A TALE OF TWO WOLFES

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Literary ignoramus that I am, I had no idea there were two Thomas Wolfes.
I’m familiar with the American novelist, Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities, currently lurking on my TBR shelf.
But the other TW? I had no idea, until I watched the movie Genius, last night, featuring  talented Colin Firth as the editor Maxwell Perkins, he of saintly patience and forbearance, the brave editor who took a chance and published unknown novelist Thomas Wolfe’s first novel Look Homeward Angel : A story of a Buried Life. After a long and torturous editing process, Scribner published the novel in 1929, to wide acclaim.
Jude Law plays the part of the ebullient Thomas Wolfe, giving a vivid portrayal of a writer driven by the creative urge, in all its power and destructiveness. Having watched the film, I recognise the origins of the stereotype of writers as hard drinking, hard living, driven to excess both in life and in their work. Contemporary writers F Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway both appear in the movie.
Of course we all know about Hemingway’s larger than life macho posturing, but I now realise there were others in the same era, acting out their own considerable dramas. It seems to me that the 1920s/30s flamboyant writers are a now-extinct species. Watching, current writers being interviewed on BBC Hay Fest literary doccies, they’re all frightfully well behaved!

 

Colin Firth gives a marvellous, restrained performance as Maxwell Perkins . Despite bad reviews, which I read later on Wikipedia, I was spellbound. Because I’m a bookish viewer, I enjoyed the low key, semi-monotone style. I wonder if other bookish bloggers have seen the film and how they reacted to it?
Maybe later in the month I might get around to Tom Wolfe II and his Bonfire. I’m currently working through a doorstop of a book by another American writer, Johnathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. More on this topic in another post.

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AUGUST 2019 READING-ROUND UP

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If you are a regular reader of my lit blog, you will have seen my rave review of the Tim Winton book earlier in August. I remain in the stratosphere of reading joy over the book. I’d like to read it again, to savour the language, the writing. TW is a superb masculine, muscular writer. He manages to avoid being macho, like my bete noir, Ernest Hemingway. I find his books so satisfying in terms of story, characters, setting, and powerful writing. Oh, that I could turn out the prose that he does. Not in this lifetime, not in a million years.
I read a much anticipated book  The Pine Islands, nominated for the 2019 Booker prize. It has an imaginative premiss resulting in a fresh, and unusual story – Japan and the Japanese seen through pedestrian German eyes. Middle aged Gilbert Silvester has an unsettling dream, prompting a midlife crises; he precipitately flees to Japan where he sets out to follow the footsteps of wandering seventeenth century poet, Basho’s  pilgrimage to the pine islands of Matsushima. En route he encounters Yosha, who’s looking for the best location to kill himself. They form an unlikely travel duo, covering Japan via rail. It’s a strange book, and one I will re-read later. I enjoyed the descriptions of the countryside, and I liked the book format, with its lovely blue and white crane design end papers. You’ve probably got to be a haiku fan, or a Japanophile to truly love the book.

I am very keen to read and promote South African books but can’t recommend Eve Mazzas Sex, Lies and Stellenbosch. Suzelle DIY announces on the cover: “A scandalous, saucy page -turner”. Whilst I would never have suspected SuzelleDIY to have hidden literary depths, she’s hit the nail on the head. Pun intended. Two chapters in, drowning in booze, bodies, sex and sleaze, I abandoned the book. Not for me. Not to my taste. You can’t win ‘em all.

FICTION

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton. Brilliant. 10 stars wonderful. Reviewed on this blog.
The Pine Islands – Marion Poschmann. Translated from German by Jen Calleja. An unusual book, wonderfully imaginative. Surreal, but engaging.

The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village – Joanna Nell. Charming Australian novel about life, love, secrets, makeovers, families and golden years romance. A relaxing, easy read.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Phillip Sendker. An unusual and beautiful love story set in Burma. Sensitively and well written. Recommended.

