The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – Dominic Smith

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain–a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

I read this book (over a month ago, ugh) when I was feeling really sick and it made me feel so much better about everything. While my art knowledge is practically non-existent, I still found it to be highly enjoyable and think that it is a great book to read if you’re feeling a little green around the gills. Or even if you’re not.

This book is basically a checklist of literary whoopee: it’s set in the art world, it features jazz clubs, a Mad Men-style Manhattan couple of the 1950s, a woman painter in the 1630s, some behind the scenes action at the New South Wales art gallery, and a long-kept secret from someone’s youth. Throw in the possibility of an affair, a young woman procrastinating at her dissertation on a Remington, and the tragedy of lost children, and you have all the key ingredients for high-level intrigue.

As for the writing itself, I found it to be elegant and eloquent. There is nothing groundbreakingly innovative about it, but I wasn’t really in the mood for groundbreakingly innovative writing when I read this book. I just wanted a good, well-written, immersive story. And that’s exactly what I got.

The characters are all very compelling and well-constructed. As is always the case with parallel storylines, I enjoyed some narratives more than others. I particularly enjoyed the parts about Ellie’s misadventures in New York as a struggling grad student, although I found the scenes written from Sara de Vos’ perspective to be a little boring at times. On a side note, I was impressed by how well Smith managed to write female characters. None of the women in this book were caricatural and I actually thought that Dominic Smith was a woman until I googled him. Oops.

Overall, I thought that this was a lovely book and I enjoyed it so much more than I thought I would. I found it to be a quietly compelling page-turner about art, regret, loss, and finding meaning within the constraints of one’s circumstances. Recommended.

Have you read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos? What did you think of it? Do you have any recommendations for good books set in the art world? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Life Update

Hi lovely readers! I’m sorry for not having posted any reviews in the last few weeks – I have been insanely busy writing essays and studying for exams. I’m finally free now though, so I’ll try to get through my backlog over the next week or so. Also, some pretty big changes have happened/are happening in my life right now, and I just thought I’d share them with you.

  1. I had my last exam this morning, which means that I have officially finished my degree. Woohoo! I’m relieved to be done with assessments, but I’m a little sad that my university days are over (at least for now).
  2. At the end of the month I will be leaving my beloved Melbourne to go and play in a music festival in France. I’m unbelievably excited about this, but I’m a bit heartbroken about leaving this wonderful city and all the wonderful people in it for an indefinite amount of time.
  3. I have resigned from my amazing bookshop job and will be heading off on a year-long adventure across North America in October. I don’t really have much of a plan yet, which is both exhilirating and terrifying. If you have any recommendations for things to do/places to see/bookshops to fawn over in the USA or Canada, I would love to hear from you.

Anyway, that’s my life at the moment. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s an exciting mess. I also read a few books over the last few weeks, which I will try to review as soon as possible. Here is the list:

  • The Last Painting of Sara De Vos – Dominic Smith
  • The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
  • The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America – Bill Bryson
  • Adulthood is a Myth – Sarah Andersen
  • O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
  • Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? Do you have any good post-graduation book recommendations? Or recommendations for books that will get me excited about road-tripping across America? Would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂 

~Anna

The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives — from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

It is impossible to walk for long through any large city without passing someone who looks sad and alone and somewhat shrunken. Some days, you might suspect that you are that person. If this thought has ever run through your head, then this book is for you.

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Like her previous works, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, The Lonely City eludes neat categorisation. A fusion of scholarship and memoir, Laing weaves together elements of travel writing, philosophy, biography and art criticism with great tenderness and insight. The result is an elegantly crafted and truly compelling meditation on urban isolation, art, and technology.

