Home » 2015 » June

REVIEW: 101 Detectives

101 detectives feature image

correct 101 detectives101 Detectives

Ivan Vladislavić

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

I expected excellent writing from Ivan Vladislavić when I began reading this collection of short stories, and found it in abundance. However, I did not expect the hilarity I encountered in some of the tales. Not that Vladislavić is humourless by any means, but I seldom have the pleasure of laughing out loud when I read his work.

The title piece exemplifies this humour. A detective suffering an anxiety disorder travels to the 101 Detectives: Sub-Saharan Africa conference. He sees the name “Joseph Blumenfeld” in red letters on a white background. His reaction seems inspired by the low comedy of Inspector Clouseau: “For a moment he froze and a tight fist of fear clenched in his gut. That name rang a bell. And then he remembered that he was undercover. I am Joseph Blumenfeld, he thought.” Not atypically for Vladislavić, however, his satire of the genre begins to unravel at the edges, allowing glimpses into a fluid play of meanings and sounds that bubbles inside or under narrative, as in “He dug this snub-nosed lingo slubbing out of his pug-ugly mug.”

It is difficult in this limited space to do justice to the versatility of the collection. “The Fugu Eaters” is a detached, ironic description of two security policeman waiting in a hotel room for a subject under surveillance to arrive. Their humanity is suspect not only because of what they think and say, but also because of the surveillance to which they are subjected by the writing, which holds them under a cold, detached light. “Hair Shirt” and “Lullaby” are conventionally structured short stories about moving human situations, though both are subtly observed; in the latter story, the narrator’s detachment is unable to contain the sadness of the climax, allowing emotion to emerge freely.

“Exit Strategy” is the tale of a corporate storyteller who must operate in a world of corporate jargon and management speak, echoing Vladislavić’s enduring satiric reiteration of commercialised language, as if to reproduce its banality. The storyteller experiences a crisis on discovering that there is also a corporate poet. As a result of her consequent dip in performance, she is obliged to undergo sessions in a “recitation pod,” a claustrophobic device that envelopes her head. According to the manual, it “gives your words weight and returns them to you, ‘delivers’ is the technical term, in an apparently tangible form.” The pod is also a literary device, however. It points to the muteness and entrapment of a creative mind that can only think and imagine in the grotesque terms imposed by her hackneyed, flattening linguistic environment.

Similar themes emerge in “The Reading,” though with much greater emotional resonance. Maryam Akello is a refugee who has written about her traumatic experience of abduction and captivity. She does a reading in Germany in her native language Acholi, before an audience in which only one person understands her. The narrative structure is one of the most interesting features of the story, in that it dips into the point of view of various audience members, so building up an account of a listening as much as of a reading. It is only after she has completed her reading that a translation follows. The spotlight then falls on her translator, Hans Günther Basch, who reads his German translation, and subsequently on how he is affected by its content, and how that in turn affects the listeners. In this way writing, reading and listening are again made to cycle around each other, exposing more slippage and eccentricity than even human clockwork should have to endure.

Despite my admiration, I felt at times that Vladislavić’ speaks too much to himself, like Akello reading in a tongue that is opaque to her audience. “Dead Letters,” for example, makes partial sense if you have read his novel Double Negative. There we encounter a Mrs Pinhiero, who possesses a set of dead letters (i.e. letters that were never delivered and have fallen out of the system). The fiction in 101 Detectives presents a selection of these dead letters, without context or coherence. Framed as baldly as this, it makes too little sense. I had similar reservations about “The Trunks – a Complete History,” in which the writer-narrator struggles to represent the life of a long-dead stranger by combing through the objects, books and pictures he has left behind. The distance is too great to be overcome, however, the objects are insufficiently interesting – particularly because the life behind them has to be inferred, which is a dry business – and so I found this story tedious.

In balance, these flaws are a side-effect of Vladislavić’s considerable structural and thematic range. He is always willing to go out on a limb, an appetite for risk that has delivered some of the finest prose written in this country today.

