What I’ve been reading lately

There are few things in life I love more than books… especially second-hand books. So, this page is dedicated to my biblio-explorations. Since I’m always on the lookout for something new to read, please hit me with your suggestions – leave a comment at the bottom of the page or pop me an email.

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt

Recently, I’ve felt the need to return to fairy tales. To lose myself in the familiar grooves of archetypes and quest-centric narratives that characterise this genre. It also doesn’t take a genius to see why these kinds of stories would be so attractive to me right now – in a year of unprecedented uncertainty, fairy tales – ironically – leave very little to the imagination. As soon as you start reading, you’re normally able to tell exactly how it will end. Fortunately, I have quite the fairy tale collection, so was spoiled for choice when the craving washed over me.

I started off by indulging in a few Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales (a Penguin Popular Classics collection, chosen and edited by Gordon Jarvie), which I thoroughly enjoyed! I think selkies are my all-time favourite mythological creature and they sure as nuts appeared in this collection. So did brownies, kelpies and all sorts of fairy folk.

Soon, however, I started developing an appetite for something with a slightly more contemporary twist and picked The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, a collection of five fairy stories by acclaimed author, A.S. Byatt off the shelf. I don’t quite know how to describe the experience of reading them, except to say that it left me with a sense of luminosity and delight. A rekindling of my first love… stories.

Two in particular still linger just beneath my skin and maybe even unfurl themselves in my dreams: the delicious marriage of middle eastern myth and the musings of a modern middle-aged woman in the epic title tale (it takes up just about two-thirds of the collection); and a poignant cautionary tale against complacency, turning a blind eye and boredom called Dragon’s Breath.

What I love most about all the stories in this collection is the sheer joy Byatt seems to take in the act of storytelling. It’s contagious and has gotten me cooking up some crazy ideas of my own. For me, fairy tales are going to be where it’s at for a while now in the reading room!

If you share my love for fairy and folk tales, myths, legends and old wives’ tales, please drop me a line! I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading, watching and listening to lately. On that note, here are some great fairytale-themed podcasts to explore.

Blame Me on History by William Bloke Modisane

I’ve just started reading this, so will write a small review when I’m done. In the meantime, here’s an overview from Goodreads:

Blame me on history is the autobiography of William Bloke Modisane. He was one of a team of black writers of the 1950s who created Drum magazine and who also became an actor and playwright. His story was originally published in 1963, but was banned in South Africa during the ‘struggle’ years. He lived in Sophiatown, Johannesburg until 1958 when the township was bulldozed flat by government order. Consequently, Modisane decided that the time had come to leave the country and settled in West Germany. 

Die Reise van Isobelle by Elsa Joubert

A South African family saga playing itself out between 1894 and 1994, a hugely tumultuous era in our country’s history, which included the Anglo-Boer War, Apartheid, anti-Apartheid uprisings and the attainment of democracy (among other big events).

I haven’t read an Afrikaans book in ages and picked this one off my parents’ shelf during lockdown. While I liked the fact that it was well-researched, historically accurate and unafraid to poke at fresh wounds (when it was published in 1995), I found most of the characters to be overly fraught. There is little very little lightness and zero humour. Sure, the subject matter is serious, but I always appreciate authors who manage to interweave luminescence with the darkness.

While I learned a few things about our country’s history that I hadn’t known before, it’s unlikely to be a prized piece on my bookshelf.

Lockdown 2020 reads

April 2020

As usual, I have multiple books and magazines on my nightstand. But, rather unusually, I’m actually getting round to reading all of them!

Here they are:

TIME: 100 Women of the Year

It was during the first big shopping trip of the lockdown period that my eye was drawn to this beautiful cover. Not only was it a colourful artwork, but it also depicted a woman – a woman of colour no less. Sadly, still a rarity for TIME magazine. But exactly what this double edition (March 18/March 23 2020) is all about.

In the Editor’s Letter, Kelly Conniff, Executive editor & editorial director of the 100 Women of the Year edition writes: “Before 2015, only seven individual women had ever been named Person of the Year. Indeed, what started in 1927 as Man of the Year only switched to Person of the Year in 1999…

In 2019, TIME featured more solo women on its cover than men for the first time in our 97-year history. The world has changed and TIME has too.”

While this is a truly wonderful change to take note of, almost a century went by before it happened. A century filled with enough remarkable women to cover a millennia’s magazines. So, the TIME editorial team went back in time over the past 100 years and – in consultation with staff and outside experts – picked a Women of the Year for each one. This from a list of 600 final nominations.

“Creative director D.W. Pine and his team faithfully reconstructed cover designs of previous eras, working with dozens of artists to make 89 new covers.”

