Monthly Archives: December 2017

Review: Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose

JohannesburgFiona Melrose’s Johannesburg is only her second novel, but it feels like the work of a much more seasoned writer. After her highly acclaimed debut, Midwinter (2016), which chronicled the grief and survival of a Suffolk farmer’s family and was set in the UK and Zambia, Melrose returns to the country of her birth and locates her latest story, as the title suggests, in the City of Gold on a very specific day in history, 6 December 2013. Melrose seems to be a fearless writer; her imagination leads her where surprisingly few dare to go and she gives credible and moving voices to characters of all backgrounds. It is the hallmark of a true writer. As is her literary scope. Melrose is not afraid of intertextuality, allowing Johannesburg to beat with the heart of a few literary giants, Virginia Woolf most prominent among them, but the storytelling rhythm is entirely Melrose’s own.

6 December 2013 was the day we all woke up to a world without Nelson Mandela. “It had been a bad night for nervous dogs. Thunder, and rain, terrible and hot, had drenched the city”, read the opening lines of Johannesburg. The story of the day which followed is told from the perspective of several characters. They come from all walks of life. For each of them, while they are all mourning Mandela’s passing in different ways, this day also marks a different kind of threshold as they navigate the restless metropolis which is their home: “Towers of glass and everywhere more being built – banks, law firms, mining houses, the great and the good of a bygone era still standing despite a crusty patina of blood and guilt.”

September lost everything after being shot at during miners’ protests on the (aptly renamed for the purpose of this novel) Verloren koppie. He spends his nights on flattened cardboard boxes in a garden and haunts the streets of Joburg during the day, begging and wanting to be acknowledged. He makes his “pilgrimage to the Diamond, the home of the mine bosses, the killers of men” and remembers the senseless violence that brought him to this place. His sister Duduzile tries to take care of him, but “his life rested like a bundle of jagged rocks on her back.”

Inside the Diamond, Richard knows that what happened at Verloren will not be ignored. He dreams of his summer beach holiday when he can shed all responsibility and become a castaway: “Seagulls, sky, perhaps the call of children as they ran back from the water’s edge as heavier waves barrelled in. That was all. And that was everything.” He realises that at sixty-four he is already three years older than his father when he passed away, and he remembers his wife Anne who died three years earlier. He still feels lost as he contemplates whether a gift is required as he prepares for a friend’s birthday party that evening.

The party is in celebration of Neve Brandt’s eightieth birthday. Her daughter Virginia, or Gin, arrives back from New York to organise it at her mother’s home in Joburg. She is convinced that “it would all fail, her party, her preparations. And she would be judged by everyone who sat there and, of course, by her mother.” The relationship between Gin and her mother is fraught with what remains unsaid between them. Neve is deeply unsettled by the birthday and the idea of the party: “She had no interest in feigning delight and gratitude, for she felt neither.” She has little faith in her daughter, despite her assurance that she will take care of everything. Neve’s attitude is crushing: “A party. What could be worse? It was the most miserable possible outcome for any birthday.” Her toxic scepticism causes Gin “to bruise, in that acrid yellow and black way.”

Their domestic worker Mercy observes the two women and their cutting misunderstandings while trying to catch any news of Tata Mandela. Peter, the man Gin once had a relationship with, sees her visit as an opportunity to make amends for their failures of the past, but is incapable of decisive action. Gin “demanded that all of it, life and death, look her square in the face and he, all the while, was softening, losing his nerve, turning away.”

The city – “the practised master of the endless hustle” – is, as the novel’s title boldly declares, the protagonist of the story. As its inhabitants struggle with missed opportunities and silences, the tensions gradually become unbearable. Something has to give. Death is omnipresent in obvious and more subtle ways. And then, while mourners gather outside the president’s residence and the skies above the city prepare for their usual cleansing, Neve’s dog goes missing and September knows that it is time to make his protests properly noticed. Gin feels that her lot is “too much. Too much was needed from her. And everything was wrong. Everything was too much for just one day.”

