Book Club // Still Lives by Maria Hummel

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*SPOILERS* This discussion will happen as I am reading the book in real time. Due to the nature of the LIVE (as live as it can be) discussion, SPOILERS will appear in the post.

About the Book

Kim Lord is an avant-garde figure, feminist icon, and agent provocateur in the L.A. art scene. Her groundbreaking new exhibition Still Lives is comprised of self-portraits depicting herself as famous, murdered women?the Black Dahlia, Chandra Levy, Nicole Brown Simpson, among many others?and the works are as compelling as they are disturbing, implicating a culture that is too accustomed to violence against women. 

As the city’s richest art patrons pour into the Rocque Museum’s opening night, all the staff, including editor Maggie Richter, hope the event will be enough to save the historic institution’s flailing finances. 

Except Kim Lord never shows up to her own gala. 

Fear mounts as the hours and days drag on and Lord remains missing. Suspicion falls on the up-and-coming gallerist Greg Shaw Ferguson, who happens to be Maggie’s ex. A rogue’s gallery of eccentric art world figures could also have motive for the act, and as Maggie gets drawn into her own investigation of Lord’s disappearance, she’ll come to suspect all of those closest to her. 

Set against a culture that often fetishizes violence, Still Lives is a page-turning exodus into the art world’s hall of mirrors, and one woman’s journey into the belly of an industry flooded with money and secrets.

General Chat Updates

UPDATE 11/12/2018: Chapters 6-10: It is almost two weeks later and I have not been able to find a cadence with listening to Still Lives. I’ve not found myself enticed to listen and I believe it has a lot to do with the slow entry of the first few chapters. I understand there is always a build period where a backstory is established, however, my expectation of momentum once established has not yet been met. Plus, I really thought that the (for lack of a better word) snooty nature of the first few chapters would dissipate, but not feeling that yet, either. 

UPDATE 10/31/2018: Chapters 1-5: I am trying really hard to get through the first several chapters of Still Lives. It’s not terrible, but not what I’m used to, either. The tone of the book so far makes me feel very inadequate to venture into these pages this audio-book. Maybe that is what the author was looking for? It’s early in my reading so it very well could play a role in the remaining chapters? We shall see.

Book Club Discussion Questions

Still Lives has been praised as a feminist response to the thriller genre, which so often fetishizes violence against women. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Did your perspective on violence against women and on the way the media covers violence against women shift after reading Still Lives? If so, how and why?

If you are an avid reader of mysteries and thrillers, how does Still Lives compare? Does the book offer new elements or a different perspective? If you’re new to mysteries and thrillers, did reading Still Lives make you want to read more in this genre?

How does the book characterize and show the development of female friendships? Talk about Maggie’s various relationships with her colleagues at the Roque.

Talk about the role of value and worth in the Still Lives. Who is valued? What is valued? How is value created in the art world? In relationship? In society and the media?

Discuss the ways in which Maggie’s past (her relationship with Shaw as well as her involvement with Nikki Bolio’s murder) influences her experience of being drawn into this particular criminal investigation. Does it impede or propel her investigation?

What did you learn about the art world from Still Lives that you didn’t know beforehand? How does Maria Hummel’s depiction of museums and art dealers differ from your understanding of the fine art world?

Near the end of the book, Maggie narrates the following about L.A.:

The dream of a city in a valley of paradise, flanked by the sea. It was the mapmaker’s gift to render both the existence of L.A. and its possibility, at the end of our continent, our last and greatest destination.

Over a century later, immense, overcrowded, and corrupted, that’s still the Los Angeles that people fall in love with, the Los Angeles that drew Greg and me, and Kim and her paintings, and even Evie. It’s also the city where monstrous appetites meet private hopes, again and again, and devour them. Where ambition is savaged and changed to devastation, where a brilliantartist can be beaten, stabbed, and locked away to die while her party goes on,cups are raised, and bright beats begin to play.

Why do you think Hummel chose to set this story in Los Angeles? What role does the city play in shaping her characters?

Throughout Still Lives, questions of ownership arise in varying capacities. How does the concept of provenance (defined below) interact with other themes in the novel? With feminism? With value? With death?

Provenance is the chronology of ownership of a work of art. Who owns what. Who bought what from whom. The record of exclusive possession. Ownership is listed on every wall label, and it’s written in a history that accompanies every object when it’s sold. If a famous collector buys a sculpture,that sculpture will sell for a higher price the next time it goes on the market, sometimes hundredsof thousands more. Dealers know this. They keep long waiting lists of purchasers so they can controlwho gets what, and which sales are known to the press. . . . The artist-dealer-collector is a symbioticrelationship, soaked in cash. Most of the time, it happens behind closed doors

What do you think Kim Lord intended to evoke with her show Still Lives? How does the work described in the book upend the idea of “still lives” as both an artistic genre and as a pun on society’s fascination of murdered women?

In the final chapters of Still Lives, Maggie listens to a recording from Hendricks. In it, he says the following:

You accuse a famous killer of trying to murder you, and you can never be yourself again. You’ll be in the trial, the newspapers, TV, you’ll be the one who escaped, but your life won’t be yours. It’ll be hers.

Is fame inherently violent? How does this book play with the ideas of fame and ownership?