THE MCGREGOR BOOKSALE

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Pausing at the Pass en route to McGregor
This mammoth book sale, in aid of the McGregor Donkey Sanctuary, takes place annually* in the small town of McGregor, situated in the Robertson wine area. I’ve always wanted to go and this year Nina helped me make my dream come true.
McGregor is a small country town, set on the edge of the Klein Karoo. Its arid, and yet people have made homes and lived here since the mid-1800s. Notice the thatched roofs, the beautiful dry stone walling, and the last pic, a general view, shows the surrounding countryside.

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We located the Town Hall, and as we walked into the grounds, we met people walking out smiling happily, and in one case, a strapping young woman carrying a huge cardboard carton of books on her shoulder! That was a good sign.
This was my modest haul after an hour of delicious browsing.
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The Chinese Horoscope Library – Snake – by Kwok an-Ho. Yes, I’m a snake … so watch out! I enjoy Chinese horoscopes, and find them helpful.
Air – Geoff Ryman . A British writer, who supports a Facebook page for African SF & Fantasy. A good enough recommendation for me.
Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen . I love Hiaasen’s Florida themed crime stories – you always get plenty of laughs amongst the gore and bullets.
General Tso’s Chicken and the 7 Deadly Sins – Maurice Kibel . A Collection of Rhyme and Reason. Illustrations by Tony Grogan. I recognised the name, from years back, in our early Bulawayo days – Mr Kibel was my kids’ paediatrician! And here was a book that, “celebrates a lifetime of words, and music and medicine”. Plus Tony Grogan is one of my favourite cartoonists. An irresistible combination.
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton. An American writer I’ve always meant to read. And the book has a bright sky blue cover, fancy gold lettering, and in mint condition. I think I bought it as much for the cover as I did for the contents!Flying to America – Donald Barthelme. I frequently find mention of Bartheleme in literary blogs as being the man who set the benchmark for American short stories. For example:
“ Donald Barthelme almost single-handedly has revived the genre of the short story and made it a fresh art form… He can, and does, write stories of every kind.”
“Among the leading innovative writers of modern fiction”.
Well: with an intro like the above, clearly I am in for a treat.
As I said in my About page when I opened The Booksmith blog, my reading tastes are eclectic. I think my sale bargains prove this statement to be true!
Thanks to Nina Ganci for the pics. Exception is the bookpile, which I took.
* I’m posting this episode belatedly – we went to McGregor in May 2017.

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NOVEMBER 2017 READING ROUNDUP

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Don’t ask me what happened to November 2017. Here we are at 1 December and the start of the annual Silly Season. Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is my reading list for the month. All the 3+* were very enjoyable reads, flanked by the serious 5* non-fiction Sapiens and ending off with the 1* Rabbit Season. You can’t win ‘em all. Maybe you’ll find something in my list that tickles your reading fancy?

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill;1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish

*5 Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari. Non-fiction. Brilliant. Reviewed on this blog.

*3.75 Death without Company – Craig Johnson – Walt Longmire rides again! Reviewed on this blog
*3.75 All my Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews . Story of two polar opposite sisters and a life threatening dilemma. Reviewed on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2186068203
*3.50 The Flying Troutmans – Miriam Toews. Another saviour sister story , accompanied by two difficult kids, via a road trip novel . Wonderful read. Reviewed on this blog.
*3.5 Man at the Helm – Nina Stibbe. Funny heartwarming story about three kids trying to rescue their newly divorced mother from their chaotic new life. Reviewed on Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2186063882
*3.5 Mr Memory – Marcus Sedgewick. Intriguing tale set in Paris late 1800s. The man with the infallible memory – more of a hindrance than an asset. An intriguing literary mystery.

1* Rabbit Season – Paul Christelis. A weird book. Best avoided. Reviewed on this blog.

THE FLYING TROUTMANS – Miriam Toews

 

Take three heartbroken people : Aunt Hattie – dumped; 15 year old Logan – rejected (as he sees it) combined with teenage angst; 11 year old Thebes – missing her Mum; – load them into the family van and send on a road trip in search of the errant father, Cherkis. Mum, named Min, yet again in a psychiatric ward, psychotic and uncontrollable.

 

The trio drive from Canada to New Mexico.Dramas abound en route, as one would expect with an angry, angst ridden teenager and a manic wannabe artist. The book is nowhere nearly as grim and depressing as it may sound. Although we are given many flashbacks to Hattie and Min’s childhood and early years, which reveal Min as just plain mad, there were lighter moments along the way. Life is not constant doom and gloom.

 
And Thebes, who is eccentric, wacky, artistic, dirty, scruffy, art and craft obsessed – well, she’s the star of the whole crazy shebang. Aunt Hattie deserves a medal.
Families! You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.

