The Art of the Heist: Confessions of a Master Art Thief, Rock-and-Roller, and Prodigal Son

True crime stories aren’t always as riveting as this. Myles Connor’s memoir is about outwitting, outrunning, outsmarting the Boston PD, FBI, and various others during his spree of bank robberies and museum heists. Connor has a deep appreciation for art, specifically Japanese swords, and this leads him to acquire art both legally through auctions and illegally through climbing up drainpipes to unsecured windows and tossing his loot down to the ground like the anti-Santa Claus. He’s also a rock star, with his own band touring around the Northeast during the 60s and 70s. Among his accomplishments: stealing a $1M Rembrandt from a museum in broad daylight, using a bar of soap to whittle a gun and bust out of prison, legally amassing a multi-million dollar collection of Japanese art via undervalued auctions.

Am I a Redundant Human Being?

How can you turn down a book with a title like that? This gem is from the 1930s, written by a pal of Virginia Woolf, the Austrian writer Mela Hartwig, but only published first in 2001. A nondescript secretary details her ambition and the source of her ambition, going from school-era where she studied as hard as she could and still didn’t excel, finding that preparation and ambition were no match for raw talent. She enrolls in trade school, becomes an inefficient secretary. She bounces between jobs, meets Elizabeth the actress who then introduces her to Egon Z, the businessman she becomes obsessed with after Elizabeth shoots herself. Eventually securing a job as Egon Z’s secretary, she revels in the close contact with him and lives a fantasy life in her head. When confronted with his real life lover, the narrator becomes distraught, tries to kill herself. Egon Z hooks her up with a job with another construction firm and she excels at shorthand and efficiency but lives a very meagre life.
I can’t remember where I got the recommendation; it’s decent but missable. Reminded me a bit of Secretary, the movie with Maggie Gyllenhaal.

This Is Where I Leave You

Fairly funny quick read recommended by Eileen G. as laugh-out-loud funny. And while I definitely never got above “smirk” level, it qualifies as funny. Tropper does a great job creating images that will stick in your head– his immediate reaction after standing in the doorway with a birthday cake (lit candles) catching his wife in bed with his boss (who had just applied something flammable). The fact that his leaving his dresser drawers slightly askew was enough to drive his wife crazy. Sitting shiva for his dead father with his family for an entire week on low slung chairs, getting an eyeful of everyone’s crotch and nose hairs.
Judd’s marriage to Jen is over after the abovementioned cheating; his dad dies, he’s lost his job, he’s thirty years old and his life is over. Jen arrives at the shiva to confess that she is pregnant with his child. Swirls of emotion and then typical Hollywood happy ending crap.
Beach reading, but quality beach reading.

The Notebook

Immediately after finishing the first book in her trilogy, I sat spellbound on the window seat. Colors whirled about my head. An irrepressible energy pulled me out the door so I could walk it off. Nearly dancing through the neighborhood, I kept clenching the climbing clip that functions as my keychain. Drugged by books, what an addiction.
This book blew the top off my head. Spare writing, a constant gut punch. The story follows a pair of twins after their mother deposits them at their grandmother (the Witch)’s house in Small Town while Big Town is being attacked during the war. The precocious boys are inseparable and unnamed, intelligent and unyielding in their quest for discipline, knowledge, living life correctly. The grandmother also has a foreign officer boarding with her, who brings the boys into his world and eventually leaves the gramophone to them after departing. The twins take care of the neighbor and her mother, depositing firewood and bullying the priest for money for them. The boys learn juggling and acrobatics, earning money from drunks in bars.
Eventually the mother returns and tries to pry the boys away but they refuse to leave. A shell hits the yard and kills her and the baby. The grandmother and boys bury their mother and when their “cousin” returns from town to ask what happened, simply say that a shell landed in the yard. Their father eventually arrives to ask where the mother is. Grandmother shows them the grave. He insists on having her unburied to be properly stowed in a cemetery. When the skeleton shows a smaller skeleton around her neck, he breaks down. The twins take the bones, clean them, and hang them in the attic. The father requests their assistance in crossing the frontier, and they oblige.
In small bites, this story consumes you, showing you the dehumanizing power of war.
I stopped after finishing the first book because popular consensus says books 2 and 3 are not nearly as good. I’d prefer to keep Kristof’s legend spotless with only the memory of this book.

The Leper’s Companions

Another quick and delightful read, recommended by a former professor (Natania R.) who knows her stuff. The omniscient voice that carries throughout belongs to a current-day woman who loses someone she loves and in order to escape her sadness, she mind-travels to the Middle Ages to an English village near where she lives, sitting with her back against a hut and watching seagulls and the sand and the sea.
The historical inhabitants of the village are a motley crew, the shoemaker and his wife, the priest, Sally newly widowed with small child when her husband becomes obsessed with the mermaid he saw, a red headed girl, and the leper passing through town and clapping his wooden blocks to warn people of his impending arrival. He hands Sally a book of travels as he passes through, Sally eats the map in order to feel the journey inside her since she is unable to read. She takes the book to the priest to have him read it to her and soon enough everyone is venturing out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Storm-tossed seas and a difficult journey later, they are near Jerusalem. Sally has thrown herself off the boat when she sees an apparition of her husband in the calm seas. The shoemaker’s wife hooks up with a local shoemaker and disappears. The priest and the leper arrive in Jerusalem. At the end of their stay, a guide arrives to take the priest to the river Jordan. The leper departs alone, headed not home but outward into the desert. The priest is the only one who returns to the village.
The writing is cerebral but without spirit. The story lacks real oomph. But still a tasty morsel that could be used to clear one’s literary palate before heading into the next big project.

Sometimes he would describe a particular event several times, and with each new telling he became more aware how insubstantial his memories were.

