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Short Takes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Barbara Fisher
August 3, 2008

The Lace Reader
By Brunonia Barry
Morrow, 390 pp., $24.95
From the start we are told that Towner Whitney is a nutcase and a fibber, by Towner herself. Still, it's hard not to believe her version of things, which begins with her return after 20 years to her home in Massachusetts from California in response to the disappearance of her great-aunt Eva.

Eva lives in Salem, where witches were persecuted, stoned, and burned at the end of the 17th century, and where now, at the end of the 20th, she runs a tea shop and reads the future in the patterns of lace. May, Towner's mother, lives off the coast on Yellow Dog Island, where she provides shelter for abused women and children. Towner's twin sister, Lyndley, died at 17, causing Towner's breakdown, hospitalization, shock treatment, and flight to the West Coast. Emma, Towner's aunt and daughter of Eva, was married to Cal, a former drunk and wife-beater, now a fire-and-brimstone preacher and leader of a cult determined to abolish witchcraft. These relationships, which seem fairly stable, shift as the dramatic events unfold - disappearances, suicides, drownings, fires, narrow escapes, gunfights, pregnancies, births, deaths, visions, hallucinations, dreams.

Brunonia Barry tells a suspenseful, fast-paced story. Her many sympathetic characters are nicely drawn and inhabit a world thick with local charm and historical detail. Barry mixes together witchcraft, madness, abused women, Red Hats, survivor guilt, memory loss, precognition, and dissociation into a heady brew that will go down easily for many readers.

The End of Sleep
By Rowan Somerville
Norton, 256 pp., $23.95
Somewhat past the middle of this maddening novel, Fin, a tender-hearted, self-destructive Irish journalist in Cairo, says that he has been reduced to being "merely a man looking for a friend he couldn't find and a story he couldn't fathom." This pretty much describes a reader's feelings as well.

Fin has no purpose in life, although he is aware that as a "sophisticated Westerner" "his life should be a pacy linear narrative with obvious and satisfying climaxes." Instead his life takes him on a perilous and pointless chase to rescue his irrepressible friend Farouk. While pursuing Farouk, he loses the thread he had been vaguely following: the existence of the ancient treasures said to have been unearthed beneath the home of Skinhead Said. After having been beaten and thrown into the Nile by thugs out to punish Farouk, Fin picks up the antiquities thread. At length he discovers Skinhead Said's house, which contains not priceless alabaster slabs of hieroglyphs and cartouches but worthless stones and sand. Dust and disappointment are what Fin gets and learns to accept in Cairo, "dirty and incessant, but good-natured and tolerant. Strewn with rubbish too . . . Cairo was an impossibly demanding mistress who at some point Fin had decided to love - beyond judgment, beyond exasperation and beyond understanding Fin sat down at an outdoor table in front of an establishment he hoped was a café and ordered a tea from a boy he hoped was a waiter." A reader too comes to appreciate Cairo's charms.

Dali and I: The Surreal Story
By Stan Lauryssens
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, 292 pp., $24.95
Author Stan Lauryssens is a convicted felon, a self-confessed liar and con man. So it's hard to know exactly how much to credit his tall tales of wheeling and dealing in the art world.

A Belgian boy with easy morals and a smooth tongue, Lauryssens worked his way up from writing invented celebrity interviews to selling fake prints by Spanish surrealist master Salvador Dalí to swindling greedy suckers out of vast sums of money for fake or nonexistent works by Dalí. In the 1960s and '70s, Dalí was a hot commodity, and investors eager to multiply or simply launder their money were happy to buy anything with his signature. Unfortunately, Dalí's signature had almost no correlation with Dalí's original art. As Lauryssens tells it, Dalí created almost nothing after the 1930s. His large oil paintings (now in major museums) were created by painters he hired and directed himself; his many prints were mostly worthless photocopies, on papers pre-signed by himself by the thousands. Dalí was a showman, exhibitionist, and crook who playfully and gainfully deceived the art world.

While Dalí was never accused of fraud, Lauryssens was eventually arrested, jailed, and tracked down by Interpol. He fled to Spain, where he found himself (somehow) living right down the hill from Dalí himself. From this privileged position, he heard stories of Dalí's mad excesses: sexual, financial, sartorial, hygienic. Lauryssens is happiest characterizing the art world as "a world of make-believe" and "hot air" where anything you can get away with is fair. The conclusion that makes Lauryssens most comfortable is that art is worth whatever anyone is willing to pay for it. This facile evaluation ignores the difference between genuine art (good or bad) and art that purports to be something other than it is - a fake, forgery, copy.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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