Thursday, September 13, 2007

I had a remarkable experience this week in a chain bookshop (which shall remain nameless, for shame!):

Do you have the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee?

Blank look. Who?

J.M. Coetzee (admittedly I pronounce it the Afrikaans way, which is often mispronounced outside South Africa, so just to be on the safe side I spell it out).

I get a little snippy however when she looks at me as though I'm slightly unhinged. I can clearly hear her thinking 'Who the hell is that? Never heard of him. Difficult customer.'

J.M. Coetzee. He's won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Booker. Twice. And his latest book has been reviewed in every major paper in the last week (i.e. what sort of bookseller doesn't at least glance through the book review pages?! I didn't actually say that last sentence, but I thought it).

Simultaneous flushes rise up the faces of the three staff now gathered. Clearly they can now also see what I'm thinking of them. Umm. Do you have the title? We can only search by title, not author...

Monday, September 10, 2007

It started out a nice, normal noisy evening. It was Saturday, and we were waiting for Daddy to come home for dinner. Usually he's home early Saturday, but this day he had a maternity case, and babies don't wait for office hours...Mother had a standing rib roast cooking in the oven...and the kitchen smelled wonderful with it. Uncle Douglas and John were out in the old barn working on John's space suit, but the rest of us were in the kitchen...Mother had the record player on, Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, kind of loud to drown us out. Suzy was performing an appendectomy on one of her dolls. She was doing this at the same time that she was scraping carrots, so the carrot scraper was a scalpel as well as a scraper.
Rob was supposed to be helping her, both with the appendectomy and the carrots, but he'd become bored so he was on the floor with a battered wooden train making loud train noises, and Colette, our little grey French poodle, was barking at him and joining in the fun. Mr Rochester, our Great Dane, was barking at one of the cats who was trying to hide behind the refrigerator. I was being angelically quiet, but this was because I was doing homework - a whole batch of maths problems. I was sitting near the fireplace and the fire was going and I was half baked...on one side, but I was much too cosy to move.

...Then the telephone rang...

She stood there by the phone without saying anything, and Suzy said, 'Mother, what is it? What is it?' and Mr Rochester began to growl, and Rob said, in the terribly serious voice he gets when he thinks something important is going on, 'Mr Rochester, I think you'd better be quiet.' Mother said, 'Vicky, go and get Doug.'

It wasn't dark yet, because we were still on daylight saving, but it was cold, windy cold, the way it gets around the time of the first frosts, and I ran across the brittle grass to the barn, shivering; I wasn't sure whether I was shivering because I was cold or because something awful had happened.
From MEET THE AUSTINS by Madeleine L'Engle

The great writer Madeleine L'Engle has died. New York Times obituary here.

Monday, September 03, 2007

One of the cousins visited recently and presented me with an entire leaning tower of books to add to my TBR pile. They are on semi-permanent loan (which is just as well as I am not entirely sure when I'll get around to reading them all!), and as he is moving house with a new job, I don't think he wants them back any time soon. His Sri Lankan heritage has influenced his reading tastes in just the same way as I lean towards the African, and it is a range of titles I wouldn't necessarily have picked up otherwise, so that's quite fun really:

ARRANGED MARRIAGE by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The possibility of change, of starting anew, in this stunningly beautiful and poignant collection of short stories, is at once terrifying and filled with promise. For those Indian-born women living new lives in America, independence is a mixed blessing. It means walking the tightrope between old treasured beliefs and surprising newfound desires, and understanding the emotions which that conflict brings. Together these stories create a tapestry of existence as colourful, as delicate and as enduring as the finest silk sari.
The film of her novel The Mistress of Spices, was not particularly well received if I recall...

Set around the time of Partition and written with absorbing intelligence and sympathy, Difficult Daughters is the story of a woman torn between family duty, the desire for education, and illicit love. Virmati, a young woman born in Amritsar into an austere and high-minded household, falls in love with a neighbour, the Professor—a man who is already married.
With a setting at the time of Partition, this seems highly topical. I might start with this one.

