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An Epic Love story and Titanic Retold

By Andrew Donaldson for The Times:

Short, sharp guidance and observations from a journalist with attitude.


Habibi, by Craig Thompson (Faber and Faber), R250

TO DESCRIBE Habibi as a graphic novel is to somehow do it an injustice, for this is an epic work, an intricately detailed and monumental love story, an adventure and a revelatory exploration of the common ground between Islamic and Judeo-Christian cultures all woven into the story of a young girl sold into slavery in some mythic Arabic state and the abandoned baby boy she rescues. Quite simply one of the most beautiful books published in 2011.


I’VE mentioned it before, but the other great centenary celebrated this year is that of the RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage and subsequent encounter with an iceberg on April 14 1912.

An estimated 1 000 books have already been written on the liner and its fate. A lot more are coming. The challenge, therefore, for writers is to find a new way to tell the story. For Richard Davenport-Hines, whose just-published Titanic Lives: Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew (HarperPress) has drawn lavish praise from the critics, the answer lay not only in detailing the stories of the passengers – from the upper class toffs to the political, religious and economic refugees in third class – but also those of the men who built and owned the ship, and the crew who serviced her, thus presenting a more complete overview of Edwardian society.


IN HIS new book, Sometimes There Is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Zakes Mda reveals that his second wife, Adele, who would belittle her philandering husband at the drop of a hat, had a special way to hurt him: during their drawn-out divorce proceedings, she would search out negative reviews of Mda’s writings and mail them “to those people in South Africa who she thought were interested in my work”.

What fun she would have had with Dwight Garner’s review of the book for the New York Times. “Mr Mda’s buoyant sensibility keeps Sometimes There Is a Void afloat, against terrible odds.” he writes. “This is a talky, formless and seemingly endless book, one that has none of the sculptured intensity of his best novels, which include The Heart of Redness (2000). It’s about as far from a considered work of art as it is possible for a professional writer’s memoir to be.”

What is complimentary is somewhat back-handed. “This book is like a beloved, garrulous uncle who has no idea when to stop,” Garner writes. “It’s a mess, and I can’t recommend it, but it’s a big-hearted and mostly loveable mess.”


“THE expression on Michelle’s face was one of deep satisfaction. He had given the kind of speech she knew he could give. The look on her face said: this is the president I wanted you to be.” – The Obamas: A Mission, A Marriage by Jodi Kantor (Penguin).

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