Lifelong reader - aspiring writer; Mah Jong addict; cat devotee; collector of Tarot decks; mediocre Scrabble player; spasmodic gardener; adventurous cook. Shirker of car-washing; avoider of bars & sports channels on TV. One-time traveller, now a subscriber to the Travel Channel and National Geographic. Interested in LIFE
Book of the month is Tomb of Sand – Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell. A wonderful read. Such an exuberant book, playful and lively in style. While the bones of the story are fairly simple – 80 year old Ma rises from deep depression and sets out on an odyssey, driven by unresolved issues from her early years in Pakistan, during the period of Partition. The treatment of the story, the language, the word play, the diversions and detours into a myriad other topics are what makes the novel so original.
The brilliant translator of the novel, Daisy Rockwell, says … Tomb of Sand is above all a love letter to the Hindi language.
And: … a tale of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history. Folklore, feminism ,global warming, Buddhism …
Not to mention Ma’s unseemly friendship with Rosie a hijra (eunuch/transvestite/wedding entertainer); then there’s Ma’s Daughter Beti, a modern bohemian woman determinedly living a single life away from her family; there are talking birds; there’s a long divagation into Ma’s sari collection, and much much more.
If you prefer novels that are clear-cut and plot driven, you probably should give the book a miss.
If you like Indian novels, with all the colour, smells, vivid characters and uproar of daily life, then this is the book for you.
I need to record my thanks to my generous friend C, who presented me with the book and made great efforts to get the book to me. Gratitude, my friend.
I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The novel won the international Booker prize in 2021, no surprises there. Highly recommended.
Postscript: here’s a link to an excellent article on the book.:
The Music of Bees – Eileen Garvin . The golden thread of honey from the lives of bees and their beekeepers, sticks this heartwarming story together. Recently widowed Alice and newly paraplegic teen Jake get their lives back together through beekeeping, while hapless Harry enters their little farm and is healed by friendship and kite-surfing. The healing power of friendship is a major theme, with sub-themes of dysfunctional families and the villainous mega company destroying the orchard industry . I enjoyed the book enormously.
The Secret Keeper of Jaipur – Alka Joshi. Sequel to The Henna Artist. Family secrets abound, as do love and jealousy, and gold smuggling. Modern India, colourful and complex. Enjoyable but not memorable . Fans of Indian novels will love it.
Doris was completely, utterly and forever, in love with books; with reading the printed word. As a precocious 5 year old she suddenly made the connection between the black marks on the page and words, and that was it, the magic of reading struck powerfully, and for life.
Of course during her 60 years Doris experienced other loves – briefly for her husband and cautiously for her children, but her one abiding love and passion that did not fade over the years was for books, and the happy past time of reading. People would have been amazed to discover how passionately Doris felt about books, because Doris effectively camouflaged herself as the archetypal Little Old Lady, and faded discreetly and quietly into the background. It just made life simpler.
The arrival of gray hair, a little stoop to the posture, and a few extra kilograms aided the process of becoming virtually invisible; and when she was visible, it appeared that the Little Old Lady persona swamped any other impressions. She was philosophical about her official Little Old Lady status and in many ways it quite suited her. A little hesitation here, a little flutter or quaver there, certainly oiled the wheels and made things easier.
She was therefore surprised and flattered when Anne, a fellow volunteer at the local library asked whether Doris would like to join their Book Club.
“ I know how much you love your thrillers and whodunits, and most of our club just love them too – you’ll have a ball,” she said cheerily.
So Doris joined the Southern Suburbs Book Club happily ignorant that she been approached in desperation to make up the numbers.
“ Just as a temporary measure, she’s a quiet old duck, but very reliable and she does love her thrillers,” Ann breezily told the club.
Doris felt as if she died and gone to heaven. The Club had an enormous collection of books, packed into plastic crates and carted round to members’ houses for the monthly meetings. Oh the joy of reading all the latest thrillers, whodunnits, best sellers, family sagas, prize winning novels, biographies and travel books, and occasionally chick lit micro novels .Doris felt like the proverbial kid in that candy store, the alcoholic let loose at a bachelor stag party. Doris was ecstatic.
A year passed by and suddenly the honeymoon was over. Doris began to notice how careless the other woman were with the books, treating them roughly, returning them dog eared or with coffee-mug stained jackets; losing them altogether or keeping them way beyond the loan period .
In Doris’s eyes this cavalier attitude to books was criminal, outrageous behaviour, heinous beyond belief or acceptance. However, she paid her Subs and returned her books religiously. She sat quietly and unobtrusively at Book Club meetings, neatly in old lady mode slowly sipping her glass of white wine, only one for me thank you dear , and watched the raucous antics of the ladies. She was surprised to discover that many of the members regarded the Book Club as an excuse to have a night out, away from husband, home and kids, to relax in a friendly female atmosphere helped along with a few bottles of wine.
