Reader Confessions

BOOK BLOKE (@bloke_book) started this ‘Reader Confessions’ and I was tagged by Andy Martin:

1. Have you ever damaged a book?

Never on purpose. Some people consider this a crime, but I enjoy breaking the spines of books; I believe it’s the only way to make them feel read. I am highly suspicious of people who don’t.

2. Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Not that I recall. And I never break the spines of other people’s books, even if I suffer while reading them gently without ever properly opening and consuming them as they should be. God, I sound awful, don’t I?

3. How long does it take you to read a book?

Depends on the book. I have been taking my time with Don Quixote for about two years now. I do not want it to end, so it is a few pages at a time every few days or even weeks. I have been savouring Dracula for a few weeks now. Brilliant. I also took my time with Virginia Woolf’s diaries. A Jack Reacher doesn’t last long despite its lengths. Most other books two to four days.

4. Books you haven’t finished?

Recipes for Love and Murder. No comment. (I might lose a Twitter follower, or two, with this answer.)

5. Hyped/Popular books you didn’t like?

I usually stay away from them, and if I do pick one up, it has to come highly recommended by someone I trust as a reader.

6. Is there a book you wouldn’t tell anyone you were reading?

No. I am never ashamed of reading books.

7. How many books do you own?

Close to 20 000, still counting. I am the custodian of André’s magnificent collection.

8. Are you a fast/slow reader?

Fast, unless slow is required.

9. Do you like to buddy read?

I am not sure I want to know what this means…

10. Do you read better in your head/out loud?

Only in my head. I love being read to, something I miss terribly from the time I had with André.

11. If you were only allowed to own one book, what would it be and why?

An Instant in the Wind by my late husband, André Brink. I have re-read it several times and every time it only gets better. It would always remind me of the love of my life.

Well, that’s it and now I have to tag some people so here goes.
I tag: Sally Partridge, Melissa Volker, Pamela Power.

Books

Book review: Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

Susan FletcherI welcome every Susan Fletcher novel with open arms. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is her sixth. It completely delivers on the promise of its predecessors. Set in the Provencal town of Saint-Rémy where Vincent van Gogh spent a year of his life in an asylum and painted some of his most widely recognised works, the novel tells the story of a local woman whose life is disrupted by the arrival of the Dutch painter. Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of the asylum’s warden. In her fifties, a mother of three, she goes about her daily routines, remembering her adventurous youth and watching out for the mistral, “wind of change, of shallow sleep.”

Something about her husband’s latest patient unsettles Jeanne. Her curiosity about the man who is known for having harmed himself and for having appeared naked in public leads Jeanne to break her husband’s rules about not visiting the asylum or engaging with any of its patients. She goes to meet the fascinating stranger and a tentative friendship develops between them. Jeanne makes it possible for Vincent to leave the asylum to paint: “And he walks, Jeanne thinks, as reapers walk back from their trees: a sense of a day’s work done. And does he glance at the white-painted cottage as he goes? Jeanne likes to think he does. A glance, as if in gratitude. This newly untethered bird of blue overalls and gold.” She recognises his talent, believes in his sanity. He in turn reawakens her senses and long forgotten dreams.

Jeanne thinks of her grown-up sons who are making a way in the world for themselves and her friend Laure whose desire for freedom had led her to abandon her husband. She recalls the crippled woman who took care of her when Jeanne’s mother died after giving birth to her. And her loving father whom Jeanne nursed towards the end of his life after he’d suffered a stroke.

As a young woman, Jeanne had “been bold, reckless. Not caring for rules.” She’d once stood half-naked in the yard, “her wet hair, like a wing”, and understood the freedom and power of such exposure. Now, her body ageing, her marriage empty of tenderness, she realises that there is still something that she wants from fate, and it is not what she has, “a little life of washtubs and duty.”

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a story about change and courage, about breaking silences and not being afraid to reach out for what we expect from the people we share our existence with. Fletcher’s portrayal of Jeanne’s awakening is subtle and profoundly moving.

Fletcher’s prose is mesmerising, seductive. There is no other way of putting it. She paints emotions with sensitive strokes, but in bold colours. As she caresses language, words glow under her pen. Her work is full of light and nuance. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is a joy.

Review first published in the Cape Times, 19 August 2016.

 

Book review: A Good Life by Mark Rowlands

A Good LifeThroughout the years, few oeuvres have enriched my intellectual life as much as the works of the Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands. At some stage, we are all confronted with the question of what makes life worthwhile, how to make the time we have on this planet meaningful. Unfortunately, not enough of us ask how to live in such a way as not only to enjoy the journey, but simultaneously do as little harm as possible to our fellow travellers, whether they be other humans, animals or the environment. We all muddle on. Rowlands does not claim to have the answers, but his attempts at approaching possible conclusions are fascinating to engage with.

