THE READER: Gundula Deutschlander

Gundula Deutschlander, the head gardener at Babylonstoren, has a degree in fine arts and used to paint miniatures in oils, “but gardening is in my blood and got the better of me,” she confesses. “I especially like ‘painting’ in time using plants. Dreaming up a future garden. Realizing an ideal,” she says.

Coming to Babylonstoren nearly eight years ago was “like a sailor returning home” – she grew up nearby, but more recently worked as a gardener on a garden estate in Greece for the antiquarian E.Martinos and also for a few years at Brantwood, the estate of John Ruskin in the Lake District.

“I had travelled the world in search of paradise (from Iceland to Iran) learning by the sweat on my brow and devouring books,” she says. “Fortunately Babylonstoren was a blank canvas upon which I could weave the entire world, creating a library of plants that feed both the belly and soul of the owner and passing travellers.”

“My life took a bit of a somersault when my son was born, but he has just turned four-year-old and fortunately we are catching up on the torturous time when he was a baby, stealing all my reading and gardening time for himself,” she says. “We now treasure our bedtime reading. At the library I try to hunt down the books that marked my childhood: Leo Lionni and Maurice Sendak and of course we find all sorts of treasures in between. Its rather sobering to absorb the complexities of our surrounding world in these distillations made for children.”

What are you reading at the moment?

Roman Fever by Edith Wharton. I enjoyed this collection of short stories: I marvel at Edith’s sharp, but never accusing commentary of her own social class. She holds the mirror with sly humor for the reader to judge if necessary .

How do you decide what to read next?

I scrounge through my mother’s book club books, or my sister passes one on to me.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

For work, The Lotus Quest by Mark Griffiths. It changed my way of gardening. Usually it is left to Nature to inspire, or I have been impressed by gardens I have visited, but this book described the influence and value of the lotus so thoroughly that I have never have been the same since. I’m lucky to have been able to plant lotus in our garden, making a point of passing by with visitors to experience this sacred plant as it rises clean and pure from out of the swamp. With a plant so sensual to the eye, I liked it that this book could draw my attention again to gardening with all the senses and the soul. In Japan, gardeners would leave the tattered and dried autumn leaves of the lotus to sound as percussions when the first rain of the season starts to fall.

For life, Janosch’s  Oh, wie schön ist Panama. This has been a recurring theme in all my life. A valuable lesson for a traveller like myself. It’s a storybook for children, in which a bear and a tiger are seduced into finding their dream home, after accidentally finding an empty box scented of bananas and labeled PANAMA. It’s about returning to where you started, only with more appreciation and humility.

Stevie Smith, a biography by Frances Spalding. Stevie Smith somehow just stuck to me. This collection of her works makes it easy to dip in for fun or dive in deep, just to want to come up for air again.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Passenger to Tehran by Vita Sackville-West. I have always admired Vita, but grew up reading those heroic, tough-as-biltong desert travellers like Wilfred The Singer. They shaped my aspirations and made me brave enough to cast myself out into the world. Only after I had been to Persia did I find this little Penguin book, but this is it! I’ve ploughed through Vita’s letters and biographies, but this is fresh. I suppose I appreciate the book more, knowing she wrote The Land in Persia (capturing the beauty and essence of her homeland back in England) similar to how I regained my mother tongue while living abroad.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Eleanor Farjeon’s books. I can’t recall the stories, just the marvellous magical quality and one of the skipping rhymes. Delicate slip-sliding fantasy and lovely illustrations.


What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Given to a friend in Kenya that I met on pilgrimage there 15 years ago, we have just caught up again

Which book have you never been able to finish?

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Just couldn’t get into it even though I thoroughly enjoyed some of his other books and find Istanbul a fascinating place. I suppose I had other expectations.

What book do you turn to for advice?

Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke’s People’s Plants. Few books make identifying and using our indigenous plants so helpful. If I was to be left to fend for myself in a forest in Europe, I’d possibly manage to survive, but here, in my backyard in the rugged Drakenstein mountain range, I doubt I would survive for more than three days. This book helps me to understand the environment into which I was born, but with no other means of knowing what and how the plants are of use. This is Khoi and Xhosa knowledge backed with modern chemistry that I otherwise would only learn about through someone else’s ouma or oupa.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Only paper.

Your favourite book about gardening?

Gardens of Iran; Ancient Wisdom, New Vision published by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. This book was given to me as a gift from a generous gentleman for whom I pruned roses on weekends, so that I could save up enough money to travel to Iran to visit the gardens of paradise. This book is as rare a find as this gentleman who gave it, is. In Iran I was given an undercover name: Gul, meaning Rose. I have appreciated the preparation that went into this journey, but also the reflection thereafter. Gardening is an encouragement to live, laugh, love in the midst of the desert.

If you were stuck in a lift for three hours with an author (alive or dead), who would it be, and what would you ask them?

