Crooked dealers. Forgeries. Thefts. Looted antiquities. Readers will find it all in Gary Vikan’s highly readable and entertaining new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director. The distinguished medieval scholar and former director of the Walters Art Museum recently answered questions for Between the Covers in advance of his book talk at the Hereford Branch on December 4 at 2 p.m.
Between the Covers: Your new memoir, Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director, provides an insightful, often humorous look behind the scenes of the art world. What prompted you to share these stories with the public?
Gary Vikan: Over the years I became increasingly interested, as I gave tours of the Walters, in telling the stories behind the works of art — stories that are distinct from their art-historical narrative. Most works have a story, many are very interesting — and some straight-out scandalous.
BTC: Shady dealings, sketchy characters, stolen art — you cover it all. Did you worry you were saying too much?
GV: Not at all. Maybe not enough. My lectures on the book can go into that other territory.
BTC: Museums have to connect with people. How has the art experience for the public changed since you got into the business?
GV: I initially thought my job was to educate my audience. Now I think my job is to listen to my audience, and to meet them where they are. Ideally, I can create for them a setting in which works of art of the past can do their magic.
BTC: From 1994 to 2013, you were the director of the Walters Art Museum. What accomplishments are you most proud?
GV: We went free in 2006. That is what museums should be: FREE.
BTC: Of all the exhibitions you’ve curated during your career, do you have a favorite?
GV: Yes, Holy Image, Holy Space: Icons and Frescoes from Greece in 1988. It was the first major icon show in the U.S., and it was the first time I was able to empower the works fully in my installation.. People kissed the Plexiglas of the cases containing the icons.
BTC: You speak about the “Wild West” days of collecting when not a lot of questions were asked about the provenance of pieces. Where are we today with the trail of looted antiquities and threat to the world’s cultural heritage?
GV: We’re in what I call the “Post-Loot” age. I can tell that by what is NOT coming out of Syria and Iraq. Like our tobacco culture, our loot culture has changed profoundly over the last 30 years.
BTC: What do you see as the next challenges for museums?
GV: Being meaningful for audiences, and playing a meaningful role in addressing social justice and social ills. To be a player in healing.
BTC: You have a knack for telling an engaging story. Are there any plans to write a fictional whodunit set in the art world?
GV: Nope, because my reality is stranger than fiction. My next book is titled: The Shroud: Case Closed. And guess what, I prove the Shroud of Turin is a FAKE!
In Julia Baird’s biography, Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire, she does not shy away from telling both the good and the bad, but being that I am a fan of the queen, I shall not speak ill of her. At the time of her death, Queen Victoria was the longest reigning English monarch. She reigned for just over 63 years — this time has become known to us as the Victorian Era.
When Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne, but her father, the Duke of Kent, stated: “Look at her well, for she will be Queen of England.” Victoria became queen at the age of 18, at a time when most women had no power, and first British monarch to live in Buckingham Palace.
Queen Victoria was popular at the beginning of her reign but went in and out of favor with her people during her time on the throne. She overcame numerous attempts on her life and was key in constructing the British Empire. With her nine children and 42 great grandchildren, Queen Victoria has been dubbed “the grandmother of Europe.” Once you start this book, you will not be able to put it down as it is filled with all the hallmarks of a blockbuster — drama, intrigue and scandal. This book is a great pairing with Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria.
Mary Mann Hamilton lived through it all on the frontier of the Mississippi Delta. Later in life, with the encouragement of a family friend, she wrote her story down in Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman and entered it into a contest for publication. Thankfully, despite losing the contest the transcript eventually made its way to publication.
American history is presented undiluted by the lens of the modern historian or reimagined into a more relatable tale, where disease strikes once, neighbors aren’t constantly trying to swindle and cheat each other and children don’t make sport of shooting at escaped convicts. Hamilton presents her life in a very manner of fact fashion, to the point where her arduous daily tasks almost seem manageable. Whether it is cooking breakfast for an entire tree-felling labor camp, tending to infirm family members, keeping her head and that of her children above the rising flood waters or convincing her husband to indulge in his vice only in the privacy of their home, Mary Hamilton details an intense tale of another time.
