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QUICK REVIEW: Dear Bullet

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Dear BulletDear Bullet

By Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

This is a small, devastating story about a single, enormous event, addressed by the author to the bullet lodged in her neck. In speaking to “her” bullet, Mbalo writes herself into hearing range of a wilfully – and defensively – deaf world.

One is left breathless with gladness that she has been able to perform this act of narration as both belligerent defiance towards her attacker and as a desperate scratching for what meaning, if any, might be retrieved from pointless, insouciant, casual acts of unspeakable inhumanity.

The “before” story has warmth. The “after” story is all the more chilling when you consider how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised, and must find a way to make sense of the survivor’s life.

Antjie Krog writes a measured afterword that provides some context and insight not available from the primary narrative. – Karin Schimke

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times.

QUICK REVIEW: How We Learn – The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why it Happens

how we learn

Ho we learnHow We Learn – The Surprising Truth about When, Where and Why it Happens

Benedict Carey

Macmillan

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9388-2

Karin Schimke

“The science of learning,” says this hugely popular New York Times writer, “is…a study of the living brain and how it manages the streaming sights, sounds and scents of daily life. That it does so at all is miracle enough. That it does so routinely is beyond extraordinary.”

You do not have to be a scientist to be fascinated by the brain, and you do not have to be a swot to understand and enjoy this book, which explains that the brain is “not like a muscle” but is something else altogether, “sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location and environment”.

The topic of learning remains one of ongoing fascination no matter what age you are. Carey demonstrates, in his chatty, accessible way, how it needn’t be quite as fraught as it has been made to seem.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014

QUICK REVIEW: Easy Walks in the Cape Peninsula

walking

Easy WalksEasy Walks in the Cape Peninsula

Mike Lundy

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9781920545666

Karin Schimke

When a book is in its seventh edition and ninth impression, it hardly needs reviewing, but it’s worth noting this updated and revised edition of Lundy’s guide to easy walks around the Mother City.

The reason one needs a Lundy guide tucked into the pocket behind the driver’s seat for easy access is because he has a keen understanding of what the prospective walker needs to know in order to have his or her small daily or weekly slice of the mountain. There’s no faffing around with unnecessary information.

There are 14 general areas to choose from, each with between two and eight possible walks to do. Lundy describes the walk, where to park and where to start walking, directions and points of interest along the way. The walks were chosen for particular points of interests like views, caves and waterfalls.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014

 

Oh, Prettiness, you impress me

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Oh, Prettiness, you impress me

Nostalgia is always just a sigh away for me so I am completely suckered by the design of the books in the Macmillan Classics series. Hard cover, ribbon book mark, familiar typeface and intermittent illustrations – the ones that, when you were a young reader, made you pause to gaze for several minutes before returning to the reading.

I know that there is an impatience on the part of people who mostly read on tablets these days with people like me who don’t and are wont to whine “but what about the smell of the books?” I know. And I hear them.

But then there’s that sensuous tactility, that three-dimensional thereness of print…and some print books just do that thereness so much better than others.

 

 

REVIEW: Dare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future

Hopeuse

dareDare We Hope? Facing Our Past to Find a New Future

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Tafelberg

ISBN-13: 978-0624068631

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s collection of articles published between 1995 and 2014 offers a fascinating glimpse into the main issues plaguing contemporary South Africa. A professor in psychology, Gobodo-Madikizela was deeply involved in the proceedings of the TRC and wrote the award-winning A Human Being Died that Night, one of the most relevant and haunting books of recent years. It tells the story of her interaction with Eugene de Kock, the apartheid assassin known as Prime Evil.

Gobodo-Madikizela is a leading authority in research on trauma, memory and forgiveness. Many articles in Dare We Hope? focus on remembrance and reconciliationas relating to race, gender and power. Gobodo-Madikizela puts her finger on the insidious everyday ways we work against a common future by “attacking one another…in private and in public”.

Having recognised the seeds of discontent being sown and germinating in our society, Gobodo-Madikizela warns against the next revolution, “one in which the masses rise against a new breed of beneficiaries of privilege.” The “never-ending cycle of nothingness” that is poverty and lack of aspiration “strips away the humanity of individuals”. Unless we can create opportunities for people to lead meaningful lives, we will have no future as a society.

