It’s book club at my house tonight, so I’ve had two milk crates of books cluttering up the dining room for a month, and now two brown bags full of new books.
Our club, The Observatory Book Club, has been going for well over 25 years, starting when most of us were young mothers living in and around Obs. Today we’re scattered across the Peninsula, but most of the original members are still with us. We include a couple of journalists, a former town planner, two doctors, a couple of academics and a retired (but not retiring) headmistress.
Originally we used the stokvel approach – we each paid in R20 or R30 a month to fund the purchase of a pile of books, because we were young and fairly poor and books were very expensive. But the collection of the money became problematic, and we also got a bit better off, so now the host just pays for the lot.
So bookclub here tonight meant a trip into town to the Book Lounge. We used to go to the closest branch of the best-known book chain, but they won’t give us a discount on non-fiction any more (do they think book clubs read only chick-lit?) so it’s the Book Lounge or Wordsworth.
I selected nine books which we’ll vote on, and probably be able to afford just three. Our rules allow me, as host, to choose one specific book that won’t be voted on, if I want to.
For years the host provided wine and chips, followed by tea or coffee and a bought tart (I seem to remember we were keen on Woollies’ pecan pie), but now we do supper. This means we have time to chat and catch up on the children and grandchildren before we get to the serious business of the books.
Several friends have told me their “book clubs” are really only excuses to get together with a drink and some no longer bring books at all, but we still do the books. This means we go round the group describing what we’ve read, usually starting with A for Andrea which means by the time we get to V for Vivien people are sometimes starting to flag.
After the general round we get to the new books and the vote.
So here are the nine books I chose from the Book Lounge yesterday.
Eat Your Words – the book club cookbook, by Louise Gelderblom (Quivertree)
We don’t usually do cookbooks or craft books, but with a title like this, how could I not? In her introduction Gelderblom says the best scenario of a bookclub meeting is “when it was you hosted the book club and everything went smoothly: you did not kill yourself during the preparations for the evening and your guests liked your books and loved your food”. The recipes range from quiches and flans to soups, curries, lasagna, “Italian hunter’s chicken” and lots of desserts.
Logical Family – a memoir, by Armistead Maupin (Doubleday)
Maupin is the author of the wonderful Tales of the City and its sequels, all set in San Francisco during the 1980s and the rise of HIV/AIDS among the city’s gay community. Maupin grew up in conservative North Carolina, so life in San Francisco was very different. The book chronicles his journey from “curious youth to ground-breaking writer and gay rights pioneer”. He was also searching for his “logical family”, the people he chose to call his own.
Letters of Note – correspondence deserving of a wider audience, compiled by Shaun Usher (Canongate)
Usher has trawled through letters, memos and telegrams of the famous and not-so-famous to illustrate the importance and charm of old-fashioned correspondence “just as the world becomes digitised and the art of letter-writing slips from view”. Authors include Queen Elizabeth (who sent a recipe for drop scones to President Dwight Eisenhower in June 1960), Iggy Pop, Katharine Hepburn, Leonardo da Vinci, Mick Jagger, Roald Dahl, Albert Einstein… The Spectator described this as “quite literally the most enjoyable volume it is possible to imagine. Every page is a marvel.” One letter I read at random is dated February 1946 and addressed to the editor of The Times of London: “Sir, I have just written you a long letter! On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste paper basket. Hoping this will meet with your approval, I am sir, your obedient servant, Alfred D Wintle.”
Uncommon Type – some stories, by Tom Hanks (William Heinemann)
Not only is Tom Hanks a double Oscar winner, he’s now writing short stories which are apparently very good. Author Ann Patchett says: “Reading Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time.” And actor Steve Martin says: “It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.” Stephen Fry says the stories are smart, engaging and humane. “I blink, bubble and boggle in amazed admiration.” Sound worth reading, then.
The Fifth Mrs Brink – a memoir, by Karina M Szczurek (Jonathan Ball)
Polish-born Szczurek is the widow of the South African writer Andre P Brink, and has written this memoir of the years they were together, from their meeting in Vienna in December 2004 until his death in Cape Town in February 2015. She was not, as their Rosebank neighbour assumed, an escort or an Eastern European mail-order bride, but a woman with a doctorate who wrote for a living. He was due to speak at a symposium in Salzburg, which would have entailed a three-hour train journey from Vienna, so Szczurek, 27, a co-organiser of the symposium,considered Brink’s age – 69 – and volunteered to meet him at the airport. “I literally picked up Andre Brink. At an airport, nogal.”
Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney (Quercus)
I like the idea of vast cold spaces (the reality of them not so much). So this appealed: It’s a novel about a woman who in 1892 is to lead an expedition to northern Greenland, against the expectations of people who believe this task is not for women. A Manhattan-born geologist Jakob de Beyn joins a rival expedition, and their paths across. Penney’s “icy landscapes cast …a lasting, almost hallucinatory spell”.
Letters from the Suitcase – a wartime love story, ed vt Rosheen and Cal finnigan (Tinder Press)
David and Mary Francis were an item for just five years, and for much of that time they were on different continents. They met in London in 1938, and appalled at the rise of fascism in Europe, became active in London left-wing circles. During the war she worked as a secretary in Bletchley Park and he was a young officer in the East. They wrote hundreds to letters to each other, and even after David’s death in India in 1943, his letters kept coming. Mary kept them in a trunk all her life, and shortly before she died she gave them to her daughter Rosheen, “and in doing so she gave me my father”.
Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn (Hogarth)
Alan Hollinghurst says St Aubyn is “perhaps the most brilliant English novelist of his generation”, so I’m mortified to admit I’ve never heard of him. Zadie Smith says of his writing: “Nothing about the plots can prepare you for the rich, acerbic comedy of St Aubyn’s world – or more surprising – it’s philosophical density.” Dunbar was a powerful businessman, but he handed the control his company to two of his daughters which he later realises was a mistake. Escaping from a care home in the Lake District, he is off to set things right, but the daughters are after him.
New Times, by Rehana Rossouw (Jacana)
It’s 1995 and Ali Adams starts a new job as a political reporter at The New Times, a weekly Cape Town newspaper. She lives in the Bo-Kaap, and her neighbours don’t think much of a woman dashing about after stories. The politics of the new democracy are often devastating, with a cabinet minister seeking bribes for a tender, the movement introducing an economic policy that betrays its promises to voters. Ali is coping – until an old enemy reappears. This is Rossouw’s second novel; her first, about life on the Cape Flats, What will People Say? won the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Science prize for fiction earlier this year. And I know Rehana – she was a fierce and affectionate colleague at The Argus.