Some of Rowlands’s books are written for experts in his field of knowledge and are not as easily accessible as his bestsellers Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality or The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (still a personal favourite which belongs to that wonderful category of books I claim as life-changing). His latest, A Good Life, is also written for the general public and comes with an intriguing twist that will thrill all passionate readers, even more so if they happen to be writers as well.

Unlike Rowlands’s other books, which are clearly non-fiction and often include autobiographical elements, A Good Life is actually a novel. It is a philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the titular good life, but it comes in the form of dystopian speculative fiction. In 2054, while South Florida is quickly sinking into oblivion because of the rising sea levels, the fictitious character Nicolai finds a manuscript written by his late father and annotated by his mother. He decides to complete it with his own comments on the narrative his parents had left behind, never certain how much of their text is fiction and how much is fact. The book seems to be telling their life story by tackling such crucial issues as abortion, compassion and empathy, marriage, animal and environmental rights, euthanasia, and death. The discussion of these topics is at times unsettling, as it shakes up many widely held beliefs. At the same time, anything that Rowlands writes is always full of delightful humour and reassurance that not all is gloom and doom. There is hope and real goodness in the world.

It is not too late to recognise how we are all connected; not only to each other, but to the planet we call home. Compassion is one of our main tools. It is fuelled by the imagination. A Good Life as a whole makes a stunning case for the “colossal power” of literature: “We are all just words somewhere.” When you reach the final pages of the book, the different strands of the narrative intertwine to reveal something quite simple, and yet it feels as if a miracle had unfolded right in front of your reading mind. That is the beauty of a Mark Rowlands book.

Rowlands on lit

A Good Life: Philosophy from Cradle to Grave

by Mark Rowlands

Granta, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 5 August 2016.

“That’s what friends are for”

This time it was rage. No melancholy insomnia, just a big fat stick of fury ready to explode, the fuse much too short. I had been so livid that I walked around wanting to headbutt people, especially myself for being… well, not wise, to put it mildly. A volatile state. And once again Jack arrived, all in black, mattress-pressed, and ready for another clandestine rescue mission. He has a knack for showing up when most needed. Ryno sent him. A clandestine mission expert himself, Ryno is my publicist and friend, aka Work Husband, and he knew how much I coveted Reacher #21, Night School. When the proof copies arrived in his office, one was rushed off to me. And so I went back to night school with Jack and learned some valuable lessons about his rules. Recently, I had failed to follow one, and paid dearly for disobeying. Jack knows how to trust his gut feelings, follow his instincts, analyse, predict, outsmart, wait – patiently – and strike when least expected. Night School is vintage Reacher, all tension, wits and charm. Frances Neagley is back at his side. And oh, that crisp writing which seduces me every time. Yes, all men want to be like him, all women want to… Obviously! Because:

“…her hands flat and open, her palms close to the bed, hovering, skimming a cushion of air, as if she was balancing.”

with Jack

In September, Andy Martin, the “gonzo academic”, author of the must-read Reacher Said Nothing, is one of the international Open Book Festival participants in Cape Town. If you are a Reacher fan, or a surfer, come and listen to him talk about both.

In October, the second Jack Reacher film is released, based on Never Go Back.

Night School will be published on 8 November 2016.

Book review: The Scattering by Lauri Kubuitsile

The ScatteringIt is December 1907 in Tsau, Bechuanaland, after the Herero and Namaqua genocide perpetrated by the Germans occupying German South-West Africa, today’s Namibia. The Herero couple Tjipuka and Ruhapo have survived “the scattering”, but lost nearly everything in the process. When we first encounter them, they are together, but terrifyingly estranged. Tjipuka traces her husband’s body, trying to remember all that she’d loved about it, but the memories are overshadowed by his distance and the blood and cruelty of lies which haunt them: “Being dead made a lot of things uncertain.”

The narrative takes us back to the moment of their first encounter in Okahandja in 1894. We witness their falling in love, the certainty with which they decide to face the future together, their courage and strength. The juxtaposition of the image of these young lovers with the ruins of the people they’ve become is shattering. One anticipates that whatever had happened to them in the intervening years must have been horrendous and will not be easy to read about, but it is impossible to resist the urge to know. The Scattering recounts their journey.

