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QUICK REVIEW: Books That Changed The World

Books change

Books changeBooks That Changed The World

Andrew Taylor

Quercus

ISBN-10: 1847246028

Karin Schimke

Have you read The Iliad? The Kama Sutra? The Bible? Have you read the Qur’an? The Communist Manifesto? Catcher in the Rye? Origin of the Species? If This is a Man?

If you haven’t, you’ll know at least that these are texts that are almost generally known in the educated English speaking world as important works in history, valued for the moral, linguistic, literary, scientific or social import.

But why are they important? Taylor believes they changed the world. That might seem like a sweeping statement, but he does qualify by saying that they are books that changed his world. And yet also, “Often they have enhanced the richness of human experience; sometimes, their civilizing effect, or otherwise, depends on the views one holds.”

In succinct, simply written chapter, Taylor discusses 50 books in such a way that if you never got round to them – in spite of your best intentions – you’ll know, at least, why they remain timeless.

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

 

QUICK REVIEW: Dancing To The Beat Of The Drum

Dance

DancingDancing To The Beat Of The Drum

Pamela Nomvete

Kwela

ISBN: 9780795706875

Mvelase Peppetta

The tale of a star’s rise and ultimate fall due to drugs, alcohol, and any other variety of maladies, may not be new, but it’s always fascinating.

Pamela Nomvete’s autobiography neatly fits into this genre and pulls you into the crazy world of late-90s early-2000s celebrity Johannesburg. As with all celebrity autobiographies, it titillates with backstage gossip and innocently told, but ultimately snide, asides on other celebrities.

What is of particular worth with Nomvete’s book is the clear sense that this was her story, written by her. Unlike many other celebrity “autobiographies”, Nomvete’s book lacks the polish given to these works through a collaboration with a professional writer.

While some may find this problematic, I found this plainness refreshing and a more honest way to tell a tale that is at times harrowing and painful to read, but ultimately uplifting.

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

REVIEW: A Bit of Difference

a bit of difference

abitofdifferencesefiattaA Bit of Difference

Sefi Atta

Jacana Media

ISBN-10: 1566568920

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

Protagonist Deola Bello, born into affluence in Ikoyi, Nigeria, finds herself living in a London “overrun with immigrants”. An expatriate working for an international charity, Bello is thirty-nine, single, wary of men and marriage and disillusioned with her current prospects and co-workers.

As auditor in service of European capital, Deola evaluates the merits of various funding concerns involving Africans in need. Neither fully at home in London nor unaware of the ethical quandaries attendant on being an African that “judges” African others, Deola travels home for the fifth anniversary of her father’s passing. Her life choices and outsider’s gaze will be under intense scrutiny from her own family, and Deola’s own perceptions about the world and herself will come into sharp relief.

Moving between Atlanta, London and Lagos, the first part of this slow-burning yet searingly perceptive novel (Atta’s third) is a carefully hewn tapestry of Deola’s impressions, opinions and interactions with co-workers and friends.

Atta’s prowess in terms of characterization is most evident in the three friends that Deola spends time with in London: Subu, trained at the same school of accountancy as Deola in Nigeria, refuses to return home. Her born-again Christian status allows Atta a platform to critique the rise of different forms of religious fundamentalism both in London and Nigeria (just think of prophet TB Joshua), and Deola’s impressions (and skepticism) are acidly funny.

Equally engaging is the portrayal of the misanthropic writer Bandele, admirer of James Baldwin and JM Coetzee, whom Deola knows from home. Sexually fraught and depressed, Bandele feels out of place in London. His moving portrayal and poignant interactions with Deola reinforce Atta’s rapport with the underdog, and notable are the scathing barbs after the prize-giving for African writing when Bandele loses out to another writer deemed to need it more. Tessa, rounding out the trio of Deola’s friends, has known her since boarding school, and considers a move to Australia with her husband. How Deola relates to Tessa, her choices and the roundedness of Tessa’s character, are further highpoints.

If the novel’s first part deliberately limits its cast of characters, it must be categorically noted how Atta simultaneously and to good effect creates depth from a wide array of digressions, all from Deola’s perspective, yet told in the third person. With an effect that combines distance and intimacy, immediacy and aloofness, these reflections – some more banal than others – allow for fascinating insights into the myriad of influences that shape and foster individual (migrant) subjectivity.

