GUEST BLOG: Caroline Baum on judging the Stella Prize

CaroJudging a literary prize is the one thing that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can do. It is an intensely human and subjective endeavour. Now that the winner of this year’s Stella prize has been announced, I can say with complete honesty that this was the hardest prize I have ever judged: partly because of the sheer volume of books that we five judges had to read, in a relatively tight time frame, and partly because the quality of the books made it such a difficult process.

I spent a lot of this summer reading so intensely that on some days, I simply never got dressed. I taped the three criteria to my bedside table -original, excellent and engaging- and repeated them to myself like a mantra whenever I was unsure.

Some books snuck up on me unexpectedly, including a couple I had missed when they came out. One or two had completely failed to appear on my radar, causing me genuine concern: how could it be that I had overlooked them, when my role at Booktopia gives me the opportunity to see everything that’s out there? Answer: I’m human. An algorithm could come up with a formula that suggests what I might like based on previous preferences, but it won’t necessarily spot the book I failed to notice.

Judging for the Stella introduced me to some voices I will now follow with acute and sustained interest: Sofie Laguna and Biff Ward, I await your next books keenly.

As the process and the summer wore on, emails trickled through in the heat, becoming more urgent as deadlines neared. Oh the relief of realising some of my most fervently held enthusiasms were shared!

I thought of what it takes to do this as a kind of fitness, requiring muscle tone like a long distance athletic challenge. You need reading stamina to stay the course as well as lots of uninterrupted time.

When it came to whittling the longlist down to the shortlist, I read all twelve books again to get to six. There was no way round it. The revelations on re-reading were astounding and sometimes conviction-shaking – which just goes to show how much you miss when you are binge-reading, swallowing a book down without digesting it properly.

Our deliberations, when we finally came together on a warm day in Melbourne, were respectful, polite, fair but intense. Navigating towards the shore of consensus, we avoided the rocks of heated argument, all equally keen to avoid boiling it down to the simple, bald maths of a vote.

Being the first cab off the rank in the sequence of the year’s literary prizes is interesting: when the lists appear for prizes like the Miles Franklin it is surprising to see where you overlap and where you don’t.

I think it’s great for the vigour of the culture if one book does not scoop all the prizes, but it was surprising to see that our winner this year was not even longlisted for The Miles Franklin, given that The Strays certainly ticks the box when it comes to the vexed criterion of depicting an aspect of Australian life.

If Joan London wins it for The Golden Age, that would mean a pair of prestigious wins by two fine women writers who use language with similar precision, delicacy and maturity, despite the fact that one is making her debut, and the other is arguably one of our finest midcareer novelists. Both books about outsiders with heightened sensibilities, and which bring a fresh perspective to complex aspects of our past.

Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.

230914carolinebaumbuzzheader616+x123Check out Caroline’s Books of the Month in The Booktopia Buzz

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, in conversation with Caroline Baum

Little Failure

A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart‘s loving but mismatched parents dreamed that he would become a lawyer, or at least an accountant, something their distracted son was simply not cut out to do. Fusing English and Russian, his mother created the term Failurchka-‘Little Failure’-which she applied to her son. With love. Mostly.

A candid and deeply poignant story of a Soviet family’s trials and tribulations, and of their escape in 1979 to the consumerist promised land of the USA, Little Failure is also an exceptionally funny account of the author’s transformation from asthmatic toddler in Leningrad to 40-something Manhattanite with a receding hairline and a memoir to write.

‘Gary Shteyngard delivers big time with Little Failure. Told with fearlessness, wisdom and the wit that you’d expect from one of America’s funniest novelists.’ Carl Hiaasen

About the Author

Gary Shteyngart was born in Leningrad in 1972. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American novelists. His debut The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was widely acclaimed (and won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction), as were his second, Absurdistan (one of the 10 Best Books of the Year in the New York Times) and Super Sad True Love Story (which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize). He writes regularly for the New Yorker.

Grab a copy of Little Failure here

The Booktopia Buzz Evolves

Baum page banner v2


Booktopia is proud to present a special podcast edition of the January Buzz with Caroline Baum.

