THE DOORSTOPPER CHALLENGE

Look at the mighty tomes which have recently entered my house.

A friend lent me the Amor Towles,  and it weighs in at  576   pages.

The Books of Jacob weighs in at a jaw dropping 892  pages.

I must confess to feeling somewhat intimidated.

Because the Amor Towles is a loan, it behooves me to read it reasonably quickly. I’m counting on a six to eight week grace period. And because I own the mighty blue book, I can take as long as I like to read it. Clearly I will not be reading it at night before slipping into sleep, because if that book slips out of my sleepy hands and falls, it will crack my spectacle frames, and probably my nose.

I’ve read, and enjoyed Amor Towles novels before, notably A Gentleman in Moscow.

Olga Tokarczuk is new to me. I have read reviews of her novels and know that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in   2018, also the Booker International Prize in that same year so am curious to try one of her books, which are scarce in SA and wildly expensive to order from overseas. So my Good Fairy friend C, generously brought the book with her on a recent visit to Cape Town. Presenting it to me must have lightened her luggage somewhat!

Plenty of reading adventures waiting for me on my bookshelf.  Watch this space for progress reports.

SEASONAL JOY STARTING IN FEBRUARY

What a thrill to discover my annual Christmas Gift Book from C, in my postbox! No matter that the book finally staggered in during the last week of February, despite being mailed from the UK in mid-December 2021. It arrived, so lets not moan about our dreadful postal system. I refuse to call it ‘our Postal service’ because service it ain’t.

Anyhoo. My dear friend C, now one of my oldest friends in terms of friendship-years, generously sends me a book every Christmas. Such a treat! Because this means that I can read books which are published in the UK, but not sold in this country, and unavailable on line. As you may imagine, I trawl through my Books Wish List, in search of that one, perfect book. And I always come up with at least one title. That’s half the fun.

The remaining fun-half is finally receiving the parcel, ripping off the wrapping, and admiring the book in all its shiny, new, glory. A brand new, hard-covered book is a rare treat in these days of trade paperbacks and Print-on-Demand cheapies.

I’m a fan of Lev Parikian. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense I know, given that he’s a British nature writer, writing about bird watching and the British countryside but I enjoy his book precisely because they’re about nature in the Northern Hemisphere and such a contrast to my arid, hot, wind-swept environment. .

The book arrived towards the end of February, and happily, that’s where the dated chapters begin 4-8th February …. which makes it a wonderful book to read, in dated segments during the year, as the days, weeks and months slide by .

What makes this particular book so attractive to me is that its based on the Japanese calendar system of 72 seasons, split (mostly) into 5 day sections. paying particular attention to seasonal natural events.

.The micro-seasons referred to were established in 1874, and are based on the solstices, the seasons, and cyclical events in nature. Each section has a heading, some jocular like “Starling Hullabaloo: 15-20 May”; some are poetic “Bracken turns to Bronze 7-11 November” ; while some some are vaguely menacing “Bats Sometimes Swarm 13-17 September”; and some sound like the evening weather report: ” Grey Skies are Unremitting 12-16 December.”

Directly below the tantalizing headings are the original haiku, in translation. For example, the Haiku for 12-16 December reads … Greater snow/Bears start hibernating in their dens . The Haiku are poetic miniatures – and perfect.

What a wonderful start to the day, sipping my morning coffee, and enjoying page or two of Lev Parikian’s gentle nature stories.

Thank you once again, dear friend.

THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS

Ruth Ozeki’s  5th novel, and a book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on.

Synopsis –  amazon.com

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house – a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, he falls in love with a mesmerising street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.

And he meets his very own Book – a talking thing – who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

The Book of Form and Emptiness blends unforgettable characters, riveting plot and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions. This is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but on finishing the book, I experienced a lingering  dis-satisfaction.

I enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s novels, and have no quarrel with her writing, or the difficult story line she pursued: grief, mental illness, coming of age (always tricky), homelessness; or the fact that she used a familiar trope, that of the energetic Zen nun who revives a decaying Zen temple and serves a dying master.

