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REVIEW: False River

9781415203811

9781415203811

False River

Dominique Botha

Umuzi

REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Dominique Botha’s dense, gorgeous novel-memoir, dedicated to her parents, tells of the growth and dissolution of her brother, Paul.

Raised together on Rietpan, the Free State farm owned and inhabited by the Botha family for generations, Dominique and Paul explore childhood and adolescence together on wide-open farmland in a country of closed minds. The oldest of five children, these two carry the family legacy and the expectations of their parents most heavily. For Paul, the road out of Rietpan led to a deep existential despair.

False River reads in part as a mapping of that trajectory, but it is also a portrait of the relationship between a sister and her older brother, complete with petty cruelties, love and infinite longing.

Botha portrays herself as a soft-hearted child, barefoot and sunburnt and easily swayed. Paul marches ahead of her, winning prizes for his poetry at the local school, reading everything that comes to hand, learning independence the hard way.

Soon Paul is sent off to a private English school in Natal, and Pa’s greatest concern is that his son will forget his Afrikaner heritage. When Dominique follows her brother to attend a nearby girls’ school, her loyalty to her ancestry is also tested, and the tension between English- and Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans is subtly disclosed through the snide comments of classmates.

But Rietpan is always on the horizon for Dominique and Paul both, as though each has an anchor sunk in the muddy pan that dries to a husk in summer, its floor covered in flopping fish. For Paul the farm has an earthy resonance that is at once of and beyond words: the ploughing of soil, the hard work of operating a tractor and caring for cattle. In some sense he is planted in Rietpan – it is the only solid ground he knows.

For Dominique, who exists in a state of constant, submerged anxiety, Rietpan is merely home. She writes the details of preserving fruit and meat, of cleaning and maintaining and preparing, with a thoughtless familiarity that shows just how deep her roots go. Ouma’s pantry shelves are “lined with aniseed rusks and preserved watermelon”, and at home, guinea fowl fillets are “cut with a thick seam of fat and laid head to toe in vats and layered in salt” for biltong. Even more telling is her encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants and animals that share her world, from English oaks, white stinkwoods and pepper trees to waterbuck hiding in the wag-‘n-bietjies, and doves “swirl[ing] above the chimneys before oncoming storms”. The barbels and leguaans in the water inspire chilling mythologies for the children, and the smells, sights and tastes of rural life are evoked with great care and poetry. History lies thick on Rietpan, and Botha knows exactly how to sample that rich atmosphere and display it in all its poignant delicacy.

Botha blurs the line between biography and fiction with refreshing honesty, rather than claiming total recall of long-gone thoughts and conversations. At the same time, she draws out the history of the Viljoenskroon district and its place in the national context, referencing her parents’ activism and the segregated categories of black and white still very much in force during her childhood. Young Dominique echoes her father’s educated turns of phrase and political sentiment, and also takes correction from his belt. Pa is a hard man struggling to be fair in a nation wracked with inequality, and his efforts to remain strong, honest and decent have mixed effects on his children. His wife is sharp-minded with a head for business, but leaves much of the angst and discipline to her husband.

As Dominique grows, her voice matures, and she retreats further and further into herself. She reads as a profoundly lonely narrator, following her brother’s wild spoor scattered across the wilderness and then the world, as he grows up and leaves the farm. Botha assaults the fraught ideals of rigid masculinity, but they nevertheless possess the power to hurt her brother and everyone around him.

Paul Botha is a poet, and in writing him his sister has revealed herself as a poet too. This is not a hagiography. In some ways Paul comes across as a character in a Julian Barnes novel, like Adrian Finn in The Sense of an Ending: at first a precocious schoolboy intellectual, then increasingly worldly and mournful.

But Botha has drawn him with scars and flaws intact, powerfully human. In that telling, she also embodies herself in fiction, telling the story again so that nothing may be forgotten.

Finally, with her eye for context, history and human interaction and emotion, she writes us too, as a nation, holding up all of our wounds and contradictions for everyone to see.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in 2013

REVIEW: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

9781846683015

Just My Type – A Book About Fonts

Simon Garfield

Profile Books

REVIEW BY: Andries Samuel

After finishing this book, you might rush off and design your own typeface – you have been warned. This is a book about pleasure and delight; in the union between eye, hand and its modern partner – process. Printing presses can be called the first modern machines and their lubricant, type, the first test of the evolution of handcraft.

Just My Type is an attractive book, with much thought given to its design and layout. The cover seems unnecessarily attention-seeking, since the title is laid out in a jumble of different and rare fonts, but here the central thrust of the book already becomes clear: for a typeface to be successful, it must not draw attention to itself. This sounds simple but the enormous scope for interpretation of this stricture forms the bulk of the story.

It is also a book-lover’s book. The smartness of the design runs throughout the hard cover edition. In spite of the transfer of fonts from the type foundry to the software studio, which the book does not shy away from, this reading experience is immersed in what the printed page can be. The structure of the chapters does as much to educate as to draw the reader through the delights of all the major typefaces. There is the role of Gill Sans in the branding of 20th century London, the Swiss takeover of the world by Helvetica, the development of Transport (designed by a South African woman) for Road Signs, Barack Obama’s capture of the White House with Gotham, and the never named serif on the base drum that accompanied Beatlemania.

The development of the book is tightly paced and holds together throughout. However, its just as useful as a reference work and any chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece. The driving force is always the inquiry about why and how typefaces work, what makes them beautiful and how they are made. This last point is particularly important, as the book never abstracts its subject matter. The craft of letter-making is real enough to make one catch a whiff of printing ink.

