Friday, January 18, 2019


Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman (2010)

I've become very intrigued by art theft. While listening to the podcast Last Seen, a close examination of the still-unsolved theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I had a lot of questions about who steals art and where it goes. So for Christmas I asked for a book on the topic. My husband being who he is, he bought me not one but three books on the topic. The first one I started to read is the one he warned me was probably awful. It was also the most difficult to get. It was Hot Art, Cold Cash by Michel van Rijn, a dealer who got his start selling antiquities looted from politically turbulent countries. It would have been an interesting story had someone else written it, but this guy was a pompous braggart who mostly wanted to brag about all the women he slept with and I wasn't even sure how much of his sensationalist story to believe. I made it through 100 pages or so of the more than 400-page book before giving up. I knew the other two would be better.

Priceless is written by a retired undercover agent from the FBI's Art Crime Team, and he had actually appeared on Last Seen so I was already a bit familiar with some of his story. He begins at the beginning, his mixed-race heritage and the prejudice he faced growing up half-Japanese, his entry into the FBI, his growing interest in art. The heart of the story, of course, is his work. Wittman learned a lot about art to prepare for his specialty, but he had a natural talent for dealing with people that made him a successful undercover agent.

He was one of the first FBI agents who focused on art crime, and because of the nature of the work his goals were sometimes counter to that of the Bureau as a whole. He did want to see the thieves punished for their actions, but his most important goal was always recovering the art. He recovered paintings from artists as famous as Rembrandt and Normal Rockwell, but also irreplaceable items like an original copy of the Bill of Rights and a Civil War battle flag from one of the first units of black soldiers who fought for the Union. These stories were fascinating, and I can't imagine how thrilling it must be to get hold of such an important piece of history that has been missing and could have easily gone missing forever.

I learned some surprising things, like the fact that European countries have huge art crime teams but that we had almost like it in the U.S. until Wittman made it his focus. Stolen art and antiquities have apparently not been a priority here.

Most of the surprises are related to the Gardner case, and surprising because I just listened to a multi-part podcast that delved quite deeply so I thought I knew practically everything there was to know about it (that the public can know anyhow.) But from Wittman's account it really sounds like the case was bungled by the Boston FBI - the podcast touched upon complications relating to the Boston team not being willing to relinquish their hold. But according to Wittman they really didn't know how to handle people involved with stolen art and wouldn't let him use his expertise to its full potential and it has cost us. (It also caused him a huge career-related headache.) There was a whole operation in 2006-2007 based on a really strong lead and from the podcast it sounded like nobody knows if those people ever had the paintings, but Wittman's account makes it sound like they probably did but the FBI blew their chance of getting them. It makes me want to go back and listen to a couple of episodes of the podcast.

This memoir was fascinating and I learned a lot, but still want to learn more. The third and final book in my art crime Christmas haul is the art-adjacent The Map Thief by Michael Blanding. It'll probably be a while before I get to it because of other reading I have lined up, but I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

How Long 'Til Black Future Month?

How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (2018)

We're not going anywhere until we talk about this cover and title. I mean, come on. That amazing hair with those weird but cool adornments, the cool but self-confident look on the young woman's face, the necklace. The fact that she doesn't care we're here because she has other things to think about. The moment I read this title in a review I told a coworker who instantly decided it will be the theme of our annual Black History Month display and now our display will be about Afro-futurism.

Also, this is a collection of short stories by N.K. Jemisin and if you've been following along at home you'll know that I read the Broken Earth series late in 2018, all three books right in a row. This author is so imaginative and perfectly executes all her ideas, as she shows us in this collection. These stories range from AI taking on a life of its own to a mysterious restaurant that can re-create any meal you've had in your life down to the tiniest ingredients if you just tell them the date on which you ate it.

There are a lot of stories in this collection, 22 I think. Some are set in the same, or similar, worlds but in general they're so different from each other. Which I guess is the thing about science fiction and fantasy. There's a story set in the Broken Earth world, and I think one set in the Dreamblood world, though I'm not sure as I haven't read that series (yet.) There was not a story that I disliked or even found meh.

