Home » 2012 » November

Sixteen Zaps and a narrow escape

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Here’s a stack of history you’ll be envious of if you’re a Zapiro fan. Many of these are now out of print.

But there’s a new one. So, phew! You can still start your collection if you’re just cottoning on to the Zapiro-adulation-slash-vilification madness.

Zapiro, South Africa’s best-known cartoonist, probably mostly because he seems always to be in trouble with President Jacob Zuma, has – not unexpectedly – festooned his jolly new collection of editorial cartoons with a mock copy of the now world-famous Brett Murray picture of the president with his pants down.

The painting, called Spear of the Nation sent a lightning bolt along the uncomfortably shared South African ground and divided the country right down the middle of its struggling self.

On one side were the dignity-indignant frothers, angry as a sack of snakes over the insult to the president. On the other side were the freedom-of-speechers who rhythmically, but apparently to no avail, beat the drum of “I may not like what you have to say – or paint – but I will defend to the death your right to say – and paint – it.”

Checking to see if it will stand up in my house.

Brett Murray and Jonathan Shapiro (the man behind the Zapiro name) have known each other for a long time and were this year thrown together by a common enemy as both men were being sued by President Zuma.

Shapiro because, said Zuma, “He is invading my dignity” after the Lady Justice cartoon came to print in 2008. Murray because, well, because, I suppose he too was perceived to have invaded Zuma’s dignity by painting him with the family jewels dangling from his flies.

The charges against Shapiro were withdrawn late in October this year, just as the case was about to go to court.

Now the Zapiro collection number 17 is in the shops. The first one appeared in 1996 – a happy one with a dancing Nelson Mandela on its cover. The latest one has showerhead Zuma depicted in a painting three wine-swilling people are looking at, their heads strategically covering the offended spear. As usual, it is a quick reference river ride down major South African and world political events of this past year.

It’s the kind of river ride where you gasp and gulp and giggle nervously.

 

 

 

Just because I font to

Architect and writer Andries Samuel was so engaged by Simon Garfield’s book Just My Type (read the review here), that he designed his own font.


Does Garfield explain how to design a font in the book?

No, he doesn’t. He does tell the stories of how many fonts came about, though not in detail. The book is not technical in that sense. The background stories do illustrate what a complex undertaking it is and I found this intriguing.

So, it’s not a how-to guide. Why did you want to make a font?

Probably because the book is not technical, it makes it appear straightforward. But it is really hard work, like a puzzle. You have to set some aspects and proportions, then design the principal letters, then revisit them all when they push against this framework as the letters take on a life of their own. It is really easy for the whole thing to become a formless collection of knuckle bones.

Not an easy job then?

No. Though judging by the number of sites that provide basic tools for designing your own font, many people are enthusiastic about it and persist enough to build a decent font. I did not get that far. When I realised I would also have to get into the diacritical signs I felt the experiment had gone far enough. There seems to be a completeness level for a basic competent font and I did not get that far.

How is designing a building and designing a font similar and how is it different?

In a way it is similar to designing a building. Architecture is about space and font is a lot about negative space around the shapes of letters. Also legibility, clarity, simplicity and a set of conceptual principles that structure the design. Buildings are about how they are made, their materiality; fonts are the same, although where their materiality used to be related to carved or wrought or cast letters, this materiality is now being made superficial by digital making. Architecture suffers from the exact same problem.

Have you named your font?

No. I would say it is too unfinished to require a name.

Think you’ll ever try and design another one?

Probably not. It is really time consuming. I am now more considerate of the existing fonts I use and would definitely consider tweaking an existing font next time I am faced with a line of text that needed more definition. Just considering spacing and kerning already makes a difference too.

∫ Ahem. What is “kerning”?

How close the letters come to one another. When pages were laid out by hand, someone could kern the letters using their eye. Nowadays, with computers it is automatic and sometimes disturbing. Designing the font includes setting rules for how the letters relate to one another so designing a font requires the consideration of all the possible letter combinations next to one another. ∫

The alphabet and sentence used here are Andries Samuel’s© design.


 

 

And suddenly a red one

They’re 9½ cm wide and just over 14½ cm long and they’re usually yellow. So when I saw a red Reclam book in a friend’s shelf I was curious.

My little yellow Reclam books – Reclam Verlag being a German publisher – are soft and familiar and contain miniscule marginalia. If you ever studied German at university, you’ll be familiar with the tiny font size and the soft pages, like ancient newsprint.

My small collection of Reclam books, with a member of another branch of the family over for a visit.

