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Karin Schimke

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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Thank God for libraries and librarians…they are a source of hope

Chapter & Verse column

By Karin Schimke©

The boy is mad about the girl. She’s not like the other children. She’s very quiet and she likes to read. She reads him poetry and he wouldn’t mind so much, if only she’d allow him to rest his head in her lap while she does.

Later she asks him to walk to the library with him. They walk through Valhalla Park, which he says is like walking through Bosnia: depressing and dangerous. At the library he makes fun of the covers of the Afrikaans Mills & Boons-type book she likes and she laughs at him. Then finds an Andre Brink’s book. She loves Andre Brink. She reads him the rude bits and they laugh. Later they walk back through the “war zone”.

This story is sketched in one of the poems by Nathan Trantraal in his debut collection of poems called “Chokers en Survivors”. If his name seems familiar to you – and not from his Afrikaans poetry – then you may have seen it on the Cape Times’ weekly comic strip called The Richenbaums.

But this is not about Trantraal or poetry or comic strips. This is about synchronicity. No, this is about libraries.

Not long after reading the affecting story of teenage love in a library, Valhalla Park library bleeped on my radar again.

Apparently many readers there have an insatiable taste for the books of Sophia Kapp. Kapp, a lecturer, is a writer of Afrikaans novels – novels that are extremely popular. So popular that the librarians at Valhalla Park called her publisher and asked whether there was any chance at all that she could be a guest at the library during women’s month to talk about the empowerment of women through reading.

Although she lives up country, Kapp came to Cape Town and braved last week’s spectacular Cape Town storms to speak to her fans at the library, where she made an impassioned plea for women to claim their rights, not just be aware of them.

Then, on Saturday, I read a long piece in an Afrikaans newspaper weekend supplement in which the writer visits his local library for the first time in many years, having slid into the comfortable middle class happiness of being able to afford his own glossy books. I had mixed feelings about the article. I thought it was an evocative homage to libraries as central and vital to many, many people, but was deeply irritated by his insistence on naming the race of the people he saw at the library (except when they were caucasian, which he clearly deems to be the default human race).

That aside, the piece warmed me again to the role of community libraries, and made me want to seek out the smell and feel of my local library, where the chief librarian always looks flustered and smells as though he baths once a month, but can be relied on to find what I want and always politely enquires about how my own writing is going. It made me want to find Susan again, the children’s librarian, who knew my children’s names and had a reliable hand in guiding them towards books they would like when they were little.

The Open Book festival begins in Cape Town this weekend. Its organisers aim to make a library for a school that doesn’t have one. This means collecting around

­­5 000 books with which to stock it.

They’ve managed this impossible-seeming task before. I have no doubt they’ll do it again.

I imagine every ounce of sweat, every cent, every over-time hour, every thought and every tiny effort put in by the people who love books – the authors, like Kapp, the publishers, like Lapa who sponsored her trip, the librarians, like those at Valhalla Park who care so deeply about the people they serve – and for the first time in weeks I feel almost mawkishly optimistic about life.


Sanitation too. And better health care.

But please, God, please, many, full libraries.

Originally published in the Cape Times and


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That’s it! When text in a book engages an uncommitted reader

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher, says “…the text…can wring from me only this judgment… : that’s it!”

It seems an over-simplification, but it feels true for me. Before analytical cogs shift into gear, before thought and response, feelings arise in the reader of a novel or a poem. If I do not know what I am about to read – bring no expectation except a wish for a basic pleasure – I will be engaged before I am committed.

Unless the text repels me.

Text – writing – has several sneaky ways of repelling the reader and few of them have to do with subject matter. The off-putting things in a book are myriad and could be minor and are sometimes hard to pin precisely: a lack of authenticity; repetition; cliché; staccato sentences or their opposite – the long-winded, single-sentence paragraph; inconsistencies in punctuation; incorrect grammar; a lack of musicality in language; one-dimensional characters; plot holes; incredible turns of event – it’s a long list.

