Monthly Archives: July 2014

The scent of words

TouchA long time ago, a woman I barely knew asked me to go shopping for perfume with her. I don’t particularly enjoy shopping (books excluded). It was a small perfume shop in the Getreidegasse in Salzburg. While she was looking at the things that interested her, I glanced around. One bottle caught my attention. I sprayed some of the content on one of those paper slips they provide in these shops. The world unhinged, I lost my ability to breathe. I had to leave the shop and wait outside. For the next few days I couldn’t think straight. Eventually I gave up and bought the perfume. The smells of dry attics or cellars can also drive me literally insane. Such scents awaken longings that seem unquenchable. Words can do that, too.

When Touch was published, a journalist asked me which sense I could not imagine ever doing without. I said smell.

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Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeIt’s hard to believe that Sarah Lotz’s debut novel Pompidou Posse was published only six years ago. At the time, it captured my attention because of its striking portrayal of friendship forged in the streets of Paris’s underbelly. Published a year later, Lotz’s Exhibit A was a rollicking read despite its grim topic. It explored the complexity of the taboos, misunderstandings, and legal horrors surrounding rape. It’s quite a feat when a book manages to entertain while giving so much food for thought on a truly difficult issue. Lotz’s third novel, Tooth and Nailed, followed in a similar vein in 2010.

In the meantime, Lotz has also teamed up with her daughter and three other fellow writers to publish a few horror, zombie, and erotica novels under the pen names S.L. Grey, Lily Herne, and Helena S. Paige.

Lotz refers to herself as a writer of pulp fiction, but there is much more to her pithy storytelling. A wise soul, she knows all about meaty prose and how to make you feel strongly about her characters.

The Three, Lotz’s first independent international success, is the culmination of her savvy talent and hard-won experience in which she’s honed her craft. Set around the globe, The Three tells the story of four planes which crash on the same day (not recommended for in-flight reading). There are three survivors, perhaps four; all are children. There is also an ominous message from a passenger who lived long enough to record it on her cell phone. A world-wide media frenzy erupts around the aviation tragedies. The families and friends of victims have to come to terms with the reality of unbearable loss. Those connected to the surviving children have to deal with traumas of an entirely different kind.

The narrative unfolds through a collection of reports of various formats (eyewitness accounts, letters, articles, recording transcripts, interviews, among others) as collected by or conveyed to Elspeth Martins whose life is irrevocably changed by her pursuit of the story behind the story. Paging through the book at first, I thought this might be a tad off-putting, but it is anything but. The technique creates an eerie impression of our everyday reality. This is how most news items reach us: as a confusing mix of snippets from sources such as social media, serious in-depth journalism, conspiracy theories, and simple observations. Facts and truth have a tendency of being hidden behind the smoke-screens of fear and fundamentalism. Gossip adds further spice to the setup.

The reader becomes a voyeur who has access to all the available accounts. Perhaps therein lies the novel’s harshest criticism of our daily practices. As in real life, it is impossible to resist the pull of the incredible mystery at the centre of that fatal day which defies all logic and odds as it unfolds. The mind-blowing ending will leave you reeling. May it not be long before the sequel to The Three lands safely on our bookshelves.

The Three
by Sarah Lotz
Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

Review first published in the Cape Times, 25 July 2014, p. 11.

Interested in receiving a free copy of The Three? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

Wednesday

When I get a little moneyEver since the summer of 1993, I’ve had this thing about Wednesdays. Special things used to happen to me on Wednesdays. But when I came to live in Cape Town, for a while Wednesday became my least-favourite day of the week. Fortunately, routines can change and miracles do happen. About two years ago, Wednesday reverted to being an ordinary day like any other. But yesterday, Wednesday hit again with the full force of all its magic and I was reminded of kisses, falling stars, the Baltic Sea, literary lectures, and the colour blue. Yes magic.

Most of my days centre on books, but yesterday brought with it an avalanche of bookish delights.

Beijing OperaRecently, I read a book which mentioned a dim sum restaurant in Cape Town with the glorious name Beijing Opera. I discovered my love of dim sum during a trip to China in 2008. It was soon afterwards that I met Alex Smith and read her wonderful account of travels in Asia, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well. She loves dim sum and tea as much as I do, so it was a no-brainer whom to invite to go with me on an exploration of Beijing Opera. We celebrated the recent publication of her latest YA novel, Devilskien & Dearlove, with some delicious gao, bao, and pu-erh tea.