In this book, loneliness is both Laing’s subject and emotional state. After a new relationship abruptly dissolved, Laing found herself lost and alone in New York City, “possessed by a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited [her] state”. And so she turned to art as a way of grappling with her own loneliness. In The Lonely City, Laing dedicates her time to examining the lives and work of four very different American artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. A wide cast of secondary subjects (including Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo and Zoe Leonard, among others) also feature in this book and Laing paints an entralling portrait of each and every one of them. Her speculations are sensitive and empathetic, and it is clear that her relationship with the work of each artist is genuine and intimate. In the final chapters (my favourite part of the book), Laing spends a considerable amount of time discussing the AIDS epidemic which swept through the city in the ’80s, as well as the contradictory role the internet plays in our lives, simultaneously connecting and isolating us.

Humane, provocative, and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality, and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, “adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive”. This book is so beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can find an extract from it here if you’re interested.

Have you read The Lonely City? What did you think of it? I would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway. He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back? Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel is a dazzling, intimate epic about who we leave behind and who we become as we search for our place in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book, so hopefully writing this review will help me organise my thoughts. After reading the first two chapters of this book, I was intrigued by the story and decided to commit to finishing it, but I wasn’t totally hooked. By chapter four, I was quite enjoying the reading experience. At around page 200 I was engrossed in the story, but towards the end I found myself losing interest rapidly. Even now I don’t really know where I stand.

First, the good:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell is a quirky and engaging writer with a particular knack for creating complex, believable characters. She manages her large cast of characters effortlessly, moving between points of view, but returning regularly to the central couple, American linguist Daniel Sullivan and retired, reclusive French-English movie star Claudette Wells.
  2. Stylistically, the novel takes some audacious risks, most of which are pulled off very effectively. One section is given over to an illustrated auction catalogue of Claudette memorabilia purloined by a former personal assistant. O’Farrell inserts her own spoilers, telling us for instance that “in several years’ time Daniel will receive the news that his daughter has been killed in an accident”. Chapter headings skip around in an unpredictable fashion: “Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994”, for instance, or “Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015”. Lenny is the subject of the most fleeting cameo, and we do not actually meet Rosalind until page 418. While this might sound quite bizarre and confusing, I actually really enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats.
  3. O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope.
  4. I learnt a lot of new words reading this book. Note: I recommend reading this with a dictionary nearby.

Now for my criticisms:

  1. I thought the constant jumping between timelines was a bit too chaotic. Now I don’t mind stories that hop between past and present, and I don’t mind stories where each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (I thought this was done extremely well in Homegoing for example), but this – this was way too disjointed for my taste. There were just too many characters, too many timelines, and too many details to take in.
  2. The novel struggles to maintain its credibility at times.
  3. My biggest problem with this book is that I struggled to engage with the plot and the characters. While I can appreciate O’Farrell’s skill in exploring the nuances of human relationships and her eye for detail, I ultimately just didn’t care enough about the characters to remain interested for 496 pages.

While I do have my criticisms, I nonetheless thought that This Must Be The Place was a quirky, well-written book and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Maggie O’Farrell’s work in the future. Recommended.

Have you read This Must Be The Place? Or any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other novels? Do you have any recommendations? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Summary from Goodreads:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

I am stunned that this is a debut novel. Amazed. Wowed. Flabbergasted. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best debuts – actually, one of the best novels – that I have read all year and it is deserving of all the hype that it has been receiving. Wildly ambitious in premise and elegant in execution, Homegoing is my favourite kind of novel and reading it reminded me why I fell in love with books in the first place.

The novel is laid out as a collection of linked stories (think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad). Two sisters are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana; the first is married off to an English slave trader, the second is forced into slavery. Each subsequent chapter is narrated from the perspective of a descendant of either sister, alternating through the generations all the way up to the present day. As the narrative unfolds, the characters’ lives also trace the evolution of the slave trade and its domino effect on future generations. This format allows Gyasi to construct a panoramic view of history by tackling multiple aspects of slavery, including Africa’s complicity within it.

