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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

Do this and I’ll love you forever

Valentine’s Day is coming up. February 14 is a busy day for you, no doubt, what with opening all those cards and gifts, the constant ringing of the door bell with deliveries from admirers, rushing around watering your many bouquets, nibbling on those chocolates, getting tarted up for a hot date at a romantic restaurant.

I empathise, knowing from first-hand experience how demanding Valentine’s Day can be. Nonetheless, I hope you will find a few minutes to support another good cause – it may not be quite as instantly gratifying as sweet-talking someone you fancy, but it does make a small contribution to the good of mankind.

In addition to being the day on which we profess our love, lust or like-you-a-lot-really-a-lot-but-I’m-just-not-sure-you’re-”the-one”, February 14 is International Book Giving Day. It is a day dedicated to getting new, used and borrowed books into the hands of as many children as possible. Read about it at

Reading to or with children is one of life’s greatest joys. Maybe even more delightful than being wooed in a posh restaurant. I can’t say for sure, because it’s been a while. No matter, reading with kids is lovely. As a toddler, my daughter’s greatest passion – OK, obsession – was for The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We did have other books. Plenty. But she just couldn’t get enough of that caterpillar. I had to read it 37 times a day for four months. She knew the ending – spoiler alert: he turns into a beautiful butterfly – but was prepared to be surprised and wonder-struck again and again.

There he was, eating and eating his way through cakes and plums and such, spinning himself into a cocoon only to emerge – gasp, and clap your chubby hands together! – with a fine set of beautiful, coloured wings. She was delighted every time. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities to be delighted, because we read that book a LOT. If I deserted my post, for a bath, say, she would track me down and beat her little fists against the bathroom door and demand, desperately: “Read catapeeeya!”

Not all South African children have someone to read to them, or something to read (or a bathroom door, for that matter, but let’s stick with books, for now). Relatively few homes have books and only 8% of public schools have functioning libraries. It is simply not possible to learn to read fluently without daily exposure. It is not possible to learn without reading and understanding fluently.

Sorry if you thought this column was going in a cheery Valentine’s direction, perhaps with amusing asides about romantic novels and a couple of risqué jokes. It’s not. I’m here to reminisce about the days when my children liked to be read to, and then I’m going to badger you. That’s the plan for this morning.

Now for the badgering. Please celebrate Book Giving Day by giving a book to a child, or donating books to a place where children can read them. Support your local bookstore and buy a couple of children’s books to give away, or clear out your kids’ book shelves and pass them along.

If you are in Cape Town, donate good quality books to The Bookery, 20 Roeland Street, for redistribution to school libraries.

Donate to an underprivileged school or crèche, or to your local library. Many libraries collect used books to sell to raise money for new stock.

May flowers and chocolates be yours in abundance.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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A fair full of stories

Book fairs – and their uppity cousins, literary festivals – are a growth industry worldwide. The format usually entails prising writers from their keyboards, dusting them off, and presenting them to an audience of book lovers. Chatting ensues. Sometimes argument. Laughter, if you are lucky. Learning. Companionship. There is often wine, or at least coffee.

The Jozi Book Fair, which takes place on October 27 and 28 at Museum Africa in Newtown, offers many such delights, but differs from the usual format. Maria Vandriel, who is the coordinator of the fair, explains that it came about as part of a focus on literacy.

Realising that low levels of reading and writing hampered people’s ability to take up issues of social justice, the non-governmental organisation Khanya College developed reading and writing groups, and the idea of a book fair grew from that.

The first took place in 2009, and it has grown in strength and scope. Vandriel says: “We are different as a book fair as we promote social justice and a culture of reading and writing as part of deepening citizenship and people taking control of their lives. Reading opens up the world, and builds self-esteem.”

Round table discussions and conversations take in a broad sweep of topical South African issues, including The Spear, Marikana and Mangaung. The featured speakers encompass artists and filmmakers, writers and activists. A diverse range of participants includes analyst William Gumede, Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn, and many more.

Join Lauretta Ngcobo for the launch of Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile, which she edited. Moky Makura of Nolly Books will talk about publishing books for young adults.

A children’s programme includes storytelling, reading, games, face-painting, dance and drama. The workshops for teens – on illustration, creative writing, creating a play or film from a literary source – sound great.

Teens from reading group Tsohang Batjha bring out their own newsletter, and will be presenting a session helping other teens. There are sessions for educators and librarians, too.

Vandriel says: “We wanted to create something that would be popular and would appeal to different audiences, across the generations, because we work with a broad range of constituencies, from children and teens through to grandmothers who are looking after children at home. We hope to appeal to educators, too. No matter who they are, people are interested in people, and their stories. We encourage people to hear and tell their own stories and to write them.”