The wide variety of discourses around Africa – a continent seemingly always under symbolic (re)construction, with all of its colour and contradictions emanating from spheres of culture, commerce, civil war, tribalism, racism, minorities and factionalism, contradictions, abuses of power, tradition and modernity – are interrogated in observations sharp and often brutal. Atta’s lean, limber prose moves far beyond a mere “anthropological curiosity”, a phrase that Deola uses at one point.

One such digression sees Nigeria described as a country where even the ‘passive aggressive’ land is stubbornly “too damn African”: When “a car dealership opens… the road in front of it splits, as if to say, ‘I told you I couldn’t handle it’.”

Linguistic flights of fancy are largely dispensed with, yet thoughtfulness remains: “Once in a while, Africans will be confronted with the notion that Africans are disposable and of much consequence to humanity as waste material. This may not be personal… Their daily trauma is trying to survive systems that did not start off with their continuity in mind.”

The neat trick of the novel’s second half, somewhat more formulaic, linear and plot-centric, moves Deola out of the shadows of introspection and observation into the realm of being observed, seen more closely by the reader and once again by her own family after years apart, in Nigeria. We meet her mother, demanding and intense; her brother Lanre, who has taken up the charge as one of the directors at the bank started by her father, and her sister, the doctor Jaiye, unhappily married. Yet Deola’s interaction with her immediate family, and many others part of her extended family, is secondary to her meeting with Wale, an affluent widower who will change the course of her life forever. It is in this second half of the novel that Deola, flawed, recognizable, humane, is revealed to the reader through her interactions with her family and with Wale. This is where Atta proves equally adept with the conventions of story and setting as with larger socio-political ruminations such as the nature of filial ties and affiliative connection in a seemingly transnational world.

Laden with irony, bitterness, poignancy, and wit, this commanding novel invites the patient and introspective reader to cherish fragments of connection as we untangle complex bits of difference.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: The Yellow Birds

YB

Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

Sceptre

ISBN 9781444756166

Tight and exceedingly well-planned and for all that lyrical, The Yellow Birds is akin to watching a car crash unfold before your eyes. Its effect is visceral in the absolute sense of the word: it, by turns, gives you goosebumps, makes you suck in your breath and leaves you sometimes terrified and sometimes weeping.

It’s the story of John who goes to war, having made a friend in Murph, a younger soldier, during training. In Iraq, they are inseparable.

Until they are separated.

From the title (explained at the novel’s start) – to the attractive cover image (pretty on first sight, shocking in contemplation), this first-time author does not skip a beat. Powers may have written this book as an exercise in catharsis (see the interview in the back), but not for one moment does he overlook his reader. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. – Karin Schimke

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

COLUMN: War Literature

war
Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Can a literary recounting of war stop the wholesale murder?

By Karin Schimke

War, for anyone who hasn’t been in it I would argue, is an idea so foreign as to belong to the realm of fantasy.

Its lived travesties, its dust and blood, the way it distorts and flattens places and people and ideas of goodness and desires for hope – these are unimaginable to me, no matter how much creative thinking I bring to it.

Also the larger phenomenon of war as an aspect of human life, the fact of it, the inevitability of it, is too strange to contemplate on a philosophical level. War is so remote, its realities so outlandish, that I have never been able to muster an active interest in its meta-workings nor the ability to imagine myself in its microscopic horrors.

Consequently, I’ve never sought out war literature, though I haven’t actively avoided it either. And yet all that I can begin to know about it has come to me by way of literature.

The non-combatant’s inability to imagine war is taken on directly by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. This was my first taste of war literature – or the first one I can remember – and along with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Ian McEwan’s Atonement one the most vivid encounters I have had with the devastating wars of twentieth century Europe.

Wilfred tells the reader that if he or she could, in dreams, pace behind a wagon into which he and his fellows had to fling a man dying in a gas attack, they would not “with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory” tell “the old lie” that it is sweet and good to die for your country.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, I attended a reading by John Maytham of literature from World War I called Dulce Et Decorum Est after the famous poem. The script was seamlessly put together by poet Finuala Dowling and Maytham’s emphatic and humane voice was transporting. Tears washed down my face and a furtive glance around me showed that I was not alone – men and women all around me had wet faces.

