Tuesday, September 29, 2009

My favourite top ten essential “serious reads”

A friend of mine asked me last week to compile a list of must-read books. I gave it a bit of thought and decided to separate my favourites into various categories. So here is my list of books I have read that I felt have changed me in some way and the way I see the world.

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseni
Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the approval of his father and resolves to win the local kite-fighting tournament, to prove that he has the makings of a man. His loyal friend Hassan promises to help him - for he always helps Amir - but this is 1970s Afghanistan and Hassan is merely a low-caste servant who is jeered at in the street, although Amir still feels jealous of his natural courage and the place he holds in his father's heart. But neither of the boys could foresee what would happen to Hassan on the afternoon of the tournament, which was to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return, to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Bookseller of Kabul - Åsne Seierstad
Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad went to Afghanistan to report on the conflict. In the following spring she returned to live with a bookseller and his family for several months. The Bookseller of Kabul is the fascinating account of her time spent living with the family of thirteen in their four-roomed home. Bookseller Sultan Khan defied the authorities for twenty years to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul. But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women - including Khan's two wives - and the more public lives of the men. The result is an intimate and fascinating portrait of a family which also offers a unique perspective on a troubled country.

Cold Stone Jug – Herman Charles Bosman
"'You'll get yourselves in serious trouble if the Governor finds out you keep the whole prison awake … romping about and laughing in the condemned cells.' I wondered vaguely what more serious trouble we could get into than we were already in."
Few people following his trial would have guessed that the young teacher sentenced to death in November 1926 for the murder of his stepbrother would live to become one of South Africa's most famous writers. Herman Charles Bosman spent nine days in the death cell, before the sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment. When Bosman was released on parole some four years later, he began his astonishing writing career as journalist and unequalled storyteller.
A project to re-edit the texts of all his works in their original, unabridged and uncensored form by 2005, the centenary of his birth, came into being late in 1997. This book, hailed as Bosman's masterpiece of irony, forms part of that project. It is a gripping story that vividly stays with one like a personal experience.

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
'It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.' So begins this epic, mesmerizing first novel set in the underworld of contemporary Bombay. Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear. Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, the two enter Bombay's hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries, who seek in this remarkable place what they cannot find elsewhere. As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city's poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia. The search leads him to war, prison torture, murder, and a series of enigmatic and bloody betrayals. The keys to unlock the mysteries and intrigues that bind Lin are held by two people. The first is Khader Khan: mafia godfather, criminal-philosopher-saint, and mentor to Lin in the underworld of the Golden City. The second is Karla: elusive, dangerous, and beautiful, whose passions are driven by secrets that torment her and yet give her a terrible power. Burning slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison agonies, criminal wars and Bollywood films, spiritual gurus and mujaheddin guerrillas - this huge novel has the world of human experience in its reach, and a passionate love for India at its heart. Based on the life of the author, it is by any measure the debut of an extraordinary voice in literature.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
Newspeak, Doublethink, Big Brother, and the Thought Police - the language of 1984 has passed into the English Language as a symbol of the horrors of totalitarianism. George Orwell's story of Winston Smith's fight against the all-pervading party has become a classic, not the least because of its intellectual coherence.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China – Jung Chang
One of the best-selling and best-loved books of recent years, with a new introduction by the author. The publication of Wild Swans in 1991 was a worldwide phenomenon. Not only did it become the best-selling non-fiction book in British publishing history, with sales of well over two million, it was received with unanimous critical acclaim, and was named the winner of the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year Award. Few books have ever had such an impact on their readers. Through the story of three generations of women -- grandmother, mother and daughter -- Wild Swans tells nothing less than the whole tumultuous history of China's tragic twentieth century, from sword-bearing warlords to Chairman Mao, from the Manchu Empire to the Cultural Revolution. At times terrifying, at times astonishing, always deeply moving, Wild Swans is a book in a million, a true story with all the passion and grandeur of a great novel. For this new edition, Jung Chang has written a new introduction, bringing her own story up to date, and describing the effect Wild Swans' success has had on her life.

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee
A divorced, middle-aged English professor finds himself increasingly unable to resist affairs with his female students. When discovered by the college authorities, he is expected to apologise and repent in an effort to save his job, but he refuses to become a scapegoat in what he see as as a show trial designed to reinforce a stringent political correctness. He preempts the authorities and leaves his job, and the city, to spend time with his grown-up lesbian daughter on her remote farm. Things between them are strained - there is much from the past they need to reconcile - and the situation becomes critical when they are the victims of a brutal and horrifying attack. In spectacularly powerful and lucid prose, Coetzee uses all his formidable skills to engage with a post-apartheid culture in unexpected and revealing ways. This examination into the sexual and politcal lawlines of modern South Africa as it tries desperately to start a fresh page in its history is chilling, uncompromising and unforgettable.