Not to be missed is a photographic exhibition of Marikana by Greg Marinovich. He donated 20 photographs for display. Vandriel says Khanya College had no budget for prints but its staff insisted on donating towards the exhibition to ensure the photographs were seen.

The intention is for the exhibition to be hosted by social justice organisations around the country and internationally.

For info and the full programme, visit

Entrance is R10.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Embrace your love of things bloody

It’s blood and gore all round from July 31 to August 5, when Jenny Crwys-Williams hosts her second annual Bloody Book Week at venues around Joburg. She is bringing us some absolute superstars. It’s enough to make your spine tingle agreeably just reading their names – Jeffery Deaver, John Connolly, Mark Giminez.

Add to that our own fabulous crew of crime writers – Andrew Brown, Jassy Mackenzie, Mike Nicol and more. It’s a stellar cast of bloody-minded writers and you have plenty of opportunities to meet them, from glam dinners and lunches, to free bookstore appearances. There’s even a dress-up event – go as Bubbles Schroeder or Brett Kebble, and meet Rahla Xenopolous and Mandy Weiner, the authors who wrote about these real South African murders.

If you’d like to try your hand at creating characters and then bumping them off in nasty ways, there’s a murder writing masterclass with the authors, so you can pick up some of the secrets of the genre.

Aspiring writers can also take note of Ronald A Knox’s “10 Commandments of Detective Fiction”. Knox was a mystery writer, satirist and Catholic priest of the early 20th century. The combination of these interests led him, one might imagine inevitably, to create the strange and prescriptive set of rules as follows:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Really, one can’t help but envy a man and an era that allows for such certainty. Many of these commandments have, of course, been obliterated in our own rule-averse era. Number 2 has certainly vanished in a puff of smoke. Number 5 is inexplicable and undoubtedly racist. I’m with him on number 3 – restraint must certainly be exercised when it comes to secret rooms and passages. And number 10 stands for all eternity, in my view. “But, yes, it was his twin!” ranks second only to “But it had all been a dream.” on my Dallas List – words you should never ever use in a book or screenplay.

Embrace your love of all things bloody. “If you meet a man who boasts that he does not think [detective stories] interesting, you will nearly always find that he indulges in some lower form of compensation – probably he is a crossword addict,” wrote Knox.

Put down that crossword or its nefarious new-fangled cousin, Sudoku, and go to for the programme and bookings. See you there.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Franschhoek Literary Festival

Last week, I was transported into a parallel universe. It was beautiful and neat, surrounded by majestic mountains and picturesque fields of grape vines. The streets were wide and potholeless, the lawns manicured, the shops tasteful and stocked with pricey, useless things that in my real life would get knocked over by a cricket ball, or used as an ashtray by a wayward friend. Regularly throughout the day, a glass of wine would appear in my hand, or someone would offer a platter of canapés. And oh, the people…They talked about books, and made witty puns, and chuckled at wry jokes that featured the word “neologism”. We walked everywhere. No one tried to sell me a broom. I was not in Joburg anymore, Dorothy.

Indeed not. This blissful scene was the Franschhoek, and the occasion, the Literary Festival. Which, briefly, works thus: three days of talks, panels, interviews and events around books. In any time slot, there are seven events to choose from, with topics ranging from crime, to poetry, to best-sellers, to literary criticism, to state-of-the nation. There are five slots a day, one hour long with a generous half hour break, in which you can relocate to the next quaint venue: the Town Hall, the school hall, the church hall, or the library. Whilst so doing, you are bound to come upon someone interesting in the street or at a café table, and you may linger a while for a chat or a coffee or stronger, before bustling off to see the next thing – Gareth Cliff shooting the breeze with Noseweek editor Martin Welz; or Michiel Heyns chairing a session on literary criticism; or Moeletsi Mbeki (Advocates for Change); or McIntosh Polela (My Father, My Monster, and, also, intriguingly, spokesperson for the Hawks); or; or; or….

If you are at a loose end and you have the sought-after identification tag given to writers and panellists, you can enter the Green Room. Here, in the pretty cottage, the coffee is always hot and fresh. The sauvignon blanc is cold. There’s a log fire in the sitting room, and tables and chairs on the stoep and in suuny corners of the garden. It’s your little home away from home, but maybe a bit nicer than home, in that fresh plates of scones and sandwiches appear at appropriate moments, and you may overhear Christopher Hope (Whitbread winner) chatting to Craig Higginson (Last Summer and TheLandscape Painter) about Somerset Maugham.

It’s just heaven for book nerds, hanging out with all those clever writers, and occasionally having the opportunity to meet someone one has adored from afar. Unfortunately, I am not good with people I admire, and often give the impression of being slightly deranged. It’s OK with Prof Jonathan Jansen, who must surely be accustomed to gushing weirdos by now, but I fear I may have alarmed Finuala Dowling (Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart).