Her direct style is a clear result of the frontier life that left no time for woolgathering or money to indulge in extravagances. It makes for a fascinating, unrelenting read you won't be able to put down. If you enjoyed either of the novels One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus or The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, you should consider checking out this memoir.
Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson… a love story? Really? You may change your mind after reading Donald Bogle’s compelling bio Elizabeth and Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and the King of Pop — A Love Story. Using interviews and diaries from close friends, employees and family members, he delivers an honest, realistic portrait of these two entertainment icons.
To understand Taylor and Jackson’s 20 plus year relationship, Bogle begins by recounting their early years as child stars and breadwinners for their families. Both had mothers with strong religious convictions. Both knew how to be a “star.” Taylor was groomed by MGM studios while Jackson was taught by Motown founder Berry Gordy. But most importantly, both missed out on being a kid, which deeply affected their adult lives and relationships.
How Jackson courted Taylor to win her friendship is hilarious. He invited her to his concert, but the seats were not up to her standards, so she left. Eventually, they did meet and formed an unbreakable bond. With no fear of being exposed, they shared confidences freely — something rarely done with those outside their families. Such was Jackson’s devotion that he showered Taylor with expensive jewelry. The joke was that if he wanted her to attend an event, he presented a diamond and she would show. So he did — more than once! Tales of each other’s extravagance will amaze you — who gives someone an elephant? Elizabeth Taylor does, that’s who! But you will be most impressed with Taylor’s loyalty and devotion to Jackson. Never once did she waver in her support for Jackson, publicly denouncing the molestation accusations levelled against him as ridiculous.
Bogle’s bio is informative and entertaining, allowing us to go behind the curtain of these two Hollywood icons. Resisting the urge to be tawdry, he gives Taylor and Jackson the respect they deserve. Fans of Taylor, Jackson and Hollywood stories must put this book on their want-to-read list. Finally, was their relationship a love story? Check out a copy today and decide for yourself!
Let’s be honest, you don’t need to know anything other than the title to decide if you want to read The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Party Crashing by Gavin Edwards.
Murray is, of course, the comedian who starred in such classics as Ghostbusters and Caddyshack, and later in critically acclaimed roles in Lost in Translation and Olive Kitteridge. If you’re even the most casual Bill Murray fan, you’ve probably heard a Bill Murray story. Someone sneaks up behind you on the street and covers your eyes…you turn around, and it’s Bill Murray. Or Bill Murray steals your sunglasses at a winery, or shows up at your party and washes the dishes before disappearing into the night. Basically, Bill Murray shows up randomly, does something random and often ends the encounter by whispering in your ear, “No one will ever believe you.”
This book collects these Bill Murray stories, from strangers, from acquaintances, from Bill Murray himself. The first section is a brief history of his upbringing, passions and start in the film business. Next, in “The Ten Principles of Bill,” amusing Bill Murray anecdotes are divided into sections according to which life principle they illustrate (“Invite yourself to the party.” “Surprise is golden. Randomness is lobster.”). Finally, the “Films of Bill Murray” is a chronological listing of his films and, of course, another opportunity to provide more fun stories.
Some of the anecdotes come with an implied “Don’t Try This at Home” warning. We can all strive to be more fun-loving like Bill Murray…but we can never BE Bill Murray. Sure, some of the antics would be amusing no matter who was behind them. Others — like hitting a stranger with a snowball, or walking into a stranger’s house and sitting down to breakfast — would be decidedly less charming if you are not an international film star.
Though this is a lighthearted read, Edwards also retells stories that paint Murray as impetuous, chronically late and difficult to work with. It’s a good reminder that even an epic folk hero like Bill Murray has his imperfections.