Q&A – Vikas Swarup
The Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionare may have been based on this novel, but there are remarkable differences. The novel reflects the true brutality and corruption that is rife in India, but the book is also remarkably quirky despite the stark undertones. Former tiffinboy Ram Mohammad Thomas has just got twelve questions correct on a TV quiz-show to win a cool one billion rupees. But he is brutally slung in prison on suspicion of cheating. Because how can a kid from the slums know who Shakespeare was, unless he is pulling a fast one. In the order of the questions on the show, Ram tells us which amazing adventures in his street-kid life gave him the answers. From orphanages to brothels, gangsters to beggar-masters, and into the homes of Bollywood's rich and famous, Ram's story is brimming with the chaotic comedy, heart-stopping tragedy and tear-inducing joyousness of modern India.

Schindler's Ark – Thomas Keneally
In the shadow of Auschwitz, a flamboyant German industrialist grew into a living legend to the Jews of Cracow. He was a womaniser, a heavy drinker and a bon viveur, but to them he became a saviour. This is the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler, who risked his life to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland and who was transformed by the war into a man with a mission, a compassionate angel of mercy.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
On the hottest day of the summer of 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge. By the end of that day, the lives of all three will have been changed for ever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl's imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

If you have any favourites you would like added to this list, please feel free to add them to the comments box.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quote of the day

"Over the centuries, mankind has tried many ways of combating the forces of evil... prayer, fasting, good works and so on. Up until Doom, no one seemed to have thought about the double-barrel shotgun. Eat leaden death, demon."
Terry Prachett

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Last Contintent

An extended quote from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel, The Last Continent. It is a parody about all things Australian.

Rincewind had attracted the attention of at least one other watcher apart from whatever it was that dwelt in the waterhole.

Death had taken to keeping Rincewind's lifetimer on a special shelf in his study, in much the way that a zoologist would want to keep an eye on a particularly intriguing specimen.

The lifetimers of most people were the classic shape that Death thought was right and proper for the task. They appeared to be large eggtimers, although, since the sands they measured were the living seconds of someone's life, all the eggs were in one basket.

Rincewind's hourglass looked like something created by a glassblower who'd had the hiccups in a time machine. According to the amount of actual sand it contained - and Death was pretty good at making this kind of estimate - he should have died long ago. But strange curves and bends and extrusions of glass had developed over the years, and quite often the sand was flowing backwards, or diagonally. Clearly, Rincewind had been hit with so much magic, had been thrust reluctantly through time and space so often that he'd nearly bumped into himself coming the other way, that the precise end of his life was now as hard to find as the starting point on a roll of really sticky transparent tape.


The leader looked down at him. 'Name your price for that little battler, mate!' said Remorse.

'Er... three.. er... squids?'said Rincewind muzzily.

'What? For a wiry little devil like that?He's got to be worth a coupla hundred at least!'

'Three squids is all I've got...'

'I reckon a few of them rocks hit him on the head,' said one of the stockmen who were holding Rincewind up.

'I mean I'll buy him off'f you, mister,' said Remorse, patiently. 'Tell you what - two hundred squids, a bag of tucker and we'll set you right on the road to... Where was it he wanted to go, Clancy?'

'Bugarup,' murmured Rincewind.

'Oh, you don't wanna go to Bugarup,' said Remorse. 'Nothing in Bugarup but a bunch of wowsers and pooftahs.'

''s okay, I like parrots,' mumbled Rincewind, who was just hoping that they would let him go so that he could hold on to the ground again. 'Er... what's Ecksian for going mad with terrified fatigue and collapsing in a boneless heap?'

The men looked at one another.

'Isn't that "snagged as a wombat's tonker"?'

'No, no, no, that's when you chuck a twister, isn't it?' said Clancy.

'What? Strewth, no. Chucking a twister's when... when you... yeah, it's when you... Yeah, it's when your nose... hang on, that's "bend a smartie"...'

'Er-' said Rincewind, clutching his head.

'What? "Bend a smartie" is when your ears get blocked under water.' Clancy looked uncertain, and then seemed to reach a decision. 'Yeah, that's right!'

'Nah, that's "gonging like a possum's armpit", mate.'

'Excuse me --' said Rincewind.

'That ain't right. "Gonging like a possum's armpit" is when you crack a crusty. When your ears are stuffed like a Mudjee's kettle after a week of Fridays, that's "stuck up like Morgan's mule".'

'No, you're referrin' to "happier than Morgan's mule in a choccy patch" --'

'You mean "as fast as Morgan's mule after it ate Ma's crow pie".'

'How fast was that? Exactly?' said Rincewind.

They all stared at him.

'Faster'n an eel in a snakepit, mate!' said Clancy.'Don't you understand plain language?'

(Taken from The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Terry Pratchett – the legend lives on!

Terry Pratchett is one of those people whom you could say was born to be a writer. Born in Buckinghamshire in 1948, he began his career as a journalist in 1965 at the tender age of 17. When interviewing a publisher in 1968, he mentioned that he had written a book, The Carpet People. In 1971 it was published and the reviews were good, if few. The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata followed in 1978 and 1981 respectively.

After taking a job as Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, he published the first of his now famous Discworld novels, The Colour of Magic. After the fourth Discworld novel, Mort, was published, Pratchett gave up trying to earn an honest living and became a full-time writer. Since then he has steadily produced an average of two books a year. He is Britain’s second most successful writer, behind only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter juggernaut, and his sales in the U.K. alone stand at more than 2.5 million copies per year.

