A hunger for finely crafted love stories


A hunger for finely crafted love stories

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH swoons over a love story and crime fiction and looks at a list of Very Important Books.


READING love stories? Who, me? The knight of New Cynicism? Come on, you should know better than to suspect me of such a thing.

But one has unguarded moments. I may think that I am too old to be captivated by the magical charm of love. But I also suffer from a disease. I'm curious. Very curious.

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Beautiful irony

You could say I was destined to succumb to Emily Henry's Funny Story, a book ranked among the top 20 bestsellers in the US for eight weeks.

I read it, one Sunday, and I was a changed person. As you are when you find out your whole life could have been different if you didn't have such terrible prejudices against love stories.

Let me get right to the point and say that Henry is a dazzling writer. Wily and cunning. As mouthy as a con man and with an ear for dialogue that many writers would sacrifice their eye teeth for.

This is how the book begins :

Some people are natural storytellers. They know how to sketch a scene, find the right angle, when to pause for dramatic effect or breeze past inconvenient details.

I wouldn't have become a librarian if I didn't love stories, but I've never been great at telling my own.

Yup. You read it, and you just know she's going to prove the opposite. You also just know that the woman speaking here is busy fooling herself.

And that's how Henry's writing prowess works. She gives new life to old-style figures. Irony is the beautiful princess in her fabulous world. She tells us about a librarian, Daphne, whose ex-fiancée suddenly became enamoured with his best childhood friend. But that childhood friend also ditched her big love, Miles, so she could get together with Daphne's ex.

In a refreshing variation on the old mythological legend of Daphne not wanting Apollo's love, Daphne and Miles pretend they've won each other's love, but actually Daphne knows it's a con trick. Miles's love? She's not looking.

I'm not going to say anything more about the story, other than to warn you right now that Daphne isn't going to turn into a laurel tree.

Now I harbour an enormous admiration for Henry. It's awfully hard to write like she does. Anyone can describe a morning walk by Daphne and Miles, but Henry can make it describe so many things at once. 

It's cooler outside than in our apartment, the nip in the air making my arms and legs tingle. I can feel my leg hair growing and wonder why I bothered shaving last night. Because you have a crush on your roommate, my inner dialogue provides helpfully, and you want him to look at and touch and probably even lick your legs.

She and Miles hadn't progressed to those other things at this point.

Funny Story is the kind of writing I'm jealous of. Henry has a special talent. I'm sure it can all be traced to a lot of hard work, hours of toiling to make everything she pens looks simple and light. But there is so much happening in this book that is not said in words. It's implications, it's suggestion, it's the food with which a master writer feeds hungry readers.

Needless to say, she has awakened a hunger in me. I yearn for more.

Funny Story by Emily Henry was published by Penguin and costs R370 at Exclusive Books.

Finely crafted crime

I'm not going to taunt the gods and try to unpack this detective story's plot. It's overly complicated. It moves on two, actually three levels. It will be for the post-modernists and structuralists like condensed milk for a child. Horowitz (screenwriter of Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders and Magpie Murders fame, as well as a load of books) included himself in the story. He has to write a new novel and asks his old pal, the detective Daniel Hawthorne, for help. Then he follows the trail of one of Hawthorne's old cases.

Let me approach the matter from a different angle. The man who is killed is one of those fools who always speaks and complains the most at a townhouse complex's body corporate meetings. So there are a lot of people who won't really care if he dies. Then he dies. In the vicinity are retired nuns, women and creative types. And then comes tampering Horowitz, too.

I've been saving a bunch of good detective stories to read. This one is hands down the best of the bunch I've already read. A spectacle of plotting. It doesn't make me want to tackle a crime novel again soon. Horowitz still haunts my mind. Oh, and there's a bow to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. So, it's actually four levels.

Close to Death by Anthony Horowitz was published by Cornerstone and costs R405 at Exclusive Books.

Very Important Books

There will be plenty of people who can come up with titles worthy of this list. Christianson and Salter cannot possibly compile a totally undisputed catalogue. What matters is what they include.

The first title is the I Ching (2800 BC) and the last is Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. There are numerous unexpected titles — Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (with which I agree, even though the book has zero influence on the Russians and Chinese, and they were the great culprits with poisons) and Art Spiegelman's Maus, but no The Waste Land of TS Eliot or Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke.

It's debatable whether Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone can be mentioned in the same breath as the Bible and the Quran, and even more so that it could be a choice over Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or or Albert Camus' The Outsider, but Christianson and Salter think JK Rowling has changed the world more than those books.

If you have any ounce of wit, you'll also be able to see that Hitler's Mein Kampf changed the world on a larger scale than Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So it helps to consider a little modernist realpolitik, culturally speaking, as you work through this book. It's intensely interesting, even if it makes you feel like arguing loudly with someone.

100 Books That Changed the World by Scott Christianson and Colin Salter was published by Batsford and costs R456 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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