Category Archives: What I’ve Read

Review: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

The-Messiah's-Dream-MachineFollowing her critically acclaimed debut memoir, Queen of the Free State, Jennifer Friedman returns with a sequel that takes us back to the moment when she was leaving the Free State for boarding school and continues her story into adulthood. The Messiah’s Dream Machine is spread over many more years and settings than the first book, and thus is perhaps more disjointed in its retelling of anecdotes from the chronicles of Friedman’s rather eccentric family. However, like its literary sibling, it focuses not only on a life full of adventure and discovery, but also on the darker sides of adolescence and of growing into the often unexpected roles fate has in store for us.

After recording the trials and tribulations of boarding school in Cape Town, Friedman depicts her married life in Johannesburg and her family’s emigration, first to Israel and eventually to Australia, where she still lives and traverses the skies in her Grumman Tiger plane. But no matter how far she goes, the Free State continues calling her back to the places “transformed beyond recognition, and the ghosts who’ve drifted unchallenged through the years”, and it is Friedman’s narrative that, like amber, encloses these stories into time capsules which will endure in the imaginations of her readers.

“Never is a long, long time … I’ll never send you away, said Ma. I’ll never leave you, Al says now,” Friedman writes and shares with us how to survive broken promises. With her vivid prose and a knack for dialogue, she delivers an array of odd characters that many of us will recognise from our own circles of family and friends. The Messiah’s Dream Machine also features disgusting meatballs, bloody springbok hunts, mice plagues, floods, a tornado, a few funerals and a wedding. “Nostalgia with teeth”, according to Mike Nicol.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine

by Jennifer Friedman

Tafelberg, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 12 April 2019.

Review: Placeless People – Writing, Rights, and Refugees by Lyndsey Stonebridge

btrThroughout the ages, humans have been migrating across the globe; it is ingrained in our nature. Depending on time, place, and reason, these individual or mass movements of people have been welcomed or deplored by others. But being a refugee has never been easy. When you are forced to leave your home country and seek refuge elsewhere, whatever initiated the journey is usually only half of the ordeal you are facing – the uncertainty on the other side can be as daunting, if not more so.

Timely, succinct, and deeply moving, Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees throws a light on a topic that is constantly in the news and, whether we like it or not, often on our doorsteps.

Having spent quite some time in refugee camps as a child, I am aware far too intimately what it means not to have a country to belong to and a people to call your own. I thought that I knew what there was to be known about this topic, but Stonebridge’s research and take on placelessness and its consequences on the lives of millions of people scattered around the world today exposed my own ignorance and made me reconsider many long-standing beliefs.

The crisis we are confronting in the twenty-first century is, as Stonebridge shows, “in reality not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of moral and political citizenship”. Going back in time and examining creative responses to placelessness, as well as the legal and socio-historical frameworks which shaped the concept, Stonebridge delivers an unsettling account of who we are.

Placeless People is a powerful call to arms against “today’s toxic mess of bile bureaucracy, bad faith politics, and ethno-nationalist posturing.” It is an invitation to rethink what it means to be human in today’s shifting landscapes of uncertainty.

Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees

by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Oxford UP, 2018

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

Review: Secret Keeper by Kerry Hammerton

Secret KeeperSecret Keeper
Kerry Hammerton
Modjaji, 2018

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

[…]

The keeper of the titular poem tends to secrets as others tend to bees. Like the insects, the secrets always return, “hairy bodies crammed into my mouth” wanting to escape (“The secret keeper”).

The last part of this captivating book, not unlike life itself, consists of poems of loss and grief. Here, too, there is a before and after, and once again it is impossible to imagine how “to get to the other side” (“This year”) when a loved one, the father, dies. The mourning child states: “I am better at my other life,/ where no-one is dead,/ where sadness doesn’t press/ its cold weight into my sternum/ creep along my clavicle, breathe into my spine” (“My other life”).

