Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

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Sometimes you find a book that is more like meeting a person and developing a friendship than just picking up another paperback. Memoirs of a Geisha was precisely this for me, and I feel quite upset – like I’ll never find another book that is quite as enchanting as this one.

I’m almost embarrassed about how long it took me to pick it up. I had bought it with a bunch of other second hand books, but wasn’t in the mood for having to try and understand a foreign culture, so I kept putting it off. But that is part of the magic of this novel, that Arthur Golden (a white, western, male academic) can take the hand of his reader and immerse them so utterly and completely in Japanese culture­­ ­– and especially into the life and times of a rural Japanese woman in the early 19th century.

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The story is exquisitely crafted and the language is rich. It is impossible not to feel that the lead character Sayuri Nitta, is not real, and not really sitting across from you with a cup of green tea, recalling her life as a Geisha in Kyoto. This book has moved me so much, that it immediately jumped into my top ten list (similar books in that list include Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind and Lord of the Rings, if that testifies to the richness of this tale and the fact that it is definitely a modern classic).

I cannot recommend it strongly enough, regardless of whether you’re into Asian culture or not (disclaimer: I wasn’t interested in Asian culture until I read this book). If I was you, I would consider getting hold of a good bottle of sake (Japanese rice wine­ – so it’s still applicable to this blog) and enjoying this magnificent story. If sake is not your thing, why not try the impeccable Hillcrest Estate Merlot, with berry flavours and a feminine finish, it is the perfect accompaniment to this tale.

 

A year of marvellous ways- Sarah Winman

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This is one of those books that I found myself enjoying-despite myself. That’s because at times it felt like you could see that the author was trying too hard to write a whimsical story. That she was pushing the magical realism a little too hard, and at times the plot is perfectly predictable.

At the same time, it was a charming read. That’s why I enjoyed it despite myself, because even though I could see through all the literary ploys, I allowed myself to be captivated at castaway with the gypsy, Marvellous, who nurses a spiritually-broken soldier back to physical and mental health.

Set in Cornwall just after the Second World War, this is the history of Marvellous Ways, a gypsy whose mother, she believes was a mermaid, and Francis Drake, a shunned lover and fatherless soldier who’s been left broken by life.

It’s a sweet and easy read, worth it if you want a story that you’ll enjoy, but through which you don’t have to think too much. I paired this with the equally sweet and charming Altydgedacht Pinotage.

A Passage to India-E.M. Forster

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E.M Forster’s seminal work A Passage to India is anything but an easy read. It took me three weeks. Not only because of the difficulties of the themes that he wrestles with (rape, racism and colonial domination) but also, because the author assumes the reader’s familiarity with Indian terms, concepts and traditions, especially under British rule (I suppose that’s why there are three appendices to the novel).

However, once you get the gist of it, it is a beautiful, powerful, and what many call prescient story. Dr Aziz, a surgeon in Chandrapore, believes (unlike many of his contemporaries) that there is good in the English colonials after befriending the aging Mrs Moore. Aziz offers to show Mrs Moore and her young companion Miss Quested “the real India” but when Miss Quested accuses Aziz of attempted rape, his image of British India and of his colonial overlords is turned on its head.

I guess I found this book difficult to digest, because I enjoy reading about India (Shantaram utterly enchanted me) but Forster describes the India of his day, not as magical and mystical, but harsh, cruel and unforgiving (bearing in mind that he travelled to India often and lived there for some time). But, if you enjoy historical fiction and classics, then it may be worth a read. I paired this book with Thelema’s 2010 Sutherland Cab Sav Petit Verdot blend, a complex compound of spicy flavours, like this book.

The Widow of the South-Robert Hicks

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Since completing the charming Sister Noon, and considering the fact that I’ve embargoed myself from buying any more second hand books until I finish the millions I’ve bought, I thought I would go on a historical fiction detour.

So, almost a year after buying it, I picked up The Widow of the South. My initial reasons for buying this book were somewhat insubstantial: I recognised the cover, and Gone with the Wind is one of my top 5 books that I reread annually. So, given my inexplicable interest (being South African) in the America Civil War, I thought I would chew into this one.

