WARM FUZZIES WITH THE CHRISTMAS CATS

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Lesley Anne Ivory is the illustrator, par (or should I say ‘purr’) excellence, when it comes to cats. As some of you already know, I’m a cat fan of note. So it was a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy her little book of Christmas Cats. Not only did I enjoy it – I loved every page, and returned I the book with the utmost reluctance to my friend who lent it to me.
The small book is charming, delightful, heartwarming; each page shows one of the artist’s cats depicted in scenes of an English countryside Christmas – snow, holly, distant churches, twinkling yellow lights. It’s a nostalgia fest de luxe, and its gorgeous. One of the things I enjoy about Lesley Anne Ivory’s cat paintings is that they are meticulous portraits of these graceful animals, and not  caricatures, or stylised images. Each cat’s personality is evident in each portrait.
I particularly enjoyed the neat borders around each portrait, decorated with holly, robins, rosy red apples, pine cones, red, white and green Christmas stockings – all the much loved trimmings of a traditional Northern Hemisphere Christmas.
I read the book after Christmas, in mid-January which was a pretty good time to have an attack of the warm fuzzies don’t you think?

 

P.S. Give yourself a treat and Google  for Images – LAI  ; you have a feast  in store. Enjoy!

DECEMBER 2019 READING ROUND UP

 

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I never read Elizabeth Strout’s best seller Award winning novel My Name is Lucy Barton; after my excursion into Anything is Possible, which uses Lucy Barton as a reference point in the linked stories, I have crossed the Lucy Barton off my Want to Read List. I was staggered by the revelations that came out of the Anything is Possible stories! For goodness sake: the setting is the American Mid-West, the land of rolling cornfields, Mom and apple pie, not the cesspit of dark family secrets underlying one small, dusty, obscure town! My gosh: are there no normal families in Middle America? After my nasty shock between the covers of Anything is Possible (and she wasn’t kidding!) I have no desire to explore further.
Prior to the Strout, I’d read Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose, and had very mixed feelings about this novel. To me, it read more like a memoir than anything else, but then that’s a common feature of first novels. I wasn’t crazy about the experimental formatting, but on the plus side, was relieved the chapters were so short. The novel explores the dual strands of heritage and identity (Thandi’s Mum is a South African Coloured* woman, married to a successful American black) as played out in South Africa and Philadelphia. I found the section about Winnie Mandela opportunistic. The novel was praised to the skies both here and abroad, but I am not a member of that praise singing choir. However, I have to admit it was refreshing to read about Thandi’s wealthy, successful Coloured relatives living in Sandton which makes a change from the usual trope of downtrodden disadvantaged people.
*Please note in SA the term ‘Coloured’ refers to people of mixed race.
After these two unsatisfactory reads, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet came as a relief, followed by joy. What a marvelous read! Set in Australia (of course), two rural families migrate to Perth at the end of WWII, and we follow their struggles, triumphs and tragedies to start over as city people. The book has been described as a masterpiece, and I agree. It’s a keeper, it has everything, vivid characters, ordinary people you can relate to, and also picnics: which I am partial to myself. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for many years, and it was worth the wait.
Finally I tackled Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jokha_al-Harthi;  a complex novel written by an Omani born but Western educated woman. I found the book challenging because it did not have a linear timeline or story line but notwithstanding the difficulties, I gained a tiny insight into the patriarchal society and kingdom, its history and its culture and traditions. An intoxicating blend of history, magic, myth and the arrival of the 21st century. The book made a refreshing change from the usual Western publishers run of the mill offerings.
Only four book reviews this month; what with Silly Season events, shopping and traveling I didn’t have that much time to read. But that’s okay: my TBR shelf waits patiently. Watch this space.
Wishing you a peaceful, happy New Year filled with more marvellous books.

