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REVIEW: Flight Behaviour

flight-behaviour

Flight Behaviour

Barbara Kingsolver

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Tiny Dellarobia Turnbow, with her head of fire and restless wandering heart and restless wondering brain, carries a heavy load – a fact her clunky name reveals amply.

In the story, she’s a woman handed a life she didn’t choose and against which she chafes, like a pack animal resenting not its load, but its thoughtless arrangement on its back. As a literary vehicle, she’s been assigned by Kingsolver to transport a range of complex, interwoven ideas.

The heroine does a fine, feisty job of both, and where she fails, it simply because too much has been asked of her.

That a lot will be expected of her is apparent on reading the blurb at the back of this well-loved American author’s eight novel. Flight Behaviour, the prospective reader is told, “takes on one of the most contentious subjects of our time: climate change”.

Any novel that “takes on” a hot social or political subject is in danger of all kinds of things: of sermonising, of boring the reader, of subsuming a story plot or hammering it clumsily into a lecture, even of propaganda. I’m not sure Kingsolver niftily escapes all of these, but she does a competent enough job, one that is saved in great part by a very good story and one of the most likable protagonists in recent fiction.

Dellarobia, who is sharp and sassy, is married to Cub, who is kind, slow, overweight and utterly beholden to his pious, bossy farming parents Bear and Hester. The story’s heroine is a dutiful wife, mother and daughter, but she suffers from an itching restlessness which makes her fantasise about extra-marital dalliances.

“Life was just one long proposition they never saw coming,” is how the sheep in the field behind her house are described, a line perfectly suited for a woman who was robbed young of her parents, of opportunity and of freedom when she became pregnant in high school.

On a particular day, she pulls on an ill-fitting pair of boots – expensive, but tellingly second-hand and not quite her size – and hikes up the field into the slopes behind the family farm to indulge dangerously in a dalliance she has set up. In spite of the fact that the dalliance does not materialise she does not come back unscathed, having discovered a slope on the mountain where “something was wrong. Or just strange.” Trees draped in large clumps of something unrecognisable and a puzzling view over a valley where the trees “writhe”, until the sun comes out and the forest is set ablaze “with its own internal flame”.

This vision of beauty confuses and entrances her, stays her reckless inclinations and drives her back home to make peace with her unsatisfactory life.

However, her father-in-law has plans to cut down the trees in the forest to help the family through terrifying financial times, and Dellarobia – still not clear about what she saw that day – finds a gentle way to urge her lethargic husband to go into the valley. When he discovers the flaming forest, all hell breaks loose. He believes Dellarobia had a vision, that God Himself has come to intervene in family matters, and he announces in church one Sunday what he has seen.

What’s happening on the mountain is that orange Monarch butterflies have come to roost. They clump on trees, part of a seasonal mating and migration activity. This natural wonder becomes a local and then a national curiosity. Sightseers, eco-warriors and scientists descend on the small Appalachian town and the Turnbow farm.

And thence arises a story richly layered with wide variety of social issues: poverty versus wealth; privilege versus constraining lack of opportunity; ignorance and poor education versus knowledge that comes from being schooled in city schools and universities; religion versus science; climate change believers versus climate-change deniers.

Most of these large social issues are embedded delicately enough into the narrative, and the way they are observed is the witty fuel that keeps the reader motoring through. Kingsolver allows Dellarobia observations that are funny and exceptionally astute. On shearing day, some women from the community come to help the family to skirt the fresh fleeces: “They all attended Hester’s church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.”

As Kingsolver tells the story of the butterflies’ unusual flight behaviour – and it does feel as though the butterflies and the ecological disaster their appearance reveals, rather than the characters and their lives, are the story’s raison d’être – she allows Dellarobia to examine her own flight behaviour, a process which allows her to pupate and then to break out and spread her wings.