Which brings me back to the cover that caught my eye that day in Kleinmond’s OK Minimark:

I recognised her immediately – Wangari Maathai.

Had the world been a different place, fearless eco-warrior and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai would undoubtedly have made the cut for Person of the Year in 2001. Instead, 9 years after her death, she finally graces the cover of TIME magazine.

I talk about ‘meeting’ Maathai in my 2019 Earth Day post about badass women environmentalists: “The late Maathai (she died in 2011) was a Kenyan environmental activist, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

What I love most about her story, is the fact that her work was inspired by the plight of ‘ordinary’ people and their battles for survival.”

I’ve been working through the pages of this precious collector’s edition at a snail’s pace, truly soaking up the stories of these brave, fascinating, wayward and wild women. In it, you find a motley mix, including the likes of Frida Kahlo and Madonna, Indira Gandhi and Rosa Parks, Queen Elizabeth II and JK Rowling, Rosalind Franklin and Serena Williams, Virginia Woolf and Greta Thunberg. Each an inspiration.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

This debut novel by Zambian-born Namwali Serpell is a sprawling and enchanting story spanning decades and continents – all eventually converging in modern-day Lusaka.

With its lilting, lyrical tone and scandalous characters – including a woman who’s exceptional beauty is shrouded in an ever-growing curtain of hair, hopeful Afronauts on a mission to the moon in a ten-foot copper cylinder (based on real events, I might add), and a blind English aristocrat who falls in love with communism – it’s a delicious read that I’ve been enjoying sinking my teeth into whenever I have a generous slice of time at my disposal.

At 563 pages, it’s quite the tome, but somehow Serpell manages to keep piquing my curiosity with ever-surprising plot twists, both heartbreaking and delectable.

The novel is sprinkled with poignant observations about what it means to be human. Or more specifically, what it means to be human in the context of an African country deeply scarred by colonial conquest, political conflict and the dream of economic freedom.

A few favourite quotes:

“During his time at university, Ronald had learned that ‘history’ was the word the English used for the record if every time a white man encountered something had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure. History, in short, was the annals of the bully on the playground.” (p97 & 98)

“Flashes of brown skin that made him want to jump out and walk among the people, descend into that warm bath of personhood. And the sun! The sun in its constancy, hot and high in the sky, neither anticipated nor avoided. Just there, not even worth discussing.” (p101)

“Matha missed her cats… [She] longed for their soft fur and their hard eyes, and most of all their soothing indifference, the way they gloried in solitude, as if alone even with their owners. If only she could be so cavalier when it came to providers of food and shelter.” (p184)

“She had never imagined that to be a woman was always, somehow, to be a banishable witch.” (p199)

“Isa felt tired and immensely old, old in a different way from the times she played teacher to the other children. Old like her father was old, a shaggy shambling old, an old where you’d lost the order of things and felt so sad that you simply had to embrace the loss, reassuring yourself with the lie that you hadn’t really wanted all that order to begin with.” (p275)

The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr

Franciscan friar and modern mystic, Richard Rohr’s contemplative approach to Christianity provides a refreshing alternative to the fire-and-brimstone that many of us grew up with. Of course, this has also made him a hugely controversial figure.

The Universal Christ is his latest offering and, as you can imagine, has many crying ‘heresy!’

I’m no theologian (I often wish I was, because maybe life would be a little easier to understand), so I might be off track here, but I’m finding a lot of comfort and solace in Rohr’s approach to the Christ mystery.

Here are a few favourite quotes:

“Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply, I call that kind of deep and calm seeing, ‘contemplation.'”

“We daringly believe that God’s presence was poured into a single human being, so that humanity and divinity can be seen to be operating as one in him – and therefore in us!”

“A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal. The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning.”

“I doubt if you can see the image of God (Imago Dei) in your fellow humans if you cannot first see it in rudimentary form in stones, in plants and flowers, in strange little animals, in bread and wine, and most especially cannot honour this objective divine image in yourself. It is a full-body tune-up, this spiritual journey. It really ends up being all or nothing, here and then everywhere.”

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

I stumbled upon Israeli fiction writer, Etgar Keret earlier this year while listening to an episode of This American Life, called Gardens of Branching Paths. The hour-long episode is filled with ‘stories about other universes that are just like our own, but with one small difference.’

The first of these stories is titled ‘Dreams from my Father‘ and told by Keret. It takes the form of an almost mythical meditation on his father’s – a Polish holocaust survivor – ability to imagine parallel words. For no apparent reason, I was moved to tears by Keret’s story. It was just so warm and funny and tragic all rolled into one.

I immediately jumped on Loot to see if they stock any of his books and, to my surprise, there were quite a few! I decided to start with this collection of non-fiction musings/essays about the “seven sweet years Etgar Keret is both a father and a son, the filling in a familial sandwich.”