  • Barris is a writer and researcher, and works at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

REVIEW: Best White and Other Anxious Delusions

2015-05-17 22.11.26

best whiteBest White and Other Anxious Delusions

Rebecca Davis

Pan Macmillan

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

When there is grand hype around the release of the book, it can often be a disappointing read. Not necessarily because it is bad, but because it is quite good – and nothing more.

Cultish admiration of an author’s public persona can sometimes obscure the quality of their work.

The debut work of Rebecca Davis, possibly one of the best known journalists currently working in South Africa – not only because she has covered some of the most newsworthy events of recent years, but because she is very active and has a large following on Twitter – is in such danger.

She comes across as likable (though not everyone likes what she has to say). It would be easy for her fans to approve of her first foray into book publishing simply because she wrote it.

And the hype around the release of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions is – well, it’s big.

So the chances of this book fizzling like a giant balloon are great.

Does it?

No. Not once. Not even when you read it cover to cover (an episodic approach over a period of time is more recommendable, however).

Over 32 chapters, Davis maintains a consistent level of “edunewsatainment”, a made-up word you’ll find in the chapter entitled “Look It Up”, and which would refer to a “media product which is part education, part news, and part entertainment”, if it were, in fact, a word.

Davis herself calls Best White a collection of essays. Which, indeed, is what they are.

Sarah Bakewell, writing about Michel de Montaigne’s essays in How To Live, says his essays have “no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please” with them.

It counts for Davis’s essays too.

What this requires on the part of the reader is a certain amount of tolerance. Do not approach Best White expecting answers because, in the best tradition of the form, Davis answers nothing. If you like your non-fiction authors and journalists to dole out wisdom and point their finger with authority at a direction in which they believe you should move, then Davis is not for you.

If, however, you can plop around happily in puddles of randomness without such expectation, read Best White, because not only will you laugh really hard sometimes (and want to interrupt family members in their own business to read some paragraphs aloud), but you’re likely to learn stuff.

Because Davis, like all good essayist and journalists, has a voraciously curious mind.

She is able to impart the most fascinating nuggets of information that seems completely unrelated to her topic in such a way that you feel you might want to spend an hour or two – as soon as you’ve managed to put her book down – doing a little bit of research into types of winds, Kitty Genovese and the possible legal complications of an accident involving two self-driving cars.

What makes her writing so funny – quite apart from the fact that she has a clear, authentic and consistent voice – is that she uses the essay as a lens for close observation of the world. And when the world – and here, particularly South Africa – is viewed closely, its inherent absurdity is revealed.

For inconclusive, self-effacing, informed humour, delivered with often almost perfect pitch by an openly ambivalent writer (she often questions her own take on things), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying example of essay writing in South Africa.

And if the zeitgeist has you chewing your cuticles to shreds, then that’s all the more reason to read Davis’s collection of wild anecdote that manage, admirably, also to capture a social and historical moment that both has us in its thrall but which is, like all other social and historical moments, transient.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2015. 

 

 

Eighth Day: Japanese Poetry

IMG_20150309_195734

The thousand year plus history of Japanese poetry, poetic form and genre has intrigued, influenced and set poets from the West a-squabble during the last century or so as various groups attempt to extrapolate and propound their one right and true whole from their small portion of the elephant. Tread with care.

WhiskWhisk by Yoko’s Dogs

Pedlar Press

Writers, unlike most other artists, generally eschew the rigour and joys of collective creating but here, four very different and independently prolific Canadian poets compose as Yoko’s Dogs, as complement to their separate artistries. Whisk’s mostly 4- and 8-stanza poems alternate short 3-line, and shorter 2-line verses in the manner of renga, the centuries old genre of Japanese collaborative linked poetry.

So brief a form lends itself to Imagist concision and piquancy; writing verses in turn, to acrobatic repartee that the Dogs employ with the sure agility of trapeze artists—according readers equal share in the fun. Sensuous images and their juxtapositionings mesh to generate mood and meanings that ripple below the surface words. Much more to these poems than greets the eye of initial readings and, teasingly, they revealed to me, a little more on every one subsequent.

