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Archive for the ‘Book Excerpts’ Category

“The Truth of Unwelcome Things” – Read Bill Nasson’s Foreword to the New Edition of A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson

Invitation to the relaunch of A Writer's Diary

A Writer's DiaryElectric Book Works has shared Bill Nasson’s Foreword to the new edition of A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson.

Watson, who passed away in 2011, was a distinguished and influential poet, essayist, academic and creative writing teacher at University of Cape Town.

Nasson is Professor of History at Stellenbosch University. His most recent book is World War One and the People of South Africa.

In the Foreword, Nasson calls A Writer’s Diary both “fresh and timeless, both immediately local and soaringly universal”, adding that “its contents continue to resonate almost two decades later”.

The new edition of A Writer’s Diary will be launched at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Wednesday, 26 August, with Nasson in conversation with UCT academics Peter Anderson and Hedley Twidle.

* * * * *

Read the Foreword:

For me, the word “diary” dredges up a very distinctive undergraduate memory, which does not involve Anne Frank. It is reading, as a student of Victorian English literature, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, the classic comic creation which chronicles the humdrum and absurd daily life of a pushy bank clerk, Charles Pooter. That was a gently mocking celebration of life as the sum of all that is mundane and half-baked, as a barely-conscious and snobbish Pooter is wounded deeply by tradesmen who do not doff their caps to him.

Leaving aside the fact that Diary of a Nobody is fiction and that A Writer’s Diary is an acutely self-observant record of a year in an actual life and of an actual consciousness, it is hard to think of more polar opposites in the idea of what a diary can mean as a literary creation. For trivial ramblings about food, drink and who got to sit in the best chair, you could do worse than look up the Grossmiths of the 1880s. To savour the diary as a vehicle for the expression of a unique and extraordinarily imaginative sensibility, go back a couple of decades and discover – or renew an unforgettable encounter – with the late Stephen Watson’s A Writer’s Diary.

Both fresh and timeless, both immediately local and soaringly universal in its concerns, what is it that makes Stephen Watson’s 1997 Diary unique? The answer is provided by its author early on, in this book’s third entry of 16 December, 1995. In a New York winter, with thoughts of the companionable Cape as ever on his mind, he reflects on his craft, declaring that “to write is, if nothing else, still among the best means available for forcing the individual to encounter those impulses of hope and despair, vanity and humility, hubris and humiliation, meanness and generosity of spirit, which work almost simultaneously in anyone’s life.”

What follows is the unfolding of a truth to which this diarist bears consistently cool and discerning witness, that writing is “something of a moral education”, for all the trouble that it may bring. Equally, in that contrary voice which also oils the contradictory tone – or the hinge of doubt – upon which Stephen Watson’s Diary turns, he is always alert to the element of choice and the possibility of other consequences. Here, the undeniably valid alternative argument is to be glimpsed by his dipping into the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński, whose father clung absolutely to “the sanctity of privacy. To him, the most rewarding life was one that passed unnoticed by the world.”

There lay a less bumpy path, not that of paying a price for reeling in the world through the exercise of personal creativity. Otherwise, for the writer, it is, to quote from one of the poems of WB Yeats’s 1914 collection, Responsibilities (a chilling title), to be worn “in the world’s eyes” by having something disconcertingly truthful to say to them. The truths for which this Diary reaches – about the meaning of bigotry, laziness, conformity, liberty, and much more besides – are conceived through crisp interrogation, so that the habit of mind which percolates this volume is instinctively sceptical and frequently iconoclastic.

It is, I think, in that sense that A Writer’s Diary is more than just a scrupulous examination of the abiding preoccupations of one of contemporary South Africa’s most eminent English-language poets, essayists and critics – arguably the most observant, humane, and digressive of his generation. For Stephen Watson’s insights into language, culture, landscape, ideologies, writers, painters, politics, society, and the baffling nature of the human condition nail his colours to the mast. In this, his small volume is also a manifesto. As an approach to life as an intellectually serious business, it presents a rich and engaging range of beliefs which fan out from a primary impulse. That impulse is to grasp at the heart of the matter, with unsparing candour.

The subtle, reflective, and interrogative emotional intelligence which percolates through these pages also makes this an unusually long short book. Why? Because, on every page, something flashes up to say, “pause here, and think”. Thus, with a kind of caustic world-weariness, a March 1996 entry is an arresting example of limpid thoughtfulness. Stephen Watson reflects that it took “one man and one book” to do “for the Soviet Union what it has taken an entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do for South Africa”. That modest Russian combination was, of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. After that painful full stop, he resumes with the effortless, woodpecker-style that he cultivates here, to what it is that makes the closing in of a Cape autumn so distinctive.

I happened to have first met Stephen in an autumnal Cape month over three decades ago, in a Rondebosch house appropriately downwind of the prestigious school that he had left never to be counted as a consenting old boy. Midway through the dinner party to which my wife and I had been invited, the electricity failed, leaving as the only illumination the colourful beam of table gossip to which Stephen contributed a memorably delicious portion. Then, as always, he was never one to be tolerant of pompous fools and their humbug. Thirty years on in South Africa, and among its large current failings we count electricity supply, if now on a more desperate national scale than the odd municipal stutter of the earlier 1980s.