The story revolves around Carrie McGavock, a plantation lady who’s mourning of her three children is rudely interrupted by the Battle of Franklin, one of the most devastating and decisive battles of the war, and one that ushered in the victory of the union army over the confederates. The Confederate Generals commandeer her homestead to use as a makeshift hospital during and after the battle, in which time she discovers a new purpose for her life and a new romance.

It’s a brutal story. I almost rushed to finished it just because it’s so starkly highlights the futility of war. Hick’s goes into great detail (and from further research, great accuracy) in describing the battle, men who suffocated under piles of bodies, who had their jaws shot off and lived, who lost limbs or died on the floor of the Carnton Plantation under McGavock’s care. It’s horrific and gory in the extreme. Yet at the same time, it captures a moment in history foreign to almost everyone living today, and weaves composes a fascinating account of lives smashed together because of war.

I would only recommend this book if you have the stomach and disposition to handle very gory and gut-wrenching topics of war and death. However, if you, like me, are fascinated by this particular time in history, you will no doubt find this a very satisfying read, even though the way Hick’s switches constantly between narrators is somewhat annoying.

I paired this book with Guardian Peaks delectable Summit, a blend between Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. In this wine, you’ll get flavours of red fruit like plum, black cherries and red currant.

The girl on the train- Paula Hawkins

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I’m someone who only reads a thriller about once every two years. But I am someone who takes the train to work everyday. I love taking the train (when it’s not delayed by 30 minutes or packed to capacity). I love seeing the regulars, and I love seeing the many (many) crazy random commuters. Often, a poor man will serenade the train just for some coins to buy a cup of coffee.

Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to reading this book, because of the title. I also heard that it is similar in nature to Gone Girl, which, though disturbing, I grudgingly enjoyed. This story is told by three very different women, who all have one (deadly) thing in common. It is a typical Whodunnit, with a satisfying twist.

That said, the jarring jumping between years (2012/2013) and narrators can make it annoying and inconsistent. Also, it often feels very depressing and hopeless at times, especially for the primary narrator and girl-on-the-train, Rachel. Rachel is an alcoholic with a broken marriage and failed career who still takes the train to London everyday so that her roommate won’t discover that she’s been fired. On one of these everyday trips, she sees something unusual happening in her old neighbourhood, and thus begins the impetus for the story.

It’s a quick read and satisfying if thrillers are your thing. But a more literary-inclined person will be left disappointed. Rachel’s drinking habit makes you not want to sip an alcoholic beverage with this, but I paired it with the Kanonkop Kadette, a very satisfying and easy-drinking red blend with hints of dark chocolate and blackberry.

The Shadow of the Wind- Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind is a complex, beautifully written story that weaves an intricate narrative of different lives and generations in post-war Spain.

Young Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his father, a second hand book dealer. He is allowed to choose one book which he must keep and treasure always, as he will go into the second hand book business like his father. Daniel picks a book by a likewise forgotten author, Julian Carrax. Hidden here for safety from a mysterious character hell-bent on finding and destroying all of Carrax’s works, Daniel goes on a quest to discover more about the mysterious author, whom he finds he has so much in common with. The deeper Daniel digs, the more dangerous his quest to find out what really happened to Carrax becomes.

I really loved reading this story of love and misery in a post-war Europe. I must admit, I know very little about Spanish history or the Spanish civil war, but it was an interesting read nonetheless. Zafón has a unique way of writing that is both intricate and circular, often picking up threads later in the story that he drops right at the beginning. He also plays on the notion of history repeating itself and the danger of revenge and desire. His attention to detail brings the streets of Barcelona, and the characters that inhabit them, to life.

I paired this with the Stellenzicht Golden Triangle Shiraz, a wine imbued with rich flavours and deep philosophy that perfectly complements this complex novel.

The Hobbit – J.R.R Tolkien

   
There is very little point in reviewing a classic, but I am one of the many Inklings fans and I tend to re-read the works of Tolkien and Lewis at least once a year. Their works of art are like family to me, old familiar favorites that I return to time after time, for comfort, for joy and for assurance.
So this was the first time I’ve re-read The Hobbit since the series of movies came out. It’s hard for a die-hard fan to admit, but I did find the screen adaptations quite disappointing, often exclaiming to myself “that didn’t happen in the book!” 

