JUNE 2022 READING ROUND-UP

My gosh: mid-year already!

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.

FICTION

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 that expectations 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.

Non-fiction

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.

MAY 2022 READING ROUND UP

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 as  her 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.

FICTION

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.

NON-FICTION

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

 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.

THE BOOKSELLER’S TALE – Martin Latham

The Bookish Universe is home to many tribes, clans and cults. For example:

There are Bookworms.

There are Book Bloggers.

There are Book Nerds

There are Bibliophiles.

But finally, leaving the best until last: there are BOOKSELLERS,  and most specifically, British Bookseller extraordinaire, Martin Latham of Waterstones, Canterbury, who has published his Tale.

After three decades in the book-trade, he shares a treasury of anecdotes, stories, histories, and personal memoir  which makes for fascinating reading. He reflects on all things bookish via Bookstores, Cultural  History,  Literature, Libraries, passionate  Book Collectors,  bookish cities (apparently #1 is Venice – who knew?) Marginalia, Book Pedlers of bygone eras … each page is a plethora of fascinating titbits, ideas, name dropping …. in one sentence we meet Fantasy  Writer Terry Pratchett and Dutch graphic artist, M C Escher, he of brain twisting geometric graphics.

Having read  the description of his father’s passion for collections, I am un-surprised by the splendid cornucopia offered by the book. After such a childhood one can forecast  a boomerang effect either towards Marie  Kondo-style  Minimalism or further enthusiastic squirreling.  I enjoyed the section so much that I’m giving you a taste of Maison Latham during ML’s childhood:

            My father was an extreme case as a collector  ….  He gathered up from London street markets and wartime souks not only thousands of books and coins but prints, fifteen or so walking sticks (he never used one) …. many toasters, a knobkerrie, an umbrella-stand full of spears, a Zulu shield of hide which groaned when a storm was coming  …. A sextant (he never sailed), scores of old tools, sash weights, three hand-operated drills (he never used an electric one), different grades of chain, an early intercom, two or three Smurf petrol tokens, and all sorts of promotional key rings, a few Roman toga brooches, the hand of an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhmet … Hittite cylinder seals, both real and forged, an entire run of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, rescued from a skip outside the Society’s offices in Adam and Eve Mews, a rifle, a Luger pistol, a green glass ball to repel witches, a hand grenade with the pin in, a whole cupboard of clocks and watches he was gradually repairing, a wooden box full of cigarette cards, a magic lantern which smokes when in use, with eerie glass slides … a gilt set of stairs (only two feet high ) from his Aleppo war service, hundreds of years old ….a four-foot Aboriginal boomerang, two seventeenth-century Persian vases …. Two human skulls … hundreds of fossils, a Tsarist-era display box of gemstones, with inscriptions in Russian  ….

And these are merely extracts from the bulging list! I was enchanted, and simultaneously glad I wasn’t the cleaner at Maison Latham. By the way, I think ML falls into the squirrel category.

I loved his final chapter titled  ‘Bookshops’ which  seem to be owned and staffed by any number of wonderfully eccentric people, and patronised by the entire Who’s Who of contemporary culture. On the strength of this chapter alone, I am plotting to steal the book from Koeberg Library, but common sense tells me that its not worth incurring a lifetime ban from the Cape Town Public Library system.

Without doubt ML’s Bookseller’s Tale would be #2 on my list of essential Desert Island books. 

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RE-VISITING THE NIGHT CIRCUS

I seldom re-read books. Tempus fugit, and all that. Plus my TBR shelf growls and snarls at me, every time I walk by, which I do many times per day. I resolutely averted my eyes, ignored the miserable muttering from the books imploring: read me! read me! me-me-me! Instead I re-entered Erin Morgenstern’s magical world of The Night Circus.

I read the book when it first launched in a fireworks-flurry of promotion, hype, excitement and cultish rapture. Our Book Club bought a copy and I read it super-fast, because other members were hounding me, so I rushed through the story, barely comprehending the ending, in order to pass the book along to the next eager reader. I recall enjoying the story, but being vaguely puzzled by the rapturous reception. I have met readers who, upon finishing the book, raced to the nearest bookstore to secure their own copy, and have , by now, eleven years since publication, re-read it many times over. I used the word cultish earlier. I stand by it.

So how did the book perform, the second time around, after a much slower, careful read?

It certainly scores top marks for atmosphere, and for originality. Erin M weaves a skilful spell when it comes to creating ambience, otherness, magical delights and sensuous experiences. And no, the book is not dripping with sex. A little restrained eroticism, yes, but no purple pages. What does drip off the pages is esoterica, by way of runes, sigils, symbols, arcana, tarot, white doves, stars, misleading mirrors, vanishing doorways, smoke and mirrors . Like I said, very, very atmospheric.

The plot is more comprehensible the second time around, but I disliked the hoppy-skippy approach to time. My only complaint. The characters were acceptable, the major characters came across to maximum effect. Basically, its a story of two master magicians involved in a power struggle via their apprentices, bound to their masters, and set to complete a mysterious, unnamed challenge. Love and sacrifice are demanded, and given, but all finally ends well.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. It was an engrossing, atmospheric read.

Will I dash out to buy a copy? No.

I expect, by now, you’ve all read it. What did you think?

P.S.: Here’s the bookmark I used for this read. “The Weaving of the Enchantress” by Thomas Matthew Rooke (1842-1942). It struck me as the perfect bookmark. I keep old, favourite postcards and re-use them as bookmarks.