Interwoven with theirs is the story of Riette. After her brother dies, her parents have little use for her on their farm in the Transvaal and even though she had trained to be a nurse and wishes nothing else but to pursue the profession in Kimberley, she is married off against her will to a widowed neighbour: “Riette wondered how two people could be so unknown to each other, and yet so intimate.” At the beginning of the Second Anglo-Boer War, her husband goes off on commando and leaves her alone on the farm to fend for herself and his two daughters. As a result of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy, the three women end up in a British concentration camp where Riette forms an unlikely alliance. Hardship, sickness and death prevail in the camp, but Riette finds protection in a forbidden love relationship. “They would survive this war, this horrible, bloody war, and find their lives on the other side”, she hopes. Betrayal and loss will accompany her on her path: “She didn’t want to live with the shadow of who she was and what she’d done forever darkening her life.”

In 1904, across the border, the tension between the Germans and the Hereros rise. The infamous German commander Lothar van Trotha issues his gruesome orders: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”

Believing in the beginning that they can take on the German army, Ruhapo and other Herero leaders decide to attack and reclaim their land around Okahandja, now occupied by the enemy. “Have they not taken enough? I would rather die, my blood watering this land, this land of the Herero, our land, than let them take anything else”, Ruhapo tells his wife. Full of foreboding, Tjipuka is afraid. In the next three years, she and her people will have to face evil in all its incarnations, and attempt to survive against all odds.

But what does it mean to survive if everything you believe in, everything you love is gone? Repeatedly, she will ask herself whether the price to be paid is not too high: “They were no longer complete humans. They were something else. Something less than that.” In the desert, she will look at the familiar stars at night-time and wonder how they could remain “unchanged by all the evil they have witnessed?” Separated from his family, Ruhapo will ask himself what is the worth of pride, land or cattle when loved ones have to be sacrificed for them? Nothing could have prepared any of them for what awaits ahead.

The Scattering impresses on several fronts. Through the life stories of two seemingly insignificant women Kubuitsile links two seminal events of the early twentieth century history in Southern Africa. Two fates out of millions, but they personify the remarkable resilience of women throughout history: “War is for men. It’s always for men. They have a dark place where war grows.” Without consciously pointing to it, the novel exposes the cradle of the worst evils to emerge in the twentieth century: eugenics, concentration camps and the mass extinction of peoples believed to be inferior by those in power.

Kubuitsile’s depictions of war, violence and oppression are vivid but never gratuitous. Her writing is lyrical, affecting. It allows the reader to develop a deep sympathy for the characters, especially when they are confronted with impossible choices which leave no one unscathed. Her portrayals of people on all sides of the diverse conflicts are strikingly balanced. She shows the ambivalence of our passions and the decisions we make in order to survive. The Scattering is one of those superb historical novels which live on in the reader, simultaneously sounding a warning and shining the light of hope.

The Scattering

by Lauri Kubuitsile

Penguin Books South Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 June 2016.

Book review: The Woman Next Door by Yewanda Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorNeighbours: a word loaded with connotations. The biblical instruction of “love thy neighbour”, Verwoerd’s “policy of good neighbourliness”, Robert Frost’s “good fences make good neighbours”, and the usual neighbourly mistrust, animosity, even prejudice come to mind. Yewande Omotoso quotes Simone Weil for her epigraph: “The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication.”

The Woman Next Door tells the story of two cantankerous old ladies – one white, one black – who are neighbours in a fictitious wealthy estate in Constantia, Cape Town: “It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.”

Seemingly, however, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have a lot in common. Both are in their eighties, widowed, with highly successful careers behind them. Yet their lives have left them bitter and lonely. Interestingly, what separates them most clearly, skin colour and money, transpires to be quite superficial, as both of them are masters of pretence. What really divides them is something which stands between all of us when we encounter another human being of whatever background: the fear of reaching out and making oneself vulnerable enough to connect intimately…

Continue reading: LitNet

Of romance, rugby and refugees: Intertwined at the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival in Cape Town

Meg Vandermerwe, Anne Landsman, Diane Awerbuck, Helen Moffett, Karina with Nadine, and Rachel ZadokSunday, 22 May, one of those glorious winter days in Cape Town: all light and revelation. It wasn’t even 9 am, but the queue in front of the Gardens Community Centre in Hatfield Street looked overwhelming.

“Do you by any chance have a spare ticket for sale?” a woman near the entrance asked as we approached. I shook my head in confusion, and her pleading eyes moved on to the next person. My companions, the writers Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck, looked just as surprised as I felt. This was no rock concert, nor a sports event. We were here for the inaugural Jewish Literary Festival. We’d heard that the tickets had sold out about a week in advance, but people desperate to get into a literary festival seemed quite unusual.

We were spotted by one of the friendly volunteers assisting festival participants and visitors (the lucky ones with tickets) and ushered through the security and registering desks. The crowds inside buzzed with excitement. “Are they giving away something for free?” I wondered aloud.