The Discworld novels are set on a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A'Tuin. Popular characters in the series include Granny Weatherwax and the witches of Lancre, Captain Vimes of the Night Watch in Ankh-Morpork, Rincewind the (failed) wizard, Death and the History Monks.

On 11th December 2007, Pratchett announced that he had been diagnosed with a very rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, called posterior cortical atrophy. In a matter of hours, over 60 000 messages had been left on his website by concerned fans. However, Pratchett is still alive and as well as can be expected. He has said that the disease has impaired his ability to type and he now dictates his books and is also experimenting with speech-recognition software.

Amazingly, he has managed to write yet another book, bringing the number of Discworld novels to an astonishing 37. Unseen Academicals is about a football team being established at Unseen University, an academic establishment known for its magic, meals and wine, but not, alas for their sporting abilities. The highly anticipated book is due for release in the UK on 6th October 2009, although it may be a little longer before it is launched on South African shores.

Can you wait?

J.M. Coetzee makes the Booker shortlist

Good news for South Africans - we may be plagued by troubles in the sporting department, but at least we have one South African doing us proud. J.M. Cotzee has made it through to the shortlist of this year's Booker Prize for his book, Summertime. Coetzee won the Booker for Disgrace in 1999 and The Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

With two Bookers already under his belt, if Coetzee manages to beat the competition again he will be the only person ever to have won three Booker Prizes.

Summertime is a fictionalised memoir that focuses on John Coetzee as a young writer in his thirties. His book faces stiff comptetition from the bookmaker's favourite - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel about Henry VIII's advisor, Thomas Cromwell.

The winner will be announced on 6th October this year, and will receive a £50 000 cheque as well as a predictable jump in sales. Last year's winner, The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, sold a cool half million copies and has been translated into 30 languages.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Terry Pratchett interview - on his book "Nation"

Terry Pratchett - Science Fiction or Fantasy? BBC interview

Quote of the day

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Quote of the day

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

C.S. Lewis

South African-Indian literary festival - Words on Water

Next week an exciting literary event will be taking place for all book lovers, especially those who, like me, have a passion for Indian and African authors. The South Africa-India literary festival “Words on Water: South Africa and India in conversation” will be held at the Origins Centre at Wits on Friday 12th September and at the Wanderers’ Club on Saturday 13th September.

Indian best-selling non-fiction writer Ramachandra Guha and acclaimed novelist Amit Chaudhuri will be on hand to sign books and interact with the public. Other Indian authors present will include Shobhaa De, a top Indian best-selling author and Arshia Sattar, whose translations of old Sanskrit tales have been published by Penguin.

South African “chick lit” writers, Angela Makholwa and Zukhisa Wanner and Glamour magazine editor Pnina Fenster will be part of a panel discussing popular fiction.

There will also be discussions on literary depictions of Johannesburg and Calcutta, postcolonial politics and poetry sessions, with a mix of both South African and Indian writers and artists on each panel.

The literature festival is part of the “Shared Histories” festival which puts the spotlight on Indian dance, music, film, performance, craft and fashion, running from 23rd August to 31st October.

Consul General of India, Mr. Navdeep Suri commented: “In the context of intensifying relations between South Africa and India, this festival aims to bring a kaleidoscope of contemporary Indian culture to mainstream South African audiences. In recent years, India has produced a number of award-winning writers in English. The literature component of the festival showcases leading Indian writers for South African readers.”

Entrance to the festival is free. For further details visit the website www.cisa-wits.org.za or contact Isabel Hofmeyr Isabel.hofmeyr@wits.ac.za, 011-717-4142 or Zaheda Mohammed zahedam@zamail.co.za.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poll: What is your favourite genre in novels?

Quote of the day

"You can understand and relate to most people better if you look at them - no matter how old or impressive they may be - as if they are children. For most of us never really grow up or mature all that much - we simply grow taller. O, to be sure, we laugh less and play less and wear uncomfortable disguises like adults, but beneath the costume is the child we always are, whose needs are simple, whose daily life is still best described by fairy tales."

Leo Rosten

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

So many books, so little time...

As you may have noticed, I have not selected an author to feature for this week, due in part to the physical demands of Ramadan, lack of sleep and general malaise. I have also resolved to spend a little more time writing on a couple of projects I started on a while ago and put on hold when I started the blog. But that doesn't mean the Storytellers Web is going to come to a standstill. Next week we will be featuring one of Britain's best-selling authors, Terry Pratchett. He has been such a dedicated writer that he has habitually churned out a book every year since he left his regular job (too many moons ago to mention politely). Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease two years ago, and although he is doing as well as can be expected, our thoughts are with him and his family.

Terry Pratchett has millions of fans around the world, many of whom simply cannot imagine a world where there are no new Pratchett books coming into the bookshops. If you are a Pratchett fan, drop me a line - tell me which books and characters are your favourite and when you were introduced to the Discworld - I look forward to hearing from you!

Quote of the day

"I thoroughly disapprove of duels. If a man should challenge me, I would take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet place and kill him."
Mark Twain

Quiz: Storytellers Book Quiz