Click here to download and get the latest in book reviews and tips for the new year.

You can visit Caroline Baum’s Booktopia page here for other great recommendations, news and authors interviews.


To subscribe to the Buzz or any of our many other newsletters click here

Caroline Baum Wrap-Up: All About Me

Caroline Baum’s author interviews have been one of the biggest highlights of our year at Booktopia. Join us as we revisit the best interviews of 2013, and perhaps discover a new favourite author along the way.

Writing a memoir is something of a balancing act; trying to reveal as much as possible, without oversharing or overexposing those involved. It also requires a great deal of vulnerability and a knack for picking up on the small details which make day-to-day events interesting. Each of the authors in this post share their thoughts on that process with sincerity and self-awareness, which makes for seriously fascinating viewing.

all-good-thingsSarah Turnbull- “All Good Things”

I grew up in a French-speaking suburb of Sydney, and Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French was something of a bible for parents navigating cross-cultural relationships. Sarah is back with All Good Things, which recounts Sarah and Frédéric’s move from Paris to idyllic Tahiti. It takes something very special to be able to recount your own personal story in a way that makes for good reading, and Sarah has perfected that art. She opens up with characteristic candor in our interview below.

Best quote:  “I didn’t want to write another personal book, or I thought I didn’t want to write another personal book. So I did fight this book… I’ve it heard said that it’s the book that you fight the most that you most need to write.”

Click here for more details

Check out Caroline’s interview below:

Pick up a copy of All Good Things today


a-history-of-silenceLloyd Jones- “A History of Silence”

Lloyd Jones is a simply phenomenal writer, and this interview demonstrates exactly why. In his earnest, softly-spoken sentences you can see the bare bones of his beautiful prose. Similiarly to Sarah and Brendan, he holds nothing back from Caroline’s questions and answers very personal questions with honesty and insight. A must-see interview from a must-read author.     

Best quote – “It could be just a face filled with gloom standing on a railway train platform, and it’ll have an echoing sense of recognition for me, I’ll think ‘I know that feeling, that look.’ Actually, in the case of Wales it always seemed to be gloom and a kind of a… vacancy.”

Click here for more details

Check out Caroline’s interview below:

Pick up a copy of A History of Silence today


Brendan Ward – “The Beethoven Obsession”the-beethoven-obsession

What is the difference between a personal experience and an engaging tale? In this interview, Brendan explains that timing and luck are the necessary ingredients, both of which were present in his quest to record Beethoven’s music in Australia for the first time.

Best quote – “That’s what makes such an amazing story because of all these serendipitous events that happened in the nineties in the lead up to the Olympics. Had it not been for the Olympics… it may not have had the same gloss, because everything around Sydney had cachet.”

Click here for more details

Check out Caroline’s interview below:

Pick up a copy of The Beethoven Obsession today

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Richie Lovett, Author, former Pro-Surfer, and Cancer Survivor, talks to Caroline Baum

The Big Sea

by Richie Lovett & Sean Doherty

‘Richie is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and his story is testament to the healing power of the ocean.’ Kelly Slater

Richie Lovett might be the world s unluckiest surfer . . . or its luckiest. We re not quite sure which.

He’s been attacked by a shark, washed into the Indonesian jungle by a tsunami, before finally being diagnosed with cancer. Unlucky? Possibly. One thing we know for sure, Richie Lovett is a survivor; he’s still here today, and what hasn ‘t killed him has only made him stronger.

When doctors told him the cancer in his leg was buried so deep he’d never surf again, Richie one of the world’s best surfers begged to differ. After radical surgery to rebuild his leg, Rich set about the challenge of learning to surf all over again, discovering plenty about life, and himself, in the process.

The Big Sea is one of sport s most inspiring stories. But you don t have to be a surfer or a sportsperson to know what it feels like to confront challenges. This is vital reading for anyone who s had to face adversity or felt like they were about to be wiped out.

Engagingly honest, Richie Lovett shows us that attitude is everything.