I returned home already smiling to the fantastic news that one of my all-time favourite authors was longlisted for the Man Booker with a novel which I adore: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

In the evening, on my way to Alex’s reading at Clarke’s Bookshop in Longstreet where Devilskien & Dearlove is set, I stopped at two of my other regular hunting grounds, the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch and the Book Lounge, to pick up three books that have been waiting for me. I am struggling to finish Stephen King’s The Shining (I was expecting more creepiness; as it is, the only thing that creeps up on me on nearly every page is the word ‘overindulgent’), but I do not want to give up on him just yet, so I ordered the one book apparently every beginning writer should read: On Writing. I believe in second chances, and staying away from creepy hotels.

Divided LivesThe other two books were Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform and Lyndall Gordon’s Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter. I have read all books written by Gordon. Her biographies of writers – Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Mary Wollstonecraft – are simply brilliant. I don’t know how I would have survived many periods of doubt in the last few years without these insightful, empathetic, passionate, beautifully written books on lives of writing. Divided Lives (what a cover!) is different, because it is a memoir. I’ve been following its reception in the UK and have a feeling that I am in for a magical treat.

I found out about Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform through the New York Times. I have been reading books about the internet for years in order to be able to participate more consciously in its evolution, i.e. to use it wisely instead of being stupidly abused by it. Not sure that I am succeeding, but in the words of Manuel (Fawlty Towers): “I learn, I learn!” Perhaps now that I have joined twitter I need the books more than ever, but so far, my experience with the service has been quite positive. I treat it like a radio station: I tune in and out when I feel like it. Occasionally, I tweet. I follow God and Jennifer Lopez, so I feel in safe hands. (I might even make it to Facebook one day – in the words of my compatriot Conrad: “The horror! The horror!”)

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke's

Alex with son Elias after her reading at Clarke’s

So: There I was at Clarke’s Bookshop, still smiling from the dim sum lunch and the longlist announcement, with a handbag full of books I couldn’t wait to get into bed with, listening to Alex’s beautiful reading voice, surrounded by shelves and shelves of exquisite second-hand books, then chatting to friends and other book lovers about Stephen King and literary podcasts, when…DDDRUM RRROLL…I spotted a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Face to Face (1949), the first book she ever published. And because my handbag was stuffed with only three books, and because after the shopping spree I was on the verge of being completely broke again (“When I get a little money…”), I bought it, of course.

I flew home on the wings of a booklover’s happiness and arrived to the news of winning a copy of Jane Austen by David Nokes in the Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway:

“We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.”

What a way to end a Wednesday!

How did I find out about the giveaway?
On twitter.

I’m off with my own bag full of odd-sized books in search of a glass of sherry and a fireplace…

Happy reading everyone!
And have a great Thursday. (It’s Set Menu Dinner Club time at Beijing Opera tonight.)

Precaution

'Woman Before a Fish Bowl' by Henri Matisse (1922)

‘Woman Before a Fish Bowl’ by Henri Matisse (1922)

Violence is out of hand; nothing New in South Africa. Nina yawned. She switched off the radio, gulping down the last sips of coffee. She took her keys from the desk in the passage and, with some cash and a debit card, stuffed them into her jeans pocket. No handbag, no trouble, thank you. She grabbed her notebook, made sure that she had all the details of her next victim, and put the alarm on before she left the cottage.

A human rights activist was next on the list for this week. She was working on a series of interviews with victims of crimes and prominent people concerned about the recent developments, trying to beat up a storm about the wave of violence in the country. Her editor was pleased with her initiative. She met Bongani, one of her newspaper’s photographers, in front of Ann Shaw’s house. He was waiting in his pink Tazz, engrossed in one of the science fiction novels he always carried around with him. He did not see her approach until she opened the passenger’s door and got in.

‘Jesus, Nina. You scared me!’

‘Hi!’ she smiled. ‘You should really lock your doors, you know. Even here in this neighbourhood.’ She glanced at the row of old Victorian houses seaming the street. ‘Unless the Force is with you.’ She smiled at the chewed-up paperback edition of the old Star Wars trilogy he was holding.

‘Ha, ha.’ He put the book away on the back seat. ‘So, who is on this morning?’

‘Ann Shaw, the Dragon Lady.’

‘Who?’

‘Ann Shaw.’

‘Never heard.’

‘Bongani! Wake up and smell the coffee! Ann Shaw, the Peace Nobel Prize winner of 1986.’

‘Whatever. Is she pretty?’

‘You people! How come, you don’t know her? She is, like – HUGE, spelled in capital letters. The famous anti-apartheid activist. You must have heard of her!?’

‘Nope, sorry to disappoint you, Miss You-Know-It-All. Before my time. I will let the YOU PEOPLE,’ he made the inverted commas sign with his fingers, ‘pass today. So is she attractive, or not?’

