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QUICK REVIEW: The Dig

dig_front_cover_2

dig_front_cover_2The Dig

Cynan Jones

Granta

ISBN-13: 978-1847088789

Karina Szczurek

Cynan Jones is a name to remember. The Dig is his fourth novel. It is an astounding piece of writing. Reading Jones one is reminded of the greats of English-language literature – Hemingway, Steinbeck or Virginia Woolf come to mind, each for different reasons. But Jones has a voice all his own. His prose is pure muscle and yet it conveys the most delicate of impressions and emotions. The Dig encompasses the best and worst of humanity. It tells the story of two men: a grieving Welsh sheep farmer and a brutal hunter involved in the illegal blood sport of badger baiting. The novel does not shy away from the horror of cruelty against animals, nor those moments which are unknowable, just before a life is extinguished. Yet it is most haunting when capturing what remains unsaid, as nature and life continue in the landscape of the human heart.

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

QUICK REVIEW: Playing House

ph1

playing_house72Playing House

Katherine Stansfield

Seren

ISBN-13: 978-1781721933

Karina Szczurek

Playing House is the debut poetry collection by the author of The Visitor (2013), a remarkable novel about loss and longing in Cornwall at the turn of the last century. As in her rich prose, in her poetry Katherine Stansfield has an eye for everyday detail. Her poems make us pause and consider. Whether describing a cat trying to get to an interesting-smelling morsel under the fridge, the auction of one of John Lennon’s teeth, the recipe for a crisp sandwich, or “raspberries lured to ripeness by the rain”, she moves from the familiar to the surprising and enchants in the process. Her images are clearly defined.The voice is authentic, subtle but strong. The title of the volume comes from First Place, a poem about a couple’s attempts at adult life.Full of thought, fun and beauty, Playing House is the real deal.

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

Look who’s coming!

author

Every time I meet someone who’s just attended their first lit fest, I’m surprised that they’re all ooh and ah about how funny the authors are, how entertaining the events were and how all round amazed they are that literary festivals are any fun at all.

Clearly, authors, you need some marketing. Why do people not know how bracing your company is? How amusingly self-deprecating you are? How clever and informed and thoughtful you are?

(Most of you. Some of you are total plonkers, but there’s usually a rotten spot or two in any basket of fruit.)

For the most part though, authors are way more entertaining than their bad hair and crocs give them credit for. So roll up, roll up, all you non-believers and see whose on at the Franschhoek Literary Festival next year in May.

  • John Boyne (Ireland) Boyne’s latest novel A History of Loneliness, is a deep and subtle examination of culpability and innocence, about a ‘good priest’ caught up in the scandal following the revelations of abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland.
  • Chris Bradford (England) (Young Samurai series) will be in South Africa for the Book Week for Young Readers programme at schools in the Franschhoek Valley in the days preceding the main festival, and will be part of an event for schools at the main festival, on Friday 15 May.
  • Jackie Kay (Scotland/England) Acclaimed poet, short story writer, and memoirist, Kay will participate in a number of events, and will also be part of the judging panel for the high schools’ Poetry for Life finals, which will be held at the FLF (see www.poetryforlife.co.za for information).
  • Eshkol Nevo (Israel). Nevo’s latest book, Neuland, will resonate with many South Africans as it explores the need to get away from one’s homeland in order to understand it, and oneself, more deeply and honestly.
  • Romain Puertolas (France). The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, Puertolas’s first novel is raking in positive reviews and he’s sure to be a popular panelist at the festival.
  • Sarah Waters (England). Waters has a strong fan base in South Africa for her historical fiction, and is sure to attract keen audiences. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, is perfect holiday reading now in preparation for her appearance at the festival.

And here are some of the Seffrican authors you’ll get to rub shoulders with in the creamy light of late autumn Franschhoek:

  • David Attwell (York University). Good news for anyone wanting to get to grips with the work of Coetzee, Attwell will be in Franschhoek to talk about his new book, Face to Face with Time: JM Coetzee and the life of writing, to be published in 2015.
  • Belinda Bauer (Wales). Bauer is one of the most exciting crime writers to gain ascendence in recent years. Her latest novel The Facts of Life and Death, is out now.
  • Lyndall Gordon (Oxford). The biographer of many beloved literary figures, including Virginia Woolf, the Brontes, and Emily Dickinson, Gordon’s newest book, Divided Lives, is a memoir about her relationship with her extraordinary mother. (Gordon may also be presenting a life-writing masterclass/workshop).

