Book 31 – Diane Awerbuck – Home Remedies

Books I've read

Home Remedies, Diane Awerbuck, fiction, south africa, women

Diane Awerbuck’s Facebook statuses are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read. Her short story, ‘Leatherman’, had me smiling (jealously) at its cleverness. She curated/edited/organized a collection of stories ‘the Ghost Eater and other stories’ that I have a short story in, and when I met her in person at the launch, she was funny. Like seriously funny.

So, I assumed that Home Remedies was going to be a comedy of some sort, or at least a comedic reflection on a life lived in Fish Hoek (unarguably one of the strangest places in Cape Town – it’s like a time capsule, but from not long enough ago). That folks, is why you should read the cover of books, and not buy them just because you want to be as funny as the writer. But still buy them (especially when they’re written by African women writers) because they will never ever disappoint you when they surprise you.

Home Remedies follows protagonist Joanna Renfield. She works in the Fish Hoek Valley Museum of Natural History and has just got a new boss (a struggle veteran with an identity crisis) because a skeleton in the museum has been linked to Saartjie Baartman. Hidden away somewhere in the museum are Baartman’s labia, and the boss wants them back. Joanna’s home life (with her husband and her small son) is something she has a sort of fickle ambivalence to. She so wanted it to be better than it was, but it just wasn’t better, so she keeps on keeping on feeling mildly disappointed with it all. Until one day a box with strange smell appears on the side of the road, and things begin to change.

The story speaks to the fragility of the peace created in small towns like Fish Hoek, and internally for most of us who are privileged enough to go about our lives free from violence in the home. It contrasts an ordinary life with extraordinary circumstances, highlights the violence of history and present, and presents the difficulty that comes when you make decisions about your life that made sense long ago, but don’t make any sense now. ‘Familiarity and contempt’ as Joanna describes it.

Awerbuck writes a tight sentence, and there are so many parts of the book that met my expectation of hilarity – like when Joanna’s asked if she’s found Jesus and replies that she didn’t know He was missing. She’s equally adept at crafting sentences that pierce through the veneer of the accepted situation and through this highlights the backdrop of fear that many of us live with.

One of the most magical and strange scenes in the book is the ‘toad moon’ scene. The imagery of the toads crossing the road with the protection of people shortly followed by a scene involving the extreme malice and violence of people was incredibly powerful.

So although this wasn’t the comedy that I had wrongly assumed it would be, it was a brilliant read, dense with history and present.

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Book 30 – Short Story Day Africa – Terra Incognita

Books I've read, Short pieces

Terra Incognita, Africa, fiction, speculative fiction

I’ve enjoyed speculative fiction for ages (even as far back as when it used to be called sci-fi) so it was really cool to find an anthology of it crafted by African writers. Plus – what a beautiful cover. This project will be the bankrupting of me I swear – African fiction writers have the best covers.

Short Story Day Africa is the 21st of June, and this is what it’s all about:

“When Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, addressed the TED Conference in 2009, she spoke of the danger of the single story, a distorted, one-dimensional view of Africa that sees the continent only through a prism of war, disease, poverty, starvation and corruption. Short Story Day Africa has established a day, 21st June – the shortest day of the year – on which to celebrate the diversity of Africa’s voices and tell you who we really are; what we love; love to eat, read, write about. We want to bring you the scents on our street corners, the gossip from our neighbours, let you listen to strains of the music we dance to.

Short Story Day Africa brings together writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, teachers and school children from all over the globe to write, submit, read, workshop and discuss stories – and foster the love of reading and writing African fiction. Because we have something to tell the world. About us. In our own voices.”

The Short Story Day Africa 2014 anthology ‘Terra Incognita’ is packed full of stories that will creep you out, make you laugh, and worry about the parameters of your daily life. Of course, I only read the ones written by women this time around, but I look forward to getting to the rest when this project is done. I must say that my personal favourite was Dianne Awerbuck’s ‘Leatherman’ which led me to read her book ‘Home Remedies’ as my final fiction book in the project.

Get this collection, and support the call for funds for the next one here.

Book 29 – Zukiswa Wanner – London Cape Town Joburg

Books I've read

Zukiswa Wanner, London, Cape Town, Joburg, African women, writing

I play this new game when I go to book shops. If they don’t have an ‘Africana’ or ‘South African’ section, I look at covers, and if they interest me, pick them up hoping that they’ll be an African women writer. So few are.

I think that’s one of the things that has stood out for me during this whole project which is coming to an end at the end of this month – WE NEED MORE AFRICAN WOMEN WRITERS ON EVERY SHELF IN EVERY BOOK SHOP IN THE WORLD. I’ll save this rant though for my last post for this year of reading though, and get back to the extremely enjoyable London Cape Town Joburg. 

