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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Coming Homebru

I’m feeling rather proudly South African since the launch of Exclusive Books’ Homebru promotion last week. What a diverse collection of books there are on the list. The promotion has got a whole lot less earnest over the years, and there really is something for everyone – even those people who claim not to be grabbed by many local titles are guaranteed to find something that floats their boat. If you’re expecting a bunch of “growing up in apartheid South Africa” sort of reads, stop that eye-rolling right now – this is a selection of local fiction and non-fiction that captures our past, present and future in all its quirks and complexity.

Exclusive Books Marketing and Publicity Manager Rene Brophy says: “The titles speak to daily life and interest, capturing the spirit of living in South Africa right now. The content is all about accessibility – this is not highbrow stuff of the past. We’re interested in life on the streets and in the hearts of the people.”

The South Africans portrayed on the Homebru promotion are an interesting bunch. In a little list of 28 books, we’re offered a cast of characters and authors as diverse as renowned conservationist and elephant whisperer Lawrence Anthony, race car driver Sarel van der Merwe, the dodgy participants of the Lolly Jackson story, and the Rev Frank Chikane. Chikane’s book Eight Days in September – his first hand account of the ousting of Thabo Mbeki, which he describes as effecitvely a coup d’etat – has been a run-away hit. He was the inspiring and interesting guest speaker at the Homebru lauch at the vibey Arts on Main, drawing much applause. I’m assuming it wasn’t just from booksellers delighted to see his book flying out of the stores so profitably.

This year, we find Wat’s Nuus, the tell-all biography of the old-school and oft-parodied newsreader Riaan Cruywagen, on the same list as Nadine Gordimer. You can opt for an engrossing investigation into blood diamonds; or, for dipping into, there’s Jonathan Jansen’s Letters to My Children, a selection of his best tweets with their nuggets of wisdom and advice; or perhaps Nataniël’s collection of zany stories. There are recipe books, so you can make something tasty to nibble on whilst reading. Sarah Graham, food blogger and author of Bitten; and Karen Dudley, Cape Town foodie and writer of A Week in The Kitchen, were at the launch, and chatted most entertainingly about food and cooking and blogging.

I’m keen to get both their books, but I’ve started my Homebru reading list with Year of the Gherkin, by John Dobson. It’s billed as “hilarious” – something that we don’t see too often from our local writers. I’m just a few pages in, so I’ll let you know how it goes….

Exclusive Books will be offering Fanatics members 200 bonus points on any Homebru title purchased during the promotion, so there’s no excuse not buy something Sutheffrican to read this week.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Could I Have 5kg, Please?

This past week, Exclusive Books has held its annual Mega Warehouse Sale.

Fine bargains are to be had, but you can’t hang around the Seattle Coffee shop with your laptop and latte, because the sale is held in an actual warehouse in Strydom Park. For the information of non-Joburgers, this is a fairly far-flung light-industrial area that you might visit if, say, you are redoing your bathroom and are looking for taps, or perhaps you have some problem involving tyres. You don’t generally go there for books, so it’s rather an exciting outing.

There’s a vast selection of books, which are sold at R50 per kilogram. I conducted a test on your behalf, using books from my bedside table, and you’ll be interested to know that my copy of The Exploded View, by Ivan Vladislavic, weighs under 300g, and Andrew Feinstein‘s The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, a weighty book by any measure, squeaked in just under a kilo. Had I purchased these books by weight, they would have been R16 and R50 respectively.

Good quality cheese, by way of comparison, can set you back three or four times that. And if you want a nice bit of prosciutto from the Italian deli, you’ll be paying about R300 a kilo. So R50 a kilo does seem rather cheap for a book, although you would still have to shell out, additionally, for something nice to eat while reading it. Maybe get the prosciutto as well, just in case, and perhaps a ciabatta.

While the price seems very reasonable, the whole notion of treating all books the same and charging by weight doesn’t seem fair, really. A little gem of a book might go for the price of a cup of coffee, when an obese door-stopper of clunky romantic fiction might cost 10 times that. But then that is true of book prices generally – better books are not always more expensive than worse books, so perhaps we must accept that the system is imperfect.

I was musing upon this perceived injustice with my friend Georgi, who is very kind about being on the receiving end of such observations, and she told me about a second-hand bookshop and book exchange she’d visited in Banos in Ecuador. It operates on a coloured-sticker system – a yellow sticker means the book is, say, $1, it’s $2 for a red-stickered book, and so on, up to the lofty heights of the purple sticker, which is the most expensive. It sounds rather like those sushi restaurants where the food goes round on a conveyor belt and the colour of the plate alerts you to how much you will pay for your piece of fish-n-rice when the final tally comes.