As in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” In any community, there is a pecking order, and FLF was no exception. There are the South African super stars like Deon Meyer (Thirteen Hours), who is large and manly in a way one might imagine his hero Benny Griessel, and seems rather pleasant and not at all puffed up in his success; Ivan Vladislavic (Double Negative), who has a thoughtful somewhat mournful face, as becomes a lauded literary figure; the fearless and seemingly indefatigable Mandy Wiener (Killing Kebble) who, even at a dinner table, conveys the impression of being hard on the heels of a crook and a story. Then there are the book mavens, the taste-makers, chief amongst them Jenny Crwys-Williams and Michele Magwood, who moderate panels and host dinners and chat warmly with famous writers who they call by their nicknames, “Bo”, or just “darling”. Literary talk show host, the glamorous Karabo Kgoleng. Denis Beckett, who spreads his particular combination of intelligence, honesty and good-heartedness. Jenny Hobbs, who, astonishingly, manages to whip together the festival in between writing books.

Being South African, we all thrill to the presence of overseas”: the elegant Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness) entertained with manic tales, many involving drink. The charming Richard Mason (The Drowning People and History of a Pleasure Seeker)whose luscious hair, Eton-honed vowels and uproarious anecdotes had the book club babes eating out of his hand.

Back in the Green Room, chatter flows like the Porcupine Ridge (a sponsor, and thus happily ubiquitous at every function). People talk in awed and envious tones about other people’s sales figures, especially the non-fiction bestsellers like Tim Butcher and Mandy Wiener. Novelists laugh bitterly at fiction’s paltry sales. Henrietta Rose-Innes, whose latest novel Nineveh has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, joked rueful that all 7 people who bought her first novel were probably in the room. Similarly, writers like to josh bitterly about their miniscule royalties: “I just bought your book,” I heard one say to another: “So that’s R10 for you right there…” And then they helped themselves to another free scone.

As a Franschhoek “virgin”, I was charmed by this parallel universe, with its congenial sprit and politeness, but the more jaded old goers complain that it can get a bit staid. They speak wistfully of the “heated debate” (a euphemism, I assume, for “huge row”) between writer and musician Rian Malan and writer and poet Antjie Krog in 2010. By day three I had to agree – I would have welcomed a bit of yelling and fist thumping. When the prettiness started to feel just a tad freaky, I knew it was time to return to the potholes and broom sellers.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Keeping it simple in the name of Plain Language Day

Seeing as how Plain Language Day falls on the 13th of the current month, the team here at the Sunday Times are challenging ourselves and yourselves to try and read and write more effectively, with less obscurity, obfuscations, redundancy, jargon, tautology and the like.

Having first been inspired by international efforts to make corporate-speak more comprehensible, vis-à-vis the consumer, furthermore, in order to assist you in this regard, we are hoping to recommend, or at the very least draw your attention to, a selection of books and resources designed specifically with this end in mind.

Annoyed yet? I should think so. Well, you can relax. I’m done with that little trick now and shall henceforth…sorry…once you start it just takes over…What I mean to say is, I will be succinct from now on.

That intro contains quite a few of the common “unplain” language errors – unnecessary and inaccurate use of Latin phrases in order to sound clever, confusion of plural and singular (“the team are”), inclusion of meaningless filler words like “furthermore”, endless sentences that ramble on, and just general inelegance of construction (“having first been”).

Plain Language Day is being celebrated in the US, India, Canada, Sweden and elsewhere. The Media Online has adopted the cause here in SA. On the website, plain-speaking fundi Caryn Gootkin outs some corporate offenders and also points out that it’s more than just a stylistic issue. Complex and legalistic language can obscure the message or intimidate the reader, which is why our Consumer Protection Act mandates the use of plain language.

The popularity of books on the subject is evidence of how seriously we (or at least some of us) take the plain and correct use of the language. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry W Fowler has been in print since 1926, and its first edition is still available, despite the availability of the updated 2004 edition. Fowler’s approach would please the Plain Language Day folks. He “encourages a direct, vigorous writing style and opposes all artificiality by firmly advising against convoluted sentence construction, the use of foreign words and phrases and the use of archaisms. He opposed pedantry, and ridiculed artificial grammar rules”, says Wikipedia.

His popularity is partially explained by his witty style. Here he takes on that great sacred cow of English, the split infinitive: “The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish….Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.”

The American equivalent to Fowler’s is The Elements of Style (also known by the authors’ surnames as “Strunk & White”) – listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English. More than 10-million copies have been sold.

If you enjoy the debates around what constitutes good and proper usage, read The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, in which Henry Hitchings looks at grammar rules, spelling, swearing, regional accents and political correctness. It’s an enlightening and entertaining read.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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