Category Archives: READING

MY NEW BOOK-THEMED BLOG


 

I subscribe to a number of WordPress blogs about books and reading,  and after enjoying them for several years, it finally dawned on me that maybe I should identify the book-related material in my  own blog  and start a second blog, devoted to books. Ping! Lightbulb flash.

So: I’m happy to announce the launch of THE BOOKSMITH BLOG  http://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com .  Thanks again to WordPress.com for their blogging platform.  They really do make blogging easy for  wrinkly writers like yours truly. I hope you visit my new blog, even if you’re not an official Booknut like me.  If all else fails, it has quite a funny header pic.

Despatches from Timbuktu  will continue to act as my electronic soapbox where I comment on modern life, South Africa, social trends, my travels around the Western Cape and Cape Town, plus  anything else that might  attract my butterfly attention.

And not to overlook the fact that Despatches From Timbuktu  is  the one place where Chocolat can express her displeasure at my poor performance as her Personal Assistant. Sorry, Chocolat,  but you have no idea how much work building a new blog entails . I promise there’ll be fish for supper tonight. How’s that for an apology?

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FROM LONGFELLOW TO LONGMIRE


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While tidying my bookshelves, I found  my copy of the poet, H W Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Donkey’s years ago, when I was probably between the ages of 5 and 9 , my Mother introduced me to Hiawatha. My Mum enjoyed poetry, and had a copy of the book. She read aloud to me, and I loved the rhythmic sing-song cadence of the poem, especially the lines:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,

      Of the shining Big-Sea water.

Stood Nokomis, the old woman,

Pointing with her finger westward,

O’er the water pointing westward,

To the purple clouds of sunset.

For years I mistakenly thought the poem was written in rhyming couplets, but after re-reading, I discover it is not. In fact, the metre of Hiawatha is borrowed from a Finnish collection of poems that Longfellow had studied. The lines are unrhymed … notwithstanding this, the lines have a simple flowing rhythm.  This explanation is from the introduction by D C Browning, to my 1960 J M Dent & Sons (London) edition, in The Children’s Illustrated Classics series.

I picked up my copy 6 years ago, while on a tour to Matjiesfontein, of all places! Matjiesfontein is a tiny, quaint , restored Victorian village in the middle of the South African Karoo. The little village came to prominence  during the Anglo Boer War, but these days it is a prime tourist destination for history buffs, and travellers seeking a jolly good lunch en route up the N1 to Johannesburg. In the souvenir shop there were two bookcases, which I dived into, and to my joy, there was Hiawatha.

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The paper jacket is remarkably intact, given that the book was published in 1960. Insects have nibbled a few holes in the jacket, but all in all, for a 50+ year old book, it’s not bad. The pages are foxed, and there’s a musty smell, despite my airing the book in the sun on a  windy Cape summer’s day.

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It’s a ‘proper book’ in that it has a hardcover, which has a repeat woodblock print pattern of an Indian brave in feathered war bonnet on the inside.  And best of all: there are two-colour line drawings on every page of the text, drawn by Joan  Kiddell-Monroe.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Kiddell-Monroe. As you can see from the photos in this post, the drawings are simple and elegant.

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I think it must have been my early introduction to Hiawatha that led to my interest in the American West. Which was odd, considering I was a child with a British Colonial heritage and lifestyle, growing up in Central Africa. Or possibly it was the influence of the exciting black and white spaghetti Westerns that I was very occasionally taken to see; but only if I’d been good.

In my teen years I devoured every single Western that Zane Grey wrote – and he wrote over 90 of them*. I loved every page. Men were men, and women were glad of it. The horses were magnificent and the villains were real baddies. Nothing complicated. You knew where you were. Right would triumph after tests and trials, and the lone ranger would ride off into the sunset. *His book sales numbered 40 million ! (thanks, Wikipedia).

My Western phase petered out after my Zane Grey teens, but was revived with gusto with the advent of Sheriff Walt Longmire onto our TV screens about 4 years ago. This time we were looking at the modern West – murder and robberies, Indians on The Rez (reservation) gambling casinos, domestic dramas,  and Lou Diamond Philips as the impassive Standing Bear, sidekick and  friend of said Sheriff.  I’m hooked all over again.