A large section of the book is devoted to dilemmas of leadership and morality.It is an incisive analysis of the “terrible shame”, the “moral rot” of the Zuma years and the terrifying legacy they are threatening to leave behind: “From the beginning, Zuma’s presidency was destined to corrupt the soul of the country.”

Gobodo-Madikizela identifies what is “missing in our democracy”: “a spirit of human solidarity that transcends the commitment to membership of one’s racial group or political party.” Her plea is for a shared humanity, for the understanding and acceptance of our diverse grievances, traumas and complicities, and, crucially, for the triumph of moral responsibility.

The articles in this book repeatedly call for dialogue: “Listening to one another and acknowledging the experience of loss on both sides would be a start.” It is a call for the employment of that wonderful faculty we all have in common: our imagination. It is also a call for moving beyond denial and revenge into a space where guilt can be articulated and forgiveness becomes a lived reality.

Dare We Hope ? is an extremely sobering read. Gobodo-Madikizela is under no illusion that what she is narrating is anything but “a gruesome tale”. However, her voice is one of wisdom and, despite all, deep-seeded hope. To ignore her insights and not to heed her warnings could prove detrimental not only to individuals but to society at large. This collection is a much needed reminder that South Africa is in a dire need of more dissenting voices and, even more importantly, true leaders who can lead by example. Gobodo-Madikizela’s vision is a vital contribution in both respects.

Dare we hope? Perhaps. One thing is for certain; a lot of work needs to be done to rekindle the spark of an earlier promise.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014

REVIEW: It’s a black/white thing

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It's a blackwhite thingIt’s a Black White Thing 

Donna Bryson                             

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9780624065180

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Donna Bryson has written a thought-provoking book. Given our obsession with race (and that’s what this book is all about), it should be mentioned that Bryson is an African American journalist who has lived in South Africa – in the late 1990s and again from 2008 – 2012. She brings her own experiences to the table as well as many interviews with students, academics and administrators at the University of the Free State.

Using the infamous Reitz video as her peg, she explores the attitudes (both changing and unchanging) at that University; extrapolating her findings to discuss the racial tensions; the attempts to diffuse them and the strategies employed by UFS in the last five years to achieve genuine integration – both in the lecture halls and the residences.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Rector of UFS, is a well-known figure to most thinking South Africans. In 2010 he instigated a programme in which dozens of first year UFS students travel abroad to experience university life in another country.   Bryson followed a number of these students to Texas A&M University and has held extensive interviews with them, as well as with the students and staff with whom they interacted. Contextualising all her discussion within the history of segregation and enforced integration in the USA in the 1960s and drawing on the similarities in post-Apartheid South Africa, she skilfully uses this as a microcosm for South African society today.

Having taught in South African schools that defied the Nationalist Government and opened their doors to children of all races as long ago as 1976, I was particularly dismayed to realise just how verkramp the UFS was when it was forced to accept students who were not white or Afrikaners when South Africa was liberated in 1994 – and how this history still haunts its corridors. But then, as Bryson quotes Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Forgiveness is not for sissies”. It takes hard work and much determination on the part of leaders to move towards genuine integration. Bryson has also interviewed the Rectors that preceded Jansen, both of whom took great strain as they paved the way for his inspired determination to turn UFS into a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled land.

An interesting snippet, in the light of the ongoing debate around our own University of Cape Town’s admissions policy, in 2008 a white student sued Texas A&M, claiming that she had been discriminated against on racial grounds. The USA Supreme Court ruled that any university should have substantial leeway ‘both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity’s benefits and in deciding whether its specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.’

