Tag Archives: book review

HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity – first reviews

HAIRcover_10cmHigh_rgb“There is nothing boring about this anthology!” writes Consuelo Roland (author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap) on Goodreads, and continues: “Many of the stories are partially embedded in time and space against the background of South Africa’s apartheid legacy, but there is also spontaneity, humour and mystery, and a sense of how one might wriggle out from under the weight of our hair (the burdens of past and present). As the first brilliant story ‘The Collection’ by Alex Latimer reminds us hair is something dead and yet it makes us alive and present. Other stories that stayed with me (yours may well be different, this collection is that good!): ‘Before We Go’, ‘Spa Ritual’, ‘The Wisdom of Sunday’, ‘A Woman’s Glory’, ‘At Length, Hair’s Breath,’, ‘That Famous Winter Brown’, ‘Let The Music Play On’, ‘Reunion’. And then there’s the soulful, beautifully written (not an unnecessary word) ‘Lila’, by Bongani Kona, that felt like someone had thrown a brick at my chest so that I could hardly breathe with the sadness of it…”

To read the entire review, please click here: Goodreads

HAIR_Country Life

The collection has also been chosen by Nancy Richards as one of “ten top local titles” for “holiday reading” in the December issue of Country Life. The magazine is running a competition in which you can win a copy of HAIR among a few other fabulous local titles. Click here for details: Win this Holiday Reading Books Hamper.

We-have-some-great-books-up-for-grabs-in-our-holiday-reading-books-competition

Photo: Country Life

Book review: Pleasure by Nthikeng Mohlele

PleasureThe title of Nthikeng Mohlele’s fourth novel delivers on its promise. Pleasure is a mesmerising, unusual book. At times I was hesitant to call it a novel. The story of Milton Mohlele, his dreams and musings, which he attempts to distil into writing, reads like a meditation. As literary history echoes in his name, Milton could be an alter ego for most writers seeking to find not only meaning but pleasure in the written word – to capture that elusive something which makes us sigh deeply with content when, if ever, we truly encounter it.

Pleasure opens in a bathtub, with Milton reminiscing about the women in his life and his late father, who was a writer of note. One of Milton’s preoccupations is to figure out how to avoid having to tread in his footsteps: “What more is there to say other than that the man was brilliant and is deceased?”

Often, I found my mind drifting, with the book’s images and insights as my guide. Exquisitely written, Pleasure allows you to abandon yourself to language: “This made me happy; a feeling that fell like snowflakes, like confetti showered on couples at weddings, like raindrops illuminated by car headlights, fireworks exploding sky high in magnificent, temporary fiery arrangements, falling back to earth in languid, crystal, dazzling, smoky slow motion.” Milton assures us that he “notices things”, “even the smallest, most insignificant of them”.

The observations are precise, beautiful, also in the face of evil (“a word stripped of all pretensions”). A dream sequence in the book adds a profound dimension to Milton’s considerations. In the dream, an American soldier’s life is spared and he is taken prisoner by a SS commandant. He meets an alluring woman at Wolfschanze, Hitler’s headquarters, where he finds himself among men “who could will anything into being”, including a reality in which the ash of their victims rains into coffee cups across Europe.

Once awake and contemplating the meaning of his vision, Milton is not oblivious to the fact that similar horrors happen right next to him, in present day Cape Town. He insists that Africans “should dream, or imagine themselves outside of only being black and colonised and enslaved”, that we are all part of a wider world. Towards the end, he also realises that depending on context, killing can be an act of kindness.

Pleasure never lulls us into easy answers, not everything can be “scrutinised, fully known, owned.” But it is a book full of wisdom which invites the reader to ponder the intricacies of existence. Its proclamations on love and the preciousness of the opportunities life offers are stunning: “Pleasure, I have learned, is a solitary phenomenon; it does not mix well with remorse and regrets and mistakes…at its most elementary pleasure survives on selfishness, on discreet contracts, undemocratic arrangements.” After all, most of us “want to die being able to say, I have loved in my life – truly loved, been molten and cooled and hammered by love, cast and polished.” Some of us, transformed, write.

Pleasure

by Nthikeng Mohlele

Picador Africa, 2016

Review first published in the Cape Times on 20 May 2016, p. 10.

Book review: Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher

The Art of the PublisherEvery now and then, a book comes along which changes your life. For me, Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher is one of them. But you don’t have to be – or, like me, want to become – a book publisher to find this gem an inspiration.