Rereading A Writer’s Diary to pen a few modest words to accompany this wonderful reissue in 2015, one cannot but be struck by just how much of its contents continue to resonate almost two decades later. If this is a literary diary that illuminates “life”, it is also a work that is contaminated by the kind of implicit historical consciousness that illuminates “life” in many striking ways. It may seem a large claim to make, but the depth and unfaked quality of its observations have the curious effect of making its year seem somehow current – of making it close to our time, removing the almost twenty years that lie between our South African world now, and a year of the world inhabited by, and reflected upon, by Stephen from December 1995 to December 1996.

For one thing, there is the long shadow thrown by South Africa’s baleful history, and its lingering legacy. In a searing explanation in August 1996, the latter is defined as “guilt on the one hand”, and “emotional blackmail on the other”, making up the “psychic glue” that binds the country. In a stark understanding, it all boils down to mutual “bad faith”. In one part, “guilt is that ever-inflationary wage that inaction pays to conscience”; in another, the answer to it is “extortion by bad faith which is emotional blackmail”. Together, they form the miserable “psychic cost of a nation that continues to be marked by an abyss of inequality – scandalous wealth on the one hand, criminal poverty on the other”. Is it not still ever thus?

At the same time, the Diary stays in the mind for much else besides such stabs at the sorry state of the nation. To take another theme at random, there is the dramatic awareness of light, and its interplay with calendar time and the creation of the physical world into a place that can be apprehended by human beings. Light, ponders a September 1996 entry, “furnishes the illusion of colour … without which the visible world would be invisible”, imprinting it “as perhaps our only image or symbol of God”. With a sense of religiosity rather than the conventional pieties of religion, it is probably no surprise that Stephen clasps the Impressionists, such as JMW Turner, for their painter’s understanding of light. Armed by the entry for 18 September, 1996, go and see the British film director Mike Leigh’s 2014 biographical drama, Mr Turner. It will make the personal life of that flawed and coarse artist feel more like some sort of unintended epiphany.

Equally, no short preface of any kind to Stephen’s writing can omit the continuing relevance of his highly developed alertness to the use and abuse of language. Rightly, in December 1995, he rails against human spaces that have become “clotted with words in the same way that certain landscapes are polluted by filth”, words that have become drained of meaning through overpopulation. His is a trenchant voice against language inflation, be it the “dead wood” of South Africa’s intoxication with cliché (“stakeholders”) or the mumbo-jumbo of intellectual fads which involve never using a single plain word when two or three arcane ones will do. “Postmodernism”, he grumbles on the 21st of December, at times strikes one “as simply a way of shifting the word-garbage around when it’s grown too deep to be disposed of”.

As one of the Diary’s most tough-minded battles, its stand against the degeneration of language is also fought with other, more general, broadsides. These hits are heavy and telling, and if anything have more targets today than when they were directed. Many remain with us. As we are reminded on 26 July, 1995, despite the overblown hopes of their intellectual fellow-travellers, “liberation movements seldom create liberatory (still less libertarian) cultures if only because their struggles demand a high degree of militarisation, conformity, as well as suppression of individual dissent”. As we ought to know all too well from history, “harbingers of freedom in one area can often be minions of repression in another”.

Accordingly, fine-sounding terms like “national democratic culture” and “people’s culture” amount to little else but “an image of collective control rather than one of freedom and individual liberties”. Against that, the Diary declares, reach for the best weapon available, the truth. It is impossible not to love a writer for whom the spectacle of “cultural apparatchiks” debating the future of the South African novel resembles something akin to some matter of state, “like ensuring a supply of clean water for mass housing projects” (5 October, 1996).

The zenith of this acerbic vein is reached with Thabo Mbeki’s fraudulent claim at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the notorious slogan, “kill the boer, kill the farmer”, was really just theatrical word-play, or a “form of art”. As Stephen observes on 12 October, 1996, he seems to have been “criminally unaware” that his meretricious words were “an insult to all South African artists and writers, as well as to art in general.” The light cast on this topic – not only here, but in his other writings – stemmed from what was one of this expertly controlled and careful writer’s feelings about the use of language as a dubious instrument – as the numb grammar of brutality and violence. In my own small craft, that of history, Stephen’s awareness of such danger signs remind me of the view of the late Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most powerful historical minds of our time. He was a Marxist, if of a special kind. In a collection of essays published, as it happens, also in 1997, one message was: beware of being fast and loose with words. For “the sentences typed on apparently innocuous keyboards” may be sentences with deadly human consequences. What matters is that, like Stephen Watson, he set his face against a slide into a contemporary barbarism that threatens to gut the sense of a humane world civilisation that remains the legacy of the European Enlightenment.

I have reached the end of the Foreword to this republication of A Writer’s Diary. Every fond and admiring word of it is absolutely true. Like all who knew Stephen, I am immeasurably richer for having known him and his talent, and am the poorer for his passing. I realise that I am concluding without a single mention of his umbilical attachment to those special Western Cape South African places, Cape Town and the Cederberg, both of which loom prominently in this Diary. But never mind. Look out for the twists, like Stephen’s disarming understanding of the bigotry and reactionary attitudes of the eminent English poet, Philip Larkin. As he reflects in September 1996, that bloody-mindedness towards what he did not like, “reveals itself as a creative resource as much – if not more so – than any empathy”. For this diarist, that is not a consolingly aesthetic rationalisation. It is the truth of unwelcome things.

