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A palatable aftertaste: Anna Stroud reviews Ken Barris's The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions

Published in the Sunday Times

The Life of Worm The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions
Ken Barris, Kwela
*****

The worlds depicted in The Life of Worm and Other Misconceptions are ordinary, mundane, bizarre and surreal, but always rooted in the beauty of language. Ken Barris is a craftsman – chiselling away at each sentence until it gleams with understated elegance. Three stand-out stories are the titular “The Life of Worm”, “The Olive Schreiner Stall” and “Poor William”. The raw emotion in each is familiar and discomfiting. In the first, we see a man imprisoned in his own paranoia. His house is a fortress and his dog is a beast; yet he still feels unsafe and simmers with rage at something as innocuous as a tree.

In the second, a victim of necklacing tries to reach out to the living from beyond the grave. He fails, in life and in death, to make connections. In “Poor William”, a man comes across a talking ape in his kitchen. This is a complex story, signalling how chance encounters can alter our perceptions forever.

The opening story, “To See the Mountain”, about a writers’ retreat in Cameroon, introduces writing as a major theme. The narrator and his friend wish to see a nearby mountain up close, and embark on a pilgrimage to get near it. Very little writing gets done, as in “The Grand Parade” when a writer sets up a makeshift office in a busy marketplace in Cape Town and witnesses the cruelty and desperation of humans, himself included.

The idea of writing as something that happens under pressure, and perhaps under siege, crescendos in “Really into Timeshare”, where readers can no longer afford to buy whole books and must settle for a few pages at a time.

The mood of the stories is at times gentle and melancholic, like a simple yet exquisite meal that lingers on your palate hours after the plates have been cleared. The collection imparts invaluable knowledge on writing, writers, history, culture, nature, relationships, and the human condition. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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Q&A with Nathan Hill

Published in the Sunday Times

The NixThe Nix
Nathan Hill, Pan Macmillan

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
For my own country’s leader, I would recommend Trump read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, not only because of its lessons in introspection and self-knowledge, but also because, as one of the longest books in history, it might keep him occupied and away from Twitter for like a year or two.

Which books are on your bedside table?
After the success of The Nix, I’m being asked by editors and writers to “blurb” their books, which has been a great pleasure – it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to read books before they come out! And for free! So my bedside table is filled with advance copies of novels that will be published next year.

What do you snack on when you write?
If the writing is going really well, I usually just completely detach from the world of physical things: I won’t hear the music playing, I won’t notice how long I’ve been sitting, and I won’t realise that I haven’t eaten anything in many hours. Which means that when I finish writing for the day I suddenly feel famished and cranky with hunger, which is pretty frustrating for my wife.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I did a lot of research for The Nix, but I’m not sure any of it would qualify as “strange”. I visited all the places where the riots of 1968 happened in Chicago. I read as many studies as I could find about the neurobiology of video game addiction. I watched YouTube video of American soldiers in Iraq traveling inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I found a certain Atari game from the ’80s so I could describe the noises it makes while you play it. I figured out the bureaucratic process by which the government places a person on the “no-fly list”. I walked around the campus of the University of Chicago for a whole day just to be able to accurately describe how terrible its architecture is. Things like that.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
This happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to a lot of other readers too. I think it’s a requirement for being a good reader, that you have a mind that’s open enough for change. Otherwise, you’re just reading things you pre-agree with, which would be pretty boring.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
I like to laugh over dinner, so I’d probably invite my favorite funny writers: Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth is not only brilliant but also hilarious; BJ Novak, who wrote a hysterical story collection called One More Thing, and also wrote a pretty funny TV show called The Office; and David Sedaris, who’s just as fun to listen to as to read.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
When I was young, my parents found this set of books at a garage sale, which included reprints of books like 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, even Moby Dick. I wouldn’t say that reading any one of those books in particular made me want to be a writer. Instead, it was the thrill of reading all of them – all the adventures I had, all the friends I made, in my head, in those pages – that made me want to write.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Once on Christmas I received John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, and I finished it before New Year’s.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Touch by Courtney Maum, which came out in the States this summer. It’s a novel about a trend forecaster, and it has some hilarious things to say about technology.

