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QUICK REVIEW: Flower

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Flower

Andrew Zuckerman

Wild Dog Press

Review: Karin Schimke

Of Zuckerman’s photographic books the one that’s made the most impression is Wisdom, in which he photographs well-known older people against a backdrop and in light which is at once unforgiving and kind. Each wrinkle, nose hair and skin flap is vividly visible, along with his sitters’ absolute confidence that they are more than the sum of their flaws.

I did not imagine that a series of flowers captured against the same stark background and with the same scrutiny of lens could be quite as enthralling, and yet Flower blossoms for the viewer.Each bloom becomes imbued with character: monstrous, coy, wistful, humble, extravagant – as though dressed for a wedding – or lashes-down-eyes-up, like a young woman in love.

One wouldn’t think flowers would need a hand in making themselves lovable to humans, but Zuckerman manages to nudge them into the category “superlative”.

 

How to make a dictionary even more enticing

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DSC01583Working from the Cape Times offices yesterday, I needed to look up a word, so I went over to the editor’s secretary’s book shelf and found this beaut.

Is this not the most enticing dictionary dust jacket you ever did see? I was on deadline so it took every ounce of resistance not to look up “zoozoo” or “spoffish” or “estrangelo”. So I took a photo instead.

I have many dictionaries on my shelf, but not this one. I think I should remedy that. Especially since I couldn’t find many of these crunchy words in any of mine and had to go on-line – which is not my favourite way of looking up words. I might have to put The Chambers Dictionary on my birthday wishlist.

To the imagined question “If you were stranded on a desert island, which one book would you wish to have with you?” my answer has always been “a dictionary”.

Scribble, cut out, clip – the art of handcrafting recipe books

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Some more delicious home-made recipe books

Taking a look at how people other than my best friend (see here) keep their recipes

 

KARIN:

“At some point I made the decision not to keep my recipes in a book or a folder, but to keep a box with reference cards. I’ve been using the system since the early nineties and it still works for me. These are a few of the most used recipes. From the selection you can probably deduce that I cook because I must, but I bake because I like to. And that I have a sweet tooth. I have recipes in English, Afrikaans and German.”

 

 

CATHERINE: “When I graduated university in Sweden, I had just finished two years studying in Spain, and started this book when I moved back home, while looking for my first job. I knew I would eventually move out and wanted to be able to cook something other than pasta or toast! Also, I really started enjoying food late, in my early 20s, especially after my years in Spain.My mother also has a cookbook with cut-out recipes that she got from magazines and from my father’s mother.

“When I lived in France and Swizerland after university, I cooked some easy recipes, mainly pasta-dishes, but most stores sold the baked goods I liked, and I would go out to eat the other more elaborate foods I liked, so I never had to make it from scratch. When I moved to South Africa, the food here was so different to what I use to eat back home that I started cooking and baking myself. Also, those familiar recipes reminded me of home. The recipes are in Swedish, French, English and Spanish. Most of the ones that were handwritten are those I wrote down from my mother’s recipe book and are in Swedish.”

 

ISABELLA:

“I have my mom’s recipe book from her home economics class from the 1950s. Love it and use it to bake. I also have my late dad’s favourite recipe book, in which he ticked off recipes every time he used them. To see his handwriting always pulls at my heart. Both are very, very dear to me.”

LARA:

larascraps“My recipes are written on scraps of paper stored in my well-used Annabel Karmel cookery book. I only learnt to cook after I had childen and AK has brilliant kids’ recipes. These are recipes I use almost daily, borrowed and adapted from friends/family/the internet/magazines/books/wherever and made my own because they passed the all-important family taste test. If I make something and everyone likes it I write it down and add it to the collection. The book I store them in is quite literally busting at the seams.

 

The best recipe books are home-baked

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DSC01258My best friend S has a lot of cookbooks in her home. Huge, intimidating tomes with food so fancy and obscure the sheer volume, range and possibilities for nourishment make me want to lie down and have a little rest.

But in amongst her voluminous collection I discovered on a recent visit there (she lives in a different city) a hardcover A4 notebook with yellowing pages: her home-made, pieced-together, patchwork of favoured recipes.

She started it just before she left home, neatly cutting out edges for tabs under which to organise found recipes and carefully transcribed instructions from her mother. The outside is a montage of pictures of food cut from recipe books, dating – simply by virtue of stylising and fashion – the book to the late eighties.