Sometimes small, almost invisible doses of a combination of these things undermine the reader’s ability to lose him or herself in the story. The story or poem lacks the magic required to hold its audience.

Books are meant to be a conversation: the author “speaks” expecting to be “heard”. The retorts will be private and the author will seldom come to know how an individual reader has responded. But a good, caring author will always know that they are not engaged in a sole enterprise. They will keep their reader in mind, care to communicate something as well as they possibly can.

Real writers, writers who care about communicating, write as a first step, knowing that their text is not sacred, that for it to be ready for a reader it will have to pass through many hands. Hands that will tinker and temper, slash and hack, pull and push, until the writing, the information, the poem, the story is in its best possible form.

Real writers respect and love – fight with, resent, get irritated by, but essentially love – editors. Editors are what stand between writers being taken seriously or falling by the wayside on that long and unforgiving road of publishing.

I say this because I have come into contact, in various ways, with the sticky issue of self-publishing in the past few weeks. I am not against self-publishing per se, but I am hard-pressed to say why not since no self-published book has ever made me say “that’s it!” They are too riddled with mistakes and ego, too self-aggrandising in length and pompous in tone to stimulate anything other than a desire to move on to the next book on my pile.

I will not speak of those. Let me tell you what did make me say “that’s it!” this month, a list topped by an Afrikaans book which, if it is never translated will be a sore loss to world literature.

Sirkusboere by Sonja Loots – with its striking cover design, a yellow poster advertising a circus show which features real Boer War heroes – is an many-legged triumph of caring publishing. The story (I won’t give it away – but it is based on astounding fact) is told with humour, with a tail-swishing elegance of language deployed to entertain and engage, with pace and with brio.

I also read the new Joyce Carol Oates novel Mudwoman (review below) which lured me away from any task that seemed pointless in comparison to knowing what happens.

I have been slowly working my way through the newest poems by Kelwyn Sole in Absent Tongues, truly one of South Africa’s foremost poets, whose poems are filled with anger and poignancy over his homeland – with uncomfortable feelings gently worded for those of us who are stumm with sadness.

These books cared deeply about being read. They are well written. More critically: they are well edited.






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Many modes of violence makes for a month of forceful reading

Violence has many modes.

Subtle, sly and underhand. Overtly, erratically aggressive, or relentlessly “gently” teasing.

It is the unquestioned daily terror of powerful institutions against individuals, and the small daily terrors of weak individuals displaying their intellect, muscle or money like weapons to cow others.

It can be passive, psychic, verbal, physical, sexual, global, local. It can mask itself as “Mommy knows best” or “Daddy is the boss” or “God says”.  It is not gendered. It has all colours, all dogmas, all cultures in its thrall. It is doesn’t only hold sway in the province of human interaction, but thunders in the sky, from under the earth, in the wind and on the waves.

We can let life pass us by by every moment fearing it. Many do. We can do our best to avoid it. We can assert (and believe) that we are incapable of it. We can resist it, plot ways to neutralise it. Narrowly sidestep it, or crash right into by accident. We can even use violence against it, pre-emptively or in response to it.

But violence remains. Violence is.

The story of extreme violence – the kind the religious might pray fervently to avoid, while the irreligious engage in other forms of magical thinking – is what one Eli Sanders wrote about in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article entitled The Bravest Woman in Seattle. She reports on the testimony of a woman in court, who must comb-through and nitpick, under cross examination, a night of such chilling brutality, it almost seems unreal.

Sanders’ writing is so simple that its effects on the reader seems disproportionately perverse. Before the reader’s un-avertable eyes, a woman speaks in court, and Sanders reports on it.

No violence is done to the reader, but to read it, is to absorb violence. Its diminishing aftershocks – washing on to my shores years later, from a place I have never been, done to a woman whose name I do not know, and conveyed through the miracle of satellite and fibre-optic cable – made me heave. Where my hand was clapped over my mouth, tears pooled. I will never forget that story. Not its details, nor how it was told.