For quite a while now, publishing has been steeped in a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and doom, especially in South Africa. The threat of the internet, the e-book, the retail giant Amazon, and the financial crisis have made life for the printed book difficult. Locally, a seemingly general disinterest in South African fiction and foolish political decisions have made survival tougher for our publishers, and consequently, of course, for us writers. Book sales are not encouraging. Publishers scaling down even less so. Yet, watching developments like the self-publication of Paige Nick’s latest novel, Death by Carbs, or new publishing ventures like uHlanga and Tattoo Press, I have a feeling that some creative and daring people in the country are on to something which gives me many reasons for optimism.

Roberto Calasso’s essays collected in The Art of Publishing attest to the fact that it all comes down to basics. And the basics are vision and quality. It is these two aspects of publishing that readers throughout centuries have best responded to with enthusiasm. These are no trade secrets, just simple rules which those who have been successful in publishing have always followed.

Critic, writer, and a publisher himself, Calasso has been at the forefront of Italian publishing for decades. His love for literature and the book shines through every single paragraph of The Art of Publishing. His passion is one of beauty. His insights are heartening to read.

When it matters, publishing is not about money, although, as with all art forms, moderate financial rewards cannot and should not be excluded. There are enough examples out there to prove the case. All aspects of the form play an integral part in its success: “choice and sequence of titles published…texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects.” Calasso does not deny that this is “the most hazardous and ambitious goal for a publisher, and so it has remained for five hundred years”, but he also reminds that “literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.”

He goes into the fascinating history of publishing, asks what constitutes culture, celebrates the great publishers of our times, explores the relationship between the publisher and the writer, demonstrates how crucial the nourishment of writers and the care for the book as an object are to a thriving publishing environment, and most importantly, to our intellectual and emotional lives.

Calasso also shows that even if often unbeknownst to us why a particular publisher attracts our enthusiasm, as readers we understand the value of our “repeated experiences of not being disappointed.” And that is what only a publisher of vision and quality can offer.

The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Penguin Books, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 January 2016.

Two comments:

When I truly enjoy a book I have the need to share it with others. I have already bought several copies of The Art of the Publisher for friends, two more today…

I was attracted to the book in the first place because it appealed to me as an object. I saw it displayed at the Book Lounge in Cape Town and could not walk away from it…

Book review: The Death’s Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

Deaths Head Chess ClubA friend has recently suggested that my reluctance to read Second World War novels might be similar to many South Africans’ reluctance to read apartheid fiction, and that saturation might be at the heart of it. True, having grown up in Poland and Austria, I have heard, seen and read plenty about the war – the stories as related by both sides. It is not that I shy away from the horror, even though after having visited the Mauthausen concentration camp as a teenager I was unable to accompany my husband when he wanted to see the concentration camp in Auschwitz (throughout, I sat very still in a coffee shop just outside and wept without going in). Imagination and empathy can be deadly for a soul. But I understand that these (hi)stories must be told and listened to. Today, in the midst of xenophobia, racism and violence, we need to grasp, perhaps even more than ever, what is at stake when we declare others as subhuman…

Continue reading: LitNet

The Death’s Head Chess Club
by John Donoghue
Atlantic Books, 2015

Review: Garden of Dreams by Melissa Siebert

garden-of-dreams-coverMelissa Siebert’s debut novel Garden of Dreams is the story of Eli de Villiers, a teenage wannabe rocker from Cape Town who travels to India with his mom Margo, a journalist. They explore the country on their way to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Eli is to visit his estranged father Anton, a world-renowned peacemaker. During their stay in Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar Desert, Margo suddenly decides to abandon her son in the middle of the night to pursue a story on witchcraft allegations back home in Limpopo. She asks Badresh, the manager of the guesthouse where they are staying, to ensure that Eli is taken to the airport in Delhi to continue his journey north safely on his own. Margo’s staggeringly reckless decision (Eli is not even fourteen!) and blind trust in a complete stranger sends her son on a trip through the hell of child trafficking. He is kidnapped and taken to a brothel in the red-light district of Delhi, where he lands in the clutches of the vile Auntie Lakshmi, a lowlife criminal who develops a highly disturbing fascination with Eli. In the brothel Eli befriends some of the other children who are being drugged and raped for profit…

Continue reading: LitNet.

Review: Bloody Lies – Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case by Thomas Mollett and Calvin Mollett

Bloody LiesInge Lotz, a Stellenbosch student, was found brutally murdered in her flat in March 2005. Her boyfriend at the time, Fred van der Vyver, was put on trial for the deed. Anybody who has ever held an opinion about what had happened to Lotz the day of her death should read Thomas and Calvin Mollett’s shockingly revealing Bloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case.

h its suggestive cover and brilliant title, the book not only profoundly questions the justice of Fred van der Vyver’s acquittal but the entire judicial system involved in arriving at the verdict. In times when high-profile court cases are becoming staple media spectacles in which many of us feel the need and right to participate, it might be of utmost importance for all concerned to consider what is at stake. The authors of Bloody Lies present compelling evidence that a serious miscarriage of justice took place in Lotz’s case. However, it is commendable that they do not try to sell their findings as gospel truth. All they ask is that readers think for themselves.