I loved the cover of this book, and that’s what caught my eye in the shop. Of course, I knew already that this was a South African fiction from the Kwela Logo so that meant I could pick it up without hesitation. It is Wanner’s fourth book which is impressive in itself.

I was also attracted to the story because I’ve lived in all three of those cities. I wanted to know – what about London, Cape Town, and Joburg? What do they mean to the characters in this book? Is setting enough to carry a story? And I suppose for any reader of any book, I wanted to know whether the writer/protagonist thought the same things I did about those places.

The story begins with the main characters – Germaine and Martin – in turmoil after their son has killed himself. Without knowing anything about the characters you immediately feel for them, the space between what used to be their ease with each other. The discomfort of loss and silence and a pain that is not able to be expressed in words. Told by both of them, you get the feeling that one is not telling the whole truth, but you are not sure who.

Then, you go back to the beginning with them. You meet them when they first met, and the strength of those chapters where they have abruptly and wholly fallen in love at (almost) first sight, and somehow you manage to convince yourself that it will all work out. That the start of the book that you just read will somehow not turn out to be true.

I loved the scenes where they first met – the excitement at meeting someone who you connect with so strongly, of the questioning whether that feeling could be real, and of being unsure about things. I loved it because it was so clear that they were both trying to rationalise love, as some form of self-protection, while at the same time just knowing that this was it. As they grow together, they become such a strong team that even two moves and various career changes can’t shake them.

Suddenly though, something does. And at the end you wonder, can they get back. Because for them a home is not a place. Home is each other.

Wanner manages to capture a place through both the micro and macro things that happen there. I loved her descriptions of driving through London to go out, the ease of taking transport around to see people, and the business of the place. With Cape Town I liked the contrast between her studio and the place they lived. She made Joburg sound exciting and enjoyable (confession, I hate Joburg so this was a big surprise for me).

This book is incredible. Read it if you want to feel something.

You can read an extract here

Book 28 – Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train

Books I've read

The Girl on the Train, paula hawkins

I haven’t read a book this gripping in ages. I started it on the way to work, on a train, on Monday morning. All day at work on Monday I thought about it, and then read it on the way home again. Tuesday morning, same deal. But Tuesday evening, I came home and got straight into bed to keep reading and finished the whole thing. I literally had to force myself to stop reading to eat dinner – not something that has happened many times in my life I will tell you. I was gripped from the very first chapter, and was thrilled right to the end.

The book follows the story of Rachel, who takes the train to London each morning. Frequently, she watches the same house and starts to form a picture of the couple that live there. She believes they’re madly in love, and to an extent idolizes their relationship or at least the relationship she’s created for them in her mind. She calls them Jess and Jason, and imagines careers and lives for them. To her, they’re the perfect couple. Then one day, she sees something strange happen on their balcony, and soon, Jess is missing.

Rachel drinks too much, even on the train on the way home from work. The only reason she has started watching Jess and Jason’s house in the first place is because her ex-husband (Tom) lives in a house down the road with his new wife (Anna) and child – the same house that she and he lived in when they were married. For a while we’re not sure why, but you know that she’s not always 100% together, whether it’s because of drink or heartache. But, she believes she has seen something important that might help find Jess, and so she gets more involved than she should.

The exciting thing is, you don’t only get to hear from Rachel, but also from Anna and the woman Rachel soon learns is not called Jess, but Megan. Through each of their narratives you begin to piece together a more sinister tale.

The pace of this story is incredible. You keep thinking you’re going to stop reading, but then the end of a chapter lures you to the next. It was as gripping as Gone Girl – no, more gripping than Gone Girl. You’re never quite sure whose story to believe. Read it, read it, read it!!

Paula Hawkins was born in Zimbabwe, and now lives in London.

Book 27: Arja Salafranca: The Thin Line

Books I've read

Arja Salafranca, The Thin Line, South Africa, fiction, short story

Real people have complex lives. The ones who, from the outside, look as though they are enjoying idyllic stress-free existences are often the sources of the most conflict. It takes work to look fine all the time. That’s often why love is such a respite – it’s an opportunity to relax the guard we construct for others. To breathe above the water, if only for a moment. But, it is reckless to believe in stability, always.

The Thin Line, a collection of short stories from South African writer Arja Salafranca, provides snapshots into the lives of real, flawed humans. Short stories seem to place more pressure on a sentence, and Salafranca’s prose is tight. Many of her descriptions had me nodding jealously, aptly capturing some characteristic of South Africanisms.

That’ is because these short stories are not only about people, but also reflect the changing context and themes of South African middle-class existence. The theme of crime, emmigration, the fear of violence travel through many of the stories, revealing the characters through their reactions to these themes. Her devices are slick and impressive.

This collection is well-worth a read, especially for anyone who wants to write short fiction. I definitely learned a lot from her use of style and descriptions.