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Curing yourself through reading


DSC02114 I am a sucker for simple covers. Old books were good at that: no pictures adorning the cover, a fancy typeface for the title, perhaps with a dash of golden glitz to sparkle against the dour blue, red, brown or black background. No cover shouts, no blurbs. Just the thing – the paper and the words. A good story, a marvel of poems, can be so gaudy inside your head, no accessories are needed.

It’s quite fashionable nowadays to make novelty books like this, a tendency that leans towards the pretentious. Yet still I am drawn to plainness.

So here’s one that’s a dish: fat, but light, grey cover with a darker grey spine, and the title in a no nonsense type in orange: The Novel Cure.

This is what I thought of the inside:

The Novel CureDSC02118

The A – Z of Literary Remedies

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

This is the oddest book, which no amount of lucid description can really explain, but let that not put you off.

The authors have, it seems, been “prescribing” books to one another for a variety of ailments for decades. Their combined efforts at “diagnosing” what ails someone and elucidating why a particular novel could aid in their recovery, have resulted in The Novel Cure.

For the problem of “children, pressure to have”, they recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. For racism they suggest, predictably, but accurately, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. For “cancer, caring for someone with”, they’ve recommended A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

There are “cures” for physical afflictions like sweating and toothache, and “life” afflictions like road rage and “fatherhood, avoiding it”.

In between are crazy wonderful lists, like “The Ten Best Big Fat Tomes” and “The Ten Best Novels For After A Nightmare”.

With all its bright ideas for what to read and re-read, the book itself is a sure cure for any reading slump. – Karin Schimke

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in September 2013
  • The book has a great website too. Check it out here.

REVIEW: Apocalypse Now Now

apocalypse now now

apocalypse now nowCharlie Human

Apocalypse Now Now


REVIEW: Ruth Browne

Speculative fiction is taking off in South Africa, and Charlie Human’s debut is a shot of adrenaline for the genre. African cyberpunk in the pulp magazine Jungle Jim, Sarah Lotz’s visions of the undead, the volatile mix of urban fantasy, sci-fi and Safa-slang in Laurne Beukes’ Moxyland and Zoo City: all these gather under the umbrella of “speculative” fiction, and our young and agitated democracy is the perfect springboard for the imagination. Whilst being cheerfully eviscerated at his book launch by his ex-supervisor, Beukes, Human said he drew inspiration from the tabloid headlines trussed to streetlight poles across Cape Town. He wanted to tap into the creative spirit behind news stories about Tokoloshes stealing babies, and the result was the lurid Apocalypse Now Now.

My first impression of this novel was that Human had forced a bunch of battered genres into joyless orgy in a back room at the Kimberley Hotel. I’m not the first critic to make the connection between the book and the grungy atmosphere at “Kimbos”, a venue Capetonians love to hate. Apocalypse Now Now is a back-and-forth narrative that hops from Claremont and Rondebosch to Philippi, Epping, Parow and somewhere off the East Coast on a fishing trawler. The anti-hero, Baxter Zevcenko, is a sociopathic schoolyard delinquent who thinks of his classmates as NPCs (a nerd acronym for “non-playing characters”). He runs a neat little start-up business at his high school, selling niche porn to students. As a Westerford alumnus, I can assure all readers that “Westridge” high school is definitely not Westerford. Not at all. The school’s constantly poised to erupt into gang warfare, and guns and hard drugs are always close to hand. At the same time, the hateful yet introspective Zevcenko suffers Boer War-era dreams narrated in italics and gets warm and fuzzy about his girlfriend, Esme, until she’s abducted by the Mountain Killer (krimi angle). Jackson Ronin is Baxter’s foul-mouthed, gun-loving, enraged, irresponsible mentor, who introduces him to Cape Town’s supernatural population of elementals, sprites, zombies and weirder things. Ronin’s a neo-noir hippy samurai with a side-order of Mr Miyagi, tasked with helping Zevcenko find his kidnapped girlfriend.

