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Archive for the ‘International’ Category

Man Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan, on his new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

First Person
****
Richard Flanagan
Chatto & Windus, R290

Richard Flanagan has long been an eloquent advocate for the novel form. Soon after his sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, garnered the 2014 Man Booker Prize he reiterated his belief in the indestructibility of novels, and declared “they allow us to come closer to certain truths for which we have few tools to otherwise comprehend”.

So it’s no surprise that he should peer deep into the nature of lies and truth, memoir and fiction in his seventh novel, First Person. But that it should speak so presciently to the nature of our times is something the 56-year-old Australian author shrugs off as “an accident of history”.

Indeed, First Person was seeded back in 1991 by his experiences when, as a young novice writer, he agreed to ghostwrite the memoir of Australia’s then most notorious conman and corporate criminal, John Friedrich, in six weeks for A$10 000. “Half-way through the six weeks Friedrich shot himself,” recalls Flanagan, “and I was left having to invent his memoir”.

Flanagan completed Codename Iago, declaring: “I can vouch for the veracity of none of it” before going on to carve out a luminous literary career with novels that include Gould’s Book of Fish, Wanting, The Unknown Terrorist and The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But as the years passed, he says: “I thought often about Friedrich and this bizarre small delirium he’d created that had fleeced millions of dollars out of banks and investors and how, in so many ways, he spoke to the coming age, this new world we’re now living in. I wanted to use that small experience to create a larger story about the world that was coming into being.”

He’s done that and more besides in First Person, which tells of a ghostwriter who is haunted by his conman subject. Narrated by Kif Kehlmann, a reality-TV producer who recalls when, as a young, penniless writer, he agreed to write the memoir of notorious conman and corporate criminal Siegfried Heidl in six weeks for $10000, it is an elegantly written tale. Sometimes comic, often dark, even disturbing, it lingers in the mind long after reading. For Kehlmann enters a Faustian bargain the moment he enters Heidl’s world, a world built on lies and which Kehlmann himself believes presages the world to come, resonant with names like Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, and where “a malicious future was already with us … a world of compounding fear”.

Despite completing First Person before fake news became an everyday term, before Trump was elected, Flanagan dismisses notions of prescience, pointing out that “the world that allowed Trump to reach the position he has was already in place. And when we talk about ‘fake news ‘and ‘alternative facts’ the question we should be asking is ‘why do so many of us want to believe in these untruths?’ People have to understand how, in the absence of stories that speak to the truth, we will search for stories that speak to lies and the worst in us.”

What intrigues him now “in a world that seems to use the word reality in place of the word truth”, he says, “is how novels seem to be the new counter culture. Novels, when they’re done with enough craft and honesty, they’re not a lie, they’re a fundamental and necessary truth about ourselves. Because a novel is not just what the author intended, it’s what others make of it. It’s in that act of reading where people discover not what the writer intended,” he adds, “but an aspect of their own soul.” @BronSibree

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Book Bites: 14 January

Published in the Sunday Times

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
*****
Matthew Sullivan, Cornerstone, R290

Prepare to be thrust into the life of Lydia Smith, a clerk at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, as she is plunged into shock, confusion and mystery by an unfortunate discovery during the late shift – a regular customer has killed himself. The suicide forces her to confront a traumatic childhood memory. The plot is complex and puzzling from the get-go and, in the best way, becomes even more so, until ultimately everything links together in a wonderful net of sense and epiphany. Sullivan’s writing is exceptional, and it flows naturally between the past and present and culminates in an absolutely enthralling novel. – Jessica Evans

The Mitford Murders
***
Jessica Fellowes, Little Brown, R275

Fellowes, who has written the Downton Abbey official companion books, has started a new mystery series, The Mitford Murders. The story is inspired by the unsolved 1920 murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the original Nightingale, on a Brighton-bound train. But in the land of fiction, anything can happen, including an 18-year-old nursery maid and the 16-year-old daughter of a lord turning into sleuths. It is a gentlewoman’s mystery, where the society of pearls and furs collides with the realm of washerwomen and gamblers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation
*****
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, HarperCollins, R270

With all that is happening in Israel, this collection of essays is more important and urgent than ever. Written from inside the territories illegally occupied by Israel, the essays are glimpses into a water-restricted, violent world that finds creative solutions to the problems forced upon Palestinians. Whether it is the story of the soapmaker, the NGO that serves as a utility company or the parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement, each essay looks unflinchingly at life in Palestine and the occupied territories. No light reading, but its clarity and honesty make it as compelling as it is authentic. – Zoe Hinis @ZoeHinis

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A new year, a new pile of books to read…

Published in the Sunday Times

A new year, a new pile of books to read. Here are some highlights to look forward to in 2018, as compiled by Michele Magwood.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (Headline)

Four siblings are told the exact date of their death by a psychic. The novel traces their lives over four decades in a story described as “a moving meditation on fate, faith, and the family ties that alternately hurt and heal”.

Under Glass by Claire Robertson (Umuzi)

The much-anticipated third novel from the award-winning author, set on a sugar estate in 19th-century Natal and chronicling the lives of the Chetwyn family. A deeply researched historical novel and an intriguing mystery, it is described as “a high-stakes narrative of deception and disguise”.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson (Little Brown)

A new essay collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist that examines the political climate and the mysteries of faith. She offers hope and a call to action.

Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele (Picador Africa)

A brilliant take on JM Coetzee’s classic that explores the weight of history and of conscience, by one of South Africa’s most compelling young authors.

Knucklebone by NR Brodie (Pan Macmillan)

Nechama Brodie is a welcome new voice on the krimi scene. This is a disturbing story set in Johannesburg that wrangles sangomas, disillusioned cops and animal poaching.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Hogarth Shakespeare)

Setting aside his popular detective Harry Hole, Nesbo takes on Shakespeare’s immortal story. “It’s a thriller about the struggle for power, set both in a gloomy, stormy crime noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind,” he says.

Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Simon & Schuster)

Timely and darkly funny stories examining black identity in a supposedly post-racial era.

A Spy in Time by Imraan Coovadia (Umuzi)

A new novel from the award-winning Coovadia always creates a buzz. Here he imagines a futuristic South Africa, where Johannesburg has survived the end of the world because of the mining tunnels that run beneath it.

The Winds of Winter by George R.R. Martin (HarperCollins)

Has a book ever been as eagerly awaited as this? The sixth novel in the fantasy series on which the TV show Game of Thrones is based is due for release this year. But then, it was due last year too.

Tsk-Tsk: The story of a child at large by Suzan Hackney (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

In a style reminiscent of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Hackney writes of a childhood on the run, fighting to survive in a world of abandoned and abused children.

