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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.

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.

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.

 

 

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

how we learn

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

Benedict Carey

Macmillan

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9388-2

Karin Schimke

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

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

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

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

QUICK REVIEW: Easy Walks in the Cape Peninsula

walking

Easy WalksEasy Walks in the Cape Peninsula

Mike Lundy

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9781920545666

Karin Schimke

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hopeuse

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

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

Tafelberg

ISBN-13: 978-0624068631

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: Tales Of The Metric System

Tales1

TalesTales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ken Barris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

REVIEW: Nothing Left To Steal

steal

stealNothing Left To Steal

Mzilikazi Wa Afrika

Penguin

ISBN: 9780143538929

REVIEW: Karen Jeynes

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

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

“Do you know anything about 16 June 1976?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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