Why you should read ‘Entanglement’

There are books that make readers want to buy books and books that make writers want to write books. Steven Boykey Sidley’s debut novel made me want to do both.

First, disclosure: I know the author. I have eaten at his table and he at mine and his beautiful writerly wife, Kate is a friend of the heart. So I can’t really call this a review; there are too many connections and too much liking of the person to allow me to entirely impartially address Entanglement. That said, here I write only the truth.

When a friend publishes a book, a risk emerges from the moment you turn to the first page. What if it’s awful? What if I don’t get it? What if it’s consumable like cold slap chips, but not magnificent like Radium Beerhall prawns (pah! to you, Chris Roper). Entanglement is a heady and complex Thai curry.

The authors I most seek out are those that relentlessly explore the protagonist: his or her thoughts, motives, secrets, passions and doubts. Authors who allow the story to tell itself through the humanity of the characters, rather than through plot. Ian McEwan does that to my deep satisfaction, as do Sebastian Faulks, John Fante…

Of course plot is important. Without plot there is no story; but when a writer can allow the hero to seep through his skin into flesh and mind, distilling into a plot which flows from fingers to page – there you have the best kind of story. The kind in which you can believe. Steven Boykey Sidley is that kind of writer.

Yes, there were odd jarring moments. Entanglement was first constructed as a screenplay and, in earlier pages, there remain traces of dialogue straight from a script. Why was this not edited, I wonder?

I was initially startled by the overt resemblances to some of Sidley’s real life family and friends. I’m sure that many greenhorn novelists do that (and I sure as hell did in my – unpublished – MS) and this would mean nothing to a reader who doesn’t know the author from a can of beans… but I did have to get over that before allowing myself to be swept up.

At times I felt that the plot was implausible, until I soon realised that I had fallen into the trap set by many an overly commercial publisher: formula. Sidley’s story doesn’t follow a predictable formula. It follows plot as life follows plot: a capricious path etched by the motives and foibles of diverse characters and unexpected events.

I also battled somewhat with the protagonist’s (author’s?) little homilies; certain thoughts were at times, I felt, over explained to a thinking reader.

This is a thinking reader’s novel. I have recently been ragged for using the word ‘intellectual’ (don’t let’s go there), but Boykey Sidley is an intellectual writer – an intellectual man – and the sheer joy of this book lies in his ability to share his intellect without guile, pomposity or artifice. His honesty becomes this novel’s rich humanity. The language is strong, real and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful.

Another confession: I am a skip-reader (which sounds like one who nicks old Agatha Christies from the neighbour’s bin, but isn’t). The only author whom I have never skip-read is Jane Austen. With Austen, I reread passages for the sheer joy of their lemon barley bite. I didn’t skip one word or sentence in Entanglement for fear of losing a clue or motivation for the next moment.

This is a very good book. Not quite great, but I strongly suspect that Sidley’s next one will be.

Do yourself a favour.

Midweek Jazz at the Ascot

I hadn’t been to the Ascot Hotel since God was a girl. If I remember correctly, my last visit entailed an hysterically delightful Abbaesque drag show with doos-wyn, creaky props and – possibly deliberate – bad lighting. Then the Ascot disappeared into Norwood decay for many years, re-merging a couple of years ago as a boutique hotel, still with oodles of 50s style.

I’d been meaning to pay it a visit for yonks, but it wasn’t until Kathy Raven said let’s get a table together that I got my act together. There’s jazz on Thursday night, she said. Seven for seven-thirty. It was the last bit that captured my attention. Early evening midweek jazz caters perfectly to my suburban tastes. None of this foolish music starts at nine stuff for me.

One of the great things about the Ascot is its location – and abundant parking. Although I’m glad I don’t actually live in the neighbourhood, I find it reassuring to be able to park outside someone’s house and to walk thirty paces up towards Grant Ave to find a bit of night life.

And there it was in all its polished glory: a gleaming balcony bedecked with cocktail tables, stylishly dressed patrons and a middle-aged he-must-be-a-writer in for good measure. I was greeted like a frequent, honoured guest at the red-carpeted entrance by two utterly charming young men, and shown to the table in the adjacent bar stroke restaurant stroke lounge.

I was the first to arrive. I can’t help it. If it says seven for seven-thirty then I’ll arrive at seven-fifteen. I try to be late but should really just give in to my obsessive punctuality. My mother says it’s because I was born six weeks early. I’ll buy that.

So I sat alone for all of three seconds when another charming young man came and offered me a glass of wine. He was the waiter, so I said yes. I’m still kicking myself that I can’t remember his name because he was the kind of waiter you request on return visits. He was just so polite. Friendly. Efficient.