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head by John Hunt (Umuzi)

Surely one of the best titles of the year, it’s the story of a boy growing up in Hillbrow in the ’60s and his friendship with an eccentric homeless person.

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton (Pan Macmillan)

The acclaimed Australian author leaves his familiar coastland settings and heads for the interior to the saltland next to the desert. A young runaway is on a desperate quest to find the only person who understands him. Described as “a rifle-shot of a novel – crisp, fast, shocking – an urgent masterpiece”.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Transworld)

The popular author’s new novel is based on the life of a female former Secret Service worker. Sure to be another runaway bestseller.

A Short History of Mozambique by Malyn Newitt (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A comprehensive overview of 500 years of turbulent history, from its modern origins in the Indian Ocean trading system to the 15-year civil war that followed independence and its lingering after-effects.

Toy Boy by Leon van Nierop (Penguin)

Billed as an erotic coming-of-age tale and based on the life of a real person, this is the story of Tristan, a mysterious Johannesburg gigolo.

Homeland by Karin Brynard (Penguin)

The much-awaited English translation of Karin Brynard’s bestseller Tuisland. Captain Albertus Beeslaar is about to hand in his resignation when he is sent on one final assignment to Witdraai.

Brutal Legacy by Tracy Going (MF Books Joburg)

The shocking story of TV star Tracy Going’s abusive relationship that emerged when her battered face was splashed across the media in the late ’90s. She writes of her decline into depression and the healing she has finally found.

The Broken River Tent by Mphuthumi Ntabeni (Blackbird)

An entrancing novel that marries imagination with history, set in the time of Maqoma, the Xhosa chief at the forefront of fighting British colonialism in the Eastern Cape in the 19th century.

The Fatuous State Of Severity by Phumlani Pikoli (Pan Macmillan)

A fresh collection of short stories and illustrations that explore the experiences of a generation of young, urban South Africans coping with the tensions of social media, language and relationships of various kinds.

Born in Chains: the diary of an angry ‘born-free’ by Clinton Chauke (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Debut author Chauke shows how his generation is still affected by apartheid policies but writes with wit and a unique sense of humour about his life. It’s a story of hope and perseverance, and of succeeding against all the odds.

The Golddiggers: A Novel by Sue Nyathi (Pan Macmillan)

The Zimbabwean author recounts the experiences of her fellow compatriots trying to make a life in Jozi. The stories of these desperate immigrants is both heart-breaking and heartwarming.

Cringeworthy by Melissa Dahl (Penguin UK)

Subtitled “How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations” New York Magazine’s Dahl offers a thoughtful, original take on what it really means to feel awkward, relating all sorts of mortifying moments and how to turn them to your advantage.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Press)

One of the most talked-about books coming in 2018. Described as unsettling and powerful, it is an extraordinary debut novel about a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.”

The Madiba Appreciation Club: A Chef’s Story by Brett Ladds (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A delightful memoir by Mandela’s former chef, spilling stories about meeting kings and queens, presidents, rock stars and even the Pope, as well as sharing Mandela’s favourite foods. – Michele Magwood, @michelemagwood

The Immortalists

Book details

 
 

Under Glass

 
 
 

What Are We Doing Here?

 
 
 

Macbeth

 
 
 
 
Heads of the Colored People

 
 
 
 
The Winds of Winter

 
 
 
 
The Shepherd's Hut

 
 
 
 
Transcription

 
 
 
 

A Short History of Mozambique

 
 
 
 
The Broken River Tent

 
 
 
 

Freshwater


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The humble home: four books that celebrate simple and eco-friendly abodes

Published in the Sunday Times

By Roberta Thatcher

Simple Home: Calm Spaces for Comfortable Living
By Mark and Sally Bailey
Ryland, Peters & Small, R499

For Mark and Sally Bailey, British designers and furniture makers, the three words you should be thinking about when decorating your home are: “repair, reuse, and rethink”. The duo, who have collaborated with the likes of Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Liberty, Conran and Habitat, believe a simple home should be “calm and uncluttered with each item carefully chosen”. In this book, they share tips and advice on how to achieve this effect, from buying well-made, well-designed items that will age gracefully, to looking to nature for inspiration when it comes to your colour scheme, sourcing from artisans where possible, and recycling furniture to make it meaningful and lasting. Their take-home message is that surrounding yourself solely with objects that you really love will allow you to enjoy the beautiful calm of an uncluttered home.

150 Best New Eco Home Ideas
By Francesc Zamora Mola
HarperCollins, R495

A fabulous review of 150 forward-thinking eco-friendly house designs, this beautifully presented book showcases the work of internationally renowned architects and designers who have achieved practical, innovative and beautiful solutions around the globe. Think a rammed-earth desert retreat in Arizona, US, with a huge rainwater harvesting and filtering solution, or a house in the woods in Sardinia, Italy, which was built without a single tree in its dense forest surroundings being cut down. If you’re looking to build or renovate your home with a minimal carbon footprint, consider this the ultimate gift to yourself.

Handmade Houses
By Richard Olsen
Rizzoli, R795

If there’s a book that will make you want to go out into the woods and build yourself a cabin, this is it. Author Richard Olsen features around two dozen hand-built homes around the globe, all of which celebrate the return to “low-tech” or even “anti-tech” building techniques and slow architecture. All the homes are made from natural and reclaimed materials, and while wood and salvaged metals are the heroes of the pages, more unconventional materials such as boulders, driftwood and even old wine vats show face too. Olsen introduces us to the owners, too – professionals and amateurs who personally designed and built each home, and their passions and vision is contagious. It’s inspirational reading for anyone interested in environmentally friendly design, craft, and the expression of personal style in the home.

Small Homes, Grand Living
Editors: Gestalten, Gestalten, R950

The opening pages of this beautiful book share a quote worth thinking about: “If you are able to live in a smaller home, then your rental costs will be lower. Renting or owning a smaller space means you need to earn less money, which results in the possibility of working fewer hours and having more time available. In other words, the luxury of time is a value that can replace the luxury of space if you are willing to live in a smaller, more compact home.” The book duly goes on to share an assortment of projects and homes that pay homage to creative usage of space, as well as useful advice for creating small homes that are as comfortable as they are functional and beautiful.

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The best books of 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Looking for book recommendations? Who better to ask than the people who create them. Spoiler alert: The Nix gets most votes…

Eusebius McKaiser (Run, Racist, Run)

It is unsurprising that the best local non-fiction titles of 2017 are also the most predictable. They have had public success and rightly so. These include, for me, The Republic of Gupta by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw, Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang, Khwezi by Redi Tlhabi, Reflecting Rogue by Pumla Dineo Gqola and Democracy & Delusion by Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh. They deserve to be read, and engaged, as an anthology that brilliantly captures the capture of the state, the danger our democracy is in, the elusive promise of exile that one day home will be safe again, rape culture’s persistence, our various identity journeys and crises that endure, and the disillusionment of the youth with the neocolonial leadership of the ANC government. Painful but urgent truths.