At first, this constant shifting of perspective was a little jarring, but I soon grew to appreciate it. My only complaint is that I wanted to read even more about each of the individual characters. As for the prose itself, I found it to be dynamic, compelling and charged with a fierce emotional intensity. Despite the fact that Gyasi covers a period of 250 years in roughly 300 pages, I did not find the novel to be overstuffed, which is a pretty mean feat in my opinion. Like all novels about slavery, it is incredibly difficult and distressing to read at times, but there are moments of joy to be found as well. This is a book that demands to be read quickly, but remembered for a long time afterwards. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Homegoing? What did you think of it? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

Summary from Goodreads:

Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to this book. It has been recommended to me so many times by so many different people, but for some reason I kept putting it off. To be honest, I have always been a little bit apprehensive (and very ignorant) about graphic novels. I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but there is also a lot of not-so-good stuff out there and I guess I never really knew where to start. Anyway, I finally got around to reading this book and it totally shattered all of my previous misconceptions and prejudices about graphic novels. Seriously, if you (like me) have never really gotten into graphic novels, give this one a shot. Please. You won’t regret it.

In many ways, this book stands squarely in the comics tradition, observing many of the conventions of the form. At face value, it is a story about anthropomorphically depicted animals, told sequentially in a series of square panels six to a page, containing speech balloons and voice-over captions in which all the lettering is in capitals, with onomatopoeic sound-effects to represent rifle-fire, and so on. So it looks very like a comic.

But it is so much more than that. This is a book has a profound and unfailing strangeness, which makes it difficult to classify as a belonging to any one particular genre. Part of this is due to the depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and so forth. This is a very a risky artistic strategy, as it implies a form of essentialism that many readers will find suspect. Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that’s what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?

This question hangs over the whole work, and is never answered directly. Instead we are reminded by the plot itself that this classification into different species was precisely how the human race was then regarded by those who had the power to order things; and the question is finally dispelled by the gradual gentle insistence that these characters might look like mice, or cats, or pigs, but what they are is people. They have the complexity and the surprisingness of human beings, and human beings are capable of anything.

As for the writing style, it is deceptively simple. When putting together this work, Spiegelman experimented with many different approaches and each page underwent multiple re-writes as he strove for clarity and fluidity. He tells the story dispassionately and honestly without any knowing winks to comics-literate readers. There is no glorification of war or survival. There is no glamorising of his father’s story. Rather, what emerges is a truthful and unsentimental portrait of how one man – one resourceful, irritating, cantankerous, and very human man – managed to survive one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

What I found most surprising about this book is that it has several genuinely funny moments. One wouldn’t expect humour given the subject matter, but it is there, often wry and situational. This book will make you laugh out loud, and the next minute you’ll find yourself sickened by the terrifying cruelty that humans are capable of and wanting to bawl your eyes out. And then the next minute you’ll be reminded of the extraordinary kindness that humans are capable of. And then you’ll giggle again, and you’ll think to yourself “is it wrong that I’m laughing at a Holocaust survivor?”. And then you’ll assume a very serious expression. And then you’ll finish this book with your heart both broken and whole. And then you will recommend this book to everyone you come across, whether they’re a fan of comics or not.

Have you ever read The Complete Maus? What did you think of it? Are you a fan of graphic novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Les fiancés de l’hiver – Christelle Dabos

NOTE: So, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I should review foreign language books that have not been translated into English on this blog and I’ve decided to do it. This blog (as happy as I am that people are reading it and commenting on my posts) is first and foremost a way for me to keep track of all of the books I read and to crystallise my thoughts on them. Foreign language titles make up a significant proportion of the books I read, yet they have been very neglected on this blog. Here goes my effort to change this! I’ve decided to write this review in French because it is a French book that is unlikely to be translated into English and I just don’t really see the point in rambling about it in English. My apologies to those of you who don’t speak French!

Résumé du livre:

Sous son écharpe élimée et ses lunettes de myope, Ophélie cache des dons singuliers : elle peut lire le passé des objets et traverser les miroirs. Elle vit paisiblement sur l’Arche d’Anima quand on la fiance à Thorn, du puissant clan des Dragons. La jeune fille doit quitter sa famille et le suivre à la Citacielle, capitale flottante du Pôle. À quelle fin a-t-elle été choisie ? Pourquoi doit-elle dissimuler sa véritable identité ? Sans le savoir, Ophélie devient le jouet d’un complot mortel.

