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akeela's reading nook for 2010

Club Read 2010

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Jan 4, 2010, 10:38am Top

Hi! I’m thrilled to be back for my third year of reading on LT!

I haven’t set myself any reading challenges, as such, except to get around to also reading a number of authors still on my bulging TBR list, including Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Knut Hamsun, Antonio Lobo Antunes and many more.

Oh, yes! Just remembered, I signed up for browngirl's African Diaspora Reading Challenge 2010. I'm generally drawn to African writers, so couldn't resist the challenge :)

Edited: Jan 4, 2010, 12:12pm Top

Reflecting on my 2009 reading; turns out I had a fantastic reading year. I managed 55 books in spite of very little reading time. 2010 may yield fewer titles, but who’s counting? ;-)

I visited 16 more countries in my Global Reading challenge, including Mexico, Sierra Leone, Finland, New Zealand, Iceland and Colombia, so I’m reasonably pleased, and will happily continue this quest.

My top reads for 2009 more or less in the order read:
The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba
The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi
The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda
Maru by Bessie Head
Thirteen Cents by K. Sello Duiker
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Landscape with Dog and Other Stories by Ersi Sotiropoulos

* A lot of African fiction, but I got stuck in Africa for a bit at the beginning of 2009 and loved the experience!

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Sharon and My Mother-In-Law: Ramallah Diaries (ts not cooperating) by Suad Amiry

And two graphic novels that merit a mention:
The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar (graphic novel, French author, set in Algeria)
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)

Jan 4, 2010, 12:47pm Top

Currently reading: All This Belongs To Me by Petra Hulova

If I successfully place the cover, Thank You, Tad!

Jan 4, 2010, 1:24pm Top

Happy New Year! I'm looking forward to following along here.

Jan 4, 2010, 5:38pm Top

Hi Akeela! I'm glad to know that you'll also be participating in browngirl's African Diaspora Reading Challenge.

Jan 5, 2010, 1:28pm Top

Thanks, guys!

Darryl, I followed the link from your thread to the African reading challenge, and before I knew it I had signed up ... so I place the blame for it squarely on your shoulders!

Feb 11, 2010, 4:05pm Top

Hey, here you are! I'll be following along also.

Feb 13, 2010, 2:44pm Top

Hey, Lois. Good to see you here!

My reading has slowed down to a trickle, but here’s what I’ve managed thus far for 2010:

All This Belongs to Me by Petra Hulova. Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker. (set in Mongolia) and Rien Ne Va Plus by Margarita Karapanou. Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich. Both good reads, to be reviewed in the forthcoming, fourth issue of Belletrista.

Feb 13, 2010, 2:44pm Top

Also finally got to read the amazing Hunger by Knut Hamsun. Excellently translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad. This classic was written in 1890 and is a simple story about a struggling but talented writer who often finds himself homeless, and starving for days. What sets this book apart is the astonishing writing. It is an absolute treat, and I often had a lump in my throat, and also laughed out loud at the brashness and creativity of the affable character portrayed. And then quite honestly, there were moments when I wanted to throttle the man for his pride, and obsession with being honourable and honest - it caused him such grief. In spite of the dark subject matter, this was a light, quick read, and it is a book I cannot recommend highly enough!

The 150th celebration of Knut Hamsun’s birth was widely celebrated in Norway in 2009. I recently saw an article on Hamsun in The Economist (7 Nov 2009 issue), entitled, “Terrible Man, Celebrated Writer” and many negative things were said about his political leanings, but I was interested to learn that he had virtually no education and at 12, lived with an uncle who beat him regularly. He escaped from this man’s clutches as soon as he could and took to the road, doing menial jobs to survive, often experiencing virtual starvation during that time.

Edited: Feb 13, 2010, 3:40pm Top

Thanks for your review of Hunger, Akeela, and for your comments about the article in The Economist, which I just read (I have a subscription, but I missed this article). Is this book somewhat autobiographical, since he was also a struggling and starving writer? It was interesting to learn that he met Hitler in 1943 and was denounced by him, yet remained loyal to National Socialism during and after the war.

I'll definitely move Hunger higher on my TBR list.

Feb 14, 2010, 5:18am Top

You're welcome, Darryl. One doesn't quite understand his fascination with Hitler.. Yes, seems the book was autobiographical; the narrative comes across as quite authentic. I hope you get to it soon, I think you'll appreciate it.

Feb 17, 2010, 2:31pm Top

Have you read any other books by Hamsun? I have several on my shelf, including Hunger, but was thinking of starting with Growth of the Soil.

Feb 17, 2010, 2:50pm Top

> 12 No, I haven't. It's highly rated here on LT and after reading the reviews on the book's page just now, it's one I'll have to look for! I loved Hamsun's writing. Thanks for mentioning this title, Deborah.

Feb 20, 2010, 5:51am Top

Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.This was a gift from a dear friend, so I wanted to love it. It has an intelligent imaginative 15-year-old protagonist, Margherita, whose voice I enjoyed. One day her family gains hugely materialistic neighbors who put up a monstrous black cubic glass house next to theirs. As time passes, she watches in horror as members of her family become enthralled by the Del Benes and all they stand for.

Stephano Benni's forte is apparently satire and the beginning of the book was funny and promising, but as the book proceeded it started to come loose at the seams, and at the end it just all fell apart. It did for me, anyway. Pity. It may be more interesting and entertaining to YA readers.

Stephano Benni is considered one of Italy's foremost writers, and I would read more by him.

Feb 20, 2010, 5:53am Top

I started This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun yesterday. The setting is stark, a pitch dark prison cell, but I'm already completely drawn in.

Feb 22, 2010, 5:07am Top

I bought This Blinding Absence of Light in a second-hand shop the other week - I could read it at the same time as you! No, no, don't tempt me - I need to get on with my Lispector trio for Belletrista, but I'm interested to see what you think.

Feb 22, 2010, 5:27am Top

>16 rachbxl: Aw! Please do read it with me! You have another month for the trio :) It is an amazing little book. I must warn you though, if you start, you won't be able to put it down. It's very compelling.

Feb 22, 2010, 11:57am Top

Completed This Blinding Absence of Light this afternoon. It was awesome. Like I said, Rach, I couldn't put it down ... I guess that means you're off the hook! I'm looking forward to your trio piece, btw.

Review to follow.

Feb 23, 2010, 5:31am Top

Too late! Looking forward to your review.

Feb 23, 2010, 5:33am Top

Uh-oh! :D

Feb 24, 2010, 8:26am Top

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Translated by Linda Coverdale. This book is based on real events.

The protagonist is one of 58 prisoners who were taken captive in the king’s palace after a failed coup to oust King Hassan II of Morocco, in 1971. After two years in a conventional prison, they were transferred to Tazmamart Prison, where these men would be held individually in subterranean dungeons under the most alarmingly barbaric conditions. They were deprived of food and water – except enough to keep them barely alive – of company, of physical space, and of everything else, including light, hence the striking title of the novel.

The narrator, Salim, is one of the incarcerated men who tells of the 18 years he spent in this cell, and how he and some of the men managed to stay alive, sometimes just barely. The majority of them died because of a lack of strength to withstand the terrible deprivation. The contents of the book are bleak, but on the flip side, it shows the amazing reserves of human willpower.

The well-read narrator draws on his inner strength to keep going, and exercises his mind by telling stories to his fellow inmates ranging from scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. They would teach each other language skills, and recite verses from the Koran. Sometimes a little bird would visit the cell and bring the inmates an inordinate amount of joy, with their movements and their song.

Throughout this ordeal Salim refuses to think about his life before prison, and this takes considerable restraint. “To remember was to die ... How were we to know that, in that place, homesickness was fatal? We were in our graves, banished forever from our lives and all remembrance. Perhaps the walls weren’t thick enough, in spite of the ramparts all round, nothing could keep memory from seeping in.” As he perseveres, he develops a strong sense of spirituality, which pulls him through the most difficult and trying times.

