Tag Archives: Penguin Books

Book review: Letters of Stone – From Nazi Germany to South Africa by Steven Robins

Letters of StoneReading about the Holocaust is never easy. Facing its terrible truths, especially when your own family is involved, is heroic.

Anthropologist Steven Robins had no inkling of what he would unearth when he embarked on a quest to discover more about the three women in an old photograph that had sat in his childhood home for years. He was born in 1959 in Port Elizabeth. He and his brother Michael grew up oblivious to their Polish and German ancestry and to the fates of their father’s relatives during the Third Reich.

The journey Robins takes in Letters of Stone connects “different times and places”. It is a journey that took nearly three decades to complete – between the time Robins interviewed his father in Port Elizabeth in 1989 and the publication of this astounding book. To begin with, Robins had very little to go on. But a series of uncanny coincidences led him further into the labyrinth of the private history of his family, and beyond.

Continue reading: LitNet

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 Penguin Lessons – A True Story by Tom Mitchell

The Penguin LessonsLast year, I realised that I have a penchant for penguins with foreign names. Midyear, I was enchanted by Misha, the penguin who stars in Andrey Kurkov’s wonderful novel, Death and the Penguin (originally published in Russian in 2002). Towards the end of 2015, I fell in love with Juan Salvado, the protagonist of Tom Michell’s memoir, The Penguin Lessons.

When he was in his twenties, Tom Michell travelled to Argentina to teach at a boarding school during the politically volatile 1970s. In his free time, he explored South America. On one of his trips, he arrived at a Uruguayan beach to discover a massacre: corpses of oil-coated penguins scattered all around on the sand. There was one survivor among them, a Magellan penguin barely moving, covered in oil and tar like all the other birds, but clearly still alive.

“I needed a penguin like a penguin needs a motorbike,” Michell writes, but on the spur of the moment, he resolved to rescue the penguin and took him back to the flat he was staying in. The ensuing story of their initial encounter and the fascinating relationship which developed between the young man and the sea bird is one of most moving books I have read last year.

After a nearly disastrous but hilarious attempt at cleaning the penguin in the pristine bathroom of his hosts’ home, Michell tries to set the bird free, but his new acquaintance is extremely reluctant to be abandoned again. Not knowing what else to do, he names the penguin and devises a plan to smuggle him into Argentina. And so their adventures and a remarkable friendship begin.

Back at the boarding school, Juan Salvado forms the most extraordinary relationships with the students and staff alike, irrevocably changing all their lives. Michell’s commentary on the socio-political situation of Argentina of the time is subtle but highly intriguing. His descriptions of penguin and human natures and how the two can relate to one another are simply beautiful.

Magallan penguins do not live forever and since all of this had happened four decades ago, I assumed that there would be heartbreak at some stage in the book. I was reading the dreaded scene in a coffee shop where another customer became quite concerned about me when she saw my copious tears falling. I was too choked up to articulate my sorrow, but she understood when I pointed at the open book in front of me. I cried again before the last page, but not because of sadness. There are two revelations towards the end of the book which touched me deeply: one concerns the reason why Juan Salvado refused to go back to the sea when Michell first met him, the other is a description of a recent find among Michell’s memorabilia. If there ever was a feel-good book, The Penguin Lessons is it. It goes to show that, occasionally, we all need a penguin in our lives.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story
by Tom Mitchell
Penguin Books, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 15 January 2016.

Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman

“I remember her tongue sliding into my mouth,” a friend tells me, his eyes sparkling, mischief playing on his lips. A pause follows while everyone around the table is trying to recall their first French kiss. “Yeah, ‘Sugar Man’ was playing in the background,” he says eventually, snapping us out of our respective reveries.

“I wonder how many times you had sex”, Sixto Rodriguez sings in “I Wonder”, one of the songs on his debut album, Cold Fact, which was released in South Africa in 1971. The South African release is the beginning of one of the most incredible stories. Ever.

Years of enthusiasm and dedicated research, countless unbelievable coincidences, and an Oscar-winning documentary later, Sixto Rodriguez has risen from decades-long obscurity to enjoy the world-wide recognition he and his music deserve.

Sugar Man coverAnd now, the two men who refused to give up on a crazy idea and started it all, Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, have written a fascinating book chronicling the quest.

Many of my South Africa friends have a Rodriguez story to tell. Like Strydom and Segerman, most of them first heard the music in the army. All believed the rumours that Rodriguez had committed a spectacular suicide. But unlike the authors of Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez (2015), they did not set out to find out what exactly had happened to the singer with an astounding cult following in South Africa.

I’d never heard of Rodriguez until I saw Malik Bendjelloul’s remarkable documentary Searching for Sugar Man (2012). The soundtrack immediately crept under my skin. I shed tears of unbelief and joy watching the amazing story.

I cried again every few pages while reading. With infectious passion, Strydom and Segerman offer an incisive behind-the-scenes look at the Rodriguez Saga. Divided in four parts – The Mystery, The Man, The Music and The Movie – Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez is full of gems Rodriguez fans will love, including two generous photo sections. The writing is great, and the beauty of reading the story is that you can slow down at leisure and savour the magic of every step along the authors’ journey.

I met and heard Strydom and Segerman for the first time at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town earlier this month. Listening to them speak about Rodriguez and their involvement in his story was magical, reliving it all once more through Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez even more so. Their generosity, die-hard dedication and integrity (there is no glossing over the difficult bits in the book) is truly inspiring.

Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman with Andrew Donaldson at Open Book 2015 (Photo: Books Live)

Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman with Andrew Donaldson at Open Book 2015 (Photo: Books Live)


Malik, who heard the news with Brittany by his side while on a trip to Los Angeles, was finally able to exhale. It was as if he had been holding his breath for four years. He was now only one step away from the moviemaking’s greatest accolade. Craig went for a long walk after the announcement, remembering his statement to his army friends in 1984: ‘I am going to find out what happened to Rodriguez.’ His words may have dissipated into the ether, but they had been the genesis of an idea. An idea that was later energised by the liner notes of a CD and eventually realised. Now, thanks to an indefatigable Swede and a young record dealer who literally begged for the rights to re-release the music of the rock star who never was, that idea, that story, was world-famous. And so, at long last, was the withdrawn poet-sage-musician-activist who started it all.
(Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez, 234-5).

For all Sugar Man news: The Official Rodriguez Website