‘She is eighty!’ Bongani pretended to be disappointed and started pulling his camera bag from underneath Nina’s feet. ‘Why Dragon Lady?’

‘Let’s just say, she is not exactly press-friendly. I never had the pleasure, but I heard some gruesome stories. So beware and take some of that Force with you.’

‘Funny. Common then, my lightsaber’s ready.’

They got out of the car, Nina felt her hand damp on the notebook. She took a deep breath and moved around the car to join Bongani, who was making faces at the intercom camera, ready to press the front gate button.

* * *

It was already dark. She had her dinner in front of the computer. Tony, the only alarm-proof pet she could think of, was staring at her through the glass bowl next to her laptop screen.

‘Don’t worry, my friend. If anything happens, I’ll protect you, alright.’ She tapped the bowl with her fork.

In between the mouthfuls Nina paged through her last two interviews in search of a new approach for Ann Shaw. It all happened so quickly, but it felt like an eternity. There were five of them. With guns. They spread around the restaurant, assaulted the guests and the manager. One of them hit my wife in the face and I could do nothing. How do you feel about it today? I get these dreams about fighting back, about protecting my wife. It’s a terrible mess. In your latest novel the protagonist is a street kid; he seems so innocent at times, especially when we see him with his friend or the old beggar, but he is also extremely ruthless. Yes, a year ago, I encountered a boy, about twelve. He was begging for money; he said for food. So I took him to a nearby shop and told him to get what he wanted, that I would pay. And I did; when we came out of the shop, he kicked me and called me names, running away from me, the shopping bag clutched tightly to his chest. The next day I sat down to write the book.

It was hard to take at times. Nina felt swamped with all the stories. Fortunately, this morning’s interview went well. Shaw was not as formidable and difficult as she had expected. No nonsense, straight to the point, terribly eloquent, and surprisingly attractive after all. Even Bongani was impressed: ‘I thought you said she was eighty. My makhulu is eighty. This lady is sexy!’

All the preparation and the rather sleepless night before the interview were worth the trouble. Nina felt that Shaw had really responded to her. And Bongani did a brilliant job, too. She had the photographs in front of her on the screen. He was bloody young, only twenty, yet he was the best photographer they had. He had a way with people, letting them be, and capturing their essence without interposing. He even made the woman she had interviewed first for the series comfortable, and she actually smiles in one of the photographs they printed with the article. One of her eyes still swollen from the blows delivered to her face. She was six months pregnant at the time of the attack. Alone at home, her husband away on business. All I could think of was my baby, please God, don’t let me lose my baby. And her incredible presence of mind, When he started unbuckling his belt, I asked him to use a condom. Blank. You know, because of HIV. The attacker miraculously obeyed.

No wonder Ann Shaw was furious. Recently, she had written a few scathing articles herself. The international medias were sucking up all the reports coming from the country, especially if Nobel Prize winners were the authors. A change of moods. More and more voices speaking up in a wave of disappointments. It hurt most when it came from people like Shaw, who had always defended the Miracle. Now, they felt they couldn’t anymore; the lack of proper response from the authorities a crime in itself. Silence, once again one of the worst evils – nobody in the government willing to deliver us from it, Nina thought.

Please God, don’t let me lose my baby.

Shaw’s hoarse voice and her sarcasm: You know what is the worst? Hearing victims say how glad they are to be alive. As if that wasn’t their God-given right. Nina was tired. The lack of sleep was getting to her. She saved the file with the first part of the interview, she updated her backup copy and put the memory stick in a cookie jar in the kitchen. Then she put the laptop in a cabinet drawer and locked it for the night.

‘Don’t let the bed bugs bite you, Tony!’ She took the panic button with her to the bathroom.

Everything in slow motion. You want to run away – don’t really know from whom or what – but you can’t with your feet glued to the ground. One of those dreams. Interrupted by a vicious sound somewhere in the background.

‘Nina, sorry to wake you up so early, but I just got the news from my pal at the station. Is your Shaw article ready?’

‘No. Almost. You said I had until tonight. I just have to tie up a few points. Why?’

‘Ann Shaw was attacked in her house last night.’ Nina was awake instantly. ‘I want you to phone her and try to get a comment. Maybe you can see her again?’

‘You’ve got to be kidding! Ann Shaw? Of all people!’

‘I know, I know. Irony of fate.’

‘No respect for anybody anymore. Was she hurt?’

‘No, thank god.’

‘Don’t let her hear you say that!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Nothing. So what happened exactly?’

‘Around eight, two men, masked but unarmed, forced their way into her house through the back door when the domestic was brining out the garbage. They must have known that the two women were alone in the house.’

