I’D RATHER READ THAN …

 

Just about anything else you care to mention.  For example –

I’d rather read than go to the dentist, sort out my bank statement, weed my garden, wash dishes, clean windows, wash my car, give my cat a pill, take my cat in the car to the vet (ultimate horror experience),  or deal with the South African Revenue Service (SARS).  On reflection, dealing with SARS gets the Ultimate Horror Nomination, probably followed by visiting the dentist.  Clearly the aforegoing list is a complete no-brainer.  I mean, honestly now, who really wants to go to the dentist?  Really and truly? I challenge anyone to nominate dentist visits onto the My Favourites List.

I’d rather read than go to the movies or watch second-rate TV schlock; or listen to a worthy, improving lecture. I’d rather read than attend a music concert, classical, rock or pop concert, makes no difference. Reading for me!

I’d rather read than go sunbathing at the beach.  I’d definitely rather read than go hiking. I’d rather read than go to an exercise class.(Duh). I’d rather read than attend a formal dinner. I’d rather read than attend a cocktail party, or play Bingo.  What am I saying?  Bingo belongs in the first paragraph.  I have signed an oath in blood not to play Bingo. No-no-no-no: I refuse.  It’s official.

I might put down my book to go out and eat sushi. I would put down my book to rush to an annual book sale – can’t resist them. I would carefully close my book, drag out the glad rags, and go to the theatre. I would instantly snap my book shut to go and play Mah Jong.  I would pack my books, and possibly a few clothes, at the prospect of a family visit up country, or for an overseas trip.

I would happily close my book to receive a friend into my house. And I would cast my book aside with a wild shriek of abandon and head for my boudoir should my lover come calling. Erotica between book covers is no substitute for erotica under the covers. Prolonged, dedicated research on my part has proved this.

So there you have it. The bottom lines for my reading.  Re-reading this I realize that booze and chocolate have been left out of the lists. Perhaps I should slip them in somewhere.  And I notice I have left out shopping for clothes.  I could put my book down for an hour or two to torture myself in my favourite dress shop.  When you get older it’s a constant challenge to find garments that disguise the wrinkly, droopy, saggy bits. That’s the joy of reading: no matter how old and wrinkly you may be, you can always find a book that fits you; your book covers open obligingly and invite you inside for hours of companionable pleasure, no matter how over-weight you may be, no matter how spotty, greasy, sun-burned, blotchy or otherwise generally unattractive you might currently be.

I’m off to dust and sort my bookshelves, and then settle down with a cup of coffee and my latest book.  See ya later.  Much later.

 

JULY 2017 READING ROUNDUP

I thought I hadn’t read much during July, but on checking my notebook, I discover I did manage a fair amount of reading, despite my involvement with judging two writing competitions. For once I’ve marked a novel as a 5 star read, something I seldom do. Isn’t it wonderful when a book sweeps you away for happy hours? I read The Gallery of Vanished Husbands in one sitting, a sure sign that the writer is weaving magic on the page.

You may be wondering why I’ve listed a cookery book in the Roundup. I told you I have eclectic reading tastes. I find it very relaxing to read cookery books, and this one is particularly appealing, with a multitude of gorgeous colour shots – not so much of the food, but of Bertus Basson’s ramblings in search of the perfect meat pie, the gutsiest Gatsby, the tastiest braaied mealies, the melktert sublime … the book is a hymn of praise to South African food, heritage and family.

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* The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Natasha Solomons. Jewish tradition collides with the London art world. Reviewed on this blog.

4* The year of living Danishly (Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country – Helen Russell : non-fiction; sub-title says it all. See review on this blog
4* “Homegrown” Bertus Basson with Russell Wasserfall and Roxy Spears. Non-fiction; cookbook/heritage/memoir .
4* The Restoration of Otto Laird – Nigel Packer. A quiet thoughtful life review. https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/23848253

3* The Solitude of Emperors – David Davidar . Indian novel – communalism v s sectarianism. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2078564706
3*Sam and Me and the Hard Pear Tree – Jami Yeats-Kastner : traumatic story of family tragedy & recovery

Secrets – Nuruddin Farah – Somali novel. DNF reviewed on GR https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2067160774

