BOOK LIST: Fiction to get your hands on this month

September is great month for readers wanting the latest must-reads, as it’s when publishers often release hot new titles. This year, some big names have come out with stories I, for one, can’t wait to read. Here are my top suggestions…

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale The Testaments

The author on the cover of TIME.

THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto and Windus)

Thanks to the TV series, this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly the most anticipated of the lot. The Booker-prize shortlisted sequel picks up 15 years after the 1985 original, with a change in narration.

As O, The Oprah Magazine’s Leigh Haber explains: “While The Handmaid’s Tale is told entirely from Offred’s point of view, its follow-up, The Testaments, has three different narrators, none of them Offred. We are back in Gilead again, where Aunt Lydia seems to have amassed even more power. By now, Lydia has a lot of dirt on the commanders, and she isn’t afraid to use it against them to put them in check or to get something she needs. Because she is a narrator, we get a certain insight into her motivations and thought processes—or so we think: she’s not a very reliable narrator, so be forewarned.”

You can read an exclusive extract here.

Cover of Margaret Atwood The Testaments

OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

Zimbabwe’s most well-known contemporary writer has a new novel out, set in nineteenth-century Africa. It tells of the trek to carry Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone’s body from Zambia to the coast, and it’s narrated by Halima, a young slave woman, and a former slave named Jacob.

Kirkus Reviews describe the book as “a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalised historical voices”.

Should be a goodie.

Pettinah Gappah book blurb Out of Darness shining light

Praise for the novel…

THE WATER DANCER, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the first full-length novel from the journalist, author and comic-book writer who’s outspoken on the issue of reparations for slavery is a story about slavery and how it tragically separated families. The fiction debut tells of Hiram Walker, a slave born on a Virginia plantation who becomes part of the underground movement to end slavery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel

The author photographed for VANITY FAIR.

Publisher’s Weekly say that with this book, “In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed”.

THE DUTCH HOUSE, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)

The award-winning novelist, essayist and bookstore owner made Time’s 2012 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and has featured on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.

Her publisher’s describe her new release as “a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go”.

I love an intergenerational story featuring a house as a kind of character, and would buy this book for the enigmatic, artistic title-and-cover combo alone.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

From the prolific author of The Dovekeepers, among others, comes a Jewish historical fiction tale about three women in Europe during WW2.

(You can check out the book trailer here.)

Here’s praise from fellow author Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge: “Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience. The book builds and builds, as she weaves together, seamlessly, the stories of people in the most desperate of circumstances—and then it delivers with a tremendous punch. It opens up the world, the universe, in a way that it absolutely unique. By the end you may be weeping.”

The world that we knew by Alice Hoffman book cover

AKIN, by Emma Donoghue (Little Brown)

The Irish-Canadian author of the brilliantly executed Room, which was made into a film starring Brie Larson, is finally releasing a new book, which is about a retired New York professor and his great-nephew who go to the French Riviera to unearth the wartime secrets of the professor’s mother.

The London Free Press says: “Donoghue fans won’t be disappointed as the author of 2010’s best-selling chronicle, Room, pens another page-turner. In Akin, kinship itself, in all its intriguing possibilities, is viewed through the forced pairing of an 80-year-old widower and his 11-year-old grand-nephew and through the fraught events of a week-long trip to the south of France … Although Donoghue’s lively tale has many attractions, its most appealing is the repartee between uncle and nephew, crisp, peevish exchanges which underscore the gulfs which exist between generations, gulfs which cannot be bridged easily. Michael is technologically savvy, while Noah is a novice. Noah constantly corrects Michael’s grammar, but the boy, who addresses his uncle as ‘dude,’ refuses to rise to the bait”.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES, by Chigozie Obioma (Hachette, Little Brown)

This one’s actually been out a few months, but it’s been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, which will be awarded on the 14th of October, so there’s still a lot of buzz about it.

It’s a love story; a kind of retelling of Homer’s Odyssey that’s set between Nigeria and Cyprus and is partly based on a true story. What sounds fascinating is that the story’s told from the perspective of a person’s animating life-force – referred to as “chi” in Igbo cosmology.

An orchestra of minorities by Chigozie Obioma booker prize shortlist

What inspired the story? The scam artists who lure desperate African students to universities in Cyprus, taking their money, with unmet promises of entry into Europe.

As The Guardian explains:

“The impetus to write the novel came out of what happened to Obioma’s friend, Jay, a Nigerian man he met in the first days of starting college. Jay had been duped by the middle men both into thinking the university in Cyprus would be a springboard into Europe, and that his degree would enable him to make lots of money. Instead, he confronted the reality that not only had most of the funds he’d handed over to fixers been embezzled, but that he was now stuck in northern Cyprus, where there were no jobs and where his status as a Nigerian immigrant made him widely despised. After a heavy bout of drinking, Jay was found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft, where he was assumed to have fallen accidentally.”

