Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Jewish Literary Festival 2020

JLF 2020

This is the third edition of the bi-annual Jewish Literary Festival, a one-day event for lovers of literature and Jewish life. It takes place at Cape Town’s Gardens Community Centre, home to the iconic Jacob Gitlin Library, SA Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre. Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, 15 March 2020, readers can engage with more than 70 wordsmiths, poets, journalists, filmmakers and educators over more than 40 sessions. The presenters all have some Jewish connection, are engaged with subjects of Jewish interest or have a way with words and, with multiple sessions running simultaneously throughout the day, the organisers offer genres that cover fiction, sport, food, memoir, politics, journalism, the arts and more – a wide choice to suit all tastes. It is a literary feast of note. Don’t miss it! Tickets sell out quickly, so do not hesitate to book yours here: Quicket.

I wrote about the first JLF for LitNet. During the second JLF, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favourite authors, Lyndall Gordon. Both times, I loved the atmosphere of the event so much that I am delighted I can be part of the third edition of the festival.

I am chairing two sessions:

10:00AM, ISRAEL ABRAHAMS 2

Writing Jewish characters — when you’re not Jewish: Where angels fear to tread…
Helen Moffett, Qarnita Loxton and Dawn Garisch talk to Karina Szczurek.

12:10PM, OLD SHUL

“Feverish: A memoir”: Author Gigi Fenster had an unusual proposal for a PhD — she would induce a fever in herself in an effort to experience fevered dreams. The result inspired her second book, Feverish, which she discusses with fellow author Karina Szczurek.

This memoir is a fascinating discovery and I am infinitely grateful to the JLF organisers for asking me to interview Gigi Fenster at the festival. I can’t wait to meet her in person and to talk to her about memoir writing, creativity, migration and all other feverish endeavours that drive and inspire us.

For the rest, I will be attending other events throughout the day. One is spoiled for choice at the JLF. The programme is a basket of literary treats. Get your ticket and enjoy! See you there…

JLF_programme_2020

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.

 

Woman Zone Book Club Guest Author

On Saturday, 14 December 2019, I have been invited to speak about my work at the Woman Zone Book Club in Cape Town.

Woman Zone

The Woman Zone Book Club is a lively afternoon of discussion, debate and discovery, sharing books from our shelves and welcoming local guest authors. Everyone is welcome at any meeting.

How it works: We review the books borrowed last month and, over a cup of tea or coffee, we chat about great reads and meet our guest author.

Even if you haven’t been before you can tell us what’s on your bedside table.
Then we browse the shelves of the Woman’s Library and choose an enticing title to borrow for the next month

fptbty

Date: Saturday 14 December
From: 2pm to 4pm

Woman Zone Library Hub, Ground Floor, Artscape
RSVP: 

Beryl 082 490 6652 hipzone@mweb.co.za
or Nancy 083 431 9986 info@womanzonect.co.za

Donation: R30
Tea and coffee served

Check out reviews on
Instagram: wzbookclub and
facebook.com/Woman Zone CT

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.