 
It’s a lively entertaining read, and I recommend it. I’m now definitely a Miriam Toews fan.

 

SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND – Yuval Noah Harari

 

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I first encountered the Israeli professor on BBC TV’s programme Talking Books. He was being interviewed about Sapiens. I was entranced by the professor, hypnotised by his easy delivery of the most sparkling new ideas . Whilst watching, I felt as if fireworks were going off inside my mind! I’d never seen/heard anybody like him. Let me reiterate: I wasn’t mesmerised by his good looks, (sorry Prof!) but by his words and ideas. For weeks I raved on about Prof YNH, to anybody who would listen. I instantly dashed on line and bought both his books.

So why did A Brief History (not so brief let me tell you, checking in at 443 pages) languish so long in my TBR pile? I started the book soon after it arrived, but found it wasn’t a quick read, for all its fluency and excitement. And then I discovered it wasn’t a book I could put down/pick up/ put down … repeat cycle. Maybe other readers could do this, but I couldn’t.

Recently a friend told me she had tackled and finished the book by determinedly reading 30 pages a day. So I gave her technique a try, and it worked. I loved the book. Finally, a writer who has the breadth and ability to convey grand global historical themes and events over millennia. What’s more, he delivers the information in an easy readable style, without clogging up the flow with a million dates.

When I recall how we laboured with History when I was at school! It was a Date Fest from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong. I liked studying History, but back in the late 1950s it was presented in a thoroughly boring, dry way, with a huge emphasis on dates. We had to commit long lists of dates to memory. All of which are now burnt-out synapses in my elderly brain. Furthermore, I don’t recall being shown a global perspective of whatever period we were studying. Europe and the Napoleonic Wars, I think was the era we were struggling through. Years later I remember seeing a chart that highlighted key dates of major events, not only in Europe but across Asia, Africa and the Americas as well. What a revelation to me! Our school focus was channeled into a very narrow tight tunnel.
Sapiens is a stimulating and challenging read. I found the section on industrialised factory farming and the way our food is produced, very very disturbing.

In another challenging chapter “And they all lived happily ever after” he proposes that our capacity for happiness is hardwired into us by our biological systems. According to him, our happiness quotient operates between a fixed range, resulting in those of the innately cheerful disposition and its opposite, the gloomy disposition. He says that Philosophy, Art, Religion , the Self-Help industry can only have a temporary ameliorating effect. That chapter certainly made me stop and think.

In relation to the so-called ‘lessons of history’ he throws in a final comment at the end of the section … and yet no one saw the coming of the Internet. How true. And how radically it has changed our lives. So maybe the Future is truly unimaginable. His end chapters keep repeating this theme, that due to advances in genetic and biological engineering maybe the future of Humankind is truly unimaginable.

I have to interject a note here: WHY don’t we ever take cognisance? I have never understood how WWII could occur within 21 years of the end of WWI; the First World War WWI was fought from 1914 to 1918 and the Second World War [or WWII] was fought from 1939 to 1945.

So, thank you, Professor Harari, for joining the dots right from the dawn of time 13.5 billion years ago up to the 21st century, making our history accessible, and enlightening.

I need to finish off by saying that I’m not a student of History by any means. I’m a general reader of eclectic taste. So perhaps my observations in this review are way off target, or wildly wrong. So be it. Another reviewer reported that when they were asked “what’s the book about?” they replied : “ pretty much everything”. Yes, the book takes a wide sweeping view of the Neanderthals, the cognitive, industrial and agricultural revolutions, the rise & demise of empires, the future of Sapiens. Maybe it doesn’t indulge in in-depth analysis but that was just fine, so far as I was concerned. Author Jared Diamond said “It tackles the biggest questions of history and the modern world”. Which it does, and that’s a big, comprehensive read.

If you are open to a challenging and exciting perspective of humankind and our world: read this book.

RABBIT SEASON – Paul Christellis

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The blurb informs us Rabbit Season is the book Sylvia Plath and Hunter S Thompson would have written if they had collaborated on a novel about a young South African obsessed with Bugs Bunny. The Blurb was accurate. I must admit that’s what led me to try the novel – curiosity, if nothing else.

 
I can’t put my finger on the reason why – after a grubby, mucky start, which almost made me close the book right at the beginning – I continued reading. But I did. I was carried along by a relentless tide that swept in and out between sanity and lunacy, with Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd making cameo appearances at intervals. In retrospect, they were probably the best thing about the book. I will even go so far as to say that fans of Bugs Bunny et al should actively avoid the book. Let’s not spoil merry cartoon mayhem for them.

