Any buzz you may have heard about this book is entirely justified. It is, hands down the most polished, intelligent, utterly satisfying literary fiction of the year. It has everything: a compelling plot full of twists and turns, characters who remain intriguing to the very end, multiple locations and a narrative split between different periods, each richly observed in the minutest telling detail.
The themes, scope and ambition of this novel are big: this is a book about art that examines authenticity from many different perspectives and angles. Both on the canvas and in human nature. But while the topic is serious, the tone is often playful and there is much mischief and fun to be had. In the world of seventeenth century Holland painter Sarah de Vos has lost a daughter and embeds her sorrow in her landscapes. In modern day New York and Sydney, collectors, curators and scholars stake their reputations on works that may or may not be any more genuine than they are themselves.
Intelligent and elegantly choreographed, this is one of those novels that makes you feel smarter for reading it and manages to be both entertaining and informative. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The Buzz in Brief
Can it really be May already? Where is the year going? This month’s selection helps you to slam on the brakes from the rising panic that the year is accelerating out of your control. Lose yourself in the world of an enigmatic painting in the book EVERYONE will be talking about, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.
Treat yourself to the acerbic forecasting of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles for a cautionary tale about financial collapse. Take Nick Earls’ Gotham with you on the train or bus and turn the pain of commuting into the private pleasure of escape. Immerse yourself in other people’s stories and watch your own life expand. Slow down with a book, breathe with a book. There, that’s better.
Caroline Baum is a well known journalist and broadcaster. She has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV's popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel's Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National.
She is a regular contributor to national newspapers and magazines and is in demand as a presenter at arts and literary festivals around the country and overseas.
In May 2012 Caroline was appointed the Editorial Director of Booktopia's online newsletter The Buzz. She also produces promotional book videos for Booktopia through her Book Shots business.
Judging a literary prize is the one thing that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can do. It is an intensely human and subjective endeavour. Now that the winner of this year’s Stella prize has been announced, I can say with complete honesty that this was the hardest prize I have ever judged: partly because of the sheer volume of books that we five judges had to read, in a relatively tight time frame, and partly because the quality of the books made it such a difficult process.
I spent a lot of this summer reading so intensely that on some days, I simply never got dressed. I taped the three criteria to my bedside table -original, excellent and engaging- and repeated them to myself like a mantra whenever I was unsure.
Some books snuck up on me unexpectedly, including a couple I had missed when they came out. One or two had completely failed to appear on my radar, causing me genuine concern: how could it be that I had overlooked them, when my role at Booktopia gives me the opportunity to see everything that’s out there? Answer: I’m human. An algorithm could come up with a formula that suggests what I might like based on previous preferences, but it won’t necessarily spot the book I failed to notice.
Judging for the Stella introduced me to some voices I will now follow with acute and sustained interest: Sofie Laguna and Biff Ward, I await your next books keenly.
As the process and the summer wore on, emails trickled through in the heat, becoming more urgent as deadlines neared. Oh the relief of realising some of my most fervently held enthusiasms were shared!
I thought of what it takes to do this as a kind of fitness, requiring muscle tone like a long distance athletic challenge. You need reading stamina to stay the course as well as lots of uninterrupted time.
When it came to whittling the longlist down to the shortlist, I read all twelve books again to get to six. There was no way round it. The revelations on re-reading were astounding and sometimes conviction-shaking – which just goes to show how much you miss when you are binge-reading, swallowing a book down without digesting it properly.
Our deliberations, when we finally came together on a warm day in Melbourne, were respectful, polite, fair but intense. Navigating towards the shore of consensus, we avoided the rocks of heated argument, all equally keen to avoid boiling it down to the simple, bald maths of a vote.
Being the first cab off the rank in the sequence of the year’s literary prizes is interesting: when the lists appear for prizes like the Miles Franklin it is surprising to see where you overlap and where you don’t.
I think it’s great for the vigour of the culture if one book does not scoop all the prizes, but it was surprising to see that our winner this year was not even longlisted for The Miles Franklin, given that The Strays certainly ticks the box when it comes to the vexed criterion of depicting an aspect of Australian life.
If Joan London wins it for The Golden Age, that would mean a pair of prestigious wins by two fine women writers who use language with similar precision, delicacy and maturity, despite the fact that one is making her debut, and the other is arguably one of our finest midcareer novelists. Both books about outsiders with heightened sensibilities, and which bring a fresh perspective to complex aspects of our past.
Caroline Visits the House of Austen
I’d been warned not to expect much. There’s not a lot to see, people told me. Basically just a table. But that’s the point.