Quite what H W Longfellow (an American poet and academic in the Victorian era) would make of the modern shenanigans in the West, I shudder to think. No more exploits of hunting, fishing, physical prowess, warring,  battling with the winds,  wooing the fair Minnehahha . Modern Westerns are much grittier, and far less mythical.  It looks as if childhood discoveries  through poetry have influenced me at different stages of my life. I’m glad Mum introduced me to Hiawatha!

 

 

 

 

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Obsessive reading


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I wish I’d saved the blog post. I should have saved the blog post. But I didn’t. So this blog post is a bit hazy on the exact details. Dear blogger: whoever/wherever you are, thanks for inspiring me, and my apologies for not  naming you and your blog, as my source.

These apologies are the preamble to my reaction about an obsessive reader.  The blogger cheerfully told his readers that he had read the play Hamlet  and one of P G Wodehouse’s  Jeeves  novels (and there are fourteen of them, so I’m excused on fudging the exact title) OVER 100 TIMES.  And this, mark you, over a period of a few years, when he was a student. It sounded as if the blogger was in his mid-20s’. Apparently he was studying Hamlet  for academic reasons, but Jeeves?  Perhaps after all the dramatic Scandinavian crime and gloom he needed a bit of a respite? What could be a better tonic that P G Wodehouse’s imperturbable, unflappable butler, the immortal Jeeves? I’m a Jeeves fan myself, so I can understand his affection for the man.

But the point is: imagine reading the same work – makes no maybe what it is: a play, a novel,  an essay – over one hundred times! I’m sure we all have a much-loved book that we’ve read, and re-read many times.  For example, I have re-read one of my all-time favourites, The Last Samurai  by Helen de Witt at least four or five times. It’s a wonderful story, and a great read.  But one hundred times?  No.

The blogger revealed that re-reading Hamlet  so frequently made him aware of  the language, the subtleties, the nuances; the phrase ‘close reading’ which is much in vogue, covers this approach.  I don’t know that the Jeeves novels offer the same depth. PG was a master of the neat phrase, the bon mot, dialogue that required no frills or trimmings to drive the story forward and make his characters immortal. I wish I could write dialogue the way PG did! Mind you, Wodehouse lived into his early 90s and was a prolific writer, almost to the end, so there’s hope yet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._G._Wodehouse

His output was prodigious. Encyclopaedia Brittanica tells us:  He wrote more than 90 books and more than 20 film scripts and collaborated on more than 30 plays and musical comedies.

I wonder if any of my readers have obsessively read one of their favourites over and over again? If so: do tell!

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/PG-Wodehouse-Jeevesbooks-in-order/lm/R1Z4EX9G0UR446

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USEFUL BOOKS ON MY SHELVES


 

 

The Rough Guide to CULT FICTION . I bought this on a sale (can’t resist bargains) and it has been invaluable.  I often refer to it if I need more info on an author – it has intriguing snippets about their personal foibles, as well as literary info about their books. I’ve spent happy moments browsing its pages, reading up on Gothic Chic,  identifying Japanese Manga,  researching Kafka,  discovering new authors. In terms of value for money, I should have paid ten times more for this sale bargain.

1000 BOOKS  You Must Read Before You Die General Editor: Peter Boxall. This hefty reference book  is my ultimate go-to  guide. I prefer it to Google. My generous friend Marita sent it to me as a gift – and considering it was mailed from Australia, I’ll bet the postage came to more than the cost of the book.

The book starts  pre-1700 with Aesop’s Fables and ends in the 2000s. There are indices of book titles, and authors’ names, plus a general index. The book stock is glossy paper, so the many  writers’ portraits are high quality.  It’s concise, comprehensive, informative, and meticulously indexed. If you can find a copy (published 2006) and afford it, buy the book.  You won’t regret it. I wouldn’t be without mine.

The shorter Oxford English Dictionary –  two  massive tomes – heaven save us from the Longer Version! But invaluable, despite the weight lifting involved to find a word.

