Delay Tactic 247

Unknown    I have a stack of books from the library I should read – award winning, thoughtful, well-written books – The Year of the Runaways (Man Booker), Fortune Smiles (National Book Award) among them.  I’ve renewed them, and they sit accusingly on my coffee table.

But I need something else – something light, distracting…

What I Am Reading:

P. G. Wodehouse’s Something Fresh on audible

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson on iPhone

Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin on iPad

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain – battered old paperback

One of them should work to improve my mood.

Do you have any suggestions?

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

“You are hosting a dinner party for three writers?  Who’s on the invite list?”

When Kristin Cashore, author of young adult novels, was asked this question in the New York Times book review interview By the Book,  she answered:

“Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’Engle, and Hildegard von Bingen…hopefully one of them can cook and wouldn’t mind coming early to take care of that.”

When reluctantly participating in a get-to-know-you exercise and asked for one author, my response – Steve Martin – was met with disdain (they were all academics.)  Having dinner with the prolific wild and crazy guy who’s written novels (Shop Girl), plays (Picasso at the Lapin Agile), can talk about art (has a private collection), and can play a mean banjo – not to mention his sense of humor – has the potential for good dinner conversation.  Calvin Trillin could add a little spice, and if I were to add one more, of course, Julia Child (to cook).

Do you have authors you would like to meet?  maybe share a meal?

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Sacré Bleu – A Comedy D’Art

Although I had started reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu on my Kindle as I flew West, I stopped abruptly when my good friend told me her real book had the pictures in color. Mine were all in gray. Now with the book in hand, I can see I made the right decision. Not only does Moore sprinkle the narrative with great art from Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, and many others, the cover is blue, and if you look carefully, the print is too.

At first, Moore’s typically irreverent approach seems tame compared to some of his other books. This story opens with the death of Van Gogh, and creates a mystery around his death; was it suicide or murder?

“Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical attention?”

But soon Moore introduces a few notes to let you know he has more than an investigation in mind: a mysterious crooked man in a bowler hat who mixes colors; a strange source for the cerulean blue powder used for the precious ultramarine pigment; time travel that gives participants amnesia; and his usual mix of crazy happenings. As promised, the color blue affects all the action – along with Moore’s trademark other-worldly fantasy mayhem.

Claude Monet

In Moore’s story you are invited into the world of Lucien Lessard, a French baker aspiring to be a great artist like his famous nineteenth century customers. (Lucien seemed so real, I found myself looking for his name among the Impressionists.)  Juliette is his beautiful model who seems to have an affinity for artists and the unusual capacity to put them under her spell while posing nude.  

As she travels through history with the Colorman, she leaves a wake of inspired paintings and a few painters with syphilis.  Her influence is not restricted to portraiture; Turner’s light and Monet’s railcars in steam are products of her Muse. Look for the blue.

J.M.W. Turner

Moore’s use of famous paintings as the focus for the plot reminded me of Steve Martin’s rendition of the dark and shady side of art in his last book – An Object of Beauty – but Moore’s Sacré Bleu resembles more of a Grimm’s fractured fairy tale version of art history.  In his “Afterward: So, Now You’ve Ruined Art,” Moore acknowledges his historical sources – some he ignored or changed for the sake of the story, but if you are a fan of Moore’s imaginative mix of fast-moving plots with crazy yet witty characters (Fluke is one of my favorites), you expect him to be bawdy, funny, and weird.  If you are a lover of great art, be prepared to never look at a painting again without thinking of Moore’s explanations for their inspiration.

Always entertaining, Moore has produced another gem in his collection of fantastic tales.   But be sure to read this one with the blue pages in your hands.

Related ReviewSteve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty

The Forgery of Venus

Everyone has good days and bad days, but what if your best day was a few centuries ago – in another life?  In Michael Gruber’s psychological thriller, The Forgery of Venus, Chaz Wilmot is a painter born a few centuries too late for his talent to be appreciated.  Working in the style of the masters – Goya, Gainsborough, and especially Velázquez,
Wilmot has little success; it’s his cheap renditions of famous faces in old portraits that sell –  Hilary Clinton as Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s painting.