Jane Austen’s house at Chawton in Hampshire is a modest affair and it’s true that the rooms are few and their furnishings scant. No wonder British Heritage were desperate when American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson outbid Chawton at Sotheby’s for a gold ring of Jane’s set with a turquoise stone. Last month they raised the required sum to keep the simple band in Britain and it will go on display at the house from Feb 14, 2014, together with a topaz cross and a turquoise bracelet that also belonged to Jane. Hardly the crown jewels but to Janeites, these are priceless treasures.
Until then, there are really just two far more mundane objects to look at: a small circular table, set by a downstairs window, barely larger in circumference than a generous pizza , where Jane wrote every morning.
And upstairs, a patchwork quilt bed cover which she sewed with her sister Cassandra and their mother, the colourful hexagons of dress fabric framed by a cream print punctuated with black polka dots like so many full stops. It is the brightest thing in the house by far, a cheery accent of prettiness, countering the low ceilings and wooden floorboards. The original wallpaper in the rooms has not survived, making it impossible to guess what other colour surrounded them but there is a little bed in the garden devoted to plants used for dyeing, which the frugal Austens used to refresh their wardrobe.
Nothing else in the house is as eloquent of how simply they lived as the table and the quilt except perhaps the tented bed in the room the sisters shared. Even with just one bed the room is cramped and it’s hard to imagine how or where they would have placed the second one. Forget privacy. Imagine instead the pillow talk of the young women. Did Jane rehearse scenarios for her novel in bed at night with Cassandra? I like to think so.
As a pilgrimage site, Chawton is low key but there’s an honesty its meagre offerings. Jane would no doubt be much amused by the young women snapping selfies in specially provided dress up bonnets in the kitchen or the fact that the family’s donkey carriage is on display in the laundry. The simplicity and banality of what’s on show here only makes Jane’s writing all the more remarkable.
Forget the turquoise ring, the sparkling gems are her words.
Caroline Interviews Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinches
Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum interviewed Donna Tartt for Fairfax papers over the weekend. Here’s a glimpse of the wonderful article, don’t forget to click below to see the whole thing.
Don’t expect to find Donna Tartt on Twitter or Facebook. The author who became a recluse following the hype about her 1992 debut, The Secret History, at the age of 28, remains as private and enigmatic as ever. It’s been a decade since she last gave interviews about her second novel, The Little Friend. Websites buzzed with rumours of subject matter and slipped deadlines but Tartt remained off the radar, earning inevitable comparisons to Salinger and Pynchon.
Although she has agreed to a few interviews to promote her new novel, The Goldfinch, Tartt does not enjoy the process any more than when she found herself in the spotlight for her stylish, slightly mannish wardrobe and cool friends (including Bret Easton Ellis, whom she briefly dated) as much as her poised and polished prose.
When we speak by phone Tartt is in Manhattan, though she spends much of her time at her farm in Virginia, where she writes in the company of her Boston terrier, Punch. “Everything is improved by the presence of a dog,” she says.
It is 8am but Tartt announces cheerfully she has been up for hours and mentions it is Fashion Week in New York. Clearly her love affair with clothes has not abated. “Vintage is still my thing but it is much harder to find, though I just bought a Japanese embroidered coat at a flea market.”
I’m going away for the whole month of October and will not be writing the Buzz for November, so you get a break from me. Instead, the Buzz will be in John Purcell’s capable hands. So for the first time this year I get to choose the books that are going with me on the basis of pleasure – or at least anticipated pleasure. In case you are interested in what is coming with me here is the list…
by Jo Baker
I love Jo Baker’s clever idea of telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of the view of the servants to the Bennett family.
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields. It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah's hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of...read more
The Examined Life
by Stephen Grosz
I’ve heard great things about this books from many different sources and yet it has not made a ripple here. Stephen Grosz is US psychoanalyst. In this book which someone said brought together the best of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks, he writes about the power of storytelling in every day life and the importance of talking, listening and understanding. Reviews all promise absorbing accounts of his own cases and plenty of wisdom.
We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.
In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the...read more
A Death in the Family
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six part autobiography My Struggle is, so far, no exercise in narcissism as you might fear. I am halfway through it, loving its honesty despite its density and already committed to reading volume two, A Man in Love.
In this utterly remarkable novel Karl Ove Knausgaard writes with painful honesty about his childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father's death.
When Karl Ove becomes a father himself, he must balance the...read more
by Christos Tsiolkas
The long awaited and hugely anticipated new novel from Christos Tsiolkas is a nice fat book for the plane. All I know is that it’s about a competitive swimmer and asks all the important questions about the meaning of success and failure.