FICTION
Anything is Possible – Elizabeth Strout. I discover Middle America holds its quota of dark hidden family secrets. A well written novel, but I did not enjoy.
What we Lose – Zinzi Clemmons. So-so novel about an American girl coming to terms with her South African heritage, her mother’s death, and life in general. Again, I did not enjoy.
Cloudstreet – Tim Winton. Another 5-star read. Epic Australian family saga, unforgettable characters. Loved it.
Celestial Bodies – Jokha Alharthi. My first Omani novel – a complex story of 3 Omani girls dealing with patriarchy, tradition and the incursions of the modern world. Very different. I’m glad I tried the book and equally glad I’m not an Omani woman!

NOTABLE READS OF THE DECADE

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Every December lists sprout up as weeds after rain – Best Reads of the Year and the like. This year has an added category: 10 Best Reads of the Decade. Lonesome Reader’s post on the topic http://lonesomereader.com/ inspired me to hunt through my collection of tatty notebooks, and apply some thought. Ten books? One per year? Nah. I’ve listed the books that inspired, entertained, or informed me and made an indelible impression because of the stellar writing or their emotional impact or their intellectual content.

 
I read some magnificent novels: The Overstory- Richard Powers; the haunting A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara; the intriguing Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov ; the elegiac Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; the unsettling House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski; ;and in the decade I discovered Australian Tim Winton’s work. For which I am grateful!]
Memoir provided some startling reads, namely Educated by Tara Westover and The Glass Castle by Janette Walls.
Non-fiction :Noah Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and Ken Moji’s The Little Book of Ikigai provided food for thought as did The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt.

 
These ten books added to my life one way or another. The gift of sight, books and reading are treasures.

 

2019 HITS & MISSES

Almost the end of another reading year. Here’s a short list, by category. Perhaps you’ll find some new ideas for your own reading.
Books marked * were loaned from the excellent Milnerton Public Library. I heartily recommend it!

TWO TOP READS FOR 2019
The Overstory – Richard Powers
The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton *

BEST LITERARY NOVEL
The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

MOST ORIGINAL NOVEL
The Pine Islands – Marion Poschmann

BEST FUN READ
Happiness for Humans – P Z Reizin. *

THE MOST ROMANTIC NOVEL
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – J P Sedker*

STRANGEST READ
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

WEIRD & WONDERFUL
The Puttermesser Papers – Cynthia Ozick *

BEST CRIME
Scrublands – Chris Hammer*
The Marsh King’s Daughter – Karen Dionne *

BEST TRANSLATED NOVEL
The Master & Margarita – Mikhail Buylgakov

BEST HISTORICAL
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry *

BEST AMERICAN NOVEL
Here I am – Jonathan Safan Foer*

BEST RE-READ
The Reader on the 6.27 – Jean-Paul Didier Laurent*

WONDERFUL SHORT STORIES
Her Body & other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – William Boyd*

MOST DIFFICULT READ
The Plains – Gerald Murnane

NON-FICTION

MEMOIR
Educated – Tara Westover
Land’s Edge -: A Coastal Memoir – Tim Winton*

WHACKIEST
Self-helpless – Rebecca Davis
My Experimental Life – A J Jacobs

ABANDONED READS
Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney *
Sex, Lies & Stellenbosch – Eve Mazza *
The Passion according to G.H. – Clarice Lispector

A BOOKISH LETTER TO SANTA

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Dear Santa
I’ve been such an exemplary reader all year, I know I deserve a huge pile of lovely gift
-wrapped books under the tree on Christmas morning. No, really, I’m a model reader.
For example: I’ve returned my library books before due date; no fine for me in 2019!
My reading has not defaced any book with coffee stains, dog eared pages (horrors! Perish the thought) or chocolate smears, biscuits crumbs or chip remnants.
So please Santa, here’s a little list of what I’m hoping to find under the tree on Christmas morning. And once I’ve read them, I promise to donate them to my local Library.
Ducks, Newburyport – Lucy Ellmann
Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton), the 2019 Booker prize-winning novel and the eighth by Bernardine Evaristo

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: A Novel – Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

And lastly:

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Thanks for reading my letter, Santa.

