Category Archives: What I’ve Read

Review: Stillicide by Cynan Jones

StillicideIn his writing, Cynan Jones showcases the full potential of the short forms of prose – the novella and the short story. I have been a fan for years. The economy of his prose and the uncanny insight he offers into the human condition are a rare gift. Stillicide, his latest book, is a collection of short fictions which originated as a BBC Radio 4 series. The pieces are interlinked and centre around the theme of water, as the title suggests. “Stillicide” is defined as “a continual dropping of water” or “a right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land.”

Highly topical not only for drought-stricken South Africa, but globally, the stories of Stillicide are set in an imagined, but not too-distant future where water is a highly priced commodity. The cityscape is familiar as the Thames still runs through it, but the iceberg transports to the city signal a new threatening reality. The characters of Stillicide attempt to carve out a meaningful existence in this hostile world.

A man with nothing left to lose is tasked with the security of the titular “water train” of the opening story. A neglected woman discovers hope within herself and nature. Two boys walk through a desolate landscape with a dog. An elderly couple are about to lose their house to rising sea levels, but they remain like limpets, “they barely move more than half a metre from their home scar all their lives”. The discovery of a rare insect has the potential to stop a development that half a million people are marching against with little hope. “The belligerent will of a thing to exist”, the need for a voice to be kept alive cannot be underestimated. Both find refuge in the stunning stories of Stillicide.

Stillicide

Cynan Jones

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler

The Gospel According to LazarusIn his novels, Richard Zimler, who is best known for The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, has been chronicling Jewish history throughout the ages and from all corners of the world for many years. His latest offering is an unusual, deeply touching retelling of the gospel. At its centre, Zimler places Lazarus and allows him to tell the story in a long letter to his grandson: “Picture me endeavouring to tell you matters that will never be able to fit easily or comfortably on a roll of papyrus.”

Lazarus, a widower and a father of two, lives with his sisters and is a tile maker commissioned to design symbolic mosaics for affluent citizens of Galilee. He is friends with the man whom most readers will know as Jesus of Nazareth. It is this relationship that leads Lazarus into danger and tests his faith as well as the people closest to him.

The Gospel According to Lazarus goes back and forth in time, but focuses on the days following Lazarus’s return from the dead. Zimler’s daring recreation of this tale from Lazarus’s perspective is a truly remarkable feat of the imagination and of empathy. The experience is described with sublime sensitivity, as is the unshakable friendship that binds the two main characters of the story. “I have found that most men and women huddle behind their own heartwalls and only rarely peek outside. We spend thirty, forty, fifty years or more not seeing one another”, Lazarus tells his grandson. “But he looked and saw.”

Whether we are believers or not, through Zimler’s fearless storytelling, we are reminded that there are “profound and hidden things in our world” and that fiction, not unlike faith, can bring us closer to understanding our own humanity and the stories that have sustained it for millennia.

The Gospel According to Lazarus

Richard Zimler

Peter Owen Publishers, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: Little Boy by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Little BoyThe versatile American artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a literary legend. For his hundredth birthday last year, Faber & Faber published a beautiful hardback edition of his latest work, a memoir in verse titled Little Boy. The cover and the first few pages lured me in at the bookshop; I couldn’t wait to take it home.

Unfortunately, after the enticing lyrical beginning, the book descends into a mostly opaque and often unpalatable dissection of the writer’s life, his troubled home country, and human experience as a whole that would need months of research to be properly understood. An enterprise that is contrary to Ferlinghetti’s self-proclaimed desire for accessibility, and I suspect that the attempt would feel like a waste of time in the end. Which is a great pity, because there are passage in the book that testify to the possibilities of Ferlinghetti’s talent and vision: “And looking back over the lost terrain the great / misrememberer with myopic vision sees only himself / in the shorn landscape of half-overturned vehicles / of desire and misread signs at country crossroads / pointing different directions …”.

If only such lines could have been rescued from the rest of the book. It might be Ferlinghetti’s last, but Little Boy will not diminish his significant contribution to all the arts he made his own. Gems like these will continue to shine: “it is the time of final reckoning of the / never-ending end of night to get real after a / lifetime of illusion and evasion …”.

Little Boy

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Faber & Faber, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 January 2020.

Review: Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters by Rebecca Solnit

Whose Story Is ThisThere are numerous writers out there who understand the complexity of the present. Many can also clearly convey their insights. But few do it as strikingly as Rebecca Solnit. I have discovered her work only recently, but have read and loved all the books she has authored by now. Her latest is another intellectual delight.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters is a collection of essays Solnit penned over the last three years. At the heart of the book is the ancient question of who and how is allowed to tell a story. It might seem simple at first glance, but there are no easy answers. And when one realises how many seminal stories are silenced and for which reasons, one can grow terrifyingly worried about the narratives that infiltrate our lives.

Storytelling and power are tensely interlinked. Credibility or lack thereof forms part of that connection. Having a voice doesn’t necessarily mean that it is your time to speak. Truth and accuracy are paramount. And perhaps most importantly for our strange times, the dominant story is often the one that is lethally misleading: “Gaslighting is a collective cultural phenomenon, too,” Solnit notes, “and it makes cultures feel crazy the way it does individual victims.” Whose Story Is This? is worth reading just for the explanation of this concept. But the book offers so much more.