Certainly all the Book Club members could be classified as readers, but as book lovers ? No definitely not, rated on Doris’ scale of passionate obsession. The eleven other members scored minus five points on a scale of 10, with one or two exceptions of course, but on the whole, lamentable.
Doris brooded moodily. In private of course, because archetypal Little Old Ladies are not supposed to harbour dark, moody, broody thoughts. No of course not, perish the thought! The night Betty spilled a glass of red wine over the newest Jonathan Kellerman in a tipsy fit of giggling was the night that Doris decided that enough was enough.
As a child Doris existed on a solid diet of her father’s Crime Book Club selection of thrillers and late 1940s private eye novels: Peter Cheney, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie – undisputed queen of the genre – Edgar Wallace, Ellery Queen, the names flicked through her head in a satisfying, familiar roll call.
Other children filled their school days with the jolly hockey sticks activities of the Enid Blyton books but not Doris, who roared through these tame escapades and quickly discarded them in favour of the exciting, risqué adult world of car chases, hangovers, chain smoking detectives wearing raincoats, armed with pistols, alternating with the polite,sophisticated Society of Europe in the 1930s – sports cars, cocktails, foxtrots, backless evening dresses, aristocratic sleuths; and always, always, MURDER as the solution to all of life’s little problems, financial, personal or romantic. It seemed the perfectly reasonable solution to the book-despoiling Betties of this world . Anybody who treated books in such a disrespectful way definitely had it coming to them, thought Doris . It would solve the Betty problem and then of course there was the odious Susan, but, one thing at a time, Doris chided herself . Softly, softly catchee monkeee, she murmured to herself, and carefully, carefully plot and plan, no good solving the Betty problem and getting oneself all tangled up . No, no!
“Betty dear”, she murmured hesitantly,” I wonder if I could ask you – I know how busy you are – but I did wonder …” and out came the request for Betty to help Doris with her volunteer duty at the library, next Tuesday afternoon .
“It’s just two hours, from two until four, and the lady who usually helps, is in hospital having her hip replaced, and it’s a bit much for me on my own … “ .Doris’s request tailed off uncertainly .
Betty thought, shame, all those heavy books to cart around, it probably is a bit much for her ,“ OK, I’ll make a plan – see you at the library on Tuesday “.
Betsy duly arrived at the library and Doris was flutteringly grateful for the help. “Cup of tea, dear? “ Doris inquired, “ shall I put the kettle on”, and then: “ Betty, I can hear the kettle boiling, would you mind? You’ll have to turn it off at the plug, it’s an old one, not an automatic, “ and obliging Betty groped her way into the dark corner housing the tea-making equipment, failed to see the cunning puddle of water in which she stood, didn’t notice the crafty removal of the earth wire in the kettle plug; the electricity sizzling up the wires did her no good at all: DOA at the emergency unit in Groot Schuur Hospital .
Poor old Doris, quite shattered . and what an awful accident, was the Book Club verdict. Doris, heavily in Little Old Lady mode, deliberately missed the club meeting after Betty’s sad accident, and when she did appear, she looked paler than usual (careful application of face powder two shades lighter the normal, did the trick) and seemed very subdued.
Shame, must have been a terrible shock, said the Book Club.
Then Fate played right into Doris’s hands: the odious, careless, non- book returning Susan unexpectedly had a stroke and was rushed to hospital . Susan was stricken the day before the monthly club meeting, and Anne breathlessly reported that Susan was in Our Lady of Fatima hospital, run by the nuns, up in Oranjezicht .
Now it so happened that Doris had spent time in the hospital the previous year, having her gallbladder removed. Such dear, sweet nuns, she remembered rosily, such devoted nurses . Quite like the old days and such a quaint old building . Originally it been a large convent but when new novices declined to a thin trickle, the nuns decided to convert the building into a modest hospital in order to financially sustain their dwindling community . Yes it was an old building, she reflected . Hmmm.
so, Good Samaritan Doris visited Susan the next day, bearing a small pot plant, and fussing over the bed covers, and exclaiming over the life- support machine that ticked and bleeped next to the bed and assisted Susan’s very paralyzed body to breathe.
Doris didn’t stay long . “ I don’t want to tire you out, dear, and I do want to go and say hello to that nice sister Francis, she was so good to me last year. Bye, dear, I’ll come again tomorrow.”
Doris headed briskly for the Ladies cloak room, making a short detour down a small passage to check that her memory of the floor plan was correct. Yes indeed it was, there on the wall was the electrical distribution board . Who would have thought that marriage to an electrician would prove so useful so many years down the track, mused Doris, as she whisked into a nearby supply room to find a broom with a sufficiently long handle to push up the mains switch . Having switched off the power it took just another quick whisk into Susan’s room to turn off the life support machine at the wall plug.