NOVEMBER 2019 READING ROUND UP

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The JM Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society was an inspirational read, from the point of giving a brilliant example of living wonderfully into old age – not that I’m aiming to go swimming in icy mid-winter ponds, but for illustrating the inestimable value of belonging to a group of true, female friends – no matter what the challenges. New York glitz and success comes off a very poor second best to British eccentricity and the English countryside.

British actress and comedienne Dawn French has written a wonderfully warm and funny novel : According to Yes. Just the thing for a cold Northern Hemisphere winter to put a smile on your dial and a warm glow in your heart. Works just as well down here in the hot, sweaty South!
In quieter vein was a re-read of a poetry collection by ex-Rhodesian John Eppel: Sonata for Matabeleland. Reading the evocative poems made me thoroughly nostalgic for my past life in that country, and long for the open bush and peaceful way of life that I took for granted so many years ago. A far cry indeed from the current wave of global protests.

 

Non-fiction Street Spirit : the Power of Protest, came as a surprise. I discovered that street protests have been wrecking our cities, globally, prior to 2017 the date of publication, and certainly vigorously this year.This has been a crowded year for protests: think Hong Kong, France, South America … South Africa, of course, there’s always a protest about something on the go.

 

FICTION
The Night Rainbow – Claire King. Quirky happy/sad story of a 5 year old girl neglected by her grieving mother. Summer in the French countryside. Gorgeous writing. Recommended.
A Gap in the Hedge – Johan Vlok Louw . Brilliant, direct, clear writing. One of the best South African novels I’ve read for a long time. Highly recommended.

The Stranger Diaries – Elly Griffiths. A whodunnit with gothic and literary overtones. Mildly creepy. Enjoyable but not rave material.

The JM Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society – Barbara J Zitwer. New York born and bred architect Joey Rubin is sent to England on an assignment and meets a fabulous group of elderly ladies, the swimmers in the title. An enjoyable light read.

Women of the Dunes – Sarah Maine. Viking myth, Victorian mystery and a complicated family history come to fruition in the early 2000s in a tiny Scottish town in Scotland. Enjoyable.
According to Yes – Dawn French. Cornish cheer breaks through Upper East Side Manhattan ice; cheerful, charming and altogether delightful. An adventurous plot. Loved it!

NON-FICTION
Walking the Himalayas – Levison Wood. He writes vividly and I enjoyed reading about his heroic 1 700 mile trek throughout the Asian countries in that mountain area. Nomads, militias, farmers, traders, he meets them all. And survives a fearsome road accident in Nepal, but gamely returns post-surgery to resume his trek. He’s made of stern stuff, old LW: he’s a credit to the British Army.
Street Spirit – The Power of Protest and Mischief. By Steve Crawshaw. Coffee table format, and informative.

POETRY
Sonata for Matabeleland – John Eppel . Nostalgic, reflective. Evocative .

OCTOBER 2019 READING ROUND-UP

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This has turned out to be a mostly non-Fiction month of reading. Not planned; happenchance.

 
The two best reads were The Swerve and Tim Winton’s Coastal Memoir. In my eyes, he can write no wrong. I swear if I found a copy of TW’s grocery list, I’d read it with rapt attention. An enchanting 113 pages about TW’s discovery and love of the ocean. I loved the book so much I’m on the lookout for my own copy.

 
As for The Swerve – well, Stephen Greenblatt won the National Book Award for this fascinating combo of history and philosophy. The section I most enjoyed were the chapters about the rascally Renaissance Popes. My word! They make modern scandals pale by comparison. As for the philosophy, Greenblatt recounts the gist of Lucretius’ mind-blowing ideas, from his poem On the Nature of Things. Plenty to think about, on many levels. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucretius

 
Amazon.com kept begging me to buy C J Box’s Western crime novels, so I borrowed one from the Library. Nope. Not for me. My heart belongs to Craig Johnson and Walt Longmire. And there’s the end of it. Absaroka County for me.