The first few chapters of this accomplished writer’s latest novel are taut and well-executed, funny and brimful of authentic, gritty characters. But the middle part – where Dellarobia becomes involved in the scientists’ work – the narrative buckles under the pressure to inform the reader, and turns over slowly while Kingsolver must fit in her various lessons and press upon the reader the urgency of the world’s decline. Later, Dellarobia’s story insists itself again, and the reader can finish with ease and enjoyment Flight Behaviour’s end.

In less capable hands, the book would have been bludgeoned entirely by its author’s mission to “take on” a contentious topic. Flight Behaviour is saved by Kingsolver’s talent.

REVIEW: This Is How You Lose Her

Scanned Image julia id

This is how you lose her

Junot Diaz

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Kavish Chetty

Diaz’s lispy rhythms shark off the page with a poetic energy. His language is electric: a carnal mesh of low-slung Spanish slang and erotic lyricism; a whole galaxy of argots seething together.

This slim volume of short stories takes love and betrayal as its organising themes, but its treatment is in magnificent excess of what’s promised by the cover: canary yellow with cursive calligraphy, it seems to suggest the idiot prose of cheap romance. Instead, Diaz takes an intelligent detour through the darker sides of human relationships. He writes of fraternal bonds and masculine infidelity, of adolescence as “a long dark patch of life, like a mile of black ice”. He takes to his subject with comic sarcasm and sincerity, but also with mortal awareness. The result is an insightful thread of episodes – enormously funny, and often intruded upon with a sense of tragedy.

The narrators are Dominican diaspora, living out the strange inside/outside experience of exile in America. He sets his action in the tenements of Harlem, but also in New Jersey and New York; arcing through the intensities of summer romance, and the desolate winters of their aftermath. These pages are thronged with tigueres, blanquitas and cocoa panyol. Latina vernacular jostles up against references to “budget Foucaults”, an explosive lexical mix which is often addictive.

Breakups are “like being slowly pincered apart, atom by atom”. In the opening story, Yunior’s girlfriend discovers a trove of letters which charge him with a history of infidelities. On holiday in Santo Domingo, he stages his re-seduction. When he touches her, she turns her head, “which is her way of saying, I’m too proud to acquiesce openly to your animal desires, but if you continue to put your finger in me, I won’t stop you.”

The story tilts toward this kind of desperate erotic comedy, but its philosophic undertow is serious: Yunior is shot through with yearning and remorse, dredging up half-submerged memories, learning to negotiate the fragility of romance, the contingency of desire: “And that’s when you know it’s over,” he thinks. “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”

Diaz’s horizons are expansive, moving from here to childhood, family, illness. His young male characters are raw with youth: in love with their brothers’ girlfriends (a young broad with “a mouth like unswept glass”; a girl with a “big Dominican ass that seems to exist in a fourth dimension beyond jeans”), trying to figure out the elusive principles of romance.

But then there are brief and flirtatious second-person narratives, wedged against more somber material like “Invierno”. In this brilliant story, a Dominican family struggles to contend with the isolating experience of a new country – his sibling protagonists, charged with curiosity, are the perfect explorers of this alienating territory.

Diaz has mapped a splendid cartography of love and its crises.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012.

REVIEW: Aftermath

Aftermath

Aftermath – On Marriage and Separation

Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Aftermath is the second book Cusk has written that seems to have united disparate groups in an almost rabid hatred of her.

As with A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, I am amazed that she is able to draw such odium – mostly and particularly from women – and must conclude that any attempt to think more deeply about the political as it manifests in the personal is an activity society is not ready for.

It is far easier to think globally, than personally; to fight for the right for women to request divorce, or shout against the rise of divorce statistics and the disintegration of “family values”, than to talk about the personal anguish that leads to divorce, and the crosshatch of interwoven losses that follow it.

Cusk begins with the personal, quite literally, in the opening sentence of Aftermath: “Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life we’d made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.”

It is precisely the memoir form that ignited such vitriol against Cusk. What right does she have to speak so openly about such personal matters? How dare she expose her children and her husband so rudely in order to write a book for which she will make money? She is exploitative, cold, rude and embarrassing. These are only some of the criticisms against her.