And some of the locals who live on African soil:

  • GG Alcock. Alcock’s memoir, Third World Child, is a story of a unique life that could only emerge from South Africa.
  • Ekow Duker. A Ghanaian author, based in Johannesburg, Duker has written two well-received novels — Dying in New York and White Wahala.
  • Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of A Human Being Died that Night, will be at the festival with her new book, Dare We Hope?
  • Daisy Jones, winner of the Sunday Times Best Cookbook of the Year Award for Star Fish — a very useful guide to cooking fish from sustainable stocks.
  • Zelda la Grange, author of the bestselling memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, will share her memories of Madiba.
  • Bongani Madondo, music journalist and author of I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life + Style and Politics of Brenda Fassie, will add a jazzy note to the lineup.
  • Thando Mgqolozana, a powerful voice emerges in the three books by Mgqolozana, A Man Who is Not a Man, Hear Me Alone and Unimportance.
  • Emma Sadleir & Tamsyn de Beer (latter still to confirm her attendance), offer don’t-ignore insights into being active on social media in their book Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex.
  • Jaco van Schalkwyk, an artist and author whose first book The Alibi Club (also available in Afrikaans) introduces an exciting new voice to the SA literary scene.

There will, of course, be many other familiar names from previous festivals, plus a host of new names still to be confirmed. Details of these authors and participants will be revealed in the new year.

(The programme will be available on the FLF website from mid March 2015 — an announcement will be posted on the FLF website, www.flf.co.za, the Franschhoek Literary Festival Facebook page, and on the Twitter feed, @franlitfest.)

 

QUICK REVIEW: Unexpected Lessons in Love

unexpectUnexpected Lessons in Love

Bernardine Bishop

John Murray

ISBN-13: 978-1848547827

Karina Szczurek

The retired psychotherapist Cecilia and her novelist friend Helen are courageously battling cancer. The experience of undergoing a colostomy and living with a stoma binds them. Both are confronted with motherhood in the autumn of their lives: Cecilia, when her son Ian dumps a baby she had no idea existed on her doorstep, and Helen, when she receives a message from the daughter she’d given up for adoption in her twenties.They and their families discover that love has a way of finding you when you least expect it.

The same applies to Unexpected Lessons in Love. The book is that strange creature: a novel which is not exactly well written, clumsy and implausible at times, but one which has such irresistible charm that it is impossible not to love. Sadly, the author died of cancer around the time of publication.

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

Eighth Day: Speculative Poetry

floating grass

Speculative poetry  – poetry themed on science fiction, fantasy, horror—some, any, sort of ‘other’ reality – can be funny, provocative, subversive and, since 1978, has been encouraged and recognised by the Science Fiction Poetry Association via its annual Rhysling Awards. MOIRA RICHARDS reviews a clutch of speculative poetry collections that have recently passed through her hands.

Thaliad-2Thaliad

Marly Youmans

Phoenicia Publishing

Modern-day epic poetry of the destruction of our 21st century world and the seven children who escape toppling mountains and the great inferno. One hundred pages of mesmerising iambic pentameter surge and swell, plunge and soar the journeying through the children’s grief and the rotting remains of what was our civilisation until at last (very) few of the seven triumph over danger and lingering evil and grow into adulthood to parent a new, post-apocalyptic future for humankind.

Blank verse on grand scale, heroic imagery, narrated by the latter day Bard of the Clave tasked with preserving the best of old-world literature and recording the history of the new. Wise beyond her years but, so endearingly, as susceptible as any 19-year-old to charm spun by a stranger with eyes “green as Glimmerglass in a storm.”

The Receptionist

The Receptionist

The Receptionist and other Tales

Lesley Wheeler

Aqueduct

A feminist spec-fic fantasy in which a dastardly college dean, who will quash the budget of any campus colleague rash enough to attempt a thwarting of his sexual predations, is served his just deserts. So too, after some little nudging from Yoda and the (re)discovery of her own powers, is the reluctant hero of the novella.

Lesley Wheeler narrates her tale in thirty-three 10-stanza cantos, every one crafted in the plaited terza rima form that is as seductive of the senses as ouma’s koeksusters. And, albeit in a different sort of way, just as sweet.

You have to read The Receptionist once through to root the hero on, as you boo the villain; a second time just to savour the metaphors; and a third to marvel at the craft with which the poet finesses the form into the service of her content.