From the beginning of Johannesburg, it is clear that the “bad night” of the first sentence will permeate the “skinless” day of the novel and shift the characters’ lives into a different gear. For most of the time, Melrose commands the multiple narrative strands with great aplomb. There were only a few moments in the story, specifically in the passages centred on September, where I found myself wishing for tauter editing. But the novel left me feeling enriched, as if my own life had somehow been transformed by these fictional recollections of a day which is still very fresh in my memory.

The epigraph of the novel comes from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: “Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.” Johannesburg pays homage to the timeless classic, adapting some of its key elements and structurally following in its footsteps. Readers familiar with Mrs Dalloway will delight at the various references to Woolf’s writing, but Johannesburg can be enjoyed purely on its own terms. Melrose’s novel is inspired, never dominated by her sources. To my mind, two other local greats echo in the pages of the book: Nadine Gordimer and Ivan Vladislavić, the two “novelists of Johannesburg and historians of its streets”, as the writer and literary critic Michiel Heyns referred to them in one of his reviews. With Johannesburg, Melrose enters a widely travelled literary territory and makes it her own. It is a fine novel and Melrose is fast on her way to establishing herself as one of the most fascinating, versatile novelists of our time and place.


by Fiona Melrose

Corsair, 2017

An edited version of this review appeared in the Cape Times on 22 December 2017.

My favourite books in 2017

My books 2017In no particular order, nor according to any genre categories, these are simply the books I enjoyed reading – for whatever reasons – the most this year. Some of them were not published in 2017, but I only got around to reading them now. This list excludes some recently released treats which are still waiting for me during the festive season.

I read just over sixty titles in the past twelve months. Not my best achievement by far, but I find that every year I get better at choosing what to read to avoid disappointment.

The six books published in 2017 which provided me with most joy were Ingrid Winterbach’s The Shallows, Hedley Twidle’s Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World, Sara-Jayne King’s Killing Karoline, John Maytham’s Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany, Anne Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir, and Lyndall Gordon’s Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.

Next year promises to be an exciting one in literary terms and I hope to make it to my usual eighty books in a year. Wishing you all happy reading and kind and peaceful holidays!


Review: Rapid Fire – Remarkable Miscellany by John Maytham

Rapid FireCapeTalk radio station’s Rapid Fire feature will be familiar to many listeners in the Cape. During the segment, two people phone in with general knowledge questions and John Maytham, the host of the afternoon drive show, attempts to answer them on air. Independent of whether he knows the correct answer or not, the question deemed more interesting by the CapeTalk team present in the studio receives a prize. Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany is a collection of the most fascinating questions asked on the programme over the years. Using what he refers to as his “magpie memory” and traversing the depths and widths of the internet, Maytham provides the answers to them all in an accessible, lively manner in this quirky book.

What crime would you have to commit to deserve the punishment poena cullei? Who links Manchester United, South Africa, sunburn, and stripping? How did spam mail get its name? Where would you be if you were on the Looney Tunes approach? How does happy hour affect insects? Which Table Mountain plant could be considered racists? How fat do you have to be to be bulletproof? What shape is wombat poo? Or why are manhole covers round? Divided into eighteen categories, ranging from “Life and death” to “Red herrings”, the questions and answers of Rapid Fire will enlighten and entertain you, and when shared with friends, they will enliven any dinner conversation.

Rapid Fire is a fun way to enrich one’s general knowledge. It is the perfect gift for anyone, independent of age or reading preference. Some of the questions might sound obvious, but the answers will astonish, amuse or embarrass you. In case you still believe that polar bears are white, you better read this book. Paging through the Rapid Fire miscellany, your feline or canine companions might be shocked to discover they are chinless, and understanding how challenging sexual intercourse in space is might put you off your dreams of visiting Mars, but knowing whose cooking recipes are lethal will definitely save your life. Rapid Fire is a delightfully informative read.

