A Week on the Beach
We just came back from Mozambique, where we had rented a house on a deserted stretch of picture postcard beach. It has always seemed to me that the primary purpose of this sort of vacation is to read, uninterrupted by distractions like museums, strange fauna, bracing family re-unions or adrenalin-soaked activities.
This is not the view of my wife, who prefers to share her reading aspirations with exotic outdoor activities and an endless self-flagellation of aerobic punishments, even if they flirt with death (I talk here of sharks and steep mountain slopes).
Agreeing not to risk our marriage by debating the subject and leaving each to her own, I generally spend a good deal of a vacation like this on my own and on my back, doggedly and happily reading one book after another, in between guilty post-breakfast naps. And pre-lunch naps. And afternoon naps. Being a slow reader (and a frictionless napper), the trick is to judge exactly how many books should be packed and schlepped (I am still unseduced by the Kindle).
This planning exercise, unsurprisingly, is fraught with all manner of anxieties. Fiction or non-fiction? Obligation reading or pleasure reading? A chance to finally consume that weighty must-read which has sat on my bedsite staring balefully at me since 2004? New York Times recommendations or the works of my South Africa co-authors? Humour or gravitas? Books to discuss at the dinner to which I contribute only washing-up skills, or books for deep and silent contemplation? Tomes or quickies?
These are weighty matters, you understand. A poor choice can render the entire vacation wasted, or at least malnourished. Leisure time, as we know, is rare, and an ill-used holiday can result in months of regret, resentment, sad introspection and self-abasement. So a great deal of frantic time is spent reading through reviews and pestering smart friends and online book clubs before marching into my favorite bookstore a week before departure armed with a steely gaze and sharp credit card.
So for enquiring minds, here is the math (barring exceptional circumstances like a day long trip to a quaint market at the end of a malicious and cloying sand road traversable only by tanks and elephants). If I concentrate hard and ignore my family and friends and their selfish, selfish needs, I can finish a book every 2 – 3 days, and so 8 days in Mozambique requires, um, let me see now, a minimum of 4 books.
Et voila – herewith my book report:
1) Laurent Binet’s HHhH – this is masterwork of historical fiction. Breathless shouts from Amis, Column Mcann and Brett Easton Ellis made me nervous, but this is like nothing you’ve ever read. The author is really uncomfortable with the foundation of historical fiction, and that is inventing conversations and scenes. He constantly narrates the deceit of this device in a sort of meta-narrative overlay. The historical story (the assassination of Heydrich, who was the enforcer of the Holocaust) is riveting enough, but the addition of his reluctance to invent scenes adds something entirely new to the genre.
2) Jim Crace’s Harvest – I did not enjoy this as much as others. He is a luminous prose stylist, better than Mantel (imho), and that is worth the price of admission (good writing is always worth the price of a book). But I felt let down by the plot, or perhaps I am simply not that interested in feudal England.
3) Patrick Flannery’s Fallen Land – this author wowed the world with his debut Absolution (which had much to do with SA, even though the author is not from here, he is American). He is also a fabulous writer. Think Philip Meyer doing a Stephen King creepy thriller against a backdrop of a 1984-style evil corporation (it is set in 2011). Not completely successful (500 pages should have been 350), but if you like creepy Stephen King plots, then this is for you.
4) Neil Turok’s from Quantum to Cosmos – he is ANC MP Ben Turok’s son and holds the Advanced Mathematics Chair at Cambridge, and pals around writing equations with Stephen Hawkings. Physics is a special interest of mine, and my sense of awe about physicists and the purity and philosophical importance of the study of the universe in which we live was considerably renewed by this book. Some of the science he tries to describe is not for the faint hearted, mainly because quantum mechanics is, well, utterly inexplicable in terms laymen like me can understand. But fabulous and humbling.
Oh, and don’t ask me what the weather was like. I am not sure I went outside.