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover, in re-reading the beloved tale once again, that not only did the movies not ruin the story for me, but they were also relatively accurate in their portrayal of the novel.

If you haven’t yet read the classic story of how someone small can find adventure, courage and friends worth more than gold and treasure, then what are you waiting for?

I paired this with the Solms Delta vintage Shiraz 2013. The wine is not a particularly spicy blend, but has a chocolate taste and is smooth on the palate. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini

  

One of the things that I love most about books, is their ability to transport you to a time and place that you would never be able to experience otherwise.

This is precisely what Hosseini’s exquisitely crafted novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, does for the reader. While I haven’t read Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, this second story is a triumph. 

It follows the lives of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, fighting to survive under Soviet rule, civil war and the Taliban. The themes that Hosseini explores include the role of women in Islam, masculinity and the power of truth. Hosseini is subtle in his exploration of these topics, showing husbands and fathers to be cruel to these two women, yet also showing the nuances of their roles through the redemptive characters of Tariq and Babi.

All in all this is an excellently weaved narrative which is both moving and insightful. I did pair this book with several wines, but in respect of Islamic tradition I’ll let you discover your own pairing for this story.

Happy reading

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

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I finally managed to trawl through Wuthering Heights.

After delving for several weeks into the world of post-apocalyptic America, I felt that I wanted something classic, something with depth to refresh my mind and recoup my love of holistic literature from a by-gone age. While Wuthering Heights ticked all these boxes, it also destroyed my happiness for the duration of the book.

The classic “love” story of Catherine and Heathcliff is a deeply disturbing one. If it took place today, it would probably portray Catherine as an adulteress who self-destructs her marriage to a man she once loved, while Heathcliff is nothing but a dangerous home wrecker bent on seeking revenge by destroying as many lives as he can, including those of innocent children.

The one question I had to keep asking myself throughout the duration of this book was, why is this a set work in most English speaking countries? True, Bronte has crafted it to perfection, and one must wonder what was it in the Moorish hills of their childhood that made all the Bronte sisters into literary geniuses? But that’s about as far as my admiration extends. In fact, a woman’s magazine in 1848 described the experience of reading this book in the following way: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters is a mystery.”

It was a difficult read, and yes, it has left me somewhat traumatised. Next time I pick up a classic it will definitely be a fluffy Jane Austen.

I paired this wine with the delectable and rich Waterford Kevin Arnold, a rich, smooth Shiraz which is everything I was hoping this classic tale of love and loss would be. At least it had a happy ending.

Divergent- Veronica Roth

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I’m tempted in my anguish to tell you not to read the Divergent trilogy. But then my book-loving self who would never deny another human being the addictive pleasure that comes from reading books like these, pushes me to write this post.

So for the past month my nose has been pasted to the pages of Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant, the three part series released by Veronica Roth (now a major motion picture featuring Ashley Judd and Kate Winslet).

What can be said about Divergent? Its teen fiction, so the writing is simplistic and the relationship between characters is sometimes dissatisfyingly shallow, but the storyline, set in post-apocalyptic USA, is imaginative and enthralling.

We meet the protagonist, Beatrice Prior, on the day she has to take the test which will determine which faction (or societal group) she will choose to join for the rest of her life. While this system was set-up to restore order after the war that destroyed the USA (as we know it) something else is afoot, and that’s when we are invited in to the story.

It was heart-racing and gripping to read, but I must warn you that when I finally finished the last page of Allegiant (the final book) I cried for two days straight. No really, two days. So if you are brave enough for the emotional rollercoaster that is Divergent, and sci-fi is your thing, then I highly recommend this read.

I paired this series with a number of wines, but the one that stood out most to me, and surprisingly so, because I seldom drink or enjoy Shiraz, was the Ross Gowan 2007. Spicey with a soft finish, this is a great accompaniment to the trilogy.