In Secret keeper, Hammerton manages to capture the essentials of most adult lives – love, loss, loneliness, anxiety, ageing and death – and leaves us pondering our own mortality, and that deep longing not to feel our insignificance “at night” when we are all alone under the “black sky, stars,/ the milky way”.

[…]

To read the entire review, click here: LitNet

Book launch: The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman

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Jennifer Friedman was born and raised in the Orange Free State in South Africa. She studied at the University of Cape Town, and her Afrikaans poetry has been published in various academic journals such as Tydskrif vir LetterkundeWetenskap en KunsStandpunte and Buurman, as well as Rooi Rose. She emigrated with her husband and children in 1992 to Sydney, Australia, where she got her pilot’s licence. After her husband’s death in 1997, Friedman bought her own Grumman Tiger plane and she flies to the small outback towns and stations around Australia, often just for a lunch date and wherever the sun is shining. She now lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales with her partner.

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The Messiah’s Dream Machine is Friedman’s second memoir, after Queen of the Free State (2017).

On 4 April 2019, I will be in conversation with the author at the launch of this wonderful book. I look forward to seeing you all at the Book Lounge!

Review: The Snow Sleeper by Marlene van Niekerk

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The Afrikaans poet and fiction writer Marlene van Niekerk is best known for her ground-breaking novels, Triomf and Agaat. She has many accolades to her name, including being a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Award when it still recognised the entire oeuvre of an author, not just an individual title. Van Niekerk’s The Snow Sleeper, at last translated into English, is the kind of book that could have been a worthy winner entirely on its own terms. Locally, the original did receive the prestigious University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Writing in Afrikaans in 2010.

The four interlinked stories which form The Snow Sleeper – “The Swan Whisperer”, “The Percussionist”, “The Friend”, and the titular story – took my breath away. During an inaugural lecture a professor recalls an exasperating relationship – mostly epistolary and one-sided – with a creative writing student who challenges her ideas about creativity and mentorship. At the end of “The Swan Whisperer”, the professor questions her own work within the South African context in ways previously unimaginable: “god only knows who is writing in me.”

Van Niekerk quotes Orhan Pamuk for the epigraph of her book: “A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him.” That the professor giving the inaugural lecture shares a name with the author of The Snow Sleeper is telling.

In “The Percussionist”, an antiquarian clockmaker specialising in grandfather clocks speaks at the funeral of his writer friend. “He wanted to be remembered for his books, he always said, because nobody would be able to make any sense of his life,” the clockmaker tells the people gathered at the occasion. In his eulogy, he captures the process of observed reality transmuting into fiction, with longing at the very core of the seemingly unfathomable process.

Van Niekerk’s dead writer is the author of the stories which we recognise by their titles as her own. The self-reflective The Snow Sleeper acknowledges the incredible power of storytelling, and its various pitfalls. While any artistic act can be seen as death-defying, in the end loss is inescapable. There is also no shying away from the predatory nature of any creative endeavour. In one of the narratives, a researcher interviewing homeless people for a field study records a story that throws a light at the precarious relationship between an artist and their – often oblivious, sometimes reluctant, and occasionally manipulative – subjects. In one of the most poignant moments of the book the vagrant asks: “What can I do in the end but avenge myself? On behalf of all the wretches who’ve sat as models through the ages so that narcissists on state subsidy can excrete artworks?”

And while undoubtedly also “seducing with false images”, The Snow Sleeper is a brilliant meditation on the eternally intriguing nature of art, life, and the individual whose humanity breathes soul and beauty into it all.

The Snow Sleeper

by Marlene van Niekerk

Human & Rousseau, 2019

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

Review: House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

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Image: Virago

Clara Waterfield, the heroine of Susan Fletcher’s latest hauntingly beautiful novel, House of Glass, has a rare disease that makes her bones extremely brittle and confines her to a life of protected seclusion. Her mother and step-father provide as much safety, education and entertainment as they can while the curious girl grows up under their loving care. The unique upbringing makes Clara socially awkward but also unusually bold and unspoken once she is allowed to venture out into the world as a young woman.

