19 October 2011

What some days hold

Today the air has swirled and spun.

I’ve been thinking of the Cape, where a windy day can be claustrophobic, when to open a window just a crack is enough to allow such a flush of air through it’s like a crazed creature racing around the room picking things up and flinging them above its head. Book covers flapped and snapped like birds’ wings, tissues danced, dust motes rode the rollercoaster currents. Outside, our hair was yanked from the roots and it was difficult to breathe.

Here in Joburg such tumult is far more unusual. Inside there has been quiet and coolness; two cycles of soft breathing. One body floated in light and twitchy sleep; the other mind watched and wandered. Outside, wind swept long fingers through branches and leaves, tangling and untangling. Plump bougainvillea bobbed. The windows are open just a crack, for the moment, to prevent another crazed creature from getting out, from leaping off high places and ensnaring himself in the shadowy webs of creepers. He’s only four months old, after all.

Still, some air entered. Along with the sight of greenery bending and swaying, it was the scents of wood smoke, dust, old furniture polish and, inexplicably or perhaps just wishfully, salt that triggered memories of that other day.

07 August 2011

Two stories, one river

Another litoverlap:

When I first encountered the Willamette I had no idea it was a river in the United States; the name was simply interesting and unusual. On the one hand, it brought to mind a kind of cloth that hard-working homemakers might have found revolutionary in the 1960s, while on the other it reminded me of my friend Will, and how long it has been since we’ve met.

In Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise (2010, Old Street), Chuck holds Winnifred in his open palm at his apartment window, and says, ‘Doesn’t the Willamette look inviting?’ (p 122). Winnifred is the diminutive tortoise of the book’s title. Chuck’s girlfriend has agreed to look after her while her owner and the book’s protagonist, Audrey Flowers, goes home to St John’s, Newfoundland to be with her comatose father. As an out of work actor Chuck has a lot of spare time, and he doesn’t really know what to do with a tortoise. Winnifred is nervous about his preoccupation with the river; she wonders ‘how long before he decides the tortoise is better off in her “natural” habitat’ (p 157). But in the end Chuck grows quite fond of her and the Willamette pretty much fades from the story.

1. Washington 2. Columbia River 3. Idaho 4. Nevada 5. California 6. Pacific Ocean 7. Oregon 8. Willamette Basin, through which runs the Willamette River

The name felt like an old acquaintance when it appeared again in The Jump-Off Creek (1989, Boston: Houghton Mifflin), Molly Gloss’s tale about a pioneering ‘westering woman’, Lydia Bennett Sanderson, who sets up home by herself on a smallish piece of Oregon land. In the late 19th century, the Willamette’s valleys are ‘gentler’ than the nearby Blue Mountains (p 69), but the strapped Sanderson must make her bleak new home in the latter area because Willamette country is by that time already ‘thickly settled’ and the price of the land is ‘very dear’ (p 106).

Now, in Winnifred and Audrey’s time, the Willamette seems to have a tendency to flood, and it’s the last remaining place on Earth where American Indians of the Pacific Northwest can find one of their food staples: the jawless, eel-like lamprey.

The litoverlap

Litoverlap n. The unintentional, serendipitous and/or noteworthy occurrence of thought, word or deed in more than one place and time; usually, but not always, in the same field. Not to be confused with coincidence.

It’s the word I’m using until I find a better one, though I quite like this one, with ‘lit’ indicating literary and implying a sense of illumination both in the overlapping elements (they're briefly spotlighted) and in one’s discovery or experience of the overlap itself.

04 July 2011

A wee one

Just a little litoverlap:

Several days ago I finished reading Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, and the same day, at a site that I look at occasionally, I came across this.

13 February 2011


(Illustration and heroine's name by Rico Schacherl)

Incognita Ferreira has finished school. Not just this year, all of it. She recently matriculated with an A in East London, otherwise known as Environmental Lifeskills, a few Bs and one C in a subject she manages to keep a secret forever.

Since the age of six, Incognita has been in the habit of enforcing her full name. ‘It’s In. Cog. Ni. Ta,’ she would say, hands on hips, staring any opposition down. ‘And not Cognita. Neeta!’ No one argued for long. Her brother, Octavius, the maturer of the two in age only, calls her Cog, as in ‘tiny cog in the great wheel of the world’, but by now she has learned to ignore it. He was optimistically named for the eighth child in the large family their mother had yearned for, though she and their father were blessed with just the two. No one ever asks where Incognita’s name originated, which is lucky; she herself is much loved, but the source of her name is a tale of woe and despair best forgotten.

‘Out with the old, in with the new’ is Incognita’s motto for this stage of her life. Her Goth phase is over, and she’s making plans for the future that may still include black clothing and furtive behaviour, but with a different purpose. Going away to varsity, bumming around overseas for a year, getting married – none of these are for her. She is finally going to put into action the career she has been dreaming of ever since she and Tavy used to watch Remington Steele on Tuesday nights. She is going to be a Private Investigator, right here in her beloved home of Jakkalsbessievallei, just west of the Kruger Park. It’s a small place, but as Miss Marple, another favourite of Incognita’s, frequently finds, a lot of mischief and malice is practised beneath the sun-dappled and apparently tranquil waters of a pond.