The truth is, that if it’s voyeurism you’re after, you won’t find it in Aftermath. Cusk is too deft a writer, too in control of her craft to get messy. No-one is named. The reason (though there never is just one reason, is there?) for the divorce is never given. She does not trash her ex-husband. If there is dirty laundry here, it is in fact public and political dirty laundry and not the bloodied tablecloth over which a single marriage came to shatter.

I couldn’t help feeling that part of the reason for her critics’ ire – if they’d bothered to read the book at all, instead of mish-mash, sensationalised newspaper “extracts”– was that their voyeuristic inclinations had been left frustrated.

Aftermath is not, in fact, a personal story. It is the story of the institution of marriage, and how it reconciles itself, or not, with feminism. In describing her married life – in which she worked and her husband looked after the children and cooked, in which she earned money, baked, fetched children and fulfilled deadlines – she says: “In a sense I was living at the high point of feminist possibility: there was no blueprint beyond ‘having it all’…to have both motherhood and work was to have two lives instead of one, was a stunning refinement of historical female experience”.

Using Greek mythology – a place populated by unashamedly emotional and rigorously impolite gods – and the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, Cusk sets out to examine the more honest battles of life and love than the unquestioning authority of marriage and its concomitant moral pronouncements.

“There are no devoted mothers [in Greek mythology], no perfect children, no protective dutiful fathers, no public morality. There is only emotion, and the attempt to tame it, to shape it into a force for good.”

Shaping personal or political trauma for a force of good is, after all, what one believes the study of history and sociology to be: an attempt to examine what has happened, to find the patterns, to work within the strictures of what simply is, while also testing dogmas that seem implacable. Aftermath, is such an examination. Of course it makes people uncomfortable. Which is why it is an excellent book, a stringent, merciless and thoughtful reflection, using the tools provided by all the writer’s faculties, and harnessing the power of history and experience.

Aftermath  is also about the loss of security divorce brings, not just financial, but social.

“I feel our stigma, our loss of prestige: we are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary. I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty,” she writes of her post-separation life with her two daughters.

Cusk walks the fine line of the confessional delicately, revealing only enough about herself to tell a more universal story. In an interview she says: “It is important to understand that the individual nature of experience is essentially at odds…with any public discourse. I no longer presume to know how other women live or think or feel. I can only try to align myself with them, to get into sympathy with them, by saying how it is for me.” She says that in the breakdown of a marriage “the whole broken mechanism of feminism” was revealed to her.

Along with Susan Maushart and Katha Pollitt, Cusk forms, in my opinion, the frontline of new feminist thinking, which apparently concerns itself less with the academic and polemical public face of feminism (though this is not, in fact, at all true, as all three are intellectually deeply sunk in feminist history), than with the way feminism plays out on the border between the self and society.

Cusk is, however, not just an intellectual and emotional force on the page, but a fine, nuanced, disciplined writer. Aftermath reads quickly in spite of almost every second sentence being a direct confrontation on received wisdom which requires the reader to pause for his or her own emotional and intellectual response.

I declare Aftermath unequivocally fantastic. But then I don’t belong to a larger camp – the one which vilifies the messenger in order to avoid considering the implications of her message.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in May 2012.

 

TOP TEN 2012

bigstick

For the past three years I’ve been asked by The Star newspaper to compile a list of the top ten South African books of the year. Here is this year’s:

The Big Stick

Richard de Nooy

Jacana

A mother travels to reclaim her gay son’s body in Amsterdam, which is where he fled to escape his dorp community’s misunderstanding of his “condition”.  Self-identification, finding “home” and understanding, are themes tackled in pacy, excessively readable prose using multiple voices that range from earthy to elegiac. De Nooy’s sad and funny second novel establishes him as a confident, bracing, sophisticated voice with global appeal.

The Garden of Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng

Myrmidon

This Booker Prize shortlisted book contains big themes, delicate landscapes and elegant writing. Memories of the scars of the Boer War, WW II, and Malaya under colonial rule come together as an old woman tends a memorial garden.

