Stocking fillers?

Not silly, but certainly part of the silly season: that’s the annual selection of summer book releases destined to be acquired, wrapped and dispatched as Christmas gifts. The List is upon us once more — chosen by Excusive Books store managers around the country from books submitted by publishers.

In its older pre-2007 guise, this vetting and anointing of festive season titles went under the rubric Publishers’ Choice. The process was revamped last year to bring in as selectors those serving at the customer end of the wedge — the national chain store’s retail staff. From their purview has emerged what Exclusive says is ”its definitive selection of 53 of the best books to give or receive for the festive season”.

That South African titles comprise 40% of the choices, including seven in Afrikaans, speaks either to bookshop managers acknowledging greater consumer interest in our various national writings or a laudable attempt to nudge those who buy books into considering the local.

What would such an endeavour be without hardy perennials such as Zapiro (Pirates of Polokwane, Jacana) and Madam and Eve, who appear eponymously (as always) and unplugged in Madam & Eve Unplugged by Stephen Francis and Rico (Quartet)?

Alphabetically, the selection begins with Advanced Banter by the QI Team (Book Promotions) and ends with Zuma by Jeremy Gordin (Jonathan Ball) — the latter arguably a source for a second edition of the former.

In between, there are all the usual genre suspects: art, biography, business, Christian, cookery, current affairs, fiction, history, humour, lifestyle, sport and travel. Even poetry gets a look-in through Groot verseboek (Deel 1, Deel 2, Deel 3, NB Publishers) edited by André P Brink.

Given the seismic turmoil in the country’s politics, a number of titles would undoubtedly have been self-selecting. The Zuma biography for one, as well as Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel by Pippa Green (Penguin) and the yearly Max du Preez potboiler, Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Turncoats (Struik).

Reflections on times past — perhaps halcyon, with hindsight — are offered in Playing the Enemy by John Carlin (Penguin) and A Simple Freedom by Ahmed Kathrada (Wild Dog Press).

The Flux Trend Annual by Dion Chang (Pan Macmillan) is a handbook to negotiating change from a guru on the subject. To which there is a companion volume of sorts in The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder (Jonathan Ball). Buffett has weathered all sorts of change, and been wondrously adroit at resisting fads and superficial financial pleasures such as derivatives — which is cause of much gnashing of the speculators’ teeth and loss of paper wealth acquired by greed.

Derivatives devotees preached their gospel that risk can be transferred to institutions better able to bear it. Buffett was a non-believer, advising his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in his 2002 letter that derivatives were ”financial weapons of mass destruction”.

As an example, Buffett wrote of General Re Securities, a derivatives dealer Berkshire inherited when it bought the insurer General Re that: ”At year-end (after 10 months of winding down its operation) it had 14 384 contracts outstanding, involving 672 counterparties around the world. Each contract has a plus or minus value derived from one or more reference items, including some of mind-boggling complexity. Valuing a portfolio like that, expert auditors could easily and honestly have widely varying opinions.”

So, alongside rereading Adam Smith in Beijing by Giovanni Arrighi, I will be dipping into The Snowball, Buffett being a notable counterpoint to Arrighi, the leading Marxist sociologist of the day. (Arrighi’s book is not on The List, I hasten to add.)

Given its Christmas bent, there is little serious fiction on this List. But do not hesitate to get and/or to give The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (Book Promotions). A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: A Novel by Nicholas Drayson (Penguin) seems worth a flutter. And those who insist on the literary virtues of PD James will not be disappointed by her latest, the somewhat elegiac The Private Patient (Book Promotions).

PD James and John Le Carré both seem to get better and better — or worse and worse if you hold to the other camp on this matter. What is certain is that in the so-called War on Terror, Le Carré has found his best subject since the Cold War. The cynical realities and tragic idealism that he examined with particular brilliance in the George Smiley books and other novels set in Germany (A Small Town in Germany, Absolute Friends) are again the focus in A Most Wanted Man (Jonathan Ball).

The List is a well-oiled marketing device that encourages South Africans to buy books. Let’s hope that a natural consequence is that it induces them to read as well.

Titles above are listed by publishers and by entities representing and distributing international publishers, for example, The Private Patient by PD James is published by Faber and Faber, for which Book Promotions acts in South Africa

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Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.

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