“The impulse to write in the first instance may come from a place of optimism – Obioma says that he was partly motivated by a desire to salvage Jay’s death from meaninglessness – but the bottom line remains that, whether one construes the larger forces to be spiritual or political, Jay, and so many other victims of seemingly random deaths, “didn’t do anything to deserve that fate” [Obioma’s words]. Illuminating that fact honours the author’s friend as it powers his fiction.”

INLAND, by Téa Obreht (Orion)

This author’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife − about folklore, family and feuds in a story that mythologised Yugoslavia’s history − dazzled me back when it won the Orange Prize back in 2011, when the Serbian-American writer was but 25.

She’s finally released this new offering; an American Western set in 1893 that the blurb describes as follows:

Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life – her husband who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons who have vanished after an explosive argument.

Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home, and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.

Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.

Check out a funny response from Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, here.

Inland by Tea Obrecht

Do you have any new book releases to recommend? What have I left off?
Do let me know…

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From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

 

Fire road napalm girl Vietnam War memoir

The cover of Fire Road, the memoir by Phan Thị Kim Phúc.

When I was getting ready to move to Vietnam, I did what I try to do before going to a new country: Research through books, series and films. With Vietnam, though, most material is (understandably) usually about the Vietnam War.

And what image or person is more representative of the tragedy and insanity of that war than “The Napalm Girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc?

My sister handed me her copy of Kim’s memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, co-written with Ashley Wiersma, which tells her story beyond the horrific image burned into collective memory. I thought: Do I really want to read about this? Another part of me knew I had to. (Also, I enjoy a good Triumph Over Tragedy story.)

On 8 June 1972, Kim and her community got caught in the crossfire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers when an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places forced them to flee their village, Trang Bang, along the strategic Route 1 she refers to as Fire Road.

At nine years old, Kim was pictured running down the road, screaming, with third-degree burns over her body in a photo that some say had a major role in ending the Vietnam War. Nick Ut, who took her to the hospital later, won a Pulitzer for the shot that became part of photojournalism history.

The Napalm Girl by Nick Ut Vietnam War photojournalism

THAT image, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kim was thought dead. But she survived, and spent 14 months in intensive recovery from the third-degree burns. Here’s the book’s blurb:

Get out! Run! We must leave this place! They are going to destroy this whole place! Go, children, run first! Go now!

These were the final shouts nine year-old Kim Phuc heard before her world dissolved into flames − before napalm bombs fell from the sky, burning away her clothing and searing deep into her skin. It’s a moment forever captured, an iconic image that has come to define the horror and violence of the Vietnam War. Kim was left for dead in a morgue; no one expected her to survive the attack. Napalm meant fire, and fire meant death.

Against all odds, Kim lived − but her journey toward healing was only beginning. When the napalm bombs dropped, everything Kim knew and relied on exploded along with them: her home, her country’s freedom, her childhood innocence and happiness. The coming years would be marked by excruciating treatments for her burns and unrelenting physical pain throughout her body, which were constant reminders of that terrible day. Kim survived the pain of her body ablaze, but how could she possibly survive the pain of her devastated soul?

Fire Road is the true story of how she found the answer in a God who suffered Himself; a Savior who truly understood and cared about the depths of her pain. Fire Road is a story of horror and hope, a harrowing tale of a life changed in an instant − and the power and resilience that can only be found in the power of God’s mercy and love.

From the get-go, given the subtitle and her many references to God and Jesus Christ, it’s clear the book will be about faith. And, really, given what this woman has had to live through and with, it’s no wonder.

How can you watch your family members and community die, survive being horrifically burnt, become the ultimate anti-war ‘poster child’, a puppet in your country’s propaganda machine, live with constant physical pain and NOT turn to faith?

This is not to say Kim wasn’t raised religiously to begin with. For me, some of the most fascinating early parts of the book were all about the CaoDai beliefs and rituals of her childhood.

In a feature for Christianity Today in which Kim tells of her coming to the Christian faith, she explains:

“Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognises all religions as having ‘one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,’ or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. ‘You are god, and god is you’ − we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along − and every day, it seemed, they did −I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were non-existent or they did not care to lend a hand.”

I also enjoyed Kim’s recounting of her mother’s infamous noodle shop, which the state eventually took over. I think of this aspect of her family’s past often here in Vietnam, when I see little girls helping their moms at its many street stalls and home ‘restaurants’.

Vietnam street food noodle shop Fire Road

An excerpt from the book, mentioning Kim’s mother’s noodle shop.

The book also spent some time revealing aspects of Kim’s story that many may not be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.)

For instance, I didn’t know…

…that it wasn’t the Americans who dropped the bomb that burned Kim. Apparently, it was dropped “by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.”

