Stealing the Show (CBR15 #15)

May is Preservation Month, and in honor of that there is a push in the museum community to work on safety and preservation policies and procedures that all too often get pushed to the bottom of the to do list. Disaster and emergency preparedness are parts of my job that I enjoy and this year’s May focus for me was theft reporting procedures, which made Stealing the Show timely reading. But I wanted the book that this one’s subtitle describes and this isn’t it. (I’m bummed since Managing Expectations did such a good job, well, managing expectations with its subtitle.)

So, what is this book then? A personal history of John Barelli and his time with the security department of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barelli spent the better part of forty years responsible for one of the world’s most diverse museum collections, but also the museum’s staff, the millions of visitors, as well as the dignitaries which make their way to the museum each year. Barelli shares his experiences of the crimes that occurred on his watch; the investigations that captured thieves and recovered artwork; the lessons he learned and shared with law enforcement professionals in the United States and abroad; the accidents and near misses; and a few mysteries that were sadly never solved. While it is a comprehensive forty-year look, it is also uneven. It also is more a recounting and less a history and I couldn’t tell you which six thefts Barelli intended to be the focus.

What I did take away from this one in the positive column is the ways that Barelli helped establish what are now industry standards in museum security (although I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the amazing work that the Getty does – and shares with other institutions, something the Met is not known for). This one is short, coming in just shy of 200 pages and I wonder if a retooling away from a personal history and instead a focus more heavily on the art and antiquities would have made this a better read for me. But – I might be the wrong audience for this, knowing too much about the field.

Managing Expectations (CBR15 #14)

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been following along with Minnie Driver’s acting career in real time since her debut in Circle of Friends. Several of her performances have stood out to me over the years and as I have a fondness for memoirs, picking hers up seemed inevitable and going the author read audio route all the better. For almost a week Driver’s voice accompanied me on my various drives (and notably in and out of Philly for work in a day) and it was truly delightfully pleasant.

That might seem like faint praise but given my reading year delightfully pleasant is really quite high praise. In Managing Expectations Driver is thoughtful and introspective, unpacking the personality quirks and lived experience that make her who she is. About half the book skips through Driver’s childhood as she grows up in the shadow of her parents’ failed relationship and the fact that her mom was her dad’s mistress and her mom’s battles to maintain custody of her daughters in the 1970s.

The subtitle of this book gives an important indication of its parameters. Driver selected stories that highlight various times in her life and explore a larger topic or theme. I won’t go into them here; I’m hoping you’ll read them for yourself (also… its been four weeks since I read this) but while her career is a focal point it isn’t the only one. The complexities of life are the real point of the book. Driver approaches it all with grace. Grace for herself, and grace for those who were in and out of her life.   

Seward Johnson: A Life in Public Art (CBR15 #13)

Seward Johnson sculpture La Promenade inspired by Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day.” (1887) Two figures sharing an umbrella in victorian dress.

I’m in a reading slump. I have great books at home staring at me, waiting for me to be in the mood for them and so far, nothing – for weeks now. I’ve been marathoning my way through procedurals on various streaming services instead. But, a work project meant that I *had* to read a book so I’m hoping that getting it done and reviewed will help get me out of this slump.

My organization is hosting 10 works by sculptor Seward Johnson this summer/fall at one of our arboretums and I volunteered to write the audio tour script. Which meant that I needed to get familiar with the artist and his work. Enter into my life Seward Johnson: A Life in Public Art published in 2014. It is a retrospective of Johnson’s art career of the previous 45 years (he would continue working until his death in 2020). What I needed was a comprehensive examination of the artist and this book is exactly that.

What I enjoyed most about A Life in Public Art (beyond the literal hundreds of images) is that it breaks Johnson’s career down into its several phases and then the text is based on extensive interviews between the authors with additional interstitials serving as broad introductions to each series of works and then reflecting on them and their place within the larger art world and in relation to Johnson’s audience. While Seward Johnson’s sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I respect the why of his work. He wanted to capture the mundane to celebrate it. He focused on public art because he wanted to draw people into shared spaces like parks. His art is meant to be playful, people are encouraged to interact with them, touch them even. He also is a bit cheeky, hiding humorous details in most of his pieces.

