‘Charles Dickens; A Life’ by Claire Tomalin (Penguin) What a fascinating man Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was! From very humble beginnings he became a popular and prolific writer with such a clever way with words, plots and characters who ‘celebrated the small people living on the margins of society’. As Tomalin says ‘Through his own energy and exceptional gifts he had raised himself out of poverty. But he neither forgot it, nor turned aside from the poverty about him. He drew his attention to it in his books’. Dickens considered going into law or politics, but ‘thought he could do more good as a writer who drew attention to abuses than in any other way’. He also raised lots of money for good causes. Tomalin has a great writing style that is very readable and fascinating, imparting lots of facts along the way with notes and sources listed at the back of the book. Dickens serials ‘established a new style in publishing and reached a new public, because the paper numbers were cheap to buy and could be passed around’. As Tomalin says, Dickens ‘was a star, the great man who was also the people’s friend; they came to worship and adore, queuing up to hear him, applauding him with shouts and cheers’. I loved reading about how Dickens planned out his novels which were often in serial form, how he sometimes worked on more than 1 book at a time, was hounded by his extended family for money, went walking for hours and hours each day and travelled to various countries including America, France, Italy and England to do his readings. I was fascinated to read that Dickens ‘kept his characters alive in his imagination for the rest of his life’. A complex man, as Tomalin says, ‘the spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying’.
Read my interview with Claire Tomalin here.
‘The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects’ by Richard Kurin (Penguin) Oh, this was such a great read! Based on Neil MacGregor’s ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’, this book goes through the history of America through the treasures in the 19 Smithsonian museums and zoo. Smithson (1765 – 1829) was an English scientist who, never having visited America, bequeathed his entire fortune to establish an institute to be called Smithsonian in America for the ‘increase and diffusion of knowledge among men’. For each of the 101 objects, we read of the social background, the object itself and how it came to be in the Smithsonian collection which is fascinating in itself; such as how Muhammad Ali personally delivered his boxing gloves, how the Hope diamond came via post or the live pandas via Federal Express! We learn how John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both involved in the Declaration of Independence, died on the same day, same year – July 4th (Independence Day in America), that the White House was painted with heavy coats of white paint to cover the scorched sandstone after it was set alight during America’s War of 1812, how the Star Spangled Banner song was written by an American prisoner waiting to see which flag (the English or the American) was flown over the fort the next morning which would indicate who had won the battle, that the restoration of the original Star-Spangled banner (flag) inspired a major donation from clothing manufacturer, Ralph Lauren, that the statue of liberty was originally designed as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal and that Mark Twain was amongst the donor to create funds for the New York statue’s base. We also learn about the top hat that Abraham Lincoln had by his side when he was assassinated, the ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ movie and Julia Child’s original kitchen all of which are in the Smithsonian’s collections. A great way to learn about history!
‘Empty Manors; The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Loss of one of the World’s Greatest Fortunes’ by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. (Allen & Unwin) This book is a great example of fact being stranger than fiction! It’s a biography of Clark who was the youngest daughter of American copper baron, W.A. Clark, who was nearly as rich as Rockerfeller. Huguette grew up in the largest house in New York City with 121 rooms, including 31 bathrooms, 5 art galleries and a Turkish bath all for a family of four. Her father owned the finest collection of French art in USA. Huguette owned paintings by Degas, a Renoir that had not been seen in public since 1937, a Monet Waterliles painting that had not been seen in public since 1930 and a world-renowned Stradivarius violin. Huguette Clark was born in 1906 and only just died in 2011, having lived 204 years! Why have we never heard of this American heiress? Divorced and without children, reclusive Clark lived in a hospital room for the last 20 years of her life although she was in excellent health and owning grand estates in 3 states of USA. The last known photo of Huguette was taken in 1928 when Huguette was 22! An eccentric, at one stage one of her carer’s assignments was to record and transcribe every word of every episode of ‘The Flinstones’. Controversially Huguette gave millions of dollars to her main carer and then left most of her estate to this one carer and the carer’s family. It’s a fascinating book about extreme wealth and a battle over a $300 million inheritance. With conflicting wills, as Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. (whose father was Huguette’s first cousin) said that ‘if anyone were teaching a law school class in estates and trusts, demonstrating how not to handle the signing of a will for an elderly client with hundreds of millions of dollars, this ceremony would be Exhibit A’.
Read my interview with Bill Dedman here.
Visit the ‘Empty Mansions’ website here.
‘101 Moments of Joy and Inspiration’ by Meredith Gaston (Lantern; Penguin) Thank you to Karen who gave me this book for Christmas. What a beautiful collection of gorgeous artwork teamed with great sayings. Gaston has a beautiful lyrical style of illustration which she depicts in line and clear watercolours. The whimsy and vibrant colours are in a style evocative of Marc Chagall. Discovered drawing on a napkin at a Sydney Café, Gaston was offered an exhibition. Gaston’s artwork emphasises her passion about positive living and loving life. With her book she hopes to encourage people to find the joy and inspiration in their daily lives; to live life to the full and celebrate it. ‘Be what you are looking for’ is one of the fantastic quotes. Wanting to be a storyteller at twelve, a journalist and an artist all at once at eighteen, by her late twenties she feels this has come true. After reading and adoring this book I realized that I knew the name Meredith Gaston from her Kindergallery business which is a gallery of really beautiful fine art for children. This book, designed by Arielle Gamble, was shortlisted in the Young Designer of the Year section for the Australian Book Design Awards 2014.
