I now have one book down in my Boston reading project. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro was a pretty good start to the year and if everything I read is as enjoyable and quick as it was, I may be able to start calling myself as avid a reader as my husband.
The Art Forger follows a young female artist's decision to forge a fictional member of the stolen Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings. I won't give any more details on the plot because it's pretty intriguing (I couldn't put it down!) and decently written (keeping in mind the gratuitous sex scenes), but for anyone who loves the art world both present and past, this book is pretty terrific. It's light reading and though I was able to predict the closing twist fairly quickly, it was entirely fascinating. The book seamlessly blurs history and fiction, allowing the reader to step into two worlds embellished with imaginary details by the author - the late 19th century world of Isabella's Paris and the early 21st century world of the forger's Garner Museum, Newbury Street, and MoMA.
As I'm hoping to use literature to influence and inspire my view of Boston, The Art Forger was perfect for my reading project. From the moment I first arrived in Boston, I regrettably lacked an awareness, and therefore appreciation, of what everyone else seemed to believe was Boston's "charm." My family members, close friends, new acquaintances, and anyone with any experience of the city constantly talked about how cute, beautiful, and mostly "charming" it was. But for some reason, all I could see was salt weathered buildings and trash on the sidewalks. Nothing about it captured my imagination or my fancy, not even Cambridge! Everything looked old, but not in the good way, and run down, but not in the hipster-picture worthy way. The city may have been historic, but it felt dreary.
What The Art Forger gave me, though, was interesting characters to populate the city. Shapiro's cast is believable and she describes places beautifully and accurately. With almost every page, I found myself thinking, "I've been there. I know what she's talking about!" or "I totally walk past that person every day!" And instead of seeing the boring Boston of my first impressions, through The Art Forager I started to see a story I wanted more of. Listening to her describe the poshness of Newbury Street, the innards of the Gardner museum, and the transitioning streets of South Boston all helped give both a familiarity and mystery to these places I encounter. Though it may seem silly, what especially drew me in was her description of the misery which calls itself the MBTA's Silver Line. I have had so many horrific experiences with that sham of a subway line and to read that those experiences are very much a part of the fabric of the city helped make it not only somewhat more bearable, but almost poetic.
After all, what are cities if not shared experiences? The past and present gets all mixed up and twisted together in the space you share every day with your neighbors. If you can see the beauty of those shared experiences and spaces, or at least the mystery of them, then you are bound to develop a heart for that city. Finally, after a year of waiting for it, my imagination has been sparked and I am seeing in Boston a whole host of things worthy of my attention and appreciation.
Next up: Poems and Other Writings, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: Lots of emotional and legendary old poems by an epic American Romantic. This will be interesting since I've never before been able to get into poetry. Hopefully the Charles River will inspire me as much as it did Henry!
Why I'm excited to read it: While I've had a hard time with poetry, I really do want to understand and love it. Longfellow is one of the best known Cantabrigians, so I think I owe it to the area to give him a shot. Plus, Trey and I found his grave the other day and nothing inspires one to read old dead poets like an old dead poet's grave!
I'm commencing a year long Boston and New England reading project.
NPR inspired me to this reading project a few months ago. One day at the beginning of the summer, a bunch of talking heads were discussing and recommending newly published novels about Cambridge. Most of what they had to say was pretty snooty in that special Boston way, but some of it was really fascinating and quite intriguing. The truth struck me for the first time that I live in a place "important" enough I actually could create a reading list based off of it! I jotted down a few of the recommended titles and added them to my Amazon wish list.
A few weeks later, my inspiration grew when I finally made a long overdue trek to the Louisa May Alcott house. For some reason it never really settled into my brain that this childhood idol was a local, or that many of her stories take place in the area. Additionally, I had never known how close knit the Alcott/Emerson/Thoreau crowd was, but driving down the streets of Concord and watching famous house after famous house pass by, it's pretty obvious the American Transcendentalists were a bit inbred. My reading list doubled in size as I considered the area's rich literary history and added countless historical works to the list.
Last night, I launched into the growing list. I walked into the Harvard Book Store without any certain idea of where I would start or really of what I hoped to accomplish by reading books set in Boston for a year. As I scoured the shelves, I kept seeing other titles about far away places that piqued my interest. But I carried with me a vision and decided to stick to it. I finally found a book I remembered being recommended and decisively purchased it.
With my newly acquired treasure in hand (for the weight and smell of a newly purchased book always feel like a treasure despite whatever hesitations accompany it), I stepped out of the bookstore into Harvard Square. Now, I don't do well with change and after moving to the Boston area, I've struggled with my surroundings for the past year. In particular, I've really struggled with not judging the city and its inhabitants and I would venture to say I've never struggled with a judgmental attitude more strongly than since moving here. As I walked to my bus stop, my tendency to judge once again loomed large. These people are ridiculous, this people are snobs, these people are rude, these people are fake... and so on and so on and so on. Truly, my heart is vile when it comes to sympathizing with my neighbors.
Amidst these subconscious thoughts running amok, I contemplated my new reading project. And as I simultaneously judged the people around me and gloried in the charm of New England's sweet night breezes, I realized that this reading project isn't just an interesting idea, or some fun way to blog about my self-appreciated opinions; no, this project is something I need. I need these books to tell me about this place and I need to let them show me things. The only lens through which I need to read these books is the one that enables me to learn something about my city and its people.
So, in the coming year I hope to share with you what I take away from each book concerning Boston, New England, and its people. And hopefully, at the end of the day, my heart will be softer, gentler, and generally more at peace with this place.
First up: The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
My paraphrase of the back page synopsis: A young artist makes a deal to forge a famous painting in exchange for a one-woman show at a famous gallery. Intrigue ensues.
Why I'm excited to read it: It centers on the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and talks a lot about the art world, two things that intrigue me deeply. What on earth could make a more exciting novel???