (the third book is scheduled to hit the shelves in September, 2014), if only to be able to jump right into the next one to search for answers, or reasons, or at the very least, an explanation.

If you are a fan of language and laughter, and don't mind being a little lost in the plot for a while, I would recommend My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist by Mark Leynor.  Hilarity ensues.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Art Forger

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro casts it backdrop on the biggest unsolved art heist in American history: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and five Degas were cut from their frames and lost into the night on March 18th, 1990.  Our heroine, Claire Roth, is a present-day reproductions artist, specializing in Degas' work.  The action of the novel bounces from Isabella's experiences, Claire's troubled past, and the heist, and combines them all in a most rewarding tale.

Claire Roth was a graduate student when she fell in love with her professor Isaac, a well known artist in his own right.  Through a series of events, we discover that something happened concerning Isaac that rendered Claire "The Great Pretender" and ostracized her from the art community.  Trying to hold onto the hope of resurrecting her career, she takes a job at Reproductions.com, an online company that pays her to copy great works of art for resale.  Her specialty is Degas.

When Isaac's former art dealer, Aiden Markel, reappears in her life offering her an opportunity, one that will surely help her pay the bills and possibly get her own show, she is intrigued to say the least.  He needs her to agree to "copy" a painting, without knowing what the painting is or where it came from.  Her curiosity piqued, she agrees.  The painting, it turns out, is Degas' After the Bath (a fictional painting), that was stolen in the Gardner heist. Aiden wants her to "copy" the Degas so that he can sell the copy to an investor overseas, and return the original to the Gardner - give the people back the masterpiece.  Throughout what transpires we learn the process Claire uses to recreate After the Bath, what really happened between Claire and Isaac, why Claire is an outcast, Isabella's great secret, and more.  We are thrown into the art world on all sides, from the artists' struggles and process, to the inner workings of galleries and museums, the definitions of "copy" and "forgery" and why there is a difference (it is much more complex than I knew), to the collector's world, art appreciation, and more.

This book does for art what The Eight does for chess - a total immersion into an unknown (to me) subject that leaves me hungering for more.  After reading The Art Forger, I spent a lot of time on the magical Internet, researching the actual Gardner Heist, Degas, art techniques, etc. and I find myself yearning for a day at MOMA, to experience the art through this new lens of discovery.  I am even half-tempted to pick up a brush and paint something of my own (though that would be for my exploration, not for public consumption) just to experience the process of painting. 

The plot was a bit predictable, though there are some aspects that took me by surprise, but its predictability does not take away from the enjoyment.  Yes, we can guess where everyone will end up, and even the final reveal, but the journey to these places is engaging enough to go along for the ride. 

All-in-all, this was a really fun read.

If you are interested in the Garder Heist, check out this article from Mentalfloss.com: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53527/biggest-unsolved-art-heist%E2%80%94and-detective-who-came-close-cracking-it

If you are interested in chess (and even if you're not), check out The Eight, by Katherine Neville (there is a sequel as well, thought it's not as good as the original).