REVIEW: Karin Schimke
When there is grand hype around the release of the book, it can often be a disappointing read. Not necessarily because it is bad, but because it is quite good – and nothing more.
Cultish admiration of an author’s public persona can sometimes obscure the quality of their work.
The debut work of Rebecca Davis, possibly one of the best known journalists currently working in South Africa – not only because she has covered some of the most newsworthy events of recent years, but because she is very active and has a large following on Twitter – is in such danger.
She comes across as likable (though not everyone likes what she has to say). It would be easy for her fans to approve of her first foray into book publishing simply because she wrote it.
And the hype around the release of Best White and Other Anxious Delusions is – well, it’s big.
So the chances of this book fizzling like a giant balloon are great.
No. Not once. Not even when you read it cover to cover (an episodic approach over a period of time is more recommendable, however).
Over 32 chapters, Davis maintains a consistent level of “edunewsatainment”, a made-up word you’ll find in the chapter entitled “Look It Up”, and which would refer to a “media product which is part education, part news, and part entertainment”, if it were, in fact, a word.
Davis herself calls Best White a collection of essays. Which, indeed, is what they are.
Sarah Bakewell, writing about Michel de Montaigne’s essays in How To Live, says his essays have “no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance. It does not have designs on you: you can do as you please” with them.
It counts for Davis’s essays too.
What this requires on the part of the reader is a certain amount of tolerance. Do not approach Best White expecting answers because, in the best tradition of the form, Davis answers nothing. If you like your non-fiction authors and journalists to dole out wisdom and point their finger with authority at a direction in which they believe you should move, then Davis is not for you.
If, however, you can plop around happily in puddles of randomness without such expectation, read Best White, because not only will you laugh really hard sometimes (and want to interrupt family members in their own business to read some paragraphs aloud), but you’re likely to learn stuff.
Because Davis, like all good essayist and journalists, has a voraciously curious mind.
She is able to impart the most fascinating nuggets of information that seems completely unrelated to her topic in such a way that you feel you might want to spend an hour or two – as soon as you’ve managed to put her book down – doing a little bit of research into types of winds, Kitty Genovese and the possible legal complications of an accident involving two self-driving cars.
What makes her writing so funny – quite apart from the fact that she has a clear, authentic and consistent voice – is that she uses the essay as a lens for close observation of the world. And when the world – and here, particularly South Africa – is viewed closely, its inherent absurdity is revealed.
For inconclusive, self-effacing, informed humour, delivered with often almost perfect pitch by an openly ambivalent writer (she often questions her own take on things), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying example of essay writing in South Africa.
And if the zeitgeist has you chewing your cuticles to shreds, then that’s all the more reason to read Davis’s collection of wild anecdote that manage, admirably, also to capture a social and historical moment that both has us in its thrall but which is, like all other social and historical moments, transient.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2015.