In my German novel, In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts by Eugen Ruge, I read about institutional violence, enforced through fear of betrayal and personal disgrace. It is the multi-generational story of a politically active family in the DDR and spans several decades. It is painfully beautifully written, each voice so idiosyncratically personal  in tone and content, it seems impossible it was written by only one person. It is also my favourite kind of novel: one which explores the inevitable intersection between the political and the personal.

The English translation of the title is “In times of diminishing light”. It won the Deutscher Buchpreis, and translation rights have been sold, so it should soon be available in English.

I was briefly interrupted in this when I picked up When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, by Greg Lazarus, to assess which reviewer to give it to, but got hooked in by its menacing undercurrents of violence. It consumed me quickly.

In between I judged short stories for the South African Writers College annual short story award (all violent), and read This is my Land (see review below).

And I began to thoughtfully chew on the flavoursome, knotty gristle of Johann de Lange’s poems in his latest collection, called Vaarwel my effens bevlekte held.

Content, tone, imagery, reaction. It was a month of violent reading. I continue to wrestle. – Schimke is an independent writer and journalist, a poet and the Cape Times books editor.

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The exhiliration and sweet relief of facing life’s horrors vicariously

Mostly we read because it pleases us, but sometimes what we read is not “pleasing”, or “enjoyable” but we don’t stop just because the going gets rough. There is some other reward that is not related to our simple understandings of what pleasure might be.

This month I’ve been struggling with what that other reward might be because friends kept asking me what Nadine Gordimer’s new book No Time Like The Present is like.

I don’t have a simple answer. It’s not “excellent” – to be recommended in that serious or breathless voice we save for books that really do sweep us off our feet.

It’s not even really “good” in the usual ways: brilliant writing that shakes itself loose of the page and becomes airborne; unusual concepts approached in new and interesting ways; delightful dialogue that places you directly into someone else’s conversation; a plot you can’t predict.

The fact is, the book is a plodding walk on the steadily increasing incline of South Africa’s of democracy, and it is written so thickly and in such convoluted style – a style that all but disdains the reader – that on a purely aesthetic level it comes across as a chunk of concrete hacked off a modern ruin, rather than a finely moulded piece of clay from the hands of a sensitive ceramicist.

To be brutal, the easy word that comes to mind – the one people would understand most easily in reference to a work of art with a particular effect – is that Gordimer’s new novel is depressing, a word that makes most people turn sharply away. And I don’t want to do that because I think it should be read.

Gordimer is an “important” writer. She is “relevant”. I could use those imperatives, appealing to people’s sense of duty, or interest in the South African situation – even to their own vanity: some readers rate themselves as slightly superior beings for their ability to get through notoriously difficult books.

Really, though, the reason I think we read some books – and Gordimer’s is a case in point – is because it activates our worst fears. And without understanding rationally why that would be desirable, it is a force in us as strong as the desire for pleasure. We want to be scared witless. But as vicariously as possible.

I don’t presume to say something new this matter, but here’s my thinking: if we have our worst fears lead into the light through the once-removed experience of reading about other characters’ experiences, we are finding our way towards a resolution we would not otherwise experience.

The idea, for instance, of being murdered, abducted, tortured and raped is absolutely abhorrent, and yet thrillers and crime fiction easily rate as the most-read fiction books on the planet – other than love stories, which represent their hopeful opposite. Maybe it has to do with facing down a monster. With imagining how we would respond in certain situations. With testing our internal limits through imagination, rather than through – God forbid – direct experience.

Maurice Sendak, the octogenarian writer of the classic Where The Wild Things Are, has always been a strong advocate of scary books for children, postulating that children want to be afraid. Anyone who’s ever been a child – all of us  – know this: how fright – the kind contained in ghost stories, or the peek-a-boo games that give babies such a fright and then make them giggle – is thrilling to the point of inducing visceral anxiety, and how overwhelming its resolution or relief is.

“I refuse to lie to children,” said Sendak in a recent interview. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

That’s why, I suppose, I am glad that this month I read hard and upsetting stuff like No Time Like the Present and So Much Pretty, an unsettling novel by Cara Hoffmann, and – most depressing and frightening of all – an essay by Arundhati Roy – who wrote the 1997 Booker-prize winning The God of Small Things -  entitled Capitalism: A Ghost Story.