Karin Brynard (Our Fathers)

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was a late discovery for me. I devoured all three of her novels, but Gilead took my breath away. The prose alone felt like a religious experience, never mind the themes of belonging, redemption, salvation and grace. The Third Reel by SJ Naudé – a two-fisted exploration of art, politics, loss and love – left me reeling. Naudé is destined for a great career. I first read A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg by Harry Kalmer in Afrikaans some years back. I’m glad this gem of a book will now reach a wider audience. Johannesburg is like a bedeviled wife. You eventually become besotted with her. Kalmer shows you how. Having read Paul McNally’s The Street, an excellent real- life account of life on a particular street in Joburg, I no longer marvel at the depths of depravity in our politics.

Paige Nick (Unpresidented)

The Nix by Nathan Hill. It’s a fantastic, immersive, topical read that spans lives and decades. The basic plot revolves around an underachieving writer forced to face his mother, who abandoned him as a child. But it’s about so much more than that, including American politics. Good Cop, Bad Cop by Andrew Brown is riveting non-fiction that changed the way I think about South African divides: humanity, townships, crime and policing. It should be prescribed reading for every South African – law enforcement and politicians in particular. I ugly cried and ugly laughed on consecutive pages. Dark Traces by Martin Steyn is one of the most gripping, graphic, dark and twisty crime thrillers I’ve read. Set in the world of a cop investigating teenage girls who go missing, this is a book of much evil for poor Detective Magson, and the brave reader.

Achmat Dangor (Dikeledi)

All The Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan is a riveting story about a passionate love affair between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Muslim man that embroils them in all kinds of turmoil. It bravely crosses ethnic and religious “rivers” that divide people. Exit West by Mohsin Mohammed is told through the eyes of a young couple – Saeed and Nadia – who flee from an unnamed city during a civil war. It explores the traumas that migrants and refugees face, without ever descending into rhetoric. To leave their country, they use a magical system of fictitious doors to places around the world, and the story, as it unfolds, introduces us to a new version of “magical realism”.

Hamilton Wende (Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut)

I’m researching a novel on Ancient Rome and Africa at the moment, so my two best books of the year hands-down are: The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus. Its blood and sex-filled chronicle of betrayal and survival across the Roman Empire is as good as anything in Game of Thrones. My second book of the year is Satires by Juvenal. His descriptions of the excesses of Rome are breathtaking: perfumed wine drunk from conch shells at midnight oyster suppers, dizzy ceilings spinning round and dancing tables. The Roman world without too much politics!

Ray Hartley (Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King)

New Times by Rehana Rossouw brings to life a journalist covering the first years of the Nelson Mandela presidency – and dealing with deep personal issues – with such raw brilliance that it is startling. I was gripped and could not put it down.

Karina Szczurek (The Fifth Mrs Brink)

The following books provided me with intellectual, emotional and aesthetic joy: Ingrid Winterbach’s deeply satisfying novel The Shallows; Hedley Twidle’s great essay collection Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World; Sara-Jayne King’s remarkable and moving memoir Killing Karoline; the highly entertaining Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany by John Maytham; Anne Fadiman’s touching tribute to her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir; and the visionary, beautiful Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon.

Mike Nicol (Agents of the State)

Being Kari by Qarnita Loxton is a funny, insightful novel about contemporary life. The Cape Town setting is a bonus. Queen of the Free State by Jennifer Friedman captures the quizzical voice of a young girl growing up in the 1950s. It’s charming. And then the massive Apartheid Guns and Money by Hennie van Vuuren revealed everything we had expected but were too afraid to acknowledge.

Malebo Sephodi (Miss Behave)

Grace by Barbara Boswell will have you gasping at every turn. Her word use is absolutely delicious and the weaving of the story is close to perfection. I would love a sequel because the protagonist has never left me since I read the book months ago. I find myself wondering how she’s coping. If I Stay Right Here by Chwayita Ngamlana. This experimental fiction had me crossing legs. Shifting. Crying. Triggered.

Steven Sidley (Free Association)

The Nix by Nathan Hill is a sprawling tour de force of style and story and character, the great American novel of the year. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry is about forbidden love, deprivation and redemption, the poverty and danger of the American 1850s, told through the eyes and vernacular of a teenage refugee from the famine of Ireland. A masterpiece. Midwinter by Fiona Melrose – a story of two tragedies on two continents and its effects on a father and son, who through mutual awkwardness, incoherent grief and rage play out against their attempts at love and family in the deep and muddy earth of county Suffolk in England.

Diane Awerbuck (South)

Nick Mulgrew’s The First Law of Sadness is tied for first place with Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia. They are both what I love and look for in fiction and poetry: truth in all its awkward beauty. I also love that you can see these two perform their work, because they’re local, and because they care.

Tony Park (The Cull)

The Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith, who writes sparingly yet beautifully and still manages to produce a gripping page turner. A disillusioned veteran of Mussolini’s dirty war in Africa returns to civilian life as a fisherman in his native Venice, which is still under Nazi Occupation. Into his lap lands a beautiful, rich woman on the run. Perfect. The Cuban Affair by Nelson Demille is a good example of how an author can try something different without alienating fans. Ex Afghanistan veteran “Mac” MacCormick is lured out of retirement to take a Cuban-American woman back to her ancestral home to rescue a store of treasure. Mac reflects Demille’s own experiences and many others who return home glad to be out of a war zone but missing the military and a life less predictable. He paints a picture of a Cuba crumbling under Communism, but also squeezes in enough rum and rhumba to make me want to visit.

Book details

The Nix

 
 
 

Run Racist Run

 
 
 

The Republic of Gupta

 
 
 

The President's Keeper

 
 
 

Always Another Country

 
 
 

Khwezi

 
 
 

Reflecting Rogue

 
 
 

Democracy and Delusion

 
 
 

Our Fathers

 
 
 

Gilead

 
 
 

The Third Reel

 
 
 

A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg

 
 
 

The Street

 
 
 

Unpresidented

 
 
 

Good Cop, Bad Cop

 
 
 

Dark Traces

 
 
 

All the Rivers

 
 
 

Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut

 
 
 

The Annals of Imperial Rome

 
 
 

Satires

 
 
 

Ramaphosa: The man who would be king

 
 
 

New Times

 
 
 

 
 
 

The Shallows

 
 
 

Firepool

 
 
 

Rapid Fire

 
 
 

The Wine Lover's Daughter

 
 
 

Outsiders

 
 
 

Agents of the State

 
 
 

Being Kari

 
 
 

Queen of the Free State

 
 
 

Apartheid Guns and Money

 
 
 

Miss Behave

 
 
 

Grace

 
 
 

If I Stay Right Here

 
 
 

Free Association

 
 
 

Days Without End

 
 
 

Midwinter

 
 
 

South

 
 
 

The First Law of Sadness

 
 
 

Collective Amnesia

 
 
 

The Cull

 
 
 

The Girl from Venice

 
 
 

 
 
 


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Our guide to the best holiday reads

Published in the Sunday Times

So much to read, so little time … here are some good places to start, with an emphasis on excellent local authors


BIOGRAPHY

Khwezi: The Remarkable Story Of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, Redi Thlabi (Jonathan Ball Publishers): One of the absolute must-read books of the year, it’s the harrowing tale of Khwezi, the rape trial and the consequences of President Jacob Zuma’s acquittal.