THE GALLERY OF VANISHED HUSBANDS – Natasha Solomons

Review from amazon.com London, 1958. It’s the eve of the sexual revolution, but in Juliet Montague’s conservative Jewish community where only men can divorce women, she ¬finds herself a living widow, invisible. Ever since her husband disappeared seven years ago, Juliet has been a hardworking single mother of two and unnaturally practical. But on her thirtieth birthday, that’s all about to change. A wealthy young artist asks to paint her portrait, and Juliet, moved by the powerful desire to be seen, enters into the burgeoning art world of 1960s London, which will bring her fame, fortune, and a life-long love affair.
The Amazon review only gives a fraction of what’s to come in this wonderful, engrossing novel. I seldom award 5 stars, but the book gets my wholehearted 5 stars. I devoured it in one sitting, again, something I seldom do.
It’s a rich story, dealing with the world of conservative Jewish tradition, with the vibrant London art world set as counterpoint. As you can imagine, there’s ample scope for a contrasting cast of characters . We meet Juliet’s mother, Mrs Greene – the uber respectable Jewish mother, alternately bewildered and outraged by Juliet’s non-conformist behaviour. Especially when her daughter takes a goy lover (shock! horror!) the reclusive artist Max Langford, permanently scarred by his war experiences.
Juliet, after surviving seven years as an ‘aguna’ (a living widow) desperately wants a life outside the confines of her small London Jewish community. Once she stumbles into the vibrant London art world, she soon finds it. Some years later she bravely travels to the USA, the two kids in tow, in search of her errant husband, who she finally finds in LA : how much further could you get from a conservative Jewish London suburb? The location of her husband is the least of her shocking discoveries. I’ll leave it at that, so as not to release a spoiler.
What a life Juliet leads, what a book. I was so enthralled that I forgot to get cross about restrictive, outmoded, patriarchal practices such as aguna. Natasha Solomons is a great storyteller.
Highly recommended.

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANISHLY

(Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country  – Helen Russell : non-fiction

 

The sub-title says it all. Brit journalist, Helen Russell accompanies her husband who moves to Denmark to work at Lego, legendary toy maker, on a year’s contract.
She leaves the buzzy London life somewhat reluctantly, but decides to treat  their year’s exile as a research project.

And she researches Denmark thoroughly, covering work, play, family life, the social support system . You name it, she phones up experts, talks to neighbours and friends, drives around, checks facts, and experiences as much as she can in an effort to determine whether the statistically nominated Danes really are citizens of the world’s happiest country. She asks the question wherever she goes: on a scale of ten  at the top and one at bottom, where would you rate your happiness? Most Danes answered with a nine.  I think one boldly declared a ten, and the lowest score was an eight.

Imagine that! How can this be? Simple, really. Denmark offers a cradle-to-the-grave social system and promotes social values of equality  regarding status, money and work. There is a high value placed on nurturing family life and achieving a good balance between  work and home. Reading about the secure, affluent life in Denmark from my precarious Third World African perspective, Denmark sounds like heaven.

But everything has a price. The taxes are staggering. They have to be, to keep the system running. For nine months of the year its winter in varying degrees of Arctic  freeze, not to mention almost total darkness in the depth of winter. As opposed to almost 24/7 daylight at the height of summer.

But the Danes take winter in their stride, creating hygge  in their homes. It appears they also drink a lot of alcohol. So it’s warm and cosy all the way. They love tradition and mark annual festivals and holidays with group activities, and in between all the fests they are keen joiners of clubs and societies, weather notwithstanding.

I was fascinated with the description of the  small Nordic country and its people. I live in a city of four million people; the total population of Denmark is just of 5.5 million. Because it’s a small country  with a small population that adheres staunchly to their Danish values, there’s a high level of trust, and kids have plenty of freedom to enjoy the outdoors with little supervision.

When the writer has her baby, she and husband finally go out to dinner, it’s their first date since Little Red’s arrival, and they park the sleeping baby in his pram on the pavement outside the restaurant , which is perfectly standard Danish practice. When I read this, my jaw dropped, and my brain boggled. Do that in South Africa and within two minutes, literally, your baby will be stolen, ditto pram, and a terrible fate probably ensues.

If I were thirty years younger, I’d seriously consider emigrating to Denmark, based on Russell’s book.  Read it for yourself and see if the Nordic lifestyle appeals to you.

 

MY LONGTERM FASCINATION WITH THE AMERICAN BEAT GENERATION

 

 

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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.