Bill Nasson
Professor of History, Stellenbosch University

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Sunday Read: A Sample of Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome by Robby Novak and Brad Montague

Kid President

Kid President's Guide to Being AwesomeRobby Novak is just like any other child – quirky, optimistic and excited about life. He also happens to be a YouTube sensation who goes by Kid President with a newly published book.

The idea for Kid President came about when Novak’s brother-in-law, Brad Montague, started a camp “for kids who want to change the world”. Montague, who writes the material and manages production for Kid President videos, recruited Novak and together they started making videos.

Novak suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta, which means he has very brittle bones that break easily. His conditioning is often painful and limiting, but he lives a full life. The overall message of the Kid President videos is an encouragement for viewers to do the same – in a way that is fun, kind and wise.

In an article for Guideposts, Jessica Toomer found out more about how the project got started. Read what Montague had to say about Kid President:

“I’ve always had an interest in seeing how kids react to grown up issues,” Montague told “Kid President grew out of our desire to put something online that would make grown-ups pause and take a moment to see through the eyes of a kid. We started in 2012, it was the midst of the presidential race, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing aggressive political statements. So we put Robby in a cheap suit and just had fun in front of the camera. We wondered if people would listen to a small voice over the older, loud ones, and as it turned out … they did, and still do.”

Three years, 75 million views and nearly 100 videos later, Novak and Montague are releasing a book: Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome. It is “a step-by-step guide to make pretty much everything a little bit awesomer” with biography of the creators of Kid President, celebrity interviews, and a host of ideas for spreading inspiration and making the world a better place.

Read a sample of the book, shared by Harper Collins Publishers:


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Fiction Friday: “My Maths Teacher Hates Me”, From the New Jalada Anthology

Jalada’s third anthology of short stories is here!

The collection is entitled My Maths Teacher Hates Me and other Stories and features the best flash fiction produced in the mentorship programmes at the Writivism Festival in 2013 and 2014. This issue is a special collaboration between Jalada and the Centre for African Cultural Initiative (CACEAfrica).

According to its website, Jalada is a “pan-African writers’ collective” that is committed to equality and gender parity. Jalada aims to make it easier for writers to publish their work.

The first anthology, entitled Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude and Other Stories, appeared in January 2014 and centred around the theme of insanity. Sext Me: poems and stories was published in August last year.

My Maths Teacher Hates Me and other Stories consists of two parts. Stories in the first section are: “Jadwong” by Sydney Mugerwa, “Home Time” by Chumisa Paquita Ndakisa, “Accounts of A Street Urchin” by Jude Mutuma, “Bead Work” by Caleb Adebayo, “Madam” by Tiffany Kagure Mugo, “The Wound of Shrinking” by Melissa Kiguwa, “Nightmare” by Nnedinma Jane Kalu, “My Maths Teacher Hates Me!” by Paul Ugbede, “The Gift” by Michelle Preen and “On Skeletons and Tea” by Lydia Kasese.

In the second part you can read “Two Years Round Rubble” by Mbamalu Socrates, “Early” by Preen, “The Money Shot” by Amy Heydenrych, “First Cut” by Catherine Jarvis, “The Life and Times of a Wanderer” by Mary Temiloluwa Ajayi, “Friday Night” by Ndakisa, “On a Hot Summer’s Night” by Catherine Shepherd, “Inside-Outside” by Kasese, “The Man in the Raincoat” by Nduta Waweru and “Day After Tomorrow” by Ugbede.

All the images were created by Marziya Mohammedali and the cover art is courtesy of Bright Ntakky.

Read an excerpt from the titular story “My Maths Teacher Hates Me!” by Paul Ugbede:

My maths teacher hates me. He asked me to find y. I mean, how can I find y, something missing a long time ago? My brother and sister had tried to find it. Uwodi had searched for it when she was in class six. Then Atadoga also searched for it during his time in class six. My siblings, very brilliant, top of their classes, those children. But they are children no longer. Uwodi works in the bank at Kaduna and Atadoga is in the Army, a colonel now. They have both found happiness, but they couldn’t find y.

My maths teacher, he came to class yesterday very angry.

‘x2+3y =1. Find y’

I was not surprised. This had been the question for many years, the question that defeated my siblings in their respective class six. I had memorised it. I had waited for it. And it came, not in my class six, no; my class four. I mean, bearded man just walked into the class, straight to the board.

x2+3y=1. Find y.

Fine! I was not going to beg. That will give him the pleasure he wanted. I was determined to find y, for the family name. Well, secretly, it was to prove to Mama that I was better than Uwodi and Atadoga. They used to come home with big books; piles and piles of them. They will search and scribble and search and scribble. The defeated look on their faces always says it all. I was going to prove that I was better, that I had done what the two of them combined could not do. I mean, I was tired of being beaten by Mama’s long cane, tired of being called a block head, tired of being looked down on by hard to please Mama.

I went to Aunty Mona, down the block. Aunty Mona also taught maths in an All Girls’ school and was as bright as my Maths Teacher. She is the same age with Mama but they are not friends because she’s more beautiful and mama is always complaining that her husbands are too many. Mama does not like us visiting her.

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A New Volume of Poetry from Vonani Bila: Bilakhulu! – Read an Excerpt and See Photos from the Launch

Vonani Bila


A new volume of poetry by Vonani Bila, Bilakhulu!, was launched recently at David Krut Bookstore in Parkwood, Johannesburg.

The book has been published by Deep South Publishing, and will be distributed by UKZN Press.