Collins’ SCRABBLE DICTIONARY  – treasury of weird words. You will be unbeatable at Scrabble, no question. Bet you don’t know what zoppa means. I certainly didn’t until I stumbled across it. (I’m showing off – slap me on the wrist).  One of my favourite new words is fice – means ‘a small fierce dog’.

Old Friends From Far Away – American writing teacher Natalie Goldberg’s brilliant take on writing memoir. She’s feisty, accessible, practical – she’s more real than real. Wannabe writers should  carry this book everywhere.

Wildlife of the Cape Peninsula –  – Common Animals and Plants  by Duncan Butchart : this handy little guide enabled me  to identify The Malachite Sunbird  that briefly visited my garden. The bird was so large, I was baffled because I had always thought  Sunbirds to be dainty little creatures. So now we know: they come super-sized as well!

Snacks & Treats for Sustained Energy – Gabi Steenkamp & Jeske Wellmann

A recent Birthday gift; low fat, low GI  recipes.  As a diabetic, this is the ideal cookbook for me, and surprising to report, the results haven’t had too much of the  sawdust factor. So often, diabetic recipes are loaded with oat bran etc. etc. that the end result tastes pretty much like … you guessed it : sawdust.

 

 

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THE X-GENERATION v.s. PROUST


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I’m supposed to be  reading Proust, but I’m not. I’m  playing hooky.  Instead of slogging through Proust I’m giggling my way through the cult classic by Douglas Coupland The X-Generation.

 During yet another of my tidy-outs in preparation for the annual Cavendish Centre Charity Book Sale, I found the battered little paperback, its screaming pink cover only a little faded, and I thought : must read this again before I turf it into the Donations Box.  And believe me, the escapades of the Silicon Valley ‘90s generation make a welcome escape hatch from Proust’s rural village life, in Combray, France.

I can hear you thinking:”Why on earth is this woman reading Proust?”

Good question. The blame falls squarely on the Norwegian novelist, Karl Ove Knausgaard, he of recent fame – see my blog post titled Making Soup & Contemplating Life. Having finished Vol I of his family saga and reading lit crits of his novel/memoir, whatever it is, I kept finding comparisons between KOK and Proust. My curiosity was piqued.  I’d never read Proust. Which was hardly surprising, given the fact that the 1950s Rhodesian education system did not venture into the dangerous waters of European culture. The closest we came was a route march through a Shakespeare play and Keats’ poetry. I suppose I might have encountered Proust had I studied Literature at University, but my life took a different direction, namely towards earning a living, and not the quiet groves of academia.

So at this late stage of my life, I’m dipping my toes into European cultural waters and I’m not sure I’m a happy bather. Proust is so long-winded! Verbose would be an understatement. One sentence can colonise an entire page. At this stage of my life, I’m definitely a citizen of the blogosphere, a traveller thru the World Wide Web, where short sound-bytes do the trick. Even Wikipaedia has short entries.

So picking up Generation X  and taking a breather was pure relief. And a great deal more entertaining, I should add. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and do so – it’s fresh, even though it was first published in 1991. Apparently Coupland was tasked to write a non-fiction account of the birth cohort that followed the wave of baby-boomers, but he wrote a novel instead, and voila! Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture hit the shelves. The book follows the lives of three disillusioned and alienated twenty-somethings, living in LA. It sounds grim, but it isn’t.  Slowly it became a cult novel, and one of his catchphrases McJob *  became part of late 20th century language;  *(indicative of a boring, regimented, lowly-paid occupation – do I need to spell out the analogy between this and the famous American food chain? No? Good! I don’t want to be sued by an American mega-food-corp).

As for finishing Vol 1 of Proust’s In Search of  ….   well … umm … maybe. Fortunately a kindly librarian gave me an extended two month loan period on the book. I’m going to need it. And possibly an extension on that. On the other hand, I could also say ‘fuggedaboutit’ and return it to the Library. Time will tell.

And yes, I can see why others have compared KOK to Proust – they both share a passion for trivial detail, but at least Knausgaard looks like a rock star. Weary readers can always rest their eyes on his pic inside the book jacket for light relief!