Because my horror was being contained and managed for me by writers who have already faced the Wild Things and returned not just safely, but alloyed. – Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the Cape Times books editor.

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Gordimer’s merciless beam

No Time Like The Present

Nadine Gordimer

Picador Africa

Sweeping, cohesive, almost epic – and I use the word advisedly – in its scope, No Time Like The Present is the literary thermostat under the tongue of democratic South Africa. But to get the reading you first have to break an almost impossible code.

Nadine Gordimer remains the nation’s one true instrument for taking the political and sociological temperature, but in this, her fifteenth novel, she makes no concessions to the reader; appears to have no truck with stylistic niceties; considers – it seems – no-one and nothing  in a fever to get down what must be gotten down.

The reader must simply learn to read over, through and under the convoluted stream-of-consciousness writing. The prose is inconsistently and oddly punctuated. Truncated sentences contain subordinate clauses which contain their own subordinate clauses. Points of view flit and alight not just from chapter to chapter, but sometimes within paragraphs.

It’s rough going. It is very, very rough going.

And yet, here it is: the one novel that sums it all up, that combs through the knots and lice of democracy’s tangled hair and seems to smooth it all out for our stunned observation. Minutia swept together – sparkles and shards and the dust of a thousand post-freedom political storms and intimate tussles of conscience in a book which balks at nothing.

Steve and Jabu are the poster post-apartheid couple – he, white, middle-classed, born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother; she, the educated Zulu daughter of a church elder and school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. Their children are coloured, their friends, ex-Umkhonto We Sizwe cadres, their values and ideals in line with the struggle they fought for freedom in South Africa.

Now they are in “the present time”, finding a way to live “(a) normal life. (At last?) What is that. In what time and place?”.

They move from a flat to a suburb, she from teaching to law, he from working in a paint factory after making bombs in the underground, to being a science lecturer at university. Each grapples earnestly with the challenges of a split country, doing extra work – for free – in their attempts to help knit together a badly fractured society.

In a very general way, post-apartheid writing has followed two main, decidedly uncheerful themes: in non-fiction the tomes that record the rotten arms deal; in fiction, crime – that burgeoning genre garnering our authors international book deals.

Gordimer manages a far wider range, her riff more perplexed, more doleful and more poignant than her cerebral, biltong-tough writing makes apparent. There are zero simple answers – there is no black and white in freedom, though black and white underpins it all – that will account for the dismaying turn the country’s fortunes  has taken.

“For this we fought?” asks a character.

She is thorough, punctilious and meticulous as she lays out the map of free South Africa, pointing bluntly at that which sickens and appals. And she does this – convincingly – through the eyes of former freedom fighters, loyal supporters of the ANC.

There is no public event or concern she avoids: capitalism, poverty, degradation of the environment, HIV/Aids, crime, corruption, immigrants and xenophobia, emigration, school bullying (and the underlying reef of violence that nudges sickeningly above ground at various times), education, electricity, service delivery protests, affirmative action.

There is no personal emotion that she doesn’t lift out of the mess to examine: responsibility, duty, betrayal, patriotism, the desire for a “a normal life” (which, questions Steve, might also include for him and his privileged family the Epicurean “right to happiness” – and the guilt this produces in one who, like all freedom fighters, put the greater good before personal satisfaction), the shame of racism, the horror of watching principled men and women fall to greed and genuflect to the requirements the ascension to power lays before them.

Gordimer speaks eloquently to the development of the self – “The synthesis of the self” – portraying the country too as a self that must grow. The country is an adolescent, she has one of her characters think, offering it not as an excuse for bad behaviour, but an almost exasperated, perhaps even hopeful, observation of the obvious.

She also reflects on the dismay when the thing that is being grown (a person, a self, a country) grows skew, gnarls in unexpected ways, showing selfishness, and dangerous concessions to cult of the individual.

