Beach Reads

Everyone talks about “beach reads,” summer books, and summer reading.  What is usually meant is books of a less serious nature, books over which you can gracefully slump in your beach chair, a little wiffling snore emitting from your slack jaw from time to time.  Paperback books with greasy sunscreen stains, not heavy tomes meant to improve your mind.

For some reason this summer, I have been reading nonfiction, but with a twist—I’ve excavated a seam of nonfiction books that read like fiction.    Even though we may put nonfiction into that “mind improving” category, these particular books make the grade as “beach reads.”

What are the main characteristics of books like this?  I would say that they have one or both of these two things:  strong characters and a compelling plot.  All the other elements of literature—setting, theme, point of view—are less important, I think, than these two when nonfiction crosses over to the “reads like fiction” camp.

So on to the books.  The first one I read is titled Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo.  It’s the story of a true con artist, John Drewe, who teamed up with a struggling painter, John Myatt, and together fooled many professionals in museums and the art world into believing the art Myatt produced had been created by some of the greatest artists of modernity.   Drewe is no ordinary swindler.  He manages to create “provenance” [the term in this case has to do with the history of ownership of an object] for these forgeries, and takes creation of fake documentation to a whole new level.  He even inserts these provenance documents into historical archives at the great Tate Museum in London, believing that security at an archive is more concerned with the removal of documents than they are with the insertion of phony ones into the cultural record.  He had ingratiated himself with curators at the Tate by giving the museum two paintings by Bissiere, which led to his ability to get past their security:

The grand moment in the reception finally arrived. Two white-gloved Tate conservators entered the room with a pair of paintings, each about five feet tall. There was a moment of respectful silence. Myatt was stunned.

“Ahh, the Bissières, how lovely,”someone in the room whispered.

Myatt cringed as the group praised the paintings and Drewe’s taste and generosity. The two works were carried around the room, and long before they reached Myatt, he recognized the faint but acrid smell of the varnish he had sprayed on them when he’d finished them a few weeks earlier.

When Drewe is finally caught, it’s the ordinary people of the art world who help to bring him down—historians and archivists convinced that something is fishy, and who refuse to ignore their instincts.

The second book I want to mention is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  The story of Walls’s childhood, one in which she was neglected, if not abused, by parents who were intelligent and able, but who chose lives of dysfunction and drift.  Walls’s tone is matter-of-fact as she relates their moves across country and the ways she and her siblings finally escaped to a different life.  She is clear-eyed, she is unsentimental, but the fact that she still loves her parents comes through every episode of her account.  A fantastic storyteller, Walls is now the gossip columnist for MSNBC.com.    No kidding.

If you like the idea of nonfiction that reads like fiction, then here’s a great resource for you—and of course, it’s written by librarians:  http://www.madisonpubliclibrary.org/booklists/nonfictionreads.html.

Don’t forget your sunscreen!

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