Tag: reading

The enduring mystery of secondhand bookstores

 

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Buying books is great, period. The ruffle of new pages and fresh ink. The creak of an untested spine. The velvety texture of untouched paper. The intrigue of an undiscovered world only hinted at in the blurb on the back. The hush of the store, usually an oasis of calm in a sea of shopping centre din. The weight and feel of a book about to become your own.

If buying new books is an adventure, then buying old ones is a mystery. The dusty air and narrow corridors of your typical secondhand bookshop lend itself well to an atmosphere of the unknown, the puzzling and the uncanny. Books, once new, now curl and rustle with age. Their smell sours. Their covers are tarnished with dirt, their once glossy titles pitted and scratched. Their pages are dog-eared, sometimes scribbled on, often thickened with the spill of some unidentifiable liquid. Names and dates adore title pages. The book’s spine has been cracked, once, twice; pages threaten to spill out and seek solitary solace.

The books themselves can be any and often every genre; a secondhand bookshop does not discriminate. Bestsellers share shelf space with obscure titles. Westerns and YA lit regard each other uneasily from across the room. Classics leer at Danielle Steeles. The surplus Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer novels prove that even as forgiving a market as the book market has its limits.

Yet the books themselves aren’t the end of the mystery. Their histories are an intrigue on their own. Where, one wonders of the Afrikaans poetry volume warped with green-tinted water, did you sit before you came to my shaky little bookcase? And you, William Golding volume, practically unopened and probably never read – who were you an unwanted Christmas present from?

Sometimes the books will share some of their secrets, yet these only deepen the mystery rather than resolving them. Old letters, cards, newspaper clippings, donation slips, brochures, even photographs will often tumble from an old book’s pages. Proving, perhaps, that readers are an inventive sort: anything can be used as a bookmark. Some of the secrets shared are lively. A book about prayer hinted at a woman’s early history, from her beginnings as an eager student enthusiastically involved in church activities, to her stint in the military and her marriage (dutifully reported in the local paper, the clip laminated and saved).

Other secrets are not as happy. I remember a book lovingly inscribed to a husband. It was filled with various birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and other romantic notes. In one, the wife thanks him for an exercise machine he bought her. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, with hearts dotting her i’s. Where are these spouses now, that such a large chunk of their relationship could be abandoned in the annals of a secondhand bookshop?

Not inappropriately, secondhand bookshops are filled with a thousand stories. The march of old children’s novels and academic textbooks tell their tales of growing up, the fantasies changing from knighthood and solving mysteries to more practical subjects like computer engineering and mathematics. The diet and exercise books are always either over or underused. Recipe books often come splattered with a sampling of the recipes they contain, their spines beholden to a family’s favourites. There are gardening books for all seasons; history books too historic; outdated travel guides to other places: Europe and Asia and the Cape. Foreign languages languish without someone to keep learning them. And the religious section – filled with shelves and shelves of daily devotionals, old hymnals falling apart at the seams, their songs now unsung, and small inspirational hardcovers that, if their sheer number is any indication, failed to inspire.

People may wonder how I could spend hours browsing a used bookstore. It smells funny, they may say, and they’d be right. It’s too dirty, they may point out, and I wouldn’t argue. But while my hands become sticky with the grit of books who’ve lived real lives before I met them, I’m also thinking about the person (“M de Jager”) who donated their entire Anne Rice collection to our SPCA’s charity bookshop. The novels are old, unglamorous paperbacks with yellowing pages and thick, outdated typeset almost as cheesy as their content. What, I wonder, happened between this person and Anne Rice’s vampires? Was the breakup sudden, or was it a long time coming? What replaced these books, if anything?

But as I turn Interview with the Vampire over in my hands, most of all I wonder this: where oh where will I find space for all these books in my house? It remains the deepest mystery of all.

 

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Book review: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

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I feel kind of proud of myself that I got around to reading a bestseller while it’s still a bestseller and not years after the fact. I’m not going to lie, the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as protagonist Tom Hazard in the film adaptation prioritised this book’s position in the “to read” pile. His production company was confident enough about the novel that they bought the film rights before it was even published, so it had that to commend it.