The novel is set in England shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Through the library that her step-father builds up for her, Clara has access to a wide range of scientific knowledge, and despite her isolation, she is well versed in the political and social developments of the day. News of women marching for their rights and the looming war reach and fascinate her. She finds her way to Kew Gardens where she becomes a keen assistant to a botanist and gardener, and unwittingly learns a trade that leads to an exciting offer of setting up a glass house on an estate in Gloucestershire.

Struggling to deal with the grief following the loss of her mother, Clara decides to travel to Shadowbrook to establish a botanical paradise for its owner. From the moment she arrives, she encounters strange occurrences which the staff and the elusive master of the house veil in secrets and silence. Undeterred, Clara embarks on a journey of discovery that will challenge all her beliefs about the world and her own life.

Fletcher’s mesmerising prose lures you in and holds you captive until the unexpected resolution of the mystery at the centre of this thought-provoking Gothic tale. You can judge House of Glass by its exquisite cover.

House of Glass

by Susan Fletcher

Virago, 2018

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

Review: ID – New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik and Otieno Owino

ID Selfie

Helen’s ID selfie

We often open books to read stories about characters we can identify with. It is a search for sympathy and understanding. Picking up a book which actually reflects your own image back at you, however, is rather rare. But this is exactly what the latest Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa, does. The book’s cover is partly a mirror in which you can see fragments of your face.

Focusing on the theme of identity – whether we interpret ‘ID’ as short for one’s ‘identity document’ which can official represent you, or as one’s ‘subconscious’ in Freudian terms – the stories in this book are about “who we are” and “who we choose to be” on the African continent and in the world. The collection features the winning entries of the SSDA Prize and twenty other stories by writers from across the African continent.

The story which took the $800 top prize, All Our Lives by Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor, sweeps us along as we follow the trials and tribulations of a group of young men drifting in and out of Nigerian cities. Sew My Mouth by Cherrie Kandie is a touching exploration of the challenges a lesbian couple experiences in urban Nairobi. In Per Annum, a stunning piece of speculative fiction, the Johannesburg-based writer Mpho Phalwane tells the story of a group of young people fighting a corrupt government to keep their memories alive. The entire anthology challenges us to know our diverse selves.

ID: New Short Fiction from Africa

Edited by Helen Moffett, Nebila Abdulmelik & Otieno Owino

Short Story Day Africa, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 March 2019.

Longlist of the SSDA Prize for short fiction announced

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The 2018 Short Story Day Africa longlist:

  • ‘The Satans Inside My Jimmy’ by Harriet Anena (Uganda)
  • ‘The Jollof Cook-off’ by Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon)
  • ‘The Last Resident’ by Jayne Bauling (South Africa)
  • ‘Mr Thompson’ by Noel Cheruto (Kenya)
  • ‘The Layover’ by Anna Degenaar (South Africa)
  • ‘A Miracle In Valhalla’ by Nnamdi Fred (Nigeria)
  • ‘Of Birds and Bees’ by Davina Kawuma (Uganda)
  • ‘Maintenance Check’ by Alinafe Malonje (Malawi)
  • ‘Why Don’t You Live in the North?’ by Wamuwi Mbao (South Africa)
  • ‘Slow Road to the Winburg Hotel’ by Paul Morris (South Africa)
  • ‘The Snore Monitor’ by Chido Muchemwa (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Outside Riad Dahab’ by Chourouq Nasri (Morocco)
  • ‘Broken English’ by Adorah Nworah (Nigeria)
  • ‘Queens’ Children’s Little Feet’ by Godwin Oghenero Estella (Nigeria)
  • ‘Door of No Return’ by Natasha Omokhodion-Banda (Zambia)
  • ‘An Abundance of Lies’ by Faith Oneya (Kenya)
  • ‘The Match’ by Troy Onyango (Kenya)
  • ‘Supping at the Fountain of Lethe’ by Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe)
  • ‘Happy City Hotel’ by Adam El Shalakany (Egypt)
  • ‘The Space(s) Between Us’ by Lester Walbrugh (South Africa)
  • ‘Shithole’ by Michael Yee (South Africa)

Congratulations to all Writers!