Tim Winton. “Going up?” I’ve chosen someone who wouldn’t feel trapped or anxious in this situation. I’ve just finished reading Tim Winton’s Eyrie and think he’d be a good companion in such a sticky situation. Someone who would make time fly, telling stories rather than delving into the meaning of a lift being stuck. He always makes me taste the salt in the air.

THE READER: Nadya Cohen

Nadya Cohen, a freelance set designer a set designer for dance, drama and opera, studied Theatre Design at the Wimbledon School of Art. She’s worked on a plethora of productions, including the Market Theatre’s Crepuscule, People Are Living There and Touch My Blood; Boesman and Lena (which was put on at Theatre on the Square and the Baxter) and the State Theatre’s A Voice I Cannot Silence, which was shown at this year’s National Arts Festival and at Hilton. 

What are you reading at the moment?

For “truth” my horoscope. For “anticipated pleasure” A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

How do you decide what to read next?

Always work and mood related. With work, the visual poetry shaping text always involves meandering research and surprise. With mood: if I feel sunny side up I am able to savour the blue grief of Joan Didion; if I am crepuscular I relish the craziness of Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti.

What is your favourite book about art?

I first “studied” art in first year architecture where Helen Gardiner’s Art Through The Ages was prescribed. With my first spindly Rotring ink pen I wrote on the frontispiece that it was given to me by relatives I called The Sisters Karamazov. I underlined something in almost every paragraph and it fuelled my curiosity leading to many pilgrimages both physical and spiritual: cromlech, dolmen, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, magical, sacred.

More recently I have been reading about Wabi-sabi which has given a name to much of my work philosophy, embracing the cycle of life in the beauty of imperfection and impermanence.

What were your favourite books as a child?

Aesop’s Fables as enacted and read by a favourite aunt. Wind In The Willows read to me by Dad early on Sunday mornings with tea and Marie biscuits. Peter Pan with exquisite illustrations by Rackham. Struwwelpeter in all its dark humour and magnificent compelling illustrations of blood and terror. A. A. Milne and one particular illustration by E. H. Shepard whose wisdom I still return to:

Pooh and Piglet are walking into a snowy wood …

“What day is it, ?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,“ squeaked Piglet.

“My favourite day,” said Pooh.

I am sure that all these worlds of imagination seeded my career choice.

A novel that made a strong impression on you.

Three thrillers: Brighton Rock, A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting. I love the drive of the narrative, the terrible and fascinating view into these worlds and the language of Pinkie, Alex and his droogs and Spud and Sick Boy. They all upend any complacent notion of sin and morality, love and desire, responsibility and community.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

Alison Bechdel’s gorgeous clever personal graphic novel Are You My Mother?.

What book do you turn to for advice?

It used to be my autograph book. Mrs Donnelly my English teach in Standard 2 had written

“To thine own self be true…” It held me in thrall as both prayer and confession until I realised the world was porous and mutable and interconnected and less me-centric. Now I am led by “wonder” and “wandering”.

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?

The English Language Dictionary.

Do you read paper books, on an iPad or on Kindle?

Real paper: crisp new, thumbed or stained.

THE READER: Ann Donald

Ann Donald is the programme director of the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival. Previously she was the editor of Fair Lady and the owner of Kalk Bay Books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have about five books on the go, ready to pick up depending on my mood, the time available, or the chair I’m closest to: Gavin Evans’s Black Brain White Brain, Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say?, Finuala Dowling’s The Fetch, Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Four of them will be participating in events at the FLF (so I can justify reading them in the middle of the day even though I’m really reading for pleasure), and Marilynne Robinson’s is my bedtime book because it calms my brain with its beautiful, measured tone and rhythm.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Many books have influenced me over the years, but in recent times, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, pushed me to do something completely nuts, which had a huge impact on the subsequent years. The book is about people taking risks, stepping out into the unknown with no reassurance of safety except faith in oneself. I started reading it on 1 January 2010 and it was the subject of a column I then wrote for the Sunday Times about the importance of starting a year with a book that would set the tone for year ahead. With its spirit still coursing through me two months later, I did the unthinkable and opened a restaurant. On any sanity gauge, this was on the side of madness, and for the next two years I was, truly, slightly mad. It was fun, demanding, completely out of my skills’ zone, and I never regret doing it. But sanity did prevail.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

That’s not a fair question; it’s like asking me to choose between my children. Can I just say that reading novels is my favourite activity of all time?

A recent read that surprised you?

The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk. This feels like a completely new voice in South African writing and I found myself getting more and more excited as I read it. He sketches characters in the fewest words possible, creating a world, and giving it depth in startling ways. It’s contained but feels like it has no boundaries. I hope he keeps writing.

What were your favourite books as a child?

