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QUICK REVIEW: Do Not Go Gentle

gentle_breeze_by_jamuna

DO NOTDo Not Go Gentle

Futhi Ntshingila

Modjaji

Mvelo’s life is a constant living hell. It is tainted with every injustice and evil, and condemned with every ridiculous superstition and damaging scrap of ignorance that it is possible for a single society to muster. Mvelo is the poster child for an economically and morally impoverished country.

Her story grabs the reader by the hair and drags them through the roughest and dirtiest places that our almost broken country has given birth to.

And then it does a remarkable thing: it turns into a fairytale. Not of rags to riches, but of isolation to embrace.

Told in the plainest language, this story – Mvelo’s story, which is so many people’s story – unfurls unexpectedly (even a little soppily) into a drama of redemption. I can’t remember when last a book made me cry from happiness. Someone needs to make this one into a movie.  – Karin Schimke

REVIEW: It Might Get Loud

locusts

locustIt Might Get Loud

Ingrid Winterbach

Translated by Michiel Heyns

Human Rousseau

REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE

Take the title as a warning. Or as an invitation. Either way, you’re not going to get what you generally expect when you pick up a South African novel: the gentle prising of our of violent past, present and (undoubtedly) future through hyper-real interaction between recognisable characters.

What you will get is a cacophony of realities. It Might Get Loud is a vast and clamorous story that mixes the unmitigated presence of the dead, of demons and spirits and mysteries, into the prosaic lives of the two main characters, Maria Volschenk and Karl Hofmeyer.

The characters don’t know one another, and while they do skim past one another towards the end of the book, they never meet and are unaware of one another. Yet they have much in common: both journey from Durban to Cape Town on the impetus of their relationship with a troubled sibling.

In this sense, Winterbach’s tenth novel typifies the quest in literature, where the journey is both symbolic and the spine around which the plot is assembled. Karl’s journey in particular, is full of trials as he heads to Cape Town in his car, trailing through the country’s “godforsaken” backwaters.

What both characters need to retrieve (retrieval being an element of the quest novel) is an answer: Karl needs to understand what has happened to his brother that he is “causing havoc” on the urban farm where he is living, while Maria is trying to make sense of her sister Sofie’s suicide.

Neither Karl nor Maria return to Durban with answers, but neither does either seem to have turned any obvious corners in their own development. Which leaves the journey-as-plot aspect of the novel apparently unfulfilled – things happen, in sequence, but the traditional course of cause and effect – the “and so” – is missing.

This is not to imply any failure. The novel’s hazy irresolution is precisely the point: it avoids pronouncements.

Central to both stories is a farm (the place actually exists), an old military store in Tamboerskloof that became neglected and was taken over by Josias Brand, a hippy artist with a will of iron and heart for society’s misfits. Karl’s brother Iggy has ended up here amongst the animals, strugglers and survivors, but has fallen foul of Brand.

This farm is enormously symbolic as a geographic marker, referencing the well-established plaasroman in Afrikaans, but turning it on its head, so that here it represents more fully the country’s liminal spaces. It is a place where previous social orders are evident, but crumbling. It is the crackled surface that might lie between what is concrete and what, for so many South Africans, regardless of race and culture, is an “other side”; the unseen, but vividly experienced world of the spirit.

On the way to Cape Town, Karl reads letters Iggy has written him in which he sets out a grand, occultish fantasy that plays off inside the old storage halls on the farm, in which Iggy says he has had to fight for his “soul” against demonic forces. That Iggy is, in medical terms, delusional, is borne out by the real-world situation in which Karl finds him when he gets to Cape Town: drugged on a psychiatric hospital bed.

Karl’s confusion and hopelessness in the face of his brother’s strange ramblings and his fate – indeed in the face of life – is contrasted starkly with his obsession for heavy metal music.

Winterbach details – sometimes perhaps gets a little carried away with her research – this obsession, when Karl comes across as similarly obsessed metal fans on his way to Cape Town and they discuss bands and gigs together. In fact, the English title of this book comes from a 2008 documentary about some prominent heavy metal musicians.

The muscular, uncompromising aggression of this rock genre is the polar opposite of Karl’s personality. He washes his hands obsessively and is superstitious to the point of paralysis about numbers. But he is also a realist and Iggy’s otherworldly obsessions are a cypher to him.

Numbers are important in the story – Maria is a bookkeeper, whereas her sister was a poet – but they are not the only heavily loaded symbols. There are biblical images of plague, small creatures, domestic farm animals, movies, opera – It Might Get Loud is in fact exactly the kind of amplified distortion that heavy metal is, and a source of endless intertextual references, so varied in scope and historical time that even the experienced reader would have to read it more than once to pick up and hold on to all the threads.