I was completely moved by this book, and like Hunger, it made me grateful for the little things in life that I take for granted. To quote from the book: “Ah!
The smell of toast and coffee in the morning. Ah! The softness of warm sheets and a woman’s hair as she gets dressed again ... Ah! The shouts of children on a playground, the ballet of sparrows in a limpid sky, as the afternoon draws to an end! Oh, how lovely and how terrible are the simple things in life when they are gone, set forever out of reach...”

An important, compelling, and highly recommended book.

Feb 24, 2010, 2:55pm Top

Nice review! It's already on my wishlist, or your comments above would have put it there.

Feb 24, 2010, 9:33pm Top

Great review, Akeela! I read this a couple of years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it (not sure if "enjoyed" is the right word).

Feb 25, 2010, 1:23pm Top

Thanks - I'm looking forward to reading it even more now.

Feb 25, 2010, 2:38pm Top

Thanks, friends! Darryl, I know what you mean. I "enjoyed" it thoroughly, too :)

Rachel, I see that you've read some others by Ben Jelloun. I hope the one about the picture of his mother's life that he reconstructs is available in English! It sounds sooo good.

Feb 25, 2010, 3:29pm Top

Ah yes, I really enjoyed that one (Sur ma mère in French) - and "enjoyed" is definitely the right word in this case! It came out in French in early 2008, I think, but I don't know if it's been translated yet.

Edited: Mar 1, 2010, 12:21pm Top

Akeela, I discovered Stefano Benni last summer in an anthology of Italian literature. His short story was my favourite in the book and I definitely want to read more by him. I would say the story would appeal to the YA audience too.

Mar 3, 2010, 12:39pm Top

>26 rachbxl: Pity. But there's always the hope that it will be translated some day!

>27 Nickelini: That's great to know, Joyce.

I heard March was Read-a-Novella-Month at Club Read, which is exciting because it means I can participate :)

I pulled some slim volumes off the old shelves and was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. I read two novellas, the title story and "Salt and Sawdust" by R.K. Narayan from The Grandmother's Tale and another entitled "The Resurrection of Mozart" by Nina Berberova from a volume simply called Three Novels (with the most adorable cover). This was my first encounter with both these talented authors and I found all three stories very entertaining and well-drawn, in spite of the short form.

Three Novels cover.

I plan to fit in more! There's still a way to go for March, I think. In fact, I started another novella, Benares by Mauritian author Barlen Pyamootoo.

Mar 3, 2010, 2:06pm Top

I'll have to see what you think of Berberova. I've read two of her novellas, L'accompagnatrice and something else, but I remember nothing about them.

Mar 3, 2010, 2:47pm Top

>28 akeela: Akeela, I'm curious as to what you mean by "I found all three stories very entertaining and well-drawn, in spite of the short form". Is that because you don't tend to like novellas (or you think you don't - I know I have irrational aversions to certain forms), or because you think it's an inferior form, or...what? (Maybe it was just a throw-away comment, in which case tell me to go away!)

Mar 6, 2010, 1:29am Top

Four days since I've been here!

Rach, I love having you pop in, so definitely don't go away! I think I was expecting a lot less than what found in the novella. I was surprised by how compelling the stories could be, and also the level of development of the plot and characters. So it was a good exercise. I'd read more novellas because it can provide an intro to a number of authors I'd love to read - especially since my reading time has decreased so drastically of late. Of course, I'd much rather prefer to get my teeth into a novel...

With regard to the short story. I've never favored them and don't actively seek them out, just yet, but I've enjoyed a couple of collections for Belle recently, and still have Olive Kitteridge on the tbr-soon pile.

Mar 6, 2010, 12:37pm Top

Always interesting reading here! I'm another Jelloun fan, his latest in English is a collection of poetry published by City Lights, and Leaving Tangier, a short novel. The latter is excellent but doesn't equal "This Blinding Absence..." and I've not begun the poetry yet. I have several of his other books but I think I need to pick up his The Sand Child...

yay! for novellas! don't forget to post on the novella thread also!

Edited: Mar 6, 2010, 2:11pm Top

Lois, thanks for the mention of the new City Lights Poetry Series collection by Jelloun, The Rising of the Ashes (more info here). I'll definitely buy this from City Lights at the end of the month.

Mar 7, 2010, 12:47pm Top

Thanks, Lois and Darryl. I'm interested in reading more by Tahar Ben Jelloun and will seek out the titles you've mentioned. Thanks also for the link, doc!

Had a moment to do a quick write-up about a couple of the novellas read:

The first two were from a volume by R.K. Narayan called The Grandmother’s Tale. The title story is about a young girl who is betrothed, according to the custom, at a tender age. Convention dictates that the young boy and girl don’t live together, and each continues to live with their parents. The boy goes to great lengths to get his wife’s attention and to talk to her; but she will have almost nothing to do with him – again, as convention dictates. But, he definitely gets her attention.

Because she seems so disinterested, he packs up and leaves the village to seek his fortune. The result: she waits around for him to surface as he usually does, and then pines for him, and when she can no longer wait around, she packs her bags and goes in search of him, something unheard of in this very traditional Indian environment. But this is only the beginning of the story! It becomes much more interesting :)

The second novella, “Salt and Sawdust”, is about an aspiring writer, Veena, whose indulgent husband, Swami, adores her and does everything for her so she can concentrate solely on her writing. In spite of all the time and effort he expends in providing for her every comfort and need as a writer, and beyond, she’s not all that productive. The story is quite funny with a lovely twist. It was very entertaining and I really enjoyed Narayan’s writing overall.

Lilisin, I hope to get around to some thoughts on the Berberova soon!

Off to post on the novella thread..

Mar 7, 2010, 2:34pm Top

Those novellas sound interesting; I'll look for them at City Lights.

Mar 11, 2010, 2:08pm Top

Another novella. Buchi Emecheta's The Moonlight Bride. I've wanted to read this author for the longest time so am happy to have made her acquaintance finally!

The narrator, a 12-year old girl and her 14-year-old friend find out that a new bride will be coming to their village, and it'll happen in the moonlight. There is a shroud of mystery around the event, but they are very excited and plan to make clay pots and lamps for the bride, to welcome her to the family. On the day they go to fetch the clay from the ground a long way from home, they are confronted by a ginormous python, and this sets a wholes series of events in motion.

This was a lovely visit into a very traditional African village. It was fairly good! I think it would probably qualify as a YA book. I still want to read The Joys of Motherhood by Emecheta.

Mar 12, 2010, 7:18am Top

>36 akeela: Your response to the Emecheta is very similar to mine. I had read several Achebe books prior to this, so this was a nice companion to his stories of the village. The Joys of Motherhood is much more complex; the title is meant ironically, of course. I have a few other titles of hers that I mean to get to.

Mar 14, 2010, 2:57pm Top

> I'd like to read more of Emecheta's work, as well. I suspect this isn't her best work, so look forward to more!

Death of an Ex-Minister by Nawal El-Saadawi. Translated by Shirley Eber. I picked up this slim book thinking it was a novella, but it turned out to be a collection of short stories, which I read virtually in one sitting. It is an incredible piece of work. The Egyptian El-Saadawi is an activist, feminist writer and medical doctor who specialised in psychiatry and did extensive research into neuroses.

There are seven stories in the collection and each is a monologue of sorts, in which the characters evaluate their circumstances and reveal their state mind in the abnormal, unhealthy, false world they live in, where men reign supreme and women are personae non grata in almost all realms of existence.

Via the extremely personal, cerebral experiences and narratives of the men and women in the stories, El-Saadawi reveals how detrimental and damaging it is to the psyche of men and women, when people routinely repress their natural emotions and inclinations to play the disingenuous, callous roles inflicted on them since childhood. Each of the characters struggle intensely to define themselves in relation to others and feel they’re fighting a losing battle, almost akin to death.

El-Saadawi’s stories are sympathetic, subtle and powerful. This book is a searing and audacious indictment of patriarchal Egyptian society, and one can see how El-Saadawi would have been dismissed from her post in the Ministry of Health, and imprisoned for her writings and her outspoken opinions, in a country where women were not even allowed to raise their eyes (what still about their voices) to meet that of men.

This is the best work I’ve read by this author and I was completely bowled over by each of the stories.