The one writer this novel really brought to mind was Peter Merrington, author of The Zombie and the Moon, an excellent, kaleidoscopic tale spanning continents, immersed in South African mythologies. Human also incorporates juicy local myths and legends, from Van Hunks (the dude who dealt with the devil, not the hipster bar) to sorcery with chicken blood. The distinctly Human elements include a military installation on Devil’s Peak and zombie strip-clubs that deal in human flesh. However, at times the story takes on a real Artemis Fowl feel. Human was portrayed as dark and adult at his launch, but some grisly Mengelesque scenes of experimentation and the odd zombie orgy aren’t always enough to shake the young adult vibe.

All that taken into consideration, however, the harsh, jocular tone of narration is engagingly informal, and it’s obvious Human had a good time writing this (when Lauren Beukes wasn’t ripping him a new one). Riddled with pop culture, bursting with cynicism and maniacal energy, Apocalypse Now Now is something you should buy and read. Do it.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in Septemeber 2013

REVIEW: The imagined child

imagined child

imagined childThe Imagined Child

Jo-Anne Richards

Picador Africa

Review: Kayang Gagiano

Jo-Anne Richards’ novels have a distinctive narrative pattern to them: readers invariably find themselves introduced to a cagey female protagonist originally hailing from the Eastern Cape. These prickly heroines have fraught, problematic relationships with their lovers or spouses, close female friends and/or children, and a tendency to refuse to open up. They harbour shameful secrets and traumatic pasts (often linked to the politics of the time) which must (we, as clever, more emotionally grounded readers naturally realise) be confronted. And then there’s ‘the big reveal’ towards the end of each book, some long repressed demon or skeleton-in-closet exposed, followed by a contrived, over hasty resolution. Richards’ latest endeavour, The Imagined Child, though less overtly political, gentler in tone and more humorous than some of her previous works, is not very different in this regard.

However, to reduce Richards’ impressive oeuvre to a mere formula would be churlish; she is a fine writer with a particular gift for evoking a sense of place through lyrical prose and astutely-observed descriptions. Whether she is conjuring the rugged beauty of an Eastern Cape farm (as in her bestselling debut, The Innocence of Roast Chicken), the vibrancy of (newly) post apartheid Jozi (in Sad at the Edges), or the insularity of a small Free State dorp (as in this latest novel), Richards’ writing is at its most powerful when sketching vivid, atmospheric backdrops to her angst-heavy human dramas. And somehow, however irritating I find her insecure, sometimes abrasive heroines, their compelling histories do inevitably lure me in.

Jo-Anne Richards

Jo-Anne Richards

The Imagined Child is about the pitfalls of keeping secrets and the burdens of motherhood. Odette is a divorcee in her early forties who writes story outlines for a local soapie. Seeking a fresh start, she has recently relocated from crime-ridden, smog-heavy Jozi to the (fictional) Free State farming hamlet of Nagelaten. (And indeed the name, which translates as “left behind” is no coincidence, we shall discover). After experiencing a big romantic disappointment and surviving a frightening burglary – and perhaps most significantly, having sent her slightly learning impaired daughter off to London to au pair – Odette is ready to embrace bucolic bliss. She has purchased a quaint house on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks (because it has a great river view and a fruit orchard and because she is an enlightened type who fantasizes about befriending her squatter neighbours) and plans to open a coffee shop serving pukka cups of joe.

Describing herself as ‘guarded with her own innards,’ Odette has few friends. Every week she travels to Johannesburg to meet with her therapist (these are painfully frustrating sessions in which she prides herself on disclosing absolutely nothing of emotional value) and to attend meetings with her fellow soap hacks (caricatured secondary characters who offer some amusement, but mostly raised my hackles).

Though Odette yearns for an uncomplicated existence, one senses that she is ambivalent about both her move and her daughter’s life abroad. There is something not quite right about young Mandy; her condition is alluded to in cryptic terms by her defensive mother. As the plot unfolds, we discover that both the town and our protagonist harbour dark, guilty secrets.

