Monthly Archives: September 2018

Review: Self-Helpless – A Cynic’s Search for Sanity by Rebecca Davis

Self-HelplessWe can thank the giraffes. The threat of their extinction had driven Rebecca Davis into despair and sent her on a rollicking search for meaning. The resulting book, Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity, was at times dangerous to research, but it is witty and delightful to read.

In the past, when confronted with the disappearance of a species and other symptoms of the appalling state of the world around us, Davis had the perfect solution to all her worries: alcohol. She did not just drink socially and in moderation. Most of the time, she preferred to drink herself into oblivion. When her excessive consumption of alcohol began to threaten her relationship with her wife Haji, she decided to call it quits and find other ways of engaging with reality in her free time.

During her investigation, Davis acknowledges her inner demons, occasionally risks her life and finds insightful answers to some of the most pressing questions of our times. Self-Helpless records her adventurous year-long journey towards “wellness, spiritual enlightenment and good old-fashioned happiness”. Living in Cape Town, she is at home in the city that has the latest fads of self-improvement, no matter how outlandish, on offer.

Magic mushrooms might not seem like an obvious point of departure for all, but Davis attends a Sacred Mushroom Ceremony and is nearly converted, but then, she and her wife attempt to replicate the experience at home – with nearly disastrous consequences. A visit to a sweat lodge ends up nearly as lethal. Davis is sceptical of the possibility of reincarnation, but allows herself to be hypnotised in order to explore her past lives.

Having married into a family observing the fast of Ramadan, Davis joins her relatives, hoping to become “free and light; empty and pure” through fasting. She quits social media and turns for guidance to the good, old-fashioned plethora of self-help books available in our bookshops. She discovers the existence of the “exercise pills” and orders the illegal wonder-drug online. What gets her truly hooked, though, are gyms and exercise apps.

Following Marie Kondo’s path to minimalist living, Davis declutters her home, leaving behind only objects that “spark joy” (some famous books do not survive the purge). She finds peace through meditation, on a silence retreat and inside an isolation tank. Her encounters with her cursed ancestors turn out to be much less satisfying. Luckily, even though she has a brush or two with her own mortality, no giraffes are harmed during her quest. And you will not want to miss the story of her “pet goat” and the “icky guy”.

Although highly entertaining, the book is much more than a humorous romp. Davis is great at making us chuckle and think at the same time. At the end of it all, for life to be meaningful, each one of us has to know what gets us “out of bed on a Saturday morning”. If that thing makes you smile, hold on, you are on the right path.

Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity

Rebecca Davis

Macmillan, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 September 2018.

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Review: It’s Only Blood – Shattering the taboo of menstruation by Anna Dahlqvist

cofA friend from my university days in Wales once told a group of women gathered at my student residence that when she started menstruating, her parents gave her a bunch of flowers and took her on a river boat excursion to celebrate the occasion. She was German, and the rest of us were, like her, exchange students from different European countries. Most of us had rather bleak stories to tell about our own individual memories of our first periods. By then, we were all in our early twenties and had about a decade of painful monthly woes behind us. I still remember the relief we all felt when sharing these stories and our experiences, as opportunities to talk about or reflect on menstruation without feeling a certain degree of shame, anger or disillusionment had been rare for most of us up to that point.

It became easier to deal with this aspect of our physiology as we got older, more educated and less intimidated by the sheer responsibility of it all. But we were all young middle-class people with access to information, medical advice as well as sanitary products and facilities like clean bathrooms with running water and washing machines. It is estimated that around two billion people in the world experience menstruation, but for many of us this simple biological fact of life is so heavy with everyday consequences that it becomes a burden almost impossible to negotiate.

In her bold and illuminating book, It’s only blood: Shattering the taboo of menstruation, Swedish journalist Anna Dahlqvist confronts the topic head-on. She specialises in gender, sexual and human rights, and intertwines her knowledge of and her research in these fields to present an eye-opening, cross-spectrum picture of what it truly means to be a “menstruator” – this is the term she prefers because it is inclusive; trans men menstruate, too. For her book, Dahlqvist interviewed menstruators of all ages around the world, spoke to international specialists researching menstruation and analysed data from numerous studies.

The resulting portrayal of the challenges menstruators face is shocking…

Continue reading: LitNet

It’s only blood: Shattering the taboo of menstruation
by Anna Dahlqvist
Wits University Press, 2018

Review: 101 Water Wise Ways by Helen Moffett

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Day Zero might no longer be looming large on our Western Cape horizons, but the drought we are experiencing and the lack of sustainable, permanent solutions for the water crisis force us all to consider our relationship with this precious, irreplaceable resource as well as to acknowledge and understand the dramatic climatic changes we have been experiencing throughout recent decades.