Heaven, Hell and Mademoiselle – H C Carlton. The fashion world of Paris in the 1960s, written by an insider. An enjoyable blend of Sex in the City and The Devil Wears Prada. Viva the House of Chanel!
Don’t Run Whatever you do. My Adventures as a Safari Guide – Peter Allison. Young Aussie spends seven years in Botswana; title says it all. Narrow escapes and tall stories. Wildlife enthusiasts will love this one.

 
Sex, Lies & Stellenbosch – Eve Mazza. DNF. Did not enjoy.
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney. Another DNF.

NON-FICTION
My Experimental Life – A J Jacobs. Quirky American Jewish writer tries Extraordinary life experiments, one per month, on himself! For example, one month he Outsources his Daily Life (basic daily tasks that can be accomplished on line) to two Indian companies. Hilarious. And his long-suffering wife deserves a medal.

The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton

 

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What a story! What a book! What a writer!
Yes: I’m in rave mode.
Yes: I’m a Tim Winton fan.
If you’ve never tried him, I double dare you to read a book by this major Australian writer.
The Shepherd’s Hut is a coming of age story, a story of harshness, brutality, the landscape, Australia in all its gritty sunbaked elemental nature – the scrub, the roos, the emus, the flies, the sun, the salt pans, the thirst, the heat, the stars, the bush. Life and Nature – raw, beautiful and terrible. And it all unfolds in this heart-breaking page turner. Runaway teenage boy Jaxie, stumbles upon outcast exiled Fintan; with unexpected results. The story shows two shattered lives colliding and briefly intertwining, changing their life paths forever. The ending packs a wallop of a surprise, and the final pages end on a hopeful note, linking neatly with the opening.

 
Tim Winton is that rare writer who can switch from action and harshness to tender passages, with a smooth segue that effortlessly carries the reader onwards, without an uncomfortable changing of gears, to a different emotional plane.
This is a book you simply have to read. Fintan and Jaxie will remain with me for a long time to come.

 
AFTERWORD
When is the Nobel Literature Prize Committee going to start reading, considering, this marvelous writer?  Has he been ignored because he’s too Australian? Too rude, crude, down and dirty Australian perhaps for their refined, delicate European sensibilities? A man who has published over twenty books for adults and children, won umpteen literary prizes, been on the Booker lists (twice); and translated into many languages. A substantial body of work, surely, if this is the deciding criteria? Yoo-hoo, Stockholm: wake up!

JULY 2019 READING ROUND UP

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I find I have read three Jewish themed books this month: The Girl from Berlin, The Puttermesser Papers and Here I Am. All three were rich, satisfying reads. Co-incidentally, the memoir was written by a Jewish woman, who introduced the Hanukkah festival to a small Scottish town; but the Jewish aspect was not the main theme of the memoir. I mention it in passing. In fact, it was a great reading month all round.

 

Yet again, I find myself reading a WWII novel : The Girl from Berlin. It charts the early life of brilliant young violinist Ada Baumgarten, starting in the early 1030s and the slow build up to the declaration of war. The persecution of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere in Europe is described in all its madness and horror. Revenge is a dish best served cold , is one of the themes in the story. The full story of Ada’s life plays out in the early 2000s where the evils of the past manifest in the present.

 

It’s a well written, well researched Historical Fiction, but this said, I found myself wearying of the slow pace and the convoluted unfolding of the Italian judicial system. Midway I was debating whether to abandon the book, but I persevered to the end, and I’m glad I did.

 

As usual, I’m catching up with last year’ s excitement: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry. The novel has been likened to Dickens, in that it has social problems as one of its themes, but the cast of characters was much smaller. What I really enjoyed was the descriptions of the countryside, the marshes, the seasons. Perry writes beautifully.

 

After numerous failures with local author Imraan Coovadia’s novels, I finally hit the pot at the end of the reading rainbow, with his SF Novel A Spy in Time. I’m pretty sure I didn’t always comprehend the complicated plot, but I grasped enough to continue reading, and enjoy the story about the potential end of the entire planet. There were passages of wonderful descriptive writing, particularly inthe Brazil chapters and the final chapter. One theme was Man and Machines, who mastered who, in the final analysis? A good question in these days of burgeoning AI.