Review: Post-Truth – Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It by Evan Davis

Post Truth

Thinking about any kind of deceit, I always remember my mother’s explanation of the circumstances when lying is acceptable. I was still quite young and she told me that when one of my family members (today a strikingly attractive woman) was born, she looked like a rat. Although all could see the resemblance, everyone commented on the cuteness of the child at the time. In Polish, this is also called a white lie. It is a form of bullshit, but it is not only socially acceptable, but an indication of good manners. In his Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It, the journalist and BBC presenter Evan Davis gives another such example: being polite by lying about the deliciousness of the burned pudding your host serves you for dinner.

White lies can be considered innocent, but the trouble with our present reality, as Davis states, is that it has become exceptionally swamped by the kind of bullshit that is truly threatening. Unsurprisingly, Trump and Brexit feature prominently between the covers of Post-Truth.

Davis speaks about the “two things that underlie a lot of bullshit”: it is “a form of communication that is, loosely speaking, too cheap to properly distinguish a genuine and a fake message”, and it suggests “some misalignment of interests that gives reason for someone to be a fake in the first place.” The latter is especially fascinating, and Davis shows that the manner of how and by whom bullshit is delivered can communicate something of importance that is more reliable as an act of communication than the message itself.

I was mostly captivated by the second part of the book’s subtitle, wanting a guide on how to discriminate between the bullshit we are constantly bombarded with and messages of proper value. Forms of mendacity Davis discusses are “readily apparent to anyone who cares to notice… Their transparency gives rise to one of the mysteries of modern communication: why peddle this stuff if we can all see through it?” Curiosity, doubt, and experience enable us to develop and train pretty dependable bullshit detectors. But bullshit can be so insidious that it escapes even the most watchful eyes. The advice Davis offers against falling for it is often intuitive, and once you read it, it seems pretty self-evident, and yet it is hard to formulate it as succinctly and coherently as Davis does. Contemplating the research and examples he provides you see how aptly he pours those intuitions into words.

Davis proposes two vital questions that should be posed of any message out there to determine what we are dealing with: “does the communicator have an interest in directly deceiving, or in trying to impress? And does the way they have tried to persuade us they are honest and genuine really show that they mean what they say?”

In his research, Davis delves into the human psyche and delivers some home truths about our behaviour: “As part of the mental process of self-justification that we all engage in when we do something wrong, the near-lie offers comfort. It assuages guilt, allowing the perpetrator the self-respect of being able to say to themselves that no lie was told. Let’s admit it: we have all been there, we have all taken advantage of that distinction at some point.”

Writing about the dangers of “the rhetoric of politicians, populists or demagogues”, Davis points out that the worst of them “make successful appeals to anger and fear, frame problems in terms of one group versus another and wrap their worldview up in appealing stories that have a distorted plausibility.” Sadly, his kind of communication will be all too familiar to South Africans. “The techniques of propagandists have been well studied and it is hard to be comfortable with them.”

It seems so easy to abuse our emotions when anger and fear are in play. To guard against such exploitation, as Robert Schindler put it to Davis: “The thing that needs to be fixed is for people to be more in touch with their feelings… If you’re in touch with your feelings you’re better able to handle people trying to influence you by those feelings. You know what’s happening and you can decide whether to act on it or not.” As Davis states, there are occasions when we do not mind having our feelings manipulated and he gives the example of “tear-jerking Christmas ads”, but on the whole it is wise to interrogate those feelings and intuitions rigorously. A Christmas ad is one thing, Newspeak is another.

Whether in politics, advertisement, journalism or social media, we have reached overwhelming levels of deception in the public space. Calculating the price of a communication is an intriguing way of discerning what is worthwhile because “useful signals tend to be expensive” and “by contrast bullshit as a phenomenon is characterised by its cheapness. Words cost nothing to say and so have limited power is helping us to distinguish between the genuine and the fake.”