“War, what is it good for?” are the lyrics of an anti-war song made famous by Edwin Starr. Nothing, nothing, nothing that I can see from my experience-impoverished perspective. But it does produce memorable literature.

I’ve been thinking about it this week as I picked up a book and found myself engrossed in the writing by page two. It’s called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Power, who served in the Iraq war. His lyrical rendition of combat is deeply engrossing and provides a perspective on war that no media – even television – can match.

His work reminded me of Brian Turner, also a veteran of the Iraqi war, who wrote a book called Here, Bullet, as least as powerful as Wilfred Owen’s work, but more modern. Turner and Power have the same ability to convey to the reader the jumpy reality of expecting to feel a bullet rip your flesh apart at any moment, as well as the stupefying effect of escaping combat unharmed, with its attendant feelings of survivor guilt and years of post-traumatic stress.

Other war literature that has rocked the world (but sadly, without ending war) include Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks, For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and the outstanding works of Pat Barker.

I count myself lucky not to have the experience that makes war imaginable. I count myself lucky to live in a world in which abomination can be rendered worthwhile on at least one level. I continue to hope that literary recounting of a repugnant aspect of life on earth will continue to spread loathing for wholesale murder.

It might be the only antidote we have to man’s insatiable appetite for armed conflict.

  •  This column first in the Cape Times in October 2014.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

Q & A: Moira Richards – Poetry Reviewer

eighth day
 Moira Richards

Moira Richards

On the eighth day of every month, Moira Richards, poetry reviewer, will review a clutch of collections that are linked in some way. Not Not Darling, I’m Reading asked Moira eight questions.

1. Your day job is accountancy, which seems somewhat at odds with your abiding interest in reading and writing poetry. Or is that sort of question more indicative of an interviewer’s penchant for stereotyping than an accurate accounting of obvious contrasts?

No contrast at all, actually. I recently retired from practicing and teaching accounting to free time for my writing and editing work, but teaching Taxation to undergraduates confirmed to me the value of poetry to accountants (if not vice versa). Reading poems—engaging with unfamiliar words and word usage; getting inside the text of someone very different to you; teasing out the meaning of phrases and sentences and finding ways in which it applies to wider circumstance—those are all tools essential for learning and understanding the Income Tax Act as well as the myriad other legislation anyone in the business world has to navigate.

2. Do you remember the first poem that sunk its teeth into you? What was it? How old were you? Where were you?

Yes! I was about 10 years old, helping get up some sort of a show to entertain parents and there was Lewis Carroll’s poetry! I wanted Jabbberwocky with its delicious mouth-filling words, and the dastardly Walrus and Carpenter and all those eager little silly little oysters, and Humpty’s zig-zagging cliff-hanger of a poem that ends with “but—”. I didn’t want to ever let them go so I memorised all three poems and decades later, still have snippets in my head.

3. How did your interest in poetry develop from there?

I think Carroll started me on a love affair with words—how they can play and draw and touch as well as talk and teach, which I also love. Poetry in the education system here is (was?) so much dead white men’s angst that there’s little to really kindle fire in anyone who’s not a one of them—and so much that’ll have the resistant feminist roll her eyes and decide poetry’s for the (old) dudes.

My interest in poetry developed, I think, in the last 15 years when I began reading contemporary women’s work to write about it for book reviews. A bit upside down, I suppose, but my approach wasn’t that of an “expert critic” but that of a reader exploring the genre and like Alice (again) I found myself in a wonderland.

4. You practise form poetry and have a special love for renku. What is it about set forms that excite you?

I admire poets who can execute in form because I find it so difficult and I know the work and persistence it requires. Poems in form, can easily become all tied up and prisoner of the form, but when done well, poetry uses form as invisible scaffold from which it can reach into doing amazing stuff. The joy of renku is that it’s collaborative poetry—a whole new approach to poetry (and to one’s self-image as poet) to write with others :-)

5. Do you read anything at all except poetry? You seem to get through at least one collection a week. Is there time for other reading?

I currently read and review a collection of poems every week—the reading only takes an hour or two, it’s the thinking about the poetry and getting inside of what the poet is doing and finding words to convey that, that takes a long, long time. But I carry it all around with me inside my head and bring it out during quiet times with my vegetable garden so there’s time left for enough fiction that I usually have something to talk about at book club every month. Reading so much poetry has made me an impatient reader of fiction—those authors get very few pages in which to grab my interest enough to read their book through.

