THE READER: Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto

Peter Attard Montalto is the London-based Head of Emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa Economics at Nomura International. His cogent analyses of South Africa’s political economy have made him one of the most widely quoted South Africa-watchers in the media.

What are you reading at the moment?

As I travel a lot I always have at least one book on me though these are invariably non-fiction or work-related. I’m currently reading The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk which I think provides a useful journalist’s view of the development vortex of institutions and ever-shifting policy landscape. I find development economics one of the most bewildering and fraught areas of economics and the book is a reminder of how hard it is to alleviate poverty through direct scalable interventions without getting some simple foundations in place first like institutions and natural markets.

How do you decide what to read next?

Much of what I read I have little choice over – dry budget or policy documents from governments, tomes from central banks of international institutions which can take up a considerable amount of time looking at many different economies. Autobiographies of politicians are always the hardest to deal with and demand to be glanced at but can be dull beyond the titbits picked up in the press. Helen Zille’s book is a prime example which thankfully had an index to remove the need to deal with it cover-to-cover. But I always try and intersperse my reading with fiction from countries I’m dealing with (Francophone Africa is on my list next and especially Diogo) and “hobby” reading (currently about the technicalities of winemaking!).

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

I think reading enlightenment thinkers has had the most profound and lasting impact on me. Smith, Locke, Rousseau and then later Hayek etc. as well as their critics. Whilst I’m somewhat towards the libertarian end of spectrum politically now (a place sparsely populated in South African discourse) it’s interesting to see how one’s views shift over time as you read more and see more real-world problems to deal with. The long-term development path for individual countries in Africa is going to be a battle between enabling governments with appropriate redistribution and governments that strangle development and growth. South Africa may find itself on the wrong side of that dividing line versus other places like Ghana or,most exciting, probably Kenya. South Africa needs to find a base of black libertarian voices to steer it in the right direction. For fiction, I think Alan Hollinghurst has had the most profound impact on me. The Line of Beauty has pulled me to read straight a number of his other books.

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

Paper still has its uses when travelling and for whatever reason I think I absorb information better and enjoy it more with books versus computer screens which seem too much like work. Having a massive stack of books also makes for a more interesting home and brings back memories of poking around my grandparents’ library of books – floor to ceiling – that they had. I wonder sometimes what people will surround themselves with when they grow old if it isn’t books! Blogs though are increasingly a more important source of information especially around my two favourite hobbies which is collecting SA modern art and SA wine.

What were your favourite books as a child?

It depends how far back you want to go! I always remember a fascination with systems, engineering etc (of the “Little Jonny visits a building site” type!) from an early age. It turns out I ended up studying economic and political systems every day but the roots are the same! I think a fiction serious I read most assiduously was Swallows and Amazons and the issue of self-reliance appealed to me.  

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

Daunt Books in London is a treasure trove of appropriate books for presents even for the most discerning reader and the natty totes the bags come in are still an enduring icon for a present to come in. I think the last set of books I got as a present was for my dad who, as a former captain in the merchant navy, is into anything relating to boats or exploration.

The most useless thing you read at university?

Endless books on the underlying theory behind econometrics. Economics should ultimately be a practical social science and learning to derive by hand statistical theories was just too much! Using econometrics to practically analyse the SA economy is a much more hands-on experience.  

Best book on economics you’ve read?

The literature on behavioural economics starting with Richard Thaler (and non-academic books like Nudge) has probably been the most fascinating and relevant I’ve read especially given its use in everything from policy to explaining financial markets after the 2008 crash. It’s an important bridge from the dry theory of micro- and macro-economics to the real world we live in.  This segues into pop economics books like Levitt’s Freakonomics of which most of their explanations of economic phenomena in everyday life come down to behavioural economics.

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

Reading a lot of dry non-fiction doesn’t necessarily provoke laughs! Private Eye in the UK is normally the most reliable comic antidote to these very serious times we are living through. I suppose the most random book I came across that made me laugh straightaway having found it in a hotel room on a business trip was Carrie Fisher’s autobiography which simply cut through with its candour and honesty to make parts laugh-out-loud funny.  

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

I try to read fiction from the countries I cover to get into the local psyche. Sometimes this works like reading Achebe, Gordimer, Adichie or Coetzee and is useful and insightful. However, this failed spectacularly when I used to deal with Iceland and tried reading Halldór Laxness and came back from one trip there laden down with books. There are now several unopened books on my shelves after failing to get more than a few chapters through the bleakness that is Independent People 

What book do you turn to for advice?

I am a big sceptic of self-help and advice books. They are so often repetitive fluff and it depresses me the number of people reading them on the train every morning. The closet I’ve probably come is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. There are a range of books now coming about the crisis in economics as a profession which are on my reading list which might count as self-help….  