The result is often puzzling, but also exceedingly pleasing. It Might Get Loud is intelligent, boundary shifting and unafraid of itself.

The novel is rather like Sofie’s poems, which one character describes as having “a kind of spirit…that no longer takes account of things like your normal, predictable aesthetic.”

REVIEW: How Much Is Enough?

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IMG_20150211_133500How Much Is Enough?

Andrew Bradley, Arun Abey and Andrew Ford

Zebra Press

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Money.

Say the word and wait. Sooner or later, an emotional response rises.

For some, the emotional response takes a little longer to surface. For others, the anxiety or glee or bitterness spills out immediately. “Money” is a heavily loaded word in every possible realm of our lives. In the conversations we have with ourselves when we need or want something that we have to purchase in order to have. In our intimate relationships and those with our children or our parents. When we think about retirement. When we have a major domestic crisis. Every time we have a bad day at work. And in our social and political relationships – especially in South Africa, where poverty and affluence rub up against one another daily.

That money and our emotions are inextricably entwined is not a new concept, and yet the idea has not found enough traction in our day-to-day dealings with our wealth, however small we perceive that wealth to be.

It is this idea that the authors of this accessible financial how-to book explore at some length: that the average person they see in their work as financial advisers do not make any connection between money and feelings.

They exploit the cliché “Money can’t buy happiness”, turning it on its head to show that happiness might, in fact, be the starting point for increasing the wealth you already have.

Bradley, in an interview, said that he and his colleagues had observed that while investment markets performed well, most investors failed over time and that behaviour was the primary cause of destroying personal wealth.

In the book, which is packed with memorable anecdotes, the authors tell the story of Isaac Newton who was a keen share investor. The story starts well enough for him with a certain investment and he seems to make all the right decisions, but then he’s influenced by fashion, acts rashly and loses a great deal of money.

Even rational thinkers, even Newton, a respected scientist, is influenced by emotion.

In this book, layer by layer, the authors show that money can’t bring happiness, but that happiness can bring money. Drawing strongly on psychology and the vast amounts of happiness research that is available, the authors construct an argument for working on the self before working on the money.

Once they have shown how emotionally charged money is, they begin to colour in their arguments about why happiness should be the starting point of wealth work.

They show, in fairly broad brush strokes, what exactly “happiness” is and how it can be attained, referring to a great number of well-respected researchers in the field. They demonstrate how behaviour towards and around money can be changed, just like eating and exercise habits can be changed. And they also address in simple and easy-to-understand terms, actual investment.

I have a fairly firm grip of, and have done quite a lot of reading about, happiness and I have a general interest in psychology, so while the first part of the book did not hold any major wow moments for me, I am quite convinced that the straightforward manner in which the authors tackle that complex area will have a great impact on many readers who are not au fait with the science of the human mind and how it affects behaviour.

But I am less comfortable with the language of investment – to the point where I get edgy because I’m convinced I am not going to understand the jargon – so I was pleased to get through the “technical” chapters with great ease and with a much better understanding of investment than before. The authors must be lauded on being able to write in such a straightforward way without sounding patronising.

Also valuable is the chapter entitled Kids, Money and Happiness. It contains simple ideas that had never occurred to me. I realised that, while I have nurtured an open relationship with my children on social, political and sexual matters in order to prepare them for the world, I have been oddly coy about money.

Reading this book, I realise that it is learned behaviour that I can unlearn and that if I do unlearn this behaviour, my children stand a better chance of having an easy relationship with money.

And an easy relationship money – where you feel in control, where you understand what you have, what you want and how you can get – is the beginning of the kind of wealth that means some freedom from the anxieties about what exactly “enough” is.

INDISCRIMINATE DEVOTION: Our bedtime story

Picture credit: Naimane 
http://naimane.deviantart.com/art/Bedtime-story-189037239

I first saw the heart-stopping War Horse in London six years ago. I came home bursting with the news of this amazing show with its mind-boggling puppets. I also brought home Michael Morpurgo’s book to read to the children. This December, I was delighted to finally be able to take my children to see the production at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town. I was so happy that they were as swept away as I – and thousands and thousands of others – were by this profound production.

It reminded me of this column I wrote for Parent24 when I was reading the book to the children. My daughter has gone on to read several more Michael Morpurgo books, despite this scratchy start. michael morpurgo collection

Our bedtime story

When my husband goes away on business, the kids and I choose a book to read together. It’s one of those weird family rituals that springs up organically and happily ensnares you. “Oh look, I am duty bound to reading to my children every night whenever their father is away on business.” And by afternoon we’re already planning which must-dos we can dispense with in order to go to bed earlier and read.

