Friday, July 30, 2010

Crossing genre lines!

If you ask me to suggest a good nonfiction book to you, something very odd will happen. My eyes will glaze over and I'll stare at you, my mouth agape. A brief awkward silence may ensue, followed by a drawn-out and monotone "uhhhhhh..." And just when you think you may have to grab the largest book nearby and aim for the head (The Passage if we're up front, New Literary History of America if we're near the back) , I will break my zombie fugue and suggest you speak to one of my more nonfiction-adept coworkers. Don't get me wrong, I can suggest what's been popular, and I can tell you in general what the titles are about, but I haven't read them.

To me, books should tell stories. Fantastic, unbelievable stories. Things that wouldn't happen in real life, because real life is boring and predictable. To me, reading about things that have actually happened or are actually happening ruins the magic of the story. There is, however, one exception - true crime. For some reason, true crime has the opposite effect on me. Reading a thriller is one thing. Knowing that the events actually happened makes the story that much more potent.

Enter Priceless. A book about art theft. Something I didn't know much about, but always had a vague interest in. Not the actual thieving part, mind you. The author, Robert Wittman, was the head of the art crime division of the FBI for many years. The dust jacket reveals that he went undercover to recover priceless (well, not really priceless, but really honking expensive) artwork that had been stolen.

The book itself is an interesting blend of memoir, true crime, and art history. Right off the bat, Wittman begins setting the record straight on art theft and recovery. Not every thief is Thomas Crown, apparently. Wittman goes on undercover excursions around the globe, recovering pilfered American Civil War artifacts, stolen Picassos, and even retrieving a legitimate copy of the Bill of Rights. Wittman becomes more renowned and respected as his career progresses, leading up to his involvement in the grand-daddy of all art thefts: the Gardner heist. I'm not sure if it's considered a spoiler if I tell what happened in real life, but to be safe, I won't go into details. The Wikipedia page gives a brief overview, although the book has much more information.

Will this book change my mind on the whole about nonfiction? Probably not. But it has convinced me that I am capable of reading nonfiction. What's next? The Monster of Florence is looking mighty interesting...

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