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QUICK REVIEW: Reflections

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Reflection

Heinrich van den Berg

HPH Publishing

From the lion’s eye that coruscates on the front cover, to the final vivid double-page photographs of colourful birds in colourful surroundings, there is not a single page that doesn’t surprise the viewer, nor a single dud photograph in this spectacular coffee table book.

These wildlife photographs move from black and white through intensifying shades to arrive finally at vivid colour – an interesting and arresting choice of arrangement which succeeds spectacularly because of the intrinsic drama in the progression.Reflection inside 3D

Van den Berg’s eye for detail and composition, an ability to exploit light to luminescence and a natural understanding how the theatrical in nature can best be captured to share with a wide audience, make this a breath-taking book.

The accompanying text, however, is distracting. Where one expects information on species and geography, we get obscure philosophical ponderings that detract from the very intimate impact each sensational photograph makes. – Karin Schimke

REVIEW: Nora Webster

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nora webster cover imageNora Webster

Colm Tóibín

Viking

ISBN-13: 978-1439138335

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Imagine a novel stripped of drama, of a dramatic arc and of any pretensions towards a rich poetic language, which follows the minutia of the life of a widow in the sixties –  it doesn’t sound very enticing.

Possibly, without prior knowledge of Tóibín’s work, I might, in fact, have abandoned this book for the fact that it seems to plod onwards. But Tóibín is, almost unfailingly, a richly rewarding author to read and even if each of his novels is completely different to the previous one, it is usually a deeply satisfying experience.

Nora Webster lives in Enniscorthy, a small town in Ireland, in the 1960s. She is recently widowed and is the mother of four children, two older daughters, and two boys still at school.

Her husband, Maurice, was a teacher, much loved by his students and by the townsfolk and even by Nora’s family. Nora, on the other hand, though respected, evokes wariness rather than warmth. She is a prickly woman, and one senses that the people around her interpret her reserve as haughtiness. She seldom wavers, however, in her duties and diligences within the small close-knit, ever-curious and religiously and politically judgmental community in which she finds herself. And while she finds the constant scrutiny and visits from acquaintances after Maurice’s death tiresome and invasive, it is also because of this community that she finds a way to save herself and her family from ruin.

Nora must make difficult life and financial decisions on her own now, a job she seemed to share equally with Maurice before his death. She is soon employed, for the first time since her marriage, in the office where she worked before she married. While she is a fast and reliable worker, she is also strong-willed and rebellious, standing up to the office bully and also joining a union in what appears to her employers to be an act of disloyalty.

And so, very slowly, unfolds the story of a woman truly becoming herself in the wake of a terrible loss. Using an intimate third person narrator – who provides only Nora’s interior world and its perceptions – Tóibín tells this story without fanfare, tracking a familiarly ordinary life. In it, crises threaten, sometimes break, but are weathered – very much the way real life unfolds.

But this life, again just like our own lives, is played against the backdrop of political turmoil. The Troubles are just starting in Ireland and the country is shaken by demonstrations, gun-running politicians and general turmoil. Nora’s youngest daughter, a quiet, studious woman, becomes politically active, and Nora herself flexes her political muscles. I found Nora Webster an interesting study on how conventional women unstick themselves narrowly defined roles and slowly turn into more whole human beings as they challenge gender expectations in small but triumphant rebellions.

This is the Irish author’s tenth novel and the only thing that has become predictable for me about Tóibín is that each book is completely different to the previous one, but each is reliably good.

REVIEW: The Arrogance of Power: The South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown

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aThe Arrogance of Power: The South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown

Xolela Mangcu

Tafelberg

REVIEW: Mvelase Peppetta 

For me, politics is more than just mere politics. It can be as much a piece of entertainment as good a movie. At various points in my life, I’ve found myself deeply invested in politics as strange as following the merry-go-round of Japanese Prime-Ministers to small district races in the US.

South African politics, however, are slightly less entertaining.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, our politicians rank right up there with their international counterparts in having hidden agendas, murky pasts, and the ability to stab a former colleague in the back at the turn of a dime. What hampers my ability to enjoy the gamesmanship of South African politics is that South African political skulduggery is something that has consequences on my life and being the person I am, can make me rather emotional.

As such, beyond following what’s happening in the news, I try not to get too enmeshed in South African politics which often means steering clear of books on South African politics.

However, with Xolela Mangcu’s The Arrogance of Power – South Africa’s Leadership Meltdown I thought that it just being a collection of his columns from the past 16 years, it wouldn’t be too distressing.