As the title of their book suggests, during their research the Mollett brothers uncovered some mindboggling discrepancies between the manifold interpretations of the evidence collected at the crime scene. One by one, they examined the available pieces of evidence – fingerprints, potential murder weapons, blood marks, autopsy report etc. – and in the process developed methods for analysis which have the potential of revolutionising such procedures in the future. Throughout they kept an open mind. They emphasise that their investigation sprung from their own fascination with the case, nobody hired them. Their meticulous scientifically-grounded experiments and revaluations are carefully presented and illustrated within the book (some of the visual footage is not for the faint-hearted).

In all the vital points the authors reached radically different conclusions to the ones presented to the court by so-called expert witnesses. Tasked with assisting a just ruling, instead expert witnesses are often called upon to intentionally mislead the court to affect a favourable outcome for one of the parties. Bloody Lies exposes a flawed system where the court more often than not is faced with negligence, indifference, or worse, ruthlessness and malice. During the Lotz trial careers of hard-working and well-meaning people were thus ruined.

It is impossible to cover all the relevant bases of this case in a single book, thus some niggling questions remain unanswered. But the authors have set up a website (Truth4Inge) to which they refer throughout the book and where interested readers are encouraged to address them.

Bloody Lies shines a penetrating light into the murky procedures of how evidence is collected and examined. People in the respective fields would be wise to re-examine both processes and to implement regulations which will make them less prone to error and misinterpretation.

Inge Lotz’s senseless death had tremendous impact on the lives of those who knew her and all who were involved with the investigation. Nobody walked away unscathed. Apart from the murderer perhaps.

Bloody Lies: Citizens Reopen the Inge Lotz Murder Case
by Thomas Mollett and Calvin Mollett
Penguin, 2014

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 11 July 2014, p. 10.

Interested in receiving a free copy of Bloody Lies? Please take part in my BOOK GIVEAWAY this month and stand a chance of having it (among others) sent to you. Good luck!

Review: Chatsworth – The Making of a South African Township edited by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

ChatsworthThe forty contributions to this voluminous collection give a remarkable insight into the trials and tribulations of a South African township. Comprising academic studies, personal essays, and eye-witness reports on Chatsworth and its residents, the richly illustrated volume spans large chunks of the history of the township and its multitude of residents since its inception in the early 1960s.

Purely factual accounts are interspersed with vibrant narratives, like the one offered by the playwright Ronnie Govender who captures the spirit of the entire book by writing that a “ghetto is designed to kill the spirit of its hapless denizens … Chatsworth is one of those ghettos that refused to buckle.” Nearly all pieces in the book convey this message of survival against all odds.

Each of the local and international contributors approaches the township from a different angle. Many pieces centre on historical events and socio-political processes which shaped the area, first and foremost the initial forced resettlements around which all other memories evolve. One report examines the protests which dominated the early 1970s against plans to ban private bus companies from Chatsworth. Others write about specific individuals and entire movements which have been combating the appalling living conditions in the township. They zoom in on the daily struggles of ordinary people facing displacement, dire poverty, unemployment, gang culture, drug abuse, or different forms of exploitation.

There is an account of the horrific incident which shook Chatsworth on 24 March 2000 when thirteen teenagers were killed in a stamped at a nightclub. The tragedy was a wake-up call for the community to rethink the infrastructures available to young people in the township. Such reports are contrasted with stories about people hailing from Chatsworth who have made a great success of their lives, like Kumi Naidoo, the present International Executive Director of international environmentalist group Greenpeace, or Kerishnie Naiker, Miss Africa of 1997, who through her Welfare Initiative has initiated and facilitated the building of the Chatsworth Youth Centre.

Reading about the uplifting role cricket and football played in the lives of Chatsworth’s players, their teams, and the communities which supported them makes one furious about the carelessness with which sports at school level have been dealt with by the post-apartheid dispensation. More inspiring is the story of the Denny Veeran Music Academy where legions of musicians are being taught to reach for their dreams.

The book includes a captivating photo essay by Jenny Gordon which focuses on the centres of worship in Chatsworth. It is a welcome companion to the few contributions which describe the religious make-up of the township and the challenges the various groups of worshippers encounter in their quest for spiritual guidance.

Chatsworth: The Making of a South African Township is not exactly a leisurely read and will not be of much interest to a general reader. For anybody wanting to look into the inner workings of a township, it will be a treasure trove of information and impressions. In this respect, I felt highly enriched by the book.

Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 May 2014.