The chapters are short enough to read in a few minutes, yet told in such an endearing and humour-filled manner that they stick around for days. I’m reading it slowly – savouring each essay like a delicious treat, sometimes salty, sometimes sweet.

Favourite quote so far: [About flying] “It’s the middle I love, that part when you’re closed up in a tin box that’s floating between heaven and earth. A tin box that is totally cut off from the world, and inside it there’s no real time or real weather, just a juicy slice of limbo that lasts from takeoff till landing…

Flights are expansive moments when the phone doesn’t ring and the internet doesn’t work. The maxim that flying time is wasted time liberates me from my anxieties and guilt feelings, and it strips me of all ambitions, leaving room for a different sort of existence. A happy, idiotic existence, the kind that doesn’t try to make the most of time but is satisfied with merely finding the most enjoyable way to spend it.”

Warmer voor die Tuimeldroër deur Danie du Toit

Net voor die inperkingstyd begin het, en ons die finale vonnis van ‘geen troue to verdere kennisgewing moes aanvaar’, het Guillaume vir my hierdie digbundel geskenk gegee. Die debuutbundel deur Spoegwolf se voorman, Danie du Toit is vol waarnemings oor die wereld om ons wat – in hul pure herkenbaarheid – mens na jou asem laat snak.

In hierdie wêreld verstrengel deur probleme wat slegs wetenskap en wiskunde kan kuur wonder ek soms oor die kunste… veral literatuur.

Miskien was al daardie wrede grappe toe al die tyd waar en het ons met ons BA-grade (selfs MA’s) eintlik maar net ons tyd (en ouers/die bank se geld) gemors.

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Maar dan probeer ek ‘n gedig soos die een hierbo hardop lees en word die woorde in golwe snikke en trane verspoel… waarvandan? Ek dog dan ek’s oukei? Wys jou net – daar is styf gespanne snare binne elkeen van ons wat slegs woorde, wyshede, wysies kan laat skiet.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

August 2018

Ah, good old Liz Gilbert. I must say, she feels more like a good friend I catch up with every now and then than some bestselling author I’ve never met.

I really enjoy her approach to things and am always on the lookout for the odd article she might write for a publication or podcast interviews with her. What I love about her, is the fact that she has found this philosophy of living a creative life beyond fear (as the subtitle of the book suggests) and that she preaches it far and wide, as often as she can.

So, by the time I actually got round to reading Big Magic, many of the anecdotes, tips and stories she shares were familiar to me. Strangely, this didn’t detract from the read. It felt like a refresher course of sorts and an affirmation of a number of things I’ve come to incorporate in my own approach to life lately. In fact, I wrote a whole post about creativity, inspired by Liz.

Favourite quotes:

“Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.”

“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” (A quote from the Gospel fo Thomas)

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

May 2018

A story about a woman who leaves her mundane Atlanta housewife life to return to the island of her youth, where she is set to take care of her ailing mother. In the process, however, she ends up falling hopelessly in love with one of Egret Island’s resident Benedictine monks.

This passionate affair calls into question everything she’s dedicated her life to – being a faithful wife and a supportive mother – and reminds her about everything she’s neglected – her art, her adventurous spirit, herself.

Ultimately, it’s a story about a woman who shakes off the shackles of a life that no longer serves her and undergoes a painful transformation to take back all she has lost.

It’s a beautifully, pretty easy read that transports you to a realm that seems to drift between magic and reality. Her journey touched me deeply and I swear, the last few pages are stained with tears.

Favourite quotes: 

“‘You can’t leave home,’ she said with her gentlest voice. ‘You can go other places, all right – you can live on the other side of the world, but you can’t ever leave home.”

“… there’s a release in knowing the truth no matter how anguishing it is. You come finally to the irreducible thing, and there’s nothing left to do but pick t up and hold it. Then, at least, you can enter the severe mercy of acceptance.”

“I think beginnings must have their own endings hidden inside them.”

“My falling in love with him had had everything to do with his monkness, his loyalty to what lay deep within him, the self-containment of his solitude, that desire to be transformed. What I’d loved in him most was my own aliveness, his ability to give me back to myself.”

“All my life, in nameless, indeterminate ways, I’d tried to complete myself with someone else – first my father, then Hugh, even Whit, and I didn’t want that anymore. I wanted to belong to myself.”

“I felt amazed at the choosing one had to do, over and over, a million times daily – choosing love, then choosing it again, how loving and being in love could be so different.”

The Faithful Gardener by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

5 November 2017

It’s strange how, sometimes, the right book finds its way into your hands at just the right time. In a week that I have been battling with severe self-doubt and a sickening compulsion to compare myself to everybody and their dog (and always coming up short, especially against the dogs :P), Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ ‘wise tale about that which can never die’ was like a fresh and wholesome meal after weeks of sweets and junk.

