Tuesday, March 1, 2011

on book lists

One of the things that always fascinates me is what books make it onto "those" lists: those lists that send you scurrying away feeling mortified that you never read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. I suppose I don't have a problem with most of what is on these lists: the books I have read were brilliant (except I couldn't finish The Lord of the Rings or Catch 22. Yes, that does make me a cretin). And books like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code sneak into one or two of them. Sigh. The problem - for me - is what they leave off those lists.

A little while ago I got such a list on facebook. Apart from the annoying way they made "(36)The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" and "(33)The Chronicles of Narnia" and "(14) Complete Works of Shakespeare" and then "(98) Hamlet" like they were mutually exclusive; it is the assumption that those books are the measure of a person's intelligence or erudition.

In some way, they (yes, "they" and "them": like the hegemonic publicity team of Exclusive Books who publish a must-have list at the end of the year that you have to pay to be on) are trying to tell me what to read. If I just followed those must-read lists, I would miss out on SO much. So I am going to write about some of the books that aren't on this list that are really worth reading (in my opinion. Not telling you what to read, I promise. Except for Country of my Skull. Hypocrisy can be worth it to say you have to read this book).

1.) Beloved - Toni Morrison

I picked up this novel one afternoon at about 3pm as I had bought it second hand at a flea-market I went to with my friend Marijke. I put the book down again at 11pm after having devoured every word. I was shaking with the powerful emotion and raw beauty that this novel of slave-era USA communicates. It is phenomenal because it describes the events in a way that left me deeply moved (I could say it rocked my foundations) and brought me to an awareness of the legacy of suffering that forms part of America's present.

2.) Poetry. by almost anyone. 'cause there is nothing on the list.

I am more of a prose girl myself. One of my biggest problems studying Wordsworth's The Prelude was that I kept falling asleep over it. I would - however - never cut out the poetry I have studied. Byron's Don Juan is a comic and satirical work of genius. Admittedly you have to know the background before you can appreciate it, but it is bawdy, sophisticated and beautifully written all at once. I am also sure Dr. Margot Beard had no small part in making it so wonderful for anyone who studied it.

Then there is the madness of William Blake; the quiet sublimity of William Carlos Williams and Sydney Clouts and the infinite sweetness of e.e cummings. Tennyson's "Maud" was a recent find for me: melancholic and densely evocative. Then there are those sticky Shakespearean sonnets and the holy trinity of metaphysical poets: John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell.

I'm sure you get the point: how can one leave out the poets???

3.) Country of My Skull - Antjie Krog

As I read it (for the second time) this past week, I couldn't help thinking that every white person should read this book, and possibly every other person in South Africa too. Krog weaves fictions about her own life and research and philosophical musings (at times agonised questionings) around the facts and stories of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order for the telling of this story to be true, and the result is that each piece of narrative is like a beautifully wrapped parcel. I learnt so much about our country. Like the wages of black workers didn't change at all between 1911 and 1970. In fact, wages for black miners were less in 1972 than they were in 1911. The terms "minimum wage" takes on a whole new meaning after that. And when some black, female farm workers came to register to vote for the first time in 1994, they had no fingerprints because their hands had been worked smooth. It also shed some light on the sad state of the Eastern Cape:
1.) Queenstown had the highest number of necklace killings.

2.) Mdantsane is the second-biggest township in the country (bigger than the city it feeds, East London) and yet it has no library (that wasn't from the book. That was a scary fact from my old opera coach, Mkhululi, resident of Mdantsane).

3.) All the crazily-violent ex-army men (black and white) who came back to the country from service in Africa were hidden away in the Eastern Cape to work there. As a result, some of the most senseless torture and killing occurred in this area.

The book is a heady mix of violence and depression; anger and futility; hopefulness for the future and a complex exploration of everything surrounding guilt, complicity, reconciliation, compassion and fear. Most of all, what is a common thread is the importance in the healing proess of people being given a voice to tell their stories. I will leave you with the closing words of Lucas Baba Sikwepere from the Eastern Cape. He was shot many times for approaching the white van of a policeman and asking what was going on. He still has bullets lodged in his neck and face: some of them visible. He was a big man before he was shot, but now he has numerous ailments including excruciating headaches and has "lost all [his] body". He does not really know what he looks like now though, because he is blind.

"I feel what - what has brought my eyesight back is to come back here and tell the story. But I feel what has been making me sick all the time is the fact that I couldn't tell my story. But now I - it feels like I got my sight back by coming here and telling you the story".

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