Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!


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Happy New Year, bookconscious readers. Over the holidays I picked out a couple of books from my long term “to read” list and checked them out of the library. Nothing on two week loan (new books), nothing too challenging (no Tolstoy), just good reads I could dip into when I had a few minutes.

The first was The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conrad. Mark is the son of Antony Logue, who was Lionel Logue’s youngest son. Lionel Logue was the speech therapist portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film The King’s Speech. In the book, Mark Logue explains that although he was born long after his grandfather died, he had grown up with photos of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in his home, but had never really thought about why.

After public interest in Logue resulted in a BBC documentary and then filmmaker Iain Canning  planned to produce the famous recent film about Logue’s role in helping King George VI overcome his stutter, Mark Logue began to wonder about his grandfather’s life and explored family papers. He tracked down parts of the archive that were missing from his own father’s collection and with Peter Conrad, wrote this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lionel Logue was a gentle, kind, compassionate man whose work helped speech therapy become a respected profession.  I also enjoyed learning about his wife Myrtle and their family, and about the royal family. I was impressed that Logue never tried to exploit his royal connection or profit from it.  And as always, I’m impressed by the spirit of the British during WWII and their national effort to “keep calm and carry on” during the war. Also I admired Logue’s “life learning” approach to speech therapy — much of what he practiced he’d learned by experience as an elocution teacher and orator, and from his understanding of the psychological importance of confidence.

The book does clear up some things the film muddied a bit. For example, by the time he became king, the Duke of York (as he was known prior to his brother’s abdication) had been working with Logue for ten years. He first sought his help before his father, King George V, sent him on a royal tour to Australia, where he had to give an important speech at a time when Australians were questioning their place in the empire.  The improvement in his speaking was so dramatic and swift that the trip was a huge success, but he continued to work with Logue, faithfully doing the exercises he prescribed and working on the wording of speeches.

A period passed where he saw Logue less but then before the coronation, they began steady work again, with Logue helping with the many war speeches, including the key speech portrayed in the film version, and spending most Christmases helping the king prepare for this annual broadcast.

If you want a light historical read and a really heart-warming human interest story, I’d recommend The King’s Speech.

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When Nichole Bernier visited Gibson’s Bookstore in September, I asked what she’s been reading. She raved about a novel that my friend Sandy at Gibson’s also recommended highly: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I love a book that moves me. And a story that makes me want to stay up just a little longer to find out what happens. This novel is both.

I am going to tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil the story. Here’s what I can tell you: Tom is a WWI veteran, haunted by the war and by memories of his lonely childhood and the loss of his mother. Tom’s also in the Commonwealth Lighthouse service, and he arrives in a small town, Partageuse, at the southwestern tip of Australia to take up his new post on a small island off the coast, Janus Rock, as keeper. In Partageuse he meets Isabel.

They have  a brief courtship, he starts his work on Janus, and they correspond when they can (a boat only comes every few months to resupply Janus Rock). They marry. Isabel has two miscarriages and a stillborn. And then one day the tide washes up a boat on Janus. On board? A baby, perfectly healthy. And a dead man. Boat, body, baby. What would you do?

And that is what the rest of this novel is about, what Tom and Isabel do, how it impacts their lives and everyone else’s. It’s an incredibly thought provoking book — this is perfect for a book club, because Stedman does an excellent job of making all the possibilities plausible and in evoking great empathy for all the characters. She also makes them whole — no one dimensional villains or heroes here.

Writing wise it’s also a beautiful book. Everything is vivid, from Tom’s dreadful childhood home to the lighthouse and everything in between. Stedman writes with rich detail, but as my Grandmother used to say, with no extra words. Stedman makes Tom’s life perfectly clear even to someone like me who knew exactly nothing about how a nineteenth century lighthouse works. Every detail she includes does its job, with no flowery extras.

Here’s an example:  “Outside, the metal gallery circled the tower, and a perilous ladder arched against the dome, up to the thin catwalk just below the weather vane that swung in the wind.” Or this: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Or a scene where a young man working in the town bakery helps a young lady with her shawl,”draping it around her in one fluid movement.”

I could go on but you should read this novel for yourself. Once you do you’ll want to talk about it with someone. Let me know what you think!

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