Après avoir entendu d’excellents commentaires des Fiancés de l’Hiver – j’ai l’impression que tout le monde a eu un coup de coeur pour ce roman – j’en attendais beaucoup. Malheureusement, je suis ressortie de cette lecture extrêmement mitigée et triste d’avoir trouvé tant de problèmes à ce roman, alors que la plupart des autres lecteurs ne les ont pas perçus ainsi.

Ceci dit, si j’avais vraiment tout détesté, j’aurais abandonné cette lecture et alors, je vais commencer tout de même par le positif. Tout d’abord, j’ai trouvé que l’univers était très intéressant et m’a enchanté dès les premières pages. En particulier, j’ai beacoup aimé l’atmosphère du Pôle. De plus, le début et la fin de l’histoire étaient intéressants et captivants. Cependant, mis à part le début et la fin, j’ai trouvé que le roman était extrêmement lent, et je ne parvenais pas à m’intéresser à ce qui se passait. Au milieu de ce livre, il y avait donc un grand passage à vide (d’environ 400 pages) et je me suis forcée à lire. Tout de même, la fin était bonne et m’a donné envie de lire le deuxième tome (ok, pas vraiment, mais bon).

Et maintenant pour le négatif.

  1. J’ai trouvé que les personnages étaient tous caricaturaux. À mon avis, Ophélie n’a que très peu de personnalité, et elle est caractérisée de manière très enfantine tout au long du roman. Je ne sais pas si cela vient de sa “personnalité” (encore fût-il qu’elle en ait une) ou du style de l’écriture, mais je n’ai jamais eu l’impression de suivre les aventures d’une jeune fille. Son extrême naïveté et sa propension à subir ce qui lui arrive m’a profondément agacée, même si elle “résiste” à sa manière. Alors d’accord, elle a légèrement évolué en fin d’histoire, mais franchement, pas assez pour que cela n’ait un impact vraiment positif. De plus, toutes les femmes dans ce livre (mis à part Ophélie et sa tante) sont présentées comme des garces (je cite) ou des frivoles sans aucun intérêt. Beurk.
  2. Je déteste que Christelle Dabos présente toutes les femmes sauf l’héroïne et sa tante comme des adultères, en essayant de montrer à quel point Ophélie est “pure”. S’il y a quelque chose que je déteste, c’est quand on me force à apprécier une héroïne en essayant de me faire croire que sa “pureté” équivaut à ce qu’une femme se doit d’être. Non, juste NON.
  3. Quant au personnage de Thorn, ténébreux, indifférent, j’aurai franchement pu faire sans… Je comprends tout à fait qu’il a eu une vie difficile, mais je ne vois pas comment je suis supposée de l’apprécier. La partie la plus drôle reste le moment où il dit à Ophélie qu’il commence à « s’habituer à elle » et qu’elle interprète ceci comme une déclaration de son amour pour elle. MAIS SUR QUELLE PLANÈTE VIT-ELLE? Ce n’est pas de l’amour et tout ça me donne envie de vomir.

En bref, Les Fiancés de l’Hiver était une grande déception pour moi. Une héroïne qui s’oublie facilement, un monde sexiste, un personnage masculin insupportable et une intrigue qui avance à une vitesse d’escargot – tout cela m’a énnervé énormément. Cependant, ce livre avait tant, tant de potentiel et c’est cela qui me rend vraiment triste. Les animistes, le Pole, tout était là pour nous envoûter dans une histoire fantastique, mais le résultat n’était pas à la hauteur de mes espérances. 

Avez-vous lu ce roman ? Qu’en avez-vous pensé ? A votre avis, devrais-je persévérer et lire Les Disparus du Clairdelune

~Anna