Apr 2, 2010, 7:31am Top

Dinaane: Short Stories by South African Women edited by Maggie Davey. I was excited to come across this set of short stories by South African women especially because it’s part of a series entitled “Short Stories by Women from Around the World”, and because I thought it might serve as introduction to some prominent women writers from my neck of the woods.

In the process, I met one exciting author, Mary Watson, who won the Caine Prize for African writing in 2006 (only five copies of the winning publication Jungfrau and Other Short Stories on LT). She is indeed talented and I thought the story, which included a touch of magical realism was great. Furthermore, there was one Indian woman writer and only one African writer represented in the collection, which thwarted my hopes for representation of a wide cultural experience. Only a couple of the stories had an African flavour; the rest could well have taken place in any western context.

That said, I really enjoyed a couple of stories, but the majority of them were meh. I will be interested in the others in the series: Ireland, Lebanon, India, Iran, and the Czech Republic are some of the other countries included.

Also finished The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz from Brazil, which I will review for Issue 5 of Belletrista.

Apr 2, 2010, 4:53pm Top

>38 akeela: oh dear, I shall now have to chase down that El-Saadawi. I was rather underwhelmed by the last work of hers which i read - Love in the Kingdom of Oil and I still have The Fall of the Imam in the TBR pile. I thought Woman at Point Zero very powerful. Have you read any of these?

I bought the Caine Prize anniversary anthology over the winter and must have the Watson story. I'm intrigued.

Apr 3, 2010, 4:23am Top

Lois, I read Woman at Point Zero on your rec last year. It was certainly powerful. It reminded me of another, similarly plotted novel I'd read the previous year where a writer is granted an interview with a strong but silent woman on death row, Lemona's Tale, which I loved by Ken Saro-Wiwa.

I'd be interested to know what you make of Mary Watson's writing. She's in her 20s, so very much still a new-kid-on-the-block.

Apr 3, 2010, 5:30am Top

This user has been removed as spam.

Apr 3, 2010, 8:42am Top

>41 akeela: I've flagged that. Commercial solicitation ("member" has no books...etc..)

Apr 3, 2010, 8:59am Top

#43 And I bet she isn't Ellen Burstyn either!

Apr 5, 2010, 8:31pm Top

Akeela, I was only 9 posts behind, but that covers about a month. Death of an Exminister*sounds fascinating, great review.

*weird, but by removing the hyphen in Ex-minister, the touchstone works.

Apr 6, 2010, 2:13pm Top

Thanks, Lois and Rebecca! Great to have friends around ;

Thanks, Dan. Good to see you here again! The TS are rather finicky these days.

So, I enjoyed a volume of poetry today!

The Dream in the Next Body by Gabeba Baderoon.

Some poems I'd like to share:

The Dance
Once in a museum I stood
at the entrance to a room looking
at Matisse’s Dance.
A man walked in front of me,
He tilted his head, as though
listening more than seeing
and, for a moment ,
I saw the dance pass
through his whole body.

A Season of Modesty
Autumn here is rash. The insistent colours
and the supple light are fine but really, why add
opaque mornings roused to ripeness by the late sun
so the day swells like a purpled plum, or grape?
And the light through the leaves variegates the air.
And the leaves! Do they have to attempt
the butterfly’s design? Everyone delights, I’m sure,
in such immoderate displays, but I find it

unwise, unguarded, extreme. I would take
Autumn’s elbow and show it a more measured pace.
And soon everything will follow. The squirrels
won’t ribbon unnecessarily round trees all day,
and the smell of rain and fruit won’t seem to stem all need.

* This publication won the Daimler-Chrysler Award for South Africa poetry in 2005. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Gabeba - she grew up in the Western Cape, where I live. Many of the poems are set in the Cape, but some extend to the US as well. She currently teaches Women's Studies, and African and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University. For more info and poems, visit www.gabeba.com

Reading these poems was a really enjoyable exercise. Thank you, Lois, for the inspiration. I will be looking for more poetry in the near future.

Apr 6, 2010, 6:41pm Top

Thanks for sharing those poems, Akeela! I liked both, especially The Dance.

Apr 7, 2010, 1:00am Top

Cool! Thanks for that, Darryl! :)

Apr 7, 2010, 9:42am Top

>46 akeela: Very nice! I like both! I had to read "A Season of Modesty" through twice, pausing here and there, to fully appreciate it. Thanks for introducing us to her.

Apr 7, 2010, 11:31am Top

Great, thanks for the feedback! Baderoon has participated in poetry festivals in many parts of the world including Stockholm, Rotterdam, London, and Jamaica. Also, I just read that she is one of the contributors to Cape Town Calling, which you both have copies of ;)

Apr 8, 2010, 1:31pm Top

Read In the Country of the Heart: Love Poems from South Africa. Sadly, this volume was totally disappointing. Only the last handful of poems, right at the end of the book, spoke to me at all. The rest I did not enjoy in the least.

On the other hand, started Armada a rather slim collection of poems by Brian Patten and it is wonderful so far. He deals with themes of death, loss, and childhood memories. More, when I finish it...

Also came across another graphic novel by Joann Sfar who wrote The Rabbi's Cat, which was great. It's entitled Vampire Loves, not my regular fare on both counts - graphic novel and vampires - but the first few pages were really fun and I'd like to see how it pans out.

Apr 11, 2010, 2:35pm Top

I loved The Rabbi's Cat and have been intrigued by Vampire Loves and Little Vampire - I'll be interested to know what you think! Also, I know I'm way behind on this, but I loved your thoughts on This Blinding Absence of Light and am definitely putting that one on my TBR pile.

Apr 11, 2010, 4:43pm Top

>52 fannyprice: Honored to hear from you, fp! Glad you enjoyed Vampire Loves. I can't wait to get back to it - watch this space :) Thanks for the comment on the Ben Jelloun. It was excellent.

Edited: Apr 21, 2010, 11:17am Top

A Thousand Rooms and Dreams and Fear by Atiq Rahimi. Translated from the Dari by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari.

A young man is completely discombobulated. He doesn’t know whether he is alive or dead; what he does realise is that his body is battered and that he’s in terrible agony over it. The first few pages of this novella are confusing, as the protagonist tries to figure out his situation. And then, light slowly dawns and, as he remembers what happened, the reader comes to learn about it as well. It’s wonderfully done!

Farhad is a university student who seems to just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and he paid for it dearly. It is 1979 in Russian-occupied Afghanistan. Farhad and a friend were out drinking and, as a result, he forgot about the imposed curfew time. So finds himself in desperate trouble when the security forces come across him on the road. He subsequently endures a cruel beating at their hands. When he is finally left alone, a young woman finds him and with all the strength that she can muster, pulls him into her home where she tends to him as best she can under the harsh conditions in her country at the time.

This is a beautifully written book. Rahimi has a special, poetic way with words that I enjoy. It was a bit grating in parts because of the content, but it was definitely a worthwhile read. I still enjoyed Earth and Ashes more, and look forward to The Patience Stone, hopefully sometime in the near future.

Thanks, Lois!

Apr 21, 2010, 11:16am Top

House of Mist by Maria Luisa Bombal. A book read for review in the forthcoming, fifth issue of belletrista.

I really enjoyed this book and loved the “character” of the mist. I’d like to share and excerpt or two to illustrate Luisa Bombal’s wonderfully descriptive writing:

The protagonist-narrator is 18-year-old Helga:
“The mist was rolling its smoke around the trees, catching in the brambles and dragging itself close to the ground over the dead leaves... And through the mist I walked; I walked until I heard a stamping of horses’ hoofs and the echo of laughter I would have recognized anywhere...”

“It was in the course of my long wanderings through the woods that the voice of temptation would speak to me with the greatest persuasiveness. And I could not help listening to it and following it in all its crazy elaborations, as I went walking, enfolded, isolated, and protected by the mist now no longer my enemy but my silent accomplice.”

Apr 22, 2010, 8:02am Top

Nice review of A Thousand Rooms of Dreams and Fear, Akeela! I'll add this to my wish list. I look forward to your review of House of Mist in Belletrista.

Apr 22, 2010, 9:33am Top

Thanks, kdoc! Thank you also for the touchstone - I couldn't get it to load.