But, in Mangcu’s own words the reasoning for this collection is because of a “sense of shame about the direction we (South Africa) have taken in the past 20 years.”

I fully agree that in the past 20 years South African politicians have failed us. For me, Mangcu’s decision to publish The Arrogance of Power because of that immediately placed me on guard. It in no way, detracted from how much I enjoyed the collection, just altered the frame in which I viewed it. In saying that he put it out because of a sense of shame, I knew that there was a narrative arc he was building in the columns he chose to include, and those he chose to exclude. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, just something readers should keep in mind.

What I found most fascinating in this collection was reading up on the early-Mbeki years.

I knew the facts of that period, but Mangcu’s collection – as it does throughout – gave a jolt to the memory of what that time was actually like. We now know what an unmitigated disaster Mbeki’s presidency ultimately was for South Africa. But through Mangcu’s columns from that time you remember how hopeful he, and South Africans in general, were at the start of his presidency.

By presenting you with Mangcu’s, generally mainstream, analysis written from the times that became political watersheds for South Africa, the reader is transported back to that time.

That, more than being a narrative driven by a sense of shame, is where Mangcu’s collection is strongest.

It not only reminds of where we’ve been, but also dredges up all the feelings from that time. As I see it, if South Africa is ever to get itself on the correct path again, being aware of both the facts of a particular time and also the emotions from that time, will be key.

 

Eighth Day: History poetry

eighth day

Poems and history have coexisted since before writing began—as part of the remembering and passing down, from generation to generation, of oral histories. And today poets continue to explore people and events and retell those stories as poetry. MOIRA RICHARDS shares her thoughts on five collections of poems with history.

DLDAn Elastic State of Mind: D.L.D.’s Autobiography in Poems

Ren Powell

Wigestrand

Published together with Eirik Lodén’s Norwegian translation, this collection dramatises the life of 19th century champion of the indigent insane, Dorothea Lynde Dix – personal friend of the 13th president of the USA – who supported herself as author from age 22. Her first book reached its 60th edition in just 45 years.

Powell bases the poems on biographical studies, divides the book into three acts with a cast listing, and background notes about the subject – my favourite way to learn history, and to enjoy poetry.

Two sestina convey a sense of some of this redoubtable woman’s underlying ambivalences but the villanelles… oh, the villanelles. Two close the first and last acts, a third lies midway in the second; all are in first person, in the voice of Ms Dix and sooo effectively bring to life, the woman, her determination, and her sense of self.

CloudPharmacyCloud Pharmacy

Susan Rich

White Pine Press

Central to this collection is the small group of poems that portray the work of Victorian photographer, Hannah Maynard who, employing the alchemies of mirrors, montage and multiple exposure settings, created fantastical self-portraits as means of coming to terms with her life after the death of her teenage daughter: “Look! I’ve learned to slice myself in three / … / three women I’m loath to understand—”

Around that core, Rich spins ephemeral images of her own (sur)realities in which memories, appetites and the ambivalences of half a lifetime swirl among almost tangible disquietudes: How to move beyond the compass of the past, its dead and its obfuscations to best live the dubious half a life left? “How to write your one blue life?”

FrancoisVaseTales of the François Vase

Julia Older

Hobblebush Books

Imagine, if you inhabited this world for two and a half millennia, what you might witness and experience! Older writes a variety of voices to recreate and dramatise the “birth” and life of a famed museum piece—ancient Greek wedding bowl used to hold wine for guests. In the opening poem, the vase herself sings an ode in celebration of her charge, as heady now as 25 centuries ago.

The poetry continues, narrating witness of the travels, diverse contents, and the three smashings and putting together-agains in the life of the vase… until at last she is set down quiet and secure in a light that shines upon all her stories: five bands of pictures depicting dozens of scenes and hundreds of figures from Homer’s Iliad.

PlumePlume

Kathleen Flenniken

University of Washington Press

Horror seeps gently yet relentlessly from the words in these pages—as uranium might from an underground contamination plume. The poems pick through the 70-year history of the USA’s Hanford nuclear production site that, inter alia, manufactured plutonium to build nuclear weapons during WWII.

Flenniken crafts images of the nearby dormitory town where she grew up, populated by government employees and their families in identical houses—all infused with the same patriotic pride, untruths about the river in which they swim and fish for food, and with stray bits of the radioactive waste of their labours; the tragic irony that many of them, too, become ill as did survivors of the Nagasaki bomb. Poetry of betrayal, dread, and helpless understanding of fathomless consequence.