Dear Readers, You are in for a treat! For more info about the prize see: Short Story Day Africa. To read more about the longlist, head over to the Joburg Review of Books.

ON THE MINES at the Norval Foundation

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I joined the Norval Foundation as a member after my second visit to the art museum. It has become one of my favourite places to go to, for art, coffee or a G&T with a view – the bar overlooks the artistically and botanically lush museum gardens.

btrOne of the current exhibitions is very close to my heart: “On the Mines” by David Goldblatt.

“Shown for the first time in its entirety, On the Mines: David Goldblatt is the last exhibition that the photographer personally helped conceptualise before his death in 2018. Goldblatt is revealed as the great chronicler and documenter of South Africa: the quiet observer of how the country, its peoples, its institutions and landscape have been inscribed by politics and power.”

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The photographs on display were partly published in 1973, in a book by the same title as the exhibition. The book included an essay by Nadine Gordimer, one of the countless texts I read when writing my PhD.

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I cannot help but wonder whether I would be here today, living and writing in Cape Town, if it hadn’t been for Gordimer’s extraordinary work. Her writing – its beauty, probing wisdom – was my entry point to South Africa’s literature and then to the country. I will be forever grateful for the introduction. It was because Gordimer agreed to an interview that I visited South Africa for the first time fifteen years ago. The rest is history.

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It is difficult to believe that she is no longer among us, but her work lives on, a great consolation. I hardly knew her, but the few hours spent in her company and the many years spent thinking and writing about her work make me miss her, a lot…

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Three other stunning exhibitions can be seen at the Norval Foundation right now: the work of Yinka Shonibare and Ibrahim Mahama – thought-provoking and enthralling.

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And then a collection of nudes from the Sanlam Art Collection. Not to be missed.

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Review: Nasty Women Talk back – Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, edited by Joy Watson and Amanda Gouws

Nasty Women Talk Back

Most of us despair, but publishers around the world are probably laughing all the way to the bank because of Donald Trump. The president of the United States might not be good for anything else, but he is certainly great for the book business. I can no longer count the titles I have come across recently, written in reaction to the innumerable atrocities – in words and deeds – committed by the man.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches, published in South Africa but with contributions by women from around the world, is a collection documenting diverse responses to Trump’s campaign, his election, and the ensuing Women Marches organised in protest to Trump’s presidency.

In the introduction to the book, the editors talk about a period of “deep mourning” many of us have been experiencing since November 2016. It is not to be underestimated. Having Trump in power has not only exposed numerous vulnerabilities we experience in our everyday, but also reversed progress already gained in areas of gender rights and equality.

The twenty-five essays and three poems included in Nasty Women Talk Back are an attempt “to put pen to paper and show fervour for ongoing feminist activism”. Reading the individual pieces, I also felt inspired. Ranging from academic comments to deeply personal stories, all the essays are illustrated. The texts and images refer to the striking signs participants of the Women Marches carried during the protests.

“My arms are tired from holding this sign since the 1960s”, reads one of the signs, but as Rebecca Davis points out: “We may be tired, but we cannot afford to shut up.” Books like Nasty Women Talk Back allow us to counter the violence of silencing and to find solidarity in a common cause.

Nasty Women Talk Back: Feminist Essays on the Global Women’s Marches

Edited by Joy Watson & Amanda Gouws

Imbali Academic Publishers, 2018

Review first published in the Cape Times on 22 February 2019.