At seven-thirty on the dot Andrew Massey and Andre Behnke stepped up to the keyboard and drums to deliver the kind of sensual, soothing, Michael Franks Popsicle Toes type jazz that makes your own curl. Andrew (on drums and vocals) must have been crooning since birth. His voice adapted slightly to every song, capturing the essence of the mood and era. I could feel the tension of the day drift out into the night. Magic.

By this time our table was occupied by Ms Raven and other serious music people. I tried not to gush inanely but the consensus was that these guys were good. Really good.

By now of course I was excited and already planning my next visit – preferably with my partner, my children, their partners, and ten of our closest friends. This is the kind of experience you want to share.

But you don’t want to eat there. It grieves me to say so but the classical urban aesthetics, welcoming charm, professional service and outstanding music all ground to a halt at the kitchen door.

I had been warned, but ever keen to give it a go I ordered the house salad. The light was dim so it wasn’t until I bit into a singed walnut and tasted the tongue-coating sunflower oil that I knew this wasn’t going to work. Another of our party ordered the minestrone: a tomatoey pool with an excess of pasta and an absence of the promised ‘market-fresh’ vegetables. I sent mine back because I simply couldn’t eat it. Our lovely waiter’s talents were wasted on the food.

I will be back though and look forward to autumn evenings when I can enjoy the open fire, the flickering candles and more soul massaging music. I’ll eat at home.

You’ll find the Ascot Hotel at 59 Grant Ave, Norwood.

You’ll find Andrew and Andre at Jazzco Productions. I’m tempted to organise an event just so I can hear them again.

Stephen Watson: The music in the ice

My habit of alternating trashy with ‘good’ began at the age of four-and-a-bit when I started reading Rice Crispies boxes. I think my first realisation of the power of words came upon spelling out ‘Free inside!’ which I considered a good read, along with The Swallows and the Amazons, anything by Agatha Christie, and Little Women. I still read Agatha (now sadly in the trashy pile) and still want to be Jo March. I no longer, however, want to get lost downstream with nothing more than an apple to sustain me while being pursued by Nazi spies; though I do admire people who do.

Having completed my umpteenth reread of whodunit, The Hollow, I recently embarked on Stephen Watson’s soul-stirring The Music in the Ice, a compilation of essays ‘On Writers, Writing & Other Things’. That may sound a tad demanding for those of you who’d rather go to bed with Michael Connolly than with Margaret Atwood, but if you’re one of those who would happily retire with either, here’s why you’ll love it.

It feels good.

The cover, I mean. I’m not fussed about what a book looks like: often the most enticing covers hide the least appealing reads, but the texture of a cover is important; you will, after all, be holding and stroking it for days to come. The Music in the Ice is as alluring as the freshly shaven cheek of a lover: kissably smooth with the merest hint of rough (assuming you’re into men). And the pages have their own appeal: grainy ivory with a whiff of old dust. None of that slippery, ice-white crap from that Cape-based publisher who should have stuck to text books.

It’ll give you something to talk about.

The first essay I dived into was on Leonard Cohen. I’ve often defended Leonard to my male friends who are all convinced he’s a suicidal groaner who can hold neither his liquor nor his wimmin. No! I cry. He’s a lover, a poet, an artist who truly, truly loves and understands women (ie, me). Bollocks, they mutter; eager to say more but silenced by my blind devotion and brandished corkscrew.

Seems we’re both right. In ‘Leonard Cohen & Longing’, Watson writes:

“If Leonard Cohen, in short, was avid, he was also in matters of the heart intensely ambivalent, even grievously divided. In later years his self-understanding would be acute: ‘I think the experience of love is that you dissolve your sentries and your battalions for a moment,’ he remarked in an interview in 1995. ‘Your heart opened and of course you’re completely panicked because you’re used to guarding this organ with your life.’ As a young man and even later however, he would not always command that panic. If he was loved, he was often incapable or returning that love. If he considered himself a ‘student of love’, he was forced to concede that it was a love that he himself was never able to give.”
I have come to a new understanding of Cohen: still groaning at seventy-five and still one of life’s gifts to poetry and love.

It’ll broaden your horizons.

