THE MIRACLE OF CROCODILE FLATS

 

 


15731598._SY180_ An Affectionate Satire – Jenny Hobbs

The sub-title is apt: Jenny Hobbs skilfully skewers all the woes and peccadilloes of life in an impoverished South African small town. And yet, despite the dust, hunger, disease, squalor and crime there is still space for a small miracle, that transforms the town and its people and bring a smile to the face of the reader.
Schoolgirl Sweetness Moloi claims to have seen a vision. Let me leave it at that, lest I reveal the catalyst.
There’s a rich melange of characters: Ben Feinbaum is hopelessly sinking with the vanishing fortunes of the family owned hotel, the town’s one and only. Raylene, the volunteer teacher working in the school, boarding with the nuns of the Little Sisters of Extreme Destitution and being bullied by bitter old Sister Immaculata; the drunken Dr Ugh; the Smart Boys – the town’s *tsotsis; the senile old Chief Mohlalipula, outdated patriarch enveloped in a cloud of snuff; the two posh old ladies starving to death amidst a flood of feral cats; the alcoholic store-owner; the VanderLindeans barricading themselves for the siege against the Swaart Gevaar and life in general; the scheming dominee; the maniacal Anglican minister; and so it goes on. One character deserves her own introduction: No 1 Senior wife, Violet, in her immaculate suits, PR and business manager for her evangelical go-getter husband, the Prophet Hallelujah, the highly successful inventor of the Correct Baptised God Come Down in Africa Church.
There are other characters too who play a role in the unfolding furore, notably the brash, macho Aussie journalist Rod the Sod; and the principled policeman Capt Godwin Ngobese who is determined to stop the crime and bribery. There’s a ducking and diving government Minister and his old-school Director General grimly hanging on for his pension, no matter what. South Africa in a microcosm. The drama, the tears, the violence, and also, the hope, reconciliation and success.
I loved the book and it may well hit my Number One slot in my 2017 Reading Stakes. Read this book – highly recommended.
*criminals
Publisher: Umuzi 2012

MY LONGTERM FASCINATION WITH THE AMERICAN BEAT GENERATION

 

 

a-collection-of-jack-kerouac-books-EJRPNP

 

I lived worlds apart, not only geographically, but culturally, from the American Beat Generation of the late 1950’s. There I was, Iiving in a British colony in Central Africa, while they were living in California, in the San Francisco Bay area. An unlikely meeting of minds, to put it mildly.
Oddly enough, it was my Mother who unwittingly set off my obscure interest. We were holidaying in Beira, Mozambique. It was our nearest access to the ocean from Malawi. An entire day’s rail journey . I suppose I must have been between the age of 15 – 17, at the time. Anyway, there we were, in a small Portuguese speaking coastal town, and I’d run out of books to read. This was a disaster. My family read a lot. All the time. So my Mother caught the tram into town and returned several hours later with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Seemingly it was the only ‘suitable’ English language book she could find. In those days parent were very vigilant about the ‘suitability’of books and films that young eyes could be permitted to view.
I dived into the book and was immediately enchanted. I’d never read anything like it. Hitherto I’d read kids’ books, some of the classics, and my Dad’s crime novels (Agatha Christie, Peter Cheyney, Rex Stout et al) and travel books. Intrepid journeys through jungles and over mountains, by ex-Army stalwarts; that sort of thing.
So to read about the free living, free thinking , philosophizing, Buddhist-addled, drunken Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous journey across America with his buddies for no other reason than they felt like it … I was blown away! The freedom! No planning, no equipment, no maps, porters, horses, floods, bandits, fires or poisonous insects … good grief! The Stream of Consciousness writing! The Buddhist Exotica! This was another Universe!

Kerouac_by_Palumbo_2

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo circa 1956
Ten years later I stumbled across the Mayflower edition of The Dharma Bums which I still own despite my relocations around southern Africa. The pages have turned brown over the years – they’re excused, the book is over 50 years old – and the print is teeny-tiny. I remember being fascinated by the exploits of the two young men in the Sierra Nevada forests in search of solitude and freedom, via Zen practice.