My Father, My Monster

McIntosh Polela

Jacana

This ex-TV news reporter and current Hawks spokesman tells an irresistible biographical story tautly, and avoiding mawkishness, in a story about abandonment, violence, hardship, kindness and finally redemption through the love of teachers and “new” parents.

The Hungry Season

Leonie Joubert

Picador

South Africa has enough food, but 80% of households are food insecure. Powerful pictures by Eric Miller supplement compelling research by  one of our top science writer, who has a talent for accessibly written narrative.

The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods

Jamala Safari

Umuzi

A Congon boy’s voyage from happy childhood to boy soldier to escape is told in rich, poetic language, holding the reader’s attention like no news article ever will, to tell the story of how it feels to be a refugee.

The Long Way Home

Dana Snyman

Tafelberg

This non-fictional account of the writer’s travels through SA attempts to understand cultural inheritance in our social and political landscape. This journey into identity is an almost faultless, deeply engaging and searingly truthful read.

This Book Betrays My Brother

Kagiso Lesego Molope

Oxford University Press

A spellbinding story about a young girl recalling a childhood summer is aimed at young readers but deserving of a much wider audience. Complex, unsentimental and with surprising literary depth, it has the makings of a classic.

Eloquent Body

Dawn Garisch

Modjaji

Doctor-writer Garisch uses vibrant poetic imagery to tackle the relationship between the arts and intuition on the one hand, and developments in the sciences on the other, applying intellectual rigour to debates on physical health and creativity.

Biko

Xolela Mangcu

Tafelberg

This biography of Steve Biko is a deeply thought-provoking contribution to South African history and politics. Mangcu doesn’t pretend the iconic man was a saint, and fills in important gaps towards a more complete understanding of Biko.

Absent Tongues

Kelwyn Sole

Hands-on Books

Sole is an experienced poet. In his sixth collection he deals with a variety of contemporary themes in language wielded like a surgeon’s scalpel to dissect minute details and splay open disappointment, anger  and passion.

A story for Christmas

By KARIN SCHIMKE

Drawing by Willem Samuel

In spite of the extra time I’m banking on over Christmas, I am unlikely to get through the piles of books I have. For the first time in my life I will not have a book title on my Christmas wish list. But I am not without a book-related wish.

At the risk of sounding like a desperate vacuous wannabe Miss World tottering on six-inch heels and speaking through a superglued smile, staking her winning ambitions on a vaguely formulated desire for world peace, I will share my hopeless wish.

But I insist that it is not a frivolous wish; that it has gravitas, history and gargantuan piles of academic research to back it up as a real answer to many of the ills that plague the world.

My wish cannot be reviled by a god-squadder of any theistic hue or brand. It cannot be subverted by any politician. It will not be sullied or trampled on or argued with, because its very nature and longevity have proven it an unerring joy and an immovable force. It will not be owned, boxed or tamed. It is deeply private and joyously communal.

My wish is that every baby born from now on, and every child that currently walks the earth, will be inducted to the magic of stories by having one told to them by someone they know. By a grandmother, an uncle, the local shopkeeper, an older cousin. By a father washing the dishes, by a mother helping a toddler into her sandals. By a teacher, a Rabbi, priest, monk or imam, the doctor, the dentist, the sangoma, a social worker, a friend.

Because a story is a tilling, the invaluable preparation for a garden. Because stories beget stories. Because stories beget  a demand so urgent (“Tell me of another one, tell me another one!”) that it ignores a child’s lack of confidence or shyness.

Because stories beget curiosity. Because stories begin the first loop of learning more effectively than anything else you can possibly think of inside the ancient human endeavour to hand down something to a next generation.

No one needs time or money to tell a story, and no amount of ersatz stuff you can buy at any shop can ever replace the experience of being told a story by an older person.

No one needs a special qualification, a special education, a special (acquired) language or an especially interesting life to tell a story. Almost anyone can tell a story, some better than others – though we do exult and cherish those particularly.