‘And? What did they do? Take?’

‘The usual: cell phone, laptop, some money, jewellery. So, phone her O.K.? See what you can get.’

‘You mean loot some more?’

‘You know what I mean. Sorry again for waking you up. Coffee is on me today.’ She hung up and stared at the panic button next to her bed.

* * *

Ann Shaw did not want to comment. But she promised to get back to her as soon as possible. Nina thought her voice sounded much more placid today. On her way to the office, Nina stopped at the chemists.

‘What can I get you, lovey?’

‘A ticket to Australia,’ she mumbled under her nose.

‘Sorry?’

‘No, no. I’m sorry. A packet of condoms please.’

‘Six, or twelve?’

‘Six, please.’

In the car, she took one out of the box and stuffed it into her jeans pocket. She put the others in the cubbyhole and drove on to work.

First published in New Contrast 36.1 (March 2008). I wrote this story in 2007 after a few of our family members and friends, Nadine Gordimer among them, became victims of crime. It was at this time that I thought of what I was experiencing as a witness and a writer as ‘pre-traumatic stress disorder’.

A tribute to Nadine Gordimer

Signature “And then took up her way, breath scrolling out, a signature before her.” The last sentence of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me (1994), my favourite of all her novels, still takes my breath away. It is a “biting ebony-blue” winter night when Vera Stark, the narrative’s protagonist, steps into the garden of her new home. Everything is “stripped” outside, bare and clear.

The night Nadine Gordimer died I dreamt of wanting to visit my grandmother. I was walking up the staircase to her flat when I realised that I could no longer see her because she had been dead for several years. I woke up unsettled. The dream was so vivid that it scared me on the morning of the day when my husband André was to undergo surgery. It also made me think about all the precious people in my life.

Continue reading: A tribute to Nadine Gordimer – LitNet

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’

Review: Bloody Lies – Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case by Thomas Mollett and Calvin Mollett

Bloody LiesInge Lotz, a Stellenbosch student, was found brutally murdered in her flat in March 2005. Her boyfriend at the time, Fred van der Vyver, was put on trial for the deed. Anybody who has ever held an opinion about what had happened to Lotz the day of her death should read Thomas and Calvin Mollett’s shockingly revealing Bloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case.

h its suggestive cover and brilliant title, the book not only profoundly questions the justice of Fred van der Vyver’s acquittal but the entire judicial system involved in arriving at the verdict. In times when high-profile court cases are becoming staple media spectacles in which many of us feel the need and right to participate, it might be of utmost importance for all concerned to consider what is at stake. The authors of Bloody Lies present compelling evidence that a serious miscarriage of justice took place in Lotz’s case. However, it is commendable that they do not try to sell their findings as gospel truth. All they ask is that readers think for themselves.

As the title of their book suggests, during their research the Mollett brothers uncovered some mindboggling discrepancies between the manifold interpretations of the evidence collected at the crime scene. One by one, they examined the available pieces of evidence – fingerprints, potential murder weapons, blood marks, autopsy report etc. – and in the process developed methods for analysis which have the potential of revolutionising such procedures in the future. Throughout they kept an open mind. They emphasise that their investigation sprung from their own fascination with the case, nobody hired them. Their meticulous scientifically-grounded experiments and revaluations are carefully presented and illustrated within the book (some of the visual footage is not for the faint-hearted).

In all the vital points the authors reached radically different conclusions to the ones presented to the court by so-called expert witnesses. Tasked with assisting a just ruling, instead expert witnesses are often called upon to intentionally mislead the court to affect a favourable outcome for one of the parties. Bloody Lies exposes a flawed system where the court more often than not is faced with negligence, indifference, or worse, ruthlessness and malice. During the Lotz trial careers of hard-working and well-meaning people were thus ruined.

It is impossible to cover all the relevant bases of this case in a single book, thus some niggling questions remain unanswered. But the authors have set up a website (Truth4Inge) to which they refer throughout the book and where interested readers are encouraged to address them.

Bloody Lies shines a penetrating light into the murky procedures of how evidence is collected and examined. People in the respective fields would be wise to re-examine both processes and to implement regulations which will make them less prone to error and misinterpretation.

Inge Lotz’s senseless death had tremendous impact on the lives of those who knew her and all who were involved with the investigation. Nobody walked away unscathed. Apart from the murderer perhaps.

Bloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case
by Thomas Mollett and Calvin Mollett
Penguin, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 11 July 2014, p. 10.