I’m a little nervous writing anything about Camus, as my experience is limited to the obligatory reading of The Plague and The Rebel when I was plagued by rebellion in my late teens. But that’s not to say that I – or you for that matter – shouldn’t read about him. The essay, ‘The Heart of Albert Camus’ peels back the life of this serial fornicator, son of an illiterate Algerian laundress, and ‘one of the great articulators of the existential and political dilemmas of twentieth-century humanity…’

In writing of Camus ‘bestseller’, The Outsider, Watson tells us: ‘It harbours, still, something of the charisma of that which is all paradox. Few novels, even in the twentieth century, have been more studiedly, casually cool – thus answering to the perennial need of the young to armour themselves in an emotional style. Few have been so adroit in depicting how people avoid the pitfalls of meaninglessness (as well as meaning) by taking nothing too seriously. At the same time, almost no other book remains so passionate in its rebellion against the false gods of religion, so concerted in its attempt to find this mortal world enough.’

Those words alone made me place my order for The Outsider – and this is perhaps the greatest gift that any writer can give: to set a reader on a new path of discovery. For me, on reading Stephen Watson, this has not been only a discovery of new books, but the discovery of myself; particularly on reading his essay on ‘The Rhetoric of Violence In South African Poetry’. For the first time I came to understand what it has meant to me growing up in post-colonial South Africa; how my thoughts, attitudes and actions have been shaped – not only by the pervasive ‘violence’ – that word that ‘suddenly acquires the status of a new verbal deity’ – but by belonging in a state of not belonging.

Argh! Enough angst for one morning. I now need to reread the penultimate essay in this rich collection: ‘Hannah Hunter Watson’ – the author’s letter to his daughter. It will inspire you to think even more softly of your own offspring.

My recommendations for enhancing this reading experience (feel free to add your own):
Best place to read this book: at Moyo Zoo Lake; it’ll keep your mind off the non-existent service.

What to drink while reading it: personally, if I’m in the money I’ll go for a Thelema Sutherland Sauvignon Blanc 2008 – on ice, you won’t want to keep jumping up to go to the fridge. If I’m broke, a nice pot of English Breakfast tea will do just fine.

And to eat: one-handed food is advisable, so Kate Sidley’s guacamole and nachos with the wine, or Moyo’s chocolate brownies with the tea.

Best place to buy it: Kalk Bay Books, Main Rd, Kalk Bay is one of the best places in the world to buy – and be.

Read about Stephen Watson here, and here.

Published by Penguin
EAN: 9780143026907
Recommended retail price: R200

(This review first appeared on http://www.newstime.co.za/column/GALLIMAUFRY/ALL_BOOKED_UP/92/2324/)

Thava: South Indian delights in the ’burbs

Where, in Johannesburg, can you take your fussy vegetarian daughter, your carnivorous boyfriend and your discerning son – and still fulfil your need for the ultimate prawn curry; all without overlooking a car park or breaking the bank?

Thava, situated on The Avenue, Oaklands is a fairly recent discovery that I now think of as my upmarket local (my downmarket local being The Radium). The food is, quite simply, sublime. And the very clever tapas menu means you can have a taste of many dishes, allowing a satisfying sense of gluttony without causing bodily harm.

The dosa – a gluten free, dhal based, light-as-a-feather pancake filled with chicken khorma – is a particular favourite; as are the heavenly vegetable patties. The tandoori line fish had my son grinning and cooing like a contented tourist and my boyfriend still reminisces fondly about the lamb rogan josh with mint and coriander raita (sheer heaven). My daughter is determined to return as often as it takes to enjoy every combination of all eleven of the vegetarian curries and the various starters.

And that prawn curry, fragrant with tamarind and coconut? Well that was my motivation for writing this review.

But all these culinary delights would mean little without the right location. I don’t know about you, but I strongly object to eating while inhaling car fumes. I also dislike having to trawl through a clanging, gleaming shopping mall to find the comfort of food.

Thava is situated at the quiet end Norwood; where Grant Avenue becomes simply ‘The Avenue’. While the interior of the restaurant offers a combination of contemporary and classical Indian style (which blends well with the beautiful carved beams; a legacy from the previous occupant) the best tables are on the enclosed balcony, where you overlook window boxes, trees and suburbia. It’s all delightfully welcoming, pleasing and uncluttered. There is also plenty of parking and a dedicated car guard.

Another bugbear of mine is tiny tables – the curse of shopping mall and pavement establishments – upon which glasses, side plates, cellphones and napkins all vie for a space. Thava has spacious, linen draped tables perfectly proportioned for platter after plate of sambals, sauces, breads and courses. This makes for a most relaxing dining experience, one which you’re reluctant to see the end of; which can only be good for business.

I’m trying to think of something negative to say, but all I can come up with is that, while the headwaiter is splendid, a couple of the other waiters are a tad inexperienced and not entirely comfortable speaking English; but somehow this serves only to add to the charm.



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