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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.

REVIEW: Malignant

malignant

malignant coverMALIGNANT: How Cancer Becomes Us

Lochlan Jain

University of California Press

ISBN: 9708520276574

REVIEW: Dawn Garisch

Lochlan Jain is a cancer survivor. She is also an anthropologist living in the USA. Malignant is in part the personal story of what she aptly terms ‘living in prognosis’ after the ordeal of misdiagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer. The book is also her detailed investigation of our profoundly diseased society.

Nearly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with an invasive cancer. The time lag between exposure to carcinogens and diagnosis makes pinpointing exact causes difficult, other than overt instances, e.g. smoking and lung cancer, asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. Many known and unregulated carcinogens are in our food, plastics, dyes and water. Fallout from war, even from medical treatments, add to risk. Modern life evolves in a soup of hormones and chemicals, driven by our quest for youth, fertility, fast food, easy travel, gizmos and wealth. There is a massive price to pay, and the cost is often born by those who do not benefit.

Jain unearths disturbing information, e.g. companies who make both carcinogen-containing products and chemotherapy drugs. Stating she doesn’t believe there is evil intent, Jain remarks that the way to make a fortune is to give cancer to someone who has health insurance, and then test, monitor and treat her for the rest of her life.

Jain’s personal narrative informs and enhances her research. Her ability to present her emotional turmoil, vulnerability, and even humour, as she finds herself ensnared by the big machine of what she terms ‘the medical industry’, is a thread that holds together an appalling story of the cover-ups and collusion between capital fearful of mass claims, the legal system that is too costly for individuals to seek redress, the health professionals who ask too few questions about causation, and the government agencies that are unwilling to regulate hazards.

There are no easy answers to the questions she poses. Malignant lifts the lid off cancer, showing it to be largely uncontrollable, unknowable, endemic to our culture, metastasising into every aspect of life on earth, from our economic system to traces of lead found in Arctic ice. We are paying too high a price for our way of life, and we need to know this.

Malignant is essential reading for anyone involved in cancer care, who is affected by cancer, or who might contract the illness. Going by the stats, that’s pretty much everyone.

  • Dawn Garisch, GP and author of Eloquent Body, Modjaji (2012)

QUICK REVIEW: Yes Please

Yes p

Yes pYes Please

Amy Poehler

ISBN: 9780062268341

Picador

Karin Schimke

Reading this well-known American comedienne and actress’s “middle-of-the-road” autobiography is like being on a road trip with someone who is so much fun you can’t believe your luck. But it’s a longish road trip and every now and again you think you wonder if you can keep up the merriment. Then she says something so random, so funny and so oddly wisely that you think “What a lucky one I am to be on a road trip with Amy Poehler!”

If you’re a fan of Poehler’s wild improv, mad-cap comedy, her down-to-earth bordering-on-brassy personality, you’ll love Yes Please.

If you don’t know who she is, you’ll probably still like it. It’s nothing if not entertaining.

Poehler is self-deprecating, can laugh at herself and the world, and is not afraid to be vulnerable. Also, the book’s full of fascinating behind-the-scenes bits about famous people.

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

REVIEW: The Alphabet Of The Birds

alphabetbirds

The-Alphabet-of-Birds-_-RGB-300x460The Alphabet of Birds

SJ Naudé

Umuzi

ISBN: 9781415207130

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

For those familiar with the Afrikaans version that appeared in 2011 – and won acclaim and awards – one of the pleasures of this roman à tiroirs is the precision of the translation (a rewrite, more accurately) in echoing the nuances of the original.

While the settings and tone of Naude’s seven haunting inter-linking stories have, what Damon Galgut, in a pointed introduction to the book, calls a “cosmopolitan gloss”, all are anchored in that particular starkness that Afrikaans sometimes shares with the outer edges of society and characters of our country.

It’s a language that harbours a particular emotional grittiness – such as J.M Coetzee brought so energetically to his first books, and provides the vivid graphics for Marlene van Niekerk’s fine novels.