This time Doris didn’t stop to say goodbye to Susan, seemed pointless really. The corridors were filled with nurses and nuns scurrying distractedly to and fro in search of the cause of the power failure and when the power was finally restored, everybody assumed that all was well with Susan and her life support machine, but alas, this assumption proved false and the dear, sweet nuns didn’t notice that the wall plug was switched off . Accidents happen, even in the best regulated hospitals.
Book Club meetings for the next couple of months were much quieter and better ordered with the removal of Betty and Susan. Doris attended happily, now secure in a neatly ordered club until somebody suggested that maybe they should look for two new members? The rising price of books and the two missing monthly subscriptions were causing a bit of financial strain. Two new members were recruited and Doris anxiously watched their behaviour, their demeanor, their attitude towards books. Christine was a librarian, quiet, bookish and a fan of travel books and biographies. She’d do mused Doris, a real book lover.
She wasn’t so sure about Pam, though. Pam loved her wine and offered an inexhaustible supply of dirty jokes . She only borrowed one book a month and didn’t appear to particularly enjoy reading . It transpired she was married to a very ambitious eye surgeon, who was hell bent on making his first million by the age of 35 . Enough said .
In December Pam spilled a bottle – a whole bottle – of wine over a stack of 10 books. Well! Doris’s lips tightened. This wouldn’t do at all.
Doris was still working as a volunteer at the local library, and being very careful in the kitchen, with the old kettle. Honestly, you’d think that they would have bought a new one after that awful accident, wouldn’t you?
“ I don’t know what we do without Doris, a real book lover and such a worker,” said the librarian and, “ Do be careful when you leave the library Doris, those trucks come over the bridge at a hell of a speed. Last week one of those big breweries’ trucks came over the rise at the bridge too fast, and very nearly ran over old Mr van Tonder, you know him Doris? Old man with a stick? “
Yes, Doris knew old Mr van Tonder . He’d had such a lucky escape, hadn’t he? Hmmm.
Doris cornered Pam at the next Book Club meeting, very smartly, before Pam got stuck into the wine. “ Pam, “ she said cosily “I’ve been meaning to ask you, I know busy you are, but I was just wondering whether you could help me out next week at our local library, my usual helper has gone to Hermanus for two week. Do you think you……? “
If you enjoyed the story, perhaps you would consider making a small donation by way of an amazon.com gift voucher? Due to the negative exchange rate between our currencies, it is too expensive for me to keep my Kindle running. For details, kindly email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
October’s top Read was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
Her new book, The Goldfinch, is her most ambitious undertaking. “The process was different in that it was three places—Park Avenue, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam—that dictated the story, and it takes place over a much longer span of time,” Tartt says. The Goldfinch follows 14-year-old Theo Decker as he oscillates between high society and the seedy underbelly of the antiques and art world’s black market.
In the novel Theo takes possession of the painting The Goldfinch after a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art kills his mother and sets his life on a traumatic course. Essentially it’s a coming of age story, but wonderfully executed.
She credits 19th-century novels with teaching her how to write, and she lists Dickens, Stevenson, Conrad, Wodehouse, and Nabokov among her favourite authors. Her literary influencers shine throughout the book. I was constantly delighted by the rounded characters, the immersive nature of the action and the general satisfying flavour of the read.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. As usual, I’m stumbling around in the Backlist Territory, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this novel.
At this point in the year, the novel will definitely feature in my Top Five of 2022.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt. A magnificent novel. A literary thriller, involving the theft of a 17th century Dutch masterpiece, the deep friendship of two (semi)orphaned boys, Theo and Boris, the transition to adulthood and a satisfying ending. Not to be missed.
Shipwrecks – Akira Yoshimura. A short, spare novel about the harsh life of a community of Japanese fisher folk during the medieval period. They live on the edge of starvation and so take whatever bounty the sea and O-fune-sama a folkloric female deity, might send them i.e. wrecked merchant ships. They take certain practical measures to assist the process. Reading the Introduction by David Mitchell is essential. He describes the novel as ‘austere’, and it is. Nonetheless, recommended as a slice out of a very different type of life.
The Fire Portrait – Barbara Mutch. Francesstruggles in early life to pursue a career as an artist, against familial and social disapproval; after several romantic disappointments, she settles for a marriage of convenience, marries Julian, who is a shy school teacher and 15 years her senior. Her married life starts with a move to a small, remote Karoo town. At this point the novel gains more depth, and describes the complexities and nuances of South African life in the 1940s, the lingering aftermath of the Boer War, the Afrikaner Nazi sympathizers, the birth of the Nationalist Party and apartheid. The ending is surprisingly powerful and complex. Initially an easy read, but progressively more demanding. Recommended
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown – Vaseem Khan. A re-read, but still vastly enjoyable, maybe because one of the characters is a baby elephant? An old-school whodunnit, set in Bombay, filled with charming and truly villainous characters, no shades of grey here. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Island on the Edge of the World – Deborah Rodriguez. The Haitian setting is very much part of the story : a vibrant, colourful, chaotic, destroyed, disaster-ridden island. Four women in search of a missing baby. Dishonest pastor and adoption agency, Voodou priestess, American psychic, – hold on to your hats! My first Haitian based read …. Interesting to say the least, and accustomed to Third World living conditions as I am, along the way, I still exclaimed: OMG!