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MAKING SOUP & CONTEMPLATING LIFE


 

Because I’m currently reading, no : absorbing – or trying to – Mary Paterson’s book “The Monks and Me”, I’m paying careful attention to peeling carrots, the rasp of the peeler, and plop  of the peel landing in the bin. Next comes the peeler over the cylindrical shape of the sweet potato – no rasping this time – just the thin purple peel dropping silently into the bin; noting the myriad little indentations still clad in skin. Taking the washed  potato to the old yellow and white chopping board; the cool,wet pressure against my left hand as I grip it firmly, the pressure of the knife handle in my right hand, the effort to force the knife through the thick object. Then the crisp chop-chop-chop sound of the knife as I slice the potato into batons. The creamy white flesh against the bright yellow tea-kettle design on my antique chopping board. Paying attention.

How much attention do we pay to our daily lives? In my case – very little. Whilst I may be multi-tasking  all day long, for how much of this time am I really present with my actions? Not much. I know I spend 90% of my time preoccupied with plans, thoughts, ideas, reminders, rehearsing speeches, more plans , the occasional  memory fragment, more plans … and so it goes, all day long. Mary Paterson went on a 40-day silent retreat at Plum Village in France, the monastery of renowned Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. She diligently followed the routine, the schedule, the meditation periods, the Noble Silence, the instruction on Mindfulness (be here now!  as Ram Das so succinctly said, so long ago).  And it paid off. As she puts it, “she returned Home” to a peaceful place within.  The book is very readable, in short chapters, one for every day of her retreat. So: if you’re feeling beleaguered by pressures of modern life, read this book! And start  paying attention.  Slowing down.  It works.

Another writer who is  currently receiving a lot of attention, is the Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his mammoth exploration of his life titled in Norwegian ‘Min Kamp’ – yes, that’s right, ‘Mein Kampf” in German and in English : My Struggle. It was Socrates who proclaimed : . An unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is not the life for man. KOK has certainly taken this dictum to heart.

One Goodreads writer sourly recorded that it had been too much of a struggle, and she’d abandoned the book. Others lavished 5-star reviews, while others wondered why the trivial minutiae in his daily life was of any interest or importance to his readers. I saw him  being interviewed by Razia Iqbal on BBC arts & culture programme, Talking Books,  recorded at the Hay Book Festival this year, and was smitten by his Viking good looks – those blue eyes and that silver hair! However, I’m not sure that I’m up for a 3 000+ page exposition of his life, some of which appears to be sordid and difficult e.g. the aftermath of the death of his alcoholic father. Not only this, but the account of Knausgaard’s life is not a memoir, says the author, it’s a novel, despite being a blisteringly true account of current events within his own family. Some of whom are now not speaking to him. No, really, he cannot have it both ways. Either it’s a memoir, or it’s fiction. And if it’s a factual account of events and people in his life, including himself, then surely its ….  Oh I don’t know. Life’s too short. Go figure.

For some reason, whilst chopping veg for my soup (and obviously not paying attention to what I was doing  – yet again!) I recalled reading a book by Marilyn Robinson titled Gilead*, which is narrated by an old minister, living in a small American town, at the end of his life,  and the reader is privy to his reflections about his life. This remarkably short book was a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, humility and wisdom. I think I’ll buy a copy of Gilead  and forgo the task of enduing the Norwegian saga.
*Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ambassador Book Award. Gilead takes the form of a letter from an ageing Iowa preacher to his seven-year-old son. Written in simple and sparse prose, it is an uplifting meditation on life. http://contemporarylit.about.com/

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RE-DISCOVERING TREASURES ON MY BOOKSHELVES


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Sometimes events have unexpected side effects.  For instance: I recently had my house re-carpeted. This meant I had to pack away all loose items, my collection of cat memorabilia, and oh woe – the bookshelves. The Carpet Man took one look at the overloaded shelves, shook his head, and said We can’t move those – too heavy. You’ll have to pack them away and then we’ll move the empty bookcases. Fair enough – I knew how heavy they were. Amazing how sheets of paper within cardboard covers have such a cumulative dead weight. But they do.