Following the adventures of an artist who may be time traveling, but is probably psychotic from all the doping he’s experienced in his life, requires a suspension of belief – just as Gruber demanded in his novel The Book of Air and Shadows.  If  you can do that, you will be rewarded not only with an exciting tale of intrigue with art forgers, crooked dealers, and underworld criminals, but also with beautiful references to famous art that will motivate you to seek it out – if only to see what Gruber is describing.

After being thrown out of  a university research study on salvinorin, a drug that supposedly affects creativity,  because of his failure to reveal his previous dallying in drugs, Wilmot absconds with some samples to self-medicate and finds himself time traveling and becoming Spanish artist Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez.  As he

Las Meninas

channels Diego as a young boy, he connects to his own present-day miserable childhood memories of being the son of a failed artist.  He recalls his experience with the Velázquez painting Las Meninas, the painting that first inspired his love of art.  Gruber’s description of the painting’s impact on Wilmot as a young boy prompted me to find a replica – one of many pictures that I sought out as I read.

As his time-traveling episodes continue under the influence of the drug, he begins to relate to Velázquez as he becomes the Spanish King Philip’s personal artist, and eventually follows him to Italy to study.  Wilmot’s flashbacks become uncontrollable, and Gruber teases the reader with the possibilities:  is Wilmot experiencing drug-induced episodes or is he really Velázquez?

Wilmot, never satisfied with his own talent, agrees to accept money from a shady art dealer to travel to Rome to forge a painting of Velázquez, and the action suddenly accelerates with clandestine meetings and threats.  Wilmot succumbs to the temptations of money and pride in being able to dupe the experts, and as he paints, the real master – Velázquez, seems to take over his mind and his brush.

Drug-induced inspiration is behind many great works: Coleridge’s vision of Kubla Khan, Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, Salvador Dali – and many more.   Was Wilmot’s best work only possible when he was crazed?  Or was he actually reliving a former life as Velázquez?  Who did paint the Venus? Does it make any difference? Tim Newcomb in a recent article about the actor Steve Martin being duped by a forgery, asks:

If you don’t know the art is fake and truly believe it’s authentic, does it all really matter?

Gruber infuses his own political views into the story, and toward the end, the action gets a little crazy and overwhelming with hallucinations, illusions, and gangsters.  But, stick with it.  Gruber tells you the truth at the end, and it’s a whopper.

An Object of Beauty – Steve Martin

New York is a tough audience.  Rick Nelson was booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden when he dared to play his new songs instead of the fifties rock’n’roll that made him famous.  Steve Martin met the same fate recently when he tried to talk about art and his new book, An Object of Beauty, at the 92nd Street Y.  After seeing Martin’s play, Picasso at the Lapine Agile, I knew then that he was more than that “wild and crazy guy,” and suspect that he may be laughing at us.

In An Object of Beauty, Martin invites you behind the scenes of the art world – the buying and selling – the wheeling and dealing – that most of us never think about as we stroll through the galleries. He uses Lacey Yeager, a young, ambitious, and clever career climber as an excuse to inform and educate the reader  – with 22 beautiful renditions of famous art included in the book – analyzing in suave, painless lectures…

“In front of them was Sargent’s El Jaleo… A Spanish dancer, her head thrown back, an arm reaching forward with a castanet, her other hand dramatically raising her white

El Jaleo

dress, steps hard on the floor.  Behind, a bank of guitarists strum a flamenco rhythm that it is impossible not  to think we hear, and one hombre is caught in midclap, a clap we finish in our minds…The frezy and fever of the dance, the musicians, and the audience are palpable.”

One reviewer matched Lacey to Holly Golightly – an accurate appraisal.  She is at once smart, loveable, conniving, frustrating, and pitiable – manipulating art and people (even her own grandmother) for her best interests –  “the kind of person who will always be OK.”

But the real story is not Lacey – although she may be what keeps you reading.  Martin’s real agenda is the art world – the dark and shady side.  He even throws in an art heist and fraud to keep you interested.

The book is not for everyone and may not get on many lists, but I liked it.  The plot is slow – with some gratuitous sex scenes under famous paintings thrown in, but it would be hard not to learn something new about art and the art world.

If you are willing to forego Steve Martin as the comic hero, and accept a Calvin Trillin-like rendition of his wry wisecracks and clever irony, you might like it too.  And, if you don’t?  Steve Martin might say – “so?”