65 Years of Friendship, George Bizos (Umuzi): The human rights lawyer lovingly reflects on his friendship with Nelson Mandela.

FUN

Hasta la Gupta, Baby!, Zapiro (Jacana Media): The latest collection from the cartoonist/political analyst/agent provocateur.

Unpresidented, Paige Nick (B&N): Another hilarious satire from the columnist and writer — this time about No1.

Rapid Fire: Remarkable Miscellany, John Maytham (Tafelberg): Random trivia collected by the talkshow host from his Rapid Fire insert on CapeTalk.

POLITICS

How to Steal a City: The Battle For Nelson Mandela Bay, Crispian Olver (Jonathan Ball Publishers): An insider’s account of the corruption and clean-up of the municipality.

Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would be King, Ray Hartley (Jonathan Ball Publishers): Hartley looks at how Ramaphosa has handled the key challenges he has faced in the unions, in business and in politics.

The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and out of Prison, Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg): The explosive book that has got the nation talking about Zuma’s shadow mafia state.

A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma, Ronnie Kasrils (Jacana Media): The revelatory history of the two men.

CRIME

What Have We Done, JT Lawrence (Pulp Books): Dystopian thriller series set in Johannesburg in 2036 in which the heroine Kate has to save her loved ones from The Prophecy.

Spire, Fiona Snyckers (Clockwork Books): A box of frozen viruses is brought to Spire, a remote research station in Antarctica, and within days people are dying of diseases.

Bare Ground, Peter Harris (Picador Africa): The first novel from the Alan Paton winner is packed with political and corporate intrigue, with insights into the society we have become.

Bad Seeds, Jassy Mackenzie (Umuzi): Joburg private investigator Jade de Jong tracks down a saboteur in a race to prevent a nuclear disaster.

The Cull, Tony Park (Pan Macmillan): Former mercenary Sonja Kurzt is hired by a British tycoon to lead an elite anti-poaching squad to take down the kingpins, but the body count starts rising.

FINE FICTION

Tin Man, Sarah Winman (Tinder Press): Bestseller author of When God Was a Rabbit pens a delicate and tender novel of friendship and loss.

New Times, Rehana Rossouw (Jacana Media): As Mandela begins his second year as president, political reporter Ali Adams discovers that his party is veering off the path. She follows the scent of corruption.

Dikeledi, Achmat Dangor (Picador Africa): A family saga set in a time of forced removals and the creation of bantustans.

My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent (HarperCollins): It’s fraught, harrowing and divisive – some critics can’t stop raving about Tallent’s debut novel, others not so much.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (Bloomsbury): The Man Booker prize-winning novel is an original literary experience. Abraham Lincoln visits his dead son Will in a graveyard filled with ghosts.

The Golden House, Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape): Nero Golden and sons move to the US under suspicious circumstances.

QUICK FICTION

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster): Prequel to the much-loved Practical Magic, this features the witchy family in 1950s New York.

Wolf Trap, Consuelo Roland (Jacana Media): Paolo Dante must save her adopted daughter from a criminal mastermind.

Did You See Melody?, Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton): Hannah transports the reader to a sunny Arizona spa where a cast of characters are all suspects in an old missing-child case.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng (Little Brown): A hearty slice of American life in the Clinton era.

The Blessed Girl, Angela Makholwa (Pan Macmillan): Bontle Tau has to juggle her family and friends and all the men in her life wanting to give her emotional and financial support.

The Break, Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph): Amy’s husband decides he wants a break from their marriage and children, and to lose himself in South Asia.

Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King and Owen King (Hodder & Stoughton): The prolific writer and his son team up to tell the tale of a mysterious sleeping syndrome in a women’s prison.

NON-FICTION

Always Another Country, Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers): One of the most searing voices of contemporary South Africa, this is Msimang’s candid and personal account of her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, college years in North America, and returning to the country in the ’90s.

Dare Not Linger, Nelson Mandela and Mandla Langa (Pan Macmillan): The remarkable story of Mandela’s presidency told in his own words is finished off by Mandla Langa.

I Am, I Am, I Am, Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press): The writer chronicles 17 of her own near misses with death.

The Fifth Mrs Brink, Karina M Szczurek (Jonathan Ball Publishers): A soul-baring memoir of Szczurek’s life before, with and after her marriage to André P Brink.

Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly (Doubleday): The astronaut’s gripping adventures of his year on the International Space Station in 2015.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions, David Attenborough (John Murray): The man who made nature cool gives a record of the voyages he did for the 1950s BBC show The Zoo Expeditions.

Outsiders, Lyndall Gordon (Little Brown): A profound investigation into the lives and works of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf.

I’ll Take the Sunny Side, Gordon Forbes (Bookstorm): Memoirs from the author of A Handful of Summers and Too Soon to Panic.

GIFT

Longthroat Memoirs: Soups, Sex and Nigerian Taste Buds, Yemisi Aribisala (Pan Macmillan): This down-to-earth collection from Aribisala, uses food as a lens to observe Nigerian society.

A Hat, a Kayak and Dreams of Dar, Terry Bell (face2face): In 1967 journo Bell and wife Barbara were living in exile in London when they decided to go back to Africa by paddling from England to Dar es Salaam in a 5m kayak.

Shisanyama: Braai Recipes from South Africa, Jan Braai (Bookstorm): Jan Braai’s first crowd-sourced cookbook.

The Sun and Her Flowers, Rupi Kaur (Simon & Schuster): The poet’s second collection is proving to be as popular as her first.

Way of the Wolf, Jordan Belfort (Hodder & Stoughton): The Wolf of Wall Street reveals his step-by-step playbook on making the sale.

The Curse of Teko Modise, Nikolaus Kirkinis (Jacana Media): How Modise overcame poverty to become “the General” and one of South Africa’s best footballers.

Collective Amnesia, Koleka Putuma (Uhlanga Press): A bestselling poetry collection that hits all of the emotions.