May 1, 2010, 4:25am Top

Read another poetry collection by Gabeba Baderoon entitled A Hundred Silences.

My favorite poem in this collection:

Old photographs

On my desk is a photograph of you
taken by the woman who loved you then.

In some photos her shadow falls
in the foreground. In this one,
her body is not that far from yours.

Did you hold your head that way
because she loved it?

She is not invisible, not
my enemy, nor even the past.
I think I loved the things she loved.

Of all your old photographs, I wanted
this one for its becoming. I think
you were starting to turn your head a little,
your eyes looking slightly to the side.

Was this the beginning of leaving?

May 1, 2010, 4:30am Top

I just completed a wonderful novella to be reviewed in the forthcoming issue of Belletrista called Touch by Adania Shibli from Palestine. She was one of the winners in the Beirut39 competition.

This competition, an initiative of the Hay Festival, was based on its successful predecessor, Bogotá39, which identified 39 outstanding Latin American writers under the age of 39, in 2007.

The Beirut39 festival took place in April 2010 in Beirut to introduce and celebrate the 39 winning Arab writers. I hope to read more of them in the near future. Obviously a lot of their work is in Arabic and isn't accessible to English readers, yet. A couple of the women who have been translated include Faiza Guene, a familiar name in some circles on LT, I think, and Randa Jarrar, whose name I've also come across here before. I'll look out for more of these winners. Watch this space :)

May 1, 2010, 5:25am Top

Having just discovered graphic novels, a friend handed me Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock lately and it was great. It’s not quite a graphic novel, but the book takes the form of postcards, and letters in envelopes, enclosed in the book, which one can take out, unfold, read and then replace. It takes all of 10 minutes to get through but it’s a lovely, tactile experience.

The correspondence occurs between two artists, who discover one another, and there is an element of fantasy in the relationship, which adds interest. I think it’s a lovely gift for booklovers. There’s not much to read, but there is a lot to appreciate in the artwork, and the time it must have taken to put the book together. Nice!

May 1, 2010, 10:39am Top

I just loved Griffen and Sabine when I discovered them! I think they make a great gift for anyone who loves both books and art. Thanks for reminding me about them--I'll have to pull my set out for my 13 year old daughter. I think she'll appreciate them.

May 2, 2010, 10:57pm Top

#58 Akeela - there's a strange and beautiful sentiment in that poem. Glad you posted it.

May 4, 2010, 6:06am Top

Nickelini, I didn't know it was a series...

Dan, glad you enjoyed it! :)

May 4, 2010, 10:29am Top

Yep -- the original trilogy is Griffin and Sabine, Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean, which are commonly referred to as simply "Griffin and Sabine." Then years and years later he came out with a sequel trilogy called The Morning Star Trilogy. He's written a bunch of other stuff too. I used to be very into Nick Bantock when I was involved in the paper arts scene in Vancouver and he lived here. He was sort of the idol of the group. If you like his stuff, you might also like Barbara Hodgson who writes illustrated novels. My fav of hers is Hippolyte's Island.

May 7, 2010, 12:05pm Top

Thanks, will look out for more Bantock and the Hodgson, Nickelini!

The fifth issue of Belletrista is now available. My reviews of Touch by Adania Shibli, and two Latin American novels House of Mist by Maria Luis Bombal and The Three Marias by Rachel De Quieroz, mentioned above, are included.

May 9, 2010, 6:22am Top

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar, another Beirut39 winner. A bold debut by a young Arab writer, who writes effortlessly. I may review this book for the sixth issue of Belletrista, so won’t say more for now.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. This was an LT recommendation I thought I would love. It’s a novella and a short story in one bound volume. Both stories are gentle and introspective, and the backdrop is a wintery cold Japan, which I enjoyed. It deals with themes of young love, death, loss, grief and also trans-sexuality, and there are elements of magic interweaved. It was engaging, but lacked a punch. So while I liked it, I was slightly disappointed.

Jun 2, 2010, 10:12am Top

Catching up!

My recent reads include:
All The Living a wonderful debut novel by American, C.E. Morgan, to be reviewed in the forthcoming, sixth issue of Belletrista;
The Story of Maha another debut novel, by South African, Sumayya Lee;
Lahore with Love: Growing Up with Girlfriends, Pakistani Style a memoir by Fawzia Afzal-Khan;
Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye by Marion Arnold, an amazing tribute to South African artist extraordinaire, published on the centenary of her birth in 1994;
and last but not least, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.

Hope to be back with some more thoughts soon...

Jun 3, 2010, 8:52am Top

You've been busy! Isn't The Housekeeper and the Professor fabulous? I'm glad you liked it.

Jun 3, 2010, 5:11pm Top

67/68 - I just grabbed The Housekeeper and the Professor off the shelf today - I was running late, it was conveniently located, and I've seen lots of good reviews.

Jun 4, 2010, 11:33am Top

> Hey Rach! Definitely fabulous! It's joined my "favorites" list here on LT.

>69 janemarieprice: Jane, I hope you enjoy it as much as we evidently have :)

Jun 8, 2010, 2:21pm Top

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. I didn’t love this slim volume with three short stories, unfortunately. The writer, and characters, seemed obsessed with gooey and yucky things like the following typical snippet of conversation:

“Doesn’t the sauce on the macaroni remind you of digestive juices?” she murmured. I ignored her and took a sip of water. “So warm and slimy? The way it globs together?”

There’s a l-o-t more of that. It was a bit icky and creepy, but one has to give Ogawa her due. The last story read like a thriller and I literally found myself holding my breath while reading.

On the whole, I'm amazed at her ability to write something as beautiful as The Housekeeper + The Professor and then this-almost nauseating set of stories, on the other extreme. An exercise in examining the darker side of the human psyche, perhaps.

No recommendation for this one, but a hearty double recommendation for The Housekeeper + the Professor!

Jun 8, 2010, 2:44pm Top

One of the books mentioned above, which I didn’t get around to reviewing before: The Story of Maha by Sumayya Lee. South African author, debut. This wasn’t great. I wish it was, but it wasn’t. It’s a coming-of-age story of a South African girl coming to terms with the cultural pressures on her to get married, in her Indian family.

It was filled with clichés and too much Durban (a city in South Africa) slang. It was hard to read slang that one has heard and disliked. To see it in print is just wrong! :)

And there is a lot of the Gujarati (an Indian dialect) in the conversations throughout the book. It was a bit of a maze for me, and I happen to understand some of the language! For someone who doesn’t understand, I think it would be completely off-putting. There is a glossary, which I found when I’d read the last page already... so can’t say how useful it is.

And there was way too much swearing. And ... perhaps I should stop there. I didn’t like the book. Perhaps a younger reader would appreciate it? There were just too many unbelievable, and neat, turns of event. It felt like a teenager had sat down and written all of her fantasies into this story. She’s the beautiful heroine, and she has the most beautiful dresses, and the most gorgeous wedding, and the hunky beau, etc, etc.

Oi! Time to step off my soapbox!

Jun 8, 2010, 3:10pm Top

"and too much Durban (a city in South Africa) slang" - There's something I haven't come across before. Too bad these two books didn't work out. I will definitely skip The Diving Pool.

Jun 8, 2010, 3:16pm Top

Now, a book I loved!

Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye by Marion Arnold. Irma Stern is a name I’ve always known. Her home is now a museum, open to the public. And a stone’s throw from where I work, and live. Yet, I’ve never been. I always imagined her work would constitute paintings of landscapes and fruit bowls, which I have nothing against, but am not particularly drawn to. I did find that in the book, but was I amazed at what I found in addition to it, in this wonderful tribute to an immensely talented artist!

Irma Stern was born in 1894 in South Africa. She went to Germany as a toddler, where she spent her formative years and returned to South Africa 20 years later. By this time, she was already a known artist throughout Europe. Immediately on her return, she started exhibiting locally, and continued to exhibit abroad, in France, Germany, Switzerland, UK, and more.

