Monthly Archives: July 2015

Entertaining and insightful: Pamela Power’s Ms Conception

Ms ConceptionEver wanted to kill your beloved kids? Shag your psychotherapist? Take revenge on the Floozy lusting after your husband? Write a nasty email to your Boss from Hell? You are not alone! Jo de Villiers, the delightful heroine of Pamela Power’s debut novel Ms Conception (Penguin, 2015), knows exactly how you feel. Soapie scriptwriter, wife, mother of two, daughter and friend, Jo, like so many women before her, is trying to juggle domestic and professional responsibilities without going insane in the process.

Pamela Power is not afraid of dark truths. Motherhood is not for sissies. It can ravage your body, play havoc with your mind, put strain on your relationships, and ruin your chances of getting ahead in your career: “Nobody ever warns you that, much as you love your children, there will be times when you hate them just as fervently. And that the guilt you feel for being such a useless, inadequate excuse for a mother will sometimes completely overwhelm you.” But Ms Conception with its brilliant title and wonderful cover is anything but a dark book. Power does not shy away from afterbirths, baby poos, or cracked nipples. Nor from tackling other serious topics such as peer pressure, HIV, and infidelity, but she does it all with such a mischievous sense of humour that one can’t help smiling on every page. In fact, my introduction to the book was via a friend who picked up my copy, started reading before me, and chuckled every few paragraphs. I felt exactly like that when it was my turn and devoured the book in two sittings. It ends with a ‘delicious’ bang and a recipe which will make you squirm!

Pamela Power made me think of the way difficult issues were handled in my family. We would sit around the dinner table and tease each other about the things that bothered us or tell some funny, seemingly unrelated, meandering stories which would illustrate our worries. It might not have been the ideal way of confronting conflict but it had its uses as it was an easy way of avoiding direct offence. And yet, despite having perfected this skill while growing up and using it in my early experiments in writing, I am hopeless at writing humour. I have endless admiration for writers who approach tough subjects with a light touch and make one laugh. Power is definitely one of them.

Thirty Second WorldMs Conception also reminded me strongly of another local novel, Emma van der Vliet’s Thirty Second World (Penguin, 2013), which paints a similarly humorous picture of a woman’s attempts to survive modern motherhood. Some of the most striking and strangely hilarious descriptions in both books involve breastfeeding and breast pumps and I am tempted to lump them into a new genre: ‘breast pump fiction’. There is something liberating and empowering about reading novels which reveal the often mundane everyday horrors of being a woman without batting an eyelid while cracking jokes at the same time.

Power dedicated Ms Conception to “childminders everywhere”, stating “You deserve a raise!” Women – and men who know what it’s like and do their share! – are the superheroes of our daily lives. And Pamela Power is definitely a writer to watch.

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Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird“It is what it is, says love” is a phrase from a poem by the Austrian poet Erich Fried which echoed in my head while I was reading Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman. Published decades after her Pulitzer Prize-winning, internationally bestselling To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee’s only other novel to date, no matter what its merits or lack thereof, Go Set a Watchman is a literary milestone.

How the two books relate to each other reminds one of the ancient question about which came first: the chicken or the egg. It’s complicated. Or not? Although first to be published, To Kill a Mockingbird was written after Go Set a Watchman. Both tell the story of the Finch family, but they are set twenty years apart. In the late 1950s, Harper Lee was told by an editor who saw the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, where the main characters are all grown up but frequently return in their memories of an earlier time throughout the book, to rework it to focus on those childhood stories. This rewrite became To Kill a Mockingbird. Without any doubt there are good reasons why the initial book hasn’t seen the light of the published page until now. And all kudos to the editor who saw its potential back then and challenged Lee to write another novel which millions of readers across the world have come to love over the last half a century.

My personal love affair with To Kill a Mockingbird began in grade 8. I still have my school copy of the novel with a dust jacket I designed for it myself. It is one of only a handful of books which travelled with me across three continents to settle in Cape Town. I mention this to emphasise the important part that the tale of the siblings, Scout and Jem, and their wonderful father, Atticus Finch, plays in my life. Full of wisdom and tenderness, beautifully written, poignant and funny, the richly layered To Kill a Mockingbird is a true classic. It is set in the imagined county of Maycomb in Alabama of the 1930s. Through Scout’s innocent eyes, it tells the story of her and her brother’s fascination with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, and their father’s fight for fairness for a black man accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South. The children learn that it’s easy to fear what you do not understand and that more often than not law has very little to do with justice. But what they also discover is that there are certain things in life worth fighting for.