Bilakhulu! by Vonani BilaBILAKHULU!About the book

Vonani Bila’s voice in Bilakhulu! is as buoyant and direct as ever; his emotional range is broad, incorporating humour and lament.

These seven narrative poems, ranging from three to 35 pages in length, are grounded in the poet’s family and village, but at the same time making visible the wider forces that impinge on rural life. They are engaging and politically outspoken yet personal, and filled with vitality and humour.

About the author

Vonani Bila was born in 1972 in Shirley village, Limpopo, where he still lives. He is the author of five books of poems in English and eight storybooks for newly literate adult readers in Sepedi, Xitsonga and English. He is a driving force in South African poetry – founding editor of the Timbila poetry journal, publisher of Timbila Books and founder of Timbila Writers’ Village, a rural retreat centre for writers.

Married with three children, Bila teaches in the Department of English Studies at the University of Limpopo, and in the MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University. He was the first black editor of literary journal New Coin.

Bila writes for everyone: “I believe in poetry’s ability to cut across frontiers. It transmits its poison or honey to readers or potential readers in aeroplanes, airconditioned university lecture rooms, mansions, hotel en suites and to their children who roam around our colossal shopping malls. Poetry’s readers may also be found in barbershops, spaza shops, or village schools somewhere in Limpopo, or under trees, in hair and beauty salons, in taxis and bus stations, taverns, churches, stokvels, threadbare soccer fields, or jazz pubs.”

Read an excerpt from “Autobiography”, courtesy of Deep South Publishers:

I was born in 1972
Where Mudzwiriti River swelled over roads and boulders
But nothing green grew in Gazankulu Bantustan
Even plants and trees and shrubs
Even the animals and birds and reptiles
Even the mountains and lakes and streams
Felt the pain of apartheid war
I still live here in the backwoods
With the common people
Warming ourselves around bonfires

I’ve slept in grand sky-scraping hotels
And villas of the world’s jaw-dropping cities –
My name is inscribed in books, postcards, newspapers, zines and films
But I’ve never been active on Facebook or Twitter
When I finally sleep
I want to be folded neatly
Planted into a family cemetery
Head facing east
Please my children, don’t pile up goods on the grave
The rain will wash my memory away
The sun will dry them and wild fire will burn me to ashes
Please my children, don’t be foolish and chop the trees
I planted with passion
They’re your future oxygen, bread and soup

Though I possess no clattering wheel
Or a bike spoke and chain
I’ve lived like a swallow –
Weaving nests across the mountains and oceans
I’ve ridden in rickshas, buses, trains, planes and dilapidated taxis
In boats, motorbikes and donkey carts
I’ve been chauffeured in bombastic cars
To attend meetings with ministers,
Social movements, artists, culture gurus, donors, NGOs and professors
The woman at the Polokwane Airport check-in counter
Feels pity for my wife in the village as I fly out to cities on Fridays

I grew up in a mud hut
Drank water from the wells
Slept on the itchy majekejeke mat on a cowdung-smeared floor
At 10, I was still wetting myself in the night
The millipede powder couldn’t stop the habit either
I showered from a plastic basin
Often used a water-filled mug to wipe my face
And extinguished the rotten rat wreaking havoc in my armpits
But I’ve also lived in an apartment with portraits
And tidy rooms for visitors
And yes, I’ve also lived in an apartment with racing roaches
And wet laundry

I grew up using a long-drop toilet
Newspaper, mugabagaba and guava tree leaves wiping my backside
Others used stones and bare hands to clean themselves in the bush
Later I enjoyed steam baths and massage in spas
Sat in armchairs, rode a horse and walked on red carpets
One day I may receive a Nobel Prize for Literature
Like Neruda, Brodsky and Szymborska

* * * * *

from “Ancestral Wealth”

If you were alive today, madala –
You would tell me about that rope
That roamed in your nightmares
The rope that made you so impatient
That made you hate everything about your wife
The rope that made you hit her
And want to kill her with a knife
The rope of which prophet Muvhangeli said:
U nga yi rhwaleli loko u yi vona endleleni ya wena
(Don’t pick it up when you find it placed on your path)
The tough rope of wicked relatives
Who had long sized your neck

If you were alive today, madala –
You would tell me how you and Ngholeni picked up that dead rabbit
Early in the morning on your way to work
How you skinned the rabbit with delight
How you wanted to cook it for lunch
When suddenly a strange man came
And touched your forehead
And said, “and hi yena papantsongo wa Frank.”
Then your forehead ached and pounded
And when you came back home from work
The same strange man
Hobbled to your house
All he said was one sentence:
I needed to find Frank’s brother’s place
Then he vanished
Stealing your heart
Placing it in a cave
Planting a cockerel’s heart in you
And you coughed and coughed


Papa, I know it took us twenty years to erect your tombstone
All along the wind was blowing you away
The sun was burning you
Your pillow was your hand
But now Bila, Mhlahlandlela, rest in peace
Do not open the grave and come home wearing shorts
Since you left, your wife has remained in the house
I’ve not seen a man sitting on your chair
It’s still your house
Full of trees and vegetables

7/8 u ya lithanda isaka la mazambani
U ya lithanda isaka la mazambani

* * * * *

View some photographs from the recent launch of Bilakhulu! at David Krut Bookstore in Johannesburg, taken by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee:

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Vonani Bila

Robert Berold

Robert Berold and Vonani Bila

Bilakhulu! by Vonani Bila

Bilakhulu! by Vonani Bila

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Sunday Read: John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” – An Essay so Powerful Albert Einstein Ordered 1000 Copies

HiroshimaOne of the most extraordinary works of journalism ever published, John Hersey’s essay “Hiroshima”, which took up almost the entire August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, was republished this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bomb, which fell on on August 6, 1945.