Her then-boyfriend-now-husband travelling companion was scouring the shelves making observations about yellow-sticker books that in his view should really be red-sticker books, and vice versa. He got quite caught up in this analysis. Then he came upon a volume by Paulo Coelho, with a purple sticker. Coelho is his book nemesis, and he was so outraged to see the book honoured by purple-sticker status that he stormed out of the shop in a fury. He apparently grudgingly consented to return after some pleading, presumably because South America is a big place to wander around for months on end without a book written in your native English.

The Exclusive Books Mega Warehouse Sale ends at 3pm today. If you hurry along, you might be able to get a bargain book, or maybe a nice bit of cheese.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Lines that will not make poets weep

With Valentine’s Day just behind us, the chocolates eaten, champagne downed, the massed bunches of roses drooping, one feels especially cynical. (Okay, so I was fibbing about the flowers and champagne. I got chocolates, though).

I do empathise with poet Finuala Dowling, who, over at Stellenbosch Literary Project (, described Valentine’s Day as: “The international day of bad poetry, the day when all people who genuinely love poetry ought to wear black armbands and weep. It’s a day when people who never think about, read, buy or listen to poetry run out to Cardies and Clicks to buy a mug or a wall plaque or a greeting card embellished with one-size-fits-all sentimental, rhyming drivel.”

This got me thinking about appropriately seductive poetry that would not drive poetry lovers to black arm bands and weeping, but that might just tip the balance in one’s favour.

A classic seduction poem is Andrew Marvell’s marvellously manipulative To His Coy Mistress, wherein he convinces his intended that much as he’d love to spend centuries admiring her assets, well, time she is marching on, lady. Grasp the moment, then, or “worms shall try/That long preserv’d virginity/And your quaint honour turn to dust/And into ashes all my lust/The grave’s a fine and private place/But none I think do there embrace.”

Personally, I’d be much more likely to fall for John Fuller. In his poem Valentine, he is funny and literate in his description of all the things he likes about his beloved (“the way your elbows work, on hinges”) and the things he’d like to do to her: “Sometimes I feel it is my fate/To chase you screaming up a tower or make you cower/By asking you to differentiate Nietzsche from Schopenhauer/I’d like to successfully guess your weight and win you at a fête/ I’d like to offer you a flower.”

On the subject of literary seductions, the romantic souls at Random House started a literary pick-up lines hashtag on Twitter, which resulted in a fine collection of romantic lines from books, and those inspired by books. had a similar idea. Here are some of the better contributions.

If you are not one to mince your words, go with Oscar Wilde: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Or with Henry Miller, from Tropic of Cancer: “What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.” Not very subtle, I agree, but see Marvell, above, re time passing.

More subtle, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: “It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.” Rather sadder, from Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart: “I’m the fortieth ugliest man in this bar. But so what! So what! … Isn’t this how people used to fall in love?”

To express the extreme lengths to which you would go to win over your beloved, you could steal this submission: “I would endure a Dan Brown novel, if that’s what it took to win your heart.”

As the recipient of an ambitious overture, you might use this line from Salman Rushdie (certainly a fellow who has batted above his weight in the looks department, if you’ve ever seen his wife) in The Enchantress of Florence: “For a fellow who’s not too much to look at, you have the instincts of a champion.”

  • Disclaimer: Poems and pick-up lines provided in good faith, and with no guarantees. Don’t blame me if it all ends in tears.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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Like crumbs to the ducks

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for the authors at Simon & Schuster.

The publisher’s digital division has created Ask the Author, on their website, where readers can interact with writers. The readers submit questions; the authors respond through webcam videos.

Is it not enough to actually write a book? To pull forth 100 000 words or more of original writing from one’s little grey brain? To sit down and type day after day, when other people are going to the beach, or watching YouTube videos or whatever it is they like to do for fun? To send off one’s efforts and risk rejection and ridicule from publishers and, if you’re really, really, good and very lucky, from readers, too?

Clearly not. Now you have to brush your hair, put on some lippy, figure out how to work the webcam, and go and answer questions about your work. Presumably you are not allowed to record one short message saying: “If you want to know what I think, read my book. That’s why I wrote it”, and go and make your 12th cup of coffee for the day. Look, it’s jolly nice for readers, and the little videos and interviews are quite entertaining, but I feel rather bad watching them, as I worry about how authors are ever going to find time to write with all the promotion they have to do.