DSC01260The book contains more than twenty years’ worth of kitchen experience. But it holds more than that. The crinkle of the dusky pages are a small history of this woman I have loved and respected since the very first day we spoke, hunkered down behind the school gym bunking PT: her neat straight-up handwriting and logical thinking; the choices she made for inclusion and, by extension, for exclusion; the book’s bilingualism, which reminded me that when she moved to South Africa she could only speak English; the little flame of ancestral feeding that’s kept alive here; the testimony to family, friends and food, and to times spent around various tables in various homes – from suburban parental home, to shared digs and rented flats to her first own home, bought carefully and bravely as she started to establish herself in her career.

S’s handmade cookbook – her home-baked, artisanal, lovingly accrued recipe book – is one of the most beautiful things I’ve laid eyes on in ages.

DSC01252I pulled the book from the shelf and paged through it on the new kitchen island in a freshly renovated house structured, appropriately, around a large, airy kitchen in that same house, which she now shares with a man who cooks, undaunted and lovingly, the kind of food for which you have to pay a small fortune in high-end restaurant.

After all the changes, relationships, renovations, after all the years of being an adult, my childhood friend’s handmade book feels like an artefact, a carefully curated collection – a paper umbilicus to that first kitchen where, under her mother’s eye, she topped-and-tailed beans, made stuffings and mixed batters.

I can take or leave large, glossy recipe books, but the tenderness I felt towards S’s home-cooked version leaned towards a most satisfying sentimentality.

Umberto Eco’s list of lists

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How interesting can a list be? In Eco’s hands, quite thrilling, and if you’re a fan of his writing you’ll know that he likes using lists in his novels.
Here he brings his fascination with catalogues together in a thick, glossy treasure that combs literature from Homer to Pablo Neruda, and James Joyce to Patrick Süskind to present the reader with an astounding number of “practical and poetic lists”. There are lists of angels and demons, the type of people who drink, the smells of Paris in the 18th century, ingredients for witches’ brew, the names of alchemical prima materia, and, well, etcetera – a word that here comes into its full meaning.
There are also “visual lists” – a great number of paintings which give form to the sense of infinities of things. Who can tire of such a catalogue? – Karin Schimke

The Inifinity of Lists

Umberto Eco

Maclehose Press

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

REVIEW: The Midwife’s Daughter

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midwifePatricia Ferguson
The Midwife’s Daughter
Penguin Books

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

In Patricia Ferguson’s latest novel, one of the first and most pervasive images evoked is that of the mirror.

Each of her complex, sensitive characters is made to see herself through the mirrors of other people, revealing the hidden concerns and judgements of the private mind. Ferguson is a searching writer. She wants to know her cast better than they know themselves, to follow and understand them even in their moments of deepest distress and unreason.

Setting her story near the start of the twentieth century, in a seaside village in Cornwall, the writer studies a close-knit, conservative community confronted with change. With WWI only a few years into the future, Silkhampton clings to its old ways – and no one remembers those ways like Mrs Violet Dimond, the village midwife. Waiting at home by the fire with her special bag ready, Mrs Dimond’s services are essential. She is respected and valued in the village as a good churchgoing woman with standards. Then, in the course of a morning, her excellent reputation is demolished when she brings home the first child of colour Silkhampton has ever seen.

If a comparison must be made, Patricia Ferguson’s writing shares many parallels with stories by Toni Morrison: intense familial relationships, vivid characterisations, and themes of trauma and renewal. Violet Dimond and her identical twin sister, Bea, look so alike that as children they could effortlessly impersonate each other, but they’ve led very different lives: Violet the traditional, respectable daughter and Bea the wanderer and self-made woman. But it’s at Bea’s Children’s Home that Violet finds the nameless child, strange to her eyes and yet very like her own lost daughter, who will change the course of her life. Adoption is another key chord in Ferguson’s composition. Of course, the colour of the child’s skin at this point in history makes Violet’s task as mother and defender that much harder.

Despite Violet’s attempts to shield her, little Gracie Dimond grows up with a clear sense of her own difference. Ferguson tells Grace’s side of the story with tenderness and great empathy, reshaping the experience of exclusion without the over-familiarity inspired by many similar narratives already written. Thus her terrible anxiety, her prayers to be “turned white” overnight, the exhaustion of being constantly looked at: all of the pressures of being seen as different in a small community are made fresh again, and all of Grace’s accomplishments and humiliations are felt sharply.