 

Tanka100g100 Tanka by 100 Poets

of Australia & New Zealand

Edited by Amelia Fielden, Beverley George & Patricia Prime

Ginninderra Press

Tanka, like haiku, seem (too) often written and enjoyed merely as playful counting ditty. The poets here, however, with subtlety, wit, allusion, metaphor, and sonnet-like volta, show off all the artistry and nuance of the form as poetry. Compiled in emulation of the influential 13th century Japanese anthology, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, many of these tanka (short songs) also touch on love—yearnings, gentle erotica, heartbreak, remembrances.

But as classic Japanese waka has in its 1 300-year lifetime, modernised into tanka, so do these contemporary poets extend the form to the modern Australasian world—surfers waxing boards, dreaming of that perfect wave; zesty fragrances of oranges doomed to tomorrow’s marmalade; the insidious onset of Alzheimers; bushfires spewing “breath from Hades”… Wonderfully diverse; skilfully portrayed.

 

MomentaryStayA Momentary Stay by Charl JF Cilliers

Lots, it’s been said, depends on the colour of a wheelbarrow in the rain. Even more, judging by the volume and ferocity of haiku discussions I witness across the planet, depends on the interpretation of haiku; what it is, how it’s to be writ.

There are five haiku and a tanka in this book which is worth reading just for the joy of seeing the forms interpreted with rare understanding of the nuances of their Japanese antecedents. Two examples (that also encapsulate the tenor of the whole collection):

 

The moon’s half awake –

I sing in its hollow shape

on the edge of light.

and

The mystery enfolds

me – here where willow trees bend

over their shadows.

Cilliers fills his collection with keen observations of his world and mullings over the ways in which poetry helps make sense of it.

 

StarlightRecycling Starlight by Penny Harter

Mountains & Rivers Press

Harter opens this moving collection that charts the journey through her first year of widowhood, with a haibun—the ‘prose poem plus haiku’ form Matsuo Bashō famously employed to compose his travel journals in 17th century Japan. The poetry begins at Bill’s deathbed and with cancer’s ruthless wasting of a husband’s body; it continues, portraying numbness of loss and the exquisite shards of pain that penetrate it.

There is another haibun for the packing and move to a new home, trailed by memories; memories that waken the vain hopes that “I can dream myself back home.” At the last, and as the title suggests, the poems transition to a sense of balance regained; into some letting go of the darkness and to the tasting, again, of that which was, and will always be, sweetness.

Scholtz-Haiku

 

Living with Haiku by Pieter Scholtz

(Drawings by Andrew Verster)

Horus Publications

Very few South African poets pay serious attention to Japanese poetry form and genre. But since Steve Shapiro’s, In a Borrowed Tent, won the ’96 Ingrid Jonker, there’s been a steady, albeit slow, growth of interest in haiku, tanka, haibun and renku.

Haiku can take you far from the peaceful, monkish communing-with-nature roots you may associate it with, and Scholtz wisely sidesteps, straddles perhaps, the often bloody divides of opinion about the form. He also looks to Yosa Buson’s mastery of haiga for his pairings of drawings with the haiku in the collection.

The poet writes succinctly of love, life, and about the brain haemorrhage that almost killed him, managing always, to find beauty in even the difficult parts of life.

 

The doctor who became a writer

Maria

 

MariaMaria Phalima, author of Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away is one of five authors who made it on to the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton. The award is given annually for a book that demonstrates “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

You’ve just been nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award and your second book was recently published. Both are, to some degree, memoir. Tell us about them.

Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away is about my journey through medicine – why I chose to study medicine in the first place, my experiences of working in the public health system, and the reasons I chose to walk away from the profession. I wrote this book because I wanted to fully understand the reasons behind my life-changing decision. I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision; throughwriting the book I wanted to interrogate that decision and to finally put that chapter of my life behind me.