His whole life, Danny Kelly's only wanted one thing: to win Olympic gold. Everything he's ever done-every thought, every dream, every action-takes him closer to that moment of glory, of vindication, when the world will see him for what he is: the fastest, the strongest and the best. His life has been a preparation for that moment.
His parents struggle to send him to the most prestigious private school with the finest swimming program; Danny loathes it there and is...read more
by Rachel Kushner
She’s the current It Girl of US fiction. Having seen Rrachel Kushner read from and talk about this debut novel in NY earlier this year, I can see why. She’s cool and smart and my husband who has already read this compared her with Delillo, which is a big call, I think the word he used on finishing it was’ dazzling’. She writes about the Italian Red Brigades, motorcycles (which she rides) and the art world. What’s not to like? I hear a rumour she’ll be visiting us next year so I want to be ready.
The year is 1977 and Reno - so called because of the place of her birth - has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world - artists have colonised a deserted and industrial SoHo, are squatting in the...read more
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett
I’m looking forward to this memoir of life as a daughter, wife, friend and writer, especially since Elizabeth Gilbert tells me the two have corresponded for nearly a decade. Patchett’s colourful experience includes training for the LAPD and starting her own bookshop in Nashville. If her previous books are anything to go by, this will be a book full of sharp observation and emotional intelligence.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is an irresistible blend of literature and memoir revealing the big experiences and little moments that shaped Ann Patchett as a daughter, wife, friend and writer. Here, Ann Patchett shares entertaining and moving stories about her tumultuous childhood, her painful early...read more
From Brooklyn to Big Sur
Good to see Anna Funder settled in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a street that feels like something out of Henry James. It was used to shoot a TV adaptation of Dickens’ A Winter’s Tale a few months ago, and they laid down fake snow. Each house has an individual gas lamp in its front yard. I have no idea why, but it certainly creates a special ambiance.
A few days later, I went to Soho to hear current NY It Girl Rachel Kushner talk about her latest novel The Flamethrowers, which is getting rave reviews. In its, she writes about motorcycles, contemporary art and Italian terrorism. Apparently it’s a bold ambitious book, and Jonathan Franzen is a fan. There was packed house for this midweek event on a cold night. Standing room only in fact. Kushner, who is droll and cool, was in conversation with fellow author, Joshua Ferris who told such a long personal anecdote to open the event that I thought oh no, he’s never going to ask her a question, but eventually, he got round to a few and she had the confidence to go where she wanted to go. So now that book is on my Must Read list.
I went to meet with Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer for her novel Olive Kitteridge. She lives right down on the Hudson at FDR drive, and her new book The Burgess Boys is all about two brothers from Maine, both of them lawyers, but that’s where the similarities end. I’ll be writing about her for The Sydney Morning Herald in a month or so.
In San Francisco, I just had to go and see City Lights, the legendary bookshop where Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg and the Beat Generation hung out in the sixties. There, I became entranced by a blonde in a green synthetic fur hat. Her partner wore a headpiece in the shape of Nemo the fish but I could not photograph him unobtrusively whereas she was unaware, sitting and reading amongst the bookcases.
When we set out for Big Sur, we drove along the edge of Steinbeck country, near the town of Salinas, where John Steinbeck grew up and which now houses a scholarly research centre with public displays dedicated to the author’s life. The land around Salinas is close to the sea but fertile, a patchwork of fields of peas, strawberries and tall artichokes (Trivia: Marilyn Monroe was once crowned queen at the local artichoke fair.)
Sadly, Steinbeck’s house is only open to the public from the month of June onwards so we pushed on to Big Sur, along the majestic wild coast. I had no idea it was a place that many writers had loved, including Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan and Henry Miller, purveyor of explicit sex in books like Sexus, lover of Anais Nin, and others. The area boasts a Henry Miller Library which is pretty disappointing when you get there, it’s just a hippie compound with a bookshop in it, but there’s noting authentic about the place. A sign at the door confesses that the house never belonged to Miller.
And so on to LA, where what else would you do to get a flavour of the glamour but go and visit Jackie Collins, which is exactly what I did. She lives in Beverly Hills of course and has a new book out in September, which is when she will be visiting Perth and Sydney, so watch out for that faux leopard! I’ll let you know when my interview with her will come out but in the meantime here is a snap of us together in her very smart library.
By way of contrast, I was going to call on poet and novelist Luke Davies, but our schedules got tangled and I ended up sitting on the rocking horse on his porch while he was out doing errands. It was a nice rocking chair, looking out on to a quiet street on the edge of Korea town and lined with those ludicrously tall palm trees, as you can see in this snap. Luke will be back in Australia for SWF 2013 to launch a new collection of his poetry.