If the above sounds grim, be assured the book is not unremitting doom and gloom, there are vivid characters peopling the story, for example, the *Aleph aka Alice, who acts almost as a guardian angel over Benny as he navigates the darker side of the city, and the night-time mysteries of the Public Library

And Benny’s hapless mother Annabelle, who  unconsciously succumbs to hoarding because she’s overwhelmed by grief and circumstance.  I’ve watched, with horror, TV programmes on hoarders, but this is the first time I’ve encountered the illness in fiction. Ruth Ozeki is not afraid to tackle difficult topics of modern life.

A sub-theme of the story is that of the urban homeless, many of whom use the Library as a Daycare Centre – very necessary in the harsh North American winters.  For instance, there’s Slavoj, the drunken philosopher poet, obsessed with Walter Benjamin. He ‘s an influential figure in Benny’s Life, as is the enigmatic Aleph.

The novel is a long, meaty read and I think perhaps it was  the abrupt ending  that did not sit well with me after such a long, and detailed build-up. This said, don’t be put off the book, it’s a great read.

. * Not to forget the intriguing reference to the Aleph of the Borges short story.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Aleph_(short_story)

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TAMING THE TBR

Title: The Shadow King

Author: Maaza  Mengistu

Published:  2019

Length: 428

What it’s about: Amazon synopsis:

A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians―Jewish photographer Ettore among them―march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

What follows is a gorgeously crafted and un-putdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

When I got the book: August 2020

How I acquired the book:  Birthday gift vouchers

Why I want to read it:  During my “Read more African authors” period. Plus the many rave reviews.

Lisa, at Book Shelf Fantasieshttps://bookshelffantasies.com/2022/01/ – hosts a weekly Wednesday feature called Shelf Control, which prompted me to write this post. Thanks for the wake-up call, Lisa – much needed.

NEW BOOKS – JUNE

The Book Delivery Fairy flew past my house on a damp, chilly Tuesday and cheered up the day no end. He wore a baseball cap, to keep his smile dry, and arrived in a white panel van, but to me he was a magical apparition.

I so enjoyed Nicola Barker’s The Cauliflower, I treated myself to two more of her novels. Any other Nicola Barker fans out there in the Blogosphere?

Robert Muponde’s memoir of a childhood was well reviewed, and I’m diligently pursuing my Read-more-African-Writers project, so watch this space.

Happy Reading!

HELLO, BOOK LOUNGE DELIVERYMAN

My TBR  shelf runneth over.  To put it mildly. And my credit card smoketh unhappily. The complications of a book addict’s life.

I ordered the Uganda and the Greengage book yonks ago –  late last year, in fact. Finally both have arrived.

As for The Theory of Flight  book, I read a review of the book last year, forgot all the details (old age, I regret to say) but knew I wanted to read Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu and then recently found a review of her second book, yay,  hello! serendipity.

So in order to take advantage of  the free delivery criteria  which is based on a certain sales figure before the free deliveries kick in, I ordered it. That was virtuously thrifty, I thought.

The two African writers fall into my Read-more-African Writers project. The Greengage Tree?  Reviews were enthusiastic,  and I was intrigued, hence my crumpled  credit card.

Watch this space for reviews.

THANKS, VIRTUALLY YOURS!

I’ve been joining a monthly Zoom session, Virtually Yours, hosted by the Goethe Institute, where Zukiswa Wanner interviews an African author on their work, and each session ends with a lucky dip giveaway of the day’s  book, for  five lucky readers. Guess who got lucky in April? Me!

Look what arrived at my door today, in a red and yellow DHL bag, all the way from Kenya.

The April guest was Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, from Nigeria, and his Dreams & Assorted Nightmares is a short story collection. I enjoy short stories, and will read it as next month’s Dipper. I always like to have a book of shorts, whether poetry or prose, to dip into, when reading time is scarce.

In addition, Zukiswa kindly  sent me a copy of her book: Maid in SA.  I sort of get a Madam & Eve feeling from the Maid book, due to the cover pic, but the contents might not be as funny as our beloved cartoon characters. We shall see. Watch this space.

FEBRUARY BUYS 2021

I can’t resist stories about twins, so when I heard about The Grammarians, I knew it was a book I really, really wanted to read. I had to wait for over three months for the books to struggle through the difficulties of overseas orders and Covid problems, plus postal delays, but the book finally staggered in, and now its in my possession. I can’t wait to read it! Twins, words, language …. what’s not to like?

