Books

15 August 2017

Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo, USA, 2009



This is a true story about one of the twentieth century's biggest and boldest art frauds. Although factual, it reads like a thriller, is well written and is definitely to be recommended.

John Drewe, with a number of aliases from John Cockett to Mr Carnall, is debonair, intelligent and well-spoken; he is also a formidable confidence man. While amazed by his ability not only to keep several steps ahead of the art establishment but also to keep so many balls in the air at the same time, I often found myself regretting that he did not turn his skills towards something positive and constructive, something on the right side of the law. His much greater-than-average intellectual capacity, his intimidating memory, his verbal aptitude and his magnetic personality propel him into a line of activity where he is motivated not so much by the prospect of monitory gain but more by the personal satisfaction of having set out to fool people and having succeeded.

Along the way, his activities impact extremely negatively on many people, both friends and strangers. For him, people are simply a means to an end, and he does not seem to mind losing friends or ruining people's lives. He is completely focused on himself.

Among those impacted are his art forger, John Myatt (who initially is not aware of what Drewe is doing with the paintings), his wife, Batsheva Goudsmid (who probably loses more than any one else) and his childhood friend Daniel Stoakes. Art dealers, art galleries, even a Roman Catholic monastic order, are all caught up in Drewe's web before, thanks to a couple of sceptics and a couple of persistent detectives, it begins to unravel.

Towards the end of the book the following question is posed: what is it that makes an artwork a valuable work of art? Should the forger's impeccable paintings be regarded as 'works of art' or does the fact that they are copies negate that possibility? When we read of Michelangelo forging several artworks and Picasso signing a work painted by someone else, we probably have to admit that, like most things today, the value of a work of art is dictated purely and simply by commercial interests.
 

It would be nice to think that Drewe was snubbing his nose at an art world where money has taken precedence over motive and inspiration; however, I doubt very much that Drewe was motivated by such high aspirations. For him it was just a game.

Informative, thrilling, sad and, at times, frustrating, Provenance leaves us with many disparate thoughts and ideas.

Photos of the authors are from Laney Salisbury


01 August 2017

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, USA, 2009





The very first chapter makes it obvious that this is going to be a confronting book. It is the twenty-first century, and we learn that three people were brutally murdered twenty-five years previously in a small farmhouse in Kansas in the 1980s and that the fifteen-year-old son, Ben, was charged with their murders. The only other survivor of the massacre, Libby, becomes the main narrator.


Libby’s narration is a combination of her thoughts and, bit by bit, her attempts to find out what actually happened that night when she was only seven. She has always believed that Ben was guilty, but there are people who believe he is innocent and would do anything at all to have him released from prison.

Is Ben innocent or is he guilty?


 Photo of Gillian Flynn from The Telegraph

The story that unravels in chapters alternating between 1985 and the present day is full of leads all seemingly pointing in different directions. Possible scenarios are built up and then destroyed as more information becomes available; at all times the depressing gloom emanating from the small impoverished town and more particularly from the family itself drips from the pages. This is definitely not a happy book.

It is, however, particularly well written, and the way Flynn divides the story between the past and the present is cleverly managed. At no time is there any confusion between the two time periods.

In the end, the reader is most probably left with a sense of despair regarding present-day society. It is definitely a book that makes you think about many different issues (not just murder), and a story that will remain with you even after you have turned the last page and closed the book. 

18 July 2017

The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, USA, 1986


 
This is the second of the three books in the Bourne series, and like the first book, The Bourne Identity, it is gripping for all of its almost 700 pages.



David Webb alias Jason Bourne alias Delta alias Cain is unwillingly pulled into a complicated and deadly fight against a Chinese megalomaniac whose eyes are firmly focused on controlling not only China and its supposed territories but even the entire world. Whereas the setting for The Bourne Identity was Europe and America, the setting for this second book is, after a brief opening in America, Hong Kong and China. As with the first book, where French phrases are cleverly scattered throughout, language plays an important role in creating atmosphere. In this case it is Mandarin, and although I do not speak a word of Mandarin the snippets of that language did not cause any confusion; on the contrary, it cements the story in the Far East.

http://www.famousauthors.org/robert-ludlum
The story is fast paced and suspenseful with a mixture of characters from the first book together with a number of new characters. At all times, the book is intelligent and extremely well researched and well planned. Numerous twists and turns can challenge the reader’s mental powers in the same way a big dipper might challenge a person’s physical and emotional stability, but when one has fastened one’s seat belt there is really no way of jumping off the ride.

Ludlum’s understanding and interpretation of the political situation in China (1980s) sheds light on the situation today, thirty years on. This is a book not to be missed, but to avoid confusion it should definitely be read after The Bourne Identity.


04 July 2017

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K.Rowling, UK, 2008



This short work, comprising five tales for children, assumes some acquaintance with the Harry Potter books by the same author. Characters from these books are referred to in the tales, and it is assumed that the reader has already made their acquaintance. Moreover, each tale includes a critique by Professor Albus Dumbledore, who was the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Mention of Professor Dumbledore’s prowess is made in the short preface to the book; however, for anyone unacquainted with the Harry Potter books this would probably not mean very much.