Ones that I remember vividly a few days after having finished the whole collection: "L'Alchimista," in which a mysterious stranger approaches a chef with a strange bundle of ingredients and recipe for her to make for him (it doesn't sound like much, but trust me). In "The Effluent Engine" a Haitian woman visits New Orleans to ask a particular man for help developing an engine to turn rum by-product into a power source, but finds his sister more helpful in the process and, not insignificantly, more attractive. "Valedictorian" takes place in an isolated place in which the top and bottom students are sent outside, never to return, and although everyone is afraid of going one student is still determined to be at the top of her class. In "Walking Awake" children are raised and used to be bodies for beings that change them out like outfits. I can't even adequately describe "The Trojan Girl."

Short stories will probably never be as appealing to me as novels. Reading a collection can be jarring, switching from one to another just when you've gotten the lay of the land and figured out what's going on. Sometimes a short story is enough unto itself, and at other times I wish it were a whole novel. There were both kinds in this collection and I feel like I visited so many different worlds and people and people who were maybe not quite people. Speculative fiction is weird. But I do know one thing, which is that N.K. Jemisin is excellent at writing it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Scrappy Little Nobody

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (2016), narrated by Anna Kendrick

I'm a huge fan of the Pitch Perfect franchise. Even though I hardly ever go to the movies, I've seen all three in theaters with friends, and we will continue right through Pitch Perfect 99 if they go that far. When Pitch Perfect 2 was about to be released, I organized a sing-along to the first movie at the library, which was attended primarily by library staff. But the important thing is that it forced me to purchase the Aca-Awesome Sing-Along edition on DVD, which now lives in my personal collection.

I also enjoy a celebrity memoir on audio, especially if it's nice and short like this one. But the truth is, I could have happily listened to a couple more hours of this.

Anna Kendrick is a fellow Mainer, which I didn't realize until I started this book (though for the record she's from Portland, which most of us don't consider to be real Maine.) She chronicles her early life, especially her high school years when she began getting into acting, and her later move to L.A. where she scraped by until she really got her career off the ground.

Her stories were great. She tells us about how her parents were supportive, but also had jobs, so after a few trips to New York for auditions when she was 12, they decided that her 14-year-old brother was a good enough chaperone and they sent the two youngsters off together. The day trip turned into a few days because of her callbacks, so the two kids stayed at a hotel and washed their underwear in the sink, and managed to explore New York a bit without any major mishaps. She talked about being outside of Maine in the theater world and not knowing which of those things accounted for the strangeness she experienced. She pondered "Is that what everyone outside of Maine is like?" (I've asked myself that same question.)

There was a point at which she became successful enough to have a stylist but not enough to be making much money and her stylist told her to buy $1000 shoes, which was far more than the rent she was struggling to pay. She still lived with roommates. At one point she ended up asking if she could downgrade her hotel room, and keep the difference because she needed the money. This aspect of her early success was fascinating to me. She attended the Independent Spirit Awards while still in high school and her classmates, teachers, and family were totally unimpressed because they were unfamiliar with that particular award.

She didn't really talk about making the Pitch Perfect movies - I think she only mentioned them briefly. She talked more about Up In the Air, probably because she was nominated for an Academy Award. Also, she was in the Twilight movies, which I didn't even realize. Oh, she also talked about some of her experiences with Into the Woods, which I liked a lot! But mostly she didn't talk a lot about her actual work. It felt more like an introduction to what she's like as a person.

I liked her already, but getting to know what an awkward, rule-following, anxietal person she is was really reassuring and made me like her even more. She doesn't take things too seriously (like fashion, which she reminds us is supposed to be fun) and is pretty down-to-earth for a person who has never had a normal job.

She narrates the audiobook herself, which made the whole experience feel like she was just telling me about her life. It was a lot of fun!