Cascade Mountainsindex  SIERRA NEVADA
When I visited San Francisco in 2008 I begged my hosts to take me to the famed City Lights Bookstore, which they kindly did. I spent a happy half hour wandering through the store, paging through Ginsburg’s poetry and other Beat Generation writers. I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in the famous Beat Generation bookstore! Me – all the way from Africa, and over all the years. Wow! I spent precious dollars on City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology – which reminds me, I must dip into it again.
So when the Literary Hub Weekly (3 July 2017 ) tagged a Washington Post article by Jeff Weiss “ Speaking with the surviving members of the Beat Generation … “, I pounced on the article. The remaining icons are very elderly – Ferlinghetti is in his 90s . The elder writer who interested me most was Gary Snyder, wilderness advocate, Zen teacher, writer and poet. A brief thumbnail sketch says Gary Snyder is an American man of letters. Perhaps best known as a poet, he is also an essayist, lecturer, and environmental activist. He has been described as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Wikipedia.
I bought The Gary Snyder Reader – Prose, poetry and translations and it is sheer pleasure to open it and read at random. Here is a brief extract from Gary Snyder’s poem The Blue Sky:
Horse with lightening feet!
A mane like distant rain,
the turquoise horse,
a black star for an eye
white shell teeth.
If you’ve never read any of his writing, give it a try.In addition to his own poetry and essays, Snyder has been translating Japanese poetry and texts for years, some of which appears in my GS Reader. It will be time well spent.
Did the Beat Generation influence me? Yes, they did. I found their ideas about freedom exhilarating. My early life was regimented by boarding school and African colonial life neither of which encouraged hippy-style free thinking. And certainly not adventures in Oriental religion and philosophy.
The Beats forays into Buddhism were exotically fascinating to me in those early years, and turned me towards Buddhist teachings and practice, for which I will always be grateful.
So you see it’s true: reading books can change your life!

 

 

SUPPORTING THE SPCA

I think we can all agree that the SPCA is a very worthy cause. So it was with a sense of praiseworthy virtue that I trotted off to the big book sale in support of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. Cape winters are wet and cold, so it’s no fun for those living outdoors, whether on two legs or four. At least shelters for the two legged homeless exist, whereas the animals don’t do so well.
I craftily timed my visit for the first morning of the four day sale, so on arrival, the tables were piled high. However, despite diligent delving, I only found two books to my taste, both non-fiction:

I rashly bought Chernobyl Strawberries by Vesna Goldsworthy on the strength of the title . I’m fascinated by the aftermath of Chernobyl, and have long planned to write a dystopian novella on the topic. I’ve seen TV doccies about the gradual revival of the flora and fauna, showing vine clad derelict buildings, bold deer and foxes wandering the crumbling roads, all of which has an eerie charm for me. So imagine my chagrin when I sat down to my fish & chip lunch, and read the blurb properly, to discover the book is in fact a memoir. The sub-title on the cover, “A Memoir” , was in very small print and I missed it. Apparently the writer is a Yugoslavian. Hopefully Chernobyl will enter the picture later? Watch this space.

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I’m currently reading A Year of Living Danishly , subtitled Discovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, by Helen Russell and am absolutely enchanted. Russell’s husband was offered a job by the manufacturers of the world’s best selling child’s game: Lego. Did you know that Lego originated in Denmark and is still made there? I didn’t. So off they went to live in Billund, a town situated in rural Jutland. The contrast between their previous buzzy big city London ifestyle, and countryside Billund could not be more extreme. I’m reading the chapter about the much vaunted concept of Danish hygge at the moment, which sounds appealing in our winter, but if you live in Africa as I do … only for a few short months .
Life in Denmark sounds like pure bliss, compared to South Africa. Literally polar opposites. What I want to know is: are there any Danish Sugar Daddies who’d like to adopt a little old Sugar Granny? Please ? Pretty please? I’ll even learn how to pronounce hygge, I promise!