Does sexism still exist? Sure, men and women are different. We always will be, biologically speaking. At first glance, women can surely do all of the things that men do in society. We can work, we can vote, we don’t “have to” be mothers and housewives. What more could we want? Where is the sexism? It’s there, and though it may have improved since the days of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, we still need feminism. Widely acclaimed feminist writer Jessica Valenti reintroduces sexism in a different light and gives feminism a fresh approach in her newest book, Sex Object.
Sex Object is a memoir written in an organic, rather than chronological, structure. Valenti recounts the moments where sexism has affected her at all different ages and areas of her life, from the time she was in high school and her teacher asked her out, to her 20s when countless men would expose themselves to her on the subway, to the emails and responses she has gotten on her website, Feministing.com.
Valenti’s writing is realistic, raw and emotionally empowering. All women have all been where she has been, sexualized and objectified by men, but we don’t often think to call it “wrong” so much as “annoying.” Valenti’s message is not just that sexism is bad or that we should use feminism to fight it. It’s that sexism is so prevalent, so normalized every day, that we need feminism in order to recognize it. Valenti’s book is a great read for a new generation of feminists who understand that our responsibility is not to be victims, but to be voices. We do not necessarily need to fight, but we need to be aware.
How did Meryl Streep become the only actor to receive a record-setting 17 Academy Award nominations? Michael Schulman’s latest biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, answers this question. Using interviews and diaries from those close to her, he deftly chronicles Streep’s ascension to stardom, from childhood to her breakout role in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
Told in chronological order, Schulman begins with her idyllic childhood in the New Jersey suburb of Bernardsville. She spent her time taking singing lessons in New York City, hanging out with friends and acting in school plays. Schulman’s tale of how she became Homecoming Queen in 1966 is eye opening. Discovering her love for drama as an undergrad at Vassar, she went on to attend the prestigious Yale School of Drama. How she made this decision will make you laugh out loud. While at Yale, she sharpened her talent but, more importantly, made the connections which landed her in the heart of New York’s theater scene. One such connection was with the late actor John Cazale, most notably known for his role as Fredo in the Godfather movies. Schulman not only tells of their devoted relationship but also provides background on Cazale and the making of the film The Deer Hunter. His description of her after Cazale’s untimely death is truly heartbreaking. And, you will be mesmerized by her difficult working relationship with Dustin Hoffman on the film Kramer vs. Kramer.
Schulman’s compelling, detailed bio of Streep's early years, filled with backstories and humorous anecdotes, will give you a glimpse into her formative years. Not only will you learn about her relationships and personality, but also about the 1970’s entertainment industry. Fans of Streep as well as Arts and Entertainment enthusiasts will enjoy this revealing bio. Find out for yourself how Her Again proves without a doubt why Streep is a respected, award-winning actress.
When you think celebrity memoir, a series of letters dedicated to various men isn’t necessarily what comes to mind first. But Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You is more than that. Using letter writing as a vehicle, Parker explores her relationships with the men she has met, may meet or never got a chance to meet, and by doing so revels in the way her relationships shape her life.
While her letters are candid, ranging from the erotic to the brutally honest, Parker doesn’t indulge in any kind of exposé or scandal; in fact she rarely names the addressees by their full names, so anyone looking for scandalous celebrity gossip may be a bit disappointed in that regard. Instead, what Parker creates is a poetic addition to the memoir genre. She tells her life story by reflecting on the lives and experiences of others, from the grandfather she never knew to a cab driver she would never meet again. While not all memories of the men who have come and gone from her life are pleasant, Parker embraces the good and the bad — the impersonal stranger, the demanding mentor, the intimate lover — and thanks each for the mark they have left on her life.