So: Clement came into my life. His day job is working for the window cleaners who come once a month to clean my windows (note: I don’t wash windows or cars; I’m too short to reach. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.I engaged him to come and help pack the books. He’s a skinny little Malawian, who works all the hours/days that he can, in order to send money back to his family in Malawi; speaks beautiful English and works with vigour. In a couple of hours the job was done, the boxes stored in the spare bedroom, and every flat surface covered in towering stacks of books. We ran out of boxes, so we got on to Plan B. Just love Plan B.  I noticed Clement eyeing the books with interest, and offered to lend him a novel, which he took with alacrity.

New carpeting duly installed, I arranged for Clement to help unpack the books, which we speedily did. We pretty much just shoved them into shelves, and left it at that. Since then I have had a delightful time re-arranging them into themed shelves –  novels, travel, poetry, cookery books (I discovered a brand new Jamie Oliver which I don’t appear to have even opened let alone read or cooked from; I have a vague memory that I won the book in a competition). My Tarot books have been packed into suitcases and banished under the spare room bed. Right now I’m not in the mood.

My Buddhist books have returned to their previous shelf in the bedroom. I’ve made a mammoth pile of fat, oversized books and stacked them on top of the case, behind the bedroom door. What’s there? Dombey & Son  (I keep meaning to …) . The Gary Snyder Reader (wilderness, eco-Buddhism) Shantaram , Collected Short Stories of the World – 2 vols,  IQ84 ( a Murakami triumph) The Collected Saki  (that bitter twisted wit) a Georgette Heyer Omnibus (comfort reading when I’m in bed with ‘flu) The Alexandria Quartet (I really DO want to re-read this). And so on. I tend to be put off by very thick books, but usually enjoy myself once I pluck up the courage. A good case in point is The Swan Thieves  by Elizabeth Kostova, a historical mystery/romance, featuring the French Impressionists – I couldn’t put it down, and read ‘til I was cross-eyed.

I chucked more books into the Diabetes SA Donations Box. They’ve done well out of my recent housekeeping efforts. The comic novels I dusted off and stacked together. I have a weakness for them, for which I make no apology. We all need to laugh a great deal more often.

Then there was a big, dusty pile of magazines with the word ‘KEEP’ scrawled on the covers. Sorting through those I came upon a trove of The Lady .  I paged through one after breakfast this morning, and enjoyed the wide variety of articles that are seldom found in other mags, which tend to focus on health, beauty and self-improvement. At one point I subscribed to The Lady, because I so enjoyed the cosy time-warp feel and look of the mag, it was like being back in the late 50s to mid 60s. And then the mag appointed a new, young, hot-shot MALE editor (big mistake!) who revamped the format and image, gave it a bright new look and turned it into a facsimile of every other magazine on the market, missing the point entirely. The whole point aboutThe Lady  was the fact that it wasn’t trendy, that it had a lot of black and white pics and illustrations, that it was old-fashioned.  So I cancelled my sub and went off in a huff. As a wise man I know often says, in his Tennessee twang: “If it ain’t broke, don’t tinker with it.”  Too right.

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WHAT IS A GOOD BOOK ?


To me a good book is ….  a magic carpet that whisks me away to other places, other people, excitement, wonder, new ideas, different scenes, strange sensation, no matter whether they be  enchanting, terrifying or bizarre.

Through a book one can experience altered reality without any electronic intervention (cyber games) or without the aid of mind-bending drugs. And all for the price of a book. Granted,  these days, your book might be a hefty price – the top end of R200 or in lucky instances, a charity-sale buy for a few rands,  but these bargains are rare.

I enjoy travelling via a good travel book. Now that I’m growing older, long distance flights and the maelstrom of airports are a daunting prospect, but: pick up your book and in a flash you’re in the olive groves of Italy, the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the African bushveld, the snow of Alaska, the exotica of the Asian countries, the glitz of Manhattan – unlimited travel, but alas, no Frequent Flyer Miles. On the plus side, no jet lag, foreign languages and no horrendous foreign currency exchange rates. If you’re yearning for the tastes and smells, you can visit an ethnic restaurant, armed with your book of course, and you can order dim sum, or sauerkraut, or – if all else fails – phone the local takeaway and order a curry!