The essay was so powerful that on its release the magazine quickly sold out on newsstands, and copies were scalped for 15 to 20 dollars – a mark-up from the original cover price of 15 cents. Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1 000 copies to spread the word about Hiroshima.

“Hiroshima” is ultimately a description of what life was like for those who survived the nuclear attack. It traces the experiences of six people who were living in the city at the time of the blast: A personnel clerk, Miss Toshiko Sasaki; a physician, Dr Masakazu Fujii; a tailor’s widow with three small children, Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura; a German missionary priest, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge; a young surgeon, Dr Terufumi Sasaki; and a Methodist pastor, the Reverend Mr Kiyoshi Tanimoto.

The article follows their story from when they woke up in the morning, to the moment of the blast – at 8:15 AM – and continues through the next few days, before revisiting the group several months later.

In 1999, “Hiroshima” was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by the New York University’s journalism department, but as Harvard Professor Everett Mendelsohn points out, the direct effect of the essay on the American public is difficult to gauge: “No mass movement formed as a result of the article, no laws were passed, and reaction to the piece probably didn’t have any specific impact on US military strategy or foreign policy. But certainly the vivid depictions in the book must have been a strong contributor to a pervasive sense of dread (and guilt) about nuclear weaponry felt by many Americans ever since August 1945.”

He continues:

Of course, superb and imaginative reporting doesn’t necessarily result in concrete action and social change. Sometimes it leads to awareness and contemplation only. Certainly the millions of people who have read “Hiroshima” during the last five decades have found a chilling and unforgettable description of life after nuclear annihilation. It is hard to believe that these readers ever felt the same way again about the possible use of nuclear weapons, and in some respect their understanding of the reality of nuclear war must have continued to have at least some impact on their social and political activities.

Read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The Reverend Mr. Tanimoto got up at five o’clock that morning. He was alone in the parsonage, because for some time his wife had been commuting with their year-old baby to spend nights with a friend in Ushida, a suburb to the north. Of all the important cities of Japan, only two, Kyoto and Hiroshima, had not been visited in strength by B-san, or Mr. B, as the Japanese, with a mixture of respect and unhappy familiarity, called the B-29; and Mr. Tanimoto, like all his neighbors and friends, was almost sick with anxiety. He had heard uncomfortably detailed accounts of mass raids on Kure, Iwakuni, Tokuyama, and other nearby towns; he was sure Hiroshima’s turn would come soon. He had slept badly the night before, because there had been several air-raid warnings. Hiroshima had been getting such warnings almost every night for weeks, for at that time the B-29s were using Lake Biwa, northeast of Hiroshima, as a rendez-vous point, and no matter what city the Americans planned to hit, the Super-fortresses streamed in over the coast near Hiroshima. The frequency of the warnings and the continued abstinence of Mr. B with respect to Hiroshima had made its citizens jittery; a rumor was going around that the Americans were saving something special for the city.

Mr. Tanimoto is a small man, quick to talk, laugh, and cry. He wears his black hair parted in the middle and rather long; the prominence of the frontal bones just above his eyebrows and the smallness of his mustache, mouth, and chin give him a strange, old-young look, boyish and yet wise, weak and yet fiery. He moves nervously and fast, but with a restraint which suggests that he is a cautious, thoughtful man. He showed, indeed, just those qualities in the uneasy days before the bomb fell. Besides having his wife spend the nights in Ushida, Mr. Tanimoto had been carrying all the portable things from his church, in the close-packed residential district called Nagaragawa, to a house that belonged to a rayon manufacturer in Koi, two miles from the center of town. The rayon man, a Mr. Matsui, had opened his then unoccupied estate to a large number of his friends and acquaintances, so that they might evacuate whatever they wished to a safe distance from the probable target area. Mr. Tanimoto had had no difficulty in moving chairs, hymnals, Bibles, altar gear, and church records by pushcart himself, but the organ console and an upright piano required some aid. A friend of his named Matsuo had, the day before, helped him get the piano out to Koi; in return, he had promised this day to assist Mr. Matsuo in hauling out a daughter’s belongings. That is why he had risen so early.

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Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness Now Available in English (Plus: Excerpt)

Mia Couto's Confession of the Lioness Now Available in English (Plus: Excerpt)

Confession of the LionessMia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012, has been released in English, translated by David Brookshaw.

Couto is the winner of the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and was also a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize this year – an award that honours a body of work and the author’s contribution to international fiction, as opposed to the Man Booker Prize’s focus on a single publication. The award ultimately went to Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai.

Couto made headlines earlier this year when he wrote a critical open letter to President Jacob Zuma which began, “We remember you in Maputo …”

Surrisingly, Zuma replied in kind, with a poetic piece beginning “My Dear Brother”, and continuing: “I remember you from our days in Mozambique”.

In a review for the Financial Times, University of Cape Town academic Hedley Twidle calls Couto’s letter to Zuma: “A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways”, and suggests that this is also an apt description of his latest novel.

