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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

“It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material” – Jonathan Franzen in conversation with Michele Magwood

Famed US novelist and birder Jonathan Franzen was recently in South Africa, where he shared literary insights, and a defence of the LBJ, with Michele Magwood.

Jonathan Franzen is, as is his wont, talking about birds. Specifically, South African birds, and, even more specifically, the Cape grassbird. This is a bird that is usually dismissed at a glance as an LBJ – a little brown job, one of those ubiquitous dun-coloured birds that fade into the landscape and live in the shadow of rarer, more colourful birds. But not by Franzen. “I like the little brown ones,” he exclaims. “The Cape grassbird is the epitome for me of what a great bird is – it’s small and unobtrusive and yet when you look at it carefully with binoculars it just explodes with detail and subtle colours.”

Looking carefully and finding subtlety in seemingly ordinary things that then explode with detail is precisely what Franzen does as a writer. He comes heavily garlanded and routinely described as one of the US’ s greatest living novelists, but in Cape Town last week there wasn’t a trace of ego or the testiness he is famous for.

He was in the country for a National Geographic story on seabirds. South Africa, he says, is doing “very good things” for seabirds. He’d added on a 19-day birding tour of the country, and was now planning on getting out into deep water to see what he called the incredibly diverse seabird life off the coast.

Franzen is tall and rangy, woodsy in a way in scuffed boots and a checked shirt. He has beautiful, expressive hands and a mind like a sheathed blade. He has been interviewed countless times but there is none of the well-oiled shtick that many authors inevitably slip into. There are Pinter-long pauses as he considers a question, sighs and glances out of the window as he carefully composes his thoughts. Every now and again a teasing, self-deprecating humour ripples out.

He says he is less angry than he used to be, and less depressed – although he does refer to himself as a “depressive pessimist” – but concedes that there is still simmering anger at “the stupidity of the world and the meanness of people”. What human beings are doing to the natural world, the “atrocious political times in the US”.

He’s dismayed at the Trumpian effect on reading and writing. “A lot of people who used to read books are no longer remembering why they did, because they are so focused now on the outrage of the day. I blame devices. It seems to be an excuse to be distracted by your phone. People claim they have to remain up to date with what’s going on in Washington, but really they’re dependent on the stimulation from that phone.

“To me it makes the role of the writer all the more urgent. People need a haven from this ultra politicised, ultra angry nonsense that is coming at them every waking minute through their phones.”

Since Trump won the nomination, he says, book sales have collapsed in the US.

Franzen has written five novels. The first two, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, were well-received critically but not commercially. It was the third, The Corrections, that broke out, picking off literary prizes and selling more than three million copies. The infamous spat with Oprah helped, of course, but the two made up when she anointed his next novel, Freedom, for her book club and this time he appeared on the show. His latest novel, Purity, was published in 2015. In the lengthy gaps between books he writes astringent essays in such publications as the New Yorker and the Guardian.

Fiction, though, is clearly his first love, and he returns to it again and again during the course of the conversation, whether pointing out the historical correlation between liberalism and the rise of the novel, his belief that reading fiction is an opportunity to be somebody you aren’t – “very important if you’re living in any kind of diversity as a society” – or the value of escapism. “It’s good to be reminded that there’s a world in which meaning is possible – sophisticated, nuanced meaning, that doesn’t have to reduce to political simplicities. There are other more humane ways to make sense of the world.”

He calls writing “purposeful dreaming” and describes the intimacy of the relationship between writer and reader. “It’s the magical quality of the written word, that what you do as a writer, the process of investing imaginatively in a character or a story in order to put the words on the page, that that experience then gets replicated when you read that page, that the same investment springs up on the reader’s part. That is unique to the written word.”

One of the hallmarks of Franzen’s fiction is his intense characterisation. He leans in and drills down into his characters, excavating them with forensic skill. And when he’s done with excavating them he throws in a hand grenade. Life, he shows us, is messy. He is uncommonly perceptive about the human condition. What is the source, the spring of this perspicacity?