Naude uses it in polished translation to densely weave the melancholic line of displacement/alienation that runs through all these stories. The glimpses of, and Afrikaans names are also a subtextual meditation on those speakers’ place in a much changed world and the country of today.

Often his mastery of words opens up possibilities beyond the obvious and foregrounded narrative. The reader is drawn into the telling of the tales as they unfold, unlocking meaning in sentences, negotiating time frames and the evolution of the plot, finding deep delight in the passion of prose.

This is Joschka, a baker’s assistant, and ‘alternative lover’ of the worldly, high-flying expatriate narrator, a banker in London: “He has hands that are capable of anything. Hands that start shaping each day when it breaks. Hands that track the shape of whichever body may be at hand that day. Hands that knead and mould dough.”

This poetic erotic charge focuses the central clash of personalities, places and philosophies in the story of ‘A Master from Germany’. The ironies of homelessness are at tipping point here.

This tension is the edge where all the central characters find themselves as they weave in and out of the first person, main narrative that frames the book so neatly.

Most are travellers, returning to places that are now different and challenging. Street-smart in the foreign worlds they’ve explored, their old homes, past histories, become demanding testing ground, throwing up existential questions.

Sex had its place and provided pleasure in the diaspora, but is neutered in the home-coming. Cancer is a thread through three pieces, a theme of creeping despair. Ironically, that unfolding of bleakness and the highly personal provide a key to some form of understanding, if not resolution.

The latter, as the book’s title suggests, is in the domain of the birds. Birds are referenced in casual encounters throughout the stories, detail in the décor, often as markers of frustration.

Theirs is language that we don’t understand, but yearn to know. Ancient and poetic metaphor of the unknown, inaccessible logic and the mysterious, Naudé elegantly activates this mythical framework in contemplation of the human condition.

The Alphabet of the Birds is a marvellously dense book and rewarding for that. Layers unfold as references (names, for example, are highly charged) reveal themselves and connections fall into place. Personal histories are stylishly pieced together in jigsaws of time.

Yet while the stories point to loss, if not inexorable tragedy, Naudé has composed such beautiful, honed prose that it drives you passionately and cerebrally from page to page, from story to story. The darkness of the unanswered questions is lit by the vividness of words.

His characters will ring in memory – often for the simplest, briefest detail ascribed to them and their actions.

There’s Sandrien, in the brilliant first story ‘Van’, who self-destructs in a relentless pursuit of redemption in the moral chaos of modern South Africa. Mrs Nyathi, who appears in this tale, and again later, is a colourful, cigar-smoking matron-hotelier. Sam is a freewheeling man of the new South Africa, and of the dance. Ondien is a musician-singer in search of herself as a cultural being deep in the alienated country.

They are people that could only inhabit or come from contemporary South Africa. They carry in person, philosophy and actions the complicated social issues of this land, which makes Naudé’s book also an open-ended morality tale.

When it appeared in Afrikaans in 2011, Naudé was widely praised as an exciting new voice. Many reviewers made particular reference to the fact that it should not be limited to that language. And so it has come about – brilliantly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look who’s coming!

author

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some of the locals who live on African soil:

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

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

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

 

Eighth Day: Speculative Poetry

floating grass

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

Thaliad-2Thaliad

Marly Youmans

Phoenicia Publishing

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

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

The Receptionist

The Receptionist

The Receptionist and other Tales

Lesley Wheeler

Aqueduct

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

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

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

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Wedding Underwear for Mermaids

Linda Ann Strang

Honest Publishing

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

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

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

Darlings Hands, Darling Tongue

 

Darling Hands, Darling Tongue

Sally Rosen Kindred

Hyacinth Girl Press

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

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

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name?