Helen Moffett began blogging about ways of how to address the emergency situation around the time when the threat of Day Zero for Cape Town became official and we all began to panic. She was asked by her publisher to write a guide on how we can take responsibility and confront the crisis, rather than hide our heads in the proverbial sand. Moffett sees her book, 101 Water Wise Ways, as “an ally in your fight to save water, and part of your survival kit, along with the first-aid box; Valium for water-worries”. Crucially, she writes with the “humbling” awareness that “Day Almost Zero is reality for countless families”, not only in South Africa but around the world. Some of us should stop feeling sorry for ourselves. We can all take heed and learn.

I was reading 101 Water Wise Ways over a period of two days when copious rains were falling from the skies and the Cape was sighing loudly with relief. But, the winter rains don’t seem to be as generous as we had hoped, and there is no other palpable water miracle waiting around the corner that we could hope or pray for. Whether we accept it or not, we are in this for the long run. Under these circumstances, Moffett’s tips on how to tackle the water crisis feel like a summer’s rain, gentle and invigorating. She believes that we have “an unprecedented opportunity to become better neighbours, stronger communities and more close-knit families” by facing the challenge together, and shows exactly how we can achieve this goal.

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Tips range from general to specific. From how to collect and store water to how to help replenish the groundwater supply in your garden, or to have a water-wise garden in the first place. Among many other easy, useful tips for all budgets, she finds ways of how to approach water scarcity and hygiene while menstruating or remaining sexually active; how to avoid wasting water while cooking or washing your dishes (the teabag tip is priceless!); or how to flush our toilets or install a simple dry urinal. Moffett’s compendium teaches you to cope with this and much more.

The book is never preachy. Moffett does not interrogate who and what is to blame for the current water crisis. Instead, she focuses on what we can do in order to find short- and long-term solutions for dealing with it in our daily lives, whether at home, at work, or as active citizens with social responsibilities. Accessible, practical and often refreshingly humorous, 101 Water Wise Ways takes on one of our greatest fears – running out of water – with a can-do attitude.

101 Water Wise Ways

by Helen Moffett

Bookstorm, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 31 August 2018.

Review: The White Room by Craig Higginson

The White RoomThe White Room, Craig Higginson’s latest novel, is sublime. Sometimes a simple, strong word can express it all, especially when you are reviewing a book so intricately fascinated by language – how we use it to communicate, to obfuscate or to hurt.

I have been reading Higginson’s work – his internationally recognised plays and award-winning novels – religiously since the publication of his third novel, The Last Summer. In The White Room, his fifth, Higginson returns to many of the themes he explores in his narratives: the nature of storytelling, trauma and loss, our place in history, familial ties and other human relationships, the fragility of love and, as mentioned above, the sheer wonder of language.

The novel has undoubtedly autobiographical echoes, as the protagonist, like Higginson himself, is a Zimbabwean-born playwright, living in South Africa, and travelling to London for the opening night of one of her plays. But, Hannah Meade is not Craig Higginson, although the play she wrote and is about to see performed for the first time strongly resembles Higginson’s own work, the remarkable The Girl in a Yellow Dress.

This is not the first time Higginson picks up the skeleton of one of his plays and fleshes it out to transform and resurrect it in the form of a novel. His previous, The Dream House, was based on another of his plays, Dream of the Dog. The reverse adaptation, for want of a better term, was extremely successful in both cases – the richly layered novels expounding the core truths of the theatrical pieces.

The White Rooms opens in London, where after the performance of her play, Hannah is hoping to reconnect with Pierre, the Frenchman of Congolese descent with whom she had a brief but turbulent affair while he was one of her English students many years ago in Paris. She is now a successful playwright, teaching creative writing, and walking the beaches of the Cape Peninsula where she “lives in a small town not far from Cape Town that is stuck between a high wild mountain and a wrinkled bay filled with sharks.” In this latest play of hers, Hannah works through the events of the past, looking “back at that earlier version of herself as an old antagonist still capable of harming her and all she has accomplished since leaving Europe.”

She goes back to her memories of the time she spent in Paris with Pierre and tries to come to terms with her more distant past, when her beloved twin brother Oliver was still alive and Hannah thought she would become an actress. Sitting next to his wife in the audience in London, Pierre has no idea what he is about to witness on stage and how the play’s dramatically filtered unfolding of the past events – “her version of Pierre – which, like a figure in a dream, is little more than an extension of herself” – will once again shatter his life.

