Posts Tagged B.A. Shapiro

STEELE PICKS: BEST FICTION of 2015

To provide a bit of background, I read 150 books in 2015. I wrote 52 reviews for 2015 releases on this site. I gave very few books 5/5*. I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara so since I started it in 2015, I reserve the right to include it in my best of 2015 list.

Here are my picks for best fiction:

Outline by Rachel Cusk [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–gorgeous writing. purchase at Amazon: Outline: A Novel

outline

Where Women are Kings by Christie Watson [Other Press]
–from my review: Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Stunning. Entwines race, foster families, adoption, mental illness and cultural differences with exquisite descriptions and phrasing. purchase at Amazon: Where Women Are Kings

where women are kings

The Green Road by Anne Enright [W. W. Norton & Company]
–from my review: A perfect novel with imperfect characters that spans decades and continents. purchase at Amazon: The Green Road: A Novel

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The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro [Algonquin]
–from my review: When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. purchase at Amazon: The Muralist: A Novel

muralist

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson [Other Press]
–from my review: Rather haunting and definitely unusual. It’s tough to describe except to say it’s part mystery and part personal exploration. A strange story –in a good way– with gorgeous writing and an intriguing story-line. purchase at Amazon: Katherine Carlyle

katherine carlyle

The Last September by Nina de Gramont [Algonquin]
–from my review: excellent characters and a dazzling story-line involving mental illness, family, infidelity, relationships, love and murder. purchase at Amazon: The Last September

last september

Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht [Harper Perennial]
–engrossing, beautiful and creative novel about a group of 30-somethings finding their place in the world. purchase at Amazon: Migratory Animals: A Novel (P.S.)

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Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman [Scribner]
–from my review: Brilliant concept and exquisitely written. This short story collection focuses on intriguing, bold and remarkable women from history. It’s edgy historical fiction. These women lived life as they chose to live it which likely made them misfits and outliers during their lifetimes. purchase at Amazon: Almost Famous Women: Stories by Mayhew Bergman, Megan (2015) Hardcover

almost famous women

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat [Other Press]
from my review: Touching, creative, lovely novel. It tells the story of a child of the Holocaust in a unique manner. purchase at Amazon: The Travels of Daniel Ascher

ascher

Music for Wartime: stories by Rebecca Makkai [Viking]
–from my review: an exceptional, stunning and creative short-story collection. purchase at Amazon: Music for Wartime: Stories

music for wartime

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North [Blue Rider Press]
–from my review: a fascinating novel about creativity, artists, fitting in and being satisfied with success, fame and how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to understand us. Sophie Stark, who changed her name to suit her persona, is a renowned and elusive filmmaker. She makes enigmatic and often strikingly sad, honest films that strip bare the characters and dig into their psyches. purchase at Amazon: The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

life and death of sophie stark

Aquarium by David Vann [Atlantic Monthly Press]
–from my review: This is Vann’s first novel centered on a female protagonist. Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives in Seattle with her dockworker single mother. Older now, Caitlin looks back on this time with the wisdom one gains through age and experience. There’s a lighter tone than previous works until events draw to a boiling point for Caitlin and her mother. Every day after school Caitlin visits the aquarium to study the fish while waiting for her mom to finish work and retrieve her. She finds the various fish and sea life fascinating and allows herself contemplation and solitude. purchase at Amazon: Aquarium

aquarium

Tightrope by Simon Mawer [Other Press]
-Feminist character Marian Sutro returns from WWII determined to find her place. from my review: Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist. Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. purchase at Amazon: Tightrope

tightrope

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]
–from my review: Kate Alcott writes spectacularly strong feminist female characters in historical fiction. Women who want to have careers and love. Women who juggle and manage both. Or learn from their decisions. They’re smart protagonists and Alcott has quickly become a must-read favorite author for me. She intermingles her fictional characters in real-life historical settings and it works. purchase at Amazon: A Touch of Stardust: A Novel

touch of stardust

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book review: The Muralist

the muralist

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin| November 3, 2015| 352 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 9781616203573

RATING: *****/5*

When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. Post-depression and pre-war, Alizée works alongside Lee Krasner on murals for government-funded WPA. The Works Progress Administration], established as part of the New Deal, hired the unemployed for public works projects and hired artists, writers and actors to develop arts, media and literacy projects]. Alizée vanishes amidst personal and political turmoil.

Author B.A. Shapiro drops this fictional character in among real historical figures such as Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning, well-known abstract artists in the 40s. This only works when you believe that the fictional character could have truly existed and with the outstanding depiction and details. Readers become involved in Alizée’s story and in her quest to expose the truth about the war and save her family from impending atrocities the Nazi Party will commit in France [Alizée’s family lives in France] before the United States became involved in the great war. While she falls into an affair with Mark Rothko she remains focused on her art as well as helping refugees flee Europe while the Nazis begin to evoke terror.