Jonathan Jansen deserves the final word: ‘I absolutely enjoy being here’ he says. ‘I’m completely at ease with the whole of myself.’ And he predicts that UFS will not see a race crisis like the Reitz video ever again. I hope he is right; the struggle is far from over, not for UFS, not for Bloemfontein and not for the country.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times

REVIEW: Tales Of The Metric System

Tales1

TalesTales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is divided into ten chapters, spanning the period 1973 to 2010. They can be read as individual pieces, although they play loosely into each other. Certain characters (or their children instead) reappear from time to time, so advancing not only their individual accounts, but providing an intelligently devised chronicle of South Africa’s political trajectory from the depths of apartheid to the affirmative symbol that was the World Cup, so wonderful while it lasted. The intelligence lies in the proximity of Coovadia’s characters to historical centres of power. Although they orbit at various distances from key figures in the anti-apartheid constellation, the narrative is always focused on these more or less peripheral figures, rather than their political masters. So while the novel sketches notables such as Saths Cooper, Essop Pahad, Thabo Mbeki, Shabir Shaik and others, more attention is paid to their less luminous associates. The result is a novel that beautifully foregrounds the experience of ordinary people against a backdrop of the larger history that frames them.

The first sequence is dated 1970. The metric system has recently been introduced, and the hard winter of apartheid is at its height. It is obvious which is more significant, but it is typical of Coovadia’s indirectness that the title is drawn from the metric system (all the more whimsical because the device disappears fairly rapidly after the first sequence). This tale is told from the perspective of Ann, the wife of activist professor Neil Hunter. Her life is not easy, because Neil is under surveillance, and arrest is a constant possibility. As the biograpical details accumulate in this sequence, and in later sections in which Ann appears, it becomes clear that Neil represents Rick Turner, the influential University of Natal activist who was assassinated in 1978. Ann later marries a writer named Sebastian, as indeed Turner’s ex-wife Barbara married Ken Follett.

While the action of this chapter is rich and compelling enough, Ann’s vision is the real centre. She is a subtle and emotionally fluid observer, a woman whose understanding is shaped not only by her critical attention to experience, but also by her rueful self-knowledge. The political drama into which she is drawn would probably dominate the telling in less original hands than Coovadia’s. Instead, the historical struggle is filtered through the mesh of Ann’s perspective, without straining out the individual complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Ann, however, is not the only lens. Each chapter introduces a new situation and witness, drawn from divers corners of society, advancing in time as the country suffers and celebrates the bewildering transitions that lead to the present. The narrative moves, for example, from a men’s hostel in Pietermaritzburg, where a passbook is lost with terrible consequences for its young owner, Victor Moloi; to Boxing Day in Phoenix Township in Durban, 1979, where a musician named Yash battles to retain his dignity in the face of his wife’s antagonism, and the racist hostility of his employer; to London in 1985, where Ann returns, working for an anti-apartheid organisation.

There is structural brilliance in Coovadia’s compound eye and its episodic gaze. It enables him to survey a period of broad social change economically and fluently, without having to write War and Peace. Secondly, the tempo and timbre of each chapter changes to suit its particular occupants. The writing is excellent too, never precious or strained, and I sometimes read descriptions or metaphors over again because I enjoyed them so much.

Attention is also paid to continuity, with threads of anticipation stitched into earlier chapters. In a chapter about a Shabir Shaik analogue set in 1995, for example, we meet his son Vish, gay and horribly thin, with suggestions of undisclosed ill health. This becomes full blown in the 2003 chapter entitled “Sparks”. It is named after Sparks Mokoena, a deftly named caricature of Parks Mankahlana. Mankahlana was Thabo Mbeki’s spokesman, one of the two principal defenders of Mbeki’s AIDS denialism. With tragic irony, he died of AIDS (a few years earlier than Sparks), while his death was attributed to chronic anaemia (his wife), and the toxic effect of anti-retrovirals (the ANC). It is a savage lampoon, and the ironies become vitriolic, particularly in its treatment of the relationship between men in power and those who serve them. Even more seriously, in its treatment of how meaning can be abused and surfaces manipulated. It is a climactic chapter, though it is not the last, because that troubled relationship between the world of politics and private life blares out as loudly as a vuvuzela.

The concept of South African literature is not a fashionable one in academic circles, but Coovadia has magnificently finessed a defining tension in what South African writers do: between the compelling world of history, and the even more necessary world of individual life, between the great actors who make our history, and the small men and women who make our country. – Barris is a novelist and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. His novel Life Underwater won the 2013 University of Johannesburg prize.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014

 

REVIEW: Nothing Left To Steal

steal

stealNothing Left To Steal

Mzilikazi Wa Afrika

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143538929

REVIEW: Karen Jeynes

Wa Afrika, best known for his award winning investigative journalism, has written “Nothing Left To Steal”- part a collection of his writings, part memoir, part an ode to the role of the Fourth Estate. It is perhaps this last element which shines through most brightly: Wa Afrika’s love affair with journalism.

