Archive for October, 2008


Monday, October 27th, 2008

The Forgery of Venus, Michael Gruber, 2008

What does a talented artist do in the age of the death of art? He turns to the forgery of old masters. A very clever and readable novel. The main character Chaz is the son of a famous Saturday Evening Post cover painter who, despite his great talent, is struggling along as a divorced commercial artist. The art scene in New York is in chaos. The artist living in the loft below Chaz is hospitalized when his 9/11 performance piece including repeatedly inflating and deflating world trade towers and falling figures complete with actual dust from the 9/11 disaster causes a riot at the gallery.

Chaz has a drug problem and has been committed a couple times for rehab. He signs up for an experimental program using Salvinorin A derived from a plant used by the Mazotec Indians of Mexico. The drug induces time travel and Chaz finds himself drifting back in time to relive the life of Valazquez, his favorite painter.

Chaz gets a commission to paint some celebrities including Madonna and Kate Blanchett, J LO, and Kate Winslet in the style of various old masters. The magazine declines to use the paintings but they sell quickly, coming to the attention of the German son of a Nazi art thief at the center of post war investigations into the fate of lost and stolen masterpieces. The shady son decides that the forging of lost war booty masterpieces (maybe destroyed in allied bombing of the cities) is a good way to amass a real fortune.

Tiepolo The Sacrifice of Isaac

As a test Chaz is hired to repaint a ceiling masterpiece originally done by Tiepolo in a Palacio in Venice. He succeeds and is offered $1 million to paint a lost masterpiece of Valazquez; the Rokeby Venus painted in Rome. Chaz time travels to become Valazquez for a prolonged time while he paints the Venus masterpiece. The German hides the Rokeby Venus forgery under a worthless forged painting from the same era which he has purchased quietly from a Museum which has become aware that the painting is a forgery yet sells it as authentic. The German then “discovers” the hidden Valazquez masterpiece under the forgery and sells the Rokeby Venus at auction for $110 million. The German’s confederates are dangerous mafia figures who would not hesitate to kill Chaz to protect the secret of the big Forgery. As long as the world believes Chaz is crazy as a result of his drug abuse, no one will believe any fantasy he tells and he is safe from the hit men.

Valazquez Rokeby Venus

A cynical, clever look at the contemporary art world in the age of the death of art.

Silent Remains

Monday, October 20th, 2008

The Age of Dreaming, Nina Revoir, 2008

A novel of two Japanese theater and silent film actors in early 20th Century Los Angeles. Jun leaves Japan to study at UM Madison where he sees a traveling Japanese theater based in Los Angeles group perform. He stops in Los Angeles in 1907 on his way home to Japan and accidentally gets involved in a local theater production despite having no experience in theater. Hanako, leader of the traveling theater group, joins him in the production where they are both spotted by a silent film director. Jun gets larger and larger roles and soon finds himself under contract to one of the largest studios in Hollywood at $10,000 per week. Hanako continues to land small roles and continues her work in the theater.

Japanese Silent Stars

We jump to 1964 and a journalist is researching a piece on the silent film era and is trying to locate the few remaining living stars from that period. He tracks Jun down and tries to interest him in a new movie project involving an aging Japanese man suspected by his neighbors of being a war criminal. Jun hasn’t acted since 1922 and we slowly unravel the reasons why. The story involves women, the murder of an English director, and a studio cover up.

Hidden carefully in the account is the almost invisible romance between Jun, a party giver and womanizer, and Hanako that resembles the relationship between the butler and house keeper in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day right down to the understated and indirect voices of the actors. Against a backdrop of increasing anti Japanese sentiment in California, (Jun flees to England during the war while Hanako is interred in Manzanar where she continued her theater productions.) we see Jun accumulate real estate holding through indirect ownership so he is able to retire from acting in 1922 yet live comfortably.

Manzanar Relocation Camp

Jun had used his fame to sell U.S. bonds in WWI but is strangely absent as anti-Japanese sentiment gains momentum after WWI. A nostalgic look at old Los Angeles, it hot spots, hotels, and restaurants in the early film days. Also a look at an out of touch old silent film actor wearing out of fashion clothes and driving his antique Packard as he nostalgically revisits old run down establishments.