My second book, Second Chances, is a novel for teens. It isn’t intended as a memoir, but of course it does draw on my life experiences to a certain degree. It’s about a young girl from Soweto who wants to be a doctor, but finds many obstacles in her way – poverty, peer pressure, HIV, sugar daddies. She has to navigate these obstacles and keep her eye on the prize. I wrote the novel because I wanted young people from difficult circumstances to know that their immediate environment needn’t limit their dreams. (Second Chances was the English category winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award in 2013).

The theme running through both books is one of overcoming challenges and trying again. I strongly believe that life always gives us a second chance, as long as we are willing to grasp it and make the most of the opportunity.

You identify now as a writer, rather than as a doctor. It’s a middle class parent’s nightmare: “If you want to get ahead in the world, become a doctor or a lawyer. If you want to be an actor or a writer you’re never going to get anywhere.” How do you interpret that fear, how did your parents react to your career change and what will you tell your children when they start thinking about what they want to be one day?

We all want the best for our children; I understand that clearly now that I’m a parent. I imagine my mother was concerned about my decision, though she never expressed it. She was very supportive; she wanted me to do well in whatever field I chose.

Through my drastic career change I see that our work is not so much about the pieces of paper we acquire; it’s more about the gifts we express and how these gifts can positively impact other people. So my children are free to choose whatever career they feel will best enable them to serve others and live a fulfilling life. And I think it’s also important for them to realise that their careers will evolve as they grow and mature. What works in their 20s and 30s may not serve them as well in their 40s.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival recently you told Grade 11 learners that you’d been a reader as a child and that it made you realise what the possibilities were for you in the world. How did you become a reader?

I read to escape the reality of my home environment, and in so doing I found out that the world was far bigger than what I was seeing around me. I was fortunate that I attended a private school with a well-stocked library, so I had plenty of choice. Also my mother worked in education and she often brought home books from the African Writers Series.

Reading is vital for young people – for people of all ages, actually. It’s a form of personal development. I think young people should read whatever they find interesting and relevant to their lives. We as adults can do a lot to encourage them by reading to them when they are little, and by setting an example by also being avid readers. When children realise that there is a whole universe inside the pages of their books, they will want to explore it.

Do you think enough books are being published in South Africa that reflect a reality children and teenagers can relate to?

The majority of young people in this country face huge challenges in their communities, and often they have no way of processing what is going on around them. I think books which speak to these challenges in a way that is accessible to them – and enjoyable to read – can do a lot, to not only encourage them to read but also to impart knowledge and empowering perspectives. Young people need to be able to see themselves in what they read, so I think it’s vitally important that more books are written and published which black youths can identify with.

Medicine is about healing. Can books and literature be about healing?

Absolutely. Writing Postmortem was a cathartic experience for me, and I know from the feedback I’ve had from many doctors that it has helped them to see that they are not alone in their struggles within our health system.

I went into medicine because I wanted to heal others. I realise now that, through my writing, I am continuing on my path as a healer.

  • This Q & A first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2015

I’M DROOLING OVER: Sweet

03_SaltedCaramelPopcorn
Sweet cover

© Sam Linsell

Sweet

Sam Linsell

Struik Lifestyle

Review: Lesley Byram

Why yes, I do like caramel. Why do you ask?

If you tried the recipe we shared recently for Sarah Dall’s salted caramel you’ll understand why it’s hard to move on.

I’m always keen to try things I haven’t tried before, especially when the flavour combinations are already firm favourites. And I was going to skip over the salted caramel recipe in Sam Linsell’s recently launched second cookbook, Sweet. That is, until I tasted it at a Cape Times event at which she recently gave a demonstration.

Now, I’m a believer in not messing with recipes that already work. Why, for instance, fiddle with crème brûlée when the original recipe is already perfect? Why add caramel to crunchy, fresh popcorn? Better still, why add popcorn to perfectly good caramel?