Rothko seems the most understanding being Jewish and having depression: “Whenever they passed one of the many restaurants in New York with a RESTRICTED sign in the front window, indicating that neither Negros nor Jews would be served, Mark was the first to say that he wasn’t interested in eating anywhere he wasn’t wanted. But there was always a particular set to his mouth, a hardness in his eyes, as they passed on.” Her friends including Pollock and Krasner support her and even assist her to create one political mural but fear losing their livelihood as artists by becoming too politically-involved. Shapiro writes: “Alizée understood they felt safe and secure on their side of the Atlantic, content with a worldview that didn’t cross over much to the other.”

By day she works for the government-funded WPA and in her free-time Alizée remains part of the counter-culture. She meets Eleanor Roosevelt [“Mrs. Roosevelt was a moving force behind the WPA/FAP, and every artist on the floor revered her for that] who purchases several paintings and becomes quite impressed with Alizée’s talent and desire to use her art to convey messages. She belongs to a communist anti-war group, Americans for No Limits. Alizée saves all her money to purchase visas for her family to leave France. She’s met with many roadblocks. Shapiro notes that there’s a young congressman (Lyndon Johnson) secretly transporting refugees to Texas. Unfortunately he’s not focusing on France at that time.

This clash of ideals makes Alizée a target and puts her into increasingly dangerous situations. President Roosevelt didn’t want the United States to become engaged in the war and to that end didn’t seem interested in assisting political (Jewish) refugees either. Honestly not that different from the United States willingness to bring Syrian refugees here. Alizée makes enemies with Eleanor Roosevelt’s isolationist enemies– Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and Breckinridge Long.

In present day, Alizée’s great-niece Danielle Abrams works as a cataloger at Christie’s auction house. She gave up her plans to become an artist years ago. Instead she works to research and authenticate remarkable art for auction. Danielle discovers paintings hidden on the backs of potential masterpieces by Pollock, Rothko and Krasner which she believes might belong to her great-aunt. So begins a mystery which forces Danielle to follow her great-aunt’s tracks even traveling to France. Her family, particular her grandfather and Alizée’s brother, never revealed that much about Alizée who disappeared and devastated her brother prior to the war. Although he eventually made it to the United States, Henri never found out what happened to his sister.

Clearly Shapiro conducted extensive research and concocts a brilliant story that allows readers to learn about some of the government programs and policies prior to WWII. It’s an exciting and vivid imagining of what might have occurred during this tense and difficult era. Besides Alizée’s political involvement, there’s much about Rothko’s depression and a stint that Alizée spends in a mental institution. Her friends see her for the final time before Rothko drives her to be admitted. There’s much discussion between mental illness, self-medication, mental breakdowns, creativity and artwork.That’s fascinating and could be a novel in itself. When Danielle discovers that her great-aunt Alizée spent time in a mental institution she finds out that “there’s a strong statistical association between what we consider the artistic soul and the disease; compared with the general population, creative people—writers, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, directors—are much more frequently diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.”

Alizée is independent, brave, determined and talented. Much like her aunt, Danielle is a strong, outspoken and a confident woman. From page one I became engulfed in both Alizée’s and Danielle’s stories and how their lives intertwined. I learned many aspects about this time period of which I’d been unaware. This is a must-read for fall. It’s the November 2015 Indie Next #1 Great Read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

B.A. Shapiro will be at Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, November 3 at 7pm and Concord Bookshop on Thursday, November 5 at 7pm.

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The Muralist: A Novel

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The Art Forger: book review

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro Publisher: Algonquin Books (October 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-1-61620-132-6.

I’d yet to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum when one of the most notorious and major unsolved art heists occurred in 1990. I’d transferred to Simmons College as a junior that year. Such a devastating loss of thirteen pieces of art worth over $500 million dollars including works by Vermeer and Edgar Degas. I’ve since become a fan of both the museum and the fascinating and venerable Isabella Stewart Gardner– even wrote a children’s book (still unpublished) about her. This novel, The Art Forger, focusing on the heist, immediately caught my attention.

Claire Roth graduated from the MFA School under a scandalous cloud. She makes a tenuous deal with an art gallery owner to forge an Edgar Degas painting in exchange for her own show in his gallery. The painting he brings her appears to be one of those stolen from the Gardner museum. Claire’s so young and I couldn’t understand her supposed talent as an artist rather wasted at a reproduction company. Scandal or not. I’ve never cared all that much for painted reproductions. I don’t see the point. I didn’t care for Claire or for Marcus, the gallery owner. I also found the entire forging concept a bit sketchy. Shapiro did scrupulous research into forging paintings and provided that detail into The Art Forger. Fascinating and creepy.

The fabricated relationship Shapiro created in letters between Gardner and her “niece” never resonated with me or seemed that relevant. I found the letters inauthentic in tone. The pages teem with flat characters but ooze with paint. The art propels the story. To be honest, I almost stopped reading this novel about one hundred pages in. But I decided to give it another go and the novel redeemed itself somewhat in the end. At a recent book reading, Shapiro said she greatly admired Gardner but I found the novel undermined her a bit and I’m not sure Gardner would’ve had a forged painting on her walls. She was way too savvy for that.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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