When I reread the novel recently, my love of it was reaffirmed. And when you love something so much, it is easy to have your heart broken if somebody tampers with it in ways which are uncomfortably unpredictable…

Continue reading: LitNet

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Interview: Ivan Vladislavić and 101 Detectives

101 DetectivesThe FollyMy first encounter with Ivan Vladislavić’s writing took place in a multidimensional construct of language and fantasy that is his remarkable novel The Folly (1993). It must have been around a decade ago when I moved to South Africa. Since then I have always returned to his books with a great sense of anticipation which has never been disappointed. His latest collection of stories, 101 Detectives, is no different, although it baffled me in the beginning. The first three pieces made me think a lot about the intellectual playfulness of The Folly. Some of the stories are set in recognisable and yet shifted or alternative realities which are quite uncanny. In a recent e-interview I asked Vladislavić whether this was his way of avoiding the cliché trap, of challenging the impression of one of his characters that “no matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough” (“Exit Strategy”)? He hadn’t gone about it “deliberately”, he wrote, and mentioned that in his youth he read “a lot of sci-fi and was taken with writers like Ray Bradbury, who could twist the ordinary into the alien very skilfully through a kind of estranging lyricism”. Of his own early work he says that “the strangeness is more a product of language and imagery than of constructed setting.” More recently he had read speculative fiction again, “which may account for the atmosphere of a story like ‘Report on a Convention’. Many ordinary contemporary spaces are strange. One grows accustomed to it, but the precincts and lifestyle estates often have a weirdly layered, compelling artificiality to them. They’re at such an odd angle to the surrounding world that ‘shifting’ them would make them feel less rather than more peculiar.”

Reading and listening to Vladislavić, the key word I associate with his work is “intellectual”, especially in conjunction with “stimulation”, and it is the main reason why I read him. He challenges me, inspires me to question reality and literature, to perceive both more consciously and often with deeper appreciation. I delight in the engagement. When I think Vladislavić, I also think art, photography, beauty, language, and, perhaps above all, Johannesburg. Few have written as perceptively about Johannesburg as he, “mapping and mythologising” the city (in the words of Elleke Boehmer). Few can employ language to capture not only the beauty of experience, but the beauty of language itself to such stunning effect. Few have entered collaborations with artists of different media, as victoriously enhancing the disciplines in the process. In 2010, together with the South African photographer David Goldblatt, Vladislavić published TJ & Double Negative, a novel with photographs. More recently he worked with Sunandini Banerjee on an illustrated novella titled A Labour of Moles (2012), and 101 Detectives also includes a “Special Feature”: a gallery of photocopies of dead letters, ie letters never delivered to their intended recipients because of address errors and suchlike, referred to in the story “Dead Letters”. There are also images of the places they were supposed to have reached, taken from an exhibition in Poland dedicated to them.

What appeals to Vladislavić in this kind of exchange? I wondered…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: 101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić

101 DetectivesOm te sê ek was verward, is om dit sagkens te stel. Die eerste drie verhale in 101 Detectives, Ivan Vladi­slavic se jongste versameling, het my met hul onvoorspelbare vreemdheid van balans af gehad.

In die wete dat die naam op die boekomslag sinoniem is met bobaas van die kortverhaalkuns, het ek ­egter volhard. Ek is ryklik beloon.

Hierdie outeur se boeke het my nog nooit teleurgestel nie. Uitgedaag, gestimuleer, verryk – ja! Maar nie teleurgestel nie.

Sy skryfwerk verg die leser se aktiewe deelname. Toegegee, ek het nie al die woorde in elke paragraaf van die titelverhaal getel nie, maar die truuk wat gebruik word skemer aan die einde van die verhaal deur sonder dat lesers hul somme hoef te maak.

Tel of nie, jy kan nie bloot deur die boek blaai en ontsnappingsvermaak verwag nie. Ek was derhalwe bereid om my ongemak met die ­begin van die versameling opsy te skuif en met sorg te lees om die ­genot te smaak.

Die vierde storie het my reeds oortuig ek is op die regte spoor.