The book was published on the centenary of Stern’s birth in 1994, and is a wonderful tribute to her work. It includes many well-known works by her, in full color, and also some works previously unseen, because they belong to private collections. She used many different media including oils, pastels, charcoal, graphite (if I remember correctly –I don’t have the book with me) and she’s also made striking wooden African masks, which are featured. Her colors are gorgeously vibrant and I loved many of the portraits of African women that revealed rich cultures from many different parts of Africa, and Europe, where she travelled and found her inspiration. This is a beautiful book that gave me hours of pleasure!

I’ve been inspired to visit the Irma Stern Museum (which is run under the auspices of the University of Cape Town). And will do. Soon!

Edited: Jun 9, 2010, 7:49am Top

>re: The Diving Pool. I actually enjoyed the book which won the Shirley Jackson Award last year. The novellas are creepy and reveal a cruelty in their characters. It's not the kind of story everyone likes but, then again, I read a lot of Joyce Carol Oates:-)

Here's the review on Words Without Borders that I think this was the review that got me to buy the book. You might enjoy this review, Akeela - better than the novellas.

>72 akeela: It sounds almost like a book that could be classified as 'street lit' or 'urban lit'. I love to read first novels, but it's always a risk, isn't it?

>74 akeela: your review of the book made me run off and google her so I could see her work. I found some on the museum's website (in the lower left hand column)

I really like her sculpture pieces (not so much the ceramics).

. Thanks for introducing me to an interesting artist I had not heard of! (sorry for cluttering up your thread).

Jun 9, 2010, 9:59am Top

Lois, on the contray, I really wanted to post some gorgeous paintings of African women by Irma Stern with my thoughts on the book, but couldn't find any of the ones I loved in the book, online. Also, I'm not sure I know how to do it.. So, thank you very much!!

Thanks also for the link to the Ogawa review. Off to check it immediately.

Jun 9, 2010, 10:00am Top

Also, meant to mention that Stern died in 1966, which is all the more reason I was so enamored of her work - it's so modern!

Jun 17, 2010, 8:01am Top

re: #71 - I have been resisting all the positive reviews of The Housekeeper And The Professor because I didn't think much of The Diving Pool - not so much because it was gruesome as because all the stories were a bit pointless. But perhaps I will have to investigate it after all!

Jun 17, 2010, 11:48am Top

>78 wandering_star: ws, please do! It's a gorgeous little book!!

Jul 11, 2010, 3:01am Top

Catching up!

I read outside my comfort zone this month and ventured into the fantasy and crime genres. Up first, fantasy: Sabrina Fludde was reasonably enjoyable, at first; but then took a long time to finish. The body of a little girl, Abren, is floating down a river as the book opens. She is aware of what’s happening to her, but nobody seems to notices her - not the early morning walkers in the water meadow, as she passes by, not the people on the bridge, not the schoolgirls on the busy playground, even the wildfowl on the water fail to notice her. It’s as if the little girl isn’t on the river at all.

Eventually the strong current sweeps her up on a beach and she swims to the shore where she lies, lacking the energy to do anything but catch her breath and recover from the seemingly endless journey down the river. Then a man passing peers down to look at her, tutting at the antics of the young. She is elated because he has acknowledged her. She is alive and real after all!

Abren has many questions about who she is, where her family is, how she can get back to them... she has no recollection of her past, and as she journeys, she is taken in by a kind family, who embrace and love her, but she doesn’t belong and so takes her leave to go in search of her roots. She meets people along the way, who become dear friends, and others who become arch enemies, and everything occurs in and around the ever-present river, the Sabrina Fludde. She eventually unravels her mysterious past, which is linked to a series of myths around the river.

The book is the first in a trilogy, which I didn’t realise when I first picked up the book. And I didn’t realise there was something amiss at the end of it either. Fisk is an award-winning writer in this genre. She writes YA fiction.

Another fantasy: Incantation by Alice Hoffman. My first Alice Hoffman, and I was impressed. It's also YA. Incantation is set at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and portrays the harsh treatment meted out to Jews at the time. There was a bit of romance and intrigue, as two friends compete for the attention of one man. I enjoyed the setting and the historical perspective. There was an air of magic throughout the text, which I suppose explains the fantasy part of it, but most of it was very real, for me.

My crime fiction read was Shadow by Karin Alvtegen, translated from the Swedish by McKinley Burnett. I don't usually read crime or psychological thrillers, but I really enjoyed this one and could not put it down! I may be reviewing it for Belletrista, so won't say more for now.

Neither fantasy, nor crime: The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji, a very good debut novel, set between Karachi, London and California, to be reviewed in the seventh issue of Belletrista.

ts not co-operating...

Jul 15, 2010, 1:52pm Top

How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer. This is a debut collection of remarkably well-written short stories. The protagonists are mainly children and adolescents dealing with a range experiences, including friendship, romance, sibling rivalry, grief, drug abuse, and so on. Many of the children are from Jewish backgrounds, so I found it interesting to note the religious, cultural and traditional aspects of Jewish family life. Orringer does a wonderful job of drawing one into the private world of her characters and bringing their deepest fears, joys and desires to life. This genre really works for Orringer.

Thanks Rachel (rachbxl) for a worthy recommendation!

Aug 8, 2010, 5:26am Top

My Brother’s Keeper by Jassy Mackenzie. A South African thriller recommended by a colleague. When it was handed to me, I didn’t like the cover at all. It’s not really my usual fare but having thoroughly enjoyed the Swedish Shadow by Karin Alvtegen not too long ago, I decided to give this one a go.

It started off very well as Mackenzie is skilled at drawing good characters and setting. The book is set in Johannesburg and provides a really good sense of place. The story is about two sets of brothers, really. Nick Kenyon, a kind, hardworking paramedic, and his brother, Paul, a brutal murderer and gang leader; and another set of young Black boys, 15-year-old Sipho, who steals in order to send his younger brother, Khani, to school. There’s gang-related theft, murder, brutality and intrigue in abundance with some romance thrown in.

At some point, I stopped randomly to count the number of characters I’d already been introduced to and found more than twenty-four! I finished the book, but from midway started skipping paragraphs, then pages - that’s never a good sign for me. There were too many neat coincidences and really, I didn’t like the ending in the least. Perhaps I should have gone with my gut, and should have judged this book by its cover :)

Fortunately, my next two reads were really great!

Aug 8, 2010, 5:45am Top

Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov. Translated by James Riordan. This beautiful little gem of a book is set on the Kyrgzstan steppe during the war. The narrator is 15-year-old Seit, who has to engage in arduous toil on the farm as the men and his older brothers are away at war. He is burdened with responsibilities of labor beyond his years, as he is now the jigit – the protector and breadwinner in the family. The women in the village are tasked with harvesting the fields, carrying heavy loads of grain, taking the lambs and calves out to pasture, and so on, work they would not ordinarily be required to do.

Seit spends his days working alongside his young, beautiful jenei (sister-in-law) who is every bit as industrious as the older women in the family. She calls him kichine bala, little boy, as is required by family custom. These are terms of respect; they are not allowed to call each other by name. Seit absolutely adores his graceful, high-spirited, strong jenei, who loves to sing.

Her husband, Sadyk, is in hospital recuperating from wounds sustained in the war and occasionally writes home, but as custom demands, rarely even mentions Jamilia in his letters. Meanwhile, back home, with her lively and forthright personality, Jamilia attracts a lot of attention from the young men around.

There is one man, though, who spends a lot of time in their company, of necessity, but he remains an aloof. Injured at war, Daniyar is now in their midst. But he is the strong and silent type. As time passes, Seit sees Jamilia draw Daniyar out of his shell and a beautiful, but forbidden, relationship evolves between them.

The writing is magnificent, especially the paragraphs describing the depth of the enigmatic Daniyar's character. This book was written way back in 1957, and was only translated into English in 2007 by James Riordan who must be commended for the splendid translation!

The author, Chingiz Aïtmatov, died in July 2008, and I found this obituary interesting and informative: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article4310435.ece

Also read: The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout. Review to come.

Thank you, Lois, for both!