Incognita has no real experience, of course, but she feels she has the smarts that the job needs. After all, she’s aware that Mrs Taljaard next door often goes out at night, leaving her front door unlocked; and it has occurred to her to wonder why Jackie Ramsammy from down the road is the only blond child in the large Ramsammy family. And she has noticed that, since spring, Melody Smyth from the deli counter at Shoprite has been wearing a lot of long-sleeved t-shirts, and sunglasses indoors. What’s up with all of that?

Over the coming years, Incognita will discover how often there are four seasons in one day – life can be mysterious and mundane, fascinating and disappointing in the space of a few hours. Mrs Taljaard sleepwalks, and there’s nothing in her house worth taking. Jackie Ramsammy is Lola Labuschagne's child, the woman who had gone for an acting job in Jo’burg and never came back. Having slept over at his best friend Les Ramsammy’s house the night she left, Jackie simply stayed, and after a year, a letter from Lola and some legal gymnastics he received the Ramsammy name. And Melody ... well, Melody will marry her sweetheart, and so Incognita’s musings about bruises on arms and black eyes will come to nought, and she will never learn that in her late teens Melody had begun to suffer from a rare and chronic condition that afflicts her skin and eyelids for the rest of her life.

But all of this is in the future. Right now, Incognita is lying near the sprinkler in the garden on a blazing hot day in December. She’s letting her torso get a bit of the sun it has not seen in years. She is dozing and planning, planning and dozing. She got her driver’s licence recently, and for work will use the Mazda Midge her parents gave her, fixed up by her father and sprayed royal purple. She’ll also rely on the family cat. During her Goth years, Incognita had taken a brief plunge into the world of Wicca, and used the cat as her familiar. Now, though Liquorice won’t be accompanying her on cases, he will serve as a trusty colleague in thrashing out the findings on her return. Maybe she will offer to locate Mrs Taljaard’s ancient engagement ring, for a small introductory fee. Incognita’s school days – or nights, rather – have left her fearless of cemeteries and secluded spots, and she thinks she knows the best place to start looking.

03 January 2011

Read 2011

JRR Tolkien The Hobbit (Dec-Jan 2012) (again, after a long time) Adam Foulds The Quickening Maze (Dec) Ian McEwan Solar (Dec) Molly Gloss The Dazzle of Day (Dec) (eventually left off)

Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (Nov) Lemony Snicket A Series of Unfortunate Events: Book the First The Bad Beginning, and Book the Second The Reptile Room (Nov) Lloyd Jones Hand Me Down World (Nov) Stef Penney The Invisible Ones (Nov) (resumed) AS Byatt Ragnarok (Nov)

Stef Penney The Invisible Ones (Oct) (interrupted) WG Sebald The Rings of Saturn (Oct) Ian McEwan Atonement (Oct) (again) Kazuo Ishiguro Nocturnes (Oct) Anne Tyler Back When We Were Grownups (Sep-Oct)

Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table (Sep) Edith Pargeter The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet (Sep) (again)

Ingvar Ambjørnsen Beyond the Great Indoors (transl by Don Bartlett and Kari Dickson) (Aug) (again, again) Salley Vickers Short stories in Aphrodite's Hat (August) (just a few) Molly Gloss Wild Life (Aug) William Horwood Hyddenworld: Spring (Aug) (left off) Marilynne Robinson Home (July-August)

Molly Gloss The Jump-Off Creek (July) Jessica Grant Come, Thou Tortoise (July) Kent Haruf The Tie That Binds (July)

Rumer Godden A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (June-July) AS Byatt The Biographer's Tale (June) (stopped halfway) Kent Haruf Eventide (June) Kent Haruf Plainsong (June) Tracy Chevalier Remarkable Creatures (June) Nigel Slater Toast: The Story of a Boy's Hunger (June)
Kazuo Ishiguro When We Were Orphans (May-June) Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go (May) (again) Roberto Bolaño Monsieur Pain (May) (left off) CJ Sansom Dissolution (May) Tim Winton Scission (May)

Emma Donoghue Room (April) (resumed) Brady Udall The Lonely Polygamist (April) Christopher Isherwood A Single Man (April) Emma Donoghue Room (April) (stopped, might return to it)

Barbara Kingsolver Prodigal Summer (March) (yet again) Bruce Chatwin Anatomy of Restlessness (March) (left off) AS Byatt Babel Tower (March) Robert Holdstock Mythago Wood (March) (stopped halfway)

Louis de Bernières Notwithstanding (Feb-March) WG Sebald The Emigrants (Feb) Jeremy Mercer Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co (Feb) Virginia Woolf The London Scene: Six Essays on London Life (Feb) David Almond; illustrations by Polly Dunbar My Dad's a Birdman (Feb) John Berger HERE is where we meet (Feb) Ox-Tales AIR: Alexander McCall Smith 'Still Life', Beryl Bainbridge 'Goodnight Children, Everywhere', Helen Fielding 'Trouble in Paradise' (Feb)

Sebastian Faulks A Week in December (Jan) Andrea Camilleri The Patience of the Spider (Jan) Cormac McCarthy Child of God (22/01/11) Agatha Christie Three-act Tragedy (19/01/11) (again) Henning Mankell Italian Shoes (13/01/11) Sébastien Japrisot The 10:30 from Marseille (10/01/11) Per Petterson In the Wake (8/01/11) Colm Tóibín Brooklyn (5/01/11) Tim Winton In the Winter Dark (3/01/11)