But here was Mr Familiar in a new coat I’d never seen. And it was in English. Mini-Sagas: An Anthology of Fifty-Word Short Stories. My friend said she’d bought in Berlin, the perfect companion for shortish train rides. I borrowed it. Some of the stories are a bit meh. Some are quite affecting. Some are funny.

How the stories are didn’t feel like the point though. It was the redness that counted. One splotch of colour out of synch and you find yourself doing a whole Google thing. So this is what I’ve learnt about Reclam:

  • It’s been going since 1828.
  • In 1921 it became the first company to introduce book vending machines. Book vending machines? My knees feel wobbly at the thought.
  • There is a colour code. There had to have been for the red to make sense.
  • Yellow: contains classic works in German.
  • Red: classics in their original foreign language.
  • Orange: bilingual books in German and the original language.
  • Blue: study guides.
  • Green: original historical sources with explanations (no, I don’t understand either).
  • Magenta: non-fiction.

I’m not likely to ever want to read Gyges und sein Ring by Friedrich Hebbel or Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti again, but these books appeal to me too much to ever dump them. So I put Heinrich Heine’s – and Eduard Mörike’s – Gedichte on top of the pile, because those I’ll peruse.

And I’ll return the little red one to its home, and thank it for pushing me towards my little Reclam moment.

  • The Reclam website is another design triumph in all its yellow and white simplicity. Check it out here.

REVIEW: Home Remedies by Diane Awerbuck

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Home Remedies

Diane Awerbuck

Umuzi

REVIEW BY: Karen Jeynes

There are books you fall in love with from the first word, and others which seduce you slowly. Home Remedies draws you in, slowly, almost unwillingly at times, until you are held captive by its spell.

In the first few chapters of flashbacks and reflections it feels as though very little has happened, and yet also as though we have come to understand a lot. We have begun to feel the weight of what matters. Joanna, our heroine, is not the most easily lovable of characters – and yet she is very human, very funny, and very intriguing. The beginning of the book is a tension between the chick lit-like cover, title and tone, and some very complex and intricate themes. It’s a hard time for Joanna, who has lost her job, has a small child, feels out of place in Fish Hoek, and is experiencing a lot of conflict in her marriage. Yet beneath all these surface concerns are the shadows of deeper troubles, of violence, and darkness.

A lot of history is interwoven with Joanna’s story, tales of the Fish Hoek man, of Piers’ Cave, of human relics forgotten or else used as pawns in political games, and the ever present echo of Saartjie Baartman, a woman objectified, a woman made to symbolise so much to so many. There is a real life of the history which surrounds all of us on a daily basis and yet is continually ignored. That we never look up, and see beyond our immediate worries. Complicated concerns about bodies, remains, and belonging all surface, and Joanna’s preoccupation with the Fish Hoek man reveals much of her own psychology. Awerbuck cleverly pokes fun at the media frenzy around Saartjie Baartman, at the desire everyone has to be a part of a story. And through all these twists and variations, Awerbuck guides us gently.

Awerbuck is a magnificent writer, and her skill is evident here. She sketches life in Fish Hoek in delightful detail, bringing to life a suburb unknown to most. She gives Joanna a light humorous flair in her dialogue, inner thoughts, and tone, but also a starkness and a directness which is at times unnerving. Joanna talks freely about her insomnia, her fears, how her husband has only dated black women before her, and about her conflicted relationship with her now ex-employer.

Readers should be aware that the book becomes increasingly darker, and two tragedies befall Joanna. Her preoccupation with violence turns into a reality. They are – and are intended to be – harsh and jarring, but perhaps are a little too much, a little excessive, in that they make Joanna increasingly hard to relate to and understand. But these things are never clear cut, and no one’s responses to horrifying events should be easily judged.

Home Remedies is a bold novel about individuals scarred by history, and once you have been seduced you will not be disappointed.

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

REVIEW: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

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Just My Type – A Book About Fonts

Simon Garfield

Profile Books

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

After finishing this book, you might rush off and design your own typeface – you have been warned. This is a book about pleasure and delight; in the union between eye, hand and its modern partner – process. Printing presses can be called the first modern machines and their lubricant, type, the first test of the evolution of handcraft.

Just My Type is an attractive book, with much thought given to its design and layout. The cover seems unnecessarily attention-seeking, since the title is laid out in a jumble of different and rare fonts, but here the central thrust of the book already becomes clear: for a typeface to be successful, it must not draw attention to itself. This sounds simple but the enormous scope for interpretation of this stricture forms the bulk of the story.