Aug 8, 2010, 2:08pm Top

>81 akeela: Glad you liked How to Breathe Underwater. I agree that this is a genre Orringer handles well; unfortunately, as I think I told you a few weeks ago, her first novel (or the 100 pages of it I managed to read) left me less sure as to her prowess as a novelist! I was supposed to review it for Belletrista but just couldn't face a further 500 pages. The short stories are so tightly written - what a shame the novel is sprawling and full of unnecessary detail. (I was reading an uncorrected proof but even so!)

>83 akeela: And even more glad you enjoyed Djamilia (I've put the D in front to make the touchstone work, don't ask (and because I read the French translation which is spelt that way)). Isn't it beautiful? That journey by cart under the moonlight when he sings to her still sends shivers down my spine.

Aug 8, 2010, 3:35pm Top

Thanks, Rachel! I agree, those parts of the tale were absolutely wonderful.

"Jamilah" is an Arabic name, meaning "beautiful", fitting for the title character! The initial "J" from the Arabic can be transliterated as "j" or "dj", hence the "Jamilia" and "Djamilia" in the variant translations.

Aug 8, 2010, 3:39pm Top

Glad to read your thoughts on Jamilla (however it is spelled); I think he might only have one other book available in English. Seems I checked that at one time. I'll look forward to your thoughts on the Djaout also!

Edited: Aug 9, 2010, 5:25pm Top

Have gone back and read your last few posts with a bit more time to spare today. Good for you for reading outside your comfort zone; that's something I really admire. Looks like it was Belle that took you into the crime genre - but what about fantasy? (A genre that I just don't do because I "know" I don't like it!)

Aug 10, 2010, 4:11am Top

Thanks, Lois! Still have to get to the Djaout review...

Rachel, I read two fantasy titles this year, as well! It didn't quite do it for me - I was compelled to read it for a RL book discussion - but having watched some fantasy on television (inevitable, nowadays) I was able to keep up with it. I’m not sure if I’ll go back for more.

But crime, I probably will. The last book, set in SA is still with me, for some reason. I’m not sure if it’s because it was set on home turf. The intro and build-up was good, but I didn’t like the resolution...

On another note, I have to tell you, I started The Last Brother last night and the first chapter blew me away. It is utterly beautiful. I am reading s-l-o-w-l-y because I don’t want to finish this book! A first for me, as I usually can’t to wait to get through a book. Thank you so much!

Aug 10, 2010, 8:33am Top

What are you both defining as fantasy? Magical realism, vampire stuff, or sword & sorcery stories?

Aug 10, 2010, 3:44pm Top

Karin Alvtegen is good.

And Djamilla has been on my wishlist for some time. I should probably begin actively looking for it.

Aug 11, 2010, 2:38am Top

> 90. Pretty much, I guess. I like fiction peopled with human beings and based in reality and don’t enjoy witches, vampires*, goblins, dragons, and don’t have an appreciation for myths and legends, epic battles, etc..

I am able to appreciate magical realism, though.

*bar Vampire Loves by Joann Sfar, which I once started and still plan to get back to :)

Edited: Aug 12, 2010, 3:48am Top

The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout. Translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager.

Tahar Djaout was an Algerian novelist, poet and journalist and an outspoken critic of the extremism prevalent in his country during the 90s. He was murdered at the age of 39 by Islamist militants. This novel was found amongst his papers after his death.

This is a beautifully written and moving novel about a bookstore owner, Boualem Yekker, who experiences his country at the hands of the Vigilant Brothers, a presence seeking to control all aspects of life according its radical conservative theology.

Djaout observed the intimidation in his country and imagined a place where things were taken to the extreme. The result is a dystopian novel where radical Islamists reign, and day-to-day life is watered down to a set of rituals, lacking heart or soul.

Boualem observes as everyone, including his wife and children, succumbs to this new force and become almost robotic “perfect citizens”, without souls. He resists. He sees a city and its people stripped of their personalities and rich heritage. He yearns for times gone by, when he enjoyed the beautiful, rich ambience, where people sought out music, plays, books, and conversation, where education was valued, and people were joyful and compassionate.

Now everything is constrained: “This city, once beautiful and voluptuous in the amber aromas of the evening, has become unlivable. The birds that used to haunt the trees, have emigrated to more inhabitable skies.” He observes a, “City predisposed to joy but from which joy has been banned.”

Boualem is invigorated by books, and there are some amazing passages on books and booklovers. He wonders, for example, “How people could live, without the smell of paper, without turning pages in which metaphors, ideas, and adventures were rustling.”

This is an astonishing little book resonating with a deep sadness about the loss of a once beloved city and its people, to religious fanatics. There are endless quotable passages throughout the book, and the translation is outstanding.

Aug 11, 2010, 3:49pm Top

>88 akeela: I'm so glad! I really, really wanted you to like The Last Brother!

>89 avaland: Lois, I hadn't really thought about what I meant by 'fantasy' but actually Akeela summed it up perfectly in 90. Witches, vampires, goblins, dragons - I don't like any of that (well, maybe I would if I tried! The point is that I have a huge mental block about this stuff) - but good magical realism, yes.

Aug 11, 2010, 4:30pm Top

re: magical realism -- I don't consider magical realism fantasy. It's absolutely grounded in reality, but in magical realism, different cultural concepts of what is real come into contact or clash. From a "Western" viewpoint, the other culture's spiritual reality is often described as superstition, witchcraft or nonsense; from another culture's viewpoint (Native American, African American, Asian, African, etc.) western logic and science are viewed as "magic" or disconnected from the spiritual world. The intersect of these different world views is Magical Realism.

Aug 12, 2010, 4:30pm Top

>94 janeajones: Jane, I agree with you completely that magical realism isn't fanstasy - but I'm interested to see that your definition of magial realism is narrower than mine (which I didn't give above). For me magical realism isn't connected to a particular culture or cultural viewpoint, or indeed with anything spiritual; it's about taking something very real and even mundane (the best example I can ever think of here is the first I ever came across, the age spots on the back of the hands of the old colonel in García Márquez's Nobody Writes to the Colonel) and describing it in such a way as to take it into the realm of the fabulous, the magical - or conversely, taking something "magical", impossible (like the yellow butterflies which always surround the head of the one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude) and making it seem normal, prosaic. Interesting, because I think that would hold at least for the Latin American magical realism I've read (years ago now though, to be fair), as well as for some Kundera and Rushdie, for example - but last year I read some Mia Couto, which definitely ties in with your take on magical realism rather than mine.

Edited: Aug 12, 2010, 7:29pm Top

Rachel -- Maybe my cultural orientation is a bit too rigid -- it just seems to me to be one of the most interesting aspects of magical realism to me and how it has grown out of American -- both South and North American literatures and has spread to so many post-colonial literatures. When I try to explain magical realism to my students, I usually start with the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude when the grandfather takes his grandson to the carnival where there are flying carpets and other side shows, but the most magical thing of all (in this subtropical climate that has never seen snow) is the tent where one can pay to touch a substance that is so cold and so hot at the same time -- a substance that is made of water but is solid: ice. Pure Magic -- Pure Realism.

I've not read any Mia Cuoto -- must hunt him down. What would you suggest?

Sorry to hijack your thread, Akeela!

Edited: Aug 13, 2010, 5:15pm Top

Great discussion. I am not generally disposed to read fantasy as defined by Akeela above, although there certainly has been exceptions. Octavia Butler's Fledgling, much of China Miéville, some of Graham Joyce and Ian R. McLeod. I am also not fond of pseudo-Medieval tales and sword and sorcery. However, I am attracted to fairy tales and retold fairy tales (i.e. Angela Carter, Atwood, Oates and others). I'm also attracted to the quirky, the absurd, the surreal, the uncanny, ...etc.

My definition of magical realism is also broad and falls closer to Rachbxl's. I've read a fair amount of it, but less Latin American than African. But it's found in every culture, though I think in Western literature it often is relegated to genre. When reading a novel or story with magical realism, I'm always thinking about why the author chose to use such a device to tell her/his story. The answer differs (at least to me).

Aug 18, 2010, 2:39pm Top

>96 janeajones: Jane, sorry not to reply before! Mia Couto - others have read more (avaland, for starters) but I loved A River Called Time, about the westernised Mariano's return to his village on the death (or not) of his grandfather and his struggle to return to a life guided by the kind of spirituality that is at odds with his university education.