 
I finished the novel, shook my head and muttered: What was that all about? I hunted around on Goodreads and amazon.com, and it looks as if this is the one and only novel that Paul Christelis has published in the mainstream. Which may well be a good thing. The novel was too wacky for me. I’m willing to try just about anything, you never know what unlikely gems lie hidden behind the covers. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.

 
Read the book as an experiment by all means, but this one sits squarely in the Lose Category for me.

 

FATAL ATTRACTION

 

A swanky upmarket mall recently opened about 3 kms from my house.
I went for a look-see 2 weeks ago, marveled at the shiny newness, and wished for a skateboard to get around the vast complex. And then: I managed NOT to attend the Grand Opening of Exclusive Books’ new shop, despite a day of spectacular discounts. I was so proud of myself! I need more books like I need a hole in my head. Plus my credit card is emitting smoke and creaking ominously after repeated visits to the vet.

 
Today I had to go to my Bank to collect a new card. A legitimate visit to the Table Bay Mall, you will agree. Banking completed, I decided to have a quick coffee and go home. Oh dear. The coffee shop is diagonally opposite the magnificent Exclusive Books Store. My willpower is only so strong. I’ll just take a look, I WILL NOT buy anything, I promised myself.

 

How was I to know they would be offering recent novels at the unheard of price of R38.00 each ? It would have been a sin not to take advantage. I emerged with six books, two of which are Christmas gifts. That’s gotta be good, hasn’t it? A nice Christmas gift for under R40.00 ?
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My Murakami collection is missing The Elephant Vanishes, so that was a bargain. I’ve long wanted to read Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal. Paige Nick is one of my favourite South African authors – we should support local authors, right? This way up was a patriotic purchase. And I’ve recently discovered the joys of Ali Smith, so her award winning novel How to be Both was an excellent choice, don’t you agree? The two copies of Sally Andrews’ lively Tannie Maria Mystery should bring happy smiles on Christmas day.

All in all, a brilliant shopping expedition. I’m copacetic about the whole thing.

DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY – Craig Johnson

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Tough Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire forges through snowdrifts, snowstorms, icy rivers, gets shot (twice), nearly drowns, but doggedly perseveres until he gets his man. Aided by his lifelong friend Henry Standing Bear, the laconic Cheyenne Indian, he of faultless diction and deadly tomahawk skills.

Walt has acquired a dog, unnamed as yet, and simply referred to as Dog. His support system i.e. Dorothy at the Busy Bee cafe who feeds him and Ruby at the office who keeps him in order with a blizzard of Post-it notes ; lastly his potty-mouthed deputy Vic , all play their part.
An elderly Basque lady dies in the Durant Home for Assisted Living, where old school former sheriff Lucian Conally also resides, easing the indignities of old age with copious amounts of Pappy van Winkle’s Family Reserve .It turns out he’s hiding a gigantic secret relating to the dead woman. But the wily old fox ain’t telling. Walt has to figure it out by himself, and it soon becomes apparent that murder has been committed. But why?
In the investigative process a tragic, bitter family history is slowly revealed. In fact this Longmire novel won the Wyoming Historical Society Book of the Year Award.
Read the book and find out the convoluted reasons for the mayhem. Need I tell you that an inheritance and a lot of money are basically at the bottom of this particular snowdrift?

I guarantee a marvelous  read, a good mystery puzzle and a burning desire to read more about Walt Longmire. If he has a fan club, I want to join up.
Craig Johnson is a master storyteller, and in my book (pun intended), nothing beats a good story.

OCTOBER 2017 READING ROUNDUP

 

indexMy reading hours this month were severely disrupted by frequent trips to the vet, with my ailing companion, Chocolat. Added to this was my own seasonal headcold with its attendant miseries, exacerbated by skirmishes with the plumbing contractor. Overall not a good month.
The other factor has been my determined assault on Yuval Noah Harari’s marvelous tome Sapiens. The sub-title is A Brief History of Humankind. I’ve been tackling 30 pages daily – or trying to – so its a slow process, but one which I am enjoying. I find I need head space to reflect on what I’ve read, and have tried not to get too distracted by other reading.
The Mieville novella was an experimental read, deliberately out of my comfort zone. Did I enjoy it? Sort of : once I’d got my head around what was happening. Luckily the print was big and the novella short. Had it been longer I probably wouldn’t have finished it. By contrast, the Baxter/Pratchett Fantasy novel was a terrific read, not too much mind bending involved. Mieville tied my brain up into several knots.

