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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Bragging. Just a little

Bookie friends, prepare to envy me rotten. A couple of weeks ago I was at the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco.

Are you gasping? Perhaps the full address would better convey the store’s history, context and delightfulness: 261 Columbus Avenue, between Broadway and Jack Kerouac Alley. Say it out loud, go on: “Could you direct me to Jack Kerouac Alley, please?” I know! How cool does that sound?

City Lights is one of America’s great independent bookshops, a landmark of alternative culture and a gathering place for progressive and creative people, since poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded it in 1953. City Lights Publishing, his publishing venture, soon drew national attention and an obscenity charge for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s controversial Howl and Other Poems. (After a long trial, Howl, Ferlinghetti and City Lights were exonerated.)

It remains a bastion of independent thought and wonderful books. The walls feature photographs and newspaper posters from the beat era. My favourite: “Brawl at Poet’s Recital: Three Policemen Bitten”. The wooden floorboards, groaning shelves and convivial atmosphere are welcoming. You don’t feel bad settling down for a long read while shamelessly eavesdropping on a chap who is quite possibly a famous relic from the beat generation, judging by the beard and the conversation.

The selection is incredible. Fascinating books on social and political issues. Literary magazines. Fiction. Poetry on the upstairs floor. There’s even a section charmingly entitled “muckraking”. I would still be there, probably, but my family dragged me out. I put up a good fight, shouting: “Hell no, we won’t go”, and clinging to the leg of some old beatnik who was reading William Burroughs in the corner.

If you love literature, poetry, reading, history and/or freedom of speech, make your pilgrimage to this fabulous store. If you love literature, reading et cetera as above, and can’t make it to San Francisco, support a local bookstore.

Try Kalk Bay Books, for a start. The re-opening of the main road enables book shoppers to drive effortlessly to the store and – drum roll! – park in smart new parking bays outside the front door. Owner Ann Donald is celebrating with lots of new stock and a great lineup of events. Deon Meyer, Tim Butcher, Val McDermid and Michiel Heyns are just a few of the big names expected in the coming months.

Love Books at Bamboo Centre in Melville can’t boast the Kalk Bay view, but it does offer friendly, knowledgeable staff and a tastefully selected range of books. It’s like browsing through a very well-read, classy friend’s library. It’s small, but within minutes you have fallen in love – an unusual cookbook, something on architecture, a classic you’ve missed out on, or a hot new piece of literary fiction. Good kids’ books, too.

Novel Books in Bryanston – like many independent stores – puts together a good schedule of author visits and events. I was there when the crime-writers were in town, and the store was packed at midday.

If you’ve been moved to go book shopping, do consider Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A young woman disappears and her husband is a suspect. But this is no regular murder mystery. A tight, suspenseful plot combines with great writing about love, marriage, delusion and deception to keep you enthralled and guessing.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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In India with Dalrymple

One of life’s sweetest serendipities is to find oneself reading the right book for one’s situation, a book perfectly pitched in time and place, in tone and feeling. I had just this experience on a recent trip to India. The absolutely ideal book found its way into my hands for this trip, and it came accompanied by friendship and its own history.

A dear friend lent me her treasured and often-read copy of City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, by William Dalrymple. This same copy had accompanied her to India a few years back, and its title page featured an inscription from the author, and his signature. I’d hoped to read it before I left, but as it turned out, I started it at OR Tambo Airport, and by the time I reached Delhi, was halfway through.

Dalrymple leads us through the narrow streets of Old Delhi, uncovering layers of history and culture. He describes the city he came to love in spite of – or perhaps because of – its strange ways, its dust and traffic chaos, its stifling summers and its inexplicable bureaucracy. Dalrymple – oh, I’m just going to call him William, we feel like friends now – arrives as a newly married young man and we join him in his discovery of the city and its inhabitants. His curiosity, intellect, humanity and humour make him an enlightening and entertaining guide.

In particular, he delights in the inhabitants who represent the remnants of Delhi’s past – the boy who flies his pigeons from his rooftop; the men who host the partridge fights that, like elephant fights, were part of the ancient Mughal tradition; Sufis and dervishes; a wise and eccentric historian with a marvellous line in parables; the city’s few remaining eunuchs.

Visiting Delhi nearly 20 years after the author first arrived in the city, I was amazed at how apt his book seemed, and how many of his anecdotes and stories were echoed in my own brief visit.

A favourite character is William’s regular taxi driver, Mr Singh. His taxi stand is located behind the India International Centre, hence its name: International Backside Taxis. I laughed when I read this amusing Indianism, and again when I heard the same use of the word, when a helpful stranger directed me to “go backside of the Metro”.

He describes his driver’s habit of spitting betel juice out of the car window; our driver would open the door of the moving car, lean down and emit a spurt of red juice onto the tarmac.

If his own experiences in New Delhi were a welcome companion as I explored the modern city, William’s tales of the ancient Mughal rulers provided intriguing back stories to my visits to India’s ancient forts and palaces.

The way he tells it, Shah Jehan, who famously built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife, was a tad less uxorious than one might have imagined. He was famously sexually voracious, and was widely suspected of incest and of preying on the wives of his nobles.

Behind the celebrated architectural symmetry and the courtly manners of the day was a complex brew of feuds, spy networks, power struggles and murder that makes fascinating reading. Indeed, the heir to Shah Jehan’s throne was determined not by who was first born, but by fratricide and war, and by locking up the old man himself.

I couldn’t have wished for a better book to inform and reflect my travels.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

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