>97 avaland: I keep seeing good reports of China Miéville; I may have to dip a toe in there.

Edited: Dec 16, 2010, 5:43am Top

Hi guys! Sorry, I haven't been around for a while. Great discussion...

Oi! Must try to catch up somewhat.

As mentioned way above, I read The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah from Mauritius, which got rave comments from Rachel here (comment no 167) at the end of 2009. Rachel said it so well! I, too, found the writing and the book to be exceptionally beautiful.

After this wonderful read, I could not get into anything else. I started about a dozen books and n-o-t-h-i-n-g worked!

A good friend suggested crime fiction as a palate cleanser. I then read two more by Karin Alvtegen, Missing and Betrayal. Both were compelling, good reads, thankfully. I preferred Missing, about a homeless woman who is wanted for a string of gruesome murders. It is an interesting take on homelessness, and was quite inventive.

With Betrayal, I didn’t care much for the characters but wanted to know where it was going. I didn’t like the end, but the book kept me reading, which was a good thing!

Edit: An attempt to fix the ts

Dec 16, 2010, 5:17am Top

Then I got stuck into real life South African crime stories. Not sure how interesting my next few reads will be to non-South African readers...

My intro into this genre was The Cohen Case by Benjamin Bennet. This very compelling book was about a murder that took place in the 70s in Constantia, a suburb in Cape Town.

When Ronald Cohen met Susan Johnson, a 17-year-old schoolgirl, the young millionaire was determined to marry her. Her parents persuaded him to wait until she had at least finished school and turned 18. It was to be his second marriage. The first had lasted four years. He was 16 years older than Susan.

They married and enjoyed a fabulously wealthy lifestyle in a modern, palatial home, with vast gardens and magnificent views of the mountain and sea. Money was no object. Four years into their marriage, their 8-month-old son died. The neck of his jersey had caught on the peg of the drop side of the cot and strangled the child. It was an accident.

They went on to have two more children, but Cohen was frequently busy, and couldn’t spend time away on holidays with them. One Sunday, just after his wife and children had returned from a weekend away, Cohen and his wife were relaxing in the library after dinner. At around 10:30, he says he went to the bathroom, and when he came back, he found his wife grappling with an intruder. The next thing he remembers, Susan was dead. Brutally bludgeoned to death.

Cohen’s first step was to call the children’s live-in nanny saying, “Come quickly. Someone has broken in.” Then he called the police, saying” My wife has been murdered, murdered, MURDERED.” When the police arrived at his house, Cohen with his shirt splattered with blood, said to them, “Come and see what the Coloureds have done to my wife.” The police called the Murder and Robbery Squad, and when they arrived, Cohen said to them, “When are you going to look for the Black bastard?” Later in the evening (or night), as the questioning continued, Cohen was convinced that the intruder was White, and he gave a full description of the man. Also, the man’s gloves were black; then he said they were definitely brown, then grey. The only definite thing was that he wore gloves! So there were no fingerprints.

There was no indication of a break in. Nothing had been stolen. There was no forensic evidence suggesting the presence of another person in the library or on the periphery of the library, outdoors. It was a wet night, and the door where the intruder ostensibly broke in led to the garden. But there were no footprints, no mud about. Before the night was out, Cohen had been arrested for the murder of his wife.

The book is basically the transcript of the police records and the court case of the Cohen murder, interspersed with explanatory comments and interjections by the author. It was the first I had heard of this murder and I found it thoroughly absorbing. (It’s an old hardcover I found in the library, published a few months after the case had been shut in the 70s.)

As the court case unfolded, Cohen did not remember a single detail more than he did on the night of the murder. His account remained hazy. But he had not been hit on the head by the intruder. In the end, he was found guilty of murdering his wife. He was initially sentenced to death. But on appeal, he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment, of which he served a mere five!

Strangely I didn't find much about the case on the Internet. Apparently Ronald John Vivian Cohen left SA for the UK immediately after his 5 years in prison. Someone who lives in Constantia told me he apparently died in the last 5 years.

Benjamin Bennett has written a dozen books on notable South African murders and trials. This is not the type of book I generally seek out, but The Cohen Case spurred an interest in South African murder cases.

Dec 16, 2010, 5:22am Top

I then read Headline Murders: Slayings which Shook South Africa by Chris Karsten. The book covers eight high profile murders that took place in South Africa. The two that were most interesting to me were the murders of Marike de Klerk (wife of the last state president of apartheid-era South Africa, F W De Klerk) in her luxury Blouberg apartment; and the Scissor murderess, Marlene Lehnberg, the 19-year-old woman who enlisted the help of a disabled man to kill her lover’s wife. Like the Cohen case, this case drew the attention and interest of people widely and the courts were packed during the trial. She eventually served only 12 years in prison.

The book was interesting but quite a change from the Cohen book, which was very factual. This one was somewhat romanticised, with flowery language. I liked that pics of some of the victims and murderers were included in the stories.

Dec 16, 2010, 5:23am Top

This was followed by In Cold Blood: The Murder of Baby Jordan by Rene Otmar. This was a murder that sparked a lot of interest in Cape Town a few years ago. A woman hired a couple of poverty-stricken men to kill her lover’s 6-month-old baby. The motivation: Jealousy. It was a quick and effortless read.

It’s mostly a celebration of the baby’s life, albeit short. There wasn’t much about the case or about Dina Rodrigues, the convicted murderer. I think I would have preferred more meat, but the author was related to the baby, so her angle was compassionate towards the Norton family. It was mildly interesting.

Dec 16, 2010, 5:33am Top

One I read in virtually one sitting and loved was Stitches by David Small. It's a brilliant graphic novel, a memoir of the author's childhood years in a dysfuntional family. Because I don't often read graphic novels, I sometimes found myself reading just the text, and then had to consciously go back and look at the graphics, which were great and told a wonderful and touching story. An amazing piece of work.

Thanks, Dan, for the recommendation.

Dec 16, 2010, 6:01am Top

Wracking my brains to remember other books read, already. Seems I haven't read too many :)

Of course, there are my Belletrista reads:
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen was my favorite title by her. It was my first crime book, odd I know, but it was awesome! My review is here
The Writing on My Forehead by Nafisa Haji. This book stayed with me for a long time. My review.
And, Cecilia by Linda Ferri, an interesting retelling of the legend of St Cecilia, patron saint of music review.

Dec 16, 2010, 6:10am Top

The criminal cases are interesting! They are not entirely unlike ones we have here which probably reflects more on human nature and the potential for violence than it does on any one culture. Btw, was there ever any suggestion that Cohen might have killed the baby also?

Dec 16, 2010, 9:57am Top

#103 - You're welcome. :) Glad to see you posting here again. Also glad I no longer have an 8-month-old baby in the house so I don't have to worry about that kind of accident anymore. I have enough other irrational worries about my children...sigh

Dec 16, 2010, 11:45am Top

Thanks, Dan :) It's good to be back.

Hi Lois. That suggestion was never made about the baby’s death, although there may have been maybe the slightest, subtlest hint of blame, and anger, toward the wife for the loss of the child.

Also, Susan was much younger than Cohen, so there was also the merest suggestion that she may have had a love interest outside of the home – because her husband was constantly busy working. And that she had angered him that evening on her return home, to the extent that he temporarily lost his mind and killed her. That is the way the judgment went, and the reason for the relatively short jail sentence: temporary insanity.

I’m sorry if I am going on at length. For weeks after reading the book, it was the only thing I spoke about to anyone who would listen! There was one other thing: Cohen was exceptionally intelligent and he maintained his story throughout the trial, not remembering a single detail more than he initially related. Strangely, this stood him in good stead in his defence.

Dec 16, 2010, 11:47am Top

I just finished another 400-odd page non-fiction book on yet another high-profile case that occurred in the last 5 years in South Africa. It’s called Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: A True Story of Murder and The Miscarriage of Justice by Antony Altbeker. It was excellent.