What’s Left of Me is Yours – Stephanie Scott. Debut love story/crime set in modern-day Tokyo, inspired by a true crime. A young woman’s search for the truth about her mother’s life, and her murder. Impeccably researched, well written but the characters did not speak to me. If you enjoy Japanese stories, this book is for you.
September Read of the Month is The House of Rust – Khadija Abdalla Bajaber. The Kenyan writer’s debut novel offers a feast of African storytelling, heavily laced with the Arabian Nights. Kjhadija is a fabulous storyteller, as well as a fabulist. On the one level it’s a coming of age story about a rebellious girl who passionately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, go to sea, have adventures and roam free. Conventional marriage, husband and family, a steady life in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast? Pah! Not a chance.
On another level, the books is an adventure into magical realms peopled with talking animals; two crows and Hamza, the scholar’s cat, among others; plus terrifying sea monsters which she has to vanquish in order to save her father. There’s Zubeir the local magician/medicine man and finally the enigmatic Almassi, the dangerous resident of the House of Rust.
The book won the inaugural Graywolf Press African Fiction Prize. The Prize …. Is awarded for a first novel manuscript by an author primarily residing in Africa. Founded in 2017 to facilitate direct access to publishing in the USA for a new generation of African writers ….
I’m so grateful to the Graywolf Press making this marvelous book available to English speaking readers.
Followed by another African writer’s acclaimed novel – Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Again, the setting in East Africa, again Kenya. It’s the early days of the 20th century, before Africa became Westernised. 12 year old Yusuf is pawned to rich, powerful merchant Uncle Azziz, to pay his father’s debts. Uncle Azzis takes him to his property on the coast, where Yusuf learns how to keep shop, and to trade. It’s a coming of age story, against the backdrop of African myth, dreams and Koranic tradition; travel adventures, and a doomed love story.
I was born on the edge of East Africa, so the book resonated with me in many ways – the people, the scenery, the social attitudes. And Gurnah ‘s prose does it justice. I’m still mulling over the final paragraph, on the last page. An open ending, in that another chapter of Yusuf’s life begins – I wonder what happened to him?
If you’re tired of gung-ho safari/male machisomo/adventurers’ version of Africa, this novel provides an insider’s portrait of Africa. Give it a try.
And, P.S. In case you were unaware, Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
The House of Rust – Khadija Abdalla Bajaber . Original, magical, labyrinthine, multi-layered as Mombasa itself. A sparkling mix of Arabian nights storytelling and new African fiction. Rave, Rave.
Paradise – Abdulrazak Gurnah. A rich and layered novel set in East Africa. Yusuf’s coming of age story, part adventure story, part love story; always strange and beautiful, and often violent. The genuine old Africa. I really enjoyed the book. Recommended.
The Milk Tart Murders – A Tannie Maria Mystery. Sally Andrew. This is #4 in the series, and I’m a fan. There’s murder /s, there are recipes, Tannie M and Jessie are as intrepid as ever, but more importantly, Tannie M and Henk have a major fallout .The book has more emotional depth and is all the better for it. I particularly enjoyed the background detail about the Little Karoo flora and fauna. I think I put on 2 kgs just by reading about the luscious food. Highly recommended, as a feel-good read.
The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter. Kudos to Virago Press fore- issuing this 1967 novel in 1987. What a wildly, wickedly exuberant writer she is! Three orphaned children dumped into the seedy South London home of their awful Uncle. Its a modern baroque fairy tale, that grows more and more disturbing but ends with a satisfying bang! Plus, a surprising expose of female sexuality. If you’ve never tried Angela Carter, do so now: she has no equal.
How high we go in the dark – Sequoia Nagamatsu. See my review 23rd on this blog. A powerful novel, in the Speculative Fiction/SF genre. It’s a Plague novel (no, not Covid) that explores humanity’s response to a deadly virus. Powerful, bleak, thought provoking to say the least. Not for everyone, but a memorable read. And, I sincerely hope, not prescient!
Afterland – Lauren Beukes. Another Speculative Fiction Plague novel, right after the above Japanese book, but a very different read. South African writer Lauren Beukes produces a fast paced thriller, well written, enormously readable, exciting read. In a future where most of the men are dead, Cole and her twelve year old son Miles are on the run …. Plenty of action, a real page turner. I enjoyed the book. Recommended.
This Speculative Fiction/SF novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu makes a powerful impact.
How can it not? It posits a world which has been hit by a Plague, unleashed upon humanity when an ancient corpse, of a 6 year old child, in revealed due to the melting of the permafrost. The unknown virus discovered in her body during scientific examination in a research lab situated in the Arctic, somehow float out into the atmosphere and the damage is done.
