Looking for a good read this month? Here’s what we think of these recent releases…
Paint by Numbers: China’s Art Factory from Mao to Now
Claire van den Heever
Earnshaw Books | 228 pages
Ever wished you knew more about the background to and personalities behind the fabulous Chinese artwork that glows from the walls of Singapore galleries such as Ode to Art (to mention just one)? If so, this ambitious, comprehensive, scholarly yet eminently readable debut book by South African Claire van den Heever is exactly what you need.
She had me by the preface, a crackling account of Sotheby’s first auction of contemporary Asian art, in March 2006, when Ziang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120 sold for just shy of US$1 million. That “got the ball rolling”, to put it mildly.
I was fascinated by her history of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the propaganda art that was such an integral part of that era; and then her account of the fledgling development of a sort of artistic freedom during the eighties. Her evocation of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 4 June 1989 – a turning point after which nothing was the same – is outstanding.
Claire’s research for this book involved spending several years in China and learning Mandarin, before interviewing critics, curators, collectors – and 15 of the country’s best-known contemporary artists, pioneers all of the early eighties’ avant-garde movement.
As her publisher says, in telling the 35-year-old story of Chinese contemporary art, from “mass-produced propaganda in the Mao era” to the “market darling” of today, it looks not just at China’s art scene and the art itself, but also at the politics of art in China.
A great read for anyone who’s interested in art or China.
Little, Brown | 784 pages
I recommended this novel to my book club, largely because it had won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and is the third novel from this author since her debut novel The Secret History (1992), which I consider one of the best books I’ve ever read. I had not taken into consideration, though, that it was over 700 pages long and I would have to carry around a kilogram’s worth of reading for two months before getting to the end.
I found the story well-written and enjoyable until about page 400. The character development of the protagonist, Theo, was interesting and was left unresolved throughout, which I thought was an unusual approach.
However, I felt the author was not prepared to let go of her book and dragged it out to well beyond its natural life. As a result, I lost interest and ended up skimming through the last hundred or so pages – partly, I admit, so that I would not have to lug it back on the plane. If you have to read the Pulitzer Prize-winners, then do read this one, but only if you have more time on your hands than I do.
The World’s Best Brunches – where to find them & how to make them
Foreword by Bill Granger
Lonely Planet | 222 pages
Popular Aussie restaurateur Bill Granger is a huge fan of brunch. As he rightly says, there is no other meal that can be stretched out from 9am to 5pm, depending on who you are, your stage in life and what your mood dictates. Sure, he adds, it’s a luxury – like afternoon tea, but we need these feel-good rituals that give us the chance to reconnect with friends, families, food and ourselves.
And the fact that brunch is not on the everyday schedule that the traditional three meals punctuate, “gives it an air of spontaneous, unstructured, devil-may-care abandon that we all deserve to indulge in from time to time”.
After Bill has set the tone, the rest of this well-conceived publication goes on to present an eclectic selection of potential brunch fare from around the world, from Brazil’s açai bowl, Egypt’s ful medames and Israeli sabich to Southern Indian idli with coconut relish and fresh tomato ketchup from the US.
Each is presented as a double-page spread: on the left, a description of the item, its origin, what it tastes like, and a specific recommendation for a restaurant where you can get it. For example, get your Spanish omelette at Mesón de la Tortilla in Pamplona for just 7 euros. And on the right – wonderful! – a clear and detailed recipe for making it.
A host of food and travel writers from throughout the world contributed content to this scrumptious book. Warning: don’t read it on an empty stomach unless you (a) are prepared to zoot out immediately to hunt down brunch, or (b) have a well-stocked kitchen.
What are you reading?
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, fiction – Nicole Lade, Australian
Historical mystery, set in 19th century New Zealand.
How did you get hold of it?
First I lobbied my book club to read it, then I borrowed it from the library.
How far have you got with it?
Finished, finally – it’s 832 pages!
I loved it. It’s slow and slightly confusing at the start because there are so many characters, but then it picks up pace and the author cleverly recaps the story throughout so that you can’t put it down.
Yes, highly. Don’t be put off by the page count. It’s definitely deserving of the 2013 Man Booker prize it won.
The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd, fiction – Sue Olivier, South African and Australian
How did you get hold of it?
It’s been on my “to read” list for a while. Not my usual fare, but it is largely set in Japan and I have a soft spot for all things Japanese.
How far have you got with it?
I’m almost done, and at the stage that I start reading it more slowly so that it lasts longer; not wanting it to end is for me always a sign of a good book.
What do you think of it so far?
It started slowly, and I wasn’t sure whether this was going to be a historically correct tale or whether it would turn into a human story. Given time, it turned into a great human story. It paints a vivid picture of a very strong woman surviving alone, against all odds, in Asia in the early 1900s.
It is a great read, and I would most certainly recommend it. It’s beautifully written and takes you on an unusual journey that haunts you till you can pick the book up again.
Psst!! Tell us what books are piled up on your bedside table or downloaded to your Kindle. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s April 2015 issue.