The idea for the festival was born in July last year. In February the organisers – Joanne Jowell, Cindy Moritz, Viv Anstey and Gary Anstey – asked Beryl Eichenberger and Caryn Gootkin to help with the marketing. Together they reached out to a team of volunteers, secured the venue and the sponsors, and began composing a programme which would “appeal to all ages and cover a range of genres” with the aim “to promote constructive dialogue and discussion in the true spirit of Jewish life without promoting any single political or religious agenda”. From food, sports, politics, academia and journalism to fiction, poetry or memoir, the topics on offer were geared to satisfying nearly all tastes. Seven venues, 49 different events, and a palpable atmosphere of being part of something special made for a wonderful mix. There was a programme for children, but I attended only events for adults. However, I often spotted young people in the audiences, which is always heartening.

The festival opened for me with “Faribels and foibles in fiction”. Next to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium sat a woman crocheting, while Rachel Zadok, Rahla Xenopoulos, Marilyn Cohen de Villiers and Liesl Jobson spoke to Helen Moffett about the faribels and foibles which drive their writing. What could easily have turned out to be a light-hearted conversation quickly became a serious discussion, as an appreciative audience member commented afterwards.

In A Beautiful Family, the first novel in her Alan Silverman saga, Cohen de Villiers wrote about abuse and domestic violence to counter the myth that “it doesn’t happen to us”. She was initially scared that she would be accused of fanning the flames of antisemitism, but her work had been received with gratitude. Similarly, Zadok, Xenopoulos and Jobson are not afraid to explore mental illness in their fictional and autobiographical writings, often giving voice to experiences which would otherwise remain unnamed. Asked about how to cope with the exposure, Xenopoulos, who has written a memoir about being bipolar, said, “You owe your reader the truth. In a room, the person telling the truth, the one most vulnerable, is the one with the most power.” To which Zadok added that “there is something about owning your story”, as well as about not fearing to communicate how difficult being a writer actually is…

Continue reading: LitNet

JLF

 

 

Book review: Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele

PleasureThe title of Nthikeng Mohlele’s fourth novel delivers on its promise. Pleasure is a mesmerising, unusual book. At times I was hesitant to call it a novel. The story of Milton Mohlele, his dreams and musings, which he attempts to distil into writing, reads like a meditation. As literary history echoes in his name, Milton could be an alter ego for most writers seeking to find not only meaning but pleasure in the written word – to capture that elusive something which makes us sigh deeply with content when, if ever, we truly encounter it.

Pleasure opens in a bathtub, with Milton reminiscing about the women in his life and his late father, who was a writer of note. One of Milton’s preoccupations is to figure out how to avoid having to tread in his footsteps: “What more is there to say other than that the man was brilliant and is deceased?”

Often, I found my mind drifting, with the book’s images and insights as my guide. Exquisitely written, Pleasure allows you to abandon yourself to language: “This made me happy; a feeling that fell like snowflakes, like confetti showered on couples at weddings, like raindrops illuminated by car headlights, fireworks exploding sky high in magnificent, temporary fiery arrangements, falling back to earth in languid, crystal, dazzling, smoky slow motion.” Milton assures us that he “notices things”, “even the smallest, most insignificant of them”.

The observations are precise, beautiful, also in the face of evil (“a word stripped of all pretensions”). A dream sequence in the book adds a profound dimension to Milton’s considerations. In the dream, an American soldier’s life is spared and he is taken prisoner by a SS commandant. He meets an alluring woman at Wolfschanze, Hitler’s headquarters, where he finds himself among men “who could will anything into being”, including a reality in which the ash of their victims rains into coffee cups across Europe.

Once awake and contemplating the meaning of his vision, Milton is not oblivious to the fact that similar horrors happen right next to him, in present day Cape Town. He insists that Africans “should dream, or imagine themselves outside of only being black and colonised and enslaved”, that we are all part of a wider world. Towards the end, he also realises that depending on context, killing can be an act of kindness.

Pleasure never lulls us into easy answers, not everything can be “scrutinised, fully known, owned.” But it is a book full of wisdom which invites the reader to ponder the intricacies of existence. Its proclamations on love and the preciousness of the opportunities life offers are stunning: “Pleasure, I have learned, is a solitary phenomenon; it does not mix well with remorse and regrets and mistakes…at its most elementary pleasure survives on selfishness, on discreet contracts, undemocratic arrangements.” After all, most of us “want to die being able to say, I have loved in my life – truly loved, been molten and cooled and hammered by love, cast and polished.” Some of us, transformed, write.

Pleasure

by Nthikeng Mohlele

Picador Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 May 2016, p. 10.