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.

FEBRUARY READING ROUND-UP 2022

February has been a month of excellent reads: all of them, even the difficult South African novel by Mark Winkler.

Two stunning novels : The Book of Form and Emptiness (reviewed on 17 February 2022, https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/1386 )  and then:

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter. Winner of the 2020 Prix Goncourt https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prix_Goncourt.  Described, accurately, as  …  an existential thriller …. it was a mind-blowing, one-session read. The wildly original basic premise is that flight Air France 006 enters a huge storm, en route to New York, and the plane and its passengers are duplicated. #1 question is: how did this happen? Why? And now what? In search of answers the novel dives into science, religion and philosophy, plus psychology, human relationships, individual stories of (some) of the pilots and passengers.  What a read!  And the ending was hair-raising – shocking, actually. Not to be missed.

Go to https://youmightaswellread.com/2021/12/28/buckle-your-seat-belts-for-herve-le-telliers-the-anomaly/  for a comprehensive review.


FICTION   

The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki.  See my review , link above.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter. Gallic wit, sophisticated thriller and brilliant translation

Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson. Magical realism reveals dark underbelly of middle-class English surburbia

A Promise of Ankles –  Alexander McCall Smith: Scottish serial novel, #14 in series; charming & gentle

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig: Historical Fantasy; magical and inventive

The Mystics of Mile End – Sigal Samuel. Coming of age in a Jewish neighbourhood of Montreal, exploring the mysteries of Jewish Kabbalah. Esoteric & fascinating.

The Graveyard Shift – D M Guay: Comedy horror; fun, trashy, escapist

Due South of Copenhagen – Mark Winkler. The bad, sad years of South Africa’s Border War in the 1980s. Futile, haunting & disturbing.

A Town Called Solace – Mary Lawson. Small town  drama in 1970’s Canada’s Northern Ontario. Difficult, fractured, child /parent relationships.  Grief, remorse and love play out.

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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BLISSFUL BROWSING

What a joy to be able to enter a Public Library, and spend time wandering amongst the shelves, stopping in front of the displays of new books, picking out a book to study the back blurb, or read a few pages!

Who would have thought, pre-Covid, how special this activity would become two years down the line? I missed many things during the hard Lockdowns, and visiting the Library was high on my list.

I had a glorious time at Koeberg Library, just browsing. It took me a while, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? There’s no substitute for holding a book in your hand, reading the reviews, flicking through the pages, reading the opening paragraph and the indecision : am I in the mood for this type of story? is the print too small or will I manage? have I had enough of this author ? should I give the author another chance? or – drat! I’ve read this one. Decisions, decisions.

Eventually I made my choices and here’s what I chose:

Heyns, Mulgrew and Winkler and South African writers. I’ve enjoyed Michiel Heyns’ books before. He’s an Afrikaans writer, but usually translates his own books. Luckily for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy his novels. And Matt Haig is an old favourite of mine, particularly one of his early – if not the earliest – book Whatever Happened to the Radleys? Its a wildly quirky novel about a family of vampires trying to reform their lifestyle and stop preying on the rest of us. Written, as I recall, in a deadpan style. I regret selling my copy.

Any comments or suggestions?

A FEW BOOKISH THOUGHTS TO OPEN A NEW READING YEAR

I’m definitely ditching Goodreads in 2022. Apart from the fact it’s a  tiresome chore to log on to the site,  hunt up my books, then label my reads with their unhelpful star rating system, at year’s end GR never, but never, get my year-end total reads figure correct.  Reverting to my Stone Age tools i.e. my Book Journal and a ballpoint pen, I keep a running total of my reads.  It never coincides with GR’s figure.

I’ve flirted with the idea of swapping over to another electronic book app, but no, I’m done with book apps. One of my friends is a whizz at spreadsheets, and will set up a comprehensive spreadsheet for me. Trick is, of course, to keep adding the data.

Yet again I will be refusing all Reading Challenges, continue  abandoning any book that does not either entertain or inform me, and rambling through the Back Lists with a happy song on my lips.

I’m also debating whether I am finished with my Read more African Writers project. Last year I won a number of books via the Goethe Institute’s generous  Virtually Yours Zoom sessions, some of which were a great success, whilst others were not. I still have two recent  Indian Ocean novels* highlighted on my Wish List, which are very tempting, but on the whole, I think I’m done with the project.

And yet again, I will dive into my TBR shelf, which is actually very modest. I’ve read recent Book Bloggers’ posts wherein they admit to a hoard of +200 books. Einah! One good thing about the wretched Pandemic is that it’s kept me away from the bookshops and Charity Book Sales. Unfortunately, the online booksellers have been very obliging.

One good innovation last year, was registering with the LIBBY system, which the Cape Town Municipal Library system joined.  Such good news to be able to read e-books without having to fall into the capacious jaws of amazon.com .  

And finishing on a happy note: friends of mine are currently in the UK, and will be making forays into the Charity Book shops, with my Wish List added to their own. I can’t wait for them to return. Whenever I read UK Book Bloggers’ accounts of picking up book bargains for 50p per book, I could weep; we have no such bargains here.

So there we have it: no grand plans or target, just happy to be able to continue reading. Happy reading to everyone!

  • House of Rust –  Khadija Abdalla Bajaber  and Blue Dragonfly Sea – Yvonne  Oadihambo