Zara Raab

Finishing Line Press

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

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

 

QUICK REVIEW: Dear Bullet

bluray_bullet_wallpaper-1680x1050 copy

Dear BulletDear Bullet

By Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

This is a small, devastating story about a single, enormous event, addressed by the author to the bullet lodged in her neck. In speaking to “her” bullet, Mbalo writes herself into hearing range of a wilfully – and defensively – deaf world.

One is left breathless with gladness that she has been able to perform this act of narration as both belligerent defiance towards her attacker and as a desperate scratching for what meaning, if any, might be retrieved from pointless, insouciant, casual acts of unspeakable inhumanity.

The “before” story has warmth. The “after” story is all the more chilling when you consider how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised, and must find a way to make sense of the survivor’s life.

Antjie Krog writes a measured afterword that provides some context and insight not available from the primary narrative. – Karin Schimke

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times.

Oh, Prettiness, you impress me

IMG_20141123_182411

Oh, Prettiness, you impress me

Nostalgia is always just a sigh away for me so I am completely suckered by the design of the books in the Macmillan Classics series. Hard cover, ribbon book mark, familiar typeface and intermittent illustrations – the ones that, when you were a young reader, made you pause to gaze for several minutes before returning to the reading.

I know that there is an impatience on the part of people who mostly read on tablets these days with people like me who don’t and are wont to whine “but what about the smell of the books?” I know. And I hear them.

But then there’s that sensuous tactility, that three-dimensional thereness of print…and some print books just do that thereness so much better than others.

 

 

REVIEW: It’s a black/white thing

Black_and_White_by_Akuryo_(20.01.2010)

It's a blackwhite thingIt’s a Black White Thing 

Donna Bryson                             

Tafelberg

ISBN: 9780624065180

REVIEW: Sue Townsend

Donna Bryson has written a thought-provoking book. Given our obsession with race (and that’s what this book is all about), it should be mentioned that Bryson is an African American journalist who has lived in South Africa – in the late 1990s and again from 2008 – 2012. She brings her own experiences to the table as well as many interviews with students, academics and administrators at the University of the Free State.

Using the infamous Reitz video as her peg, she explores the attitudes (both changing and unchanging) at that University; extrapolating her findings to discuss the racial tensions; the attempts to diffuse them and the strategies employed by UFS in the last five years to achieve genuine integration – both in the lecture halls and the residences.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Rector of UFS, is a well-known figure to most thinking South Africans. In 2010 he instigated a programme in which dozens of first year UFS students travel abroad to experience university life in another country.   Bryson followed a number of these students to Texas A&M University and has held extensive interviews with them, as well as with the students and staff with whom they interacted. Contextualising all her discussion within the history of segregation and enforced integration in the USA in the 1960s and drawing on the similarities in post-Apartheid South Africa, she skilfully uses this as a microcosm for South African society today.

Having taught in South African schools that defied the Nationalist Government and opened their doors to children of all races as long ago as 1976, I was particularly dismayed to realise just how verkramp the UFS was when it was forced to accept students who were not white or Afrikaners when South Africa was liberated in 1994 – and how this history still haunts its corridors. But then, as Bryson quotes Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘Forgiveness is not for sissies”. It takes hard work and much determination on the part of leaders to move towards genuine integration. Bryson has also interviewed the Rectors that preceded Jansen, both of whom took great strain as they paved the way for his inspired determination to turn UFS into a beacon of enlightenment in this troubled land.

An interesting snippet, in the light of the ongoing debate around our own University of Cape Town’s admissions policy, in 2008 a white student sued Texas A&M, claiming that she had been discriminated against on racial grounds. The USA Supreme Court ruled that any university should have substantial leeway ‘both in the definition of the compelling interest in diversity’s benefits and in deciding whether its specific plan was narrowly tailored to achieve its stated goal.’

Jonathan Jansen deserves the final word: ‘I absolutely enjoy being here’ he says. ‘I’m completely at ease with the whole of myself.’ And he predicts that UFS will not see a race crisis like the Reitz video ever again. I hope he is right; the struggle is far from over, not for UFS, not for Bloemfontein and not for the country.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times

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.