Solnit’s intense clarity of thought and compassion allows us to follow her as she “maps or machetes” paths out of “this horrible tangle.” She says that it is all about the “active practice of paying attention to other people.” It is also about kindness. Our world can use a lot more of these vital skills, if we want to envisage a future that is meaningful to most, not only a few.

Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 December 2019.

Woman Zone Book Club

WZ Book Club

The Woman Zone Book Club meets every second Saturday to discuss recently read books. The women of the book club also invite guest authors to speak to them about their lives and work. I had the privilege to have been invited yesterday afternoon and had a fantastic time.

Photo by Nancy RichardsFor obvious reasons, I chose to speak about a few of the women in my life who shaped my creativity and were instrumental in paving my way towards a career in writing, editing and publishing. It was impossible to honour all of them in a short time, but these are the women who featured in my talk yesterday: my grandmother, Babcia Marysia, and my Mom, both of them nurtured my creativity in indirect but significant ways; Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian who awakened my passion for reading; Nadine Gordimer, whose writing brought me to South Africa for the first time; Maureen Isaacson, who first gave me the opportunity to hone my craft as a book reviewer when she was book page editor of the Sunday Independent; Lyndall Gordon, whose work and friendship showed me how to continue being a writer in the world when I was doubting that I could; Rachel Zadok, who believed in me as an editor and through work kept me sane when my world lost nearly all connection to sanity; and Joanne Hichens, who was a stranger when I asked her to visit me in an hour of utter despair nearly five years ago, but we became friends and are now co-editors of an anthology of short stories we published together: HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity.

The other books I mentioned during my talk were:

with Desiree-Anne MartinDuring the book club reviewing session, I also briefly spoke about the book I had finished reading that morning: Desiree-Anne Martin’s remarkable We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. She was there at the meeting and it was great to tell her in person how I felt about her memoir and to ask her to sign my copy.

It was my first visit to the WZ Book Club, but I hope that there will be many, many more in the new year. Located at the Woman Zone Library at the Artscape it is a generous and beautiful space for discussing all things literary with the most wonderful women.

Review: The First Breath – How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives by Olivia Gordon

The First BreathWhen a doctor pushed a shunt into her “unborn baby’s thorax to save his life from a deadly condition called hydrops”, Olivia Gordon and her husband had no way of knowing what other challenges would await them and their son before or after his birth.

Ground-breaking fields of medicine are making it possible for many children who would have died only a decade or two ago to survive and, in many cases, lead perfectly ordinary lives. These advances are also paving the way for a generation of parents who have to cope with the consequences of extremely difficult decisions that can result in unimaginable tragedy, lifelong commitment to special care for their children, or miraculous joy. Quite often the possibilities intertwine. Gordon guides us through this new world, taking into account her personal experience and impeccable research into the medicine and dedication that created it.

Written with immense integrity and sensitivity, this thought-provoking book not only made me revisit the choices I have made in my life, but also rethink my preconceptions about this topic. The First Breath is highly recommended for anyone considering their options as a parent, especially with all the progress modern medicine has to offer.

The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves the Most Fragile Lives

by Olivia Gordon

Pan Macmillan, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 13 December 2019.

 

Review: Cape Town – A Place Between by Henry Trotter

Capet Town_A Place BetweenThe first in the Intimate Geographies series, Cape Town: A Place Between by Henry Trotter is a thought-provoking, genre-crossing book that will intrigue locals and foreigners alike. Incorporating elements of memoir, guide book, socio-political history and travelogue, Trotter tells a compelling story and captures the essence of what makes the Mother City so irresistible on the one hand, and so impossible to grasp on the other.

He opens with three vignettes from the recent past: Day Zero, a bizarre hijacking attempt and the Clifton Fourth Beach sheep slaughter. From there, he sets out to deepen our understanding of these snapshots by exploring the different strands of history that made them possible and covers impressive ground in short, entertaining chapters that will make you look at Cape Town anew, even if you have lived here all your life. As a visitor you couldn’t ask for a more succinct and vivid introduction to the place.

Trotter is American, an outsider who made Cape Town his home many years ago. His perspective is fascinating, but it is, of course, not without its challenges: “I realize”, he writes, “there’s nothing quite like listening to a white American guy man-splaining African history and culture. Even I cringe when I think about that.” But there is much more to Trotter than meets the eye, and it is precisely because he is painstakingly aware of his position that Cape Town: A Place Between becomes such a ground-breaking book.

The title of the series is crucial to remember: this is an “intimate” take on a geographical place many of us who live here believe we know; no matter how frustrated we get trying to come to terms with its many contradictions. Trotter invites us to “embrace the discomfort, the dissonance, and the delight entailed in investigating this inimitable city called Cape Town.”

Cape Town: A Place Between

Henry Trotter

Catalyst Press, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 29 November 2019.