It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

Ellah Allfrey, editor of Africa39, deputy chair of the council of the Caine Prize and 2015 Man Booker Prize judge reviewed Confession of the Lioness for The Guardian, saying that while Couto “renders the politics of everyday living poetically”, his “focus on the status and treatment of women displays a stout refusal to look away from a harsh reality – fiction brings us closer to the truth here than mere facts ever could”.

Read an excerpt from Confession of the Lioness:

There’s only one way to escape from a place: It’s by abandoning ourselves. There’s only one way to abandon ourselves: It’s by loving someone.

—excerpt pilfered from the writer’s notebooks

It’s two in the morning and I can’t sleep. A few hours from now, they’ll announce the result of the contest. That’s when I’ll know whether I’ve been selected to go and hunt the lions in Kulumani. I never thought I’d rejoice so much at being chosen. I’m in dire need of sleep. That’s because I want to get away from myself. I want to sleep so as not to exist.


The sun’s nearly up and I’m still wrestling with the sheets. My only ailment is this: insomnia broken by brief snatches of sleep from which I wake with a start. When it comes down to it, I sleep like the animals I hunt for a living: the jumpy wakefulness of one who knows that too much inattention can be fatal.

To summon sleep, I resort to the ploy my mother used when it was our bedtime. I remember her favorite story, a legend from her native region. This is how she would tell it:

In the old days, there was nothing but night. And God shepherded the stars in the sky. When he gave them more food, they would grow fat and their bellies would burst with light. At that time, all the stars ate, and all glowed with the same joy. The days were not yet born, and that was why Time advanced on only one leg. And everything was so slow up there in the endless firmament! Until, among the shepherd’s flock, a star was born that aspired to be bigger than all the others. This star was called Sun, and it soon took over the celestial pastures, banishing the other stars afar, so that they began to fade. For the first time, there were stars that suffered and became so pale that they were swallowed up by the darkness. The Sun flaunted its grandeur more and more, lordly over its domains and proud of its name, so redolent of masculinity. And so he gave himself the title of lord of all the stars and planets, assuming all the arrogance of the center of the Universe. It wasn’t long before he declared that it was he who had created God. But in fact what had happened was that with the Sun now so vast and sovereign, Day had been born. Night only dared to approach when the Sun, tired at last, decided to go to bed. With the advent of Day, men forgot the endless time when all stars shone with the same degree of happiness. And they forgot the lesson of the Night, who had always been a queen without ever having to rule.

This was the story. Forty years on and this maternal comfort has no effect. It won’t be long before I know whether I’m going back to the bush, where men have forgotten all the lessons learned. It’ll be my last hunting expedition. And once again, the first voice I ever heard echoes in my mind: And everything was so slow up there in the endless firmament.


About the book

From 2015 Man Booker International finalist, Mia Couto

My sister Silência was the most recent victim of the lions, which have been tormenting our village for some weeks now…

When Mariamar Mpepe’s sister is killed by lions, her father imprisons her at home. With only the ghost of her sister for company, she dreams of escape, and of the hunter who abandoned her years before.

I’m the last of the hunters. And this is my last hunt.

Archangel Bullseye, born into a long line of marksmen, is summoned back to Kulumani. But as he tracks the lions in the surrounding wilderness, his suspicions grow – that the darkest threats lie not outside the village, but at its very heart.

What was happening was what always happened: The lions were coming back…

Set in a forgotten corner of East Africa haunted by superstition, tradition and the shades of civil war, this is a struggle that blurs the savagery of nature, and the savagery of man.

About the author

Mia Couto, born in Mozambique in 1955, is one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. His books, deeply rooted in the political upheavals, languages and narratives of his native land, have been published in more than 20 countries. He has won many awards, including the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, and has been selected for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize shortlist. He lives in Maputo, and works as a biologist.

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Author photo: Mia Couto on Facebook

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Sunday Read: China Mieville is Back with a New Book, and a Nod From Ursula K Le Guin


Remember all the way back in January when we promised you a new book by China Miéville to look forward to?

Well now, at long last, the wait is over. Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories is a collection of short stories (yes, we know, we also wanted another Bas-lag novel but what can you do?) by the author of King Rat, Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council, Embassytown and The City and the City.

Three Moments of an Explosion: StoriesEmbassytownKing RatThe Scar
Iron CouncilThe City and the CityPerdido Street Station


Ursula K Le Guin herself has given his stories a read, and writes in her review for The Guardian: “You can’t talk about Miéville without using the word ‘brilliant’.”

Le Guin is not someone who throws adjectives of praise around lightly. She’s the author of numerous fantasy novels, the most influential perhaps being the The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) which received a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award. John Wray wrote in The Paris Review that “no single work did more to upend the genre’s conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness”.

So when Le Guin thinks your works is good, she means it. In the review, Le Guin comments on Miéville’s deft intellectualism, his strict adherence to Marxist principles of social equality, his ability to write a 500-page novel in five pages and his skill and mastery of the English language. In short, she calls it, “science fiction to the nth degree”.

Read Le Guin’s review of Three Moments of an Explosion:

Brilliance often lies in concision. As I read “The Rope Is the World”, I kept imagining the 500-page science-fiction novel that it could so easily have been: crammed full of detailed scientific and technological arcana, with a complex plot involving the machinations of the powerful and the fate of cosmic enterprises or empires, all routinely punctuated by descriptions of sexual activities. But Miéville didn’t take the easy route. He wrote it all in five pages.