Marriage, making whole, growing up – these are leitmotifs trailed by both the characters and the milieu.

In public Gordimer has spoken clearly and consistently against the government’s Protection of Information Bill, colloquially known as the secrecy bill. In the privacy of her disciplined dedication to daily writing, she has laid out why in this novel. Just like apartheid South Africa needed her and her courageous ilk then, so we continue to need our vociferous, critical writers and artists now.

There is no time like the present. The past is – in all ways but the most critical, in its legacy – a different country. What happens now – what has happened in the past 18 years – is where Gordimer has pointed her merciless beam.

In doing so she again will make herself a tolerated – not welcomed individual – amongst the touchy, over-sensitive rulers, just like she was in apartheid SA. Good. She’s our golden thorn in the government’s flesh.

Like loyalty to a country in the face of extreme disregard for its citizens, this book is hard work. But its rewards are far more certain and immediate. It must be read.  – Schimke is the Cape Times books editor. This reviewed appeared in the Cape Times on 23 March 2012).



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E-book can be a bit e-rritating but a good story triumphs

I like my books dirty.

The reverence that some hold of the product – the paper thing between covers – is not something I appear to be capable of.

I came to this realisation because I read my first ebook this month on a tablet given to me as a gift.

After fiddling around with the new contraption I realised that I wasn’t going to use it much unless I did something with it I really wanted to. So I ventured into the mysterious world of on-line book buying and came away with Jeffrey Eugenides new book The Marriage Plot.

I’ve written before that I don’t see myself as someone who would easily convert to ebooks. So I tested the hypothesis and my main finding was that I’m not very nice to my paper books. It won’t do to balance a cup of coffee on the e-reader on the way to the stoep. I can’t let it drop to the floor next to the bed as I do when I start nodding off, or read it in the bath or on the beach or in the park or while I am frying onions.

I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.

I don’t feel that way about paper books. I know this is anathema to many people. It’s also why I am loathe to borrow books because I know I work them hard, that my consumption of them requires them to negotiate the rough terrain of careless hands, pencil scribbles, dog ears, and my obsessive reading habits which require me to take the thing everywhere – meaning it gets stuffed into grubby handbags and gets read over solitary lunches and during chocolate binges.

When I am being careful with a book, I read less, slower and with greater difficulty.

Another draw-back of this e-book awe is that I feel limited by carrying around something that is so desirable to so many people. I didn’t take it to the park with the kids. I didn’t leave it on the passenger seat when I went hopped out at the shops. In short, I became more furtive about reading because I was worried someone was going to bop me over the head and carry away my gift.

I am not dismissing ebooks though, and have come to the conclusion that this is not an either/or debate. The point of all books is to convey the story. The vehicle is almost secondary. And once Eugenides hooked me, I read with appetite and delight, sometimes even forgetting I was holding a mini computer instead of a paperback. And he – Eugenides – was the second author of the month (after I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna) that made February a dazzler the other months this year are going to have a hard time outshining.

Eugenides ended rather abruptly, what with me being unable to assess how the close the end of the book was from the little bar at the bottom of the reading pane. From there I splashed into Milan Kundera’s Immortality with too much lightness, the philosophical themes being unaligned with the ones I am currently engaged in – and splashed right out again into something fizzier, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a radical and surprisingly enjoyable departure from my usual reading preference. Now I am swimming in a placid lake of a book: The Fox In The Attic by Richard Hughes, epic and atmospheric.

Over lunch just now some crumbs fell on to the page and the cheese left a tiny smear of grease. The book and I are now bonded by the mess of the prosaic. – Schimke is a poet and writer, and editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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Options rather than answers: the rewards of novels and non-fiction

The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.

Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”

It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.

The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?

Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.

There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction  in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.

Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.

Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.

My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.

Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.

The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.

My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky –clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.

Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.

For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.

He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.

Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.

Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.

And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader. – Schimke is a poet, author and columnist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.