My youngest child’s interest in our current story – Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse – is intermittent. She really wants to get it, but at six she’s struggling with the narrator, who, it turns out, is also the hero of the story: Joey, the horse.

Someone grooms Joey, brushing him from head to foot and she’s perplexed: “Why is someone brushing someone else? Oh, it’s the horse!”

My nine-year old sighs dramatically for the 50th time since we started the book, because his sister needs constant clarification.

We’re all being educated: trench warfare, World War 1, army lingo (“What’s a Jerry?”) and a whole regiment of new words like “outflank” and “cavalry”. Even I have learnt two new words: “bivouac” and “reveille”.

My son is engrossed, wide-eyed. My daughter is keen, but some of it’s a bit confusing and she gets restless from all the questions burning her up and which she knows her brother will get irritated by. Yet, the end of each chapter is met with a “nooo!” by both, and I – under very little duress indeed – continue until way past 8 o’clock. I say I’ll read another chapter if they promise – if they ‘promisepromisepromise’ – to go right to sleep afterwards. They promise passionately.

Finally we must put the book down, only because my mouth is as dry as the dust bunnies under the bed.

“Stay and cuddle?” asks my son. I lie with my head half up the wall, the down duvet mountainous over the three of us, a head on each of my shoulders.

“Mom?”

“No talking. Sleep.”

“Just one joke. What goes black white black white black white black white BLUE?”

“What?”

“A penguin rolling into the sea.”

I find this inordinately funny and my son and I rock the bed with mirth. My daughter is beaming up at the ceiling. Getting her hero brother to laugh at a joke is the lottery.

“Ssshhh. Sleep now.” I’m thinking of the work I must still do. We cuddle. Someone’s stomach grumbles and the kids begin to giggle quietly. I muster all my strength not to join in – everything’s funny when you’re not allowed to laugh.

They settle. The stomach grumbles again. They giggle. Then I’m laughing too. Quietly, but with their arms wrapped around my stomach they can feel it. So we just have a big explosion and finally, really, start settling.

My son is a perpetual motion machine, even lifting his eyebrows up and down, up and down, which I can feel because my hand is rested on his head and his scalp is moving. So are his toes, his knees, each individual finger, his eyeballs. This is how he is: he thinks, therefore he moves. He lies in bed, therefore he thinks.

My daughter moves once, to turn her back to me, quickly and efficiently falling asleep.

I struggle to keep my eyes open. This is not a battle I have ever won. I wake suddenly from a dream that’s made me laugh to find that my son has finally succumbed. It feels like the deepest part of the night. It is only 9pm. The duvet releases me reluctantly.

I won’t work after all because I am so bed-ready now.

I can’t wait for Chapter 10 tomorrow night.

REVIEW: Memory Against Forgetting

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memoryMemory Against Forgetting

Ranjith Kally

Quivertree

REVIEW: KARIN SCHIMKE

If you know your journalism history – or just any South African history – there are certain names that conjure (perhaps a little too romantically considering the social political circumstances) the golden era of the journalist. The era correlates with the the magazine Drum’s heyday.

Todd Matshikiza. Jürgen Schadeberg. Nat Nakasa. Henry Nxumalo. Can Themba. Richard Rive. Bessie Head. Arthur Maimane.

They were Drum. Drum was them. Photographer Peter Magubane is quoted as saying that the Drum newsroom was “a different home; it did not have apartheid. There was no discrimination…it was only when you left DRUM and entered the world outside of the main door that you knew you were in apartheid land. But while you were inside DRUM magazine, everyone there was a family.”

Drum was the “other” South Africa back in the fifties, when it was mostly only the lives of whites mainstream media reported on. Drum presented black people not as downtrodden, shackled, the white man’s burden. Nor did it condescend.

What it did was tell stories.

One of its storytellers, until now, was unknown to me. Quivertree publications and Kalim Rajab have plucked the name of Ranjith Kally from the brink of obscurity to reproduce his photographs in a book rich with narrative.

Rajab’s family was friends with Kally. Kally and Rajab’s grand-uncle Kumroo were “on particularly intimate terms” developing photographs together in “our family darkroom, housed within our cinema, the Shah Jehan”. In later years, Rajab’s mother co-authored a book with Kally.  In his introductory essay, Rajab expresses the hope that this book will stand as a “fitting testament to the contribution this fine photographer made to the struggle of ‘memory against forgetting'”.