It’s not a common story, for a young boy from Sibambayani, in Mpumalanga, to grow up to be such a feared wielder of a pen. “Nothing Left To Steal” relates what a struggle it was just to go to school, a rarity in the apartheid era, especially in rural areas. Wa Afrika writes compellingly of “losing his virginity” in political terms, of learning for the first time about apartheid, Mandela, Robben Island – and of discovering that while he might have been “clever”, he knew little of real issues.

“Do you know anything about 16 June 1976?”

“No.”

“Then, my friend, you are not living but stealing the oxygen from those who deserve it.”

Once the political fire had been lit, there was no stopping it. Wa Afrika soon began writing, and sharing that writing, understanding the power of words to ignite, and inspire. Eager to be valuable, and have a sense of meaning, Wa Afrika turned to journalism.

“…there are two kinds of journalists: those that write about missing cats, and those that write about missing money.”  It seems Wa Afrika could never be the first. The book reveals the determination and passion with which Wa Afrika pursued stories, particularly around corruption. His dedication seems to border on the obsessive, perhaps a necessary streak in investigative journalism.

Wa Afrika’s style shifts between the personal and the journalistic, never seeming to settle in private moments, always viewing them from the outside, assessing and analysing. It seems easier to discuss work, the challenges, and how he overcame them, rather than dwell on the emotions which must have been stirred up. There are wonderful behind the scenes insights into how stories were obtained juxtaposed with the stories themselves. As with so many accounts of journalists lives, there’s the sense that the stories and the job take over, and leave no space for anything else.

And of course, as Wa Afrika’s reputation and body of work grew, so did the stories he tackled. There’s a real sense of delight in exposing the big guns, in uncovering wrongdoing and corruption. In fact, there is an overwhelming sense of pride throughout the book. In every area Wa Afrika tackles, such as his short music career, he relates how well he succeeds, and shares the praise he receives. The book climaxes in Wa Afrika’s arrest in 2010, when he exposed the R1.7 billion deal between Bheki Cele and Roux Shabangu.

“Nothing Left To Steal” is an angry book. Wa Afrika has lost nothing of his fire, and is going to continue his work, whatever may happen. The books gives a few insights into the drive of a man like this, and the myriad difficult decisions investigative journalists are faced with on a daily basis.  For that reason, it is well worth a read.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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SapiensSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari 

Harvill Secker

ISBN 13: 9781846558238

Here is a profoundly fascinating tale of how our small species won out in the gene lottery and, perhaps more amazingly, how ancient and modern has driven our history forward.

Harari lectures in history and Sapiens, which has been translated into almost 30 languages, surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of Homo Sapiens in the Stone age, to the various revolutions of the 21st century.

He arranges the narrative around three major revolutions which he has identified as the Cognitive Revolution (the development of articulate language), the Agricultural Revolution of around 10 000 years ago and the Scientific Revolution of about 500 years ago.

The book is enjoyable, worthwhile and immensely satisfying, written in an approachable manner for curious minds. He tackles big ideas and reveals, seemingly on every page, a truly enchanting kernel of knowledge. – Bruce Gourley

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.

QUICK REVIEW: Top 10 For Men

Top men

Top menTop 10 For Men

Nick Harper

Hamlyn

ISBN:9780600629160

Karin Schimke

It’s hard to be kind about a book which is unapologetically biased. In this case, a thoroughly researched book has produced a phenomenally interesting set of lists apparently based on the grossly erroneous assumption that the entire human race is made up of men.

“Every man needs his top ten,” he says and, in a nod to the inconvenient fact that women exist adds: “Women love lists too, but their lists tend to cover the vital stuff that keeps the world turning, allowing us to sit back and ponder computer games and cheese.” All of which might be acceptable if there were actually women on the hundred or so lists. They’re not.

It’s full of fascinating facts, interesting – believe it or not – to women too. But there are other lovely list books around that are far less blatantly ridiculous in their view that it’s a man’s world.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.