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Chomping at the bit and surviving terminally unfunny caroons

This month I did a lot more “looking at” than “reading” books. This is probably because I was a little bored with my novel– Kristen Tranter’s book The Legacy – which was decidedly un-thriller-ish despite the cover shout claims (see review below).
Because I kept thinking I was going to finish it quickly, I didn’t read what I have been chomping at the bit to, which is Ariel Dorfman’s Writing The Deep South, of which I snuck only the preface – a copy of the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture he delivered in Joburg last year.
The section is already underlined and notated and scruffy…I sense the whole book is going to be an exercise in furious pencil conversation with this bilingual, intense, prolific, questioning and vigorously political writer. I am enjoying the parallels he draws between Chile and South Africa and my long-standing desire to visit that country for writing and research has surfaced again in an urgent way.
I also managed to read about four stories from the collection Jonathan Jansen put together with Nangamso Koza and Lihlumelo Toyana called Great South African Teachers. The stories are short and most are written by people who are not writers, but who felt moved to remember the teachers that made them think or feel or see differently. I was delighted to find a story about a teacher I knew at school and who was universally adored by her students. This  is required reading for anyone who’s ever been to school, known a teacher, taught, or railed against their education. The book requires me to use that tired word “inspiring”, one I do not bandy easily.
I also finally got around to reading Ivan Vladisclavic’s Double Exposure, which in turn lead me back to one of my most treasured birthday presents ever, David Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Revisited. The book contains – apart from his stark, cool black and white pictures – essays by Ivor Powell and Antjie Krog, both of which are prime examples of that most thoughtful and stimulating of genres. But it is the photographs I go to most enthusiastically. They  draw the reader (or “looker”) into a time and place that feels like both like yesterday and several centuries ago; that is at once hauntingly familiar and disturbingly alien.
My next “looking” book was a small, fat, colourful thing called Faceless. It is a collection of cartoon strips by South African Bruce Sutherland.
Even though I’d rather write about edifying or truly entertaining creative works, I must pause before this galling piece of rubbish to note that Sutherland’s work is profoundly unfunny and pathetically unoriginal (ancient regurgitated jokes from the frontline of the war between the sexes). Labelling it “Non-PC” does nothing to excuse this ridiculous waste of paper.
Sutherland’s cartoons would do better to remain on the net which has perfect side rooms for the people with unevolved sensibilities I imagine are his famed adoring audience. It did not surprise me to find that Sutherland makes knives by hand as a hobby…all that pent up misogyny cannot be calmed by simply making stupid cartoons in which blow jobs, anal sex and the desire to kill your wife are about the highest expression of your, um, creativity.
In order to refresh my bored eyes I then returned to picture books I will never tire of looking at: all the work of the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan, Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful black and white interpretation of the The Spider and the Fly (based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt) and the most delightful of all possible antidotes to Sutherland’s pathological fear and hatred of women, Anthony Browne’s Piggy Book.– Schimke is an independent writer, a poet, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.
“This appeared in Schimke’s monthly Cape Times Chapter and Verse column” on 25 November 2011.

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When downsizing means passing on beloved tomes to others