It is also a book-lover’s book. The smartness of the design runs throughout the hard cover edition. In spite of the transfer of fonts from the type foundry to the software studio, which the book does not shy away from, this reading experience is immersed in what the printed page can be. The structure of the chapters does as much to educate as to draw the reader through the delights of all the major typefaces. There is the role of Gill Sans in the branding of 20th century London, the Swiss takeover of the world by Helvetica, the development of Transport (designed by a South African woman) for Road Signs, Barack Obama’s capture of the White House with Gotham, and the never named serif on the base drum that accompanied Beatlemania.

The development of the book is tightly paced and holds together throughout. However, its just as useful as a reference work and any chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece. The driving force is always the inquiry about why and how typefaces work, what makes them beautiful and how they are made. This last point is particularly important, as the book never abstracts its subject matter. The craft of letter-making is real enough to make one catch a whiff of printing ink.

Garfield also discusses many issues related to typefaces and printing, some humorous and some verging on pop-psychology. But how else does one discuss “Why not to use Comic Sans?”? Many of the designers of contemporary fonts are still alive and the author reports on extensive correspondence and interviews with them: what does the creator of Comic Sans have to say for himself? What is the world-view of the creator of the latest default Microsoft font, Calibri? Further discussion relates to licensing and piracy of fonts, designers ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other and the rise and fall of Letraset. Without getting too technical, Garfield remains authoritative.

It should be essential reading for architecture and graphic design students. And if you have even the faintest interest in the fabric of the cultural world around you, you’ll enjoy this immensely.

Read here how this book inspired the reviewer to design his own font.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2011.

 

 

REVIEW: Bom Boy by Yewande Omotoso

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Bom Boy

Yewande Omotoso

Modjaji Books

REVIEW BY: Aly Verbaan

It is often said that there is nothing more boring than other people’s dreams. I beg to differ. I don’t believe in Freud, but I do believe in the meaning of dreams and nightmares.

Ten-year-old Leke has a dream on the first page of Bom Boy, a simple child’s dream of acceptance and victory, but it’s a precursor to the 20-year-old Leke’s dreams, which uncloak just enough to convince the reader to give Leke another chance. Because Leke, or Bom Boy, is by no means a sympathetic character. He’s cold and calculating, and not particularly friendly to the other characters. But his dreams touch a common nerve: we know that someone who “slept, fell into a charcoal black hole and emerged exhausted, his muscles aching from a fight he couldn’t remember” is battling demons. His dreams are more real to him than reality, in which he is unmoored and without a compass.

Adopted as a baby by Jane and Marcus, a childless, white, middle-class Capetonian couple, Leke is an object of ridicule amongst the other kids: they know he is adopted because he is of mixed race. As an adult, Leke is rootless and immensely alone. Jane has died a protracted death to cancer, and Leke’s relationship with Marcus is fraying at the edges. The only affaire de coeur Leke has is with his car, Red, which he parks inside his studio apartment and sometimes sleeps in.

Packed to the gunwales with quirks, Leke is sometimes to be found planting Four O’Clocks in the moonlight, sometimes thieving at the local mall. He is sensitive and overwhelmed by life, but he is also siphoning off money from the Western Medical Fund where he works as a programmer.

Leke aches for human contact, touch, more urgently than anything else. He uses the medical fund to pay for a slew of medical check-ups: GPs, dentists, herbalists, optometrists, Hellerworkers, and even blood donations, just for the intimacy with another person. “‘Where does it hurt?’” asks the physiotherapist. “…Leke pointed to just below his hairline at the back of his head, and flapped his hands to indicate ‘everywhere’.”

Intertwined with Leke’s day-to-day life is his biological parents’ history two decades earlier when Leke was born. Elaine and Oscar’s relationship is doomed from the start: Elaine is trapped between the demands of her boss at the supermarket where she works, and taking care of the baby on her own, because Oscar is in jail for killing an elderly man.

Cape Town writer Yewande Omotoso

But it is not as it seems: Oscar’s intention was to quell a family curse, something Leke learns of from a series of letters Oscar wrote to him when he was in jail and Leke was a baby. They tell of his Yoruban roots, his grand- and great-grandparents, and of the hex that predestines that only sons will be born to the family and they will not live to life expectancy. Leke’s somatisation reaches the high-water mark when he finds he cannot read the letters because his eyes can’t focus on the words, although there is nothing wrong with his eyes otherwise.

Bom Boyexplores the idea of rebirth and the meaning of family against the mise en scène of black magic in a modern world. Omotoso illustrates inimitably what is means to be alone, materially and in mind, and just how thin the fabric of society is.

Bom Boy is an unusual and laudable debut, marred only by the editor’s massacre of commas and capital letters, and the occasional understandable, but unforgivable, slip in spelling.

  • Bom Boy was shortlisted for: 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award in the Film category. It won the 2012 SALA English First-time Published Author Award

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2011.