My tour script is out with staff being reviewed and I was able to pull lots of information directly from the artist to share with visitors because of this book so it served its purpose well in that regard. We’ll see if it helps jumpstart my reading.

The Dream of a Common Language (CBR15 #12)

Poetry is a genre that I have a terrible time reviewing but in my personal quest to keep reading the genre – and not give up on it – I find myself trying to about once a year. The Dream of a Common Language is the first one of 2023 for me (I have at least one other poetry collection on my TBR for the year) and while I’ve known about its existence since I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild back in 2012, it took a Read Harder task to get it in my hands.

I can understand why this was a book that Strayed kept with her on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s under a hundred pages and the opening page hits with a wallop. As I started I thought to myself, yes I can see turning back to these poems night after night while sitting near a campfire. I don’t know if the fact that the poems held within The Dream of a Common Language were written between 1974 and 1977 makes them easier or more difficult to comment on, but there is enough of the broader human experience to give the reader plenty to think on.

My library copy included marginalia from some previous reader’s experience with the book. I’m glad that it was there, it provided a dialogue I wouldn’t otherwise have with the poems. We didn’t always agree on favorite phrases, but I found myself appreciating their choices. It was also helpful to see someone else’s analysis of themes in this overtly feminist work. I’m still not sure how to review this, other than to recount my experience as positive, that some of the poems hit me in the solar plexus while others skimmed over the surface of my mind. But sometimes that’s all there is to do.  

Why We Can’t Sleep (CBR15 #11)

Why We Can’t Sleep is a book about Gen X Women and how mid-life is affecting them. Why then, am I a Millennial lady reading it? Because as someone who just turned 40 I often find that I identify more with things that are defined as Gen X as opposed to Millennial (the accepted year bracket for Gen X is 1964-1980, but there are models that have put it as late as 1984). I’m like many other millions of people existing on the boundaries of the generational lines but I am certainly by anyone’s math in my middle age, give or take.

My reasons for reading this are similar to my reasons for reading What Fresh Hell is This two years ago. I’m already dealing with it, best to get my head around what’s coming.

I mentioned in my review of Priceless that I’ve been coming up a little disappointed in narrative non-fiction lately, but Why We Can’t Sleep definitely turned the corner on that (I hope it continues). Calhoun grows this book out from an article she wrote for O Magazine. Like most of the rest of the way Gen X has experienced life, mid-life is hitting differently for its women than those who have come before us. This rings incredibly true to me at this time.

Each chapter covers a different topic, and the basis of the book is in interviews that Calhoun conducted with a wide slice of Gen X women (but she is clear in her foreword that this book is about middle class Gen X women, there are other factors which exacerbate the struggle in mid-life of women in lower socio-economic spheres). I appreciate that Calhoun set herself a reasonable boundary to explore, it helps keep Why We Can’t Sleep from growing into a behemoth and instead remain a crisp 250 pages.

When my brother asked me what I was reading when he spotted this book sitting on the table I told him, “Oh, its about mid-life for women and how its all a bit bleak.” He was dumbfounded – why was I reading a book that bummed me out. But then I reassured him, it didn’t – having an author interview 200 women and do the secondary research and turn around and say, yep this is a thing that is happening to lots of women actually lowered my anxiety. I may be worried about lots of things and the feelings that I have to defend the way I live my life, but there’s reasons why its happening and I’m not alone. Not alone, and having language to describe what’s happening, are what help keep me afloat. Is everyone going to love the tone of this book? Nope. There were certainly components that I skimmed through, but I think if you are a lady person in your late 30s or your 40s there is plenty here you might find relatable.

Priceless (CBR15 #10)

Sometimes professional curiosity places books on my to read list, and that’s certainly how Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures ended up there. While I don’t work in an art museum something that remains a point of interest for me from my days in grad school is the world of stolen and looted art and its recovery. Historical objects can fall into this category easily (and represent a good portion of the cases covered in Priceless) but art and antiquities are often the stars of the show and two of the major pillars in this world are the Art Loss Register and the FBI’s Art Crime Team and Art Theft Program.