And what do you know, it really is a good book. I was a tad ambivalent about Haig after Reasons to Stay Alive (still don’t know why, don’t @ me), but How To Stop Time was such an effortlessly good read that it’s almost criminal. For all its depth of character and theme, Haig keeps it simple, poignant and promising, and I won’t lie, there were some wet eyes near the end.

How to Stop Time follows the story of Tom Hazard, a man who suffers from a rare condition which causes him to age more slowly than other people. The love of his life has been dead for centuries, and the only thing that keeps him going is his search for his daughter Marion, who has the same condition he has. The book jumps between the present and the past, sketching in the details of his life and the historical people he’s met, and the loneliness of being lost in time.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2017).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.14/5)
The best feature of the book: Haig has a talent for keeping his protagonist very human despite his odd condition.
The worst feature of the book: I’m tempted to say “more historical detail” but that probably would have slowed it down.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. The novel has fantasy elements but it’s not fantasy. It’s thrilling but hardly a thriller. If you like “the pain and beauty of life” kinds of stories, you’ll love this.

Book review: Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig

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Mention of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive kept flitting across my Twitter timeline, so I picked it up to read earlier this year. It’s a memoir of sorts of the author’s struggle with anxiety and depression over the years. But it’s also a letter to his younger self, to the “present tense” of his darkest mental health years (and anyone who has ever had depression and/or anxiety as their present tense). It’s a quick read, human and empathetic, and I don’t regret reading it.

I found a lot to relate to. At one point he describes depression this way:

Depression, for me, wasn’t a dulling but a sharpening, and intensifying, as though I had been living my life in a shell and now the shell wasn’t there. It was total exposure. A red-raw, naked mind. A skinned personality. A brain in a jar full of acid that is experience.

I especially like that last bit, because depression is a lot like being pickled in your own brain juice, unable to escape. Still, I wasn’t mad about the book as a whole. Perhaps it’s because my depressive episodes are generally sans anxiety. But there’s a deeper disconnect there, one that I can’t quite put my finger on. I like his writing, so it’s not that. He seems like an okay dude, so it’s not that either. I don’t know why (which is super annoying), but there’s a barrier between this book and my whole-hearted approval when by all accounts I should have loved it.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Reasons to Stay Alive
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2015).
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.18/5)
The best feature of the book: It offers an honest, hopeful look at mental health issues.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the glib, although I think maybe that’s just Haig’s writing style.
Trigger warnings: It speaks frankly about depression and anxiety.
You’ll like this if… You’re into memoirs or have ever struggled with mental health.

Unfinished books: 2017 edition

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This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

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Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

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Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

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History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

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Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

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The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

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The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

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The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

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Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

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Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

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The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

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Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

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Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

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The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?

Book review: The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw

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It’s not often that an author can say the very agency they decry in their book helped rocket it past its initial print run of 20 000 copies. But that’s exactly what South Africa’s State Security Agency did when they served Jacques Pauw and his publishers with a cease and desist notice for sharing “sensitive information” about the state. Pauw’s book, launched at the start of November, was suddenly all anyone could talk about. The print copies quickly sold out at some of South Africa’s biggest booksellers, and the ebook version climbed to number 15 on Amazon’s international charts. A pirated pdf version of the book spread like wildfire across WhatsApp and other social media sites, ensuring that many South Africans previously uninterested in the book read it.

To his credit, Pauw’s book is absolutely worth all the fuss. Pauw is a retired journalist for whom the temptation of a story about the people keeping the hopelessly corrupt South African president Jacob Zuma in power proved too tempting. He chronicles the way Zuma and his henchmen gutted and crippled South African state organs, like the State Security Agency (SSA) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS). The extent of the rot is staggering, and the lengths to which Zuma and his cronies went to keep themselves paid and in power is astounding.

Despite its contents, the book was a pleasure to read. Pauw writes knowledgeably and knows how to keep his reader interested. The sheer amount of information the book conveys would have been off-putting in someone else’s hands, but Pauw handles it well. It’s a page-turner.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The President’s Keepers
Author: Jacques Pauw
Publisher: Tafelberg (2017).
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.67/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s a compelling, well-researched read.
The worst feature of the book: Some of Pauw’s “old guard” shines through at times.
Trigger warnings: Nothing that I’m aware of.
You’ll like this if… You like nonfiction or political exposes.