Aug 25, 2013

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

This is one funky read. Half medical drama, half mob tale, Bazell's novel pulls the reader back and forth between the narrator's previous life as a hired gun for the mob (but one who only kills people who really deserve it) and his current life as a doctor while in the Federal witness protection program. It's really original, which I love, and darn good for a first novel. I can't say I have any strong feelings about it; I enjoyed reading it and would certainly recommend it to someone looking for a fun, smart, quick read, or for something pretty different from what's out there. Since Bazell managed to find time to write this book while interning at a hospital, I hope he can find the same balance in his life as a practicing doctor and novelist. He's good, and interesting, and we need more books like "Beat the Reaper."

Aug 21, 2013

Loot, by Sharon Waxman

The world of art and antiquities dealers and museums is a surprisingly deeply shadowed domain. Writing about contemporary demands for restitution of items most likely looted and illegally (and/or immorally) sold from their source countries, Waxman reveals a sordid past rife with Western arrogance and nationalism and unequaled greed and cupidity, on the part of both Western collectors and source-country-dealers. Explaining how museums like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the British Museum acquired many of their pieces - e.g. the unrivaled pillaging of Egypt by the French, followed by the subsequent plundering by the British - Waxman makes the very good point that the West owes an enormous apology to those countries, rich in antiquities but poor in current economic and political world standing, for its incredible hubris and indelicacy in removing artifacts. She describes entire ceilings and large chunks of Egyptian tomb walls being unceremoniously chopped, dug, and even exploded out of their surroundings for delivery to Europe. And the tomb raiding in Greece, Italy, and Turkey remains a huge problem, spurred by museums' willingness to look the other way when presented with an object that has no clear provenance.

However, Waxman also raises an issue that complicates matters tremendously: most of these countries are unable to take care of their own antiquities. Faced with massive budget shortfalls and generalized cultural indifference, museums in, for example, Turkey, are rarely visited and often prey to insider thefts, not to mention the fact that such museums are rarely possessed of modern preservation tools. Given these facts, Waxman intelligently notes that the issue of restitution is almost entirely political. Turkey, trying to force its way into the modern First World, uses antiquities to shame the West into acknowledging its past bad behavior. Is this anger warranted? Most definitely. But Waxman, along with many museum heads, argues that the past belongs to all humanity, and though the British were absolutely wrong to cut through several statues in order to reach one enormous Ramses and bring it back to England, the damage has already been done. These treasures are seen by thousands and even millions of people every year, whereas they would almost surely languish in their source countries.

Waxman sees a future with a much more transparent museum culture and a whole lot more cooperation. She suggests that museums open up about their pieces' unpleasant provenance in an effort to present a holistic view of each item's history. Countries that want their antiquities back should be willing to loan them out for extended periods, particularly if they are incapable of caring for the objects properly.

I enjoyed this book. It's well-written and incredibly interesting, and impeccably researched. One glaring omission for me was any discussion of Asian artifacts. I completely understand not being able to include everything (the book is already 375 pages long), but aside from a single paragraph in the concluding chapter, there is no mention of any restitution demands from Asian countries. I'd be interested to know whether Asia has a similar relationship to Western museums as does the Mediterranean.

Aug 8, 2013

The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

I know, I know, another Pratchett book...I can't help myself, they're fun! This one is actually his first foray into Discworld, the universe about which Pratchett has written oodles and oodles of books. It's funny, it's cute, it's ever so British, and at certain moments it's even a little bit touching. Silliness aside, Pratchett is a talented writer, and though I read his books mostly for the humor, it's the quiet moments of beauty that make them special.

Aug 3, 2013

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

Yes, that is his name. Or rather, it was his name. Breece Pancake killed himself under rather confusing circumstances shortly before his 27th birthday, after having several stories published and numerous endorsements from other writers. Born and raised in West Virginia, Pancake wrote what he knew - the land, history, and people of West Virginia were his subjects. In his focus on one geographical location, he reminds me of Ivan Doig, who writes mainly about the mid-West and West. Though the writing is fairly simple and straightforward, Pancake's stories are anything but simplistic. In fact, though each story is quite short and this collection no more than 150 pages long, it is difficult to read them straight through. Pancake captures an incredible pathos in 1970s West Virginian denizens, a pulling tension between tradition and family versus change and growth. The protagonists, male and female alike, have minds that are painful to step inside; they are stunted and unfulfilled, but unable to push beyond their surroundings into something more. It's clear that Pancake had an innate talent for writing, and it is an immeasurable shame that he had to leave the world so soon.