Priceless is a memoir, specifically of Robert Wittman who was the founding member of the Art Crime Team. This is his story of his professional life, trailing his way through two decades worth of art crime cases. Wittman often worked undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black market traders who specialized in a wide variety of looted and stolen cultural patrimony. It is enjoyable to follow along as Wittman relates the stories behind his recoveries including a Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement, a headdress Geronimo wore at his final public appearance, and the rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation’s first African-American regiments.

While the breadth and depth  of the career Wittman crafted and relates is interesting all on its own, I found the structure of the book did it a bit of a disservice (apparently I’m just unhappy broadly with narrative non-fiction lately, I’m hoping my next one breaks the streak). The book opens and closes with Wittman’s attempts to recover some of the paintings stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in 1990. As none of those pieces have been recovered to date, it takes a bit of the tension out of the equation. It also dumps the reader into a case in progress without the knowledge to completely appreciate what is happening. Otherwise, this is a interesting book if you’re looking for some insight into how American law enforcement dramatically underserves these cases and what goes into solving them, and how often the return of the piece is the priority over an arrest. But I think this one’s just for someone with a pre-existing interest.

From Hollywood With Love (CBR15 #9)

I love romantic comedies. It’s the same reason I love Romance novels, I’m sure. There’s a joy in knowing that the end of the story is going to be happy, and that you’ll be treated to laughs along the way. They are my re-charge kind of story. When I saw Ellesfena’s review last year I plunked Scott Meslow’s From Hollywood with Love: The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Romantic Comedy on my to read list. When putting in my library requests this one seemed a lovely match for February, and thanks to HarperCollins signing a contract with their striking workforce I am free to post my review (I had pledged not to review while the strike was ongoing).

By and large this book sets out to track what its subtitle promises. Meslow defines his boundaries and then marches from When Harry Met Sally through to Crazy Rich Asians giving a glimpse at how Hollywood has embraced – or not – romance and the mid-level movie and the places where streamers and others are stepping in to see an uptick in romcom development. Meslow structures his book by going back and forth between taking a deep dive in a movie and then spotlighting an actor. I found that this was a good way to break up the narrative, but this methodology of one movie at a time still lent to a repetitive nature. Meslow does a better job than many at linking forward and back within his text to pull at the larger themes he his discussing, but it is still a tough ask when the movies are siloed instead of being organized in a thematic way.

Spare (CBR15 #8)

I had no intention of reading Prince Harry’s memoir. Until I did. I should have known I’d cave, I’m a sucker for memoirs. There’s something about hearing a person’s story in their own words, particularly if that story is contested in some way, as Prince Harry’s has always been. What Spare is, at its core, is a person reckoning with the way in which they were raised, and the very real ways grief and trauma informed their experience of the world. That is the piece of the writing that pushed me to finish the book because even as I started, I figured I would not read the last section on his relationship with Meghan (particularly since I had watched their Netflix documentary series) but alas I read all 410 pages of this book. 

Before continuing It should be mentioned that while Harry is never going to join me in my anti-monarchy sensibilities, he does acknowledge the cost the monarchy has for the British taxpayer (and its benefits) in addition to the colonialism. Of course, I would have preferred if he had dug deeper into how the exploitation of indigenous peoples and other communities of color in the name of colonialism built the system in which he lived but that is not this book, and that is okay. (I do wonder if the other books possibly in the pipeline he has alluded to in interviews will tackle that more head-on, but I know the answer is probably not.) 