If you could take an author out (dead or alive) who would it be, and where would you take them?

In the South African context it would have to be Nadine Gordimer who always struck – with her quite strength and moral determination – me as someone who I would most want to take out for a nice dinner somewhere with a hushed atmosphere which can sometimes be hard to find in SA! DW11-13 in Joburg is one of my favourite go-to places and would have just the right atmosphere for such a meeting! There is a quiet confidence of purpose to the books she wrote which is captivating.

A book that most aptly sums up the state of the South African nation?

I always find the economic and political books from SA rather depressing. Walking into Exclusive Books I just get confronted with a wall of books that continually seem to say the same things in the same way. They either fall into SA-exceptionalism or are overly simplistic in their characterisation of the issues in SA. This is partly why I’ve resisted calls from people to write a book on SA – it is very hard to cut through prevailing narratives around the situation in SA which are often grossly over simplistic. One book that has stood out has been Frans Cronje’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Our Next Ten Years which cuts through to the underlying currents in the country very well.

The magazines and newspapers you most frequently?

I have to read the entire South African press every day! The most interesting thing I read is probably The Daily Sun which gives an alternative perspective of grittier reality with Tokoloshe stories etc! Whilst I don’t work with The New Age, I think it’s also always worth a read in these times of capture and to know what certain factions are thinking. The most random thing I probably read locally is the SA version of House and Garden which gets physically delivered to London. I really love the SA design scene and it’s also a nice bit of escapism to get the summer edition when it’s the middle of winter in London and is always a spur to book another holiday to SA!

THE BOOKSELLER: Griffin Shea – Bridge Books

Griffin Shea

Griffin Shea is the founder of Bridge Books, which recently opened in Joburg’s CBD. A retail store with a thoughtfully edited selection of predominantly African titles (both new and secondhand), Bridge Books also sells to the inner-city’s street booksellers.

The book you’re currently most excited about selling?

I’m loving Nomavenda Mathiane’s Eyes in the Night. It’s her retelling of her grandmother’s experiences as a child during the Anglo-Zulu war, and the story is part of the of amazing work that South Africa as a whole is undertaking in understanding history from more points of view.

Which title gets shoplifted the most frequently?

Actually, not a single book has been stolen yet. I think this is partly because we run a “pay it forward” scheme, where customers buy books to give away to others. Also, if anyone asks, I’ll loan them a book for a R20 deposit if they promise to write a review.

Once someone did lift a copy of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like from a pop-up we ran in Soweto on Youth Day. But when we asked if anyone had seen it, he returned it the next day. He’d thought we were giving away the books as part of the Youth Day events.

The biggest seller of the past year?

I Write What I Like, by Steve Biko, which sells consistently week after week, on both the retail and the wholesale side. We run a wholesale trade to connect small booksellers (even smaller than us!) with publishers so they can get new books, and Biko is always in demand.

The most underwhelming book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one, only because I did a lot of reading for my PhD work at Wits, which focuses on South African young adult novels. Unfortunately, that means I read a shocking number of heavy-handed, preachy books that we inflict on our young people. Also, of course, several real gems. But it’s no wonder young readers gravitate toward “adult” books if they have any passion for reading at all. The books aimed at their age bracket often talk down at them from a very high pulpit.

Which book do you wish all your customers would read?

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith. Like the best young adult books, it explores themes too big for most adult fiction: the nature of evil, the legacy of trauma, the difficulty of change, the hidden layers of meaning in everyday places. Think The Secret Garden or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on Long Street in Cape Town.

The last thing you read that made you cry?

Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher. The Star Wars films leave me cold, but when the latest one came out and the world was awash in commercials and merchandise, I decided to read Carrie Fisher. I laughed so hard, tears squirted out of my nose too.

Is there a book you’d never sell? If so, what is it, and why?

A couple people have asked for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. But I can’t carry it. He’s the antithesis of everything Bridge Books is trying to do. And honestly, even the ghost writer Tony Schwartz has renounced it.

What’s the most surprising thing about your bookshop?

This building was originally Barclays headquarters for South Africa. The vault is still downstairs. Also, we have a great roof space for readings under the stars.

The three writers you admire the most?

Toni Morrisson, whose books often explore love and its boundaries. She’s shaped the way I think about human relationships, and the reasons we treat each other the ways that we do.

Assia Djebar, who writes about the ways we can seek freedom, including through storytelling. She also introduced me to the idea of the Bechdel Test, before that phrase was widely applied to the idea.

Mark Twain. Did you know he’s really funny? I’ve been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud to my 11-year-old son, and it’s funnier, sharper and actually quite a lot darker than I remember it being.