Nagelaten is not panning out to be the great escape Odette had envisaged. Its parochial white populace, consisting primarily of conservative Afrikaners trapped in a cultural time warp, tend to frustrate and her attempts at inter-racial friendship largely fall flat, or remain superficial. She develops a more acute sense of the town’s potential menace when she hears of a gruesome farm slaying and is robbed of most of her domestic possessions. Then there are the veiled hints about a salacious scandal involving the local dominee and the mystery surrounding strange young indigent, Wolfie, who slopes around town and whom few will acknowledge. Life is further complicated when she begins a relationship with the murder victim’s widower, Adriaan, an engineer turned farmer who has a more cosmopolitan background than the town’s average inhabitant, but who remains strangely tight lipped about his wife’s untimely demise. When her daughter is implicated in the death of the baby in her charge, Odette’s life is thrown into further turmoil.

The elements of mystery and suspense, which Richards introduces to her tale, first subtly and then more overtly, make for an absorbing read.  Her ‘small town with big secrets theme’ also reminded me to some extent of Michiel Heyns’ award winning Lost Ground. Like Heyns, Richards uses South Africa’s still-brittle cultural, class and race relations to great effect. While the sarcastic Odette, who is more saturated with unacknowledged guilt than a deep sea sponge is with salt water is perhaps not the most likeable of characters, she is fully realised and interesting. Richards’ usual habit of rushing her dénouement did not overly detract from my overall enjoyment of this flawed but intriguing novel. – Gagiano is a freelance writer and reviewer.

  • This review first in the Cape Times in 2013


South Africa Crime fiction – the novel’s form as mediation of social conditions?


OF-COPS-ROBBERS-MIKE-NICOL-9781415203767-197x300Of Cops and Robbers

Mike Nicol


By Leon de Kock

Mike Nicol’s new thriller, Of Cops and Robbers, got me thinking once again about the relation of ‘crime’ writing in and of South Africa to what one might call the ‘sociopolitical’ zone, that space which has traditionally engaged ‘serious’ writing ever since Olive Schreiner shook off the African exotic in the late nineteenth century and turned towards an approximation of social realism. Nicol’s thriller-novels, including this one, present a curious mix of, on the one hand, informed political – and historical – savvy, such as one would expect from a senior writer-journalist and commentator like this author, and then, on the other, a slew of generic thriller bon mots. These stylized typicalities of the genre – deadpan humour in the face of dead humans, dry witticisms signaling wised-up discernment about universally corrupt dealings – make for good thriller-reading. We should not be too eager to slam an author such as Nicol for doing what the genre demands, and doing it rather well, too.

If, however, one were reading more purposefully for sociopolitical content, and for formal innovation in line with such subject-matter – a tendency which Nicol’s novels invite, despite Nicol disclaiming any serious ‘political’ intent – then one might find these generic elements somewhat limiting. As some academic critics have argued, in Nicol’s case in particular, the generic tics limit the range and scope of representing individual subjectivity, and they foreshorten the novel’s ability to probe social formations beyond formulaic patterns. Rather than re-animate the serious-political-analysis versus the thriller-cliché argument – one which was widely aired following my SLiPnet review of Roger Smith’s novel Dust Devils in 2012 – I’d like here to avoid the starkly divisive terms of that particular debate and ask whether we might find some value in asking a different question, which is this: might the generic constraints of noir (which is essentially what Nicol writes) be seen to be a more rather than a less adequate form in which to capture key elements of a certain kind of politics? Upon reading Nicol’s Of Cops and Robbers, which I found both entertaining and viscerally offputting, both limiting and revelatory (in spite of Nicol’s evident mastery of form and fluidity of style), it struck me that one might read a novel such as this within a Lukacsian lens of novelistic form as a mediation of social conditions. I like to think of this mediating function as fictional adequation.

The question that arose for me was this: might it be true that the stunted emotional range, and the blunted motivational scope, of key characters in Nicol’s novel, serve as a necessary adequation of social conditions within an economy of severe moral cupidity? Two examples of key characters in Of Cops and Robbers are Jacob Mkezi and Dr Gold. Mkezi is a disgraced former police commissioner in the current ruling party who has turned to mafia-style big business (his peons routinely assassinate anyone with evidence against him), and his dealings here include the sale of a cache of rhino horns discovered in Angola. The rhino horns were harvested as part of dirty dealings in the South-African backed Angolan war against Swapo in the 1970s.