 

FICTION
The Girl from Berlin – Ronald H Balson. Historical fiction. 1930s & 40s Berlin, pre-war and post war, culminating in Italy in the 2000s. Music, the Nazis, an inheritance. Recommended.
Puttermesser Papers – Cynthia Ozick . Ruth P conjures up a golem in her New York apartment – and this is just for openers! A fantastical satire. Very different!
Here I am – Johnathan Safan Foer – my doorstopper book for July; a great read. Reviewed on this blog.
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry. A Victorian novel, which lived up to its hype. I loved it.

Death Cup -Irna van Zyl. Local murder mystery based in Hermanus: food, chefs, families, sex, bodies, rivalry, cops and cooks – a great read. Recommended.
A Spy in Time – Imraan Coovadia. SF novel, time-travel, an intricate plot. Very different and very readable. Recommended

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WINTER COMFORT RE-READS: Two Beatrix Potter books – The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and the Tale of Mr Tod. Charming and beautifully illustrated.

 

NON-FICTION 
Three Things you need to know about Rockets – Jessica A Fox. A Memoir. Visiting American loses her heart to books, Wigtown and Scotland. More of a love story than anything else, both to Scotland and a new man. In my view, the title could do with a re-write. All in all, an enjoyable read.

HERE I AM – Johnathan Safan Foer

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This is Foer’s third novel, and here he is indeed, in all his Jewish glory. He’s a Jewish writer who chronicles the trials and tribulations of his people with verve, style and boldness. Take the opening paragraph of his huge novel. Sentence two roars along for 19 lines, and chronicles the life of Isaac, ageing great-grandfather of the Bloch family, from birth, through his hard, tumultuous life through to his current status in America. So the reader is instantly immersed into the history and future fortunes of the Bloch family.

 
Parents Jacob and Julia live with their three sons: Sam on the brink of his Bar Mitzvah and troubled; Max with his quirky view of the world; and Benjy, he of the infinite number of questions concerning his ability to interpret the world. Sam’s bad behavior at school widens the already cracked stability of his parents’ marriage, and the fractures grow as the novel progresses The last member of the family is their incontinent dog Argus, another source of friction between the adults. Julia didn’t want him but nobly deals with Argus and the mess.

 
Jacob, meanwhile, has also transgressed, in an almost mirror image of Sam’s misdemeanor, and the fallout from this lays bare the couple’s inherent unhappiness.

 
There are significant secondary characters, notably Jacob’s visiting Israeli cousin Tamir, who’s hairy, large, and forthright. Tamir forces Jacob to confront his role as a Jew, which is a major theme in the novel. Then there’s Irv, Jacob’s father who says exactly what he likes, and denies Jacob the paternal affection and approbation he craves.

 
The story is propelled by long passages of dialogue, but also offers concentrated short chapters of impassioned polemic on Israel, the earthquake and the growing conflict leading to yet more war. All of which factors impinge into the Bloch’s family life.
Foer is very good at detailing the daily minutiae and rituals of American Jewish family life. Some of the passages were oh so familiar to me, regardless of geographical and cultural differences; others were not. And I was exposed to more information than I would have chosen on the topic of teen boys’ masturbation; however, those pages were contextual.
Foer gives us birth, life and death in the context of one Jewish family. Life in all its gritty glory, with all its complexity and challenges.

 
I was swept along by the story, engaged with the family Bloch. If you enjoy detailed family stories then you will probably enjoy the book. As a postscript I can say that I now understand the snide cracks about Jewish mothers. And I’m glad I didn’t have one!