THE NAMESAKE by Jhumpa Lahiri
'When her grandmother learned of Ashima's pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family's first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…'

For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that 'baby boy Ganguli' be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him 'Gogol' – after his favourite writer.
I made the mistake of looking at print reviews when this was released. Results were mixed and I've been too terrified to read it ever since. I adored her Pullitzer Prize-winning INTERPRETER OF MALADIES and don't want to be disappointed - isn't that crazy?!

LADIES COUPE by Anita Nair
Meet Akhilandeshwari, Akhila for short: forty-five and single, an income tax clerk and a woman who has never been allowed to live her own life—always the daughter, the sister, the aunt, the provider. Until the day she gets herself a one-way ticket to the seaside town of Kanyakumari, gloriously alone for the first time in her life and determined to break free of all that her conservative Tamil brahmin life has bound her to.
Have you read any of these? And if so, where should I start?


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Now, where was I?! I was about to blog about my trip to the Africa Book Centre, and indeed here are the titles I rooted out while there:

I have a genuine soft spot for Daly's work, and if you have a child under the age of 10 so should you. His illustrations are a delight. Jamela is now established as a real character with several books to her name. All stand alone, but try and read them in order if possible (she looks like she's grown ever so slightly since the first book!). Jamela's birthday looms and what she really wants is a pair of sparkly shoes to go with her party dress. Her shoes need to be serviceable for school use however, but she has an idea... The look on her face in Daly's illustration as she comes up with her crafty plan is priceless!

A WOMAN ALONE by Bessie Head
Heinemann has re-issued this title, edited and with a new introduction by Craig MacKenzie. It is one of the African Writers Series, but strangely they don't have it listed on their site, so just go straight to the Africa Book Centre if you want it. Bessie Head is a wonderful writer, one of the finest ever to have come from Southern Africa. If you have enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe series then try Bessie Head's WHEN RAIN CLOUDS GATHER as the grittier side of rural Botswanan life. It is captivating reading. From the cover blurb:
A Woman Alone is a collection of autobiographical writings, sketches and essays which covers the entire span of Bessie Head's creative life, up to her death in 1986 at the age of 49. It reveals a woman of great sensitivity and vitality, inspired through her knowledge of suffering in a 'reverence for ordinary people' and finding some healing for her own anguish in a quiet corner of Africa.

'I need a quiet backwater and a sense of living as though I am barely alive on the earth, treading a small, careful pathway through life.'
I am looking forward to reading this immensely, having also recently procured BESSIE HEAD: THUNDER BEHIND HER EARS by Gillian Stead Eilersen. I think I'm in for a Bessie Head reading fest of some description. You have been warned.

Lastly, BURMA BOY by Biyi Bandele
Bandele has an amazing range in his writing, and I am looking forward to this one, the subject matter a topic largely ignored; In June The Guardian ran an article on Bandele for The Family supplement:
Biyi Bandele's father fought in Burma, a forgotten soldier in a famous war. He came home in a straitjacket, a broken man. Years later his wife and children were still paying a heavy price...

...So I went to the Imperial War Museum. And there I found a treasure trove of memoirs by many of the British officers under whom my father and his comrades had served, detailing the considerable part they played. I discovered that there were 120,000 Africans - one in every six members of the 14th Army, the British Indian army that took on the Japanese in Burma. Japanese prisoners-of-war told their British interrogators that the Africans were the best jungle fighters the allies possessed...
This is the inspiration for Bandele's BURMA BOY. The jacket describes it as:
Taut and immediate, at once sombre and exhilarating, Burma Boy is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real-life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick strike division of the British Army in India. Horrific and always brilliantly executed, this vividly realised account details the madness, the sacrifice and the dark humour of that war's most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.
Strangely topical, a memorial service has just taken place for the 649 black South Africans who sank with their ship, the SS Mendi, off the Isle of Wight 90 years ago. A different war, but forgotten heroes too - read more about their extraordinary story in The Independent.

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