JUNE 2017 READING ROUNDUP

 

As ever, I read an eclectic assortment of books. My reads ranged from the trashy (the Grimwood Venetian fantasy) to the terrific (Ann Morgan’s psychological thriller). Twins were a feature of June’s reads. I find the theme of twins fascinating – it gives rise to so many questions about cloning; the mirrored appearance but the interior struggle to assert individuality and personal identity. And then there’s the issue of deliberate deception …
I’m not a huge fan of historical novels, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Victorian creepy: Bellman and Black. Ditto the Venetian dark adventure.
My least enjoyable read was Hunger Eats a Man.
I hope you find something to entertain and/or inspire you!

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill;
1* – dismal; zero * – no comment.

4* Beside Myself – Ann Morgan – psychological thriller (twins). See this blog for full review.

3.5* Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger – twins & the Highgate Cemetry, London
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2025109647
3.5* It might Get Loud – Ingrid Winterbach – contemporary SA novel, Cape Town setting. See this blog for full review.

3* Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – historical ghost story
3* Hunger Eats a Man – Nkosinathi Sithole – contemporary South African novel, Kwa-Zulu Natal – see this blog for full review.
*3 THE FALLEN BLADE – Jon Courtenay Grimwood – 15th century Venice, sword & sorcery
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2045851165
3* THE GORDIAN KNOT – Bernhard Schlink – industrial espionage
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2029333642

3* The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom – hall-of-mirrors story
https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/34844859.
Reading Jennifer Crocker’s review of the Fred Strydom novel (Cape Times 9 June 2017) helped me to clarify my ideas about what I had read. Make no mistake, it’s a confusing story! On reflection, it probably belongs in the 4* category, but at the time I felt justified in making it a 3*.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD – Ingrid Winterbach

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Amazon.com reviewAfter a disturbing call from a certain Josias Brandt, Karl Hofmeyr departs for Cape Town to help his brother, Iggy, who is apparently running amok. On this journey Karl – hard-core heavy-metal fan – valiantly contends with inner demons as well as outer obstacles. Meanwhile, in an attempt to fend off a beleaguering emptiness, Maria Volschenk embarks on a journey to understand her sister’s search for enlightenment . . . and her subsequent death. These two narratives converge on a highly unconventional city farm, where Iggy is locked in a bitter duel with the inscrutable Brandt fellow, under the laconic gaze of Maria’s friend Jakobus. Die aanspraak van lewende wesens, the original Afrikaans version of It Might Get Loud, won five major literary awards: the M-Net Award, the University of Johannesburg Literary Prize, the Hertzog Prize, the WA Hofmeyr Prize and the Great Afrikaans Novel Prize.

This is my first foray into the acclaimed Afrikaans writer’s work. Luckily for me, Michiel Heyns translated this novel, so it was accessible.

What I liked about the novel was that it focussed on the personal stories of a group of very recognisable  modern South Africans, as opposed to being a vehicle for thinly veiled political polemic, or yet another re-hashing of The Struggle.  Over 20 years have elapsed since our breakthrough 1994 Elections when the New South Africa birthed, and now its time to move on and start story-telling once more. Yes, there’s a short section where Karl encounters three  far-right doomsday survivalists, sure, we have them. Only they’re not part of TV reality  series as happens elsewhere. But they’re a minor detour in the story trail.

On the downside, I have to say that I found two different narrative strands confusing, and it took me ages to sort out who was who in the missions: Karl  slowly travelling to Cape Town to rescue his brother Iggy staying on a city farm,  and Maria  also Cape Town bound to assist  her dysfunctional  son Benjy, and confront her dead sister Sophie’s partner Toby and get some closure about Sophie’s suicide. Plus each strand has a cast of assorted bit players woven into their story. The narrative kept jumping to and fro, and I had to retrace my steps to see who was who in this particular strand.

This said, it was an intriguing read. Particularly the factor of the little red notebook – Sophie’s only bequest to her sister. I’m still pondering the enigmatic  entry about a spiritual path through the Ten Gates.