Further plot intricacies aside, the novel successfully links corruption within the current plutocracy in Pretoria with similar degeneration in the old Nationalist regime via a curious alliance between the ANC’s Mkezi and Dr Gold, based on the former Nationalist Finance Minister Dr Nico Diederichs, who is widely rumoured to have been implicated in illicit gold-bullion shifting to Zurich. In Of Cops and Robbers, a member of parliament with information about Dr Gold’s secret dealings is assassinated on the East Rand, along with his wife. This incident is based on the murders of Dr Robert Smit and his wife, Jean-Cora, also in the 1970s. The novelistic circumstances are quite deliberately set up as a parallel with the actual events of Smit and his wife’s murder.

The double-agent role of Mkezi, who profits from both the Nationalist and the ANC power bases, is not so much a direct parallel with actual events as a distillation of many cases in which such double-dealing can be shown to have occurred. Nicol’s novel also makes it plain that corrupt political dealings are a common theme in both the Nationalist and the ANC regimes.

The complex historical details here excavated, and their trails, which the reader can trace both backwards and forwards in political time and space, are adroitly handled. They make the novel interesting and readable, especially since Nicol integrates such socio-political coordinates within a cops-and-robbers form, not to put too fine a point on it.

Yes, the book is engaging, a ripping yarn and hard to put down (which is more than one can say for a lot of fiction), but how ‘true’ is it? This is the hard part. Indeed, one might run a postgraduate seminar on the question of ‘truth’ in fiction, the starting point being that ‘truth’ must always be an approximation, a certain adequation of form to content. The process of using certain conventions of form, with an accompanying vocabulary and style, might be seen to partially ‘capture’ or ‘shade in’ some but not all facets of any phenomenon or process. If one accepts this as a working proposition, then one might ask: what kind of particular shading-in does the crime-thriller offer for South African sociopolitical conditions, within a distinctly noir expression of its typical features? Think of Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, to mention two classic examples, and the use of a markedly dry kind of savor faire to describe what amounts to the horrifying physical cruelty often evident in ‘casual’ killing. Why the driest of tones, the most deadpan wit imaginable, and a thoroughly offbeat (seemingly nonchalant) literary style, in describing such repugnant human acts? What ‘encoding’ or prior processing of morality, of a moral economy, is moulded into such stylized gestures?

Clearly, one might begin to find the answer in the ‘sophistication’ of the private eye – she or he has seen this too many times before to be too badly shaken. The PI has become hardened to an essentially degenerate urban or political scene, and his ‘noir’ responses encode a healthy skepticism about the possibility of human betterment, or any kind of optimism about social progress. This is the way it is. This is the dark side of modernity. Better to maintain a gruff, savvy, bleak sense of humour about it. The question arises, however, whether there isn’t more to the story than the story is able to tell, given the form?

Swing back to Mike Nicol and South African crime fiction in general, and the immediate observation one might make is that, mostly contra to classical noir, here the crooks are very often in government, or working for government (hence the ambiguity in Nicol’s title, which blurs the distinction between ‘cops’ and ‘robbers’). In South African crime fiction, the usually civil space of noir is significantly enlarged (although the cops in classical noir, also government lackeys, are by no means angels). Might one argue that in South African (and African) crime fiction, the government runs the mafia, rather than the other way around? It is an interesting speculation, despite exceptions to the rule, because it is precisely in such enlargement that overlaps between the generic thriller and the ‘political’ occur in current local crime fiction.

Instead of setting the one up against the other, as the debate so far has tended to do, might one not see the very use of ‘generic’ noir to capture (or annex) the political as a formal innovation, a distinct adequation of form (in a very particular generic expression) to social content? What such an adequation implies, in the baldest of terms, is that the current style of political machination (remember the recent case of Dina Pule?), just like the shady doings of Dr Gold (don’t forget Nat skelms like Dr Diederichs), don’t deserve much more than a noir response; that such human landscape is adequately rendered in a form which need not look too deeply into questions of individual subjectivity or characterological complexity. The moral economy of near-blind cupidity to which such behaviour subscribes is so hollowed out and debased that the hardboiled gesture is the characterisation it positively invites.