From Para to Dakar, Joey Evans (Tracey Macdonald Publishers): Evans shares how he faced the toughest challenges to fulfil his dream of competing in the 2017 Dakar Rally.

200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World, Geoff Blackwell, Ruth Hobday, Kieran Scott (Bookstorm): The women, from a variety of backgrounds, are asked the same five questions and their answers are inspiring.

Book details

Khwezi

 
 
 

65 Years of Frienship

 
 
 
 
Hasta la Gupta, baby!

 
 
 
 
Unpresidented

 
 
 
 
Rapid Fire

 
 
 
 
How To Steal A City

 
 
 
 
Ramaphosa: The man who would be king

 
 
 
 
The President's Keeper

 
 
 
 
A Simple Man

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
Bare Ground

Bare Ground by Peter Harris
EAN: 9781770105812
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

 
 
 
 
Bad Seeds

 
 
 
 
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New Times

 
 
 
 
Dikeledi

 
 
 
 
My Absolute Darling

 
 
 
 
Lincoln in the Bardo

 
 
 
 
The Golden House

 
 
 
 
The Rules of Magic

 
 
 
 
Wolf Trap

 
 
 
 
Did You See Melody?

 
 
 
 
Little Fires Everywhere

 
 
 
 
The Blessed Girl

 
 
 
 
The Break

 
 
 
 
Sleeping Beauties

 
 
 
 
Always Another Country

 
 
 
 
Dare Not Linger

 
 
 
 
I am, I am, I am

 
 
 
 
The Fifth Mrs Brink

 
 
 
 
Endurance

 
 
 
 
Adventures of a Young Naturalist

 
 
 
 
Outsiders

 
 
 
 
I'll Take the Sunny Side

 
 
 
 
Longthroat Memoir

 
 
 
 
A hat, a kayak

 
 
 
 
Shisanyama

 
 
 
 
the sun and her flowers

 
 
 
 
Way of the Wolf

 
 
 
 
The Curse Of Teko Modise

 
 
 
 
Collective Amnesia

 
 
 
 
From Para to Dakar

 
 
 
 
200 Women


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“I’m not trying to do anything except make pictures that challenge Roger Ballen” – a conversation with Roger Ballen

By Mila de Villiers

Roger Ballen. ©Alternative Print Workshop.

 
If you’re familiar with Die Antwoord, images of an anomalous Johannesburg, or raw photos of South Africa’s rural Afrikaans communities, you’ve probably come across Roger Ballen.

Ballen, whose photographic career spans over forty years, recently released Ballenesque, a monograph consisting of his oeuvre and previously unpublished images. ‘Ballenesque’ has become synonymous with his style which, over the past twenty years, has moved from being partly documentary to one that incorporates elements of drawing, painting, installation, and video.

As the photographic artist himself explains in his deep, measured voice: “This integration of medias has allowed me to create an aesthetic that is referred to as Ballenesque.”

I’m seated across Ballen in his large, well-lit office in Parktown, Johannesburg. The walls are adorned with framed images of his work. Stuffed animals, including a baboon, a serval and an aardvark, greet you once you enter the office space. He promises to acquaint me with the office rat (Stoffel).

As Ballen’s mother was involved with the Magnum Agency in New York, Ballen – who holds a PhD in geology – was introduced to photography at a young age, publishing his first book, Boyhood, at 28.

Boyhood consists of black and white images of boys, comprised mostly of a trip made from Cape Town to Cairo between 1973 and 1978.


Cover-Up, Indonesia, 1976.
 
Ballen describes Boyhood as “a trip into my own childhood. So all my pictures from those days had a psychological edge to them, an existential edge.”

Existentialism features heavily in Ballen’s work and he is renowned for having stated that “nothing” is the most profound word in the English language.

“Well, where do you come from, and where are you going?” Ballen reasons. “That’s the quandary everybody faces, that nothing can happen in a second from now. Then what?”

And does he think that’s a driving force for people?

Ja,” the native New Yorker responds. ”That’s the death instinct. It’s the thing that drives everything on the planet.

“That’s the purpose of what I’m doing. It’s the most fundamental force in anything alive, it’s dealing with the survival instinct … the need to stay alive in a hostile environment, especially in nature.”
 
 
 
 
Froggy Boy, USA, 1977.

“Hostile environments” and “nature” reminds me of Dorps, Ballen’s photographic series of dorpies shot in and around rural South Africa – not quite as Ballenesque as his more recent work, yet still stark, gritty, and – in classic Ballen style – black and white. Did Ballen’s profession as geologist propel him to study rural South Africa?

Ballen came back to South Africa in 1982, after having completed his PhD in geology, and at that time “there wasn’t a place on the planet that was more advanced in mining, metallurgy, mineral exploration.

“It was an interesting country and the people here at the time were very hospitable to me and it felt like I could make a difference here, I guess.”

Old Man, Ottoshoop, 1983.

 
Ballen made a gradual move to shooting poor, marginalised Afrikaans communities in South Africa, as portrayed in Platteland.

Platteland was photographed between 1986 and 1994 – pivotal dates in our country’s history, with ’86 defined by the declaration of a state of emergency, and ’94 the advent of democracy.

How did an American geologist-cum-photographer “convince” armblankes to be subjects of his work during these turbulent years?

The conversation is interrupted by lively cooing from the speckled dove in a cage in the corner of his office, later introduced to me as Icarus.

Icarus.

 
“He likes you,” Ballen says, eyes drifting towards the dove, a look of affection crossing his face. “He’s listening, he’s saying ‘watch yourself there!’” [Cue hearty laughter.]

Photographing strangers can “happen quite spontaneously. You might find somebody in a shop and you talk to them and they invite you over for tea,” Ballen furthers.

Sgt F de Bruin, Dep of Prison Employees, OFS, 1992.

 
“I always have had a good relationship with the people that I have photographed over the years. I can hardly remember having a negative or hostile experience in anyway.

“Most importantly, I have always believed that the subject should benefit in some way from the experience whether it be my buying them food, clothing, or medicine, paying them for their work, or just listening and empathizing. Without any doubt, I feel that the people that I have worked with over the years have been much more hospitable towards me that many of the well-off people that I have encountered.

“I didn’t necessarily go there with somebody to make fun of people and cause issues; I’m still friendly with a lot of these people 30 years later. They message me, or call me. I can feel it in my pocket,” he says patting his trouser pocket in which his phone had just vibrated.

Photography isn’t just a matter of “finding somebody who you think has an interesting face and taking their picture,” he continues. “It’s very, very difficult and in fact it takes a great photograph that has some lasting power. For something to rise above the ‘normal’, to have some sort of effect on people’s subconscious mind, is very difficult.”

Man shaving on veranda, Western TVL, 1986.