The most interesting thing for me was that the  Karl/Iggy strand of the novel culminated at the city farm, which really does exist in Cape Town, situated in the old Military Camp in Tamboerskloof. I visited the resident artist there, about 20 years ago, and toured the Victoria era  munitions  storage area, the barrel vaulted dark caverns. When I saw them, the artist Andre Laubscher was using them to display his art works. The paintings hung in several of the vaults and were indeed badly illuminated by a single dim lightbulb hanging from the roof, just as the novel says.  The vaults that I saw were not crammed with junk as the novel  describes. But hey! You can accumulate a lot in 20 years.  In my opinion, Winterbach’s  character Jakobus  is definitely based on the artist I met.

I bought a large seascape from Laubscher on my visit, because I loved the colours, but in recent years its languished in its packing case because my current home lacks the wall space to display it . I’ll include a picture below. Laubscher is  a true eccentric and has his own chapter in Eccentric South Africa  by Pat Hopkins , published by Zebra, in 2001.

I’ll look out for more of  Ingrid Winterbach’s novels. I note that four of her other novels have been translated. If you want to try a South African contemporary novelist, who has won five major literary awards, and is readable then I recommend you try her work.

https://www.facebook.com/Erf-81-The-Farm-NPO-177886328949677/

http://www.capetownmagazine.com/whats-the-deal-with/a-short-history-of-erf-81/125_22_19811

 

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P.S. Laubscher told me the title was Mandela walks from Robben Island to Cape Town. Size is approx .900 cm x 1.3m . I will happily accept offers of around R4 500.

 

 

 

A GENUINE BOOK SALE

 

 

Wildebeeste migrate, lemmings leap off cliffs and I rush madly to Book Sales. The irresistible urge is imprinted in my DNA, I swear! Can’t stop myself. And this weekend, I’m so glad I succumbed to the urge.

A group of Cape Town Book Sellers rented two floors of exhibition space at the V & A Waterfront and gave us, the book reading, book buying public a huge treat: The Cape Town Book Sale.  Yes folks: a real, genuine book sale. Brand new stock, no mangled remainders. Just books, glorious books, in every direction. There must have been literally thousands of them. You name it, the books were there. Kids’ books, cookery books, coffee table books, contemporary novels, literary novels, blockbusters, thrillers, biographies – I think the last time I saw so many books on sale was in the magnificent Kinokunia Bookstore in Sydney. And I have to confess that 14 years later,  I still have orgasmic dreams about that Aladdin’s cave of delights ….

The prices were jaw-droppingly brilliant: R50 for a paperback; R70 for a hardback. Normally we have to grudgingly part with between R200 and R300 to buy a paperback novel. And don’t talk to me about hardcovers. Shudder.

I was almost #1 through the doors, sprinting briskly towards the far end to work my way systematically backwards through the heaving hordes. Because I’m little I need to avoid crowds. I tend to get trodden on. South Africa is full of braai en boerewors* stalwart men (and women, too I must add, in all fairness).

After two and a half hours I staggered triumphantly back to my car, clutching two modern novels, and five Craig Johnson Longmire novels for the modest total of R350-00. Unheard of : R350 is often the price of one book, never mind seven! Reader’s Victory of note!

The novels have long been on my Wishlist. I’ve wanted to explore Portuguese writer Clarice Lispector, and found one of her novels. Recently I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life so I snapped up her first book The People in the Trees. And the cowboy books? I can see your raised eyebrows from here. Well – I grew up on black and white spaghetti Westerns and Zane Grey: what can I say? I told you in my About Page that I have eclectic reading tastes. Now do you believe me?

So: don’t phone, text or e-mail me for a while. It’s obvious – I’ll be reading!