The biggest challenge you face in bookselling?

Geometry.

Running a bookstore is a lot like Scrabble: it’s a math game masquerading as a word game.

Our indoor shop space is only 60 square metres. We have 12 bookcases. The limits of that geometry and its implications for which books we can carry continue to confound me.

Describe your archetypal customer.

Twenty-something, smart, creative, professional. Oh, and black.

The best part of being a bookseller?

The readers who come shopping, or simply visiting. I meet so many new people every day, and I love hearing their stories and the stories they’re looking for.

And the worst part?

You open a bookstore thinking it’s going to create this glorious life of the mind. And that’s true, but frankly it’s just as much about quads and glutes. There’s a lot of carrying heavy boxes up and down stairs.

Read more about Bridge Books over on 2Summers and in the Mail & Guardian.

WORK/LIFE: Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler

Mark Winkler grew up in what is now Mpumalanga, and studied journalism Rhodes University in Grahamstown. He has spent most of his working life in the advertising industry in Cape Town, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is currently creative director at a leading advertising agency.

His first two novels, An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything)  and Wasted were both published by Kwela Books. His third, The Safest Place You Know, was published by Umuzi earlier this year.

What does “writing” mean?

Different things to different people, I suppose. Writing could be a corporate email, a legal contract, a WhatsApp to your BFF. To me it’s an opportunity to play with language, to mould it the way I want, and my challenge is to deploy it unusually, to make it sing. The writer is the lens between the reader and the story, so it’s the responsibility of the writer to reward both the reader and the story in the telling.

What book changed your life?

The Little Iron Horse, one of the Bobbsey Twins adventures. I was six, in bed with mumps, and it was the first “novel” I read on my own. It was my first experience of disappearing into a written story, and it also made me aware that there must have been someone who wrote it.

What are you working on at the moment?

Trying to make time, mostly. When I do, I’m working on my fourth novel, Theo & Flora, and on a collection of short stories, which for now I’ve called The Theatre of Obscurity.

Describe your workspace.

Depends. It can be a coffee-shop table or an airport. Best, though, is sitting at my old knee-hole desk in my study at home, where the walls are a deep Venetian red, the backdrop to framed copies of my books and photographs, and where I get to choose the music.Mark's Workspace

The most important instrument you use?

Observation. Without it the pantry would be bare. I’m a serial eavesdropper and people-watcher. I steal and hoard, and then Frankenstein bits and pieces together as it suits me. So second to observation is interpretation – how do you take what you’ve witnessed and make it make sense?

What’s your most productive time of day?

I have a demanding day-job, and actively exclude my private writing from my office hours. This means I need to be productive in the evenings and on weekends and holidays. I do best in darkness, though, and when it rains.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I’ve come to believe being stuck is the brain’s way of begging for a rest, so I no longer try to force things when I’m stuck. Instead, I read, or try to do something I’ve never done before, or at least do very seldom.

How do you relax?

I spend time with my family, or jump on my mountain bike. Movies. I used to watch rugby, but recently it began having the opposite effect.

Who and what has influenced your work?

My high-school English teacher was hugely influential, lending me challenging books that weren’t part of the curriculum, such as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist etc and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Authors who’ve influenced me include Carey, McEwan, Bellow, Gordimer, Coetzee, van Heerden, Rushdie, Okri, Marquez, Barnes, and so on and so forth, as well as poets such as Eliot, cummings, Pound and Owen. Also, the many years I’ve spent as a copywriter have been invaluable in learning about the importance of concept, craft, language and voice.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t try to edit while you’re writing, or you’ll spend a year crafting Chapter One instead of building momentum and getting to the end. There’ll be more than enough time to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite) once you’re done. So: start, go, and don’t stop.

Your favourite ritual?

Don’t really have one, other than to put on classical music – lyrics distract.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding the time for it – and then realising that an idea you loved is stillborn after you’ve spent weeks trying to take it somewhere.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

That I seem to have a ceiling of around 75k words, many of which are then necessarily pared away in the editing process. I’d love to write a great big door-stopper, like Wally Lamb or John Irving, but I don’t see this happening any time soon.

What are you afraid of?

Spiders, tequila, and running out of ideas. And being dead, of course.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Don’t start at all if it’s something you’d “like” to do. Start only if you cannot stop yourself from writing.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

An obvious answer, I suppose, but it was probably having my first novel published. I’m sometimes asked how long it took to write it, and while the technically correct reply is less than a year, the real answer would be closer to twenty-five years – that’s how long it took to figure out how to do it.