I am grateful I became an adult in a time when – and a suburb where – one was not expected to have grand material ambition. Whether our parents had money or not was tested purely against the critical question of whether there’d be enough of it for us to study after school without having to get bursaries or loans on our mediocre marks.
The desire to study was based not so much on any sense that we were clever enough to be great, but on the desire not to have to spend our adult lives in the dreary shops and offices where our parents tried to earn enough money to help us avoid having to do so when we left school.
Books were acquired in three ways: for birthdays and Christmas, at the library and by borrowing. At university for a spell my friends and I cottoned on to second-hand book shops and we’d make little bundles of cheap used books for one another’s birthdays.
We were undiscerning readers. What landed in our hands, we read. If it was ours, we kept it. The literature those of us who studied languages bought with our hard-earned waitressing money sat happily alongside cheesy love stories and other pulp on our slow-growing book shelves.
The idea of getting rid of books never arose, that I can remember. Books were read and kept, and shared, and – hopefully – returned.
At some point the collection gained its own momentum, its own raison-d’être. Having books on shelves, displayed and easy to get to became a thing separate and equally as important as reading a book. It also became, I realised in my twenties, a kind of status symbol: visitors were either enthralled and envious, or appalled and a little repelled that I spent my money on books and actually read them all. It became, in short, a way of refining friendships and alliances – that head-cocked sideways stance of a stranger in your home perusing your bookshelf is, often, the thrill of recognising a kindred spirit.
Five years ago my husband and I embarked on house renovations which were, in essence, an attempt to accommodate our books. Two weeks ago – because life never quite works out the way one plans – I had an enormous book sale at my house and that which didn’t sell is going to The Bookery. My collection – which numbered in the thousands – has been whittled down by about three-quarters.
A few years ago, the idea of getting rid of my books would have filled me with anxiety so acute I would immediately have turned my thoughts elsewhere. And yet the culling now was good, even a little joyous as I passed on some loved tomes to other book lovers.
What I kept were my favourite authors, all my poetry, all my dictionaries, all my favourite children’s book illustrator/authors, books I bought or read in faraway places, books signed by authors or inscribed by friends, and those books which – for sometimes inexplicable reasons – subtly changed the course of my life…like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read at a very young age and was the book that made me want to write.
The rest have gone away, but they’re not gone. They’re stored in the folds of my brain, under my fingernails, between each vertebra – the dust of their words are lodged in my wrinkles. Their work with me is done. But their work is not finished.

– Schimke is an independent author, columnist and poet, and editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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I may get to love an e-reader but I’ll never be touchy-feely with it

My friends rave to me about buying an entire thesaurus for about ten cents, about reading War and Peace for free, about no longer having book clutter.

The e-reader is no longer on the horizon. It is here.

But I haven’t caught the fever yet.

When my house gets too full of books, I give them away. Sometimes I leave books I’ve enjoyed in public places, remembering the time I found a paperback on the Tube in London when I had nothing to read and no money.

Beg and borrow are noble reading traditions after all.

Also, I’m an inveterate book fondler and I suspect the excitement of stroking and sniffing an e-reader will wear off after just one book.

My friend Lisa – whose house is stacked floor to ceiling with books – recently got an e-reader.

“It’s nicer than I thought it would be,” she told me, “but the funny thing is, as soon as the book is finished, I forget the story and the characters immediately.

“Sometimes I forget I’ve read the book. That never happens with proper books.”

Is it the tactility of books – the heft and weight of them, the texture and smell of the pages, the crack of the binding glue – that makes them memorable, we wondered.

This month a hardcover arrived in my pile for review. The title is This Is Not The End Of The Book, a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac.

The words of the title are spread right across the dust cover from the back to the front, so that you don’t see the entire title simply by looking at the front of the book. That is memorable.

What is memorable too is the easy conversation inside its pages between two indomitable minds. Are Eco and Carriere predicting the end of the book? Are the lamenting that predicted end? I don’t know yet.

I am in the foothills of their extended conversation – an open-mouthed eavesdropper in the presence of beautiful brains.

The book is not just a celebration of the written word, but also of conversation, a pastime perhaps more threatened than the printed book.

I also finished The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, an odd and lovely novel about a girl who is tortured by her mouth, an organ which picks up the nuances of feeling in the food people cook. What a gentle and unusual take on family relations, what a tasty read.

The quickest book this month was Smut by that very English, very dry Alan Bennett.

Fist-sized and short – perfect for winter nights when you only want one hand exposed to the cold – the little yellow book contains two stories as sweetly subversive as The Uncommon Reader, an earlier Bennett story about the Queen of England becoming a book borrower at the Westminster travelling library which calls once a week at the palace.

If paper books are doomed to death by screens, I’m making the best of their dying days by sniffing and fondling the real printed thing all the more passionately.

I can imagine loving an e-reader, but that’s just one thing to love. Whereas each bound wad of words I thumb and weight is a brand new love affair that stretches beyond the story it contains, imprinting itself on all my senses.

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