 
The struggle to capture photos with lasting power is perpetuated by the billions of images we’re confronted with on a daily basis and an inability to “separate the more artistic level of photography from the more mundane,” Ballen states.

This begs the question whether social media platforms are nullifying or destroying photography.

“I use these things myself. I Instagram. It’s a means of exchanging information. The problem is the evaluation of these images.”

PSA, Kim K fans: you better stop reading here…

“The Kardashian woman takes a picture of her shoe on the floor and it gets two million hits. Or her cigarette that she just smoked and it gets five million hits. But the picture’s horrible. My dog could almost take the picture. But it had five million hits!” he incredulously declares.

“Monetary value, or the “like”-value, effects how you see the picture. It’s very confusing.”

Ballen is uncertain about whether this problem can be solved or addressed productively.

“You know I’m a geologist – see the rocks there?” he asks, pointing towards a collection of rocks aligned on the window sill, “that goes to a lab and the lab will tell you exactly if you want to know how much copper is in a block. Look at this picture,” he proceeds, indicating to one of his framed images, “is it good or bad? Do you like it? That one doesn’t like it. So you have this enormous subjectivity involved in this media. This is why it’s a confusing subject.”

Since 1997, the year in which Ballen’s Outland project was produced, his work has progressed into a style described as “documentary fiction”.

Ballen defines “documentary” as en external experience and regards “fiction” as something your imagination creates. The images in The Outland, Boarding House and Shadow Chamber feature Johannesburg’s “fringe” characters, often wearing masks, captured in confined spaces, drawings and marks etched on the walls. A sense of the abnormal and outlandish is created.

Since we, as humans, occupy space both physically and mentally, I’m curious to know whether Ballen intentionally shoots these peripheral people in confined spaces as means to capture the place where the mental “meets” the physical.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

One Arm Goose, 2004. (L)
Cut Loose, 2005. (R)
 
“The first thing you have to realise is that whatever I’m saying, I’m saying visually,” the artist answers. “I’ve always stated that if I can talk about the picture in precising words, it’s probably a bad picture. That’s the first step. That’s what differentiates me from most South African photographers – I’m not a political photographer; I’m psychological.

“Dealing with aesthetics and, more importantly, trying to reach the subconscious mind and transform the subconscious mind of myself and expand the subconscious of myself and hopefully others… The issue is I’m not trying to do anything except make pictures that challenge Roger Ballen.”

His work certainly is psychological, but it isn’t his intention to elicit a certain response from audiences, questioning the meaning of “the response”.

“What is a response if somebody finds them disturbing and humorous at the same time? What is the response? What would you call that?

“They’re mindscapes,” he says of his photos.

“They’re real scapes and they’re mindscapes and the reason they have an effect on you is they have an ability to enter your mind and your mind doesn’t … your mind is unclear how to react to them.

“The pictures, to have to have an effect, have to break through your repression, unleash your repression, and reach some so-called “core place”. The issue is that the pictures have to have an ability to get at somebody and challenge people’s status; that’s my goal.”

Ballen explains that his photos present a part of your being which you’re unaccustomed to.

“‘Disturbing’ is not really the right word – they’re unleashing. They’re presenting a segment of yourself, which you’re not used to you. It’s like if you’re looking in a mirror, especially when you’re tired or you’re sick – you get a little bit of a shock, you know? And you say “Shit, is that me? I can’t believe it”.”

In the accompanying video for Outland, shot by local filmmaker Ben Jay Crossman, one of the “fringe” characters to feature in the work, a man named  Stanley who catches and releases rats on a daily basis, tells Ballen how “Ben can’t believe his eyes with all these people around here.” Is this something people often comment on? Has he ever been asked if he attempts to “normalise” the “abnormal”?

Head Below Wires, 1999.

 
“I’m not very clear about normality at all. I’m not convinced about normality. I’m not convinced about abnormality, either. These terms you used – in a way to protect people’s subconscious minds, they classify abnormality and normality. And if somebody is abnormal they don’t have to deal with it in certain ways. Obviously I’m not talking about the extremes, there are a lot of people who have serious biological, physiological problems…”

Five Hands, 2006.

 
Ballen dislikes the claims that he’s appropriating or exploiting the people he photographs as, for the last 15 years, he’s “finally had a face in the picture. So when we talk about Roger Ballen’s work, like in the last 10 years almost, it’s always been about animals. What does he think? [This question is asked whilst indicating towards Icarus.] He likes it? He’s fed up with these comments. He’s thinking “why are you always talking about people?” We’re trying to use our own words to define his reality and you don’t understand his reality, you never will.”

Although Ballen does not like to use the word “inspiration”, he discloses that “if somebody pointed a gun to my head, I would probably say [Samuel] Beckett.” This in response to his work having been compared to Diane Arbus’s, something Ballen disputes; especially the type of work he did in Platteland.

“There was an aspect of people living in these places who were marginalised, living on the edge, who weren’t coping, who were strange … there was some correspondence between what Diane Arbus was doing and what I was doing. But at the beginning of Outland, about ’97, there was a real divergence between what she was doing and what I did. Outland was focused on human absurdity; Diane Arbus wasn’t interested in that. Roger Ballen Theatre started to come about; Diane Arbus wasn’t interested in that.”

Clockwise from top left: Altercation, 2012. Devour, 2013. Tommy, Samson and a Mask, 2000.

Ballen’s love of – and appreciation for – animals is evident in his work, and he has two books dedicated to animals, including Asylum of the Birds. Absentmindedly waving in the direction of the dove as I ask what it is about birds that intrigues him, he tells me “Icarus. His name’s Icarus.

“My first-grade teacher was obsessed by Greek mythology. In fact, the first book that I bought without my parents intervention was the Iliad and the Odyssey. My favorite character in Greek mythology was Zeus as he was the ultimate God. I remember climbing Mount Olympus and feeling his presence.

“Greek myths are really revealing,” Ballen continues. “They’re like dreams. There was something nice about being able to … reassuring to call a beautiful bird after something special about doing it. The name has a very strong, warm, positive feeling in my mind. To use the word is actually soothing in a way. Instead of calling him some pseudo-yuppie name.”

Smiling, he rhetorically states “He’s a nice bird, hey?”

Ballen owns “a lot” of birds, and has “some place where I keep about 300 owls. But not as pets. I like all animals.”

Rats, especially, feature prominently in his photos. Why does he finds this singular rodent so remarkable?

“I believe the rat is the most intelligent species on the planet based on their brain size. I own many as pets and am amazed at their ability to learn,” he responds.

“The rat lives everywhere on the planet, can eat almost anything, and is able to survive in the most difficult of environmental circumstances. In western cultures rats are looked down upon, but ultimately, they are a product of nature and no better or no worse than any other species.”