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Linda Ann Strang

Honest Publishing

The work of this South African poet from the Eastern Cape appeared in online and print journals the world over before an indie UK publisher snagged her collection of fabulous women. Crafted with startling images and deft twirlings of language, they’re as diverse as a bruised wife who wears her “gore like an evening dress – / tanzanite, rubies, and blueberry pearls” and a feisty grandmother who “beats her demons into frothy submission / with a wooden spoon and broom, / and bakes them to keep watch at her gate / like good dogs.”

For some, Strang writes love scenes so erotic that “even the warty witch / with her frog’s egg fingernails, // has drenched herself in Chanel No. 5 – / secretly longing for valentines this year.”

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

 

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue

Sally Rosen Kindred

Hyacinth Girl Press

Kindred’s speculative poetry digs into the silences of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, giving resistant voice to some of the characters. Tinker Bell wishes to be less dependent, less ephemeral—with more physical (and sexual) substance; Wendy Darling picks away at glossy idealisations of mother; Tiger Lily, the story’s “dusky Diana”, elects to shut, and walk firmly away from, the book that objectifies her as exotic beauty and allows her to say nothing at all.

Threaded among these poems of fantasy/social commentary, are the most moving bits—poetry of sombre reflection on the precarious responsibilities of mothering in a dangerous world, and poetry of little boys lost to their birth mothers. Some of whom may be found again through adoption; others, destined to remain forever lost, never some mother’s darling.

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?

Zara Raab

Finishing Line Press

This narrative poem spins the old fairy tale celebrating the triumph of good over evil into an exploration of greed, the powers men exert over “their” women; of a young woman’s loss of innocence, coming of age and her ultimate subversion of imposed power.

Subtitled as a comedy in seven scenes, the play’s cast list is reminiscent of period farce: the chorus of three hoary village elders remaining on stage to help the story along with droll comment and innuendo; a miller father who, we’re told, is barely distinguishable from the manipulative, pointy-shoed and pointy-nosed imp; a Saint Bernard dog, politely bored by the momentous goings-on around him; and Rumpelstiltskin himself, more a suggestion than a tangible presence, less a threat than those who feel threatened. A jolly presentation of thought provoking ideas.

 

REVIEW: Weeping Waters

weepingwaters_700-400x302

weeping-watersWeeping Waters

Karin Brynard

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143539124

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

Released in 2009 to critical acclaim, Karin Brynard’s Plaasmoord, now translated ably into English by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, laid bare just how farm murders have infiltrated our nation’s psyche – particularly the collective unconscious of the Afrikaner minority, their ties to the land intimately connected to a sense of being and being at home.

Brynard, renowned journalist and political correspondent for Rapport for many years, was canny enough to construct a white knuckle crime-thriller that stood out for marrying acute social diagnosis and socio-political commentary with a deep understanding of the need for suspense and tension and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties.

An assured debut – intriguing from its inception, punchy, gritty, by turns gruesome, sensitive, dense and ever evocative, covering much from stock theft to muti murders, and everything in between – it was Brynard’s background in journalism, one shared by fellow Afrikaans krimi writers Deon Meyer, Chris Karsten and Rudie van Rensburg, that allowed her to get to the heart of the story she was telling.

And it’s far less political than some readers might expect.

Although I was anxious over the way that Brynard’s emotive brand of storytelling would play out in translated form, the end result is a worthy, well-weighted grappling with language and meaning, capturing on balance the unsettling tone and menace of the original, the unctuous dialogue and the crackling different dialects, while the translated text evinces its own gut-punch poetics.

Weeping Waters is an excellent title for this translation, a lead-off into the way that the novel functions is carried ahead by a large and finely drawn ensemble cast, of whom I can only mention a few here. Among the most memorable and well-drawn of these translated figures – a translation of characters that are by definition variations of the Afrikaner, thus allowing for a process of deep cultural translation in the work being done by the writing from Afrikaans into English – are the central figure of artist Freddie Swarts, coming into the Huilwater farm after the death of her father.

Freddie is the central absence that hovers over the action, the brutally slain adoptive mother of a young girl of colour who is also killed. The translated title sets up a change from the more politically discursive and incendiary Plaasmoord, literally “farm murder”, into the more measured but no less resonant Weeping Waters. What this change achieves in relation to the death at the novel’s heart – both a metonymic kind of death and a tragic culling of individual life and livelihood – is to focus a jaundiced eye on the way that space functions in relation to both real people that populate our country, and fictional subjects that help us to understand these actual living beings in the real world.