The fourteen intricately interlinked stories explore humanity’s reaction to the catastrophic event.
Two of the early stories were shocking, and haunting. City of Laughter features a theme park, dedicated to being fun! Fun! Fun! for terminally ill children , whose final ride on a monster roller-coaster ends in euthanasia during the ride, immediately followed by cremation. The parents spend one last, precious almost normal day with their child, and then dispatch them to a merciful finale.
And I don’t really want to go into too much detail about the Chapter titled Elegy Hotel. Set in a Mortuary Hotel where bereaved families get to spend a precious final 48 hours with their embalmed loved ones ….. shudder.
Likewise, the squeamish reader would do well to avoid the Chapter titled Songs of Your Decay. However, said chapter also contains a wistful sort-of-might-have-been-almost-love story. The book offers other love stories and inter-generational-family conflict stories. In short: slices of human life.
I enjoyed reading a novel with so many Japanese characters, written by a Japanese author, who produced a novel that wasn’t swathed in opacity as is so often the case with translated Japanese novels
Later chapters deal with lighter themes: the survival of the human race, and the finale reveals the origin of the virus.
Towards the last third of the book, the genre switched from Speculative Fiction to downright SF. I thought the Spec Fic two thirds worked better than the SF section. Others will no doubt disagree.
The book is not a light read. Bleak and sobering are two words that spring to mind. Hardly surprising, given the subject matter. But it is a thought provoking read, to put it mildly.
Did I enjoy it? Ummm …. I’m not too sure it is a book to be enjoyed, given the topic. But on the plus side I can recommend it as an unusual read, and definitely a book of its time.
I’d be interested to hear other readers’ views and reviews.
Read of the Month has to be You Let Me In – Camilla Bruce . The Norwegian writer’s debut novel produced a unique modern take on an old folkloric theme: the world of the Faeries. These are not fairies in the mould of Cicely Mary Barker’s illustrations – delicate colours, winsome rosy cheeks and pretty botanical backgrounds. Not at all. Here we are in a shadowy, in-between world of feather, twig, bone and utter inhuman wildness. When the Human World and the Faerie World blend, the results are dark, dark and dark again. I was spellbound (pun intended) and read the book in one sitting. After such a brilliant debut, I’m wondering what CB will dream up next? Can’t wait to find out.
After such a glowing report, I have a Public Confession of Defeat. It’s official. I have abandoned The Books of Jacob – Olga Tokarczuk. I gave it a good try, really I did. But 500+ pages in, I grew weary of the gloomy, rural, muddy Polish background, the religious wrangling (was Jacob the Messiah or wasn’t he?) not to mention the teeny tiny print, particularly in the interminable correspondence between a Catholic priest and a Polish noblewoman.
For some time I had wanted to sample Olga Tokarczuk’s work, and my generous friend C presented me with the book. I was determined to read the 892 page tome, despite the fact that I don’t particularly enjoy historical novels. I wanted to see what secured the Nobel Prize for literature . I am overcome with admiration that OT sustained a detailed narrative at such prodigious length, peopled with many credible characters, but: was I enjoying the book? No, I was not. Recalling my vow to abandon books that I’m not enjoying, I mentally apologised to both writer and donor, removed the bookmark, and added the book to the Donation Box.
*You Let Me In – Camilla Bruce. Original, creepy and intriguing. A series of mysterious deaths. What is real? What is delusion? Are both realms simultaneously true/untrue? By book finale, I still wasn’t entirely sure. A horrible childhood, a blazing love affair, an eccentric adult life, a mysterious ending – what a debut. Unputdownable.
*Two Women in Rome – Elizabeth Buchan. Newly married Lottie, now resident in Rome, and working as an archivist, stumbles upon an under-investigated murder that becomes an obsession. Exactly who was the deceased Nina? And why was she murdered? The answers to the mystery lie in Cold War history, Italian politics, and the omnipresent shadowy influence of the Vatican. An enjoyable, nuanced, mystery with a gorgeous Roman setting. Recommended.
The Theory of Flight – Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu. A contemporary novel, with a touch of magical realism, set in an unnamed African country , but littered with clues that point to my old home town, Bulawayo. The novel deals with uncomfortable topics such the bush war and the aftermath, the Red Berets brigade and genocide, a dictator, HIV and AIDS – fortunately the style is light and deft, making the book readable. Awarded the 2019 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize. If you want to find out what current Zimbabwe is really like, read the novel. Recommended.
*Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death – Gyles Brandreth. Set in late Victorian London, crammed with famous historical characters, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and of course, the inimitable Oscar, plus many others. The dialogue is witty, and highly entertaining, as is the plot. I loved it, and can’t wait to read the remaining books in the series.