The book is actually referred to in one of the later Harry Potter Books, and the references and links between the tales and the actual Harry Potter books are very cleverly managed.


I have heard that the original book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard) – a limited edition of seven copies - was exquisitely handwritten and hand illustrated by Rowling. Each copy was beautifully bound in leather with silver embellishments and semiprecious stones. Six of these copies were given to people involved with the production of the Harry Potter series; the seventh was auctioned for charity (The Children’s Voice) and raised US$ 3.98 million.


Written primarily for children, this is an easily read book but still enjoyable, especially for those who are well acquainted with the Harry Potter books.


The photo of J.K.Rowling is from Daily Mail,  and the photo of the limited-edition book is from BBC

20 June 2017

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, Australia, 1988


An unusual and beautiful book about life and love and the things that spur us on to do the things we do; it is also a book about the part that chance plays in our lives.


In mid-nineteenth century England, Oscar, acting on his own interpretation of signs, presents himself at the cold, inhospitable home of the Anglican minister, seeking a new life, which he feels is the life God has ordained for him. Later, as a minister, he travels to Australia in spite of his paralysing fear of water. By this time, however, he has been caught up in other games of chance – horses and cards – and fate throws him together with Lucinda, a young Australian heiress, who loves a game of cards and who is on her way back to Australia after unsuccessfully looking for a husband in England.

Their paths in the new, bustling, rough, dirty, loud colony keep crossing, neither of them fully aware of their attraction one for the other. Certain misfortunes befall Oscar, which inadvertently push him closer to Lucinda, and he becomes enamoured of the glassworks she bought with part of her fortune. He also becomes complicit in a wonderful scheme to build a church – not just any church but a church that will surpass all others in the colony. A scheme that leads to the climax of the story and to its inevitable and tragic end.

Photo of Peter Carey from The Guardian

Like the main characters, the writing is colourful and it moves along at such a breakneck pace that the reader needs occasionally to rest up before the next onslaught. Grey, cold paintings of England and vibrant, hot paintings from Sydney and NSW form the backdrop against which Oscar and Lucinda become more and more entangled with each other and with their own obsessions.

A story about the different doors that open when nothing is said or when too much is relegated to chance. Definitely a book worth reading.

Oscar and Lucinda was made into a film in 1997, and you can watch the trailer here.

06 June 2017

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, USA, 2002



Set against a background of America’s south in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees is a wonderful piece of feminist literature. The strongest characters in the book are women, and it is the women who remain with us long after we have turned the last page.


The main character is Lily, a fourteen-year-old white girl; her mother is dead and her father is abusive and cruel. When the housekeeper Rosaleen, a black woman, attempts to register for the vote, she is accosted, thrown into gaol and beaten up. Lily manages to sneak her out of the hospital, terrified that if she is to be left there the men who beat her up will come back and kill her. The two women then hitchhike to a town, the name of which Lily has seen on the back of a card belonging to her mother. Eventually they reach the home of a bee keeper.


Bees are an important part of the story, which is basically about finding oneself and being able to accept that which one finds. There are many references to the healing qualities of honey and how understanding and ‘letting go’ leads to personal freedom.


The queen bee, the Black Madonna, the Negro women and, of course, Lily herself all combine to create a force that shows that although they might be living in a man’s world, it is in fact women who have the last word. 



Photo of Sue Monk Kidd from Scholastic 

15 May 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Korea, 2007




When I began this short and beautifully written novel, where strange blood-thirsty dreams are intertwined with mundane, domestic interactions, I thought that it may have been about the central character’s, Yeong-hye, attempts to free herself from the male-dominated society in which she lives. Her decision to stop eating meat was, for me, a sign of a new independence and an awareness of the soul-destroying relationships – husband, family – all of which are threatening to destroy her.


However, as I read on, I realized that Han Kang’s book delves much deeper than male dominance and female acquiescence. It may be about the restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society, but I feel that it is also about the many other restrictions that limit both men and women. Most people are unaware of the limitations, because they are not interested in pushing boundaries: they spend mundane, unfulfilled lives somewhere in a safe middle zone. Han Kang herself has said that the book is an allegory for present-day Korea, and, as such, it is probably a description of Korea’s attempt to find herself and realize her potential.


Yeong-hye knows that there is something else, but to reach this something else she also knows that she has to extricate herself from everything that is holding her back – first meat and eventually any kind of food: she needs to become as one with the natural environment around her. Her brother-in-law, the artist, is subconsciously aware of the beauty that exists beyond that point of letting-go, but he is unable to let go, fettered, as it were, by his animal desires. At the end of the book, Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, begins to understand that Yeong-hye is not mad, and she finally understands what it is that her sister has been trying to communicate.


Like a painting, this is a beautiful but disturbing book with many different levels and, no doubt, many individual interpretations.


Photo of Han Kang above from Barnes & Noble