*barbecues and spicy sausages20170617_121122.jpg

BESIDE MYSELF – Ann Morgan

9781408870297Helen and Ellie are twins . They play a game and swop identities for a day – what fun to bamboozle everybody! But at day’s end, one of them refuses to change back to her own identity. And then the novel plunges us into a dizzying narrative that switches between childhood memory and adult turmoil, via the tumultuous highs and lows of manic depression. In the end we don’t really know who’s who, any more, and neither do the twins, or do they? Quite a book. Ann Morgan gives us a brilliant picture of the mayhem that rules the life of a bipolar person. It’s also a picture of a not so happy family life, and the lengths to which one of the characters (and I’m not revealing who it is) will go to secure stability and ‘a happy life’. The reveal, at the end, is shocking.
Having read her previous book, a non-fiction, Reading the World : Confessions of a Literary Explorer which is a scholarly survey of translated world literature, I was very impressed by her first attempt at fiction. The book is a page-turner, well written, and full of surprises, right up to the end pages. It will be interesting to see what Ann Morgan tackles next.
If you enjoy novels about twins, life in modern Britain, and the struggles of a woman trying to forge and sustain her own identity despite enormous difficulties, then read this book.

HUNGER EATS A MAN – Nkosinathi Sithole

Nkosinathi Sithole - Hunger Eats a Man LR

 

I didn’t enjoy the novel and perhaps the dice were loaded from the start. The book was written by a Zulu man so we were culturally at odds before I turned to page 1. Why do I say this? Because Zulu culture is heavily patriarchal, and there is nothing about patriarchal systems that sits well with me.   But: I read widely, and experimentally,  so I gave the book a try.

I finished the book, but in order to write anything meaningful, I had to think long and hard about what I had read.

The saying “No two persons ever read the same book.” (Edmund Wilson) could not be truer in this case.  The back cover  blurb said  “Beautifully poetic, funny and highly relevant, Nkosinathi Sithole’s debut novel highlights the ongoing plight of many rural South Africans and the power of a community working together to bring about change. “  I couldn‘t find anything poetic about the writing, except maybe the very last paragraph in the book. Which, unfortunately did not follow on from the words THE END, but was  marooned on the next page, where I discovered the final  two paragraphs purely by accident.

Funny?  No,  not to me.  At a stretch I could  see the humour of school principal Bongani Hadebe’s inordinate pride in owning the only house in Canaan that has a staircase leading to the upper storey. Any other humour completely escaped me.  Maybe the cultural divide manifesting itself again.

Highly relevant?  Yes. Finally I’m  in agreement. The book shows the desperate plight of South Africa’s rural, neglected poor; the rampant greed of the ruling classes;  the sexual abuse against women and children; and the effect of patriarchy uneasily placed side by side with  a democratic system.

There’s a sub-theme of the exploitation of the rural poor by the white farmers.  The 1994 elections may have ushered in the so-called  Rainbow Nation  but in the rural areas, not much changed. And not to overlook the exploitation by the black overseer of the desperate workers.  There’s much to be said on both sides of this issue.

Of value to me were the insights into the African mindset.  How violence  and mob action seem to be an instinctive response to challenges e.g. The Grinding Stone, the local  women‘s collective,  rushes off and castrates two men in the community who’ve been guilty of child and elderly abuse (in addition to bestiality!) and cut off the men’s testicles. The collective is led by Nomsa – wife of  school principal Bongani Hadebe; she’s a modern woman  with modern ideas in that she is unwilling to have children and  takes the contraceptive pill; and although she’s a moderating influence, she’s stirring up the women against patriarchy.

Another insight was how important Ancestor worship still is to black people. They may belong to Christian churches but Ancestor worship exists right alongside Jesus et al. Tied in to this ancestral thread, is the urgent need for black men to have children, as many as possible. Regardless of their female partners’ personal,  economic or social wishes.

And then there’s the vexed feature of black life, urban or rural: the on-going belief in the power of the sangoma*to heal, to remove (or deliver) spells and curses. But always at a price. A high price. Thousands of rands, and/or livestock. All this within the context of people driving BMW cars and glued to their cellphones, or those living in hungry, dusty rural poverty. When worlds collide yet again, in South Africa.

I found the plot difficult to follow, and  felt there were loose ends dangling all over the place.  But after considerable thought  when I’d finished reading, I realised that in essence  Pastor Gumede’s fall into poverty and loss of faith in both God or politics provides the  contrast to school principal Bongani Hadebe’s successful life – he has a job, money, a car, a house in the prosperous nearby area of Canaan.  Bongani is a dimwit, who had to buy his university degree and is unqualified for his job. Pastor Gumede, on the other hand, is educated and intelligent, hardworking  and principled.  But  he’s unemployed, and starving.  The story of SA in a microcosm.