The leper was lying in a corner, barricaded by mattresses that were not his own, soaking wet and dizzy from something which had hit him on the head. People were crying and praying and screaming in a great soup of noise all around him, but he felt very relaxed, and almost contented.

The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds, born the same year as this humble blog-writer, instills a deep sense of jealousy in her. His skill with weaving a mood across the entire work, set in historical 1800-ish England is downright magical, lyrical, off the charts. The work begins with John’s foray to the ends of the earth, walking far as the horizon, far past his village, getting lost and scurrying back quickly to find the village calling his name, searching for him. This is the peasant poet, John Clare, encountered later in the book as a resident of the insane asylum farm run by Dr. Matthew Allen. Allen and his family have a cozy retreat, filled with the finest lace and teapots and orrery displaying all the planets. Unfortunately, this is funded through debt, and Allen embarks on a scheme to make more money by a mechanical wood carving device. Alfred Tennyson, poet, and his brother, are in residence, for the brother’s melancholy. The Tennysons invest their inheritance with Allen, then find his fraudulent payment of dividends. Allen’s son Hannah attempts to lure Tennyson into marriage, and upon rebuff decides he is too smelly and plain. Margaret turned Mary is psychotically religious. John Clare rendezvous with the gypsies, believes himself to be a boxer. He loses his key privileges and is sent to the upper farm where unspeakable acts occur to Margaret/Mary.
Wonderful book, a light shining on the mind as you read.
Vocab learned:
*ordure – excrement
Recommended by Natania R.

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean

An uncompelling look at one of the ocean’s more interesting sides, this book falls flat. I enjoyed her look at great white sharks in Devil’s Teeth, but her latest book is more self-obsessed, showing her preening in the sun, grabbing hold of Laird Hamilton as they jetski through big waves, seriously into how her cheekbones look (don’t peep at the author’s photo unless you’ve steeled yourself). If I can boil the book down, it’s “waves are bigger than we thought! 100 footers are common! Surfers love to ride big waves and they travel all around the world in search of them. Surfers are courageous and cool. Scientists study waves, too. Look at me riding the back of Jaws with Laird!”
I heard an unconfirmed rumor that people lost their jobs on the Farallon Islands after allowing her to break the rules and tromp around out there. That may have colored my perspective on this as well.

On Balance

In his Five Short Talks on Excess, I dug his section on Enough is Enough. Excess is contagious, Phillips argues. But why, if we love something, do we want too much of it? We might fear losing it and never having it again, or maybe we become greedy because “what we are getting is not quite what we want: it’s failing to satisfy me so I begin to believe that more is better, that if one cream cake isn’t doing the trick, three will, when in fact it isn’t a cream cake that I really want.”
The reverse is also true… we eat too little for the same reasons. Children “can use doubt about food to hide doubt about love… But once again excess – here, excessive deprivation – is born of mortal fear. Excesses of appetite are self-cures for feelings of helplessness.”
“Excess is a sign of frustration; we are only excessive wherever there is a frustration we are unaware of, and a fear we cannot bear. An addiction is an unformulated frustration.”
“We have become excessively frightened of feeling frustrated; why else do people in affluent countries eat so much more than they need – indeed, make a cult of eating? Is it because we have become, have been encouraged to be, phobic of frustration? As though satisfaction is more enlivening, more interesting, more revealing than frustration. We can only be truly satisfied if we are truly frustrated.”
I skimmed most of the remainder of the book. Other bits that stood out:
” ‘The hell of the narcissist,’ the French analyst Serge Viderman wrote, ‘is the tyranny of his need for others.’
An interesting poem by Czech poet Miroslav Holub entitled ‘Brief Reflection on Maps’:

Albert Szent-Györgyi, who knew a thing or two about maps,
By which life moves somewhere or other,
Used to tell this story from the war,
Through which history moves somewhere or other.
From a small Hungarian unit in the Alps a young lieutenant
Sent out a scouting party into the icy wastes.
At once
It began to snow, it snowed for two days and the party
Did not return. The lieutenant was in distress: he had sent
His men to their deaths.
On the third day, however, the scouting party was back.
Where had they been? How did they manage to find their way?
Yes, the man explained, we certainly thought we were
Lost and awaited our end. When suddenly one of our lot
Found a map in his pocket. We felt reassured.
We made a bivouac, waited for the snow to stop, and then with the map
Found the right direction.
And here we are.
The lieutenant asked to see that remarkable map in order to
Study it. It wasn’t a map of the Alps
But the Pyrenees.
Goodbye.

The Queen’s Gambit

A whirlwind story of a prodigy orphan who takes the chess world by storm. Unfortunately, way too much Hollywood and lack of substance to be a recommended read for anyone else. Beth is orphaned, discovers a chess game in the basement with the janitor, develops a taste for barbiturates at age 8. Attempts to steal the entire jar of pills from the pharmacy when their supply is cut off because the state of Kentucky finds it odd that they are drugging their orphans. Chess genius is punished by not being allowed to play chess. Is adopted, the new mom is flighty and alcoholic, the dad flees to Denver. Mom learns that Beth can make money via tournaments, begins pimping her daughter out. Prodigy wins tourneys, loses a few battles with people who are currently better than her, then hooks up with them and hoovers out their knowledge (and sleeps with them) before moving on. Ends with the typical movie ending– goes to Moscow, beats Russian grandmaster, post-tournament goes to park and humbly asks one of the old men for a chess game.
Only good thing I got out of this was 2 new words:
* Eidetic – involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual images
* Fianchetto – a pattern of development wherein a bishop is developed to the second rank of the adjacent knight file, the knight pawn having been moved one or two squares forward.