On Book Covers
Have you noticed how many book covers these days are not so much designed as cut and paste?
They all seem to be afflicted with a common disease: Getty-itis. Everybody is sourcing images from the same ginormous photo library and it’s producing a kind of sameness, a lack of aesthetic diversity that is making books hard to tell apart.
Please don’t get me wrong: I love the power of photography, its ability to arrest us with an image that can shock or seduce. But let’s be honest, this is the cheap option, driven by budgetary concerns. Of course it saves time if you don’t have to hire a designer to come up with a concept from scratch. Just choosing an image and adding a title and author’s name in a groovy font does not make you stand out from the crowd. It’s not the way to demonstrate a distinctive style.
An anecdotal survey of the books on my desk reveals that Getty Images have supplied the photographs for ninety per cent of contemporary fiction titles published here. It’s an easy to use source, and the selection on offer is bewilderingly large but somehow that range does not translate into making the books as appealing as they used to be. Remember when covers really caught your eye thanks to talents like Gayna Murphy and Mary Callahan? Publishers like McPhee Gribble really championed books that looked good and forged a distinctive identity in the market place. Today it’s really only the exxy coffee table books and cookbooks that get the same amount of care and thought lavished on their design, because their higher price can justify it.
Maybe that’s why I noticed a really deliberately designed cover: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs could so easily have been illustrated with a photograph but it would never have had the same magnetic attraction or echoed the book’s artistic theme so eloquently. I love the way the very European looking spiral staircase becomes an eye because observing and seeing are so central to this marvellously punchy, knowing and yes, clear-eyed book. The cover expresses all that perfectly, suggesting the story’s mystery and complexity. It amplifies the writer’s intentions and really stands out from the crowd, honouring the quality of the writing.
Book design is another area where the internet is clearly having an impact. Some colours looks less appealing on screen (hmm, brown…). Textured embellishments are obviously redundant until the book reaches the customer’s actual hands when a bit of embossing can add immeasurably to the pleasure of handling. I want books to be beautiful as well as good to read. I think we all do. What do you think? And what’s your favourite book cover?
Best of The Blog: Booktopia’s Caroline Baum reveals her favourite books of 2012
HEAVY HITTER OF 2012 BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
What is there left to say? I just wanted to join the chorus of universal admiration for the second volume of Mantel’s remarkable feat of embodying Henry Vlll’s chief strategist, Thomas Cromwell. Like many, I found it easier to read than Wolf Hall, because the narrative treads more familiar ground (the waning of Anne Boleyn’s power and Henry’s manoeuvring to rid himself of her) and because the point of view is well established so that being inside Cromwell’s head seems entirely comfortable.
My favourite moments in the book are the telling details: Henry recycling jewellery to offer to prospective wife Jane Seymour, careless of whether evidence of the previous owner’s initials have been quite erased; Cromwell calculating that the king will want his discarded first wife Catherine’s costly ermine furs back on her death. And a brilliant scene in which Henry falls at jousting, is feared dead and Cromwell, like a modern day spin doctor, swings into immediate damage control mode.
Chilling in its portrait of the arbitrary raising and lowering of individual fates and fortunes at Henry’s intrigue riddled court, this is a sumptuously entertaining majestic pageant of human ambition. Hurry up Hilary, and write the third volume.
BIOGRAPHY OF 2012 PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR: AN ADVENTURE by Artemis Cooper
If I’d been born a man, this is the kind of life I’d like to have lived. Charming, handsome, debonair (now there’s a word no one uses anymore) courageous, witty, bohemian, Fermor was a natural and prodigiously talented writer, as his classic A Time of Gifts demonstrated. An account of his walk across Europe in 1933 it is fresh with adventure and enthusiasm, truffled with anecdotes and characters from a world that has vanished, written in language opulent with imagery and playfulness.
This biography captures the spirit of that journey as the opening chapter of an eventful arc of ridiculously rich experiences. Fermor embraced every kind of social encounter with equal curiosity whether talking to a Greek fisherman or a Transylvanian Countess. Cooper knew Fermor well and her affection for her subject shines on every page of this well researched, lively portrait of one of the true originals of the twentieth century, who deserves to be more widely known. It will make you want to jump on a plane to Greece immediately, in search of the country that Fermor fell in love with and where he eventually made his home after a life of nomadic wanderings.