Besides rats, Ballen’s animal photography includes images of pigeons, snakes, pigs, and goats. Ballen attributes his photographing of these “ordinary” animals to the setting of his photos.

“All the pictures I take are on the inside … inside buildings. So you wouldn’t necessarily find a tiger or a rhinoceros inside some room in Johannesburg. That really would be a little bit strange. A lion inside a room … somebody asleep on top of a lion,” he replies, chortling.

His interest in taking pictures of animals and in animal psychologies started as a teen, he adds.

“I’ve always been interested in the animal side of the human behaviour and the primitive side of the mind and the relationship ultimately between humans and animals and how this relationship is distorted by contemporary life.”

Ballen critiques Disney, citing that one of the reoccurring motifs – “all the animals love the people, and the people love the animals, and they get along” – creates the wrong idea of the historic relationship between animals and humans.

Puppy Between Feet, 1999.

 
“There’s a fundamental fear of nature; this is part of the genes of the species. There’s fundamental dislike of nature. We need to control nature because of this genetic evolution of the species. So in fact there’s no real harmonious relationship between humans and nature.”

In the majority of his photos featuring animals, Ballen will have the person in the photo holding or cuddling the animal. To what extent does he “direct” a photo?

“Every picture is different, first of all. There’s always this relationship in my pictures between what could have been there, what is spontaneous, and what I could have put there. So you always have that so-called tension in a lot of the pictures. 

“I always say the pictures are interactive, and that’s all you can say. And ultimately they’re pictures that Roger Ballen created; images that nobody else could create. So Roger Ballen is a Roger Ballen world, so yes, they’re all – they exist as pictures as a result of Roger Ballen. That’s it. That’s what they are. They don’t exist spontaneously. They don’t exist spontaneously because they’re ways of organising the world through a camera and through your mind.”

One can’t speak to Ballen without enquiring about his collaboration with Die Antwoord, considering he directed the music video for the zef-rap-rave duo’s 2012 hit, I Fink U Freeky.

Shack scene, Johannesburg, 2012.

 
Ballen’s aesthetic is palpable in the video. Think Ninja in a loincloth. Yo-Landi wearing black contact lenses. The walls covered with unsettling drawings and marks. And rats. Many, many rats.

Unfortunately Ballen can’t remember whether any of the rats were his own.

“That’s a really good question,” he replies, brow furrowed. “I think they were … I think they were my rats. But Yo-Landi had some rats at the time. I introduced her to rats.”

Zef culture, as popularised by Die Antwoord, and Ballen’s style wouldn’t necessarily be described as congruent; it was with their introduction to Ballen’s Outland that “they stopped doing whatever they were doing and reinvented themselves as Die Antwoord. It had a major effect on them,” Ballen explains.

“My aesthetic hit their subconscious mind in some way that they saw something in the work that inspired them to move in another direction. Yo-Landi contacted me, they wanted to show me their videos, they wanted to do a project with me.”

This correspondence went on for a number of years and when I Fink U Freeky was produced it went “totally viral. Totally viral.” (The video currently has over 107 million views. Sjoe.)

It’s surprising that Ballen’s art features in a music video, as his response to an interviewer enquiring what music one should listen to while perusing his work, was “no music”. Did he ever imagine that he would collaborate with musicians?

“I didn’t have many expectations, this happened all spontaneously. If music is used as a vehicle with somebody with more musical skills than myself to create a … Extending the reality of my imagery and my aesthetic, well that’s great. I’m happy … The most important thing I saw was the power of the video. Since then … I don’t know if you saw Asylum of the Birds?”

I answer in the affirmative.

“And The Outland video, and The Ballenesque video. I don’t think I’d ever have done that if it wasn’t for I Fink U Freeky. I didn’t realise how my imagery and what I’m doing could be transformed to moving image. This was a really important event in my career.”

In light of Ballen’s recent The Theatre of Apparitions video, one wonders whether he’s considering doing similar audiovisual work in the future.

Face Off, 2010.

 
“Definitely. I have a new project now,” is the enthusiastic response.

“It’s like this animated, well, it’s like a cartoon-figure I’ve been working with in the photographs. The photographs are animated. So this cartoonish type of character that’s involved in situations most people would not do, or can’t do. So it’s symbolic of liberation and mischievousness.”

Is he by any chance extending himself into this character with “free reigns”? Would he describe it as a liberating process?

Jaja. I guess,” he thoughtfully replies, before candidly stating “I’m not that repressed.

“To me it’s more of a humorous activity. It’s a creative activity, the characters are liberating me in a way. It’s an enjoyable process.”

Compared to his past work, which is very much psychologically challenging, will he describe the experience of this project as more enjoyable?

“This animated series isn’t as complex as some of the others, but I enjoy them all. I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t enjoy them. Because I never really try to make pictures for other people, it’s always been my own personal goals. When it’s been satisfying … It’s gratifying that you know people ultimately must have responded to what I’ve done; it’s great as an artist – what more can an artist ask for, in a way. It’s pretty deafening if there’s no response.”

The Divided Self, 2016.
 

Five final questions

 
You’ve been living and working in the surrounds of Johannesburg since the 1970s. Could you describe Johannesburg, or what Johannesburg means to you?

Well, you know, I have a picture in the Apparitions book, it’s called Divided Self. Joburg, in a way, has that aspect to it. On one side it represents a social-political-cultural reality and on the other side is another social-political reality. And they don’t really harmonise really well. Back to what we were talking about, I would say Joburg is symbolic of the divide of itself.

 As an artist you combine fact and fiction; as a reader, do you prefer to read fact or fiction?

I’m very multi-dimensional in terms of my history of reading and I’m quite well educated. Everything – theatre to fiction to philosophy; the poetry, the geology, economics. It’s really difficult because I have such a range of things I’ve been interested in over the years so I can’t really say if it’s fact or fiction, it’s a whole range of things. Is theatre fiction or is it fact? Theatre, by its nature, is almost totally documentary; partly fictional. I like things with interaction between fact and fiction.

Can you give me an example?

Well, you take something like [Joseph] Conrad’s work. He spent time on boats, travelling all over the world … He transformed it into his own world. It’s hard to know what was really the place, and what was his memory.

Yo-Landi Visser once described you as “the weirdest person I’ve ever met”. I think that’s such a compliment…

People make these comments, like “weirdest person”, “that picture is disturbing”. I’m happy; it’s great. I guess the worst thing they could say is that the work is boring.

Icarus’s lively cooing interrupts the conversation once more.

What do you think? [This question is posed to Icarus.] It’s the most he’s ever talked. He’s really enjoying what’s going on here. He’s really liking what we’re doing here. He really never does this much talking. He’s a quiet bird. We had these doves, these laughing doves, and the rest of the staff here … it was driving them crazy, so I took them out of the office.