 

Review: Made in Sweden – 25 Ideas that Created a Country by Elisabeth Åsbrink

Made in SwedenWhether it is ABBA, Pippi Longstocking, Scandi noir, Swedish massage, Volvo or IKEA furniture, these famous Swedish exports usually evoke positive connotations. We often associate Scandinavian countries in general and Sweden in particular with innovative ideas and socio-political stability. Award-winning Swedish author, Elisabeth Åsbrink, decided to test these assumptions about her country and ask herself the following questions: What are the real Swedish values? Who is the real Swedish model?

In her latest book translated into English, Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas that Created a Country, Åsbrink, who recently visited South Africa for the Open Book Festival, looks into some of the most defining concepts and figures shaping her home country and debunks some of the myths which have grown around them. The book is a fascinating journey through Scandinavia’s ancient and more recent history as well as a key guide to understanding present-day Sweden and its people.

Åsbrink’s love for her country is clear, however it “isn’t blind.” Many of her revelations are surprising, if not shocking: a few will make you rethink your love of Swedish things (like the history of IKEA and its founder’s dubious past). Others will make you want to embrace them with joy. The story that moved me the most is the one about how, exactly forty years ago, Sweden became the first country to ban all forms of psychological and physical violence towards children and how Astrid Lindgren was involved in making it happen.

Made in Sweden: 25 Ideas that Created a Country

Elisabeth Åsbrink

Scribe, 2019

First published in the Cape Times on 22 November 2019.

Review: The Unfamous Five by Nedine Moonsamy

The-Unfamous-Five-310x480Friends Neha, Devon, Shejal, Janine and Kumari live in the Indian suburb of Lenasia and spend a lot of time together. It is the early 90s, just before the first democratic election in South Africa. The country is preparing for change when the teenagers witness a terrible crime on one of their outings in the township. Their sense of belonging and identity is shaken as they embark on the rough path to adulthood after this lethal incident. Alongside them, South Africa is also trying to come into its own. This is the premise of Nedine Moonsamy’s beautifully crafted debut novel, The Unfamous Five. Although clearly echoing Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five novel series, Moonsamy makes this story completely local and her own.

The Unfamous Five is narrated from the perspective of all five friends at different stages of their lives from June 1993 to April 2003. The individual stories are told in affecting vignettes that reveal the multi-facetted connections between the friends, their families and other people who come to share their lives with them as time progresses.

“As she lives through the moment she already knows that she will remember it for the rest of her life”, it is revealed about Janine at one point in the book, as the account continues: “She records it in her mind as one of those moments. Those moments when reality bursts open like a volcano and spits hot lava across one’s front lawn.” It is the perfect description of how the novel records the essential stages of the group’s journey as individual young adults and as a whole.

It took me a few pages to get into the intense rhythms of the narration, but once I did, I could not put The Unfamous Five down, curious of how these lives would develop and whether the relationships depicted would survive their many permutations and challenges. All five stories are compelling, but I was particularly moved by Janine’s.

Through these characters, Moonsamy brings the transition alive in a way that is truly tangible, never shying away from the most difficult aspect of the period, exposing the devastating consequences of racism, homophobia and intolerance of any kind: “This is how they choose to spend their time, undressing each other until they stand there, naked and raw, clinging together as they desperately search in one another for a new truth about themselves.” The observation is made during an argument about the past and the New South Africa. It is the private and the personal that becomes political here as in the best of fiction addressing these concerns through this specific place and time in history.

This is the adventure of life, he [Devon] thinks, travelling through each other’s lives, each other’s weeks.” Moonsamy offers us a generous insight into what the adventure of life entailed for the unfamous – but fascinating – five of her novel.

The Unfamous Five

Nedine Moonsamy

Modjaji Books, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 15 November 2019.

Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

Out of Darkness, Shining Light“Whoever heard of a group of people marching from place to place with a dead body?” It is precisely such a journey that is at the centre of Petina Gappah’s latest novel, Out of Darkness, Shining Light. Two decades in the making, the book tells the story of the sixty-nine men and women who decided to carry the body of Bwana Daudi – the Scottish physician and explorer David Livingstone – across the African continent after his death, so that his remains could be interred in his own country.

“In the grave we dug for him under the shade of a mvula tree, his heart, and all the essential parts of him, are at one with the soil of his travels. The grave of his bones proclaims that he was brought over land and sea by our faithful hands.”

The novel has two primary narrators: the expedition’s cook, the slave woman from Zanzibar called Halima, who is freed by Livingstone’s death, and the aspiring missionary from the Nassick school in India, also a former slave, Jacob Wainwright. Their voices complement each other perfectly in this richly textured chronicle of loyalty and betrayal, ambition and resilience, placing the emphasis on the lives of people neglected by history, the true protagonists of this particular tale.

Gappah’s approach is stunningly encapsulated in the retelling of the famous encounter between Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, one of numerous highlights of this sumptuously imagined historical novel. It has been a long time since I have delighted in a book so much. Out of Darkness, Shining Light is Gappah’s third novel since the publication of her exquisite debut collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, ten years ago. It takes you to the heart of the continent, illuminating it with the bright torch of African storytelling.

Out of Darkness, Shining Light

Petina Gappah

Faber & Faber, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 25 October 2019.