Despite the mostly grim topic, there is a lot of humour in Post-Truth and I found myself chuckling along the way. I had a really good laugh at a tongue-in-cheek self-reflective comment about endnotes in an endnote to Chapter 3, referring to the form of bullshit they can be indicative of. The book prompts you to interrogate your own forms of communication, not only those of others. Having been tortured by the bullshitting jargon of academia for many years (and Davis extends revealing comments about the meaning of tertiary education degrees), I repeatedly thought of the philosopher Karl Popper and his view that “aiming at simplicity and lucidity is a moral duty of all intellectuals: lack of clarity is a sin, and pretentiousness is a crime.” What I appreciated most about Post-Truth was that it never gave the impression that the author was trying to peddle anything to me. The book is accessible, entertaining and highly informative.

Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit and What Can We Do About It

by Evan Davis

Little, Brown, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 8 December 2017.

Review: The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

Anne FadimanAnyone who has read Anne Fadiman before will know what to expect of her latest book, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir – excellent writing. I adore her work. It engages, soothes and delights me. She could write about any topic and I would want to read what she has to say. Her superb The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (1997) is one of the most insightful renderings of the challenges which people encounter across cultures and languages. She is a master of the familiar essay. Book lovers will remember her marvellous Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998), Fadiman’s declaration of love for the written word.

Writing about your family members can be daunting, not a task to be undertaken lightly. Fadiman does it with wit and style. The Wine Lover’s Daughter is another of Fadiman’s declarations of love – the one she feels for her late father, the formidable Clifton Fadiman whose life spanned most of the twentieth century. A man of letters, an extraordinary editor, a famous radio and television personality, Clifton Fadiman was also known as a wine connoisseur and collector who drank half a bottle – seldom less or more – every night at dinner time until he was well into his nineties. “He once said that the cork was one of three inventions that had proved unequivocally beneficial to the human race. (The others were the wheel and Kleenex.)”

In remembering the life of her remarkable father, Fadiman does not gloss over the uncomfortable flaws of his character. This is true love, warts and all. She writes with compassion and humour, drawing a picture of a man who was deeply ashamed of his roots and desperate to escape them: “as a young man he had looked around him and realized that things were run by people who spoke well and who were not Jewish, not poor, and not ugly. He couldn’t become a gentile, but there was nothing to stop him from acquiring money and perfect language. The ugliness was a self-deprecatory exaggeration.” He was hard-working and on a mission: he did not want to be a “meatball”, transforming diligently “into something approximating foie gras.”

His family was worried about him when he was growing up, “since all he seemed able to do was read.” But that passion led him straight to the offices of the prestigious publisher Simon & Schuster, where he remained for most of his life. He was conservative in many ways but never adverse to dialogue, reshaping his views as the world around him was changing. He allowed his children to find their own ways. His daughter’s journey included coming to terms with the fact that, although she followed in his footsteps as a writer, wine did not agree with her palate.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a literary treat of note. Tender and generous, it will go well with half a bottle of your favourite vintage.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir

by Anne Fadiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times, 24 November 2017.

Review: Love, Africa – A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival by Jeffrey Gettleman

Love Africa“It’s easy to explain why you like something. But love? That’s tricky. That’s a story, not a sentence,” writes Jeffrey Gettleman, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, in his first book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival. This is the story of two “obsessions”: a woman and a continent. As a young man, Gettleman travels to Africa for the first time and meets Courtenay, a fellow Cornell student. Both encounters shape the rest of his life. Now in his late forties, Gettleman has come to call Nairobi his home; and after many ups and downs, he and Courtenay married and started a family in Kenya.

In the early days, one of Gettleman’s friends and mentors, Dan Eldon, asks at a campfire in the Mikumi National Park: “You guys ever wonder what to do with a landscape like this? It’s, like, beautiful food you can eat; a beautiful woman you can kiss; but what are you going to do with a landscape this beautiful?” You can love it. If you are a journalist, you can also attempt to capture it in words. Gettleman credits Eldon for making “that all-important introduction: Jeff, World. World, Jeff.”