A good book is as good as – or better than – any movie, TV show, or theatre experience. You have the flexibility to pick it up, or put it down, at your convenience. You can read for five minutes, or all night, if that is what you want to do.  You can scream with delight or horror, giggle uncontrollably, you can cry unreservedly, in privacy.  How often have I come out of a really sad movie, with aching throat and a heavy lump of sadness in my chest, from suppressed tears? When all I wanted to do was sob loudly, but because I was in public, I wasn’t prepared to do so. But at home, on your sofa, book in hand, you can wail, weep, sniffle, sob, until your nose runs and you are exhausted, and so is your box of Kleenex tissues.

Just as you can weep without restraint, watering the pages with your tears, you can giggle, roar with laughter, snigger, or scream in horror, and the only person you’ll disturb might be a vaguely startled cat, jerked momentarily from its slumbers.

So: a good book is the key to enjoyment, or a key to the suffering of the universal human condition (try any of the classic Russian novelists), a transporter to an escape from mundane life, a source of information and pleasure.  There is just no substitute for a GOOD BOOK!

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A COUPLE OF THE OLDEST BOOK IN MY BOOKCASE


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Books (Photo credit: henry…)

Yesterday I enlisted the help of my char to tackle an annual task – moving the bookcase in my bedroom and vacuuming the carpet. We do a chain-relay routine where she gets down to the bottom shelf, which I cannot do, grabs a handful of books, passes them up to me, and I stack them in wobbly piles on the bed, until the shelves are empty. We then move the bookcase away from the wall, cluck over the thick layer of dust, and she wields the vacuum. I was relieved not to find any tiny mouse skeletons because that’s where Chocolat’s mice find shelter when they escape momentarily. The tiny spaces a mouse can squeeze into always amazes me.
When I’ve cleaned the shelves, and dusted the books, we then restack the shelves. I take the opportunity to weed out unwanted books (yes, there are such items, but not many) and this year I hesitated over The Mottled Lizard by Elspeth Huxley; it’s a charming account of a childhood spent in Kenya, but oh dear! The spine is torn, the pages have browned to a deep caramel colour, the cover is limp, and creased. The two giraffe have faded to a greenish-blue, it’s a sorry sight. There’s a price on the cover: 5/-. Five shillings! Can you imagine that? Inside the cover on the facing page is rubber-stamped: Rhod Price 6/-. I suppose the import charges to Rhodesia from Britain warranted the surcharge. Underneath that is another rubber stamp image, in pale red, barely legible: Carlton Exchange, Bulawayo. I have no memory of the Carlton Book Exchange, but I must have know about it, and probably used it. My eldest daughter, who remembers everything Bulawayo related, will be able to fill in the gaps for me.
The book was published by the Four Square publishing company in 1965. Although the book looks like a relic from the Boer War, it’s not actually that old.
Perhaps another contender for the title in this bookcase is one of my favourite books The Sunshine Settlers by Crosbie Garstin. The first page informs us that this edition is a Facsimile Reprint, issued by Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1971, of the 1935 edition. It has been slightly amended by addition of black and white line drawings by Daphne James. I remember my Dad owning a copy of the original 1935 version, which I read as a child, and loved. The book was burnt when my Mum’s house burnt down in the early 1960’s – house fires ravage family memorabilia; you can buy a new stove, you can replace your clothes, but books, letters, photos are irreplaceable. Ditto the handsome brass box, with a tortoise shell pattern engraved on the lid, and ditto the two brass urns, with elegant tall necks, decorated with an engraved pattern of curlicues and flowers, all the way from Persia, a gift from Uncle Bill who worked in the oil industry, a million years ago when the country was called Persia. Oh well …
So when the Books of Rhodesia copy came out, I pounced on it with glee, and have read, and re-read it happily over the years. It describes pioneering life in Rhodesia in the early years, just prior to the First World War. My Dad came out to Rhodesia in the late 1920’s, and life on the farms hadn’t changed that much in the intervening twenty years. Life was just as hot, dry, dusty and challenging as it had ever been, but viewed through Crosbie Garstin’s twinkling Irish eyes it was all a splendid adventure. Try and read it if you can find a copy; sorry, but I’m not lending you mine!

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