BEST OF CRIME FOR 2012 LIVE BY NIGHT by Denis Lehane
Denis Lehane is the bomb when it comes to gritty American crime fiction. But as well as his work about contemporary America (including his episodes of The Wire) he can summon up the past with equal muscularity.
His latest offering is a sequel to The Given Day but can easily be read as a stand alone. It’s the story of Joe Coughlin, the youngest son of a top ranking Boston police family, who falls in with the bad guys and develops a taste for a life of crime in the Prohibition era when mobster rule is at its height.
The flamboyant characters in Lehane’s gritty world live by night, operating by a different set of rules and values to the rest of society who go about their legitimate business in daylight.
The writing is harsh, brutal and explicitly violent but also full of subtlety, tenderness and humor. It pulsates with the vitality of violence.
The fast-paced action, punctuated by unpredictable double crosses, shifts from Boston to Florida where the steamy locale provides welcome colour. Lehane gives some of his gangsters the swagger and charisma of movie stars but the glamour cannot mask their ugliness forever. Chilling, gripping and full of dark menace.
P.S. if you want to stay in gangster mode, this is the perfect companion to Sutton (reviewed in the November Buzz)
THRILLER OF 2012 GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn
How well do you know your lover?
Just how well can you ever know the person you love? This is the question that Nick Dunne must ask himself on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, when his wife Amy suddenly disappears.
The police immediately suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she kept secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they aren’t his. And then there are the persistent calls on his mobile phone.
So what did really did happen to Nick’s beautiful wife? And what was left in that half-wrapped box left so casually on their marital bed? In this novel, marriage truly is the art of war.
BEST IN THE KITCHEN FOR 2012 JERUSALEM by Sami Tamimi
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are the men behind the bestselling Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Their chain of restaurants is famous for its innovative flavours, stylish design and superb cooking.
At the heart of Yotam and Sami’s food is a shared home city: Jerusalem. Both were born there in the same year, Sami on the Arab east side and Yotam in the Jewish west. The two only met when they worked together in London nearly 30 years later, and discovered they shared a language, a history, and a love of great food.
Jerusalem sets 120 of Yotam and Sami’s inspired, accessible recipes within the cultural and religious melting pot of this diverse city. With culinary influences coming from its Muslim, Jewish, Arab, Christian and Armenian communities and with a Mediterranean climate, the range of ingredients and styles is stunning. From soups (frikkeh, chicken with kneidelach), meat and fish (chicken with cardamom rice, sharmula bream with rose petals), vegetables and salads (chargrilled squash with labneh and pickled walnut salsa), pulses and grains (beetroot and saffron rice), to cakes and desserts (fig and arak trifle, clementine and almond cake), there is something new for everyone to discover.
Packed with beautiful food and location photography, thoughtfully designed and inspired by two very different childhoods in the same city, Jerusalem showcases sumptuous Ottolenghi dishes in a dazzling setting.
Caroline Baum reveals her five favourite Australian Novelists
I just can’t do this favourites thing, it’s too apples with oranges for me but there are some writers who have helped shape my consciousness over the nearly thirty years since I first came here, mapping the country’s interior and exterior contours, helping me navigate its topography, insinuating themselves into my consciousness so that now their language and imagery feel familiar enough to give me a sense of belonging which makes me feel very grateful.
I love the corporeal, saline quality of all of Robert Drewe’s writing, the way it makes me aware of the body as it propels itself through water and on land, as if he and we were amphibious. You get that in Our Sunshine, his telling of the Ned Kelly story.
Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet introduced me to a voice I would always want to hear, an understanding of humanity that went deep, was complex, loving, generous, humorous and tender, that embraced outsiders and misfits and those on the margins expressed in language that seemed freshly minted. He taught me the word chiack.
When I read Charlotte Wood’s The Submerged Cathedral the intensity of emotion compressed into the economy of language was so tension-inducing I think I forgot to breathe and then burst into tears. Every time I re-read it I find new layers to her acute observation of a very poetic, romantic relationship. She gets more astringent in The Children and Animal People, lacing her compassionate observation and intelligence with humour. Don’t make me choose. (Full disclosure: Charlotte is a friend.)
Martin Boyd is so forgotten now , so unfashionable, but I loved Lucinda Brayford because it was the first Australian fiction I read when I got here and despite being dated and colonial and preoccupied with upper class social niceties. I recognised my own ambivalence about transplanting myself from Britain to Australia in it, but maybe I wouldn’t now.
Shirley Hazzard has such a European sensibility that it’s tempting to forget she’s Australian but she’s an uncompromisingly elegant stylist, quiet, restrained, unshowy but every sentence shines with careful polish. The Transit of Venus deserves its classic status.