Certainly, such a conclusion accounts for the sheer satisfaction I often get when reading some of Nicol’s stories. Yes, this is what it deserves. Yes, that’s the truth of it. Yes, now he’s pinned the bastard down. But that’s just my feeling, both subjective and quasi-objective – based on my own lifetime’s worth of reading a country we call South Africa. And this is where the problem lies when assessing how ‘adequate’ any work of fiction is or might be to the truth – the answer lies not in an external assessment, but in an inner, readerly sense of how close to the mark the writer is, or could be.

Certainly, one can do factually-based comparisons, check the story against the archive, but that will not account for the ‘truth’ of style and form, which is always an approximation, a variable gauge.

This is why writers need lots of readers, lots of reviews, lots of discussion – so that a critical mass of reception might eventually indicate a kind of consensus, the way great works are known to be great by the force of continued attention. If writers like Nicol can continue to gauge the temperature of the social while also entertaining their readers, then it might be a good idea to keep reading them.

  • Leon de Kock is professor of English at Stellenbosch University.

COLUMN: The elastic essay

essays thumbnail

By Karin Schimke

No doubt, the first time you heard the word “essay” it was at school and, to varying degrees of discomfort, it was a part of the arsenal required for you to pass high school.

Learning a word at school often augurs badly for the concept it shorthands. Although I didn’t have a horror of writing essays – my fears were confined to things mathematical – I didn’t realise until very late in life, that essays are deeply satisfying way to spend reading time, on top of being an amusing way to learn new ways of looking. For the essay – though many things – has very special powers of observation, afforded it by its elastic form, and its tolerance of both heart and head in its discursions.

An essay is nothing at all like the things you had to do at school. And if you haven’t read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Christopher Hichens, David Sedaris, Siri Hustvedt, David Wallace Foster, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers, then you won’t know just how different the two types of “essay” are.sarah-bakewell

Oh, and Montaigne, of course. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. Not, I admit, that I have read Montaigne’s essays, but I am currently reading a book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live. It is a biography of Montaigne, but approached by looking at the questions he asked and the answers he explored.

“Explored” – not “found”. Because an essay exists to discover, not to decree. Bakewell says Montaigne’s 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 it.” Though some might find this too inconclusive, too fuzzy, his essays were a bestseller in his time and continue to be read 400 years later.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne

Montaigne is considered the father of the essay because that’s what he called his work – a kind of writing that had not been seen before. The word “essay” means “to try”. He was trying a new kind of writing – and the writing was trying to find answers.

He and the talented, amusing, engaging writers I mentioned above, are able to move from the particular to the universal, and from the personal to the political, with fluidity and panache. They are able to “look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”, as one observer put it. What I like is how they hook into the world from a purely personal point of view, but manage – mostly – to avoid solipsism. They are a part of the world, but engage a third eye, a way of linking the self to the political, social and historical Zeitgeist. They make no pretense of it either – they do not try to hide behind a mask of objectivity. They often place themselves centrally and, from there, wander questioningly over much wider ground.

I like that essays are often inconclusive, ambivalent and tentative. They steer away from the absolutism that pervades public discourse. They give body to the poet Walt Whitman’s words: “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself,/(I am large, I contain multitudes)”.

The paeditrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said that tolerating ambivalence was a sign of emotional maturity. Essays require the reader to get comfortable with ambivalence.

In return they inform through close observation, and close observation very often has the effect of exposing the humour or absurdity in things. Essays do not alienate by doling out wisdom from lofty positions, but engage the reader in observing peculiarity, particularity and in, ultimately, discovering personal meaning.

Essays show us “how to live”: inquisitively, questioningly – and tolerant of life’s infinite shades of being. – Schimke is a poet, a journalist and a the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first appeared in the Cape Times in June 2013
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.