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Women who roam The Blazing World, Part II

The Blazing World_HustvedtThere are some intriguing and inspiring real-life creative women mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which is about a fictional artist, Harriet Burden, who believes that she does not receive the recognition her art deserves because she is a well-off, middle-aged woman. To remedy the situation Burden employs three young, upcoming male artists to front her next three exhibitions. The project has some unexpected consequences. I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, I presented three of the amazing women who roam The Blazing World. Here are three more:

Simone WeilSimone Weil (1909 – 1943)
Guided by compassion, the French philosopher, activist, and Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote consistently throughout her life, but her work began to be truly appreciated only after her death. She was prepared to suffer hunger or fight in Spanish Civil War for her beliefs. Shortly before her death, she joined the French Resistance in London, but never returned to France because of her poor health. For an introduction to her writings see Simone Weil: An Anthology (1986, reprinted in 2005 as a Penguin Classic). Apparently, Albert Camus said of her that she was “the only great spirit of our times”. And she herself said: “Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.

Susanne LangerSusanne K. Langer (1895 – 1985)
An American philosopher who specialised in art and the mind. Best known for her Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art (1942), she was a pioneer in her field as one of the first women to lead a successful academic career in philosophy. It is interesting to note that the book has ten customer reviews on Amazon.com which were written between 1998 and the present. All but one reviewer gave the title a five-star rating. The latest review (14 June 2014) by LOGICRAT is titled “EVERYONE on the internet needs to read this book” and includes the following quote: “This is a profoundly important book, and is extraordinarily relevant to human life today.”

Fraces YatesFrances A. Yates (1899 – 1981)
Yates was an English Renaissance scholar renowned for her studies Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966), and The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972). The Art of Memory is considered as one of the most significant non-fiction books of the past century. Between 1964 and 1981, Yates regularly contributed to The New York Review of Books. Yates was also a Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Last Plays: A New Approach (1975). Her last review for the NYRB, “An Alchemical Lear”, of Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre (1981), appeared posthumously with this note from the Editors: “We mourn the death of this brilliant and original scholar, a longstanding contributor and friend.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, Brainy Quote, The New York Review of Books Homepage

Interested in receiving a copy of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

Women who roam The Blazing World, Part I

the-blazing-worldThere are some intriguing and inspiring real-life creative women mentioned in Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel, The Blazing World, which is about a fictional artist, Harriet Burden, who believes that she does not receive the recognition her art deserves because she is a well-off, middle-aged woman. To remedy the situation, Burden employs three young, upcoming male artists to front her next three exhibitions. The project has some unexpected consequences. I reviewed the novel a few weeks ago.

Here are some of the amazing women who roam The Blazing World:

Cavendish-BlazingCavendish readerMargaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623–1673)
A scientist and writer who dared to publish under her own name at a time when this was not encouraged in women, Cavendish is the author of, among many other writings, the utopian romance The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666). In its epilogue she refers to herself as Margaret I, the ruler of the philosophical world. It is one of the earliest pieces of science-fiction writing. Modern readers can turn to Sylvia Bowerbank’s and Sara Mendelson’s (eds.) Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (2000) for a taste of the Empress’s work.

Sheldon novelSheldon biographyAlice Bradley Sheldon (1915 – 1987)
A ‘daughter’ of Cavendish, she was the woman hiding behind the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. She wrote feminist science-fiction which was seen as quite masculine until it was discovered a decade after her first publication that she was a middle-aged woman. She was a pioneer in many ways. Widely travelled and well-educated, she was promoted to major in the US Army Air Forces during World War II, ran a business, worked for the CIA, and had an annual literary award named after her pen name: The James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It is given to works of science fiction or fantasy “bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society”. It was initiated in February 1991 by science fiction authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler. For a biography of Sheldon/Tiptree see James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips (2006).

Kitty CityJudy Chicago (1939 – )
The American artist who is responsible for the coinage of the term “feminist art” and whose last name is all her own (she dropped her father’s and her first husband’s names when they both died to become Chicago). In her multimedia artworks and performances she knows how to use her knitting needles as well as her welding torch and incorporates both in her work. In the late 70s, she founded Through the Flower, a non-profit organisation which aims to educate people about women’s achievements in the art world. She is the author of several books, among them one co-authored with Frances Borzello about Frida Kahlo and one on our feline friends, Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours (2005). Click here for Chicago’s Illustrated Career History.

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, The James Tiptree, Jr. Award Homepage, Judy Chicago Homepage, Through the Flower Homepage

Interested in acquiring a copy of The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

A test of faith

I am not the only picturing this with a smile on my face: Vatican, Sunday night, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI together in front of a TV wearing comfy slippers, beige and red respectively, and a bowl of divinely delicious popcorn between them. Whose prayer will be heard?
Pope Francis and Benedict
This is one final I cannot lose as a fan. May the best team win!