Spare instead is a chronicling of Harry’s life ages 12-37. He struggled at school, struggled with anger, with loneliness and with existing in a pre-established relationship with the British press, whom he blamed for his mother’s death, had with his family. He rails against all of it, to a mixed bag of results. He doesn’t shy away from discussing all the times he’s ended up in press for legitimate errors of judgement (the Nazi uniform, the ethnic slurs, the nakedness) but the impression – from action and word – is that he is someone looking to correct his errors or lack of knowledge. It is obvious from the writing that his time in the British Army is foundational to how he built his adult life, but it is not without further cost in the form of post-traumatic stress and crippling panic attacks. It is not surprising then that the last 6-8 years have played out the way they have. While truth is often at the intersection of stories this book is well enough written that while acknowledging that it cannot all be accurate, it feels more in line with our fallible memories, not active obfuscation. But… I could be wrong about that; I just hope I am not. I think the book would have been served better by waiting a bit longer to publish, but I understand that they have security bills to pay and deals with Netflix and his publisher make that happen, so I’ll accept it as is without too much complaint. 

On the Line (CBR15 #7)

I had some unexpected travel last week and grabbed the nearest library book to read on the plane. On the Line: a Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union had come to my attention due to a pro-union cat on twitter (@jortsthecat – which if you haven’t encountered, I promise he and Jean are worth taking a quick deep dive). I don’t know if it was the time/place I was reading it, or my affection for the recommending source and their tone, or the actual writing of the book but this one was firmly middle of the road for me.

On the Line is Daisy Pitkin’s retelling of her time spent as a union organizer for industrial laundries in Phoenix, Arizona. In it she captures her own mindset, and the questions she was asking herself about the work as well as her relationships she had with the workers in the laundry – especially Alma (with whom the profits of the book are shared). It also documents the strategies her union (UNITE) attempted to use to organize the laundry, those of the union they merged with during the five-year campaign, and the fallout for all involved as the struggled against a rather vicious anti-union campaign from the company.

There were parts of this book that I enjoyed, and that I think are important as we reckon with labor laws that have been eroded to the point of being too weak to help most workers fight back and win in the United States. Based on who I am as a person the sections where Pitkin lays out the actual history of the unions which eventually become UNITE (garment workers) and how that story is mythologized were the strongest for me as they are both important social history but provide a lens to view organizing and its costs. I appreciated that Pitkin explicitly reckons with the privilege she brought with her into her experience in Phoenix and the imbalance of power that comes from top-down organizing but I was left with the sensation that while she named it, she didn’t fully interrogate it or land on a final thought.

What didn’t work for me were the sections of this book that make up the other half of the narrative. I know Pitkin was going for a metaphor or allegory in unpacking her consistent nightmares about moths during her time organizing in Phoenix and her later continued fascination with studying them, but the sections stood starkly in contrast with the other sections. The other thing isn’t the book’s fault so I’m not weighing it against my rating (not Pitkin’s fault I’m currently very mad at my union and reps).

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (CBR15 #6)

I’m nearly a decade late to The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. It has been on my to read list since 2016 and got pushed to the top tier of the pile last year for the Read Harder challenge (as it does take place in a big way in a bookstore). Then I never got to it but seeing that there was a movie adaptation out I decided to get my proverbial act together and dig into the story.  

The book tells the story of the titular thirty-nine-year-old widower who is at the end of his rope. He had started his professional life with noble ideals, but the realities of life after his wife’s death and coping with a struggling business just shows him all the ways the world does not conform to the way he hoped it would be. On top of everything else his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. A.J. is isolating himself from all the people of his community —from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.  

A.J. is not the most likely romantic hero (although he would fit right into lit fic): he is cranky, he drinks too much, and he is depressed. But the mechanics of the story that Zevin puts into place bring A.J. back to a version of himself. He is given the opportunity to try again, but in a new way with a new goal. Once the big thing happens in the story, we are taking part in a tale of transformation and second chances, an affirmation of why we read, and why we love. Because besides being the story of a man who adopts a little girl who is abandoned in his bookstore and then begins to open himself back up to life it is also a love letter to the joys of reading. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story or a book and a note from Fikry describing what he likes about it. Zevin sets about introducing each character by what they read, allowing the reader in us all to make our own personal connections.  

But I didn’t love it. It is a bit too on the nose for me right now. If it were a capital R romance that would be one thing, but it isn’t. The romance itself, once it settles in, wasn’t particularly gripping. While all the literary allusions worked for me (and I’m sure there are many I missed entirely) the fact that it was wrapped up so neatly, and that Fikry’s end is the end left me with a sour feeling.