The White Room takes us seamlessly back and forth in time as we are confronted with the inability of the young couple to not only recognise, but also acknowledge and accept each other for who they truly are when they meet in Paris, and the inevitability of their present encounter in London with all its surfacing anxieties and possibilities: “She withdraws deeper into the shadows as the rest of the audience fades into insignificance, and the world of the play, with hideous alacrity, starts to rearrange itself around him.”

Just as effortlessly, the narrative moves between fiction and reality. What adds intrigue to the story are the recurring references to Higginson’s own oeuvre as it has evolved in the last two decades since the publication of his first novel, Embodied Laughter.

Most of the story is set in Paris where, meeting once a week for their private lesson, Pierre and Hannah attempt to dissect their reality as it is reflected in the grammar rules of the English language. But whereas these are relatively easy to convey and Hannah feels “happiest in the place of language”, the dishonesty and escalating misunderstandings between the overeager student and his conflicted teacher erupt in scenes of heart-wrenching violence: “From the outset, there was a strong and dangerous attraction between them, an ineluctable force that wanted to draw them together, as mismatched as they might have appeared to be. But that did not make them compatible or healthy for one another.”

Higginson’s prose is luminous. He is one of those writers that make you look at individual words and phrases and delight in the multifaceted variants of their meanings. He seems always aware of how they relate to one another and, how through those connections, they enrich our experience and understanding of the world as well as our place in it. It is engrossing to trace through the narrative how the colour in the novel’s title refers to a physical and metaphorical space, the starkness of the blank page, as well as the traumatic history embedded in skin colour. And even though Hannah “tells her students that she in only interested in the life of the text”, that “[t]heir so-called lives are of no relevance”, her own story explores the undeniable entanglement of the two realms: “She was like a house that in the end no one wanted to inhabit. She required too much work. No matter how hard they tried to paint her walls white, she was a step behind, painting them black.”

Both Hannah and Pierre are intensely troubled characters, riddled with guilt, shame, insecurities and dark longings. But no matter how distant their internal conflicts might come across at times in comparison with one’s own life, they are simultaneously deeply familiar. It is impossible to remain unmoved by their story.

When opening a book with Higginson’s name on the cover, I have come to expect excellence – to be enthralled and challenged, emotionally and intellectually. The White Room not only delivers on these expectations, it goes far beyond them.

The White Room

by Craig Higginson

Picador Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 August 2018.

Review: The Ones with Purpose by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele

The Ones with PurposeEight years have passed since Nozizwe Cynthia Jele’s striking debut novel, Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, was published and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category for the Africa region. It was also chosen as the winner of the M-Net Literary Award in the Film category and turned into a highly successful movie that made a huge splash in local cinemas two years ago. I loved the book and the screen adaptation and was very eager to see what kind of novel Jele would write next.

The Ones with Purpose was well worth the eight-year-long wait. I couldn’t put it down and devoured it in the course of a single day. It has been a long time since a novel captivated me to such an extent. To say that I feel truly bereft after finishing it is only fitting, since the plot of the book centres on the death and funeral of one of the main characters, the narrator’s sibling: “I imagined a dying person’s last breath as something resembling an exclamation mark, distinct and hanging mid-air like an interrupted thought. My older sister Fikile’s last breath before she dies is nothing of the sort. There is no rattling noise at the back of her throat. No relentless twitching. No clinging to life. Fikile dies with no more fuss than a switch of a light bulb.”

The life that is extinguished with that last switch was one lived to the fullest. When Fikile is first diagnosed with breast cancer, she has everything going for her. With a national diploma in Early Childhood Development to her name, she is running a successful crèche and lives in a comfortable home with her husband Thiza and her own three children. It is clear from the start that growing up wasn’t a stroll in the park for her and her two siblings, Anele and Mbuso, but as the oldest, Fikile did whatever she could to keep the family going after their father’s death in a horrifying road accident and their mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism: “Ma had returned to life too soon after our father’s death, before her heart was completely healed and before much of the grief had poured out of her system.” Neglected by their mother who, shattered by the loss of her husband, was too ill and self-absorbed to care for the young children, Anele and Mbuso looked up to Fikile to provide for and guide them when the adults in their lives had messed up. “I didn’t bring you into this world,” she exclaimed, “I’m not responsible for you and I cannot be expected to raise you. I have my own life to live.” But even though the burden was too much to handle, she did her best.

As the family gathers to mourn and bury Fikile, Anele recalls her sister’s life and the choices they all made in order not only to survive, but to thrive and aim at a different, more fulfilling future. Sacrifices and impossible compromises had to be made, some best forgotten. But Fikile’s passing brings their individual histories into focus and long-supressed tensions and regrets surface, demanding to be faced and resolved: “Ma maintains that when people come to pay respects to the aggrieved family it is rarely about the deceased; she says people are there to mourn their past personal losses, and that as an aggrieved family it is important to keep your grief in check and not to get caught up in other people’s emotional tangles.”