“I wish I could say something completely, brilliantly original,” he chuckles. “But I do go back again and again to my position in the family.” Franzen was a laatlammetjie, his two brothers much older than him. “So by the time I was 10 years old there were four adults in the house and me. They all had powerful, different personalities and although there was never any doubt they loved each other, they didn’t get along all that well. I grew up listening and trying to provide comic relief.”

When he discovered literature in college “it was like someone had handed me a key to understanding why people were saying the things they did. I suddenly had a magic decoder for my mother’s utterances. When I learnt to understand what Kafka was doing, I could understand the subtext of what was happening in the room. What was really going on when my mother would talk about the cranberry sauce. She’s not just talking about the cranberry sauce!” he laughs. “And that’s it right there – as a writer you want to present the cranberry sauce in its full specificity and vividness but you also want to understand what it signifies.”

Just as Franzen excavates his characters, so he excavates his own self, and one gets the sense of how hard the work really is, how psychologically gruelling it is for him.

“The process of trying to find a new character who is vivid to me, who I instinctively love, is in part finding some part of my existence that I have not explored. That relentless question of ‘What does the character want?’ is the medium of self-investigation, really. It only gets harder because I have colonised more and more of my interior to look for live material.”

He has what he calls “shadow documents” for each novel, drawers of abandoned pages and jottings. “The shadow documents are much longer than the books – they consist of almost daily note-taking, relentless psychoanalysis done in the symbolic language of fiction. It’s tedious and repetitive.”

He’s started a shadow document for a new novel he’s working on. “I’ve got, like, two and a half characters and a few pages.

“Each time it feels like I can never do this again.”

The Twenty-seventh City

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Strong Motion


The Corrections





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Book Bites: 12 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Blackwing: The Raven’s Mark
ED McDonald, Gollancz, R310

Multi-volume fantasy series are generally soap operas, but every so often there is an excellent series with a rich, complex story that’s simply too long for a single volume. Blackwing may be one such, set in a world with three moons, where energy is spun from moonlight, magic has replaced science, and The Deep Kings (evil sorcerers) battle against The Nameless (non-evil magicians). Captain Ryhalt Galharrow works for Crowfoot, one of the Nameless; his workplace is the blasted wasteland of The Misery, frontier between The Republic and the Dhojara Empire of the Deep Kings. Galharrow and his cronies win this battle, but the war is still to come. Riveting. – Aubrey Paton

100: A Lovely Spirit Here
Cynthia Kros

Written to commemorate the centenary of Parkview junior and senior schools in Joburg, the book traces their evolution from one small school for whites to two multi-cultural, racially diverse schools open to all. Parkview Government School opened in 1917, a difficult time in both South African and world history. Kros has built a picture of what the school must have been like then, with the discovery of a fragile admissions register unearthed at Parkview Senior. Fast forward 100 years and you have a Model C school known for its academic excellence. This is not just a book about a school but one about the sorrows and triumphs of South Africa. – Bridget Hilton-Barber

Reading with Patrick
Michelle Kuo, Macmillan, R330

In her early 20s Michelle Kuo was determined to teach US history through black literature. Instead, the reality of rural poverty and institutionalised racism slapped her in the face. She persisted, making progress with her students before leaving for law school. A few years later, Patrick Browning, her most promising student, landed in jail for murder. Kuo returned to the Mississippi Delta to tutor him during his incarceration, feeding his love of words. The memoir goes beyond their story, providing insights into US racism. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Solve the girl-meets-boy equation by looking very closely: Rosa Lyster reviews Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Published in the Sunday Times

The Idiot
Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape, R290

It’s difficult to classify The Idiot. Elif Batuman’s novel begins on the narrator’s first day of college. Selin, a tall and clever Turkish-American girl, is going to Harvard. She is going to do all the things expected of a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel: she is going to make some friends, take some classes, and fall in love for the first time with an unsuitable mathematician called Ivan. She is going to Experience Life. Easy.

Not at all easy, though. The Idiot is about experience, but it’s also about the way we describe and understand experiences, and how we summarise the incoherencies and absurdities of everyday life and turn them into a story that makes sense.