TheEyeBbThe Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems

Laura Long

Finishing Line Press

Sister of the more famous Sir William, German-born Caroline Herschel was a respected mathematician and astronomer in her own right and lived to see her (also more famous) nephew, John, sail to Cape Town to chart the skies of the southern hemisphere in 1834. Long introduces this fictional autobiography as “imagination steeped in historical siftings and the breath between the lines”—my favourite way of learning about the people of the past.

Like a tiny constellation, these 21 poems (most of which contain at least one star) illumine the inner life of an unmarriageable former scullery maid who, enthralled by the Milky Way galaxy in her telescope, lived from clear night to cloudless night to read nebulae, catalogue stars and, perchance, divine a comet—or eight.

 

 

 

2014’s Top Ten South African books

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Every year, The Star asks me to select the top ten South African books of the year. Lists – just like literary prizes – are inherently problematic, exclusionary and faulty, yet I love them for their cranky assumption that they are right. Cranky, because I think lists know their own vulnerabilities but bliksem forth anyway.

I chose this year’s list by asking myself: if a foreigner came to live here for a while, which books would give him or her a sense of what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to be South African? These are the books I’d send them to:

TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2014

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

Spanning almost four decades in South Africa from the seventies, this intelligently devised chronicle takes in the lives of figures on the fringes of power, taking in broad social change and highlighting the individual against the backdrop of history. Coovadia’s fluid and unstrained prose shows the complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Mark Gevisser

Publisher

Memoir and history meld together around Gevisser’s cartographical journey into the social and geographic soul of Johannesburg. A breathtaking, intelligent and incisive poetry of place and identity emerge from the pages of this compelling non-fiction work.

Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

Maria Phalima

Tafelberg

This brave author, who seeks first to find fault with herself for her inability to continue coping within an inoperably sick public health care system, lays bare one of the most appalling failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Diving

Helen Walne

Penguin

This marvellous work is quick to read but plunges very deeply. Walne writes with a kooky clarity of vision about her brother’s death, examining suicide with unflinching intelligence and – oddly – with humour.

Dear Bullet

Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

A devastating story about a single act of insouciant, casual and unspeakable inhumanity.  The “before” story has warmth; the “after” story is chilling considering how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised.

An Imperfect Blessing

Nadia Davids

Umuzi

Davids investigates notions of liminality and heritage in this compassionate and humorous novel about Alia, a teenager at the time of the first democratic elections. She captures the in-between spaces in South Africa’s history, geography, identities and relationships.

A Man of Good Hope

Johnny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

A chronicle of a young Somalian’s journey to South Africa at a time our country was particularly inhospitable to foreigners. Steinberg investigates the loss of control, the “in-betweenness” of having been displaced by great forces of history.

I See You

Ishtiyak Shukri

Jacana

Set in a fictional African country and around the life of an abducted photojournalist, this utterly singular novel elucidates how the present is also a part of history, and makes a case for dissonant and dissident voices.

Black Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

Stepping gently into the potentially explosive area of farm murders, Sherry writes about the rippling effect of trauma through the eyes of a young girl. This is an unsentimental and richly rewarding novel that tightens its grip as it develops.

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

Set in Cape Town before anti-retroviral drugs became generally available, Ntshanga’s brilliant debut follows Lindanathi’s life as it segues into the murky world of legal and illegal drugs. Lyrical and haunting, the novel “hears” the youth the way the goverment refuses to.

  • This list first appeared in The Star in December 2014.

 

REVIEW: Esther’s House

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EHEsther’s House                      

Carol Campbell                     

Umuzi

ISBN: 9781415207406

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Carol Campbell in this, her second novel, has tried to bring to life the depressing, dire situation in which many, if not most, of the ordinary people of South Africa find themselves. She is showing us what it’s like to be decent people living in an indecent world, what it’s like to have no food to feed hungry children at night, what it’s like to be a helpless person faced with official corruption and utterly unfairness. We have all read the stories of the endless housing lists, the endless waiting, the endless despair, the utter hopelessness of poverty – whether of opportunity, money, resources access to infrastructure, or, in fact, of everything.

Esther is a mother, a wife, a reformed drunk, a good friend to her neighbours and – most importantly – thoroughly ticked off with the situation she finds herself in. Husband Neville is a waistrel, daughter Liedjie is trying to pass matric at night school while son Jaco has, unbeknownst to his mother, dropped out of school.  Their friend Katjie, who is also living in a backyard shack, is managing to keep body and soul together (just) as well as deal with her no-good daughter Shireen and Shireen’s two little girls.