Lyrical and poignant, Dear Mr. You is many things in one slim volume. It’s a contemplation of the impact men have on their relationships, and a reminder that even trifling interactions between two people can leave a lasting impression. Ultimately, it is an epistolary reflection on how a life is shaped by people — living, dead or imagined. Reminiscent of Joan Didion’s works, Dear Mr. You is a celebration of a life through the lens of relationships from the trivial to the significant.
It is a truth in America today that a single woman in possession of good fortune (or little or no fortune) may not be in want of a husband. According to data taken in 2012 from the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of women aged 25 or older have never been married, and the age when women do get married rose from 20 in 1960 to 27 in 2012. Why are so many women waiting to get married, if they even marry at all? The rallying cry of many magazine articles and talk show hosts seems to be: “What’s wrong with these women?”
According to Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, absolutely nothing is wrong. Traister doesn’t condemn women for remaining single or for marrying; passing a value judgment on a woman’s life is not what this book is about. Instead, she objectively considers the reasons why women make the choices they do, and examines the societal implications of these choices.
Traister examines the way single women now — the never-want-to-be married, the divorced, the widowed and those considering marrying later — interact with the world around them within the context of the centuries that women were restricted to the roles of housewives and mothers to the exclusion of all else. She reviews the economic and social trends as they’ve rapidly changed over the past couple of decades, culminating in women today having more freedom to live their lives as they wish. According to Traister, the way women exercise these freedoms is changing America’s political, social and economic landscape in ways our social and political structures aren't currently prepared to support.
Traister balances the political and socio-economic discourse with her interviews with single women of different ages and backgrounds. These interviews provide real-life examples proving that broadly classifying the single woman experience into one category is an exercise in folly. Not all single women share the same experience — for instance, the experiences of a single white female, in the past and today, are very different from a single woman of color, and the interviews illuminate this in a very real way.
Traister writes with clarity and comprehension, which makes All the Single Ladies an accessible and thought-provoking read perfect for anyone — married or single — looking to better understand the shifting paradigms and needs of our society. Fans of the book may also wish to read Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed for another perspective on the role of women in America.
Ask anyone the question “What is your favorite book?” and you have the beginning of an interesting conversation. But twist that question just a bit, and you get a glimpse into that person’s psyche. Editor Bethanne Patrick does just that in the essay collection The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People. She surveyed a broad range of interesting people, imploring them to share the titles that affected their existence in an important way.
From the poignant to the profound, these two to three page contemplations are fascinating; and just reading them makes you feel an immediate connection to that person. Singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, names Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder as her life-changing book. Ma and Pa Ingalls demonstrated the day-to-day routines of a loving, dependable family, making Little House a comfortable reprieve for the modern-day Cash, raised in a spotlight of fame, instability and chaos.
R.L. Stine, known for the popular Goosebumps series of scary novels for kids, reminds us that the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the stuff of childhood nightmares and not the charming Disneyfied version. Many of the other essayists also chose a book from their childhood, including such classics as Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Margaret Atwood), The Little Prince (Jacob Hemphill) and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Vu Tran).
Others name coming-of-age adult fiction they read as teens, from Gone with the Wind (Jodi Picoult), to The Bell Jar (Meg Wolitzer). Science fiction writer John Scalzi was a precocious reader who discovered The People’s Almanac when he was just 6. The book ignited his love for trivia and curating facts of all kinds, whether or not he understood them.
The Washington Post BookWorld editor Ron Charles’ choice, Straight Man by Richard Russo, was a literal life changer. Then a prep school English teacher, Charles picked up the novel from a table of newly published fiction at a local bookstore and decided to write a review, his first ever. He submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor, with more critiques to follow. He ultimately gave up teaching to become their full time reviewer, ultimately landing at The Washington Post. Charles says that newspaper readers “overwhelmingly prefer to read positive reviews...Of course, they want to know which books they should read instead of books they should not read — because they’re not going to read most books anyhow.” Consider this an overwhelmingly positive review of The Books That Changed My Life. What book changed yours?