Early on in the novel, Selin describes her approach to literature (and to life: Selin’s world is made of words). Selin believes that “every story has a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” How does she understand the meaning of the conversations she has with the unsuitable mathematician, where all they ever do is “mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time”, and yet she comes away from these interactions feeling so besotted and preoccupied she can hardly see straight? What is she supposed to do, and what is she meant to think, and how is she meant to behave all the time, and who is going to tell her? Who is going to decode the e-mails between her and the unsuitable mathematician, or explain what his sigh means when she produces a pack of alcohol swabs from her bag? Well?

This is all much funnier and much less tortured than it sounds. Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a high sense of the absurd and a gift for observation that borders on the creepy. She see things that other people don’t see, and she makes her readers see them too. – Rosa Lyster, @rosalyster

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A crime plague to cherish: Bron Sibree talks to Minette Walters about her new debut historical novel, The Last Hours

Published in the Sunday Times

Minette Walters has combined her talent for psychological thrillers with the Middle Ages, writes Bron Sibree.

The Last Hours
Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin, R330

It’s no secret that British crime writer Minette Walters has re-directed her talents to historical fiction. Now, on the eve of the release of her debut historical novel, The Last Hours, Walters, whose crime novels have sold in excess of 25 million worldwide and have earned her the epithet “queen of the psychological thriller”, attributes her genre swap to a desire for change.

“I do love to challenge myself,” says Walters, 67. “I love the way the crime genre has developed but I worry sometimes that people aren’t innovative enough, that everybody is producing similar things so you get a trend, like my psychological thriller trend, which I’m told I was a pioneer of. I love change, constantly refreshing it all.”

Indeed, the extraordinarily gripping The Last Hours owes as much to her driving curiosity as it does to her quest for writerly challenges. It is a novel, Walters says, “that I’ve had on my mind ever since we moved down to this tiny hamlet in Dorset 18 years ago. The idea started the moment we were told there is a plague pit somewhere around the houses. Shortly afterward I saw a plaque on a wall in Weymouth harbour that said ‘This is where the Black Plague entered England,’ and from then on, even when I was writing the crime novels, I was thinking,’Gosh that would make a fabulous story.’

“But then I had to persuade publishers to publish it, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world if they want you to write crime novels. But it would have been awful to have this idea in my head and never to have written it.”

Set in Dorsetshire, The Last Hours opens in July 1348, soon after the Black Death has entered England. It revolves around events at the demesne (pronounced as domain) of Develish where something unheard of happens following the death of its brutal overlord, Sir Richard, from a mysterious illness. An illness that has, in a matter of days, killed dozens on the neighbouring demesne, their rotting corpses left lying by the thoroughfare. Lady Anne, Sir Richard’s long-suffering wife, takes control of Develish – including the lives of its 200 bonded serfs – and refuses entry or exit to a single soul. Even more scandalous, she chooses a bastard serf to act as her steward, instead of the Norman steward appointed by Sir Richard.

In creating The Last Hours, which is, in effect, a riveting psychological thriller that runs to 555 pages, Walters has deployed the same analytic techniques she applies to her crime novels, cannily calling into question the thinking of the day in relation to class and gender as well the disease itself. “It’s so hard to get your head around the level of devastation that it brought,” says Walters.

“War never brings that level of devastation. And of course, everyone believed it was a punishment sent by God. Within three days to a week people were dead.”

In keeping with her reputation for tackling controversial subjects on the page and off, Walters also touches upon paedophilia, one of her most enduring concerns, in the novel. For while she has abandoned what she calls “the whodunnit part” of the crime genre, she says “real crime still does, and will always, fascinate me. I’m deeply interested in motivations, in psychology, in why things happen. So in a sense I don’t feel the move from the crime genre to historical fiction is so great,” she adds, “because human nature does not change.”

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Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo on International Dublin Literary Award 2018 Longlist


Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo


Yewande Omotoso and Mohale Mashigo have been longlisted for the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award 2018!

Omotoso and Mashigo have been included on the list for their novels The Woman Next Door and The Yearning respectively.

The shortlist will be announced in April 2018 and the winner will be announced on 13 June 2018.

Seven Irish novels are among 150 titles that have been nominated by libraries worldwide for the €100,000 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the world’s most valuable annual literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English. Nominations include 48 novels in translation with works by authors from 40 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America & Canada, South America and Australia & New Zealand.