 

 

COLUMN: Why I don’t read crime fiction

The pile of unread books on a small table in my bedroom fell over. That’s a first.

I dream of squeezing two extra secret half days into the week: one for just reading, one for just writing. A friend suggested that this was an excellent idea for a science fiction novel: someone finds a way to insert individual time into a week.  Responsibilities pause, and no one can reach you. No one, in fact, even knows or notices that you are gone. You have slid in between cracks in time.

Perhaps it would work as a premise for a science fiction novel, but it won’t help the very real  problem of struggling to fit what needs to be done into the time allocated. And if it were an idea turned into a novel, I wouldn’t even read it because I don’t read science fiction or fantasy. What’s with those stupid, unpronounceable names, anyway? Is it simply impossible to imagine an interesting story without using names like Y’Pora and Tedn Dahai, which cause the reader’s eyes to water? No one ever thought of a benign slimy, eight-eyed monster called Sue, or a zappy-weapon wielding hero called Raj?

I don’t like crime fiction either. Boy, have I taken flack for that in the current literary climate in South Africa, where it feels like every second writer is pushing crime fiction on to the market faster than it takes to read one of them. I am accused of being a literary snob, which is not the worst thing in the world to be called, but it’s not an accurate epithet in this case. I don’t read crime because I’m a ninny, a scaredy-cat, in primary school parlance.

Earlier this month, however, I was asked to read 7Days, Deon Meyer’s latest crime novel, in order to interview him at the launch of his book at Kalk Bay Books. The owner of the bookshop, Ann Donald, had asked me specifically because she knows I am not a crime fiction fan. I didn’t mind because years ago I did read a Deon Meyer crime novel and it wasn’t unbearably scary or bloody.

Meyer was more gracious about my disinterest in crime than most of my friends. He said it was true that some people didn’t like crime because of a tendency to over-empathise with the victims; because of “heightened sensitivity”. I liked what he was saying: basically, I’m too delicate a being for the hardcore stuff. Ha!2012-11-21 12.13.03

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed 7Days. It robbed me of sleep for three consecutive nights as I kept turning the pages in spite of the stern talkings-to I gave myself to stop. Friends who are fans have subsequently told me that it is not as good as his other work.

But after that I returned to more comfortable territory, reading Luminous Airplanes by Paul la Farge. I’ve just started on Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize shortlisted Swimming Home. The atmosphere she manages to create around a swimming  pool at a holiday villa in southern France is absolutely mesmerising, and the book is amusing and unsettling, and – for all that it is literary – quite as difficult to put down as Meyer’s book was.

I hardly need dream of that crack in time to slip into to read…Swimming Home  almost reads itself. And, because of that, I hope to start tackling that pile of books that is now strewn across the bedroom floor because I haven’t even had time to stack them again.

A report on the evening at Kalk Bay Books can be read here.

REVIEW: A Possible Life

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A Possible Life

By Sebastian Faulks

Hutchinson/Random House Struik

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

I am a fan of Sebastian Faulks. He had me hooked from Birdsong and wriggling happily all the way through to Engelby. Then came A Week In December and I thought the spell had been broken.

It hasn’t been. A Possible Life fills, satisfies, warms and holds the reader just like Human Traces and Charlotte Grey and On Green Dolphin Street did.

I have always liked Faulks for his ability to enliven and humanise history; here it is history – and future – that enlivens the characters, by pulling a thread from past to future.

The effect is a sense of wholeness, a wide-angle lens view on life beyond the brackets of individuals’ births and deaths. This book, with its five apparently unrelated stories, unrolls a historical universe which provides a perspective on life so large that it reminded me of the feeling I used to get when Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” opened up the universe in my parents’ living room.

In the introduction to that series, Sagan says: “Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs us…we know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”

For Faulks, in A Possible Life, the grandest mystery is “why humans are as they are” as Elena, the main character in the middle story, asks. To demonstrate this unfathomable mystery, he tells us five stories, each placed in a different time in history.

The first is about a mild-mannered and educated linguist who leaves teaching to become a British agent in France in the Second World War, recalling the milieu of Faulks’s fourth novel Charlotte Grey.

In the second part, we meet Billy, sent to work in a Victorian workhouse because his shoe-maker father has fallen on hard times. Through sheer dogged survival he overcomes abandonment, hunger, cruelty and illiteracy to create a life for himself and his family.

The third story is set in Italy in the near future, and tells the story of the scientifically minded Elena who is given a unique chance to investigate self-awareness in humans which allows them “to infer thought processes in others and to predict what they are going to do; [which lets them] them empathise, guess, anticipate, manipulate, out-think, out-fight – and, where necessary, co-operate”.