Perhaps my October Roundup will encourage you to try a book or genre out of your comfort zone?
Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill;
1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish

4* The Long Cosmos – Stephen Baxter & Terry Pratchett. Fantasy. Finale of the Long Earth series, and a jolly good read!
4*Public Library & other Stories – Ali Smith . Original, wildly inventive & a wordsmith of note. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2147077558. Also illustrates the enormous value of Public Libraries.
4* Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth . Midwife’s memoir of life in London’s East End, 1950s. Reviewed on this blog.
2*The Last Days of New Paris – China Mieville . Crazy surrealist fantasy novella.

?* Chernobyl Strawberries – Vesna Goldsworthy. Yugoslav memoir. Reviewed on this blog.

CHERNOBYL STRAWBERRIES – Vesna Goldsworthy

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Seduced by the title, I bought the book at a Charity Booksale, only to discover that it was a memoir by a Serbian writer about her early life in Communist Yugoslavia,  followed by her married  life in Britain. .I’m fascinated by accounts of post-Chernobyl, hence my impulse buying  the book on sight. That’ll teach me!

Having finished the book, I find myself  dithering about the content of my review, and how to rate the book.

Initially I was not enjoying the story. I found the early chapters about her Serb/Slav ancestors confusing, especially in terms of geography – many of the countries she writes about have been renamed due to politics, treaties, annexures and so on.  I almost abandoned it, but persevered.

The chapters about her childhood, adolescence and student years in former Yugoslavia were interesting. It was a period and history  of a  country I knew very little about.  She enjoyed a privileged life in the dying years of Josip Broz  Tito’s regime. To her relatives’ horror she emigrated to Britain and married her British boyfriend.

She worked for the BBC Overseas Radio Service, due to her  Serbian language skills, but later moved on to teach literature at tertiary level.  But life had a nasty surprise in store, and she had to deal with cancer in her early 40s. Which, after considerable struggles, she survived.

Periodically she related anecdotes about her  grandmother, a passionate, old-school dragon who told the most  bloodthirsty violent folk tales and held rigid chauvinistic  views on absolutely everything. I’m glad the old girl wasn’t part of my tribe, but I enjoyed reading about her.

Vesna Goldsworthy tackles the topic of identity, with justification.  Do emigrants/immigrants ever really belong? In either both or neither of their ex/present countries?  It’s a subject which continues to perplex me, this late in my life, about my own journey.

Her narrative skipped about all over the place, a chunk here, a chunk there . I prefer a more linear account, I must say. Despite this, I finished the book.

What I did  like about the book was the stunning cover, her portrait photographed against a snowy winter background. I also liked the stylish endpapers. As a physical object, the book is great!

I’m still uncertain  how to rate it.  I suggest you read it for yourself.

 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vesna_Goldsworthy

CALL THE MIDWIFE – Jennifer Worth

Truth is always stranger than fiction goes the old saying. When I finished Jennifer Worth’s book, I realised the old cliché perfectly summed up the book for me. A memoir of Jennifer Worth’s work as a midwife, in the East London  slums  during the 1950s.

You could not invent some of the stories you will find in her book.
For example: Conchita, married happily to her English husband, for over 20 years, living in the East End, mother to 25 children. No: this is not a typo. I repeat: 25 children. Conchita met her husband while he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and escaped Spain, fleeing back to England with him. Once she was old enough they married, and then the babies began. As if all this were not incredible enough, the couple were devoted to each other and provided a happy family life for their tribe despite poverty and cramped living conditions. But wait! There’s more. The reason they got on so well was that she spoke not a word of English, and he not a word of Spanish! Even after all those years. Apparently some of the older children had learned Spanish from their Mum and acted as translators.
Jennifer Worth’s story reveals the dreadful conditions in 1950s London slums: no running water, inadequate sanitation, no home telephones (to call the midwife – you had to race to a callbox!) no domestic appliances, little or no work for women, huge families, and not much by way of birth control. The book doesn’t set out to be a social history of the area and the decade, but that’s the unavoidable backdrop. Hard to believe that her early life as a nurse, and young woman, unfolded in this milieu, and that she found the courage to deal with the harsh  circumstances , and carry on working like a Trojan. These deplorable conditions were in one of the world’s greatest cities, just under 70 years ago. Hard to believe from the vantage point of our 21st century modern world.
Despite the grim social reality, Jennifer’s story is filled with memorable characters, especially  the nuns with whom she lived. The Sisters of St Raymund Nonnatus provided midwifery services to the area, and also engaged lay nurses to help. The nurses lived in the convent building alongside the nuns. Meeting the aristocratic, semi-demented, cake-loving Sister Monica Joan is worth the price of the book alone.
Some of my readers may have seen the British television series of the same name. If you haven’t seen the programme, it’s worth giving it a try. Ditto the book – what a good, engrossing read. I see there are 2 if not 3 more titles in the Midwife series, and I’d love to read them all.