 

JUNE 2019 READING ROUND-UP

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Book Bloggers have been posting their mid-year reports: Best Reads to Date, progress with club challenges, personal targets, Goodreads 2019 goals, and the like. Way to go, bookworms! Currently I’m not in the mood for competitive statistics, so no report from me.
However, I have managed to progress through some of my languishing TBR pile. This month I tackled The Siege of Krishnapur. The small print had kept me at bay for some years, but last week, in a now or never mood, I read a few pages, and realised what a great read lay ahead of me. It won the 1973 Booker Prize. Reading the novel made me realise how Booker tastes and judges have changed over the following forty years. Farrells’s book offers a straightforward story, based on historical diaries, letters and records of the Indian Mutiny, but from a satirical and wry perspective of the British in Colonial mode. I read the book slowly, with much enjoyment and realised how grateful I am to live in an age not so hidebound by social convention, as portrayed in the novel.

 
Most unusually for me, I re-read a short French novel. Usually I am blundering around in the vast lands of the Back Lists and trying to get into the new territory of current hits, so I can’t indulge in re-reads, but The Reader on the 6.27 was irresistible.

FICTION
The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didierlaurent . A re-read; just as quirky and charming the second time around. If you enjoy French novels – read this.
The Siege of Krishnapur – J G Farrell. The British Raj in all their ignorance and arrogance. Authentic sense of time, place and people. Recommended.

NON-FICTION

Self-Helpless   – Rebecca Davis . An exploration of Cape Town’s Self Help & Wellness world. A real eye opener. Recommended.

The Forger’s Tale – Shaun Greenhalgh. Reviewed on this blog.https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/754

Frankly, my Dear – Shelley Klein. Wit, vitriol and barbed comments from Hollywood. Stars, screen writers, gossip columnists, the famous and the infamous – they’re all here; a wonderful book to dip into for a quick five or ten minute read.  Each read ending in a laugh.

A FORGER’S TALE

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A FORGER’S TALE – Shaun Greenhalgh. Non-Fiction

Britain’s master forger describes his life as a dedicated Art Lover and his 30+ year career as a versatile forger until 2007, when he was jailed for four years; a development he accepted with equanimity.

 
I marveled at SG’s dedication to museum and art gallery research, years of learning, acquiring different skills, his work ethic, (yes ,e had one; he was productive! ) Despite working in a garden shed – a shed! mark you, in his parents’ back garden – SG mastered metalwork, woodcarving, pottery & ceramics, drawing, water colour painting , he was a one-man Renaissance in modern Britain, working away in that little shed.

 
The part I enjoyed most were his stories of his rough and tumble boyhood and early teens in the 1960’s in the working class area of Bolton, near Manchester. In amongst the crazy boyhood adventures, he was starting on his lifetime career as a brilliant faker. At the age of 11 he was making fake Victorian ceramic pot lids, with a teeny little kiln (in the famous shed, of course) passing them off as finds from digging through city rubbish tips; selling them to dealers who sold their stock at markets and fares. Can you credit it?

 
I found the chapters dealing with his arrest and trial less interesting, ditto the long detailed sections on the art techniques he researched, learned and mastered in the course of his career. I would have liked more info about his life post-prison. You have to ask yourself: what does a world class art forger do for the rest of his life once released from jail? If he sketches so much as a Christmas card for his Nan, the cops will be on to him.

 
Apparently his dear old Mum and Dad were part of the Family Forging business, dealing with enquiries and sales, whilst sonny boy was beavering away busily in the aforesaid shed. A brother took care of the finances. The family lived a modest lifestyle, in a council house, no flashing their cash and if SG is to be believed, he didn’t do it for the money but for the satisfaction of cocking a snook at the world’s art dealers and experts.

 
Maybe so. Who knows what motivates human beings? I enjoyed the book, but felt I was being offered a carefully curated version of SG’s brilliant career. If ever there was truth in the saying Truth is Stranger than Fiction, this book is the proof. If, of course, we can believe the contents of the book.
Recommended.

SELF- HELPLESS – Rebecca Davis . Non-Fiction

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Capetonian Rebecca Davis gives up drinking, and for a year, she explores the highways and byways of the Self-Help route, the Wellness world. Her adventures make for informative and sometimes downright scary reading. She gamely gives a wide variety of teachers and techniques a bash: a sweat lodge, crystal healing, floating in in an isolation tank, visiting a sangoma, to mention only a few.