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Xiomara writes poetry in a journal her twin brother bought her; poems about her family, the boy she likes, her doubts about religion. Her mother is extremely strict and is forcing Xiomara to attend confirmation classes, which meet at the same time as the poetry club she wishes she could attend. She is not supposed to have a boyfriend or go out dancing or do anything her mother sees as a sin. But she has been seeing a boy, Aman, even though her friend Caridad and her brother caution her about how much trouble she'll be in if her mother finds out. All of this is described in poetry, making this book quick to read and somewhat unusual.

I'm always hesitant to read books written in verse. I loved The Good Braider, but the verse form wasn't like reading poems. In this case, it really was like reading a series of poems, in slightly different forms, that all made up one story. It took me a while to get into, but I ended up liking it more than I initially thought I would. Of course it makes total sense that it's written as poems since that's how Xiomara expresses herself.

Her life epitomized the worst parts of being a teenager. She was just trying to live her life and do things she enjoyed, and her mother was always there trying to force her into this tiny little box of what she thought was appropriate. There were SO many rules and no room for any fun at all. Her mother really, really infuriated me. Why even have kids if you just want to make them miserable? This lady was so obsessed with God and following rules and not sinning that she didn't even seem to care that she was making her daughter miserable. She seemed intent on destroying any shred of happiness that Xiomara might have, which only made Xiomara hate her. How could she not see that's what she was doing?

Xiomara, though, is such a strong person! She's creative and expressive and alive! Sure she makes mistakes - we all do when we're young and that is how we learn - but she definitely knows her limits. She spends time with Aman even though she knows she's not supposed to, but they're just hanging out together and there is nothing wrong with teenagers making out, regardless of what Xiomara's mother thinks. She does end up lying to her mother and I don't blame her when she does. Her mother won't listen to her or what is important to her.

Everything about her complicated feelings towards religion resonated with me as I was also raised Catholic and forced to attend confirmation classes even though I wasn't the least bit interested in doing so. My mother was not the horrible person hers is, but she did force me to go to church which I honestly still don't understand. Forcing someone into religion doesn't make them believe it. Even Xiomara asking the priest challenging questions reminded me of my own behavior in confirmation classes. (Unlike her, I was actually kicked out. And unlike her I was still forced to go through confirmation.)

I loved that Xiomara got to experience poetry slams and really grow as a poet, despite the limitations her mother placed on her. Although there were some very painful moments as their conflict grew to a head, the novel ended with hope and some small steps forward in their relationship. Acevedo managed to fit a lot of story and feeling in very few words, which I suppose is how poetry works.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Belles

The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton (2018)

I was drawn to the gorgeous cover the first time I saw it, but it was only after reading Dhonielle Clayton's short story "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" from The Radical Element that I finally decided to read this book.

Set in the dystopian world of Orleans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle - one of a very small number of girls who have the power to change the way people look. This is a highly valued commodity in this world because most people have gray skin, straw-like hair, and red eyes in their natural state. But the Belles can change all that for the right price. Of course the Belles don't work for themselves or have any control over their own lives, but they still feel privileged. Not only do they have these special powers, but they are the only people who possess natural beauty themselves.

Camellia and her Belle sisters have been training and now are ready to find out where they will go to practice their craft. All hope to become the "favorite," the Belle chosen by the Queen to serve at the palace. The Belles have been raised in isolation, and when they begin their assignments, all is not as they thought it would be. Dark secrets await them, and they will be forced to make impossible choices.

This is a very strange world. One in which beauty is so hard to come by, but is considered all the more important because of that. And the way people can change their looks goes far beyond what is possible in our world - they can change their height, their build, their bone structure, in addition to things like hair texture and eye color. It's painful but everyone is willing to endure it to look beautiful and unique. Looks are prized above everything else.

These transformations have a price for the Belles too. Making changes wears them out and they need to be restored by the use of leeches. Often they are taxed beyond what they really have energy for, but they don't have an option to refuse, especially if it's for the Queen or the Princess.