The Island of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak. Cyprus in the mid-1970s; bitter conflict between Greek and Turkish communities; death, exile, immigration, heartbreak. The tragic love story of Defne and Kostas; the burden of history and identity. Shafak is a skilled story teller and I particularly enjoyed the sections narrated by the fig tree and insight into the fascinating world of the lives of trees. A good read.
A Cook’s Tour – in search of the Perfect Meal. – Anthony Bourdain. Although a Re-Read, it comes across just as fresh, tasty and colourful as it did the first time round. Visits to Vietnam, Scotland, Russia and Morocco, to mention but a few. A marvellous, colourful mix of food and travel writing by that lanky, unique chef-cum-writer Anthony Bourdain. His untimely death left a big void in the travel/food genre.
I’m opening the July bulletin with a biggie: Lionel Shriver’s extraordinary novel Should We Stay or Should We Go. The book packs a huge punch. It certainly knocked me sideways – maybe because I’m an octogenarian?
The basic premise is this: Cyril Wilkinson is a GP working for the British NHS; Kay, his wife, is a nurse at St Thomas Hospital. Kay’s father dies of dementia, and it’s a messy, grim, prolonged departure. The couple are reviewing his death and decide they don’t want a Dad-type death. Cyril proposes a suicide pact once they’ve both turned 80th. From their current mid-50s standpoint it seems a sensible plan.
The book then goes on to explore twelve permutations of the pact, once they turn 80. Think parallel universes. The outcomes are all different. A couple of chapters are sheer fantasy; a couple are unutterably horrific; all are unexpected. There’s a dark sense of humour about some of the scenarios. The blurb uses words “ … hilarious, touching, playful, grave … exhilarating and poignant …. very moving. “
It’s a provocative book, it’s a compelling book; it’s an uncomfortable book. Lionel Shriver never writes the same book twice. The words ‘potboiler’ and anodyne’ don’t exist in her work. That’s why I keep on reading her novels. I suggest you try her latest.
Should We Stay or Should We Go – Lionel Shriver. One hell of a read. See above.
Lessons in Chemistry – Bonnie Garmus. Wildly original, highly entertaining. Meet Elizabeth Zott, chemist, researcher,lover, mother, rower and reluctant TV show host. Elizabeth is eccentric, and focused on her career as a chemist. 1950s societal stereotypes try (unsuccessfully) to cram her into her little housewifely box. The conflict is epic. What a glorious read! Steal, beg or borrow a copy –make sure you read this novel.
The Distance – Ivan Vladislavic.
In the spring of 1970, a Pretoria schoolboy falls in love with Muhammad Ali. He begins to collect cuttings about his hero from the newspapers, an obsession that grows into a ragged archive of scrapbooks. Forty years later, when Joe has become a writer, these scrapbooks both insist on and obscure a book about his boyhood. He turns to his brother Branko, a sound editor, for help with recovering their shared past. An unusual novel. The brother write turn & turn about; Joe about Muhammed Ali and Branko about their shared boyhood. I preferred Branko’s Pretoria memories.
Ivan Vladislavic is an acclaimed SA novelist. Suggest you start with Portrait with Keys which is more accessible than The Distance.
*The Husbands – Chandler Baker.The female authoris described as queen of the feminist thriller. She sure is. Her book kept me up late, wondering how? Who? Why? We’re in the reverse Stepford Wives zone. And if your marriage is going through a rocky patch, the book is best left alone. Trust me, for your own good. Assuming you’re a female reader, that is. Men, on the other hand, would do well to read the thriller.
*Indicates Library Loan
I’m slowly reading Lev Parikian’s delightful Light Rains Sometimes Fall , following the chapters by date. An ideal few pages with my early morning cuppa. Each chapter covers 4 or 5 days, according to an ancient Japanese calendar, detailing the natural world according to the changing seasons. Lev’s done the same, from his North London, British perspective.
Another delightful early morning read is Australian Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence , essays on … awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark …
A BookBlogger, who I follow,Travelling Penguin, generously sent me a copy which miraculously navigated our dire postal system, to provide many hours of pleasure.
And then there’s the mammoth Books of Jacob . The cold, grey ,wet weather seemed a good weekend to have another stab at it. The print is abominably small, and at almost 900 pages it is a challenger. But on I go, have dread about just over a quarter of the book. Thus far, my one definitive conclusion is: thank all the gods I wasn’t born into the 1750s in rural Poland. Life in South Africa is tough, but the historical scenario is causing me to count my modern blessings!
Periodically I read an unforgettable book. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is such a book. It’s the story of a 24 year old marriage. Lotto and Mathilde, tall, glamorous, incandescent with each other. For me, Mathilde was the more interesting character. In part one, Fates, we learn about Lotto. Everything. And Mathilde, cool, iceberg wife who makes life run effortlessly. But in part two, Furies, we really find out about Mathilde and learn that the submerged part of the iceberg is a cauldron of boiling fury. A powerful and compelling tale that left me murmuring ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’
Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller. A much anticipated read, which did not disappoint. A story of life on the fringes of society. Twins, living in rural England, dependent upon their manipulative mother, who dies; her death uncovers secrets. The title is apt: a very unsettling book indeed but an excellent read. Recommended.
Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff. The story of a contemporary American marriage, written in an almost feverish, rapid style that hurricanes you away, even when you mutter: enough, already, but you read on. Can we ever really know our partners? Apparently not. Not to be missed.
Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder – T A Willberg. A quirky sort-of Fantasy whodunnit, set in 1950s London. Ultimately we find out who did the deadly deed and the motive. An okay read, but I think it will miss the target for Fantasy fans, and probably irritate crime fans. A cross-genre novel is a tricky thing to tackle successfully.
Expectation – Anna Hope . Whilst the novel is not in the Chick Lit category, its squarely in the Women’s Fiction section. Love, motherhood, marriage, friendship, betrayal, children (or lack thereof), modern life in 21st century London. Three young women learn thatexpectations seldom come to fruition. That’s life, ladies.
Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit – P G Wodehouse . Short story collection. A retro comic tonic. A sparkling collection of stories, set in 1920’s/30s Britain. The unflappable and inimitable Jeeves; exasperated relatives v.s. young men filled with high spirits (& alcohol) and yearning hearts. If you’ ve never read PGW, one of the greatest comic writers in the English language, do yourself a favour, and dive in. Bon Voyage, pip-pip and enjoy the fun.
Sovietstan – Erika Fatland . A Journey through Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union was final by late 1991, leaving the above mentioned states free to form their own destinies. Which they did. None of them successfully, landing up in a swamp of corruption, autocracy and dictatorships by 2014, when the intrepid Norwegian writer travelled through the area. Central Asia has been inhabited by nomads for centuries, so communist ideology, collectivism and a blind switch to agriculture, didn’t work well for the land or its people. A fascinating account of an area about which I knew very little. Travel fans, and those interested in geopolitics will enjoy the book. I know I did.
I’m still mulling over Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. As a friend remarked : if we’re still talking about the book, debating whether we enjoyed it, then surely it must be a good read?
After Towles universally beloved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, he had to produce a different rabbit out of his hat for book #3. Which he certainly did. Reading Lincoln Highway I felt as if Towles was channelling a mixture of Mark Twain and O. Henry, both renowned American writers. Twain gave us the boyhood adventures of Huck Finn, and O. Henry gave us hundreds of stories based on Americans living in the late 1800s/early 1900s. His range of characters and themes was all encompassing, to say the least, and Towles assorted cast of disparate characters was strongly reminiscent of O Henry’s work. Then, for good measure, Towles tossed in a sort of Child’s Guide to Greek myth, notably the adventures of Ulysses, germane to the story but ….
I’m aware my expectations led me astray. The title and the cover, and the era of the story (1940s America) gave rise to expectations of a Jack Kerouac road-novel/bro adventure type story. Hence my confusion.
I’m still undecided. Yes, it was a rattling good yarn. But, nonetheless: did I enjoy it or didn’t I? Did you?
Here’s a king-size grumble: why do so many of Anne Tyler’s novels feature such useless, hapless characters, stumbling (usually unsuccessfully) through their ultra-ordinary, middle class American lives? The characters in Noah’s Compass exasperated me beyond measure. Here’s a vow: no more AT novels for me.
On a happier note, I have nothing but praise for These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, an essay/memoir collection. Despite disparities between us in age, culture, and geography, AP addresses universal themes such asher daily life, family, friends, reading, life and death., which resonated with me. Oh: and shopping – or, rather, not shopping. I ‘m smiling as I recall her essay on Snoopy (from the Charlie Brown comic strip) titled ‘To the Doghouse’ and found it heart warming that Snoopy is such a source of inspiration to her. I shall treasure, and re-read the book with renewed pleasure.
Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles. America in the 1940s, two brothers on a road trip that leads them east, instead of their intended destination, westward. A mix of boys’ Own Adventures, Classical Mythology, a diverse cast of characters – with a powerful, if somewhat abrupt, ending. Give it a try.
*The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid. Cleverly structured, and elegantly written. The unusual first-person narrator addresses only his American guest? CIA assassin? in a quiet, courteous voice that contains an underlying menace – or does it? An unpredictable storyline, with an ambiguous and challenging ending. I can see why it reached the Booker Shortlist in 2007. A very good read indeed. Recommended
The Ruin of Us – Keija Parssinen. Tradition, and life under the autocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, make for a compelling story, written by a Saudi expat. Polygamy rears its troublesome head, as does fundamentalism; human conflict abounds and there are no easy answers in a Saudi/American long standing marriage. Due to the authentic setting, an unusual read.