It is through his journeys to Africa and the people he encounters here that Gettleman decides to become a reporter and dreams of being a foreign correspondent in East Africa. “But writing is like travelling. Often you have to pass through a bunch of places you don’t want to visit in order to arrive where you do.” After interviewing the likes of Desmond Tutu and Salman Rushdie for a student newspaper as a graduate, Gettleman eventually cut his journalistic teeth in Brooksville, central Florida, at the St. Petersburg Times where he covered “small-town carnage, one-on-one war”. One of his big stories at the time was about the child molester and murderer, Willie Crain – “the ultimate depths of depravity”.

In 1999, Gettleman became a general assignment reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Soon after, he was writing from Afghanistan and the Middle East, and in 2002, he transferred to the New York Times – initially as a domestic correspondent, before he was sent to Iraq. It was only in 2006 that his Africa dream came true as he took over as chief of the East Africa bureau of the newspaper in Nairobi.

Gettleman won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2012. Even if you don’t know his journalism, reading the memoir you will understand why. His writing is visceral; it is impossible to remain unaffected. He states: “There’s exactly one difference between an adventure and a tragedy: death.” Right from the tense opening pages of Love, Africa you know how tightly these two are intertwined, how high the stakes. The memoir exemplifies a hard lesson Gettleman learns – the one that contrasts a life wasted and a life lived: “Or maybe the lesson was simpler. It wasn’t about death. It was about life. It’s never long enough. So get it while you can.”

Gettleman is not the first mzungu to fall hook, line and sinker for this continent. Many have written about their experiences. What makes Love, Africa stand out among the diverse accounts is the vulnerability that Gettleman allows to underpin his writing. He constantly challenges, and accepts when necessary, his limitations as a journalist: “I didn’t have the capacity to absorb all that was being asked of me, nor the courage to tell these men who were putting their hand on my heart the truth. I wasn’t a conduit to a just world. I was simply a reporter.” But there is no doubt that he and others can make a difference, whether in small ways to individual lives they touch or on a grand scale when reporting leads to deeper awareness and changes in policy making. At one stage Gettleman notes: “if we could break Iraq, just imagine what we could do to a really poor place where few were watching.” He is fearless in his criticism, whether of his own or other governments – the right and the courage to do so should never be taken for granted.

There is no way of escaping helplessness in the face of the atrocities Gettleman has to cover as a reporter, and searching for the right way to do it is one of the most vital tasks. When writing, he finds himself having to fight editors for single words like “hacked” to express what he’d witnessed. But as he points out, “just because there was a million questions about what exactly you should do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.”

Some of his observations seem simple, but go to the heart of conflicts we hear about on the news or experience in our everyday. The following struck me in particular: “Elections are anxious in most Africa… They are not just a race. They are a test. The key questions is never who wins. It’s whether the loser accepts.” And this: “The only African countries that succeeded in overcoming this [colonial divisions] and building anything close to a national identity were those that took forceful steps to neutralize ethnicity or tribe (I use the terms interchangeably).”

Exploitation and betrayal mark our socio-political legacies. Gettleman’s greatest achievement in the book is to trace his own personal, intimate history of both against the background of the global story. His honesty is disarming as he recalls his path towards loyalty and integrity. It is strewn with the suffering of others, especially Courtenay. “I have few regrets in life,” he writes, “but here I wished I could redo everything. But I couldn’t, which left me simply hoping that that clumsy, hurtful time would slip deeper and deeper into a softly entombed past, like the tracks we left behind in the desert that the evening winds gently erased.” In the end, he is redeemed by the ancient truth: “This is all I need, my freedom and you. Take everything else from me. It doesn’t matter.”

Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival

by Jeffrey Gettleman

HarperCollins, 2017

Edited version of this review was first published in the Cape Times on 24 November 2017.