Read my interview with Meredith Gaston here.
Visit Meredith Gaston’s website here.
‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ by Jean-Paul Bell (Hachette) An amazing group of people visit children’s hospitals around Australia. Known as the Clown Doctors, they visit children in emergency wards, intensive care, burns and oncology units making jokes, singing, entertaining and talk to bring laughter and moments of joy to over 100,000 patients and their parents each year. Bell teams his training in medicine with his practise in performing arts. The Clown Doctors help families, hospital staff and children forget their illnesses and fears for a while and live in a world that is about fun and play. The Clown Doctors check the mood around the sick-bed and in pairs they create routines that relieve some tension and entertain or they will simply be there to listen. The 55 Clown Doctors are part of most major Australian children’s hospitals. Here we follow a day in the life of a group of Clown Doctors, and go with them on their rounds, meeting patients, their parents and the hospital staff. This book is filled with special moments, courage, tears, sadness, smiles and laughter as the doctors tell us about their days.
‘Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book’ by Diane Muldrow (Golden Books; Random House) This book is pure nostalgia and fun. Who doesn’t remember the gold foil patterned spine and shape of a Little Golden Book? I remember waiting at the supermarket check-out looking at the rack of Little Golden Books. This book is a Little Golden Book guide to life. Diane Muldrow, a long time editor of the iconic Little Golden Books, realised that, despite their whimsical appearance, there was hardly a real-life situation that hadn’t been covered in the more than 70-year-old line of children’s books—from managing money, to the importance of exercise, to finding contentment in the simplest things. This book is a trip down memory lane with a light-hearted look at tips for life as learnt by and illustrated by various pages of the numerous Little Golden Books. Messages from ‘The Poky Little Puppy’, ‘Scruffy the Tugboat’ ‘The Saggy Baggy Elephant’, ‘Tootle the Train’, ‘Chicken Little’ and other books with authors including adaptions from the Brothers Grimm to Richard Scarry are represented. The font with ‘this Little Golden Book belongs to’ which I practiced writing my name in crayons and the memorable endpapers are all lovingly reproduced. A humorous ‘guide to life’ for grown-ups!
Read my interview with Diane Muldrow here.
Visit Diane Muldrow’s website here.
‘Artist to Artist; 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children about Their Art’ (Philomel Books; Penguin) Thanks to my friend, Megan, who introduced me to this book and with whom I share a love of children’s picture books. In this beautifully produced book each of the 23 renown artists have a double-page spread dedicated to speaking to children about their art and how they got started. The artists share photos of themselves as children, their early work, studios, materials, sketches and finished artwork to help appreciate the art of the picture book. Eric Carle speaks of the ‘lovely feeling of my pencil touching the paper’, Quentin Blake’s writes of his drawings being accepted by ‘Punch’ magazine when he was 16 and Maurice Sendak explains that he was very sick as a child and how he loved Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin movies. This book celebrates The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA is a place I am keen to visit!
‘Paris Versus New York; A Tally of Two Cities’ by Vahram Muratyan (Viking; Penguin) This book is pure visual joy! A very clever book of graphic designs with each page opening with a fantastic clean and clear image of an element in Paris compared to an equally stunning graphic of a paired element in New York, so we get baguette; bagel, metro; subway, Grand Palais; Grand Central, Amelie; Carrie, Pompidou; Guggenheim and so forth. Art director and graphic designer, Muratyan, was born in Paris and later moved to New York. He pays homage to each of the wonderful cities with the quirky, fun and insightful paired images. This is a beautifully produced book that celebrates the similarities and differences of these cultures and icons.
‘You’ve Got to Read This Book!’ by Jack Canfield and Gay Hendricks (Collins; Harper Collins) This is a great collection of stories from a range of 55 people who tell of the story of a book or books that changed their life and how they came upon each book. Authors, actresses, teachers and software gurus talk about the books that changed their life with a range of classics, non-fiction and fiction including ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Little Women’, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, ‘ Anna Karenina’, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’, ‘The Power of One’ and ‘Gone With the Wind’. We read about why each of these books and indeed the reading process was important to them. The range of people interviewed such as the creator and producer of the TV show ‘The Waltons’, the founder of a cookie company and a president and founder of a charity is varied and far-reaching. It was interesting to read the stories of people in prison and books regarding acts of kindness and volunteer work which now inspire them. Also touching and poignant was a holocaust survivors story of how the book, ‘Mein Kampf’ changed his life.
‘So Audrey; 59 Ways To Put A Little Hepburn in Your Step’ by Cindy De La Hoz (Running Press) This is a fun book with each double-page spread dedicated to a photo of Audrey Hepburn and a quote of how you can add a bit of ‘Hepburn’ in your life. Film and fashion historian, De la Hoz, includes little black dresses, ballet flats, sunglasses, beauty rest, head scarves, eyeliners and mascara, charity work, black, funny face, opera gloves, smiles and explains why they are ‘So Audrey’ in this whimsical book. This is a beautifully designed small book capturing the elegance and individuality of our beloved Audrey Hepburn.
Read my interview with Cindy De la Hoz here.