First Guerilla Lawrence Teaches Petraeus

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Setting the Desert on Fire; T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia 1916-1918, James Barr, 2008

Col. T.E. Lawrence

A detailed history of Britain and Lawrence covering the same material that comprised the David Lean movie masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia. Arabia was a minor theater in WWI where the British, based in Cairo, were primarily concerned to protect and keep open the Suez Canal to assure continued trade with India and her other eastern colonies. When the Arabs started a disorganized uprising against the Turks, France and Britain saw an opportunity to use the Arabs in a limited effort to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain’s oral and written agreements with the Arabs were disingenuous and designed to cover the true Imperial Colonial intentions of the the two Western powers should the Ottoman Empire be destroyed. Controversy over these agreements and letters continues to this day.

As it transpired, Britain had an emotional interest backed by influential Zionists at home in turning Palestine into a British colony. The discovery of oil in Mesopotamia lured Britain into wanting a colony in this area as well. The French were interested in establishing colonies in Syria and Lebanon. Oil had not yet been discovered in the area called the Hijaz which include the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca and neither France nor Britain had any particular colonial aspirations for this area.

The Turks using German engineering had built a railway from the northern city of Aleppo through Damascus, parallel and East of the Jordan River and Red Sea all the way to Medina. Arab Tribal raids prevented the Turks completing the railroad to Mecca. This railroad was critical for supplying Arabia from Turkey and was the key to Ottoman control of the Arab lands. The British wanted to capture the Red Sea port at Aqaba from which they would be able to launch raids on the railroad and disrupt Turkish supply and control. Because Aqaba was heavily defended against the sea, the British were unwilling to mount a serious attack with their limited Cairo resources.

Alec Guiness as Prince Feisal

British or any foreign (infidel) visitors were unwelcome in Arabia but the British did manage to send at least one raiding party to attack the railroad. They desperately needed to evaluate Arab leader Sharif Husein ibn Ali and his four sons who were fighting in the Arab uprising. Enter the young, Oxford educated, Arabic speaking intelligence officer Lawrence who was finally invited to accompany a small group setting out to meet one son Sharif Feisal ibn Husein and offer his evaluation of the relative merits of the four sons. Lawrence had his own ideas about fighting strategies which he shared in long discussions with Feisal with whom he hit it off. Lawrence was soon traveling on other missions to meet other tribal leaders and study ways to disrupt the railroad. When he met the fearsome outlaw Auda Aba Tayi, a wild plan was conceived to attack Aqaba from behind, a plan memorably captured in Lean’s movie. The plan worked and Aqaba became the principal supply route for attacks on the railroad throughout the remainder of the war.

Auda Quinn as Auda
Lawrence learned to use gold to buy the temporary allegiance of tribe members for a raid after which the tribe members could share the loot taken in the raid itself. The tribes would disburse into the desert until Lawrence got the money to finance further raids.

After the British suffered a costly defeat attempting to capture Gaza, General Edmund Allenby was given command of the Arab operation. He immediately recognized the importance of the Arab revolt and Lawrence’s ability to cut the railroad and pressure the Turks from the East if coordinated in time with British attacks from the West. In this way, Allenby successfully captured Jerusalem.

Lawrence pioneered the extensive use of camels, some imported from Egypt and Sudan, the use of armored Rolls Royce cars for rapid movement in raids, and the use of air reconnaissance, cover, and bombing in support of raids.

Feisal and Lawrence at Peace Conference

A final, very successful push by the Arabs and Allenby allowed the Arabs, led by Feisal, to enter Damascus in triumph. During the peace negotiations in Paris, Britain folded to pressure from France and Syria and Lebanon were ceded to France. The British appointed Feisal King of newly created Iraq and his brother Abdullah was appointed king of newly created Jordan. The British retained control of Palestine. After the war, the Turkish commander remained in control of Medina until the influenza epidemic wiped out his troops and he was forced to leave. Shortly thereafter, ibm Saud, rival for power to Ali Husein swept into Medina to oust Husein and create today’s Saudi Arabia. ibm Saud had had his own British champions, led by Harry Philby, throughout this period, so Britain was financing both rivals simultaneously. Ali Husein went into exile on Cyprus. Oil was discovered in newly created Saudi Arabia shortly afterward.

Current day Iraq American strategists have been studying the tactics of Lawrence and learning from his experience. Their primary lesson learned seems to be the value of paying tribal leaders cash for their support in insurgency battles.