The Magic Faraway Tree. I know Enid Blyton is frowned upon by many, but it’s because of her that I became a reader, and this book captured my imagination gave me endless hours of pleasure.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, to one of my oldest friends for her birthday. I’m about to give Secrets of a French Cooking Class by Marlene van der Westhuizen as a wedding present.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo. It also made me cry.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

Lila by Robert Pirsig. I pick it up once every five years or so, and after 10 pages give up again. I persevered through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and still have no idea what he was writing about. Maybe it’s me.

What book do you turn to for advice?

My desktop Collins Dictionary (my real desk, that is). And Leiths Techniques Bible [sic].

Your favourite magazine?

Intelligent Life. It’s only about the subject and the writing, and always offers me something unexpected.

What book would you give to the president to read?

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?

This feels like a cliché, but the Brontë sisters, in the dining room at Haworth, just the four of us. Virginia Woolf would also be an option, but I don’t know if I’d be brave enough.

The Franschhoek Literary Festival runs from Friday 15 May to Sunday 17 May. Tickets are available from Webtickets, and the programme can be viewed online here.

THE READER: Andrea Burgener

Andrea Burgener is a self-taught chef and the owner of The Leopard restaurant in the Joburg suburb of Melville. She writes about food for several publications, including a weekly column for The Times, and has authored a cookbook, Lampedusa Pie.

What are you reading at the moment?

I read many things at the same time and often don’t finish them, because my life is somewhat chaotic and my free time appears in tiny little patches. I’ve just started Craig Higginson’s The Dream House which I’m loving and suspect I will finish, then next to my bed is Red Rackham’s Treasure which I’m re-reading for the 50th time (Tintin books are like therapy for me). In my bag I have The Great Cholesterol Scam by brilliant Scottish doctor Malcolm Kendrick, which I read if waiting or bored etc. when out and about. I am, perhaps unreasonably, obsessed with the topic. Anyone taking statin drugs (which I wouldn’t for love or money) should read this post-haste.

How do you decide what to read next?

Sometimes I just grab old books from our shelves; sometimes it’s through browsing (the best place to do this is Love Books in Melville which has been so intelligently curated that you can pretty much grab anything from a shelf with your eyes closed and be satisfied); sometimes I order specific books online because of some interest or other. The most recent order I’m awaiting is Rome Tales by Helen Constantine, a collection of short stories about Rome, my favourite city in the world.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

No single book.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Impossible to answer. I think it’s probably a tie between The Go-Between, To Kill a Mockingbird (my son narrowly escaped being called Atticus), Catch-22, Things Fall Apart, Laughter in the Dark, and The Magic Mountain. And though they are not novels, I love everything written by Florence King, especially her Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. Her books are some of the funniest in existence.

What were your favourite books as a child?

So many! I think these are at the top of the list: Rebecca, Watership Down, The Secret Garden, the William books (which I still love to read now), Beano comics, Barbar the Elephant and Dr Seuss’s The Lorax.  Then too of course, all the Tintin books. I’ve tried so hard – clearly too hard – to engender a love of these in my children, yet they all remain inexplicably lukewarm.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

I gave my husband a book on charcuterie for Christmas. He is obsessed with transforming pigs into gastronomic delights, and is very good at it.

Which book have you never been able to finish?

The Lord of the Rings. I tried so hard, because I felt I SHOULD like it, but I was bored to tears from the moment I started, and only got to about eighth of the way through (even that I consider a monumental feat). Tried again years later, but gave up even quicker.

What book do you turn to for advice?

For cooking advice, I have hundreds of recipe books that I go to; for other advice, I’m more likely to ask an actual person.

Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?

Paper books. I’m not very digital, generally; I don’t do Twitter, Instagram and so on. The online reading I do is of the newspaper article sort, recipes and so on, but never whole books. I like books as physical objects and can’t imagine doing away with that.

Your favourite cookbook?

Impossible to answer. But three of my (dozens of) favourites are: Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, Braam Kruger’s Provocative Cuisine (I love the food but it’s also a favourite for nostalgic reasons: he was a close friend and huge influence on my cooking), and Jacob Kennedy’s Bocca. Bocca is named after Kennedy’s award winning Italian restaurant in London; it’s a beautiful evocative tome with often unusual recipes from all over Italy. The meatballs cooked with lemon slices are my best thing in the book.

If you could cook dinner for a dead writer, who would you cook dinner for, where would you eat with them, and what would you make them?

I would cook dinner for my cousin Roly. He was a scriptwriter living in Los Angeles, whom I adored. He introduced me to the book Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and the timbale within, eaten at a banquet. We called it Lampedusa Pie. We always talked about getting the right recipe for the dish, and he eventually sent my mother a version in a letter. I would cook the perfect Lampedusa Pie for him, and we’d be eating it in Sicily, where the book is set. On the table would be the small vintage painted-plaster leopard which I found in a junk shop and meant to send to him and never did. My children broke its paw off, but it’s still beautiful. Anyway, in this scenario, where I can make dead people come to life, the paw would be fixed.

Lampedusa Pie is published by Bookstorm.