I wish Christmas really was magic. In the proper way of magic: supernatural forces mysteriously combining to grant wishes. Perhaps if I induce ritual – climb up into a pair of shiny stilettos and speak nervously through bright lipstick – my wish will come true. But no number of world-peace endorsing long-legged, glossy haired women ever brought about even an instant’s ceasefire.

So I’ll just have to rely on words – mine and others’ – repeated ad nauseum: if you want a better world, tell a kid story. Or read them one. And do it every opportunity you get, until you, personally, have done every single thing in your limited power to make something in this often truly vile world a bit better.

This column appeared in the Cape Times in December 2012

The drawing is by the comic book illustrator Willem Samuel whose work can be seen here and who blogs here.

Don’t know how to tell or read a story? Here’s where to look: Nal’iBali website.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW: Below Luck Level

Below Luck Level by Barbara Erasmus_image_lowres

Below Luck Level

Barbara Erasmus

Penguin

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

“She was dead when I woke up beside her the next morning.”

Writing courses always say “hooking” the reader within the first page is crucial, and Erasmus has certainly delivered a definitive thunderbolt of an opening line. Perhaps her three-year stint as editor of Crime Beat lent some of that urgency and pace that had me reading Below Luck Level in one sitting. But this isn’t krimi, and Erasmus’s versatility is remarkable as she braids in various strands of family life, relationships and careers — and how Hannah’s mother’s Alzheimer’s takes over Hannah’s already fraying life.

Chloe Cartwright has had a stellar career as a celebrated writer in Cape Town, while daughter Hannah hasn’t been much good at anything except shoplifting. One could speculate that Chloe’s borderline neglect of her children — “‘What’s for supper?’ we’d whine. Have a piece of bread! she’d cry as she rushed to meet her deadline.” — precipitated Hannah’s attempts to get attention. Or maybe it was just living in Bo-Kaap, colourful, eccentric if you’re white, and a whole lot of fun.

Chloe is outré, to be sure, with joie de vivre in spades, and to hell with convention. On a particular bunking expedition to the theatre with Hannah and her brother Karl, they have the misfortune of running into one Mrs Holmes, Hannah’s homeroom teacher. “‘They’re feeling sick,’ said my mother blandly, looking Mrs Holmes brazenly in the eye. ‘I’m trying to cheer them up. You know how much they hate to miss a day at school.’”

It’s curious how the gravity of serious subjects can be best expressed through humour. Comedy humanises: the light touch gives weight. Erasmus has used it to great effect in this tragic story of her family’s battle to come to terms with her mother’s early-onset, and ultimately fatal, Alzheimer’s.

Hannah recalls that she was embarrassed to have a “mad” mother when she was at school. “I adopted alternative mothers like other kids collected stamps,” she writes. But perhaps that prevised what was to become of Chloe — not eccentricity, but dementia.

Hannah, who is rather in need of direction herself, now finds herself alone (her brother Karl lives overseas) as a parent to her parent.

As Chloe’s memory corrodes, Hannah’s is illuminated with memories of growing up in Cape Town, and Erasmus puts to good use the artifice of a secret drawer in which Hannah has cached her shoplifted keepsakes to elicit these memories.

Now, although Chloe’s life wanes, it must inexorably proceed for Hannah, and, just in the nick of time, a relative of Luck has come to stay. His name is Daniel — a nice enough chap to be sure — but I’m not convinced it was entirely necessary to introduce a knight on a steed for Hannah at this point. He’s the story-book man to stand by a damsel in distress, but, admittedly, he does add texture, and Erasmus sagely works in the weft and woof of Hannah’s other life — the one in which she is not just a caring daughter, but a woman who must make something of herself, her shoplifting repertoire notwithstanding.

Erasmus has achieved something remarkable: she has said in interviews that she never bases her characters on real life or people, and it is perhaps this stratagem that elevates Below Luck Level to something more than what, in lesser hands, could easily have slipped into a touching, yes, but mundane memoir of a mother with a terminal illness.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in August 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: Mudwoman

mudwoman

Mudwoman

Joyce Carol Oates

Fourth Estate

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

Being inducted to the worlds of Oates’ stories is always a visceral experience of losing oneself.