 
She ends her book by referring to the wide collection of hippies, charlatans, healers and shamans that she encountered. Did they work? Help her cope with life any better? Most didn’t, but meditation, moderate exercise, silence and solitude did help. Some of the methods e.g. the magic mushrooms and the sweat lodge were downright dangerous to life and health.

 
She concludes that most Wellness fads are simply money-making enterprises, once you brush off the pixie dust and mystical woo-hoo.

 
I enjoyed her snarky style and turn of phrase. This was investigative journalism with lady-balls, to repeat one of her more memorable phrases.
Recommended.

 

READING ROUND-UP : MAY 2019

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I didn’t do much reading in May, because I was involved in a local writing project. I was vetting entries for a competition so my reading mileage was not confined to contents between book covers.  This said, I nevertheless managed to read two whoppers, The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon which weighed in at 805 pages, followed by The Master and Margarita, a paltry 445 pages.

 

 

Noddy Badge for me, I tackled a hefty book from my TBR pile: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Russian writer wrote his satirical, fantastical masterpiece during the Stalinist era and the book finally struggled into print in the mid-70s. What a read! I’ve never read anything like it. I’m painfully aware that I missed, or didn’t understand, much of the satire. I resorted to GR reviews, some of which filled in the gaps for me; all of them raved enthusiastically about the book. Me too. It will appear on my 2019 Hits & Misses Reading summary, but just how to classify it I’m not sure : the strangest book ? the wildest book ? One thing is for sure: I want to re-read the book.

 
I can’t say the same for the Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel. I was /am a fan. The Shadow of the Wind blew me away, and I have re-read it, something I seldom do. But this time around? No. In fact I’m surprised I finished Labyrinth . I found the book too long, too repetitive – I thought : if these two catch another taxi and we go on yet another detailed tour of Barcelona, street by street , or if the duo rendezvous in yet another tiny restaurant and Alicia drinks way too much white wine, I shall scream! I also found the book very dark and violent. Its been a while since I read Zafon, and my memory of his earlier books was more of mystery, and nostalgia and book related matters. This time around it’s about political intrigue and crime related to the Spanish Civil War, and blood and bodies fall from far too many pages.

 

So after two long reads, a slim French novel came as a welcome relief: The Girl from the Chartreuse, a novel about loneliness, about books and reading – always one of my favourite topics. Etienne Vollard, the huge, bearlike bookseller, driving a van load of books back to his little book shop, knocks down a little girl, Eva, as she darts across the road in a rainstorm. Naturally there are consequences, and we watch them unfold. French novels often offer quirky storylines, beautiful writing, and no slick feel-good endings. This was one such book.

FICTION

The Master and Margarita -Mikhail Bulgakov. Modern Russian classic. Fantasy-satire combo. Extraordinary and unique. I dare you to read it!

The Labyrinth of the Spirits – Carlos Ruiz Zafon. One for the die-hard CRZ fans. Over long and violent. I think I’m done with CRZ.

The Girl from the Chartreuse – Pierre Peju, translator Ina Rilke. Unusual French novel about a bookseller, books, a little girl, a traffic accident. Charming and poignant. Recommended.

This is What Happened – Mick Herron. A lonely woman in London, struggling with big city life meets a nasty man who hatches a twisted plan. A suspense novel. I’m a MH fan but I felt the plot was weak – not one of my faves.

A LITTLE BOOKISH BYTE

 

 

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A Russian friend, via Postcrossing (https://www.postcrossing.com/ ) wrote “but sometimes I really have a reading attack “. Me too! I know just what she means. Right now I’m hugely enjoying The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Much to my surprise, as the book has been lurking on my TBR shelf for two years and I finally tackled it. Now I can’t put it down! From one extreme to the other. Who would have thought that a book set in Stalinist Moscow could be so funny? What are your recent reading surprises?