The offhand density is superb:

Initial outlays were clearly gigavast, but lifting one ton of cargo out beyond everyday gravity to orbit by elevator was this or that many times cheaper – some absurd margin – than doing so by rocket, by shuttle, by alien indulgence. Now that the space elevators, the skyhooks, the geostationary tethered-dock haulage columns, were shockingly feasible, research projects were all human-spirit this and because-it’s-there that. As if, faced with them, the mere savings were as vulgar as they in fact were.

This is science fiction to the nth degree. To unpack all that would take hours.

If this dazzling review doesn’t make you hit the pre-order button ASAP, perhaps a description of the book will. Many of the 28 stories in Three Moments of an Explosion were first published in spurts on Miéville’s website, rejectamentalist manifesto, and are now contained in book form.

The book description on Goodreads reads as follows:

London awakes one morning to find itself besieged by a sky full of floating icebergs. Destroyed oil rigs, mysteriously reborn, clamber from the sea and onto the land, driven by an obscure but violent purpose. An anatomy student cuts open a cadaver to discover impossibly intricate designs carved into a corpse’s bones—designs clearly present from birth, bearing mute testimony to . . . what?

Salvage shared an excerpt from Three Moments of an Explosion, a short story entitled “The Dusty Hat”.

I have to talk to you about the man we saw, the man in the dusty hat. I know you remember.

Stop for a moment. I know you have a thousand questions, starting with Where have I been? What I want to start with is the man in the hat.

I was late to the conference. I’d had to stay in to watch a builder squint at the cracks in my outside wall and across my kitchen ceiling, cracks that had been there for a long time, ever since I moved in, but that started to spread about a year ago and were making me increasingly uneasy. And then the journey across the city was slow as a bastard so I arrived after the start and tried to creep quietly in to the lecture hall but everyone stared at me while I made my way to the seat you’d saved for me. I muttered something apologetic about subsidence. You mocked me sotto voce for being a bourgeois homeowner. I told you to hush and tried to pay attention.

But the man in the hat made us badly behaved. He was sitting in the audience right in front of us and when he got hold of the microphone and started speaking you leaned over to me and quietly pointed out quite how dusty his hat was. So I looked and that was me gone, I started giggling like an idiot and that set you off and we both had to look down at our hands as if we were taking careful notes. I don’t think we fooled anyone.

It was a wide-brimmed dark green felt hat like a cowboy’s or an adventurer’s. Even clean and new it would’ve been unlikely at a socialist conference in a university hall in south London: as it was it was extraordinary. It was old and pleasingly well-worn. It looked loved. But it was just filthy with dust.

‘His hat’s that dusty because he can’t take it off to clean it,’ you whispered. ‘Because his wife found out he gave her chlamydia and she put superglue in the brim.’

‘His hat’s that dusty because he’s arrived straight from tin-mining in Cornwall,’ I whispered. ‘Climbed straight out of a tunnel.’ I mimed flicking the hat’s brim and doubling over coughing.



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Sunday Read: Excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates New York Times Bestseller, Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeA number one New York Times bestseller and hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading” – read an excerpt from Between the World and Me, the new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Framed as an eloquent letter to the author’s teenage son, Between the World and Me is an essay about being black in America, attempting to answer the questions: What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can America reckon with its fraught racial history?

Through a series of personal stories, Coates maps his path towards an understanding of how the world works, and offers hopes for his son’s future.

Toni Morrison says of the book: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’ journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”

Read an excerpt, and scroll down to watch a video of Coates reading from the book:

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor — it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible —that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.

It had to be blood. It had to be the thrashing of kitchen hands for the crime of churning butter at a leisurely clip. It had to be some woman “chear’d … with thirty lashes a Saturday last and as many more a Tuesday again.” It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights, or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. The bodies were pulverized into stock and marked with insurance. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer home in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is—the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when the people who believe themselves to be white renounce this demon religion and begin to think of themselves as human. But I can see no real promise of such a day. We are captured, brother, surrounded by the majoritarian bandits of America. And this has happened here, in our only home, and the terrible truth is that we cannot will ourselves to an escape on our own.

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Remembering Madiba: A Tribute to the Father of Our Nation on Nelson Mandela Day (Podcast, Video and a Free eBook)

Today people all over the world are celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

The name Nelson Mandela means different things for different people, but on this day we forget our differences and strive to do better, to live in a world built on the pillars of peace and reconciliation.

We pay tribute to a great man and salute him on this day:

Notes to the FutureA Jacana Pocket Biography: Nelson MandelaNelson MandelaLong Walk to FreedomGesprekke met myselfOur MadibaFinancial Mail Remembers Nelson Mandela 1918-2013Business Day Remembers Nelson Mandela 1918-2013Good Morning, Mr MandelaGoeiemore, Mnr. MandelaMadiba and MeThe Children's MadibaThe Book of Forgiving

Leading up to Mandela Day Power FM created and shared a documentary that celebrates the life of the great leader. In the podcast Madiba says, to the great amusement of the audience: “I would like to be remembered as a 91-year-old pensioner who’s looking for a job. It is for humanity of our society to decide how I should be remembered.”

The documentary explores Madiba’s homestead in Qunu in the Eastern Cape where he is buried in a modest grave alongside his closest family members. The archival footage captures some of Madiba’s greatest speeches and quotes, among others: “I never wanted to be regarded as an angel, I’m an ordinary human being with weaknesses, some of them fundamental, and I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Who was Nelson Mandela? Here he tells you in his own words:

“I am the product of the people of South Africa. I am the product of the rural masses who inspired in me the pride in our past and the spirit of resistance. I am the product of the workers of South Africa who, in the mines, factories, fields and offices of our country, have pursued the principle that the interests of each are founded in the common interest of all. I am the product of Africa and her long-cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realised so that all of her children may play in the sun.”