The case is about a 24-year-old student, Inge Lotz, who was bludgeoned to death in her apartment in March 2005. She was a relatively modest young woman, and was extremely conscious of security. So the fact that she was killed in her summer pyjamas, in her home, with no suggestion of a break-in or robbery had the authorities and her family convinced that she had been killed by someone intimately known to her.

A few days after the murder her boyfriend, Fred Van Der Vyfer was charged with her murder after his fingerprints were lifted off a DVD cover (from a DVD Inge had borrowed from the local movie/DVD outlet after Fred had left for work on the day she was murdered), bloody shoeprints found in the bathroom matched a pair of his shoes, and an ornamental hammer (that that had been given to him by her parents on Christmas, the year before), which could have been used to perpetrate the violence was found in his car. A couple of letters found in Van Der Vyfer’s briefcase by the police also showed that the two had had a fight the night before the murder, something he had neglected to mention.

The book is the result of three years of research into the case by journalist, Antony Altbeker. Much of the book relates the court case itself, police reports, and commentary by the author. Van Der Vyfer came from a wealthy family, who spent a fortune on his legal defence. This was another case that got loads of media publicity nad had everyone talking about it in SA. Most South Africans had already condemned Van Der Vyfer to the gallows before the trial was complete.

But the evidence didn’t hold. The prosecution did a poor job of prosecuting. The strong and experienced defence team won the case, and Fred Van Der Vyfer was acquitted.

This was another compelling read and Altbeker did a super job of relaying all the details of a complicated case with many interesting twists and turns. I was totally taken in by it and am very glad I read it.

Dec 16, 2010, 12:22pm Top

>109 akeela: I should have mentioned above that Fred Van Der Vyfer is currently engaged in an expensive lawsuit against the South African police and prosecutors for the damages incurred to his person by the Inge Lotz murder case.

Two more recent Belletrista reads, to be reviewed in the forthcoming 9th issue: Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt, my first encounter with this well-known American author; and Loom a debut novel by the talented Lebanese-born Thérèse Soukar Chehade, which I really enjoyed.

Dec 16, 2010, 5:30pm Top

>103 akeela:, akeela, I have the same problem with graphic novels. I am so textually-oriented that I have to force myself to comprehend the images too.

Edited: Dec 16, 2010, 7:30pm Top

Fascinating, if unsettling, stories. And I loved The Last Brother too.

Dec 19, 2010, 9:26am Top

> 111 rebeccanyc, I'm surprised by just how fascinated I am with this type of material! When I started The Fruit of a Poison Tree, I almost didn't read it because the first few pages described the murder scene with blood dripping everywhere - not my thing, normally. But I'm glad I stuck with it because it was an insightful read, in the end.

>110 fannyprice: fannyprice, I'm happy to report that I finally read The Rabbi's Cat 2 by Joann Sfar, and this time paying attention to the graphics was a little less forced :)

I enjoyed it a lot less than the first one, though, but the graphics were superb once again. My only gripe with the original The Rabbi's Cat was that the text was small, this time it was smaller than small, for some reason. I don't understand why!

Dec 19, 2010, 9:35am Top

The End of the Alphabet by C. S. Richardson was an enjoyable and touching novella about a fifty-year-old man who, on a routine visit to the doctor, is told that he has less than 30 days to live as a result of an incurable disease. He quickly decides to follow a lifelong dream of traveling to all the places he's always wanted to go to, in alphabetical order.

He, Ambrose Zephyr, and his wife is Zipper Ashkenazi embark on this trip to Amsterdam, and then Berlin, and so on. It's a tender story of two people who really care about one another, coming to terms with their shock and grief, while trying to make the most of the little time they have left to enjoy each other's company, even as Ambrose feels weaker by the day.

Dec 19, 2010, 9:36am Top

>111 rebeccanyc:, akeela, Yeah, I felt the same way about The Rabbi's Cat 2. It just didn't have the same magic about it. It felt less organic, more forced, perhaps? Still, I kind of love Joann Sfar and I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of his books.

Dec 19, 2010, 12:49pm Top

Akeela - I thought the End of the Alphabet was enjoyable too. And really quite a positive book considering it's about the death of a beloved relationship (and person). I read it one afternoon on a beach in Italy--not typical beach reading, but somehow it worked.

Dec 27, 2010, 12:31pm Top

>114 fannyprice: fannyprice, I will certainly look out for more by Sfar, too. Thanks for that!

>115 Nickelini: Nickelini, I also read it in virtually one sitting. I agree: The End of the Alphabet was perhaps uplifting, rather than depressing because of the beautiful, but real, relationship between the two protagonists.

I read my first police procedural, Thirteen Hours by South African Deon Meyer translated from Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers and really enjoyed it!

It's about two American girls, tourists, who find themselves in trouble in Cape Town. One is brutally murdered, while the other continues to be pursued and Detective Benny Griessel has thirteen daylight hours, to find her.

I considered reading the book in the original Afrikaans, but the 400-odd pages seemed a bit daunting especially since I haven't read an Afrikaans novel in a long time. I intend to, soon.

Having said that, this was an extremely quick read because of the fast pace of the narrative, and Meyer kept my attention throughout. I will certainly consider more by him in the future.

Dec 27, 2010, 1:06pm Top

Read the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell, but was left cold by it. Perhaps I didn't get it??? It just didn't do anything for me - I was bored all the way through...

Am now reading Karma Suture by South African medical doctor, Rosamund Kendal. It must be somewhat biographical because her protagonist is a young woman doctor in a busy, city hospital in Cape Town. I keep thinking of kidzdoc and the hours he works!

Am really enjoying it. Will be back with more thoughts when I finish.

Dec 27, 2010, 1:06pm Top

Read the graphic novel adaptation of Coraline by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell, but was left cold by it. Perhaps I didn't get it??? It just didn't do anything for me - I was bored all the way through...

Am now reading Karma Suture by South African medical doctor, Rosamund Kendal. It must be somewhat biographical because her protagonist is a young woman doctor in a busy, city hospital in Cape Town. I keep thinking of kidzdoc and the hours he works!

Am really enjoying it. Will be back with more thoughts when I finish.

Dec 27, 2010, 8:10pm Top

Akeela, I look forward to your comments about Karma Suture (cute title).

Dec 30, 2010, 3:34am Top

Karma Suture by Rosamund Kendal is about Sure Carey, a hardworking, motivated 20-something medical doctor who works in one of the biggest public hospitals in Cape Town. Her shifts are filled with extensive hours of seeing innumerable patients with conditions ranging from the more-than-regular stabbings, and rape, to HIV-AIDS, and cancer, and everything in-between.

She mentors interns, so always has young doctors-in-training with her on her rounds. Her long hours pretty much rule out a social life, though she longs for male company. When she eventually gets off from work, she drinks a tad too much, and always swears off alcohol afterwards – until her next break from the harshness of working amongst a poverty-stricken population with its own terrible social and economic problems.

Most of the book is set in the hospital, as Sue goes about administering to her patients. The book has been likened to Bridget Jones and hinges on chick-lit. There is a bit of romance, a struggle to come to terms with the illness of a friend, hurdles in her professional career as she grows and learns to roll with the punches life doles out to her.

This was a light, fun read. It’s a pleasure to finally be finding South African material that appeals!

> 199. A cute title and a cute book, perhaps too cute for you, Darryl :)Though I did think of you many times while reading because of her professional interactions with her patients and the crazy hours she put in, as a doctor.

Dec 30, 2010, 3:46am Top

My top reads for 2010 roughly in the order in which I read them:

Hunger by Knut Hamsun
This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar ben Jelloun
House of Mist by Maria Luisa Bombal
Touch by Adania Shibli
All the Living by C.E. Morgan
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Shadow by Karin Alvtegen
Djamilia by Chingi Aitmatov
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

Two outstanding graphic novels that deserve a mention:
The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

Non-fiction titles (all South African) that deserve a mention:
The Cohen Case by Benjamin Bennett
Irma Stern: A Feast for the Eye by Marion Arnold
Fruit of a Poisoned Tree by Antony Altbeker

Dec 30, 2010, 8:08am Top

Nice review of Karma Suture, Akeela. You're right, it sounds a bit too light for me, but I'll keep it in mind.

Group: Club Read 2010

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