I’ve been dithering around over the Salt Path for at least a year. Despite my efforts to loan the book from the Library (regret not in the Cape Town Library system), or borrow the book from my bookish friends (no, sorry, haven’t got that one) or buy a second-hand copy but again no luck. So in the end, I had to bite the bullet and buy the darn thing. I like the cover. It reminds me of lino print designs, which I always enjoy.

As usual, I’m late to the party. The Salt Path was published in 2018. What a good thing books don’t “go off” like the contents of the grocery cupboards. Although this said, I was hunting through my book cases last week, and found a book dating back to the 1980s, where the pages have turn a deep, dark, toasty brown, and I promise you, the book has never been left lying in the sun. Oh the very idea! oh, the horror!

The Salt Path is part memoir, part Nature writing, and it poses a difficult question: what would you, the reader, do if faced with a massive, life-altering situation like the onset of an incurable disease coupled with homelessness and financial ruin. I certainly wouldn’t chose to walk 638 miles around the British coastline, which was the Winn’s solution. I’d probably hide in the darkest corner of the biggest library, whimpering pitifully, and praying for a heavy book shelf to fall on me and deliver me from my plight.

And my third purchase was another book that I’ve been dithering over for some time. I read a glowing review in one of the many recent Best Books of 2020 articles, so I went mad and bought it. Again, I love the vibrant, fiery cover – I’m a pushover for yellow and orange. Fingers crossed that the contents live up to the cover.

Have you acquired any new books in the last seven weeks ?

JANUARY ACQUISITIONS

Despite the sunshine and high temperatures, I find January a long, bleak month after the excitement and socializing of the Festive Season.  Seeing we’ve just struggled through nearly a year of Covid-1 lockdowns, and a somewhat un-festive Christmas, I needed some cheering up. And because I received a book voucher as a Christmas gift, I consulted my Wish List and finally chose :

Nine Letters by John Webb is a local novel, and I’m keen to support those. Plus, as a lifelong letter writer, it sounded like a book I’d enjoy.  Additionally, the book was favourably reviewed, so that was easy.

My second choice: a Japanese novel. Huh? After the debacle over Earthlings …. What was I thinking?  For some while, Japanese novels  no longer appeal. After reading – and buying – many of Murakami’s books, and reading other Japanese writers, I find their dreamy opacity irritating. Last year  I reserved Hideo Yokoyama’s Seventeen from the Library, and abandoned it around page 25. Enough already. The intricacies of the male orientated Japanese business world held no appeal whatsoever.

However: I’d read good reviews of Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot),  and the price was good, so I took the plunge. Lets hope it was money well spent. Time will tell.

Perhaps you found some January Sale bargains? Or spent your Christmas Book Vouchers? Share the good news!

MY SHATTERED BOOK BUDGET

The thunderous crash you heard was my severely over strained 2020 Book Budget giving up the unequal struggle and collapsing into a million tiny pieces (apologies, James Frey) .

Many businesses and activities could not withstand the COVID onslaught, they closed down, they decamped, they gave in and surrendered. My willpower was amongst these casualties. Theoretically  I was going to buy only 2 books per month during 2020. In January that sounded like a workable goal. And then along came The Virus, in March.  Alongside the dratted virus came Lockdown, and in South Africa, it was prolonged and strict.

Confined to my house, living solo as I do, one of my  defenses  against boredom, loneliness, and insanity, was to read. Obvious, really.  

I turned to my Kindle, not being able to concentrate on much in the early stages of Lockdown, and there I fell into a heaving morass of Cozy Mysteries, instantly delivered by the mighty Amazon.com   I lost count of how many I bought.  

Next on the marketing scene were our local bookstores, waving tempting Lockdown Sales before our dazed eyes. I succumbed to 4 books from the German art publisher, Taschen. I mean: who can resist a 50% discount sale?  Could you?

Then our wonderful local  indie  bookstore  offered to deliver our online purchases to our front door.  Well! As an elderly at risk person, how could I resist this bargain offer? Three more books arrived over the weeks. I was virtuously staying at home, and I was supporting our indie bookstore, that was struggling mightily with the drop in sales during early phases of the Lockdown. My purchases almost fell into the category of a Public Good Deed.

Finally one of our big online retailers held a Flash Sale last week, and discounted current novels up to 30% and 40%  … oh dear …. You know what happened next, don’t you?

I’ve had some wonderful reads, retained my sanity, and torn up the 2020 Book Budget. In these strange and dangerous times, I really don’t care.