6. Do you only read poetry written by women? If so, why?

I don’t actively seek out poetry or fiction by men. I already get to hear so much about what men think and want and do—male opinion and ideas are slathered all over television, radio, newspapers (check the VIDA-count of your favourite medium) and etc. What I’m really interested in, is to find and hear the women who are never asked or permitted to speak—there’s usually pretty good reason why certain voices are marginalised by the mainstream.

Steyn, Yaa De Villiers, Molebatsi, Metelerkamp, Moolman, Schimke

Steyn, Yaa De Villiers, Molebatsi, Metelerkamp, Moolman, Schimke

7. How does South African English poetry measure up to what’s being done in other countries where most of the poetry is in English?

Maria Steyn’s tanka are admired and published in Australia, Canada, the USA, and further. A few years ago, Phillippa Yaa De Villiers placed in an annual international haibun contest judged in Japan. I’ve watched Natalia Molebatsi hold her own on the same stage as performance giant Patricia Smith. Joan Metelerkamp, Kobus Moolman and Karin Schimke, like poets abroad, have gone beyond realist, confessional “experience into words on the page” work and on into a music-like non-narrative transformation of words into experience. Perhaps, if South African readers were more adventurous, even more of our poets would be encouraged to be more adventurous too?

8. To which poets do you return?

So much to read, not much chance for returning, but I never miss a new collection from Finuala Dowling (surely it’s about time for another?) and do find Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnets have something to say for every occasion. Here’s a couple:

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied

Oh, Oh, You Will Be Sorry For That Word

  •  Moira Richards is a freelance editor and writer, and (co)author of a number of accounting and business textbooks. She’s been reviewing fiction and poetry since 2000 and, with Norman Darlington in Ireland, occasionally publishes renga, renku, haibun and other fine work, but mostly renku www.darlingtonrichards.com.

 

 

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: Aerodrome Journal

Aerodrome cover (2)

Aerodrome cover (2)Aerodrome Journal

Issue 01 / 2014

Karina Magdalena

For the past fifteen months the digital version of Aerodrome has been an exciting platform for all things literary. Immensely pleasing to the eye, it publishes fiction, poetry, reviews and a particular favourite of mine: author interviews. Freshly launched, the first paper issue of Aerodrome is an aesthetic gem and opens with several interviews with writers and artists such as Isobel Dixon, Zapiro, Mary Watson, Anton Kannemeyer, Conrad Botes and Zoë Wicomb.It also offers the best of the first year’s digital content and includes a few specials which will appear online later.A personal highlight is one of the exclusive features: an inspiring interview with Damon Galgut in which he states that you can recognise a real writer by the way they approach language. In this respect, Megan Ross’s short story “The Accidental Colour” and Jane McArthur’s poem “The Girl from Witwatersrand” delight.

FEATURE: Big on books in a tiny Karoo town

book-village (2)

BookBedonnerd in Richmond

Dawn Garisch visits Richmond for the BookBedonnerd Festival and comes away enchanted.

Richmond? A Book Town?

You might well ask. We’re talking Great Karoo. We’re talking about the kind of town that boasts many second-hand book shops and literary events. The most famous book town is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, but they exist all over the world – there are 27 listed on Wikipaedia.

Peter Baker and Darryl Davids

A few months ago a man called Darryl David contacted me and asked me to participate in one of the book festivals. I was vaguely aware of a town in SA called Richmond (there are two), but I was oblivious as to what is happening there. I agreed, and have just returned from a fascinating adventure.

Darryl describes himself as a threatened species – an Afrikaans lecturer at a university. We all have our passions outside work, but Darryl’s vision to start a book town in SA evolved from his doctoral thesis on literary tourism in the Karoo. Many of our most famous writers were either born in the Karoo, or lived there, and the landscape forms a backdrop to many works of fiction and non-fiction.

It took Darryl 6 years to find the right town. Many municipalities that he approached turned the idea down, saying they already had an identity built around wine or star-gazing or heritage. But Richmond is a place no-one had a reason to stop, unless they wanted to pee or to visit one of the many sites of battle in the Anglo-Boer war.