Have you ever been accused of being boring?

No, I hate to disappoint you.

***

Book details

Boyhood

 
 
 

Ballenesque

 
 
 

Dorps

 
 
 

Platteland

 
 
 

Outland

 
 
 

Boarding House

 
 
 

Shadow Chamber

 
 
 

Asylum of the Birds

 
 
 

Roger Ballen: Die Antwoord

 
 
 

The Theatre of Apparitions

 
 
 


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Book Bites (3 December)

Published in the Sunday Times

My Absolute DarlingMy Absolute Darling
**
Gabriel Tallent, HarperCollins, R250

It wasn’t the repulsive violence of this novel that defeated me. By now everyone knows that it features incest between a father and his 14-year-old daughter. It was never going to be a comfortable read, but judging by the euphoric reviews one expected something trenchant and thought-provoking. Instead the characters are straight out of central casting — ghastly gun-toting father spouting undigested philosophy before raping his daughter; she the tough tomboy with little interiority; kindly grandfather, caring-but-puzzled teacher. Tallent ladles on description with a palette knife, perhaps in an attempt to lift it to the heights of “literary fiction”, but ultimately it’s a hollow, crassly prurient book. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Dying Game
***
Asa Avdic, Penguin Books, R295

Set in 2037, a faceless government coldly manipulates its citizens into overworking at the expense of their personal lives. The central character is Anna Francis, emotionally damaged from a mission on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. On her return to Stockholm she is promised freedom if she completes one final mission – a high-pressure exercise to test the character of citizens being vetted for a top-secret intelligence post. Anna must travel to an island with an alcoholic colonel, a shallow TV host, one of Sweden’s richest men, a hyper-sensitive HR specialist and a key figure from her past who she thought she’d never encounter again. On the first night she will fake her death then monitor the reactions of the candidates. This well-paced Scandi Noir will certainly keep most readers captivated until the final chilling scene. – Efemia Chela @efemiachela

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic
****
Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, R285

Hoffman’s prequel to her bestseller Practical Magic is the delightful backstory of the magical Owens sisters’ eccentric aunts, Jet and Frances, and their mysterious brother Vincent. It’s late ’50s New York and the three children are brought up in a strictly no magic house by their parents. But their power cannot be harnessed and when they find out who they are, disaster happens. They realise they can’t love without consequences due to an ancestral curse. A fantastical tale of doomed love. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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A tough, nuanced read that raises uncomfortable topics – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joyce Carol Oates’s A Book of American Martyrs

Published in The Witness

A Book of American MartyrsI must admit this novel was neither easy to read nor to review. Both subject matter and Joyce Carol Oates’s way of handling it can make a reader somewhat queasy, but there is no doubt that its 736 pages (American writers are remarkably keen on having their readers in for the long haul) are a formidable achievement.

The story opens in 1999 in the American midwest, when Luther Dunphy, a fundamentalist Christian and hardline pro-life activist, shoots dead Dr Gus Voorhees and his bodyguard outside the abortion clinic where Voorhees works.

The first part of the book is narrated by Dunphy, and Oates is too skilled a writer to make him a one-dimensional hate figure. You may not like him, or what he stands for, but by the time he is sentenced to death, you have a certain understanding of him. And his execution reminded me forcibly of The Green Mile, the only film I have ever walked out of, unable to stomach the electric chair scene. If nothing else, A Book of American Martyrs makes a compelling argument, if one is needed, for the abolition of the death penalty.

Voorhees, Dunphy’s victim and polar opposite is no saint either. He represents another brand of fanaticism, one that is prepared to sacrifice pretty well anything for his crusading ideals and whose outward calm rationality hides a terrifying ruthlessness. He and Dunphy are the martyrs, seeking their own martyrdom.

However, the main thrust of Oates’s book is the effect of the two deaths on the two families, particularly the wives of the men and their daughters, both entering adolescence at the time of the killings. The stories are told through a variety of voices, ranging from an impersonal third person narrator to first person sections and verbatim transcripts of interviews and trials.

Both the Voorhees and Dunphy families are destroyed, and the latter part of the book deals with Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy as they both, in very different ways, struggle to find their own paths to survival, and to deal with the legacy forced upon them by their fathers. One, who becomes a documentary film maker, may be educated, clever and articulate while the other – an exploited and vicious woman boxer – is barely literate and hardly able to function in society, but their lives are intertwined for ever.

A Book of American Martyrs raises all kinds of uncomfortable topics – religious fundamentalism, the abortion debate, gun crime and the death penalty. It is particularly pertinent at this time, calling up issues that are currently fracturing American society and that of other places as well. The telling is complex and nuanced but, as I said at the outset, it is a tough read. Oates is one of those writers – an ever-expanding list – who are regularly tipped for a Nobel prize, though whether she ever will or ought to win is another matter. But this book should do her chances no harm. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Book Bites: 26 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Origin
****
Dan Brown, Bantam Press, R320

Fast-paced, action-packed, relentlessly informative, Origin is a riveting read from start to end. Dan Brown’s famous character, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, is back to unravel yet another mystery with the potential to upend the entire world. Only this time he has the Spanish military, royal palace and Catholic Church hot on his heels, not to mention an anonymous hacker who’s always five steps ahead. Langdon’s friend and former student, the brilliant futurist Edmond Kirsch, makes a fascinating scientific discovery, one that provides unequivocal answers to two age-old questions: “Where do we come from? Where are we going?” On the eve of his announcement, dark forces intervene to quash his discovery and Langdon finds himself in a mad race to Barcelona, with the alluring future queen of Spain by his side. Brown blends science, technology, art and religion in a story that entertains and mystifies. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

Home Fire
****
Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury, R290

Antigone, the Greek tragedy, is artfully reimagined in our modern world in this 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel. Two sisters lose their brother Parvaiz to their father’s jihadist past. Isma flees to America and makes friends with Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary. When Eamonn returns to the UK, he visits the younger sister, Aneeka, delivering a packet of M&Ms from Isma. Thus, the families of the sisters and Eamonn become tangled as personal choices, beliefs and grief is dragged into the political landscape. A timely read that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Boy Who Saw
***
Simon Toyne, HarperCollins, R285

The brilliant Solomon Creed is a paranoid schizophrenic with no memory of his past: the only clue is his beautifully made jacket, with the name of the tailor, Josef Engel, on the lapel. Creed tracks down the tailor, but the old man has been tortured to death. It seems likely that his murder is linked to his granddaughter Marie Claude’s research into the Holocaust and The Tailors’ Camp, a concentration camp from which Engel was one of only four survivors. Creed, Marie Claude and her son Leo journey through France to find the survivors – and learn something about Creed’s past – before the rest of the tailors are killed, along with the answers. – Aubrey Paton

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