AN ADDITION TO MY LIST OF DESERT ISLAND BOOKS

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The Broken Road. From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos – Patrick Leigh-Fermor.
I’ve found another book to add to my list of Desert Island Books. I would go to great lengths to pack this Travel classic, it’s a gem. It’s the long-awaited final book in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s trilogy, and compiled posthumously by his Literary Executors and editors, Colin Thubron (another brilliant travel writer) and Artemis Cooper (PLF’s biographer).
As a very young man, in his late teens/early twenties PLF walked through many of the Balkan countries aiming for Constantinople/Istanbul; he always referred to the fabled city as Constantinople.

 
The walk takes place starts in Rumania, then moves south into Bulgaria, and he lands up at the shores of the Black Sea, at the end of December 1934; almost in Constantinople, but not quite. This is where his travel diary ends. Thereafter he moved on to a pilgrimage for over a month at Mount Athos , in Greece. I didn’t read this section, because the Library was hounding me to return the book.
Can you believe that in the mid-1930s he could walk at will in the mountains and through valleys in the rural Balkans, sleeping outdoors, or occasionally with friendly rural folk in farm cottages, subsisting on about two shillings per day? And, please know, he drank and smoked with gusto, and ate well. Granted, there were days when he ate frugally on a hunk of stale bread and some raw onion. Probably a good thing he was walking in remote areas! But this said, he often remarks on the smells he encounters: human sweat, wood smoke, animal dung – we’re very precious about smells these days. Europe in the 1930s either poured on vast quantities of cologne, or else, simply didn’t notice the background odours.
His diaries, anecdotes and reflections are fascinating. They’re crammed with detail about the different ethnic groups he meets; snippets of centuries old historical background, Turkish conquests, long-forgotten wars, countries that vanished off the map post-WWII when Europe was divided by the Allied victors.
The overall picture is a brilliantly coloured tapestry of folk dress, fezzes, embroidered waistcoats, Turkish turbans, horse riders, village taverns and squares, simple home grown food and wine; communicating sometimes in broken Bulgarian, or fluent French or limping German, or seriously limited Bulgarian ( no spika da Eenglish in 1930’s Bulgaria) he mixed with British diplomats as he moved around. He visited the haute mond of Bulgarian society, via introductory letters and social contacts, and the even more elevated haute mond of French-speaking ,cultured, intellectual, Bridge playing Rumanian society, and by complete contrast, with traveling Gypsies, shepherds, fishermen and ordinary folk.
There’s a wonderful description of him being chauffer driven in his hosts’ Packard limo, swathed in a fur rug, to explore the town where he goes drinking in a humble tavern and later, homeward bound in the Packard, passes a drover herding his cattle who recognizes PLF as his drinking companion of a scant hour previous!
The world was a wonderful melting pot in those days, before it became homogenized under the deadening hand of Post-War Communism and Coca Cola, and Capitalism on the other. I wish I’d been there and seen it for myself, but at least PLF wrote down his vivid verbal snapshots, which is better than faded sepia photos.
He writes marvelously and at length about his precious travel notebooks and enumerates their invaluable contents, upon which the book is based. And oh! the drama, when a madman steals his rucksack containing the vital notebooks! Fortunately the missing rucksack is tracked down, but the saga played out over long, tense hours.
If you enjoy travel books and superb writing, then make sure you read this book!

FOUR BOOK BONANZA!

 

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I’m sharing the joy: look what arrived today. Four long anticipated books that I ordered on-line in mid February, arrived this morning. Yipee!
I debated long and hard over what treats to buy. I chose books that I’d seen reviewed and praised to the heavens:
There, there – Tommy Orange. Highly acclaimed American debut novel; follows twelve characters from Native communities all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. The complexities and challenges of urban Native Americans in contemporary society.
Bear – Andrew Krivak . A moving post-apocalyptic fable for grown-ups, was Ursula le Guin’s verdict. Other critics raved about the elegance of the writing.
The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick.  She was long recognized as one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century …. Her elegant, erudite often witty essays and reviews … was Joyce Carol Oates verdict.
Essays – Lydia Davis . …. Beautifully formed, thought-provoking playful and illuminating, these pieces are a masterclass in reading and writing … says the dust jacket.
None  were available on our retail bookstore shelves, so I blew the budget in one glorious, indulgent  blowout. That’s my book buying over until at least August.