Book town Richmond has been going for eight years, against all odds. Although it is fairly central, it is also a whole day’s journey to get there from most major cities. The location is attractive, nestling as the town does between hills, but much of the town needs maintenance and the river is canalised.

To address the run-down aspects of the town, Darryl has come up with the idea of a picture book town, and has persuaded several artists to travel to the town to paint impressive murals which lend a further quirky edge to the experience of visiting.

The Bookbedonnerd festival itself is unlike any other festival I have been to. It is not supported by publishers. There are no parallel sessions, and the printed programme is very rudimentary, with little information about either the speakers, or what they are going to talk about. Set menu, rather than à la carte. Only about 50 to 70 people are packed into an air-conditioned library venue for each talk. Yet I met visitors who had been coming back to the festival every year because they enjoy it so much. Despite its location and small size, the festival has attracted some big names: Patrick Mynhardt, Ahmed Kathrada, David Kramer, Deon Meyer, Antjie Krog, Etienne van Heerden, Mongane Wally Serote, Albie Sachs, Eben Venter, Jonty Driver.

I arrived thinking that I would skip many items on the agenda, yet found myself staying for most, intrigued and stimulated by the diversity. One of the things that impressed me was that several of the speakers had gone the independent publishing route, because mainstream publishers had rejected their manuscripts on the grounds that the subject matter was too niche. As Darryl himself has co-authored two important volumes on the churches of SA with Philippe Menache, he is not snobbish about self-publishing. He hunts out authors who have put their passions down onto the page, and we are the richer for this.

I listened to talks as diverse as the stone bridges of the Eastern Cape, memoirs of a vet, the letters of Olive Schreiner, motivational texts on how to live more generously and less fearfully, and poetry of exile, and of belonging.

Art exhibitions were running concurrently, which included works by prominent SA artists, and there was a musical event each evening.

I sold my own books, and bought a pile of both new publications from my fellow speakers, and second-hand books from the six shops on main road for my already overloaded shelves back home. I met the most interesting and eccentric people on the stoep of the local restaurant and pub, and participated in an experiment that has proved its staying power as a destination for bibliophiles.

If you are travelling on the N1, I highly recommend stopping off at Richmond to browse through the well-stocked second hand book shops. I found volumes there that I have not been able to locate in Cape Town.

Even better, treat yourself to one of SA’s richest offerings for literary tourists, and book yourself into Richmond for one of the festivals.

Dawn Garisch is the author of many books, including Eloquent Body (Modjaji, 2012), and Dance With Suitcase (Tiber Tree Press, 2013).

QUICK REVIEW: The Emperor Waltz

Waltz

the-emperor-waltzThe Emperor Waltz

Philip Henscher

Jonathan Ball

ISBN: 9780007566747

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

I was not one the thousands of people who loved David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I found the radical introduction of numerous new story lines about new characters in vastly different times and places too disturbing to the pace and to my concentration.

Henscher does the same, but this time I moved more fluidly in this changing river of narrative. The author shifts styles to accommodate the various storylines, displaying an impressive range. Some stories work better than others (Germany in the 1920s and London in the late seventies), while some – or some parts of even the good parts – felt a little too random and slightly self-conscious.

If you can overlook the book’s short-story feel and give it its novelistic dues, you’ll find it an expansive and accommodating novel that sweeps readers along, keeping them on their toes as they link images and themes in the disparate stories.

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

QUICK REVIEW: From Courtrooms to Cupcakes

cupcakes

courtrooms cupcakesFrom Courtrooms to Cupcakes

Niki Malherbe

Self-published

Niki Malherbe’s warts-and-all mommy-memoir recounts the vagaries of her experience of upper middle class motherhood. All the clichés are there – career woman (she’s a qualified tax attorney) turned full-time parent of four, struggling with self-actualisation issues, anecdotes about breast milk leaking onto silk blouses at work, conversations with kids about sex, their charming insights about life and so on.

For all that, the book is sweet, introspective, witty and insightful. Malherbe comes across as a fun yet passionate and committed parent to her four spirited sprogs.

It’s easy to dip into, and is the kind of text that will certainly comfort those new to the game of mothering, while making the veterans nod knowingly. Malherbe addresses the “crisis of self” which hits most women with sensitivity despite a tad too much navel gazing. Perfect for those who liked Eat, Pray, Love. – Kayang Gagiano