The title of this coffee table book works well on three levels: it is an act of resisting a great photographer’s threatening obscurity, it is a reminder of what a strange country South Africa’s past is and – particularly poignantly for journalists – a memory of a time when photojournalism rode high.

Now that anyone with a smartphone camera’s filter setting can “be a photographer”, this reminder of the noble, difficult and dangerous art of photojournalism struck me in my nostalgic core.

Photojournalism – as opposed to street or documentary photography – distinguishes itself by being entirely of the moment and connected to current events. It uses journalistic standards of objectivity and contextualisation. But there is a further aspect of it: good photojournalism has, at its invisible heart – the one beyond the image – a narrative.

That this story is captured so quickly, usually under trying circumstances (crowds, violence, threats, carrying clunky and valuable equipment) makes good photojournalism unique and its practioners admirable beyond their often butch and beefy mythology and self-image.

The cover image of Memory Against Forgetting was well chosen. It shows a makeshift court in Mtubatuba where a magistrate of the then Department of Bantu Administration presides over a dispute between chiefs about cattle theft.

The photograph’s composition – with the most powerful person dead centre displayed against a white backdrop so that his black jacket creates a close frame around his supercilious facial expression – is wonderful. The turned-wood legs of the table contrast with both the bare feet of onlookers and the gritty floor of the room. The angle suggests that the photographer is on the floor, looking up at the magistrate, implying to the informed viewer that the photographer too, is “beneath” the magistrate. The expression on the face of the policeman to the left of the magistrate is a study of conflicted, tenuous power. This is the power and magic of good photojournalism – that a single click of a shutter can capture so powerfully and artistically a real moment in time.

There are many other photographs in the book that capture stiller, more solitary moments. Some single-figure portraits are luminescent beyond what could be captured by ambient light, like that of Albert Luthuli standing at a window in his spaza shop in 1960, just after he’d received news that he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Or that of Alan Paton leaning on a garden gate, or of the photographer’s father reading ancient Vedic scripts – an exceptional picture that succeeds in capturing quiet religiosity.

The shot of Sonny Pillay and Miriam Makeba working together at a piano, and the shot of Jann Turner leaning on the shoulder of Fawzia, Rick Turner’s widow, are both saturated with emotion.

Most memorable for me – and a photograph to which I returned several times – is the picture of a woman in tribal dress waiting in the corridor of the Durban magistrate’s court in order to give evidence. She is sitting on the floor. In her lap is a chubby, scrubby haired baby. While the mother’s attention is on the surrounding hubbub, her face taught with expectation, the baby peers directly at the camera.

And this is where photojournalism intersects with art: where it draws the viewer to return again and again to a singular image which, for inexplicable reasons, lead to inexplicable emotional responses.

 

 

QUICK REVIEW: The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology

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sol plaatjeThe Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology

Volume IV

(SUBS: NO EDITOR IS NAMED ON THE BOOK)

ISBN: 978-1-4314-0985-3

Jacana Media

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

The thorough selection process that results in this annual anthology means it has come to represent a “best of” collection showcasing some of South Africa’s most dedicated poets.

What I always admire about it is that it is so democratic. Well-known names and completely new names in poetry all live alphabetically alongside one another. This is because the winning poems are selected blind. The judges – Ingrid de Kock, Johann de Lange and Goodenough Mashego – do not see the names on the poems entered into the competition.

As always, the poetry is uneven: clichéd in theme and phrase in many places, but in other places rising like cut and polished precious stones on a rocky plain. In this issue, the poems by Thabo Jijana stood out for me because of their brevity, clarity and humour.

REVIEW: Nora Webster

norawebster feat pic

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: Outline

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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.

 

QUICK REVIEW: Lamentation

lamentation-use

Lamentation

CJ Sansom

Mantle

ISBN: 9781447260257

Karin Schimke
lamentation-978144726025701

This is the sixth in Sansom’s Tudor detective series and neither his eye for historical detail, his knack for plot nor his empathy for his lawyer detective, the hunchback Matthew Shardlake, have diminished.

King Henry VIII is now an obese and wobbly man, barely able to walk two steps by himself, but his rule of terror remains. He is married to his sixth (and last) wife Catherine Parr, but even she isn’t free of the terror. She’s got herself into a pickle – quite innocently – of which the consequence could be burning at the stake. She needs her old friend Shardlake to help.

The plotting and grasping, the subterfuge and power struggles, the abject poverty and filth, the shocking wealth and wastages at court, the general ignorance (sound familiar, South Africa?) all remain, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the Shardlake series.

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

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.