“Exit Strategy” (let op die titel) bevat dalk ’n paragraaf wat die sleutel tot die hele versameling inhou. Nadat sy ’n man die wolkekrabbers waarin sy werk, sien uitklim het, merk ’n vrou op: “It’s a distressing idea: this might be the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me . . . and yet it feels like a cliché. Everything surprising has already happened before or is about to happen again. No matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough.”

Die vrou is ’n korporatiewe storieverteller wat, figuurlik en letterlik, bo haar vlak by die werk probeer uitstyg, maar ook na uitkomkans soek…

Continue reading: Media 24

Review: Books That Matter – David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years by Marie Philip

Books That MatterAs I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s…
Continue reading: Not Now Darling, I’m Reading

One year later

Diary

Diary, 15 JULY 2014, 05:52

13 JULY 2014
Nadine died.

I heard from Sally: ‘I’m not sure you have heard the sad news. Nadine Gordimer passed away.’ (14 July 2014, 15:08)

I replied immediately after reading: ‘Oh no! … In hospital today with André, he’s having a small knee op. Thanks for letting me know. How terribly sad …’ (14 July 2014, 15:28)

‘My thoughts are with you both.’ (Sally, 14 July 2014, 15:28)

‘We think of you in this difficult time. You’ll be in our prayers. Love, Arné & Christo’ (14 July 2014, 16:04)

‘Just heard about Nadine Gordimer – very sad in so many ways.’ (Edwin, 14 July 2014, 19:00)

I had a strange dream on the night of 13-14 July. I haven’t been remembering many dreams lately, but this one was very vivid & when I woke up yesterday it was with me. Yet, I dreaded thinking about it or writing it down because it seemed a bad omen & articulating it was scary on the day of André’s operation.
I was at the World Cup final party in Brazil that in my dream was also Poland. Everyone was celebrating. At some stage I said to Aunt Iwona that I hadn’t told Grandma Marysia about my visit because I did not want her to worry I was late, but that it was time for me to go next door and see her before she went to bed. On my way up the stairs I realised that I couldn’t visit her at all because she was dead.
I woke up feeling miserable that I came too late.

Since Nadine’s assistant wrote that Nadine could not attend Open Book because of ‘old age’ I have been thinking of writing to her to say thank you for everything. It is too late for that now, but perhaps she knew anyway.

We returned from the hospital in the early evening to requests from CNN, BBC, French press & radio for articles & interviews. André slept while I replied to all to say that he needs to recover first. Per wrote, said her family was with her & that she died in her sleep.

I posted my last interview with Nadine in the original English on my blog.

My heart is sore.

She has changed my life & I’ll forever treasure that. She has been such an inspiration, a true literary giant.

It was so good to come home with André last night to Chai-yo takeaways, a fire & our feline family.

When Sally’s message came yesterday I cried in the clinic waiting room. There was a man there waiting for his wife, reading Kaplan’s book. He asked whether I was okay & we talked about Kaplan & following one’s passions & recovering from injury & Dr Van der Merwe etc. I only said to him that a dear friend had died. He didn’t pry, but said that this was not the kind of news one wanted to hear on days when loved ones were in the hospital. True.

André & I woke up very early this morning & we had tea & rusks & spoke about Nadine. He is breathing gently in his sleep next to me now & he is in no pain. A new day is dawning and I’m so deeply grateful.

Andre Nadine obituary

(A few days after his operation André wrote an article about Nadine’s passing for Rapport. As far as I remember, it was the last, or one of the very last things he published.)

Book review: Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller

Fuller LeavingI must have been quite a disconcerting sight: weeping my eyes out in the middle of O.R. Tambo International Airport. I couldn’t help myself. That is what a good book can do to you. I was passing the wait for my flight home with the final few chapters of Alexandra Fuller’s latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, when the tears just started spilling over. It wasn’t the first time one of Fuller’s books had made me cry. But perhaps it was most fitting since this particular story feels as if it had been written through a lot of intimate pain.

Mostly known for her international bestseller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller is the author of four other books. She is one of those writers who will either irritate the hell out of you or steal your heart. She stole mine with The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, the incredibly moving story of a young cowboy who died on the oil rigs in Wyoming, and I have been reading her work ever since. My other favourite is Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier in which Fuller captured her haunting encounter with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. In hindsight, the book can be read as a companion to Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Continue reading: Not Now Darling, I’m Reading