Listen to the 22-minute documentary, which features anecdotes from the man himself, including his famous retirement speech in which he said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you”:


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Last year Pan Macmillan announced that they’ve acquired the rights to publish the sequel to Long Walk to Freedom, tentatively titled The Presidential Years. The Nelson Mandela Foundation also released the first pages of the sequel.

In the article South Africa’s former first lady Graça Machel said: “Madiba started working on a manuscript provisionally titled ‘The Presidential Years’ in 1998. He wanted to put on record his own reflections of those important years in his life (1994 – 1999) when he was President of South Africa. The book he had in mind was to be a natural progression from his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

“Circumstances did not allow him to complete the project. I am very pleased that a team comprising former senior advisors of his have accepted responsibility for completing this unfinished task on his behalf.”

In anticipation of this book, here is a preview of “Nelson Mandela: Presidential Years”:


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Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu released a statement on The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in commemoration of Madiba.

In the video Tutu says: “For 67 years, Nelson Mandela placed the welfare of others above his own.” He reflects of Madiba’s life, which he calls “a lifetime of selflessness” and concludes by saying: “Imagine how much better the world would be were we all to recognise our common humanity, as Madiba did, and do something kind for someone else every day?”

Watch the video:

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On the anniversary of Mandela’s release from prison on 11 February this year, Daily Planet shared a free eBook entitled Freedom for Nelson Mandela, published by Times Media Books.

The title sheds light on three key events surrounding Mandela’s release, with chapters entitled “Preparing for Nelson Mandela’s Release”, “The Day of Freedom 11 February 1990″ and “The Immediate Impact”.

Read the free eBook here:

Freedom for Nelson Mandela by Books LIVE


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What are doing for Mandela Day? Tell us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comment section below. Follow the hashtag #MandelaDay on Twitter for inspiration:



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  • The Book of Forgiving: The Four-Fold Path of Healing For Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu
    EAN: 9780007512881
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Images courtesy of the SABC and Be Limitless

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Sunday Read: Read or Listen to the First Chapter of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Narrated by Reese Witherspoon)

Go Set a WatchmanTo Kill a MockingbirdThe Guardian has released an exclusive extract from Harper Lee’s long-awaited new novel, Go Set a Watchman, which will be released this month in South Africa by Penguin Random House.

Readers will remember the furore that occurred in February this year when news of the 88-year-old’s new novel was announced. Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events in that timeless classic To Kill a Mockingbird. A now grown-up Jean Louise Finch, aka Scout, returns to her father’s house and tries to understand both the place where she grew up and the way Atticus sees the world.

Stephen King tweeted this weekend:


The Guardian has shared the first chapter from the novel, including an animated version and a podcast of Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon reading from the book. In the first chapter we meet Scout on the last leg of her train journey from New York to Maycomb Alabama.

Read the extract (for the animated first chapter click here):

Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical. Over her breakfast coffee, she watched the last of Georgia’s hills recede and the red earth appear, and with it tin-roofed houses set in the middle of swept yards, and in the yards the inevitable verbena grew, surrounded by whitewashed tires. She grinned when she saw her first TV antenna atop an unpainted Negro house; as they multiplied, her joy rose.

Jean Louise Finch always made this journey by air, but she decided to go by train from New York to Maycomb Junction on her fifth annual trip home. For one thing, she had the life scared out of her the last time she was on a plane: the pilot elected to fly through a tornado. For another thing, flying home meant her father rising at three in the morning, driving a hundred miles to meet her in Mobile, and doing a full day’s work afterwards: he was seventy-two now and this was no longer fair.

She was glad she had decided to go by train. Trains had changed since her childhood, and the novelty of the experience amused her: a fat genie of a porter materialized when she pressed a button on a wall; at her bidding a stainless steel washbasin popped out of another wall, and there was a john one could prop one’s feet on. She resolved not to be intimidated by several messages stenciled around her compartment – a roomette, they called it – but when she went to bed the night before, she succeeded in folding herself up into the wall because she had ignored an injunction to PULL THIS LEVER DOWN OVER BRACKETS, a situation remedied by the porter to her embarrassment, as her habit was to sleep only in pajama tops.

Listen to the podcast for Witherspoon’s narration of Go Set a Watchman:

Since the first chapter was released on Friday people have shared their reaction via The Guardian’s live blog. From reminiscing about the first time they read To Kill a Mockingbird to politely asking the internet to refrain from spoiling the plot, Go Set a Watchman has sparked an international interest among young and old.

What makes this book so influential, even though it hasn’t been released in full yet? Alabama arts reporter Carla Jean Whitley commented in a podcast about the relevance of the themes in the book to the south of America, where she’s lived all her life and where racial hatred remains rife.

Listen to the podcast:


For more tweets, photographs of people reading the long-awaited novel and insight into the larger themes of the book, follow The Guardian’s live coverage here. You can also see people’s comments and queries on Twitter by following the hashtag #GoSetAWatchman:


Read Michiko Kakutani’s review of Go Set a Watchman for The New York Times:

We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”


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What did you think of the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman? Tell us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments below!

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