I didn’t like any of the male characters, and but did feel empathy towards the women – a sort of sisterly solidarity, if you like.

And then there’s the factor of Pastor’s son’s story which we are told arrived to him in a dream state at night. The story is mentioned in the blurb on the back cover of the book, but  after a brief mention early in the book,  only reappears  in  the last chapter of the book and I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it intended as a portent? A threat? A nightmare? A call for community unity and action?  A revolutionary warning?  I remain baffled.

To me, only one thing about the novel really worked, and that was the title  Hunger Eats a Man.  It’s accurate and  clever, and perhaps it could be said that it’s the underlying theme of the novel. Literal physical hunger and other more psychological hungers e.g. the  yearning for immortality via one’s children.

While I did not enjoy the novel, both from the perspective of my reading comfort zone, and due to its obscure plotting, in fairness I must say the novel offers more to me  in retrospect than it did during the reading.  In my case, that is. Others may well feel differently. As I said at the beginning : “No two persons ever read the same book.”

*sangoma – at best, a traditional herbalist, a healer; at worst a witchdoctor who may well trade in human body parts

 

 

THE RAW SHARK TEXTS – Steven Hall

The_Raw_Shark_Texts-Book_Cover
Partial Goodreads Summary
Eric Sanderson wakes up in a house one day with no idea who or where he is. A note instructs him to see a Dr. Randle immediately, who informs him that he is undergoing yet another episode of acute memory loss that is a symptom of his severe dissociative disorder. Eric’s been in Dr. Randle’s care for two years — since the tragic death of his great love, Clio, while the two vacationed in the Greek islands.

But there may be more to the story, or it may be a different story altogether. As Eric begins to examine letters and papers left in the house by “the first Eric Sanderson,” a staggeringly different explanation for what is happening to Eric emerges, and he and the reader embark on a quest to recover the truth and escape the remorseless predatory forces that threatens to devour him….

My Review – A 4+ star stunner!

The back cover blurb says … Genuinely isn’t like anything you’ve ever read before (Independent) and they’re not kidding – it’s highly inventive, I could feel my mind bending and twisting as I tried to keep up with the idea of a voracious … word shark ? I suppose I should call it.
Writer Mark Haddon opined: “ … The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The da Vinci Code.” Haddon neatly sums up Steven Hall’s novel.

I couldn’t put it down, nervously reading on, expecting the worst to happen page after page.

My one and only quibble, as a seasoned Cat Carer, is the complete impossibility of carting your cat (named Ian, by the way) with you on your lengthy adventure, albeit Ian was riding in his cat carrier. But this is a minor quibble. Ignore me.
For an intriguing, unusual, gripping story this novel hits the target bang on. Highly Recommended.

MAY 2017 READING ROUND-UP

I enjoyed a total of seven books this month. As you can see they ranged from Chick Lit to worthies, via Zim shorts and South African drama, taking in chilling  Fantasy/Spec Fic . You name it, I picked it up. Maybe you will be inspired to try a couple?

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ –  Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 1* – dismal;  zero * – no comment.

 

Picnic in Provence – A tale of love in France with Recipes – Elizabeth Bard
4.5* see Goodreads for review – . https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/5903520-alison-smith . A very enjoyable Foodie read.
The Miracle of Crocodile Flats – Jenny Hobbs
4.5* – see GR and this blog for review. Terrific read!

An Elegy for Easterly – Petina Gappah
4* Zimbabwean short stories – a Must Read
see GR for review https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/5903520-alison-smith
The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall
4+* – Wow! Dazzlingly original . – see GR and this blog for review.

Being a Woman in Cape Town – Ed Nancy Richards (Woman Zone)
3* – a worthy, socially relevant read

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe – Mary Simses
2* – easy Romance/Chick-lit read
The Olive Branch – Jo Thomas
2* – Italy, Chick-lit