*The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted – Robert Hillman . Hungarian Hannah Babel doggedly survives WWII in Europe:Auschwitz, death of three beloveds, and finally emigrates to Australia. Rural Australia in the early 1960s, lonely farmer Tom Hope, whose wife has joined a religious cult and taken her son Peter, who adores Tom. Worlds collide in a dramatic unfoldment, with plenty of flashbacks to Hannah’s survival in wartime. Not the light read I was expecting; I was mislead by the title. But well written, and an unusual setting.
Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler. Retrenched 60 yr old school teacher Liam stumbles through life in a fog, exacerbated by a head injury during a midnight robbery, which leaves him semi-amnesiac and subsequently coupled with an equally unhappy, lost female … oh, I can’t go on. If you enjoy AT suggest you look up the publisher’s blurb for the novel. A big NO from me.
RE-READ: Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. I’m a life-long fan of GH’s Regency historical romances, and periodically I indulge. Scheming mamas, flirtatious minxes, virtuous heroines, rakish suitors, stern fathers, duels, elopements – candlelight, lace, jewels, the Georgian aristocracy in a comedy of manners – a delightful escape from 21st century Covid and climate change.
*RE-READ: State of Wonder – Ann Patchett. I can’t resist an Ann Patchett she’s such a wonderful writer. A Medical research team deep in the Amazon jungle, a dead team member; a miracle drug, but above all the seething tropical jungle and its people. A magnificent read; possibly AP’s masterpiece.
These Precious Days – Ann Patchett. A collection of essays and memoir, mirroring contemporary life in the USA, but with enough common human experience that should resonate with any reader. Entertaining, thought provoking, funny – a wonderful reading experience.
* Indicates a Library loan from Cape Town Public Libraries
Officially I neither read nor enjoy crime, but this is not strictly true. I do enjoy the antics of Richard Osman’s feisty, geriatric amateur detectives in the Thursday Murder Club: chatty Joyce, brainy Ibrahim, slightly thuggish Ron and lastly, brilliant, mysterious former spy, Elizabeth who leads the intrepid band. Yes, there are bodies and bullets, but no gratuitous gore and yucky details. There’s plenty of time for grandkids, homebakes, romance, fascinating personal history background – Elizabeth has an ex-husband? And former lovers? My word! Startling news! As the plot briskly unfolds taking in, en passant, stolen diamonds, international crime, the American Mafia, underground vaults …. You really get your money’s-worth with The Man Who Died Twice.
The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita provided a complete contrast to the above jolly romp. It’s a short, Japanese novel set in the arcane and subtle world of piano tuning. Seventeen year old Tomura embarks on his training, under the tutelage of three master tuners. He’s beset by doubts about his abilities. That’s about it, really, not much happens, but Tomura slowly matures, learns his craft, and finds his purpose in life. The novel has mystical overtones. All I can say is: its very Japanese. If you’re looking for something different to read, try this one.
Another nature themed read was Lanny by Max Porter, who reshapes the centuries old Green Man folkloric myth into the modern Dead Papa Toothwort who is tuned into an unusual, fey boy called Lanny. The results are magical, scary, enchanting, nail-biting; I can’t say more without releasing a spoiler. But what I can say is I’m glad I finally read the novel which first hit the spotlight in the 2019 Booker Longlist. I resisted reading it at the time, because I avoid books based on …. Drat, another spoiler hovering over us. Suffice to say, it was worth the wait. I enjoyed the format of short, personalized sections , while the multi-person chorus in Part 2 was a brilliant device to reflect an entire village during a crisis. You will have to read it for yourself.
The Man Who Died Twice – Richard Osman. Bk 2 Thursday Murder Club Mystery series.Four geriatric sleuths , assisted by various partners in crime, conquer the baddies & get the loot. Jolly good read, can’t wait for #3 in the series to appear.
The Forest of Wool and Steel – Natsu Miyashita , translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Music lovers will enjoy the story of an apprentice piano tuner. Unusual. *
Lanny – Max Porter. Nature is not always benign, and nor are small English country Villages. An intriguing, dark, magical story that kept me turning the pages. A contender for my Book of the Year in December. Highly recommended. *
The Woman of the Stone Sea – Meg Vandermerwe. A fascinating blend of Xhosa myth combined with the life, love and losses of Hendrik, a down to earth fisherman living on the Cape West Coast. A flavourful, memorable and unusual novel. Recommended. *
Being Lily – Qarnita Loxton. Chick Lit, set in Cape Town. A light, relaxing read.
The Hill Bachelors – William Trevor. Short stories by an acclaimed writer. The Irish stories tended to be opaque – not to my taste. *
Leap In – A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim – Alexandra Heminsley. Part memoir, part How-To Manual, shows the writer’s struggle to re-learn how to swim, conquer her fears, and – inter-alia, cope with unsuccessful IVF treatment. Deeply personal, but also an informative tour of the world of open water swimming. Recommended. *
* Indicates loans from the Cape Town Library system