The extended metaphor of weeping – of lamentation, of trauma bottled up but also released – extends from the Huilwater farm and Freddie herself to her troubled relationship with her sister Saar. Brynard sidesteps an (exclusive) focus on farm murder discourse, and reveals how murder both political and intensely personal.

In bitter conflict with Freddie about the affairs of her ailing father and his estate before his death, Saar becomes one of the novel’s most central figures, her loss and pain over the death of her father and sister flowing directly into the way that we see the main suspect in the eyes of the community and police. Dam, or Adam, is a direct descendant from the bloodline of historical figure Adam Kok, the Griqua leader who by all accounts had a fascinating relationship to Empire and missionaries in South Africa.

Dam is painted in lush strokes and with a terrific eye for interiority and motivation by the translation (much like in the original text), and through the unpacking of the complex relationship between Dam and Freddie – who drew remarkably lucid but disturbing visions of her impending death before it happened – we are able to see just how skilled Brynard is at setting up wave upon wave of paranoia, mistrust and fraught intimacy.

If Freddie’s relationship with her immediate community allows Brynard to dig deeply into issues around land, the erosion of community ties, right-wing obsessions, rural ways of life amid growing political discontent, Brynard’s narrative is always grounded in the reader’s identification with the everyman investigator Inspector Albertus Beeslaar, the novel’s flawed but compassionate figure of detection who must grapple with both the transition from the evils of the city and a personal life in crisis and the darkness of men’s (and women’s) hearts in the rural idyll.

Ultimately, what Weeping Waters gets spot on is the introduction of another compelling leading man, an indisputably goodman, who can allow readers in English to traverse the diverse social strata that make South Africa such a fertile ground for its skilled writers.

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

REVIEW: The Reactive

reactive

reactiveThe Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

ISBN: 9781415207192

REVIEW: Lwandile Fikeni

 

American poet and author, Langston Hughes, once wrote: “[O]ne definition of a great artist might be the creator who projects the biggest dream in terms of the least person”.

This is what preoccupied me as I read through the pages of Masande Ntshanga’s debut novel, The Reactive. Set in Cape Town in the early 2000s, the story is delivered in the first person by Lindanathi, the principal protagonist, who has injected himself with the HI-virus.

In rhythmic prose and with striking lyricism, Ntshanga whisks us into the world of Lindanathi and his two accomplices – Ruan and Cecelia – where drugs, legal and illegal, subsume the three characters’ lives. The three friends maintain their drug habit by selling Lindanathi’s ARVs to the – presumably – startling number of people who are infected with HIV with no foreseeable rehabilitation. The novel plays out during the tragic farce of AIDS denialism by the then government of President Thabo Mbeki which provides a background that makes for pungent socio-political commentary on the anatomy of the post-apartheid state.

However, the writer does not labour this fact. Death’s presence lingers almost negligibly in the text as it does in life, for one must get on with the business of living if one is to get anything done before “he takes his death.”

In the book, Lindanathi occupies a space that has come to define the emergent post-apartheid black middle class youth. Model C schooling, with its accompanying cultural capital and advantages, allows its graduates – of which Lindanathi is one – to traverse the cultural landscape with terrible ease, comfortable in the leafy southern suburbs of Cape Town and the devastating poverty of Du Noon, where the protagonist’s uncle lives in a container with his second wife.

The narrative swings seamlessly from traditional storytelling to that of the modernist tradition of stream-of-conscious as demonstrated by writers such as William Faulkner and the enfant terrible of Zimbabwean late 70s – 80s literary scene – Dambuzo Marechera.

In Masande Ntshanga one finds an erudite writer of exceptional talent, a critical new voice in the contemporary post-apartheid literary scene. His 2013 short story “Space” earned him the Pen International/New Voices Award. In a recent interview, the author brushes off the suggestion that the book is autobiographical, positing instead that “if it’s autobiographical, it’s autobiographical as a chronicle of my thinking, of how my opinions of things have changed and shifted.”

Ardent readers of South African fiction will remember Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow – a novel which also deals with mortality and HIV, among others, as troubling themes. Ntshanga, in his debut offering, joins the tradition of young writers, such as Mpe and K Sello Duiker whose works, principally, dealt with what it means to be young in a country waking up from an apartheid hangover, desperate to re-imagine itself through its fiction.

