A SUMPTUOUS SPREAD THIS MONTH — TRY TO CLEAR SOME TIME AWAY FROM THE USUAL HOUSEHOLD DEMANDS TO DO JUSTICE TO THESE DEEPLY SATISFYING AUTHORS.
MARY QUANT Jenny Lister, V&A Publications, $59.99
Before Mary Quant burst upon the British, and subsequently global fashion scene, in the 1960s women in their 20s dressed like their mothers in twin-sets, pearls and tweed skirts. Quant’s clothes were architectural, mostly in neutral natural fabrics, although she used shiny black PVC with great panache. As she said herself, these stark creations “were curiously feminine”. Along with a few other mavericks on the Kings Road, Chelsea, she invented the miniskirt. Her co-creator of an entirely new breed of women was Vidal Sasson, the brutalist hairdresser who could make even the most winsome model look as if she was staring out from under the blade of a guillotine. Her fame was helped by peppy interviews. She told The Guardian that she dyed her pubic hair green and her husband trimmed it with nail scissors into the shape of a heart. A year ago London’s Victoria and Albert Museum sent out a call for surviving Quant originals. They showed the collection this year and included accessories, homewares and her signature brand of cosmetics. Mary Quant gave us a look that both thrilled and intimidated men. A decade later Germaine Greer provided the solid arguments for why we should stop wanting to be like ladies. Lister’s book is about the changes wrought by clothes alone. In 2015 the Queen made the 85-year-old rebel a Dame and apparently Quant was well chuffed.
Robert A. Caro, Bodley Head, $49.99
The secret of managing Christmas, budget wise, is to start buying presents early on. I’ve picked this one for your most intellectual friend, or for a journalist. Caro is a historian. When he was unable to finish his first commissioned biography in time, his wife Ina sold their house so they could afford to carry on. In the fullness of time Caro found an agent who switched him to a publisher who gives Caro all the time he wants. His five-volume biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, has taken 40 years and the last volume is still gestating. Caro is 83. He took time off to write and curate this collection of pieces about how he works. Every journalist knows the agony of going to press with the juiciest morsel still unverified and therefore omitted. In the bad old days readers knew when a reporter was joining up the dots. These days you can go to gaol for just a whiff of braggadocio. Caro is extreeeeeeeme. To be certain he’d got LBJ’S early years right, he and the ever-obliging Ina went to live for three years in the middle of nowhere, close
to Stonewall, Texas. It was there that LBJ’S mother and aunts had spent half their waking hours drawing water from the well and hoicking it with a yoke and buckets to meet the family’s needs. Weathered and shrunken, old before their time, they didn’t know how to talk about themselves. Ina made fig jam for them, listened, coaxed, encouraged. So when Caro reveals the means by which LBJ acquires the money needed to further his career you realise just how much he learned in childhood from battlers in the Texas backwoods. I don’t know how Caro gets away with exposing these locked-away secrets. A ripper read.
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, $32.99
The jury’s out on Nathan, son of Jackson Brodie, private investigator. I call him a brat. Others might say that he’s at a difficult age and will be just fine in the end. Nathan’s mother, Julia, chooses to live apart from Jackson. When they’re together she’s a ticker tape of put-downs. In this new enthralling episode in Jackson’s zigzag career, a woman emerges who I feel is right for him and by the time the novel ends her husband is dead and unlamented. Atkinson’s gift is to involve the reader in the fate of every one of her characters. In a world where we’re all scratching our heads over the distinction between right and wrong she lands us firmly in the judgment seat. Do we forgive the clownish siren who kills a client’s errant husband for cash? “Pleasure doing business with you…” Beyond the warmth and the wry humour lies the substance of the plot, which concerns bringing young girls to Britain, chaining them to beds, drugging them and then loaning them out to all sorts of men from spivs to judges. The shortest chapter describes a rescue operation, a young girl in a cellar. She was found; but there are 100s more. New to the saga is a boy, Harry, who almost steals the show from Jackson. He’s had a hard life and by the last pages both his parents are dead; when Jackson next appears I sense that Harry will be close by.
Ian W. Shaw, Hachette Australia, $32.99
Like the opening of a James Bond film, Shaw’s account of how, in March 1975, 600 Vietnamese orphans were repatriated plunges immediately into drama, leaving the reader wondering what’s going on. Who is Ed Daly? Who are these young soldiers mobbing the Boeing 727? Where are the babies? A family of five try to board the plane and are shot and trampled. The door jams. The staircase cannot be retracted. Five men cling to it. The plane takes off. “The Vietnamese began to lose their grip on the railings and fell off, one by one... they were several hundred metres in the air when the last one fell.” A seemingly chaotic first chapter introduces us to Saigon in the last few weeks before the Vietcong invaded. We meet Rosemary Taylor, formerly a nun in Adelaide, who for eight years led a major aid team. The babies, malnourished and almost all suffering from dysentery, were despatched in cardboard boxes. This was their only chance. Shaw has precious little patience with the embassy administrators who were slow to recognise the necessity to provide every child with papers and a prospective parent PDQ. Taylor had many critics. The Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the American President Gerald Ford were, respectively, reluctant and hamstrung, which added to the frustrations of the experienced Australian teams on the ground who knew that with each day of delay, babies died. There are only two photographs but Shaw’s words more than compensate. It’s a story which will pass into the history curriculum: the power of a small band of exceptional individuals who saved the most vulnerable from certain death.
THE ELECTRIC HOTEL
Dominic Smith, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Footage of a 40-year-old nude emerging from a bubble bath and the last moments of his tubercular sister’s life were among the audition reels that launched Claude Ballard on a film career. Smith’s new novel conjures up Paris in 1895, when as a cheeky youngster, Claude (fictional) competes to become concession agent for the Lumière brothers (real). The languid pair, Louis and Auguste, will be remembered alongside Thomas Edison in the USA for inventing motion pictures. “Edison’s crude peepshow device,” snorts Auguste. Claude gets the job. He travels the world (including Tamarama in Australia). He sells shows and licensed equipment. The Electric Hotel is his lost masterpiece, a hugely ambitious silent film starring Sabine Montrose, she of the bubble bath. In 1962 a keen student of film visits Claude, now holed up in Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel (real), hoping to locate fragments of the lost masterpiece (fictional) in Claude’s vinegary store chests. He gets to meet some of the luminaries of silent film, such as Chip Spalding (fictional), a paraplegic ex-stuntman from Australia. No luck with the fragments. All gone. “I haven’t seen a film since 1920,” says Ballard. Between these two phases in Ballard’s extraordinary life comes World War I when he films atrocities in Belgium. The reels are used as evidence in postwar trials. Four-hundred-and-forty-one pages evoke an era altogether at odds with the present day. We’ve become blasé about filmed reports: could be real, could be faux, but for those first audiences film was astounding. Was it a trick or unassailable proof, however contrived? Action. Something happened along the time line. It could be seen over and over again in a barn or an attic, anywhere there was a light source and a suspended sheet shimmering before goggling spectators. Under Smith’s spell the wonder returns.