In the fourth we meet Jeanne, “the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she spent most of her life”, a nursemaid to the two children of a rich landowner whose wife is incapacitated by depression.

And finally, set in the early part of the 1970s – amongst the hippie communes and hopefulness of the folk rock music industry – the story of Jack, who is renamed Freddie by his Joan Baez-like lover Anya.

The initial pages of the “novel” – it is moot that it is a novel when the stories are so distant from one another in time and place – were slow-going. Faulks seemed to ring fence his character Geoffrey, who appears both objectively rather boring and emotionally uninteresting. It is only once Geoffrey reaches France and is later taken prisoner by German soldiers that the story’s own momentum engaged me, even though the character himself remained closed.

This arms-length characterisation is, I believe, a style choice, and is not evident in some of the other characters whose inner lives are less puzzling to the reader. On the one hand, making Geoffrey of the first story, Billy of the second story and Jeanne of the fourth story closed, he is demonstrating their own incapacities for self-examination and introspection. In each case, this stunted emotional response to life is a natural consequences of the social and familial circumstances each was born into.

This detachment enhances one of the key themes of the book, which is how we become the people we are through our involvement with others, and how there is a search always for the Other, for some completing and fulfilling finishing of the self through relationships, particularly through a primary love relationship. Finally, each of these characters – and each of us – is essentially alone in the world in spite of a search for communion, in spite of the generation before us, the love we share with a partner or the generation we give birth too.

Faulks also toys with endlessly with the nature versus nurture debate. Does what we are reside in our bones, drive us from within our DNA? Or are we what we become because of what happens to us? Placing the scientific character Elena – and her history and story minded adopted brother Bruno – at the centre of the book, the writer demonstrates his preoccupation with these questions, but resists giving any answer.

Instead, he takes in entire lives, allowing glimpses into moments of illumination and transcendence that break through even the bleakest lives.

Each story carries within it echoes, symbols, material things (a small Madonna bust, a farm house) from the other four stories. They’re not always easy to spot, and once spotted, not always easy to link – sometimes even seeming ever so slightly contrived. Yet, again, this presses home the largeness of the loop of life, our “recycled brains” (as Elena puts it), the patterns of repetition from generation to generation, and century to century.

Critics have muttered about the looseness of the ties between the stories, and a sense that they link too obscurely. I had no such issues: there is a lucid refrain, a recurring melody of inquiry in A Possible Life and each story sings in harmony. – Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books page.

 

 

The knitting revolutionaries

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375573_10150767483469623_121289517_nIt’s a delicious image: the fingers that had once constructed and placed bombs, knitting jumpers and cardigans for their loved ones from prison.

In a book called The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island there’s a chapter on knitting. The knitting “coach” was JJ Maake, who had learnt to knit from a woman who had given him – an MK cadre in exile from South Africa in Swaziland – sanctuary and protection in her home.

He couldn’t leave the house during the day for fear of being reported to the police, so his host, always under pressure to fill her knitting orders, taught him to knit to keep him busy. When he was arrested in the early eighties and sent to Robben Island, he put in requests – looked at askance by prison authorities – for wool and needles.

When he finally convinced them he wasn’t planning to knit a bridge to Cape Town – and was prepared to settle for plastic rather than metal needles – they granted his request. His unusual activity caught a lot of other prisoners’ imaginations and soon he started an informal knitting school.

“It was sort of a fashion, ja, [the whole] island at that time was knitting,” Maake is quoted in the book as saying.

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When I sit in this corner of my stoep and read or knit, I can crane my head and spot Robben Island between the high rise buildings of downtown Cape Town.

He only spent a year on Robben Island, but was later sent there again. By this time, things had relaxed somewhat and in the evenings prisoners would visit one another’s cells: “Sometimes there would be four or five of us sitting there knitting.”

The only prisoner who came close to out-knitting the prolific Maake, was the “hardcore” bomber Gordon Webster, from Durban, but knitting had many other fans amongst the political prisoners of Robben Island.

The book provides pictures of some of the knitted creations. They gave me goosebumps.

I like knitting too. It’s one of those activities that puts you in flow keeps your mind active but relaxed, and passes the time…at the end of which – almost surprisingly – you have a new thing. It seems like a perfect activity for someone who has had their liberty denied them.

I like that there are ex-freedom fighters who knitted: it chips away at knitting’s slightly naff image.

The book's cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

The book’s cover features a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting.

The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island – Banter, Pastimes and Boyish Tricks

Fred Khumalo, Paddy Harper and Gugu Kunene

Published by Makana Investment Corporation