And so the story begins with Katjie’s shack burning down, killing Shireen, and Esther trying to care for Katjie’s family as well as her own. Without wanting to spoil the ‘surprise’ of the unfolding dramas and traumas, things do not improve from here onwards.  Although – (warning – here comes a spoiler) – they do almost all come right in the end, at least for Esther.

The aangaanery in the lokasie and the newly built RDP houses is described in a mixture of Afrikaans, English and South African vernacular without any recourse to italics or a glossary.  This is fine for us South Africans but could be a little confusing for others.  In fact, the language is pretty plat. Despite this, the protagonists often express unusually insightful thoughts which are, unfortunately, not very nuanced; they could all have come from the same person.  On the whole, this is the problem with Campbell’s book.  The intentions are admirable and Campbell clearly has done her homework on Oudtshoorn and other Karroo towns and has knowledge of the townships that hide behind their hills as well as an ear for some of the language.  But the characters, even when behaving feistily, come over as one dimensional.  The various deaths, and there are a number, are dealt with in a matter of fact manner and then the story simply moves on.

The shenanigans involved in Titty’s acquisition of a house when not even on the housing list (nor having been born when Esther and Katjie put their names down) is treated in a fleeting manner which is a pity because, I think, this was the premise that Campbell was pointing to when writing her novel – the corruption and graft that is going on in South Africa to the detriment of all. But, eventually, the ending is almost fairytale-like.

 

Masande Ntshanga’s been reading a lot of fiction by women

Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive
Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga is the author of The Reactive

I’ve been reading women fiction writers lately, some of them recent books and others older releases. From the recent past, I was taken in by The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, and here in particular her story, “Virgins”, which is the first in her collection. ‘

Hunger, the novella by Lan Samantha Chang and The Hunger Angel, a novel by Herta Müller, also drew me in, in particular Müller’s book.

Corregidora by Gayle Jones, which I read for the first time around four years ago, is one I plan to go back to, and more recently, I’ve liked the debut novels coming in from North America: Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, and Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce—especially this last one. I also liked what Claire Battershill, a fellow nominee for the 2013 New Voices Award, did with “Circus”, her first collection.

Then, closer to home I found Tales of the Metric System by Imraan Coovadia instructive and The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto haunting. Still on my to-read list, I have: Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry—which I feel lucky to have found—The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, The Erl-King by Michel Tournier, In Her Own Words by Joan of Arc, and Indaba, My Children by Credo Mutwa.

TWO QUICK THRILLER REVIEWS

whisperlips

Thriller and crime fan Samantha Bartlett reviews two recent crime novels – one with a ghostly feel.

MurderMurder 101

Faye Kellerman

Harper Collins

ISBN: 9780062326355

Samantha Bartlett

Faye Kellerman has kept readers engaged with the life and crimes of Detective Peter Decker for 28 years in more than 20 books, each one a best-seller.

Now in his 60s, Decker has retired from the LAPD and moved to the police department of university town Greenbury in upstate New York, where he plans to spend his time breaking up drunken student brawls and rescuing cats from trees.

But the theft of Tiffany panels soon leads to two brutal murders and with a green partner with attitude problems and no other real detectives to back him up, Decker is forced to rope in his long-suffering wife Rina to help with the investigation.

Murder 101 will be satisfying for Decker fans, but not ideal to introduce his character and complex relationships to a first-time reader. If you’re keen to explore the series, start earlier and work your way towards this book – it’ll make a lot more sense that way.

Her Last Whisperwhisper

Karen Robards

Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 978-0-8041-7826-6

Samantha Bartlett

This is the third in the Dr Charlotte Stone series and this time she’s on the trail of the “Cinderella Killer”, a charming psychopath who kills young women and may have taken FBI agent Lena Kaminsky’s sister.

Stone has a very clinical outlook and is an expert in the psychology of serial killers, but at the same time she is a ghost whisperer and has a spirit love interest in Michael Garland – who may or may not himself be a serial killer.

While Robards has clearly developed a huge following for the Stone series, it’s difficult to reconcile a paranormal mystery with a serial killer plot line, and a “ghost lover” competing with a flesh and blood male and causing such emotional angst. It feels like there are two books fighting in one dust jacket and neither of them is winning. – Samantha Bartlett

QUICK REVIEW: Tokoloshe Song

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Karina Szczurek reviews two recent books with alternate realities.