Meredith Neukirchen, president of an Ivy League university, finds her ethics and energy begin to turn against her very body as she descends into a trance of illness, quite likely brought on by her endless work hours and her unfailing fairness and reasonableness.

Her unravelling is captured in terms so uncertain yet so concrete that the reader is compelled by curiosity to know what is and is not real for this protagonist who embodies all that is admirable and good in human beings.

Meredith’s uncertain past wells up out of her unconscious until it floods her life in a series of events that are terrible to live through with her. Mudwoman does not let up the tension – and Meredith’s anxieties and uncertainties are ours.

Oates is a formidable writer.

QUICK REVIEW: N-W

nw-by-zadie-smith

nw-by-zadie-smithN-W

Zadie Smith

Hamish Hamilton

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

Four characters thread their way through time and north-west London, each embodied on the page via a different technique – sometimes feeling like nothing so much as the author’s own stream of consciousness about creating the story. This book was reviewed from an advance copy that hadn’t been finally edited and had typos in it. Interestingly, this added to the already disconcerting feel of the narratives in the novel: lives made on the run, and living at the loss of being a clearly defined person, becomes overpowering and chilling. The humanity of the characters are reduced to the two-letter code that defines their geographical location, and as they find their way, N-W is not a weight, but a blade and a cypher. Compelling.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in October 2012

 

REVIEW: Kgalema Motlanthe – A Political Biography

Kgalema_Motlanth_5063f0d3e789c_150x150

Kgalema Motlanthe: A political biography

Ebrahim Harvey

Jacana

REVIEW BY: Donald Paul

Not many biographers would open their work with a volley across the bow of a fellow writer, but Ebrahim Harvey states upfront that, unlike Mark Gevisser, he will write the political biography of Kgalema Motlanthe that will “comprehensively unpack the dream itself” — alluding, of course to the subtitle of Gevisser’s book “The Dream Deferred”.

The dream, says Harvey “has to confront the very nature of the decades long struggle against political oppression (apartheid) and economic exploitation (capitalism)… and of the ANC’s policies and strategies that developed in relation to those two inseparable historical realities”.

A biographer need not feel an affinity for the subject (though Harvey clearly does) and it helps that there is a frame of reference on which both writer and subject concur. The concurrence here—and it is assumed and not reinforced by anything Motlanthe says, for he says very little—is that the ANC’s policy was formed out of a socialist manifesto and that it has abandoned this in favour of free-market capitalism. The dream has become a nightmare.

The confusing thing is that we are never really certain that it is Motlanthe’s dream that is unpacked. In fact, it is hard to discern any thing that can be remotely attached to Motlanthe and wrapped in the term “dream”—a word that evokes grand aspirations, a longing for things bigger than the painstaking administration of policy documents and proper bureaucratic procedures.

This is not a flawed book; it is a bad one. The juicy bits, if they can be called such, have been splashed about in the media: that he saved Zuma at Polokwane, that he is dissatisfied with the ANC’s failure to of the poor, that the ANC did not need to expel Julius Malema, etc. But, strip away that and very little remains except a dry discourse on a need to revert to social engineering (frighteningly, of a Chinese nature, given Motlanthe’s infatuation with the Chinese way of government).

If Motlanthe is to be treated as a political animal, which the title of this book indicates, then Harvey has described some near-extinct species of sloth, patient by nature, not nurture. He describe Motlanthe’s “call to dutiful service”—embodied in his phrase, “In the struggle you do what you have to do and can do”—as a “passionate calling”: this is akin to describing the action of a hamster on a wheel as “persuasive”.

Perhaps, Harvey subscribes to the notion that politics is about ideas not personalities and thus we do not need to know or understand more about the current deputy president and maybe future leader of the country. But we cannot separate politics and personalities—rather like saying cuisine is about calories and not taste—and that is why the book is so dire.

