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So many books, so few surfaces

The other day a friend walked into the kitchen and said: “It looks as though a huge family of readers was abducted by aliens in the middle of reading.” Every surface had a book splayed open it. I blinked a little disbelievingly.

too many books 002Just now, I walked into the living room to tidy up. This is what I found:

  • NW by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton) – my novel
  • Katalekte by Breyten Breytenbach (Human & Rousseau) – the poetry (there’s usually one on the go)
  • Flowers by Andrew Zuckerman (Quercus) – just arrived from publisher for review
  • JM Coetzee: ‘n Geskryfde Lewe by John Kannemeyer (Jonathan Ball) – really interesting, but super-heavy, can only be read on arm of armchair for support
  • Zuma Exposed by Adriaan Basson (Jonathan Ball) – just picked it idly off the to-be-read pile and got a bit hooked in
  • Life in Five Seconds – Matteo Civaschi and Gianmarco Milesi (Quercus) – very unusual “stories in simple drawings” book. Kids and I have picked it up intermittently since the weekend to puzzle together
  • The Viewer – Shaun Tan and Gary Crew (Lothian Children’s Books) – because I am an admirer of Tan and a collector of his books. Bought this one at the weekend with a gift voucher
  • Ideas Gifts (Human & Rousseau) – not sure why: I spotted the spine and paged through it. Ideas is currently my favourite South African magazine and these craft ideas always make me feel hopeful and happy like Pollyanna
  • What’s for dinner, Mr Gum? By Andy Stanton (Egmont) – my children love me reading this to them (even though they’re past the age of being read to) because I “do voices”. Mr Gum is so funny. Not just lift-one-side-of-your-mouth funny. The kind of funny where you have to put the book down sometimes to wait for someone to recover from laughing fit.
  • The History of the World by Frank Welsh (Quercus) – because my son started on The French Revolution at school today and, well, you know…these big books are so much nicer – and the information is so much more contained – than what you see the net.

I walked out of the living room. There was no tidying to be done after all. Just some more disbelieving blinking.

 

COLUMN: Looking is also a kind of reading

This month I did a lot more “looking at” than “reading” books. This is probably because I was a little bored with my novel– Kristen Tranter’s book The Legacy – which was decidedly un-thriller-ish despite the cover shout claims.
Because I kept thinking I was going to finish it quickly, I didn’t read what I have been chomping at the bit to, which is Ariel Dorfman’s Writing The Deep South, of which I snuck only the preface – a copy of the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture he delivered in Joburg last year.
The section is already underlined and notated and scruffy…I sense the whole book is going to be an exercise in furious pencil conversation with this bilingual, intense, prolific, questioning and vigorously political writer. I am enjoying the parallels he draws between Chile and South Africa and my long-standing desire to visit that country for writing and research has surfaced again in an urgent way.
I also managed to read about four stories from the collection Jonathan Jansen put together with Nangamso Koza and Lihlumelo Toyana called Great South African Teachers. The stories are short and most are written by people who are not writers, but who felt moved to remember the teachers that made them think or feel or see differently. I was delighted to find a story about a teacher I knew at school and who was universally adored by her students. This  is required reading for anyone who’s ever been to school, known a teacher, taught, or railed against their education. The book requires me to use that tired word “inspiring”, one I do not bandy easily.
I also finally got around to reading Ivan Vladisclavic’s Double Exposure, which in turn lead me back to one of my most treasured birthday presents ever, David Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Revisited. The book contains – apart from his stark, cool black and white pictures – essays by Ivor Powell and Antjie Krog, both of which are prime examples of that most thoughtful and stimulating of genres.
But it is the photographs I go to most enthusiastically. They  draw the reader (or “looker”) into a time and place that feels like both like yesterday and several centuries ago; that is at once hauntingly familiar and disturbingly alien.
My next “looking” book was a small, fat, colourful thing called Faceless. It is a collection of cartoon strips by South African Bruce Sutherland.
Even though I’d rather write about edifying or truly entertaining creative works, I must pause before this galling piece of rubbish to note that Sutherland’s work is profoundly unfunny and pathetically unoriginal (ancient regurgitated jokes from the frontline of the war between the sexes). Labelling it “Non-PC” does nothing to excuse this ridiculous waste of paper.
Sutherland’s cartoons would do better to remain on the net which has perfect side rooms for the people with unevolved sensibilities I imagine are his famed adoring audience. It did not surprise me to find that Sutherland makes knives by hand as a hobby…all that pent up misogyny cannot be calmed by simply making stupid cartoons in which blow jobs, anal sex and the desire to kill your wife are about the highest expression of your, um, creativity.
In order to refresh my bored eyes I then returned to picture books I will never tire of looking at: all the work of the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan and Colin Thompson – who lives there but was born in the UK – Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful black and white interpretation of the “The Spider and the Fly” (based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt) and the most delightful of all possible antidotes to Sutherland’s pathological fear and hatred of women, Anthony Browne’s Piggy Book.
This appeared Cape Times on 25 November 2011 and also appears on Books SA