TokolosheTokoloshe Song

Andrew Salomon

Umuzi

ISBN: 9781415207017

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Just when he thought that his life is going to be all peace and quiet after giving up a career as a lawyer to restore old boats, Richard is called in for an emergency at the shelter for mistreated tokoloshes where he volunteers. There he meets Lun. After a false start, they become friends and embark on a roller-coaster adventure which takes them across the country to Nieu Bethesda and back in search of the grain of truth at the heart of an ancient myth. They receive assistance from Emily and Sindiwe, midwives of a secret order. Hot on their heels are a ruthless drug lord and a world-class assassin.

I’m not a fantasy fan, but I have enjoyed some of Salomon’s award-winning short fiction. Tokoloshe Song is his debut novel for adults and is as delightful and entertaining as his stories.

StationElevenHCUS2Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

Picador

ISBN: 9780385353304

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Within a short period of time a lethal flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Civilisation as we know it grinds to an abrupt halt. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of the mayhem which ensues. At its centre is the resourceful Kirsten of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare.

Spanning a few decades before and after the collapse, Mandel draws a bleak picture of humanity, but the darkness is penetrated by flashes of light and goodwill. Creativity, art, self-expression pave the way to society’s precarious rebirth as the individual characters realise how strongly the drive to be remembered is anchored within them. A thrilling page-turner which is simultaneously though-provoking and entertaining, Station Eleven is being deservedly compared to the likes of Margaret Atwood. This is speculative fiction at its best.

REVIEW: Outline

outline_3019702a

outline_3019702aOutline

Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

ISBN-13: 978-0374228347

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is little evidence of the narrator of this story of stories. The reader knows that she is a woman, a writer, a writing coach, divorced and that she has two sons. These things are revealed piecemeal and through conversations with the people she meets on a trip to Athens to teach a writing course.

That which is revealed about the writer are the things we glean about her from her choice of conversations she includes, but also through the very few questions her conversations partners throw her way sometimes. The book is a string of story pearls, each pearl added by the people she encounters, from her neighbour on the plane, to the friends she meets in Athens, to the people who attend her writing class.

In unlikely expositions, each tells her about him or herself in a series of conversations she has with them. Unlikely, because however open any person is to listening, it is doubtful that strangers will dissect happenings in their personal lives – not the great dramas, though there are plenty of those too, but the prosaic moments that lead to insight and revelation – to a complete stranger.

In order to enjoy the book, it is necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and, like the narrator, simply sit back and listen. If you can overcome what feels like a glitch in the writer’s expectation of the reader’s sense of what is possible, then this work will reward you on every page.

This is Cusk’s eighth novel. She has also written three non-fiction works, two of which – A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and aftermath – elicited such bitter criticism, it is quite astonishing that she finds the courage to continue.

To be clear: the criticism is not of her ability to write. Cusk is a very good writer. The criticism is against her particular form of memoir, which has been called exploitative and cold. I have no such criticism against her. I find her intellect too sharp, her questioning too pertinent and her expositions too layered to get sucked into conversations about “how dare she”. She must dare. Writers of her calibre must dare and dare and dare the reader to go towards conversations and concerns that are mostly hidden behind veils of righteousness. Cusk is fearless in this and, I am glad, uncowed by the outcries of her pseudo-liberal critics.

Her last book, Aftermath, chronicled her divorce, but it was not a dirty laundry book and exposed very little of the intimate machinations of one marriage and its ending. Instead, she brings a classical eye to modern conundrums around feminism and equality.

Here, although Outline is fiction, she gives voice to a fraction of the nuances, blemishes, quiet joys and teachings of human relations. Most of the people with whom the narrator comes into contact, end up speaking about their relationships – with marriage partners, children and extended family, sometimes with animals, learning or the arts – and they are not afraid to air their dirty laundry. Interestingly, while they voice their irritations with others, the main thrust of their disclosures are deeply personal and cast them at times in a somewhat queasy light, though one’s judgment is held in check because they are so recognisably, poignantly human in their fallibilities.

While telling a story in which a woman recounts life with an incorrigible dog – which she admits to ending up beating– the  woman says “I became aware of this feeling of having deserted my own life … and I was suddenly filled with the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain, an inner torment it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you”.

These sorts of observations – that plunge into the darkest pools of the crisis of living amongst people in a state of impenetrable singularity – make this novel a rewarding and subtly cerebral pleasure.