It’s reasonable enough to expect that, as an author, you will have to give talks and sign books from time to time. We readers like to go off to the Troyeville Hotel, or Boekehuis, or Magwood & Twigg Book Salon, or wherever their favourite bookish meeting ground is, to drink wine and see the author in the flesh. But where will it all end? With New York novelist Blake Butler’s marathon reading of his new book, There Is No Year, in four different locations. A team of New York writers apparently helped him read the complete novel, so you can spare a thought for them, too.

It goes without saying an author must have a Facebook page, wherein to self-promote. And of course they must tweet. Trouble is, most authors are not natural Twitterers. If you are the sort of person who likes to read for hours and write for more hours and incubate your ideas and fiddle with your sentences, and you carry around a scruffy notebook so you can jot things down, the chances are that Twitter is not your natural milieu.

It must feel like quite a burden to have people stalking you – sorry, following you, that’s the term – and to have to come up with regular short and snappy insights and observations to toss out to them like crumbs to the ducks.

A hot new marketing tool is the book trailer, a short movie about the book. Jonathan Franzen is clearly making his through gritted teeth. He starts off with the words “This might be a good place for me to register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this …”

This effort won him Worst Performance By An Author in the 2011 Moby Awards for the Best and Worst Book Trailers.

More successful in the awards stakes was the hilarious trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which also won an award for actor James Franco, who makes a celebrity appearance. A cute one called It’s a Book – Lane Smith, won the award What are we Doing to our Children? Check them out at

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist

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A new language for the lullaby

Sleep deprivation is torture. For parents, that torture comes in the deceptive guise of a delicious very small person smelling sweetly of baby wash and all snuggled up in clean pjs, prepped for bed, exhausted, yet curiously resistant to actual sleep.

I’ve seen parents drive a baby around the neighbourhood at night until the aforementioned delicious thing falls asleep, and then remove it and carry it, gently gently and full of terror, as if the little bundle were an unexploded bomb, to the cot. Another very common method is to soothe him to sleep with a song or a book.

It is this experience that inspired Adam Mansbach (whose daughter, Vivian, apparently used to take two hours to go to sleep) to write Go the F**k to Sleep, a “children’s book for adults”. He combines the lilting sing-song writing style of books for very young children, together with some cutesy images, with the F-word as a little bombshell at the end of each stanza.

By way of example: “The cats nestle close to their kittens now/The lambs have laid down with the sheep/You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear/Please go the f**k to sleep.” Or: “The eagles who soar through the sky are at rest/And the creatures who crawl, run and creep./I know you’re not thirsty. That’s bullsh*t. Stop lying./Lie the f**k down, my darling, and sleep.”

Mansbach’s book has struck a chord with been-there-felt-that parents. The pdf of the book that had been sent to publishers was leaked in nanoseconds and went viral, creating pre-orders so heavy that the book hit the bestseller lists before it was even printed. You can hear Samuel L Jackson read it (go to, and download for free). You can read earnest online observations about the state of modern parenting. Or about how fabulously ironic and funny it is. Or about how ubiquitous the F-word is. Take your pick.

Incidentally, some of the online commentators are so idiotic, they probably shouldn’t be allowed to raise children at all. “I would never read something like that to my children,” said one piously. You just want to scream: “It’s an ADULT HUMOUR book, a PARODY, geddit?,” but you can’t, which is one of the main disadvantages of the internet, when compared to the dinner table .

Modern parenting is a very earnest business. The future of the human race rests on adults, collectively, accepting that having children is important and worthwhile and fulfilling. Which, of course, it is. But this has somehow morphed into the notion that parents may never ever express anything other than absolute delight at all aspects of child-rearing, every moment. You may never admit that there are times when you are tired, bored, angry or that you want to lie on the floor and weep.

So expressing frustration – and, even, yes, is that barely suppressed rage I detect? – in the face of a stubbornly non-sleeping child is heresy. Doing it in rhyme is unforgivable and, naturally, there are those who believe Mansbach should be burnt at the stake over a flaming pile of hypo-allergenic, acid-free green nappies.

Anyway, I’m just jealous that someone had such a good idea, one that on a bucks-per-word basis must be one of the year’s biggest money spinners. I’m busy working on my own version, Get the F**k Up, for parents of teenagers. You can pre-order yours now by sending me R150 in an envelope, c/o The Sunday Times.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times books columnist

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