Camellia is one of the best at her work - possibly the best - but even she has her limits to what she is able, or willing, to do. She also has so many questions about the things she sees and hears in the first months of her work. Rumors about the royal family and the mysteriously ill princess, strange crying in the night and talk of "other" Belles that aren't the official Belles she grew up with. Plus the presence of a charming young man she keeps running into who continues flirting with her despite the harsh penalties that exist for behaving that way towards Belles. The more Camellia learns about all of these mysteries, the more horrified and trapped she feels.

I won't lie - one of the things I loved most about this book was all the descriptions of the looks created by the Belles for their clients. But the desperation these people feel to look beautiful and outdo each other, and what they're willing to endure to make that happen is horrifying. I also loved the relationship between the Belles and the way they try to help each other out in the world. They were not prepared for much of what they were to experience, and it's unclear why that is. I have so many questions about this society and how things became the way they are. I'm also convinced that things aren't necessarily the same everywhere, or at least that's what I'd like to believe.

Of course this is the first in a series, so some of these questions may be answered. I'm going to have to wait a bit though - the second book, The Everlasting Rose, doesn't come out until March. I already put a hold on it through the library so hopefully I'll get one of the first copies available. I can't wait to see what's in store for Camellia and her Belle sisters!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A Year of Reading: 2018

1. Lab Girl by Hope Jahrens
2. The Jewel by Amy Ewing
3. Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson
4. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
6. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
7. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris
8. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
9. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
10. Tempest by Beverly Jenkins
11. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
12. Fetch by Nicole Georges
13. Longbourn by Jo Baker
14. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
15. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
16. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
17. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
18. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
19. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
20. Wrong To Need You by Alisha Rai
21. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
22. The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
23. My Real Children by Jo Walton
24. Sourdough by Robin Sloan
25. Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough
26. All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson
27. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
28. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
29. Pro by Katha Pollitt
30. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
31. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
32. The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines (re-read, original review is here.)
33. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
34. Made For Love by Alissa Nutting
35. Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
36. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
37. The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Miller Haines
38. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
39. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
40. The Outsider by Stephen King
41. Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid
42. The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls by Jessica Spotswood
43. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
44. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
45. A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
46. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
47. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
48. Good Luck With That by Kristan Higgins
49. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
50. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
51. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
52. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
53. Dating You / Hating You by Christina Lauren
54. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
55. From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
56. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
57. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
58. Journal Me Organized by Rebecca Spooner
59. The Psychopath Test by Ron Jonson
60. The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood
61. The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner
62. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
63. One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus
64. The Arrangement by Mary Balogh
65. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
66. Slade House by David Mitchell
67. Can't Nothing Bring Me Down by Ida Keeling
68. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
69. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
70. Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata
71. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
72. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
73. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
74. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
75. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
76. Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai
77. The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
78. Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
79. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
80. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
81. Are U Ok? by Kati Morton
82. A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson
83. Your Best Year Yet! by Jinny Ditzler
84. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
85. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

This is the least number of books I've read in several years, which is interesting. I think it's because I didn't listen to a ton of audiobooks (so many great podcasts out there now!) and also I read a few books that were quite long. Catherine the Great, for instance, took me something like 3 weeks to read (and I don't regret a moment of it!) A Little Life also took me longer than most books. I think there were a few other lengthy tomes in there as well, and I'm glad I finally buckled down and read them, since I had previously been daunted by their length.

Checking my Goodreads shelves, it looks like my 5-star reads for the year were:

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Huh. I've really been talking up An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh but managed to give them each only 4 stars. The more I look at this list, the more I see some really great books that got fewer than 5 stars. But I've always been stingy with 5-star ratings, and they usually go to books that I'm blown away by in the moment rather than those that I'm thinking about months later after I've given them the rating. Which is all just to say that the star ratings aren't everything.

In 2019 I'm participating in the TBR Pile Challenge again, which always means discovering wonderful books that I've put off reading for far too long. I'm looking forward to finding some new favorites this year!