What brings this story to life are the author’s clever and incisive insights into the emotions and intents of the citizens of Silkhampton. When Violet takes Grace out to the market for the first time, some of the passers-by “petted her in a sort of luxurious sorrow, as if saddened by the thought that there was nothing to be done about so much unwonted darkness”. One morning, out in the garden with Grace, Violet is paid a visit by the Reverend Mr Goldolphin of St George’s, whose parishioners have pressured him into trying to keep “the negro child” out of church. Understanding his purpose, Violet’s heart gives “a zestful thump of anticipatory anger” as she recognises her opportunity to rebuke him. Then there’s Grace’s uncomfortably acute awareness of how she is perceived wherever she goes. Sitting in a tearoom with two working-class white friends, almost as unwelcome as herself, Grace pities the proprietress. Though her discomfort in Grace’s presence is unwarranted and ugly, the pain is “still real, the dismay still genuine, and if hardly intended still all down to Grace: her fault.” So the author tallies up the layers of Grace’s exclusion, refreshingly contradicted in some cases, as at Mrs Ticknell’s wool and embroidery shop, and harrowingly reinforced in others.

Violet Dimond’s adopted daughter becomes a mirror for the people of Silkhampton, reflecting their fear and hatred back at them. Grace is a symbol of change. When she steps into Violet’s life, Mrs Dimond the fearsome midwife learns what it means to lose respect and peace of mind, even to the point of losing her profession when a new class of medical professionals deems her work backward, even dangerous. Then, before long, the war invades peace and privacy, and Violet must watch as all the boys she delivered into the world are enlisted and shipped off to leave it forever.

In this new world, birthed as bloodily as any newborn child, it is fitting that Grace begins to write. Calling herself “the Silkhampton Darkie”, she tries to reflect her pain back at the society that exiled her. And this, finally, is what we are left with: with the power of writing as a method of personal exorcism.

With a convincing eye for dialect, era and the broken glass of hidden pain, the author lovingly brings these characters and their stories to life.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2013

COLUMN: If all the world’s shelves were empty

By Karin Schimke

In Berlin, in a public square in Mitte called Bebelplatz, you can walk right over a memorial, one of the most haunting ones I have ever seen. Sunk into the ground is a chamber lined floor-to-ceiling with empty bookcases, which you view through a glass “paving stone”.Denkmal_der_Buecherverbrennung
Alongside it are words from a Heinrich Heine play he wrote a century before the infamous book burnings that took place here in May 1933. The words are: “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, vebrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”. They mean: “Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.”
Around 20 000 books were burnt here by Nazi students and Hitler youth groups.
History teaches us much, but we learn little, I fear.

Last week I spoke to pupils at my old school in Pretoria about poetry, freedom of expression and popular protest. In the class with us was the history teacher Izak Kruger, who started teaching the year I was in matric. Although I knew that I was speaking to young people, the past has a tendency, in middle age, to feel close, and I forgot to imagine that the pupils with us have no sense of what it means to not be able to say what you wish to say, to protest against that which feels inhuman. They were truly shocked to imagine that in a time not long before their births – when Izak and I were around their age – South Africans had severe restrictions on what they were allowed to utter in public.
harewithambereyes-paperbackThis month I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a book published in 2010 and which I have been straining to get to. It’s hard to classify the book: part biography, part history, part – almost – memoir. De Waal sets about uncovering the history of his family – entrepreneurial Jews who moved from Odessa in the 19th century to Paris and Vienna and who became assimilated there.

His story revolves around an inheritance of “netsuke” – small Japanese carvings of ivory and boxwood. De Waal is a potter – he makes things, he touches things – and his inheritance sparks in him some sense of the line of ancestry of things, and he sets about researching his family’s past. The research is distilled into a narrative that is both rich and pared down, loving, yet unsentimental.

The book is a wonder. I am not averse to reading pure history, but have to admit that I have gleaned most of my knowledge of the past from novels. Here history is presented as a story but the characters were real. Through De Waal’s eyes, I was able to imagine the sharpest edges of anti-Semitism and the scope of uncertainty and chaos that preceded and followed Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria. I felt the loss of things, ways, people and connections personally. I felt, most viscerally, the loss of libraries and art works collected by the family as it rose from merchants to rich bankers.

In the final chapter, De Waal writes: “I think of a library carefully sorted into netsuke1boxes. I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and of people from their families and families from their neighbourhoods. And then from their country.” He meditates on things – trinkets, bibelots, books and clothes – and their meaning: “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matter.”

Is there a telling more stark than a chamber of shelves empty of books? –

  • This column first in the Cape Times in March 2013.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.