 

FICTION

Ivy & Abe – Elizabeth Enfield. A love story with a difference. Ivy & Abe work through different incarnations experiencing permutations of love & couplehood.

Open Season – C J Box . Crime in Wyoming, but DNF .

 

NON-FICTION

The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt. Dazzling, explosive.

Land’s Edge . A Coastal Memoir. – Tim Winton. What a marvelous read!
The Biology of Belief – Bruce H Lipton PhD. Accessible ideas about biochemistry, genetics, and Epigenetics. DNF

 

SEPTEMBER 2019 READING ROUND-UP

 

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My month started with reads from three female writers. Not by design, it just turned out that way. I tackled three TBRs: Convenience Store Woman had been beckoning to me for months and finally I turned on the Kindle and read it. What a strange story! From childhood Keiko has been different. Not normal, by anybody’s standards and in rigidly classified Japanese society there’s plenty of social pressure to conform. Having a lifelong career as a convenience store worker is socially unacceptable so Keiko succumbs to the pressure and forms a curious liaison with a man (and he’s horrendous; her judgement is not good!) but in the end, she’s happy to just be a Convenience Store Worker. The novel ended abruptly. But Japanese novels present many challenges as I have learnt over the years. Did I enjoy it? Yes, in a weird way. If you’re looking for something different, give it a try.
A friend gave me an unexpected gift, Name all the Animals by Alison Smith .
She enjoyed the notion that the book was apparently written by me! Pure coincidence, because the American memoir certainly could not have been more different to my Central African youth. The memoir turned out to be an intense account of the writer’s early life, the strong Catholic influences, her dilemma concerning her sexual identity and the seminal moment of her brother Roy’s early death, interspersed with passages detailing an ordinary life unfolding in Boston during the mid 1980s. I enjoyed the writing, which in places was superb. I don’t think I would have chosen to read the book, but it turned out to be an unusual read. Thanks for the prezzie, Sam . You introduced me to a memoir written in what is now called the “ Creative non-fiction” style.

 
I bought Carmen Maria Machado’s short story collection at our recent 2019 Open Book Festival, having read many enthusiastic reviews of her work. What a writer! Fearless and intelligent; strong lesbian themes. Wikipedia told me: short story author, essayist, and critic frequently published in The New Yorker, Granta, Lightspeed Magazine, and other publications. Her story collection Her Body and Other Parties was published in 2017. I was quite disappointed to discover she’s American born – I thought all that fiery passion had to be of Latin origin, say Brazil, but no. I can’t wait to read more.

 

I followed up the female writers with a blazing dose (literally: the description of an Australian bushfire is red hot) of down-under crime, written by a seasoned male journo. I seldom read crime, but this novel had me turning the pages at breakneck speed.

FICTION
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata. The loneliness and social pressures of being a non-conformist in modern Japanese society . Seriously weird and very intriguing.

Her Body and other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado. Debut Short Story collection. Unique, breathtaking prose; avoid this if you are not comfortable with lesbian themes .

Scrublands – Chris Hammer. Crackerjack Australian crime set during the terrible drought, where heat, greed and secrets explode. A page turner. Recommended.

An Obvious Fact – Craig Johnson. Another TBR – worth the wait! A great story, colourful characters, plenty of action, flashes of humour – you can’t beat a Walt Longmire story for a satisfying, enjoyable read.

DNF
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton . A wildly complicated plot that was super confusing. 114 pages in, I’d had enough.

84K – Claire North. Although I’m a CN fan, this one just didn’t do it for me. Too bleak, too dystopian and 59 pages was enough for me.

NON-FICTION

Name all the Animals – Alison Smith; memoir. Vividly written American memoir, exploring grief, Catholic upbringing, and pubescent sexuality en route. An unusual read.

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.

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.