It was Estes’ name – author of Women Who Run With The Wolves (another helping of soul food every woman should read) – that inspired me to pick the petite book off the library shelf and I ended up reading this story about stories in a single sitting.

Over 76 pages Estes shares a few of the tales that were part of her upbringing as a child in a Hungarian refugee family living in rural America, reaching a crescendo of truth about the lessons we can learn from the land, if only we knew how and where to look.

Perhaps the cover blurb describes it best: “These elegantly interlocked tales of loss, survival and fierce rebirth center around Dr. Estes’s uncle, a war-ravaged Hungarian peasant farmer and refugee, a faithful gardener who was one of the ‘dancing fools, wise old crows, grumpy sages and almost saints who made up the old people’ in her family.”

It’s an earthy read, full of wit and wisdom, and – despite the dark territory it touches upon – thrums with an undertone of joyful hope.

Favourite quotes: “Anywhere we stand on this earth, we are standing right in the garden f Eden. This entire earth, underneath its rail tracks and highways, under its worn coat, under its rubble, under all these, is God’s garden – still fresh as the day it was created”

“What is the faithful process of spirit and seed that touches empty ground and makes it rich again? Its greater workings I cannot claim to understand. But I know this: Whatever we set our days to might be the least of what we do, if we do not also understand that something is waiting for us to make ground for it, something that lingers near us, something that loves, something that waits for the right ground to be made so it can make its full presence known.”

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

27 July 2017

After being underwhelmed by a couple of novels this year and in desperate need of something I could just sink my teeth into, I asked my avid reader friend, Leandra, what she would recommend.

“I think you should try some Scandinavian writing, starting with The Hundred-Year-Old Man…”

Heading to the library as soon as I could, I was so happy to find it on the shelf I think I did a little happy dance.

I’m only about a third of the way through right now but enjoying it immensely. The sheer wackiness of the characters, the sprinkling of dark humour, the element of suspense and then, of course, the hazy Gabriel Garcia Marquez-esque magical realism that underpins all of this has me thoroughly intrigued, so much so that I’ve even taken to reading it on my short little bus commutes.

Here’s to hoping it remains this gripping throughout… I’ll keep you posted!

Favourite quote: “Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.”

books, reading, cats, chillout, home time, pets
Sandokan reading To Kill a Mockingbird with me. He must have thought it’s a guide to hunting or something.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

10 August 2016

I’ve had this modern classic on my shelf for a while now, but just never really managed to get into it. However, this time round, I picked it up one evening and barely put it down for three days straight. It kind of felt like I unexpectedly became best friends with that friend of a friend who I knew would be cool, but never really made the time to get to know properly. If that makes sense.

Even though it’s set in America’s deep south in the early 1930s and was published for the first time in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is as relevant as ever in its critique of mindless racism and class-related prejudice. Scout, the narrator, is a lovable tomboy with a curious mind and a huge heart – if I ever have a daughter, I’d be very chuffed if she was this brave and feisty at 9 years old. If you didn’t read it as a set work book in school – or maybe if you did and disliked it because of this – it’s definitely worth reading as an adult. It will leave you feeling enriched and hopeful about the world.

Favourite quote: “Atticus, he was real nice…

… Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)

Nadia Krige/Gypsified

I did a post a couple of months ago called Latest Obsession: Out of Africa, which I wrote shortly after having watched the movie for the first time (as an adult, at least).

I fell in love with it entirely, and developed a bit of a fascination with Karen Blixen and, to a lesser degree, Denys Finch-Hatton. To find out more about her life as the owner of a coffee farm in 1920s Kenya, I wanted to read Out of Africa, but struggled to get hold of a copy for a long time. I finally found one in my favourite second hand book shop in the whole world: Bounty Books in Napier. It cost only R25 and felt like a long lost treasure finally returned to me.

I’m just over halfway now, and absolutely LOVE Karen’s (we’re on first name terms, okay) imaginative, descriptive and emotionally-charged writing. I also enjoy the complete lack of political correctness – it’s scandalously refreshing. All the talk of “Natives” etc does make me feel a little bit uncomfortable, but her great respect, fascination and finally something like love for the local tribes who lived around her underlines each theory and thought.

I must admit that it took me a while to get into her conversational type of writing, but by the time I hit the second chapter or so, I was completely hooked . Struggling to put it down at the moment.

Apart from her zeal for lion hunting, Karen Blixen is pretty much exactly the type of woman I’d like to be. Strong, brave, fun, inviting, independent and warm-hearted.

Have you read it? What did you think?


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