Click here for the full longlist of 150 titles.

The Woman Next Door

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The Yearning

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A Good Country is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story which explores racism and stereotyping in contemporary America, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

A Good CountryA Good Country
Laleh Khadivi, Bloomsbury, R290

Rez Courdee is the good, obedient 14-year-old son of Iranian immigrants in sunny California. His marks are top notch, and he’s winning prizes for chemistry. He keeps to himself and is home every night for supper with his stern, demanding father and meek mother, until a new friendship and his hormones draw him into a world of surfing and smoking weed.

Laleh Khadivi’s description of the lazy days of privileged adolescence and teenage angst and transformation are nuanced and vivid, with a powerful sense of how mutable and scarily vulnerable we are at this age. Nonetheless, Rez’s trials and tribulations are fairly standard fare – until a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon, followed by a bloody attack at a mall close to home. His world changes.

Suddenly, he’s a threat, an outsider. For the first time, he experiences racism and stereotyping. As his white friends turn away form him, he bonds increasingly to charismatic Arash and beautiful Fatima. Like him, they are of immigrant descent.

Like him, they’d thought themselves regular American kids. Now they find themselves under suspicion. Their response is to look to their faith to make sense of their changing world. Rez starts to explore Islam, first through his friends and then, increasingly, online.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking coming-of-age story, with a twist. Rez asks himself ordinary teenage questions – who am I? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? – in extraordinary circumstances. His radicalisation and the choices he makes are quite devastating. – Kate Sidley, @KateSidley

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Light on the darkness: Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel paints a gripping picture of Bulgaria as it emerges from a grim past, writes Bron Sibree

Published in the Sunday Times

The Shadow Land
Elizabeth Kostova, Text Publishing, R360

How do you put an entire country into a novel? American novelist Elizabeth Kostova had done just that and more in her third novel, The Shadow Land. But not before she pondered the question for over two decades.

The country is Bulgaria, which she first wrote about in her bestselling 2005 novel, The Historian, and first visited as a 24-year-old student of Balkan folk music in 1989, a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She not only met her Bulgarian husband Georgi on that trip, but ventured to remote corners of the country collecting songs.

“I was fascinated by the place. I went back with him a lot to see his family, acquired friends there, and over the years made a lot of notes. I wanted to write a novel that somehow covered this chaotic post-communist world that I’ve gotten to know over 25 years but wasn’t sure how to do it, it just seemed overwhelming.”

It was 20 years later when she was completing her second novel, The Swan Thieves, that she awoke from a dream in which entire scenes as well as the narrative arc of an entirely different novel revealed themselves. “I woke from that dream just stunned. Not that I understood a lot of the detail, but it was coherent enough that I could work on it. And I worked on that same story for eight years,” says Kostova, who has deployed, just as she did so potently in The Historian, a rich blend of historical fact, travelogue and fictional detail to give shape and form to the labyrinthine mystery that is The Shadow Land.

A capacious, Victorian-esque novel with more than a whisper of romance, it deftly conveys the beauty and mystery of this ancient land, all the while ensnaring you in a web of intrigue that encompasses the darkest horrors of Bulgaria’s hidden history.

It begins when a young American, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in Sofia to teach English in the summer of 2008, and mistakenly picks up a funerary urn in a bag belonging to an elderly couple and their middle-aged son when she helps them into a taxi. Her subsequent attempts to return the urn to its rightful owners form the engine of the novel, which plies between the present and the past: between Alexandra’s story, and the story of the urn’s occupant, Stoyan Lazarov, a brilliant musician who suffered brutal repression in a secret labour camp during the communist era.

For Kostova, the man in the urn, who arrived in her dream, was an absolute gift.

“There is such a long tradition of literature that is about proper burial, which is why I chose an inscription from Antigone. And our ancient need to lay people to rest with honour, which Faulkner, too, wrote about in As I Lay Dying.

