By Stephen Kurkjian
Certain subjects can be assured of a bankable audience at almost all times and, at least in the Northeast, books dealing with the March 18, 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s theft of thirteen works of art valued at millions are certain to be in demand. Master thieves : the Boston gangsters who pulled off the world's greatest art heist by Stephen Kurkjian, an award winning Boston Globe writer, has landed with a “bang” on top of the pile on this, the 25th anniversary of the simple but most successful of art heists.
Kurkjian’s book contains a list of characters, which is very useful in following the various theories, claims, and counterclaims of who may or may not have been involved. The story can get very complicated but the theft itself was not. The key to understanding how the theft was pulled off is security, or lack thereof; the Gardner had minimal security. The museum was almost looking to get mugged. The plan? Two men disguised as police lured a young night watchman to open the door and let them in during the early hours after St. Patrick’s Day, and then taped the guard and the only other security guard to chairs in the basement and went about their work. That was it…a minimum of drama to engineer this historical art theft.
All avenues are explored: theories, linkages, possibilities, and relationships in the murky Boston underworld which, at times, can make for a labyrinth of connections and conjecture. One important point is that there seems to be a persistent belief that the paintings are being held as “collateral” to possibly reduce mob prison sentences. However, after 25 years with no paintings appearing on the horizon and more and more of the cast dying off, perhaps the theory that the paintings were hidden and someone took the secret of their whereabouts to the grave is the most plausible. Or, the paintings were stored improperly and somehow destroyed by the elements. In any case, the mystery still exists. Each reader will likely develop their own list of possible theories and scenarios. Mr. Kurkjian’s book is a very thorough overview of key players in the Gardner theft.
The book can be frustrating in the sense that no answer to the mystery exists, but we know that in advance. As Kurkjian states, after 25 years “…the biggest art theft in world history is still an open case”. Let’s hope that the next Gardner theft book is the story of the paintings’ return to the famed museum, but until that time, this fascinatingly frustrating and complicated work will have to satisfy.
March 23, 2015
By Christopher Fowler
Houses aren’t haunted…only people are.
Thus begins Christopher Fowler’s twisting, mind-bending, dream-like thriller, Nyctophobia. Nyctophobia, the title of the story, and the name of the condition from which the main character Callie suffers, follows the life of Callie, a newlywed, and her husband and stepdaughter as they move into their new home. Hyperion House, which is a magnificent find built in the cliffs of a secluded area overlooking the coast of Southern Spain, is an architect’s and homeowner’s dream: “In the hall of midnight blue Castilian tiles, sunlight bounced off every surface. All around me, motes and midges glowed golden in the angled geometries of four great stained-glass windows. It seemed as if brightness was filtering in from everywhere; it flowed in pools across the floors and cast chromatic diagonals on the walls, so that they appeared to be lit from within” (p. 49).
However, even though Hyperion House is bathed in sunlight, the back of the house which lies against the cliffs and is cast in constant darkness holds many sinister secrets. In one gripping scene for instance, a spool of red thread that Callie is using unravels out of her hands and rolls under a locked door of one of the rooms at the back of the house. Frustrated, Callie attempts to pull the thread back onto its spool when suddenly “the thread stopped and tightened. Dropping to my knees, I tried to see under the door, but there was only blackness. I pulled again. Something pulled back. I rose with a start. Wrapping the thread around my fingers I pulled hard, but whatever was on the other end pulled harder still” (p. 113).
While Callie continues to uncover the secrets of Hyperion House, Fowler drops kernels of doubt throughout the pages, in the guise of Callie’s sanity level, making the reader wonder if Hyperion House is really haunted. Fowler orchestrates this doubt to such a peak that by the end of the story, I could no longer trust that the light is safer than the darkness, something I’ve always believed.
As I flew through this story I could not help but think about what purpose our shadows serve? If we could hide behind them and somehow have a shield from the sickness, loneliness, and death that lurks in and around us all, would we? Should we? And if so, at what cost? One thing is for certain: Fowler’s Nyctophobia may have an ending, but the haunting questions it leaves behind are just the beginning.
March 19, 2015
By Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel, The Goldfinch, is an epic bildungsroman that shines with languid, lyrical language and a plot which propels the reader through its 700+ pages with ease. Tartt combines elements of the thriller with philosophical introspection and the result is a page-turner that also inspires metaphysical questioning. Theo Decker is 13 years-old when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo survives and spends the rest of his life struggling with his guilt and sorrow. It wasn’t his fault, that’s what the adults around him say, but the fact is Theo and his mom were on their way to a school disciplinary meeting when the rain forced them to seek shelter in the museum. In the days and weeks following the event Theo moves through the ordinary world in a fog, thoughts haunting him. If only…if I hadn’t done…I wish … It’s some time before practical considerations sink in. Such as what to do with the painting, the picture of the shining little yellow bird, that he carried out of the rubble.
The painting and a signet ring given to him by a dying old man lead Theo to strange places: a curious old antiques shop where he meets the love of his life, Park Avenue and a family of selfish modern aristocrats, the desert of Las Vegas where he’s neglected by an alcoholic, gambling father and where he begins a life-long drug habit. Brushes with the Russian mafia and an introduction into the criminal underworld of art theft and forgery further Theo’s moral descent. The whole rushing, whirling thing leaves the reader to decide: Do good outcomes justify bad means? Was Theo selected by fate on the day of the explosion or was it just “rotten luck”? Is there inherent value in art, beauty? Or is it the human lives and stories attached to these objects which make them special?
This book is required reading for literary lovers; a rewarding experience that’s not for the faint of heart.
March 6, 2015
Humans of New York
Humans of New York
By Brandon Stanton
By now you’ve probably heard of the Humans of New York phenomenon. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list nearly every week since its publication in 2013; the website, updated daily, is wildly popular. Its inception? Brandon Stanton, a bond trader in Chicago, was downsized out of his day job. He soon decided to expand what had been a weekend hobby of photographing interesting urban sites into a new career. As he states,“It felt like a treasure hunt. And that seemed like a pretty good way to spend my time.” Add a fateful trip to New York City during which Stanton discovered New Yorkers and Stanton’s idea to create a photographic census began to take shape.
Flipping the pages of Humans of New York (or HONY as it is referred to online due to the overwhelming popularity of its original Tumblr page and then humansofnewyork.com) makes you feel like you are walking the streets or chillin’ on a park bench. If you are a city person, you will feel affectionate nostalgia. If you are a country person, you are invited to view the bizarre, the beautiful and the surreal from a safe distance. Each photo is accompanied by a brief explanation, sometimes just a word or two, sometimes a mini essay. Regularly featured are residents of all boroughs. Most neighborhoods are represented, as are all ages, gender expressions, and a wide variety of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The wonderful thing about both this book, and the fact that it is so successful, is that the audience can sense the love with which Stanton photographs his subjects. In the introduction, he thanks each one of them for willing to be photographed and you can really feel his appreciation in the image and the words he chooses as accompaniment. If you have not looked at a photography book or visited New York City lately, this is the book for you. If you love people watching, this book is for you. And if you need your faith in humanity restored, this book is for you.