 
I enjoy Lydia Davis fiction, so wanted to read  her essays. I sat down to sample her Chapter headed Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits and was instantly enthralled – pure gold, I tell you, pure gold. My tea turned lukewarm, the time sped by and I read on. I reached the end of the chapter, inserted two Post-it notes at useful sections and hugged the book. Even if that’s the only chapter I read in the entire book, it was worth every cent.

 

As for the other three books, I can’t wait to read them. Don’t bother contacting me, I shall be incommunicado for some time to come as I explore  in this literary treasure trove.

FEBRUARY 2020 READING ROUND-UP

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Rave rave – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I was swept away by her follow-up to The Night Circus, a book, which in retrospect, I didn’t enjoy nearly so much as her latest. See my separate review, 17 Feb, on this blog: https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/842.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, an award winning Italian novel, was an unusual read. I tend to forget about the northern Italian regions, being more familiar with the central (Rome) and Southern regions. My mental associations with Italy are stuck in stereotypes: food, wine, sunshine, agriculture, scenery, antiquities, fashion. But Eight Mountains is set in the North – the Alpine areas. The narrator starts with his boyhood, his moody, uncommunicative, mountain-mad father who drags him up high altitude mountains, never mind that his son suffers from altitude sickness! Despite this off-putting start, as a young man Berio finds himself longing for the mountains and eager to escape his city life. He returns to the tiny village of Grana and reconnects with Bruno, his boyhood friend (his only friend). On his father’s death, Berio inherits a tiny mountain property above Grana, and he, together with Bruno, spend months restoring a ramshackle mountain cottage. Bruno has always remained in the mountains, and is content to do so.
And so the book goes on. It reads like a memoir, but is in fact a novel. Essentially it’s a story of male friendship, father-son relationships, a coming of age story, finding one’s place in the world, and the mountains. An unusual read, not a contender for my Top Reads list, but a solid novel nonetheless.

 
Although I’m a Clare North fan, her dystopian fantasy 84K defeated me yet again. I can take only so much bleak, and after the glorious Morgenstern fantasy, the contrast was too jarring. Sorry: this is one I’m going to have to wave goodbye to.

 
Kira Salak’s  account of her 600 mile solo paddle in a kayak, up the Niger to fabled Timbuktu is a Travel Writing classic. Breathtaking fortitude, bravery, and a deeply felt inner journey as she encounters Mali, its people and its mighty river. She was inspired by the earlier explorations of Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer in the early 1800s. Another example of mans’ insatiable desire for knowledge and adventure. And, (in the case of Mungo), it must be admitted, for the discovery of gold, and the acquisition of territory for the British Empire.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mungo_Park_(explorer)

FICTION

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern. Wonderful read for me: a 10 star Fantasy novel.
The Eight Mountains – Paolo Cognetti (translated from Italian). Prize winning novel, mountains, men and male friendships. Different.
The Sentence is Death – Anthony Horowitz. Another workmanlike whodunnit from a first rate crime writer. Very enjoyable.
Small Kingdoms and other stories – Charlaine Harris. YA crime – a quick, easy read, but shockingly casual about crime and violence.
84K – Clare North. DNF . Bleak dystopian tale set in Britain.

NON-FICTION

The Cruellest Journey – Kira Salak. Adventure/travel writing in Mali – by kayak down the Niger River to Timbuktu. “A real life Lara Croft!” is one frequent title bestowed on Salak.

