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QUICK REVIEW: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sap2

SapiensSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Yuval Noah Harari 

Harvill Secker

ISBN 13: 9781846558238

Here is a profoundly fascinating tale of how our small species won out in the gene lottery and, perhaps more amazingly, how ancient and modern has driven our history forward.

Harari lectures in history and Sapiens, which has been translated into almost 30 languages, surveys the entire length of human history, from the evolution of Homo Sapiens in the Stone age, to the various revolutions of the 21st century.

He arranges the narrative around three major revolutions which he has identified as the Cognitive Revolution (the development of articulate language), the Agricultural Revolution of around 10 000 years ago and the Scientific Revolution of about 500 years ago.

The book is enjoyable, worthwhile and immensely satisfying, written in an approachable manner for curious minds. He tackles big ideas and reveals, seemingly on every page, a truly enchanting kernel of knowledge. – Bruce Gourley

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

QUICK REVIEW: Top 10 For Men

Top men

Top menTop 10 For Men

Nick Harper

Hamlyn

ISBN:9780600629160

Karin Schimke

It’s hard to be kind about a book which is unapologetically biased. In this case, a thoroughly researched book has produced a phenomenally interesting set of lists apparently based on the grossly erroneous assumption that the entire human race is made up of men.

“Every man needs his top ten,” he says and, in a nod to the inconvenient fact that women exist adds: “Women love lists too, but their lists tend to cover the vital stuff that keeps the world turning, allowing us to sit back and ponder computer games and cheese.” All of which might be acceptable if there were actually women on the hundred or so lists. They’re not.

It’s full of fascinating facts, interesting – believe it or not – to women too. But there are other lovely list books around that are far less blatantly ridiculous in their view that it’s a man’s world.

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

QUICK REVIEW: Books That Changed The World

Books change

Books changeBooks That Changed The World

Andrew Taylor

Quercus

ISBN-10: 1847246028

Karin Schimke

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

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

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

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

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

 

QUICK REVIEW: Dancing To The Beat Of The Drum

Dance

DancingDancing To The Beat Of The Drum

Pamela Nomvete

Kwela

ISBN: 9780795706875

Mvelase Peppetta

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

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

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

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

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

REVIEW: A Bit of Difference

a bit of difference

abitofdifferencesefiattaA Bit of Difference

Sefi Atta

Jacana Media

ISBN-10: 1566568920

REVIEW: Jonathan Amid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: The Yellow Birds

YB

Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers

Sceptre

ISBN 9781444756166

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

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

Until they are separated.

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

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

QUICK REVIEW: Aerodrome Journal

Aerodrome cover (2)

Aerodrome cover (2)Aerodrome Journal

Issue 01 / 2014

Karina Magdalena

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

QUICK REVIEW: The Emperor Waltz

Waltz

the-emperor-waltzThe Emperor Waltz

Philip Henscher

Jonathan Ball

ISBN: 9780007566747

REVIEW BY: Karin Schimke

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

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

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

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

QUICK REVIEW: From Courtrooms to Cupcakes

cupcakes

courtrooms cupcakesFrom Courtrooms to Cupcakes

Niki Malherbe

Self-published

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

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

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

QUICK REVIEW: Things A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of A Creative Mind

Things a little bird

Things a little birdThings A Little Bird Told Me: Confessions Of A Creative Mind

Biz Stone

Macmillan

ISBN-13: 9781478927754

REVIEW BY: Mvelase Peppetta

One can’t deny that “Things A Little Bird Told Me,” is a fascinating read. How can one not be curious about the back-story of how an idea to send out 140 character-long messages turned into a global and cultural behemoth that’s been lauded with everything from toppling decades old dictatorships (whether correctly or incorrectly), to filling our days with the inanities of what our “friends” are doing. Oh, and of course becoming a company worth billions on the side.

Of less interest to me were Stone’s trite business lessons for would-be entrepreneurs – or “confessions of a creative mind” as he’s termed them – gleaned from his unique set of circumstances. While there is certainly a market for this, I’m not it. The relative scarcity of these lessons, however, did not ultimately detract from my overall enjoyment of his story.

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