With good reason, it turns out. I used to enjoy the ready made caramel popcorn until I realised it tastes as though it’s made with margarine. Nothing on earth deserves to be made with margarine.

Sam’s recipe is for spicy salted caramel popcorn. I wasn’t sure about that. Cinnamon I can understand but this recipe includes cumin and paprika and if I hadn’t been at her demonstration I would have given it a miss. It’s just not a combination I could imagine going with caramel. I was wrong.

You don’t taste the paprika but there is a subtle hint of cumin which really adds to the deliciousness of the caramel.

03_SaltedCaramelPopcornI decided to make a batch for a friend who loves caramel popcorn to see if it really is as easy to make as Sam made it appear.

I didn’t look at the clock but I don’t think it took more than 15 minutes in total.

Sam’s tips were useful. Use a neutral flavoured oil – I used the neutral flavoured coconut oil. Put the oil and the popcorn kernels in the pot together and then heat. Pop on the lid and wait for the oil to heat up. It doesn’t take long at all for the kernels to start popping. Listen closely and, when there is a two to three second gap between poppings, remove it from the heat. Any longer than that and you risk burning it.

Put it in a large bowl, making sure there are no unpopped corn kernels in the bowl.

Many will say that the trick to making caramel is not to stir the sugar, butter and syrup mix while it’s boiling. Sam disagrees. While it is important not to have sugar crystals on the side of the pot (wash them off with a pastry brush dipped in water), Sam says continuously stirring prevents some parts from going darker than others or becoming bitter.

Once you’ve added the vanilla and spices and mixed it well you can pour it over the popcorn in the bowl. Work fairly quickly when you do this to ensure all the popcorn gets an even coating before the caramel starts to harden. I managed this without any trouble but if you find that some popcorn is without caramel and some clumped together you can put it all in the oven in a roasting pan at 120ºC for a while before stirring again. Stirring with two spoons or spatulas works well. Put the bowl on a rubber mat to stop it moving around your counter top if you don’t have someone to hold it for you – or use a heavier bowl.

Then you can decide whether you want individual popcorn or clumps. Individual pieces look more professional but if you prefer to munch on a clump, why not?

This makes a lovely gift in a pretty jar tied with a ribbon.

spicy salted 
caramel popcorn

Makes 10–12 cups

125 g corn kernels
10 ml coconut oil, or any other neutral oil 
5 ml ground cumin
5 ml ground cinnamon
3 ml paprika
5 ml salt
2 ml bicarbonate of soda
150 g butter
200 g granulated white sugar
30 ml golden syrup
5 ml vanilla extract

This recipe turns ordinary popcorn into something special, worthy of a party. The spice is mild enough to give it an exciting flavour edge, while still suitable for children. You could add more paprika, chilli or cayenne if you want to take the heat up a notch. I use coconut oil when making popcorn – it is a little healthier andgives the  popcorn a lovely flavour – but a neutral oil such as sunflower works equally well.

Preheat the oven to 120 °C. Line a baking tray with silicone or baking paper.

Make the popcorn any way that your prefer. (I like to use a large skillet with a glass lid.) Transfer the popcorn to a large, deep bowl; it should only half fill the bowl, allowing space to toss thesauce.

Mix all the spices and bicarbonate of soda together.

In a medium-size, heavy-based pot bring the butter, sugar and syrup to the boil. Continue to let it bubble, stirring continuously, until the mixture turns golden-brown and reaches the hard crack stage of 155 °C. Add the vanilla extract and spice mix and stir vigorously for a few seconds, then remove from the heat. Pour the hot caramel over the popcorn and toss to coat.

Spread the caramel-covered popcorn evenly on the prepared baking tray and bake for 
15 minutes. Remove it from the oven and toss to ensure it’s evenlycoated. Return it to the oven for a further 15 minutes, then remove, toss again and leave to cool.

Once cool, break it up and store in an airtight container.

(Extracted from Sweet by Sam Linsell (Struik Lifestyle). Available at all good book stores, RRP of R250.00)