The Motlanthe we see shows no leadership qualities: he is a grey man, filling his time with the endless footnotes of the history of the struggle like a PhD candidate determined to exhibit to his examiners the breadth of his reading. We are told, endlessly of his leadership prowess, but at every defining moment he fails. As the head of the NUM, he was easily persuaded to accept Mbeki’s explanation of why Gear—the spear of free-market capitalism—was right. He defends his action by saying “we decided to tighten our belts but defend our independence and therefore free ourselves from the influence and in fact dictate of multilateral institutions”. He then criticises the fact that Gear was not discussed within the ANC, yet he was in a position to make that debate happen and remained silent.

He also failed as the ANC’s secretary-general to display his so-called legendary negotiating pragmatism when Cosatu objected to iGoli2002 programme but he simply went along with it. Yet, that same secretary general at a 2000 Cosatu May Day rally “called on union members to ‘intensely hate capitalism and engage in a struggle against it’. These are words by which he does not live, and Harvey brushes over such duplicity too many times to achieve credibility.

For example, Motlanthe’s account of what transpired between himself at Luthuli House and Andrew Feinstein over the arms debacle conflicts with Feinstein’s. Harvey doesn’t pursue it. And he allows Motlanthe simply to avoid the question: what did he think about the arms deal? He was asked by Archbishop Tutu to instigate an arms deal inquiry during his eight-month tenure as president of South Africa, but refused to do so. It was on his watch that Vusi Pikoli was dismissed, against the recommendations of the Ginwala commission. (He denies a substantial pay-out was made to Pikoli to keep quiet.) And the less said about his chairmanship of the deployment committee in 2008 the better (which is obviously the choice Harvey makes).

Lord Douglas Hurd in an interview on his favourite political biographies, said the good ones are “writing the story of history and the story of their times through the lives of particular individuals”. He said such books should appeal to people for whom history has no thrall. On this measure alone, this book fails.

Perhaps Motlanthe said it best: “I still insist that it is not for members or followers of any organisation to want to be leaders… To volunteer leadership is the antithesis of democracy.” And therein lies the rub: what you get is “100% Maybe” (apologies to ZANews) and a dull book.

  • Donald Paul’s own blog can be found here.
  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2012

Sharp as a Smarteez*

Smarteez: “a fashion collective based in Soweto”.

Ed Suter is one of those guys who seems to be good at anything and everything. I know because in the years I’ve been friends with him, I’ve marvelled at his general enthusiasm, his apparently endless fuel tank, his ability to make connections, know things, go places and land himself a variety of fabulous freelance jobs because of the idea machine in his head that happily enslaves him. He is the kind of guy who makes by-the-by mention that he is publishing a book. I asked to have it sent to me, but it took him ages to get around to it, demonstrating a typical Ed-insouciance about the prolific creative blur that is his life.

Ed has allowed me to show some of the pictures from Sharp Sharp, and here’s what I thought of the book:

Sharp Sharp

Ed Suter

Quivertree

This is the closest a book can come to a desirable toy you just want to have so you can have it. Its shocking pink, yellow and gold cover looks like loaded candy.

The problem with things that are lick-me-I’m-lollipop pretty is that they contain zero nourishment, and leave a sticky slick of pointlessness coating your inner cheeks.

But Sharp Sharp is a bling anomaly: both addictive and illustrative; aesthetic and sharply sensible to a culture that is by no means “sub”, but is certainly side-lined by slick commercialism. It celebrates riotous, rebellious individualism, heaving a resounding cheer down South Africa’s urban by-ways.

Interspersed with colourful pictures of sartorial flair, dappled cityscapes and hand-painted signage, are zippy quotes by street artists.

This book is, on every front – from Ed’s bull’s-eye lens, to the aesthetic it celebrates, to the book’s exceptional, tactile and sharp-sharp production – a homage to a gritty, happy, anti-twee South Africanness.

Here’s where you can see more of Ed’s work and here’s where you can check out publisher’s website.