Garfield also discusses many issues related to typefaces and printing, some humorous and some verging on pop-psychology. But how else does one discuss “Why not to use Comic Sans?”? Many of the designers of contemporary fonts are still alive and the author reports on extensive correspondence and interviews with them: what does the creator of Comic Sans have to say for himself? What is the world-view of the creator of the latest default Microsoft font, Calibri? Further discussion relates to licensing and piracy of fonts, designers ‘borrowing’ ideas from each other and the rise and fall of Letraset. Without getting too technical, Garfield remains authoritative.

It should be essential reading for architecture and graphic design students. And if you have even the faintest interest in the fabric of the cultural world around you, you’ll enjoy this immensely.

Read here how this book inspired the reviewer to design his own font.

This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2011.

 

 

Against the fading of handwriting

IMG_2596

The writing on the wall is cursive

There are states in the US that are abandoning the teaching of cursive handwriting.

Never mind that learning cursive writing in Grade 3 is a rite of passage, something that turns us from “little kids” into those who can decipher scrawled notes in adult hand.

IMG_2595Never mind that in order to learn to make your pen glide smoothly over the page, you have to develop fine motor skills that print writing does not develop – the very motor skills that are needed by surgeons, scientists and computer technicians.

Never mind that cursive writing develops spatial skills which cannot be replicated by those you learn in computer games.

Never mind that hand, pen and paper work in an alchemy which has proven to increase your ability to recall information.

Cursive handwriting was invented so that we can write faster. We need to write fast because of the speed at which thoughts form. Poor handwriting slows you down and you can’t keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence and remember it long enough to write it down.

But never mind that children are being denied the complexity of thought that cannot be simulated by the mechanical tapping of fingers on keys.

Never mind the loss of the aesthetics of beautiful handwriting.

Future generations will lose the ability to write in cursive, cursive will become arcane, the territory of specialist ability, but it is none of those other things about the loss of cursive that I mourn. It is the loss of individuality.

What, I beg of you, is more conformist than type? Than Calibri, Verdana and Times New Roman, Arial and Helvetica? Indeed, they make our lives easier, make teachers’ lives easier, that’s for sure. But they can never replace the exclusive, exceptional beauty of the unique individuality of ink that loops across a page written in the style of a single incomparable human being.

Apart from your fingerprint, or your DNA – both of which must attest to your individuality as a human quietly and behind the scenes – your handwriting is the only real mark you can leave on your every day that proves to you that you are not like the rest.

In these states in the US where they are abandoning the teaching of cursive, they are doing so in order to concentrate on keyboarding.

I spent five years in total at university and in all that time the skill I am most aware of daily, the one that makes my practical life so much easier, is the ability to touch type. I am all for the skill of keyboarding. It’s essential. In fact, when I see people bent over the keyboards with their eyes on their fingers, which are pecking away laboriously only as fast as their eyes can locate individual letters and numbers, the inefficiency of their work method pains me. Keyboarding is an essential skill.

But to learn it instead of cursive writing? Isn’t that retrogression? Isn’t the point of life going forwards, learning more, being cleverer than our parents and twice as clever as our great-great grandparents? Isn’t that evolution? Is it not then counter-intuitive to decide to learn less? To trade one necessary skill – and I have already made the point that cursive is necessary – for another?

Society needs its intellectuals, thinkers, planners, designers as much as it needs its road builders and plumbers, its merchandisers and receptionists, its managers, accountants and dentists.

The hallmarks of intellectualism and creativity are a refusal to accept mainstream thought. What does cursive writing have to do with that? It has to do with an assertion of your very simple “own-ness”.

On top of which, if you want to be a writer, your hand, a good pen, and that Egyptian gift that keeps on giving – paper – are going to be your anchors, your roots, your steering wheels, your gears and your GPS whenever you paint yourself into intellectual corners, reach what feels like the end of your creative and emotional tether, or want to scream in frustration and rage at the world without anyone hearing. Writing is a life mapped, a font – and I use the word in both senses of its meaning – of thought.

The world wants good communicators, clear thinkers, idea makers. Nothing puts you in a better position to be all of those things – across any career you can possibly think of – than the ability to express yourself clearly in writing. Being a good writer does not mean that your career is limited to writing. Good writing is an indication that there is a sharp, enquiring mind behind the printed words. That even though the writers do not have the answers, they know the questions to ask.

That they are able to work out problems using words. Not just the not insignificant problems of plotting, style, rhythm, word choice, but how to imagine the lives of other people or other beings. The ability to see through the small dramas of daily life to what the emotional drivers are that set events in motion. To be able to express the universal longing or the bonds we human animals form with the natural world.Or to bravely question the very nature of god.

Writers have the gift of being able to spread the threads of humanity between us, to think about the problems that face our society and write new blueprints.

Separate letters on a page might form a picture, even meaning, but cursive joins the letters in new and interesting and beautiful ways. Humans are linked in a sort of cursive of universality by the ability to communicate authentically, clearly and empathically.

Writers are not soldiers of conformity. We should resist pressure to make life easier by reading abridged versions, or summaries – or by learning to type instead of writing cursive.

Schimke is a freelance writer, poet and columnist and the editor of the Cape Times books pages. This is an extract from a speech delivered at the launch of English Alive, the literary magazine for South African school students.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times. Read the full piece here