THE READER: Cateringa & Kompanen

Alexander Geijzendorffer and Odrada Burghoorn are members of Cateringa & Kompanen – a Dutch artist collective of makers with a specific interest in mixing food, art and the interaction between people. They find food and its context to be an artistic material like copper, clay or pain. Yet it offers so much more in terms of how its perceived. What is “good”? What is “normal”? What is “health”? What beholds the future? They challenge and investigate these concepts in various forms, from performance and installations to interactive buffets and experimental film nights.

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Ai. You caught us at just after a massive book binge. I’m trying to read nine books at the same time to prepare our research for next year. Ahem… Let’s say the main two today are Ingredients by Dwight Eschliman and Steve Ettlinger and Chemistry for Dummies by John T. Moore. The first is “a visual exploration of 75 food additives & 25 food products”. It’s my breakfast and coffee book. Page after page of glossy photos with whitish powders or translucent liquids. The second helps me to bring back the fundamentals on food chemistry that I realise I lack for fully understanding the other seven books.

How do you decide what to read next?

A: Often friends and fellow artists/chefs will advise me books on a topic we are discussing. Occasionally I realise that internet offers mostly superficial snippets and I need something thorough and real.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

A: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. I realised all adults have gone through a phase of existentialism and somehow decided it was worth living anyway. This blew my mind.

O: Still love John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. It covers everything from building a compost toilet to how to see if a chicken egg is fertilised to harvesting and storing your crop. when our modern world collapses you can use this book to stay alive 🙂 

Do you read on tablet, Kindle, paper or all three?

O: Tablet and paper. Tablet while travelling because paper tends to be heavy to bring, but i prefer paper at home. When I love something i want to own it on paper.

A: Almost only paper. I loathe all the screen work I have to do and prefer to jump around and do stuff. Paper books are kind of between.

What were your favourite books as a child?

A: Oh! The Witches’ Handbook by Malcolm Bird. An illustrated guide to be a witch, including recipes for worm soup, how to spoil your neighbours’ harvest and useful career suggestions.

O: Meester van de zwarte molen by Otfried Preußler (which in English mean “the satanic mill”) has a fairy-tale quality, magic and a romantic plot and it plays in a mill (yay, bread!).

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

A: Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter. A typical engineer who decided cooking would mix well with graphs and screwdrivers. I’m about to give it as a gift to a friend of mine who never liked cooking till it became difficult. I believe in borrowing books.

O: for my sister one of Ottolenghi’s beautiful books for her birthday.

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

A: Many things. Yesterday I read a comparison of how electrons around the core of an atom try to keep as much distance from each other as they can are very similar to you and another person in the same cocktail dress on a fancy gala. I don’t know which one took more imagination.

O: I stumbled upon the columns by Renske de Greef last week and found them hilarious.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

Ulysses by James Joyce. My interest in novels has diminished over the years to make space for more informative books. This mindboggling stream of words was the first victim to fall.

O: I am OCD about reading books, I have to absorb every word, read a page again when I find myself drifting away, and it is impossible to not finish a book that I have read halfway. And I actually read Ulysses, Alex. 😉

What book do you turn to for advice?

A: Ehm. Heukels’ Flora van Nederland by R. van der Meijden. The biologists’ handbook for determining exactly which wild plant is about to kill you for trying to eat it. The SAS Survival Guide offers some basics on that too.

O: I have a copy of the I Tjing lying around somewhere that I used in a playful manner with my friends to advise us on the important questions in life. That was fun for a while.

The best food magazine?

A: Ai ai ai. I’m afraid I don’t read any magazines. I might follow up on interesting articles that pass by on my Facebook feed from various online magazines.

O: No magazines, but food blogs, I like the dessert recipes of Chocolate Covered Katie.

The recipe book you use the most?

A: Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. I live in a communal house with six other entrepreneurs that love cooking in their spare time. It’s actually a luxury with which I never have to buy recipe books myself. Ottelenghi has an interesting non-dogmatic view on cooking with vegetables (“this would be great with a piece of lamb”), that I much

appreciate. Every kitchen, from raw to vegan to African to molecular has interesting features, but I take open mindedness as the healthiest approach to life.

Favourite book about food?

A: Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking. Great and almost too-thorough bible of the scientific processes that happen in food cooking. A must-read. Maybe prep up on your chemistry basics though.

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

A: Roald Dahl, whom I feel would appreciate anything cooked with enthusiasm. He would be more than welcome to join us at my house and dig into whatever has been created by whoever that day. Home cooking is as much about informal ambience as it is about the freedom to try new things.

Geijzendorffer and Burghoorn will be speaking in Joburg at the Spier Secret Festival on Sunday, 6 November 2016. Book your tickets here.