Lindanathi, to be sure, is the product of his country and in this text, Ntshanga not only reproduces his subjectivity, but does so with disquieting distance; a listlessness which is telling, perhaps, since the country at the time (and even now) treated its youth with apparent disdain, if not resentment. During the Mbeki years and now – with the flagrant corruption of the State in its current form – startling statistics of youth unemployment are attended with the least urgency.

The State, it seems, continues to deny the youth a lifeline. And sooner, than later, the youth will have to react.

 

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

 

 

REVIEW: To The Islands – A Creative Writing Workbook

islands

to_the_islandsTo The Islands – A Creative Writing Workbook

Anne Schuster with Erica Coetzee

Tiber Tree Press

ISBN: 978-0-9921922-9-7

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Writing is a fairly accessible form of expression and most people with a basic education can write. They may not write well enough to entertain or inform others, or be published, but they can string sentences together well enough to let off some of the steam that collects in the head sometimes. Not all writing, after all, is public or needs to be published. Sometimes writing just needs to be writ.

“You don’t need a writing project,” writes Schuster about half way through this book. She suggests that, like Joan Didion, people may write simply to find out what they’re thinking, what they’re looking at, what they see and what it means.

But, no matter how strong the compulsion, many people hesitate to begin writing, as though it is a hallowed occupation for which practitioners received a licence at birth.

For thousands of South Africans (including hundreds of female prisoners, farm workers and refugees), Schuster has facilitated the uneven and often threatening space between wishing to write and having written. And while Schuster’s name might not be generally known, many accomplished South African authors have passed through her hands at some point, including Margie Orford (now known in several countries for her South African crime novels), Máire Fischer (who recently released Birdseye to general acclaim); Shaida Ali (winner of the prestigious University of Johannesburg debut prize for her first book Not A Fairytale), and Tracey Farren (whose award-winning book Whiplash is being turned into a movie).

To be clear: Schuster – herself a published author – does not help people to publish. She helps people to begin and to continue the practise of writing. The publication of To The Islands is a noteworthy event for South African writers, but it is also a poignant one, as it arrives just as Schuster stops running her workshops and courses in order to concentrate on her own writing.

Through the publication of this book, her gentle and encouraging wisdom will have a further geographic reach than Cape Town, which is the city she is best known in.

Books on writing are a dime a dozen in the USA, where the appetite for them appears to be enormous. From Stephen King’s On Writing, to Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write; from Peter Elbow to Natalie Goldberg, South African writers who write regularly and with a sense of purpose, have always had to fish far across the Atlantic to find guidance.

Schuster fills a gaping hole in the South African market, but she is not plugging it with it with any old rubbish. Her vast experience as a coach and facilitator, together with her own experience as an author and publisher, means that her material is meticulously chosen and carefully arranged. Her co-writer Erica Coetzee is a specialist in the development of learning materials and has worked extensively with local and international non-governmental organisations. Their combined talents make this a richly useful workbook.

To The Islands is, as its title states, a workbook, and has a workbook feel to it with its tight and logical internal structure, its lay-out and the use of white space on the pages.

Using principles of Taoist philosophy, Schuster imagines her workbook as an expedition “to the islands”, each of the five islands (each in its own chapter) representing an approach to both the attitude towards and practise of writing.

She explores some of the theory of creativity and writing, but mainly provides ample opportunity for practise and for writing in different forms. The idea is that whether the writer is an absolute beginner, a slightly more skilled writer, or a professional writer working on a new project, the guidance will allow them to write effortlessly and often.

The book can be used in several ways – regularly over a period of five weeks, or more casually whenever the writer is able. And this is where Schuster’s methods are particularly useful: while one might have a vague idea of what needs to be written, or the outline of a project, you may not know where to begin each time you sit down. Creative writing is, quite often, like being stranded in the middle of an ocean with no view to land or landmarks, and no floating device to hang on to. To The Islands provides land to swim towards and territory to explore.

As with all creative arts, writing promotes enquiry and contemplation and I have a liberal view of such things: everyone should have the right to practise any form of it whether they are “good” by outside standards or not. This right to write – or paint, or dance, or sculpt – does not pre-suppose a dutifully adoring audience cheering on the mere effort. Public acceptance and even acclaim requires a lot more direct and perhaps even cerebral engagement with the art and craft of creative endeavour by the creator than mere experimentation. But without useful starting points, much creativity can sink away. These Schuster provides abundantly in this well-produced and aesthetically appealing book.

Schuster has done excellent and valuable work in Cape Town in the past fifteen years. To The Islands reflects her intelligent and intense engagement with creative processes and what allows them to happen most easily.

Schimke is the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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