Anele is ridden by guilt. She is also angry with her brother-in-law for abandoning Fikile in her hour of need. It is now her turn to accept an enormous responsibility for the bringing up of Fikile’s children entrusted into her custody by a sisterly promise. And there is her own daughter to think of, and the child’s father Sizwe, who showed up one day unexpectedly and stayed to the benefit of the entire family. But now, his own past comes back to haunt him.

After a long, painful absence Mbuso returns home to be with the family and has to navigate the minefield of the hurt he had left behind. Unspoken truths fester and need to be revealed. Love springs up in the most unlikely places. Betrayals, old and new, want to be acknowledged and have to be atoned for to bring healing and closure. Some things cannot be unremembered, no matter how hard you might try to escape your ghosts. Throughout it all, traditions have to be observed and respects paid according to family customs. In the middle of the necessary arrangements, Anele makes a crucial resolve: “I ask that we bury first, hold court later.”

Reading The Ones with Purpose, I was often reminded of Anne Enright’s brilliant The Gathering which won the Man Book Prize in 2007. Both novels have the same premise: family dynamics and secrets are explored through the prism of the death of one of family members and the emotional chaos which ensues after such a traumatic event. Jele’s take has a wonderful local flavour which makes it even more appealing, and like the other novel, it tackles psychological landscapes we are all familiar with, independent of where and how we grow up.

Using a quote from Elizabeth Berg for her epigraph, Jele dedicated The Ones with Purpose to “women with cancer who have found their fire, and for those who are still searching.” Having once experienced what it means to be confronted with the threat of a breast cancer diagnosis, I understand the all-consuming fear one has to deal with knowing that perhaps nothing will ever be the same again. “All through this,” Anele tells us, “Fikile hadn’t cried.” Jele captures the utter helplessness and the unbelievable courage required to soldier on when the battle rages inside your own body.

The Ones with Purpose is a powerful novel about endings and new beginnings. Written with wisdom and compassion, it will resonate long after the last page is turned.

The Ones with Purpose

by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele

Kwela Books, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 17 August 2018.

Review: Shame on You by Amy Heydenrych

Shame on You

Amy Heydenrych has been writing for many years in different capacities, but Shame on You is her first novel. It was snatched up by a highly regarded UK publisher in a two-book deal last year. It is topical and edgy, qualities one expects from a psychological thriller. The protagonist, Holly Evans, is a social media sensation, one of those public figures whom we have come to identify as “brands” or “influencers”.

For all its wonders, the Internet is a scary place that makes terrifying things possible at the click of a button. Its seeming anonymity brings out the worst in human nature. And like millions before or after her, Holly can’t resist its pull. She is known as a cancer survivor and a devoted proponent of super healthy eating. Her followers adore her. Companies are falling over themselves to attach their brand to her name. Everything she has – the luxurious flat, the nice car, the fancy clothes and the latest beauty products – comes from lucrative sponsorship deals. Her image is everything.

But it about to be destroyed by a man who wants her to suffer at all costs. In a moment of carelessness, when Holly lets her guard down, she is attacked in the most brutal way. She immediately realises that the assault is an act of revenge, but she is scared to cooperate with the police because she does not want an investigation into her life to reveal all the secrets she has been desperate to hide for many years. And whoever is out there baying for her blood seems to know more about her than she cares to contemplate. “She should have known that secrets make you sick,” the narrator tells us about Holly, “that they have a way of coming back to haunt you.”

Set in London, and written from the perspective of both Holly and her attacker, Shame on You goes into the heart of everything that is sickening and dangerous about the online world. Heydenrych presents us specifically with the pitfalls women face in this precarious space, particularly when their engagement with the social media community goes horribly pear-shaped: “Up, down, up and down. The pornography that is public shame. They came here for a train wreck. Well, here she is, in all her filthy glory.”

Although I would have preferred a tighter edit – more showing, less telling – Heydenrych’s debut is a page-turning read from the shocking start to the final cliff-hanger. Both her main characters have hardly any redeeming features, but the fact that we want to know everything about them exemplifies the addictive nature of our fascination with the online/offline presence of the rich and famous. Shame on You is making me reconsider the way I use social media platforms, as a content producer and consumer. Above all, the novel sheds light on a disturbing phenomenon which has the potential to make or break lives in the twenty-first century and should never be underestimated.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 August 2018.