… about the effect of napalm on the body. The ‘sticky fire’ adheres to skin like tar, making it hard for doctors to treat wounds. Trying to wipe it off only causes it to spread; and only smothering it (excruciating pain) removes it. It continues to burn the body if exposed to oxygen, too. Horrific.

“Napalm can generate temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Phúc, having sustained third-degree burns to half her body, was not expected to live.”
http://www.earth.com

Kim had to undergo many operations after the attack, and was still undergoing treatments in her 50s. So that day caused her physical suffering that lasted her whole life.

that Kim then became a keg in the country’s propaganda machine, having to attend frequent conferences and media briefings to say what she was told to say. All this time away from her studies (and life) squashed Kim’s dreams of becoming a doctor.

The many synchronicities in Kim’s story gave me goosebumps, and hats off to her for making so many friends (and meeting important people) along the way. I admired the guts it took for her to defect and make a new life in a colder clime.

Above all, the book makes you think about what’s needed for healing from trauma and tragedy, both literally and figuratively. It’s about the power of faith − for overcoming debilitating emotions, like fear and rage; for forgiveness (“love your enemy”, as the Bible says); and even for bringing a family together again.

kim phuc napalm girl scars

Kim holding her first-born son when he was an infant. Motherhood gave her healing.

Today, Kim is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and she has a foundation to help other children of war. Her story is a generous gift she has given the world. It is a truly inspiring one of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude and grace. I’ll end with Kim’s words:

“We are all walking one fire road or another, be it paved by relational upheaval or financial upheaval, physical or emotional or the general inconveniences of life,” Kim says. “But when you and I come along with a posture of peace, or with gentle and kind words, or with an offer of prayer or a hug, or with anything that looks and acts like Jesus, it is as if we have used a fire extinguisher − the flames that burned hot settle down.”

To hear Kim speak about the book, watch this clip from Tyndale House Publishers.

napalm girl Adel Abdessemed

When it comes to the Vietnam War, Kim’s story is part of the popular imagination. The haunting image of her running away, naked and burnt, was made into a sculpture by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

 

REVIEW: City of Circles by Jess Richards

This poignant coming-of-age fantasy, which made me weep a little, deserves more praise than it’s received. Here’s why…

City of Circles by Jess Richards

City of Circles was published about a year ago. But it didn’t garner nearly enough buzz, IMO. The book’s author, Jess Richards, also wrote Snake Ropes, which was shortlisted for the COSTA award in 2012. The Guardian described Snake Ropes as “visceral, evocative” and “haunted by the influence of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood”. Such comparisons say something.

Many readers would enjoy the themes, messages and motifs in City of Circles. There’s alchemical and astrological imagery; and crows, horses, magpies and tarot cards feature (as do signs, omens and superstitions). Part of the story is set within a circus community, bringing other popular titles to mind (think The Night Circus and The Queen of the Night). It’s for readers who appreciate the fantastical, the magical and mysterious, with a lovely love story in the mix.

Given how much I enjoyed this read, I was surprised that it seemed to have fallen under the radar. But who knows … perhaps I missed some convos about it, or maybe it’s one of those slow-burners that’ll go on to be a sleeper hit some day.

City of Circles by Jess Richards

WHAT HOOKED ME IN

I’ve grown to understand the appeal of ‘ugly sexy’ men, so I was drawn to the hunchback character (the romantic lead) mentioned in the book’s blurb:

Danu, in mourning for her parents after a disease ravages the circus she calls home, begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past and reveal the secret of the locket her mother entrusted to her as she died. When the circus leaves Danu stays behind.

Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?

On opening the book for a squizz, I felt the impact of the book’s first line: “Dying faces are the colour of soiled linen”. Flipping through, the chapter titles gave an indication of the book’s themes. They read like blessings, or lines from a folk rhyme, and point to a transformational ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, too:

One for Sorrow
Two for Learning
Three for Refusal
Four for Yearning
Five for an Element
Six for Sold
Seven for Secrets, Never to be Told
Eight for Heaven
Nine for Wealth
Ten for Your Own True Self

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Danu loses her parents to illness, which ends their “safe group of three”, living together in their circus caravan. She’s frozen in grief, as if “behind glass”, and hunts for her parents in her dreams.

Danu needs a new place to call home. At first, she thinks she should leave circus life and join “the flatties” (as the circus folk call outsiders).

She knows some family secret could help her find solace in her grief and believes a locket of her mother’s holds the key − if only she had the courage to open it. She also remembers the name ‘Rosa’ being spoken by her folks in hushed tones. Who was (or is) she?

The answer must surely lie in the place she was born, where the circus will soon be headed: The City of Circles.

WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THE BOOK

The author’s writing style: Here’s an example:

“A warm breeze blows across her face. She exhales and rises from the wall. Going against the flow of pedestrians, she walks back towards Wringers Street. As she passes an alleyway, a tin can rattles along cobblestones. It’s the kind of sound stars might make if they’d fallen loose, and dropped to roll along an ordinary street.” (p. 250)

They gypsy theme: City of Circles shows you the best and worst of circus life, from the claustrophobia of living in such close quarters (“There’s never enough air in a caravan,” Danu says) to the warmth of singing songs around the fire at night.

I appreciated some of the wise words hidden in the folksy ditties. Take this chorus from a song Danu writes for an acrobatic sequence she and Morrie will perform:

“When threat of annihilation fills your lover with dread
If you’re not the same size then you’re ill-advised to wed
the bed’s a mile down when your wings get frantic
and rushed never lie with a lover who’s small enough to be
crushed” (p. 91)

Says something true about finding a partner with an equal fighting’ weight’, right?

The unlikely love interest: There’s great vulnerability in the intimacy between Morrie and Danu, and satisfying tension in her push-pull reaction to his desire for her.

Their moments of learning to tightrope walk as a duo are like an extended (and poetic) trust exercise, which works well as a device for helping build the tension and chemistry.

The City of Circles itself: Danu takes the bold step of starting over (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given that the title of the book suggests she’ll journey to the city she was born in!).

spice souk spices

Spice souk (photo by Katina Rogers, Wiki Creative Commons).

The author has created quite an original world here: The City of Circles is built on a volcano, named after a doll, and made up of three circles (each of which is a different sub-city/neighbourhood). The circles move around each other, “like a vast mechanical toy”. In the outer circle, the main trade is in spices. This made from some evocative scenes, like this one:

“In the glow of streetlamps, coloured dust swirls in red, orange, ochre, yellow, black, white … Mist descends through the night sky, magnified around the lights … Flavours and smells compete as colours dance. Allspice, cardamom, chilli … cinnamon, curry, pepper … cinnamon again, ginger … she’s drunk with it.” (p. 95)

Sounds like a place I’d want to spend a few fun nights in!

“The main street must be the hub of the outer circle. It looks to be a circle inhabited by rogues, entertainers and pleasure-seekers. Café tables are crowded with enthused and argumentative conversations. Thieves snatch and scarper, the drunken swagger, lovers kiss, and vagabonds plot in huddles on corners.” (p. 94)

It’s exploration of loneliness and isolation: This is where it got me in the feels. The book introduced me to the concept of The Anchoress. I’d never known of the term:

Anchoress in isolation medieval times

Anchoress Saint Madelberte-Maubeuge (Wikimedia Commons).

According to Medieval Life and Times, during the Middle Ages…

“An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchorholds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities. The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church.”

Danu remembers meeting an anchoress once, when she was nine. The woman had lived alone in a cave for 20 years. Danu asks if she gets lonely, to which the anchoress replies:

 “As long as I’m still curious, I don’t mind loneliness. I’ve deeply considered all the types of loneliness that there are, and invented some new words.”  (p283)

The anchoress then shares her list of these 15 words with Danu. I particularly related to:

Ignornly: The kind of loneliness which others comment on – as in, ‘I think he’s lonely’ and their expression shows sympathy, but also a little wariness, as if loneliness could be contagious.”

Idealone: A hankering for an imagined scenario – where it’s the idea of the situation that causes the loneliness.”

Upwrench: The rational side – loneliness needs to be felt and solitude is needed even if it’s not always comfortable. Letting loneliness come, but giving it a time limit: not wallowing.”

The story behind the story: It was clear that the author knows what it is to feel adrift, grieving, and lonely. An author’s end note tells of Jess Richards’ journey in writing the book, which involved the end of her marriage and her father’s death. These heavy, heartfelt experiences resonated throughout the book; I could sense emotional truth behind it.

Her marriage ended in the early days of writing, so she packed up her life and became transient, looking after people’s houses and pets. This is something I’ve been doing (I read this book during a housesitting gig).

Says the author: “At its core, City of Circles is about love and grief. It’s been a beautiful and truthful and difficult tale to write during my own strange journey. Perhaps all fiction is in some ways autobiographical, even while telling its own story.”

(There’s more to her story. But I’ll let you read about her Happy Ever After yourself.)

SO, HOW DOES IT END?

Like the best of endings, it’s bittersweet. Danu finds what she seeks, but not without a serious sacrifice. Which is pretty much how transformation works IRL, right?

While the character’s outer journey is in some ways the literal opposite of mine, I took it to be representative of Individuation, of finding the Self. It’s also about belonging; trusting and loving your Self; finding your centre of gravity, your foundation, on this earth.

This book is for all of us who seek a soul mate, love, care and nurturing – in other words, a place to call ‘home’.

 

 

A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.

 

 

 

Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

Current favourite #BookMeme

The choice of author name is particularly amusing, given the apparent beef between the two 80s alternative musos 🙂

Book meme