How to Read a Novelist – John Freeman . A fascinating collection from the reviewers articles interviews and essays. Quick-dips into 50 of the best-known current novelists. Enjoyable.

RE-READS
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. I have finished re-reading this classic on life and writing, with the utmost enjoyment. If you’ve not read the book, then do so immediately!

THE STARLESS SEA – Erin Morgenstern

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I was hooked from the moment I read the gold title, and read page 1. I am unapologetically in rave mode. If you didn’t enjoy the book, then read no further.

For me it was a ten star Fantasy read. Never mind Goodreads miserable 5 star top accolade.

When I reached The End, I immediately turned back to the beginning to reacquaint myself. I didn’t want the story to end; it swept me away, for 494 glorious pages. I never noticed the length. It probably took me a week to read, because the writing is so lush that it was good to read slower, and savour the prose.

The back cover is an abstract design, reminiscent of brocade: rich colours interwoven with gold thread, forming a dense, gleaming fabric. I felt as if I was reading brocade.

The book is a dazzling amalgam of fantasy, myth and fairytale, books, libraries, hidden underground worlds, magic doorways that are portals other realms and times; there are star crossed lovers, time loops, oh! and cats! It doesn’t get any better than this.
I will be buying my own copy.

JANUARY 2020 READING ROUND UP

 

Iimages (2)enjoy Australian novels and was looking forward to The Dry, Jane Harper’s debut crime novel, which was well reviewed. However, the book did not work for me chiefly because there was so much emphasis on the twenty year old death of a local teenage girl, which was – in the mind of the investigator – linked to the current heinous crime of a family murder. Other Australian novels have conveyed a vivid sense of the land, the life, the seasons, notably Tim Winton’s books; the Dry didn’t offer much in this direction. It portrayed small town Australia at its worst. I didn’t find any of the characters appealing either. In short: a disappointment. To be fair, the denouement did come as a big surprise when I finally discovered ( as I said, the book is overlong) whodunnit.

 
I thought I’d give Nick Petrie’s Light It Up a try and what a hectic ride/read that turned out to be! Non-stop action from war vet ex-Marine Peter Ash against the background of Denver’s legalized cannabis industry. The shenanigans involved the vast cash payments being transported, not the actual weed. A thrilling read.

 
For years I’d been intrigued by the title Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.  I enjoy books about books, and had mistakenly assumed the novel stemmed from a writing group or literary magazine. I was wrong. Shy Swedish bookstore assistant travels to USA to meet a fellow reader, only to discover her hostess has died. She remains in the boring small town, and opens a bookstore using her hostess’s library for stock. A somewhat improbable plot, but this is fiction, and its called literary license. For me, the title was the best part of the book. After the initial shocking opening, the plot was predictable.

FICTION
Forever and a Day – Anthony Horowitz. 007 revisioned in style: plenty of action, fast cars, beautiful women, sadistic villains, deadly plots. Great quick read.

 

The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee. Epic historical novel, set in France 1867 onwards. Will appeal to opera fans, historical buffs and lovers of sagas.

 
The Dry – Jane Harper. Australian crime novel. Bleak and over-long. Small town Australia at its most unappealing.
Light It Up – Nick Petrie. Non-stop action thriller, cash heists, dangerous war vets, mercenaries, and a terrific female lead who looks after herself fearlessly. Recommended.
Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend – Katarina Bivald, translated by Alice Menzies. A Swedish tourist, a boring small town in middle America, a predictable plot. Not a rave read, but okay.

 

The Portable Veblen – Elizabeth McKenzie. I enjoy quirky books & this one is a 5-star weird, wonderfully engaging read. Dysfunctional families, the evil pharmaceutical industry, and Veblen who talks to squirrels. No, really. Recommended.

 

NON-FICTION.

Re-reads: Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. I’m slowly re-reading her classic non-fiction advice on writing, and life. Enjoying chewing over each leisurely chapter. I seldom re-read, but this exercise is proving fruitful.

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.