Grab a copy of The Big Sea: One Man’s Inspirational Story here

Kathryn Heyman, author of Floodline, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

floodlinesThe Booktopia Book Guru asks

Kathryn Heyman

author of Floodline

Ten Terrifying Questions

 ———————-

1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I grew up in New South Wales, mainly in Lake Macquarie, where I sailed, kayaked and swam – pleasures that continue to sustain me. I was the youngest child of five, in a single parent household and I was both the wild one and the precociously studious one, which must have been an infuriating combination for those around me.  As a student I headed off to the UK and stayed for well over a decade, studying, writing, falling in love, getting married and then, later, having babies. The wildness had been massaged out of me by then. Most of it, anyway.

Continue reading

Caroline Baum Presents: Caro’s Holiday Reads

I’m going away for the whole month of October and will not be writing the Buzz for November, so you get a break from me. Instead, the Buzz will be in John Purcell’s capable hands.

So for the first time this year I get to choose the books  that are going with me on the basis of pleasure – or at least anticipated pleasure.

In case you are interested in what is coming with me here is the list…


Longbourn

by Jo Baker

I love Jo Baker’s clever idea of telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of the view of the servants to the Bennett family.

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah thought, she would be more careful not to trudge through muddy fields. It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and bleeding. Domestic life below stairs, ruled tenderly and forcefully by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of…read more


The Examined Life

by Stephen Grosz

I’ve heard great things about this books from many different sources and yet it has not made a ripple here. Stephen Grosz is US psychoanalyst. In this book which someone said brought together the best of Chekhov and Oliver Sacks, he writes about the power of storytelling in every day life and  the importance of talking, listening and understanding. Reviews all promise absorbing  accounts of his own cases and plenty of wisdom.

We are all storytellers – we make stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.

In his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behaviour. The Examined Life distils over 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight, without the…read more


A Death in the Family

by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six part autobiography My Struggle is, so far, no exercise in narcissism as you might fear. I am halfway through it, loving its honesty despite its density and already committed to reading volume two, A Man in Love.

In this utterly remarkable novel Karl Ove Knausgaard writes with painful honesty about his childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father’s death.

When Karl Ove becomes a father himself, he must balance the…read more


Barracuda

by Christos Tsiolkas

The long awaited and hugely anticipated new novel from Christos Tsiolkas is a nice fat book for the plane.  All I know is that it’s about a competitive swimmer and asks all the important questions about the meaning  of success and failure.

His whole life, Danny Kelly’s only wanted one thing: to win Olympic gold. Everything he’s ever done-every thought, every dream, every action-takes him closer to that moment of glory, of vindication, when the world will see him for what he is: the fastest, the strongest and the best. His life has been a preparation for that moment.

His parents struggle to send him to the most prestigious private school with the finest swimming program; Danny loathes it there and is…read more


The Flamethrowers

by Rachel Kushner

She’s the current It Girl of US  fiction. Having seen Rrachel Kushner read from and talk about this debut novel in NY earlier this year, I can see why.  She’s cool and smart and my husband who  has already read this compared her with Delillo, which is a big  call, I think the word he used on finishing it was’ dazzling’. She writes about the Italian Red Brigades, motorcycles (which she rides) and the art world. What’s not to like? I hear a rumour she’ll be visiting us next year so I want to be ready.

The year is 1977 and Reno – so called because of the place of her birth – has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world – artists have colonised a deserted and industrial SoHo, are squatting in the…read more


This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

by Ann Patchett

I’m looking forward to this memoir of life as a daughter, wife, friend and writer, especially since Elizabeth Gilbert tells me the two have corresponded for nearly a decade. Patchett’s colourful experience includes training for the LAPD and starting her own bookshop in Nashville. If her previous books are anything to go by, this will be a book full of sharp observation and emotional intelligence.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is an irresistible blend of literature and memoir revealing the big experiences and little moments that shaped Ann Patchett as a daughter, wife, friend and writer. Here, Ann Patchett shares entertaining and moving stories about her tumultuous childhood, her painful early…read more


Have a great time while I am gone and see you back at the Buzz for December!

Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director.

She has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National.

You can follow her on twitter at @mscarobaum

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,835 other followers

%d bloggers like this: