Gospodin Libar – For the love of bookselling

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I just love stumbling upon old favourites. There’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings quite like nostalgia – yes, even this hardcore crime reader has her moments of sentimentality. And if you combine nostalgia with my other great love – bookselling – you’re bound to find me sniffly and homesick for my day job. Yes, I have been fortunate enough to be, in one way or another, involved with that dreamiest of dream jobs for just a smidge longer than five years now.

If you’ve ever worked in a bookshop, you’ll know the agony and ecstasy of stacking those sacred tomes, locating the ever elusive “it had a blue cover” title (a bookseller’s proudest moment) and the struggle of not coming across as overly obsessed as you launch into your top ten reasons why Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is only the best read ever. And by far the best part of bookselling is placing a recommendation you’ve carefully selected into the waiting hands of a fellow reader and hoping they’ll love it. Hardly anything compares to the strangely addictive feeling of trepidation and delight as you watch them saunter away, knowing that book might just change their lives. So, when I discovered Gospodin Libar quite a few years ago, it was love at first read.

Cue this evening: me aimlessly browsing, completely ignoring the stack of books I’ve been dipping in and out of (for shame!), and again this very special story pops up in my newsfeed. What is a bookworm to do, but share the bittersweet feels? First two panels posted below, please do follow the link to Library Cartoons to read the complete version.

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Gospodin Libar (
Mister Bookseller), written by Croation author Darko Macan and illustrated by Tihomir Čelanović.

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Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

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A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair,
but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.

So, for the first time in my adult life, I own a garden.  No, no, not just a slip of dirt housing a die-hard cactus battling for survival as I nourish it with the dregs of my bottled water: An actual plot of soil. A little lot of earth with the potential to become a wilderness of flowers and foliage and, quite possibly, play host to an array of succulents once I realise that anything more dainty is doomed to scorching on my side of the country.

I have toiled and weeded and planted – all within the past week of my moving in – and I type this with slightly battered city girl-hands that never dreamed that they’d be expected to handle a shovel and sow seeds. Yesterday afternoon, I thought I might as well admit that my idyllic gardening reveries have gone to rest in the puffy clouds above. This is back-breaking stuff. I nearly wept after accidentally destroying a little gecko’s home and I did not really need to make the acquaintance of those wondrous creepy crawlies Mother Nature keeps buried beneath her soil. But then… Having my hands in the mud, really feeling the earth, shaping and moulding this piece of neglected land into something pretty – it’s difficult to put into words how humbling that is. And, naturally, this reminded me of a book. A book I read a while ago, but haven’t been in just the right mood to write about until now: Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer.

One of my favourite books is The Poisonwood Bible, simply because of Kingsolver’s incredible writing and her ability to paint characters and situations that are deeply affecting, but never sentimental. I think a reader’s first encounter with an author’s work becomes the standard to which all subsequent novels are held, for better or worse, and this novel was no different for me. Prodigal Summer has that same lush, compelling prose, but it’s quite different in every other aspect and it did fall just a little short of dethroning its predecessor.  The story dragged a little here and there and sometimes I found it a bit too easy to put it down and carry on with my day. But I am nit-picking, in truth, because overall I really enjoyed this book.

Set in and around an Appalachian farming community, the plot follows three characters that could not appear any less connected at first glance, but whose lives become more and more intertwined as the story progresses. There is Deanna, who is living by herself in the woods. She has absconded from the rush of modern life and found her peace in solitude. That is, until a young hunter unexpectedly enters her secluded life. There are lessons to be learned for both of them. Then we meet Lusa, an etymologist at odds with her recently deceased husband’s family. Lusa was definitely my favourite character. I really related to her feeling of impostor syndrome, and I really rooted for her and was just as surprised as she was by the actions of people she never dared hope would support her. Lastly, there is Garnett. He is endearing and sweetly oblivious, and has been trying to revive the American chestnut tree for most of his life. He provides a bit of comic relief from the heavier thread that runs the length of the book. And then, the grandest character of all, and present on every page – the Appalachian countryside itself.

I am convinced that no one could ever write about nature and all its facets in the same sensual and reverential manner as Kingsolver does in this book. It is an absolute pleasure to immerse yourself into her rich descriptions of moths and coyotes and chestnuts and the people who adulate everything Nature creates. I felt as if I could just reach out to the page and lay my hand upon a moss covered tree trunk or bring my nose right down to the rain-drenched soil and take in its scent while reading this.

This is absolutely the perfect novel to read outside on a balmy afternoon, slouched in your favourite garden chair, with your toes wiggled in a patch of grass.

– Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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It was a long time ago now.
And it was yesterday.

I am fascinated with the idea of reincarnation. I think this most likely stems from my habitual midnight debates with myself over the countless things I could have done differently/not at all during the course of the day/week/month/decade. I overthink excessively, and as such the possibility of repeating a lifetime, making different decisions the second or third time round, is exceptionally appealing. The tagline for Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life poses just that question: What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

I’ll start off this review by saying that this was not one of my favourite reads. I struggled to fully immerse myself and I found it a little tedious, as I’ll explain shortly, but it did keep me interested enough to read until the very end. The story begins on the eve of 11 February 1910, the date of Ursula Todd’s birth and an evening you’ll revisit quite a few times during the course of this novel. From here we follow Ursula’s various lifetimes – some short, some quite long, each ending in death and restarting with birth. This is also where things become a little dull; I grew quite tired of having to reread her childhood every few chapters. But, I must add that I liked the way Ursula subconsciously learns from her previous life (and death). These lessons take the shape of gut-instincts, phobias and déjà vu, and they save and redirect Ursula’s life as the novel progresses.

Ursula’s decisions also have a ripple effect on those around her. With each lifetime she is able to save or change the course of someone else’s life. These instances are quite eerie as she’s often in the dark as to why she acts a certain way – but of course, the reader, having been privy to her previous life, does. And this effect is not limited to her immediate circle. From the very first page we know that Ursula’s story will lead towards the Second World War, and during this time there is a not wholly realistic, but thought-provoking, change-the-course-of-history plot arc. I’ll save the details of the outcome so those interested in reading this novel can discover for themselves.

In short, I think this novel is an interesting enough read if you’re hoping to fill a lazy afternoon. In the category of novels on past lives, though, I’d much rather recommend Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – a personal favourite and, I think, a good deal more complex and thrilling.

Two little tales of terror

I remember, as a child, visiting a farm surrounded by very tall trees that seemed to sweep up into the sky and blend into the darkening clouds. It was an ominous family visit, an uncle was terminally ill and children were expected to mind their own business out of sight. So we did. And so I made a friend during that visit, who was intrigued and horrified when I confessed, as we trudged along the heath, that I love weird and scary stories. I suppose back then, being a little girl with a fondness for being spooked was probably a novelty. It’s certainly an attraction I suspect my mother hoped I would soon shed, while she selected the creepiest children’s books for me at our small-town library, at the same time reprimanding that I had better not leave them out for all to see when we had visitors. I never did. Although I’m much more selective in my reading choices as an adult, and I have to be in just the right mood, my love of tales that creep into your subconscious with a deliciously subtle chill has remained. I recently read two such stories – very different, but equally frightening.

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The first, Susan Hill’s The Small Hand. A few years ago I read her The Woman in Black (lights on, of course, it really was that scary), but this I thought much more elegant and spooky. Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller (dream job, if there ever was one) tells of his encounter in the garden of “The White House” – a now decrepit house surrounded by once sprawling gardens and with a tragic history. Adam finds the house by accident after getting lost during a business trip, and while exploring the rundown property, he experiences the strangest sensation: a little childlike hand suddenly grasps his own. A haunted house and a ghostly child? Yes, please! As Adam researches the house and its past and tries to solve the mystery of the small hand – an apparition that steals into his everyday life with troubling frequency even after he has left the property itself – he makes an unsettling discovery. This is a slim little book, I finished it in a single sitting, but, if you love the traditional ghost story, it’s a must-read.

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Strange in a whole different way, is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’ve been reading a lot about this author, a biography on her life having been released recently, and this is her most famous (infamous?) short story. It was published for the first time in The New Yorker in the ‘40s and led to an outrage among the magazine’s readers. Not that difficult to see why, really. It is a bizarre and skin-crawling account of a ritual “lottery” practised in a small town. It starts off seemingly ordinary – on a sunny day the townsfolk gather to attend an annual event, there’s a jitter of excitement, whispers of anticipation. But there’s also a sense of dread, an undercurrent of anxiety. And as the sunny day draws to a very, very dark conclusion, it’s easy to see why those 1940s knickers were in a knot. There are no ghosts and ghouls here, but also no explanation for what exactly the lottery is, or why it takes place at all. Eerie and dreadful and terrifying on a deeply psychological level. I think I’ll most certainly be spending many more uneasy hours with Ms Jackson’s tales.

The DNFs – Thoughts on the books I’ve abandoned this year

Like all bookworms, I imagine, I love writing and talking about the books I’ve adored much more so than the ones I dislike, but I recently came across this nifty little infographic over at Creator & Curator on why readers have chosen to quit a certain book, and it got me thinking about the books I’ve abandoned, myself, this past year. When I started this blog, it was with the intention for it to serve as a kick under my bookish tush to actually crack open the novels I’ve been piling up for (sometimes) years, and try to break that very addictive habit of attempting to clear out every bookshop I visit. I’ve been good, more or less, and I’ve read plenty of excellent titles this past year – all from my own dusty shelves, with the exception of one or two ever-too-tempting proof copies that came across my desk now and again. But there were also a few books I simply could not get through, and did not finish. This post is all about the DNFs.

9781922070425Norwegian by Night – Derek B. Miller
I am so disappointed in myself for not enjoying what I did read of this book. I was hoping for a chilling Scandi edge and I loved the idea behind it: the 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz, a character of the 100-Year-Old-Man variety (a book I adored, by the way), witnesses a murder in his apartment building, rescues the victim’s little boy and makes a run for it. I very much wanted to like this book, but after a few chapters I just grew bored. I’m keeping it around, though, I might well be in the mood to give it another go later on.

718a1616e938cb8003a6a5353ca174bfMy Favourite Manson Girl – Alison Umminger
I thought I would enjoy this because I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls, I really wanted to try out a new YA novel and for a while there I was a very morbid sucker for all things Manson related – I allow my mind its dark indulgences, perhaps a bit too often. So, the story of a snarky 15-year-old who runs away from home to join her not-nearly-famous-but-trying sister in sinful LA, only to find herself roped into a rather morose Manson Family research project, sounded like a perfect match. Only it wasn’t… And while I revelled in the acid-tongued narrative during the first few chapters, it became more whiny than sharp quite quickly and I didn’t quite care to find out how it ends.

51ll9y69sulZoo Time – Howard Jacobson
I honestly think this book was just much too literary for my tastes and I fully intend that as an odd sort of compliment. As I have been working in the book industry for a few years now, I thought I could relate to a novel that’s largely about attempts at publishing, a failing novelist’s writerly struggles, and the near constant reminder that reading may well be dead. And I really rather liked the acerbic and often rude narrator, author Guy Ableman. But, like the fictional readers of his fictional books, I sadly couldn’t really get into Guy’s narrative on lust and writing. I think its intention was just way over my head and I know I’m most likely missing out on a little nugget of bookish wit by DNF-ing this.

niccoloammaniti-imnotscared5I’m Not Scared – Niccolò Ammaniti
I bought this book ages ago on a vacation in sunny Cape Town and when I finally did read it, I was not scared at all. During an Italian heat wave, 9-year-old Michele discovers something frightening in an abandoned farmhouse. It is a secret thing, one he doesn’t dare talk about and he soon realizes that what he found hits closer to home than he could ever have imagined. I think the combination of anticipating reading this book and genuine curiosity to know more as the story unfolded kept me hooked initially, but midway through, the story seemed to be heading in the general direction of Nowhere. I lost all interest, and flipped to the final pages just to satisfy that gnawing need to know. Really not as interesting a read as I thought it would be.

18900315Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan
At the time I very much wanted to read Memoirs of a Geisha, but sadly couldn’t find a copy, so I bought this instead. The premise seems intriguing – it follows the life and loves of Violet, daughter to a Shanghai madam and later a celebrated courtesan herself – and it’s a tragic tale. I just found it a bit too repetitive and it quickly became too sentimental for my tastes, I was constantly wondering when this poor girl will ever find a bit of happiness (and that’s coming from a reader who appreciates doom and gloom when it’s done well) and I sympathetically continued reading this way past the point at which I initially wanted to abandon it.

coverHomegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Now this book I looked forward to for months before its release, and I was ecstatic when a copy finally made its way onto my desk. I’ve read plenty of wonderful reviews on it and I dove into the first chapter without hesitation. And it started off brilliantly, but then lost my interest… The book reminded me of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie in its style – each chapter is dedicated to a specific character and a small part of their life and it spans generations. But I felt as if what was told read like a preface to something bigger, more interesting. I didn’t feel drawn in by the writing and after a few chapters I no longer felt compelled to continue the story. That being said, I might just give this another try in the future, as I do feel like the odd one out for not liking it.

 

Half of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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And it’s wrong of you to think love leaves room for nothing else.
It’s possible to love something and still condescend to it.

This book broke my heart.

Set in the 1960’s, pre- and towards the end of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, it’s a moving and violent account of political and cultural struggle. I’ll admit that, before reading this novel, I knew very little about this period of history. And even now, having subsequently read up on the subject, I feel that I still haven’t learned enough – there are important stories to be heard. In this novel, Adichie does not shy away from lending prose to the cruel realities of war, of suffering, injustice and unrelenting conflict; there were several times while reading this that I had to shut the novel and mentally remove myself from what was being told. It’s a gut-punch reminder that people lived, and still do live, these nightmares.

At its core, Half of a Yellow Sun is a story of love – love of country, of people, of lovers, friends and family; I think the above quote perfectly describes the love portrayed in this book – and the frailty and endurance of the human spirit. Its characters are its centre and they are formed strikingly through their actions and choices. There is Ugwu, a village boy sent to serve as houseboy to the enigmatic university professor, Odenigbo; Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover and known for her beauty; Kainene, the serious, witty one, Olanna’s twin sister, and my favourite character for her strength and instinct; Richard, a British journalist writing a book about Nigeria, infatuated with Kainene. These characters instantly draw you in and their perspectives are powerful depictions of the emotional and personal consequences of the war. Throughout the conflict, their need to survive in a time of scarcity, instability and fear, changes them (some shockingly, almost unrecognizable) and their actions become evident of how circumstances sometimes influence and dictate human behaviour. But it’s not just the threat of death on their doorstep – the all too everyday matters of betrayal, infidelity and family politics greatly impact their decisions.

A powerful novel, beautifully told.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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I’m just meat with faulty programming.

I had so much fun reading this book! It’s an edgy, sexy, horror-laced thriller set in a reimagined Johannesburg and centres on Zinzi, a 419 scammer with a special talent for finding lost things. Oh, and Zinzi also happens to be a Zoo: In this fantastical alternate world, the convicted acquire an animal which attaches itself to them – a shameful reminder of their status as a criminal. And if the idea of lugging about your misdeeds in animal form is not horrifying enough, this branding also comes with the creeping presence of the hellish Undertow (whether psychological or real, whenever this thing showed up, it made my skin crawl). With a Sloth on her back and a penchant for getting herself into the worse kind of trouble, Zinzi is lured into helping a sleazy music producer locate a very special missing thing – a person.

This is only my second Lauren Beukes novel (and I look forward to more). I loved the more recent The Shining Girls with all its gritty gore and its badass female protagonist. Zoo City is one of her older novels, but it’s still a thrilling treat – it also won the Arthur C Clarke back in 2011. The writing is enticing and quickly sucks you into an urban underworld of violence, magic and horror. The city of Johannesburg is brought vividly to life as we follow Zinzi through the filthy slums of Zoo City, home to the animalled underclass and shadowed by the Undertow, right into the foyers of the dazzlingly rich sans scruples. If you live in or frequent Jozi, like I do, you’ll have the most eerily fun experience recognising all the familiar places mentioned throughout the novel – from Rosebank to Hillbrow, and everything in between. And Zinzi, with her smart mouth, dripping attitude, is the perfect tour guide.

There are quite a few subplots in this book, and I’ll admit I lost my way with a few of them. Clues, characters and briefly mentioned events are much more entangled that they first appear. Chapters are dispersed with web-posts, media reports and magazine articles. And while these flesh out the plot and characters, and gives the novel a cool and current vibe, I found myself having to backtrack quite a few times and hunt for references. Nevertheless, the novel is deftly plotted and intricate, and if you can overlook one or two minor plot holes, it’s a very satisfying read. I found it exciting to read something purely fun and completely out of my bookish comfort zone.

Definitely a delicious, criminally good read.

Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

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There was never a forewarning that this thing was coming.

I hate to admit that I’ve never really been a fan of the short story, not even when I began fiddling with the idea of writing my own. I love a daunting to me as much as the next bookworm – sprawling plots and endless character development are two of my favourite things – but, recently, I’ve discovered quite a few wonderful stories that span merely a few pages, but packs all the punch of getting lost in a thicker volume.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s Caine Prize winning Memories We Lost is certainly one. In an African village, a young girl watches her sister suffer from mental illness. This “thing” comes as it pleases, without explanation, affecting not only the person it inhabits but also the people around her. The story is aching and poignant. The young girl yearns for her sister to be just that, to laugh and play, while her mother yearns – desperately, but not cruelly – for her daughter to be subdued. And when traditional medicines and rituals fail to calm her demons, her mother decides to send her away to a remote village to be healed by a sangoma notorious for his severe methods. This prospect is so terrifying to the young girl, that she convinces her sister to leave their village and together they set off on a journey leading nowhere but away from dangerous misunderstanding.

The girls’ story is told in such a tender, but chilling, manner. Most unsettling is the portrayal of the push-and-pull between the girl and her illness, how it’s something almost detached from her, with a will of its own. That heart-wrenching isolation and misconception of what is going on inside her, something completely beyond her control and beyond anyone’s understanding; I felt the helplessness of a community that finds itself stacked against one of its own. This is a story that cuts deep and lingers.

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Take a couple of minutes from your day and lend yourself to Lidudumalingani’s writing, here.

Author photo credit: Twitter

​Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.
Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?

Wow. Where to begin… I felt really intimidated starting this book (and I feel completely inadequate reviewing it), but having finished it, I wish I’d read it ages ago – not only because it really is brilliant, but it’s also a complex tale that deserves a re-read, or even several.

It’s impossible to review this book without mentioning its unique style. It comprises six novellas, all different and, together, spanning centuries. They’re told through journals, letters, and thrilling and outrageous first-hand accounts of political cover-ups, comedic misunderstandings and post-apocalyptic gloom. The first half of the book is made up of half of each of these stories – the sixth is uninterrupted – and then works its way backwards, completing each of the stories, until it ends where it began.

On their own, they make for very entertaining reading, some I found more intriguing than others. I especially enjoyed the letters of Robert Frobisher (a young, disowned and somewhat egocentric composer and romantic), the very funny and quirky account of Timothy Cavendish (a small-time publisher who gets more than he bargains for when he unexpectedly makes it big) and the story of Somni-451 (set in a not so distant future Korea, where Fabricants are manufactured to serve Purebloods, and long for Xultation).

But what makes this book so special, is how each separate story is linked by fragments from the story before. Recurring events, coincidence, comet-shaped birthmarks hinting at reincarnation and remnants of music and writing, all form connections between the individual characters. If you’re like me and enjoy spending almost too much time on book forums, it’s worth visiting a Cloud Atlas thread, there are some interesting theories about these connections – you could spend hour upon hour considering each possibility.

This novel really is such a heady mix of themes and connections. It’s a grand, bookish puzzle to be taken apart and reassembled. And don’t be surprised if you discover something new each time you do.

The Girls by Emma Cline

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We were like conspiracy theorists,
seeing portent and intention in every detail,
wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation.

I adored and obsessed over this book, from its first sentence to its last.

When I started this blog, it was largely as a sort of motivation to finally read and reduce my slightly intimidating TBR pile – mostly books I’ve owned for several years, the lure of the bookstore being undeniable but reading time often being a luxury. And so I made a slightly absurd promise to my pouty lipped self that I will abstain from book buying for a year and indulge the backlist lining my apartment walls (this has thus far succeeded and failed in equal measure). But then an advanced copy of this debut novel landed in my lap (or slightly messy desk, rather) and I was so captivated by its premise and dreamy saturated jacket treatment, that I put my reading goals to rest and cracked its spine.

The Girls is set in sun-soaked late 60’s summer, and it takes its cues from a lurid chapter of American crime history – the Manson Family’s August 1969 killing spree. But this is hardly a novel for true crime junkies, although it never shies away from the shocking acts that inspired it; there’s a sense of looming dread from the very first page, but the novel becomes so much more.

Fourteen years old, her parents’ recent divorce and a falling out with her best friend has left Evie Boyd jaded. Bored and desperate for attention, she spots a group of enigmatic older girls – the titular – in a park and she’s soon enthralled by Suzanne, who invites Evie to their ranch commune and introduces her to the seductive Russell, a below average musician with grand philosophies and an eerie control over the girls and the ranch. And Evie is falling in love, not with Russell, but with Suzanne who becomes a sort of cruel older sister influence.

Evie’s need of Suzanne becomes central to the novel. With Suzanne, she blossoms, seduces, and feeds her desire to belong, to be seen. But there is nothing sentimental about Cline’s writing in this regard. She perfectly evokes the stinging insecurities of a bored 14-year-old on a dangerous path, but it’s never naïve or sugary. You never once forget that the girls, the ranch, Suzanne, are destructive and Evie is hurtling towards a violence and a loss of innocence. And it’s symbolic of a sentiment that haunts the coming-of-age of almost every girl. That clinging, dreadful anticipation; a certain myth-making around our entry into womanhood.

As an older, obviously scarred and more subdued, Evie at one stage remarks:

“Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of love. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.”