What keeps you awake at night?
Binge-watching Game of Thrones. If I see an episode or two right before bed, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll start obsessing about what Cersei’s up to, or start imagining assassins in the room.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been on tour for The Nix for more than a year now, and all this time the next novel has been marinating in my head. So when the tour is finished this fall, I’ll be able to get to work on this new story.

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Book Bites: 10 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Gather the DaughtersGather the Daughters
Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press
****
Given how long it takes to write and publish a book, it is unlikely that Jennie Melamed timed her debut novel to benefit from the popularity of the TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale. Melamed is probably sick of having her book compared to Margaret Atwood’s. But it can’t hurt. Melamed’s fictional world, like Atwood’s, can be read as a dark allegory of patriarchy. Her central characters are children living on an island in a religious community cut off from “the wastelands” – the wider world into which only select male elders, the “wanderers”, may venture to bring back supplies and occasional fresh recruits. On the surface this is a gentle, pastoral life, but every time a girl-child is born, all the womenfolk wail and weep. The island way is to give fathers free access to their daughters until the girls reach “fruition”. Far from looking forward to the day when they can kick dad out of their beds, the daughters dread it because it signals no more summers of freedom. Until puberty bites, children run unfettered for a quarter of the year, roaming the island in naked, muddy packs. When one of these wildlings sees something she shouldn’t, it triggers a rebellion led by a 17-year-old who has staved off menstruation by starving herself. Melamed tells a stirring story in lucid, luminous language. – Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

GraceGrace
Barbara Boswell, Modjaji Books
*****
This gripping story tells of how a woman from Cape Town was subjected to abuse from her father. Later in life, Grace thinks she has overcome her hideous childhood until two people from her past make a reappearance in her life. Her suburban lifestyle is on the brink of collapse and it is only Grace that can save herself. The graphic details of the abuse that Grace endures is chilling. Her relationship with her father, and how she thinks she has “beaten” her past, makes the story so relatable and even more worthy of a reread. This book has earned every one of its five stars. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Koh-i-NoorKoh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond
William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, Bloomsbury
****
The Koh-i-Noor brings out so many angry emotions, because it is at the centre of important historical issues: why is it still part of the crown jewels of England? Where does it belong? Dalrymple and Anand investigate the history, dismissing the mythology around the diamond. What they find, is what one suspected – there has been misappropriation by all sorts, along with plenty of torture and murders. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Hilda Smits met Ingrid Jonker-prys vir poësie 2017 bekroon

Die bome reusagtig soos ons wasHilda Smits se debuutdigbundel, Die bome reusagtig soos ons was, is onlangs met die Ingrid Jonker-prys vir poësie bekroon.

Dié bundel is deur beoordelaars beskryf as “‘n boeiende debuut” wat die by die hoogs persoonlike betrek en wat tegelykertyd ook betekenis aan die universele belewenis gee. “Wat die digter hier vermag het, is enorm,” skryf ’n ander beoordelaar, soos berig deur Naomi Meyer vir LitNet.

Die prys word op 16 September by die Tuin van Digters in Wellington oorhandig. Simone Jonker, dogter van Ingrid Jonker, sal die prys oorhandig.

Hierdie verrassende debuutbundel is een van die eerlikste sienings in Afrikaans van die werklikheid van die emigrant of expat wat Suid-Afrika verlaat het, maar nog steeds worstel met identiteit in ’n nuwe omgewing.

Die kinderjare van die digter word byna deurlopend gekontrasteer met haar nuwe lewe in die buiteland. Die herinneringe is skrynend eerlik en brose familiebande word sonder skroom ondersoek. Klein besonderhede kry reusegestalte in die herinneringe van haar kinderjare en staan skerp afgeteken teen die besef van nietigheid wanneer die ek-spreker in ander kontekste beland. Die belewenis van die grootstad Londen het soms ’n byna onwerklike en dromerige kwaliteit, asof die digteres sukkel om tot ’n vergelyk te kom met die verplaasde self.

Afstand, afsondering en verlange word egter teengewerk deur vlugtige kontak met ander mense, objekte en herinneringe. Die stad met sy glas en beton word byna ook ’n persoonlikheid en word soms direk aangespreek, maar dit is veral die waarneming van die gewone lewe in teenstelling met die bekende toeristiese gesig van die stad wat uitstaan, soms morbied, onverskillig en smerig, maar dikwels ook warm en verwelkomend.

Deurgaans is daar sprake van die spreker se kamera-oog wat objektief probeer waarneem en registreer, maar die ondertoon van melancholie verseker dat die gedigte die leser nie ongeraak laat nie.

Hilda Smits is ’n boorling van Potchefstroom, maar het haar nagraadse studie in Sielkunde in Londen gedoen. Van haar gedigte het in Nuwe stemme 6 verskyn. Sy woon tans in Nashville, VSA.

Boekbesonderhede

"You can't empower women without listening to their stories," Gloria Steinem said. 200 Women listens.

“You can’t empower women without listening to their stories” – Gloria Steinem

 
 
200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World200 women from a variety of backgrounds are asked the same five questions. Their answers are inspiring human stories of success and courage, love and pain, redemption and generosity. From well-known activists, artists, and innovators to everyday women whose lives are no less exceptional for that, each woman shares her unique replies to questions like “What really matters to you?” and “What would you change in the world if you could?”

Interviewees include US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor and human rights activist Alfre Woodard, and Nobel laureate Jodi Williams, along with those who are making a difference behind the scenes around the world, such as Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Each interview is accompanied by a photographic portrait, resulting in a volume that is compelling in word and image – and global in its scope and resonance. This landmark book is published to coincide with an immersive travelling exhibition and an interactive website, building on this remarkable, ever-evolving project. With responses ranging from uplifting to heartbreaking, these women offer gifts of empowerment and strength inviting us to bring positive change at a time when so many are fighting for basic freedom and equality.

Local interviewees include Graça Machel, Caster Semenya, Zelda la Grange, Mpho Tutu van Furth, Hlubi Mboya, Sahm Venter, Joanne Fedler, Ingrid le Roux, Gillian Slovo and Zoleka Mandela, among others.

A minimum of 10% of the project’s revenue will be distributed to organisations devoted to protecting and advancing the rights of women. Each interviewee can nominate an organisation (or themselves if they are in financial need) to receive their portion of the charitable pool or they can select the principal charitable partner, the Graça Machel Trust.

Book details

  • 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World by Ruth Hobday, edited by Kieran Scott, Geoff Blackwell, Sharon Gelman, Marianne Lassandro
    EAN: 978-1-928257-41-7
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Paradise found: Rosa Lyster reviews Patricia Lockwood's memoir Priestdaddy

Published in the Sunday Times

PriestdaddyPriestdaddy
Patricia Lockwood, Allen Lane
*****
Patricia Lockwood’s career has always seemed like an exception to the rule. She is a very famous and successful poet at a time when such creatures are presumed no longer to exist. It’s not just her career, though. She has been an exception to the rule since the day she was born. The title of her memoir, Priestdaddy, is a reference to her father, a former atheist who underwent “the deepest conversion on record” after watching The Exorcist 88 times on a submarine while in the navy, became a Lutheran minister, and eventually applied for the dispensation from the Vatican which allows married ministers of another faith to become Catholic priests.

This seems like enough to be getting on with already, ie: rich autobiographical material. Married Catholic priests are rare, and Lockwood and her four siblings grew up viewing the church from an almost unique perspective. Her family is also dementedly eccentric, and Lockwood has done a great service to this world by getting them down on the page.

This isn’t even the half of it, though. I would read Lockwood describing a trip to the bank. I would read 1000 pages of her just explaining how a very boring piece of machinery worked. She is inspiredly, unforeseeably funny, and her powers of description are unmatched. She is on another planet, and her writing makes you wish you lived there also.

Priestdaddy has been described as “kooky” and “quirky” and “whimsical” – all those words used to indicate that a writer isn’t to be taken totally seriously, especially if that writer is a woman. This is rubbish, obviously. It is a very funny book, but also a serious one, about family, and religion, and how it feels to be a writer, and about learning how to understand the world.

Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster

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