She has often described the myth of Dracula, which she wrote about in The Historian, as “a metaphor for the horrors of history that won’t go away”. But in writing The Shadow Land Kostova immersed herself in accounts of those who survived Bulgaria’s forced-labour camps, recorded in oral histories collected in the ’90s. “I felt like I plunged into real and worse history. In The Historian there is a lot of dark history but the essential story was metaphorical, but The Shadow Land, although fiction, deals with a lot of real things that happened – representative of some of the worst things that humans do to each other. It was really hard material to work with sometimes.”

There hasn’t yet been as much public discussion within Bulgaria about the labour camps as in other former communist nations, adds Kostova. “They were very secret, yet not so secret, in the way that totalitarianism used to be so that people knew just enough to be terrified of what might happen to them if they were arrested.”

Kostova is aware, too, that, despite not planning it that way, The Shadow Land serves as a timely tale about the perils of autocracy.

“I’ve had interesting discussions with American audiences…We’re courting this awful danger of repression and censorship and surveillance and a lot of other things that traditionally only totalitarian governments engage in. We just don’t understand what we have brought upon ourselves.” – Bron Sibree, @BronSibree

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“What did you edit out of The Cull?” “One sex scene” – a Q&A with Tony Park

Published in the Sunday Times

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Deon Meyer, the late John Gordon-Davis and Margie Orford.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Biggles of 266 Squadron. Jingoistic and un-PC these days, but my mum gave it to me when I was young and it got me into reading.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, given to me by my mother-in-law – the best book written about how to write fiction. I re-read it every year before starting a new novel.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Anything by travel writer Bill Bryson.

What are you most proud of writing?

A friend in Zimbabwe, who lost his farm during the land grabs, said to me: “Please write one of your novels about what’s going on here so the rest of the world knows what’s happening.” His request moved me to write African Dawn, which charts Zimbabwe’s turbulent history from 1959 to the present through the eyes of three families.

What keeps you awake at night?

I am living a life I could never have dreamt of, writing for a living and splitting my life between Australia and Africa. I still feel insecure every time I submit a new novel to my publishers – I don’t want to wake up from this dream.

Books on your bedside table?

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson and The Pale Criminal by Philip Kerr (his series about PI Bernie Gunther in Nazi Germany is brilliant).

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

I learnt how to sabotage a fighter plane and hijack a ship carrying cars.

What book do you wish you’d written?

Hold My Hand I’m Dying by John Gordon-Davis, probably the best action/romance/thriller/tragedy/historical novel set in Africa.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Don’t listen to everyone who tells you you’re wasting your time. Be brave and quit your day job sooner.

What did you edit out of The Cull?

One sex scene.

How do you select the names of your characters?

I support charities promoting wildlife conservation, healthcare and aged care in various African countries so I offer the rights for people to have their name or that of a loved one assigned to a character. I get some brilliant names. I decide who they will be, although I did have one man, a policeman in real life, beg me to be an evil villain in my novel.

What words do you overuse?

Beginning sentences with “well” or “so”. It’s been pointed out to me that one too many of my heroines has “long tanned legs”.

The Cull

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Can this local author’s children’s book change the way we think about family?

Via Danielle Hess, for Beautiful News

On Wednesday, 25 October 2017 Beautiful News released Elena Agnello’s short-film that relooks the chapter on diversity and shows a variety of families through her storybook. To watch the video click here.

In South Africa, only a third of our children are raised in homes with both parents. Agnello from Cape Town, seeks to address the misperceptions and representations by rewriting the script on family diversity.

The mother of one is a children’s book author. Her first book, I Am Alex, was published last year and deals with diversity in family structures. When Agnello had her daughter she was surprised by the uniformity of the homes represented in literature. Having grown up in a household headed by a single mother, she understands the need for kids to see themselves and their unique family structures in the stories they read. “I think it’s vital that we have this conversation with our children,” says Agnello. “I wish that children would be taught more about others and their traditions.”

Her book is set at a birthday party and introduces readers to different families through the characters depicted as guests. Like Agnello, one child at the party has a single parent, while another is being raised by adoptive parents. The point is for kids to feel included in society and to develop a culture of incorporating others into their world views. Families aren’t defined by numbers or the closeness of relatives, but by an environment of care formed between people who love one another.

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Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris’s Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko


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