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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

“The story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one” – a Q&A with Lee Berger

By Mila de Villiers, @mila_se_kind

Research Professor in Human Origins at Wits University, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, peer-reviewed paleoanthropologist, and author of Almost Human: The astonishing tale of Homo naledi (co-written with John Hawks), Lee Berger, recently spoke to us via Skype (from an excavation site at Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers, nogal) about his book – an account of the discovery of the hominid species, Homo naledi; Australopithecus sediba as the origin of the X-Men; his estrangement from Phillip Tobias; writing for non-scientific audiences; and local band Satanic Dagga Orgy’s ode to Homo naledi

Lee Berger sharing A Moment with the skull of a Homo naledi
(© Stefan Heunis, AFP/Getty Images)

 
First things first: your interest in archaeology was sparked at a young age when, as a child growing up in rural Georgia, you’d spend hours in the outdoors, looking for (and finding) artifacts. Do you have any advice for aspiring archaeologists or paleoanthropologists wishing to discover/rummage, yet are confined to suburbs or cities?

There are things to be found everywhere – history is all around us and the world, even urban areas and the suburbs are filled with archaeological artifacts from the past that give clues to what came before. Also, our cities are full of geology as they are of course built on and around it! It’s great to learn and explore the heritage of the area you live in as well as it’s geological heritage. One never knows as the next “big” discovery could be in one’s own backyard!

Almost Human reads surprisingly easy – and funny – for a book with a highly scientific premise. Did you struggle to maintain an accessible writing style for the hoi polloi? (And by no means am I excluding myself here).

Well, science can seem complex and overwhelming for many, but we were trying to use a style that let the specialist reader as well as the non-specialist reader enjoy the book and follow our scientific journey. We therefore tried to use understandable language and as little “jargon” as possible, only using it where it was necessary to define a complex term or meaning. Both John and I communicate widely to the public and so perhaps the writing style you note follows our speaking styles.

Throughout the final chapters of the book you often mention how much there still is to learn about Homo naledi and that it’s very likely that there are more early hominim species which are yet to be discovered. The skeletal material you recently came across in the Lesedi Chamber shares similarities with Homo naledi and adds to this statement. What can/does this new discovery tell us about human evolution in Africa?

I think the clear picture that has come from both the discovery of Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi is that the story of human evolution is not a simple, linear, straightforward one but that ours is a complex history. Naledi and sediba show us that there is more to be found – it’s clear that we don’t really know their ancestral history and the few fossils of other species found across Africa don’t help us much with interpreting where they fit in our family tree – and that’s exciting. We currently are back in the Dinaledi and Lesedi Chambers and making new discoveries – particularly exciting is we seem to have strong evidence that Homo naledi did indeed come down the narrow chute the way our “underground astronauts” come – and that is wonderful and hard to explain – but it’s exciting!

Your “Underground Astronauts” – Marina Elliott, Elen Feuerriegel, Alia Gurtov, K. Lindsay (Eaves) Hunter, Hannah Morris, and Becca Peixotto – are all women. This dispels the myth of science being a male-dominated field. Can you elaborate on this statement within a South African context? Christa Kuljian specifically comes to mind…

I am right now watching four of these heroic women scientists working underground on our cameras in the command centre. Our field was dominated by men traditionally, but there is a worldwide trend that is shifting towards more women in the natural sciences and our field is no different and we are seeing this trend in South Africa as well. But what I think is most important about these underground astronauts is that they are demonstrating that the place for women in these sciences is not just in the lab, but also at the cutting edge of extreme exploration and adventure and very often these women are better suited physically and mentally for these difficult and often dangerous endeavours. They really are an inspiration.

You write candidly about your growing difference of opinions with prominent paleoanthropologists Phillip Tobias and Ronald Clarke. How has your account of your academic estrangement from Profs Tobias and Clarke been received by the scientific community, and readers at large?

Well, my estrangement with Phillip Tobias occurred as perhaps a natural progression of our relationship. He was like a father to me and sometimes when fathers and sons are working in the same area, they can clash. He and I reconciled later and he was very engaged and enjoyed the sediba years. Ron Clarke and my history is a complex one. Phillip and the University were promoting this young upstart (perhaps in his eyes) ahead of him. A lot of that tension I think was driven from insecurity of position. Palaeoanthropology is a competitive field with, until recently, few fossils and “fights” over the perceived more important ones are nothing new. I think though that with sediba and naledi and our approach to open access some of this tension has lessened. There is, though, still a generation that was brought up behaving in a very negatively competitive way that exists, but they are fewer and the fossils are certainly more plentiful!

I must admit that I didn’t know you and Phillip Tobias had such a strong bond…

He was my Ph.D. supervisor and then promoted me to take over his position in 1996. He and I were very close. It was the “way” Little Foot was discovered, hidden and then handled that caused the fissure. But like I said, I think that can be quite normal in such situations.

Have you received any personal ‘backlash’ from readers or scientists (including your colleagues, perhaps) regarding the candid account of your estrangement?

And no, not at all! You’re the first person to bring it up!

Seriously? Wow.

I think most scientists and “insiders” know/knew the story and it was a long time ago.

Your search for assistants to aid you in your expedition was unique in that you created a Facebook-post urging experienced scientists and intrepid cavers across the globe to apply for the task. Similarly, your discoveries at the Rising Star cave system were live streamed on social media platforms. (Those hashtags!) Can we expect an increase in scientific findings being made more and/or immediately accessible to the public, say via social media, as opposed to waiting until they’ve been published in journals after months of research and deliberation?

Okay, so if you turn on your social media feed right now you will notice we are bringing science “live” to the world through technology and social media. We are, however, doing all of our science the good old fashioned way – in peer reviewed journals. In fact and as an example there have been more than 600 pages of peer reviewed journal articles on naledi since we announced the new species. While some very prominent individuals (Bill Kimbel, Tim White and Bernard Wood to name the most vocal) have argued that we are somehow doing the science in front of the public – and they feel this is a bad thing – it’s simply not true. They are in fact creating a Quixote-esque windmill of misinformation to tilt at. We are in fact the traditionalists, they are publishing their criticisms in non-peer reviewed venues. It’s ironic and a form of “peer evasion” on their part.

Lastly – are you aware that the Joburg-based band Satanic Dagga Orgy have a song titled ‘Homo for Naledi’?

I am and we were laughingly playing the song just this morning! I think it might have even had it’s debut in the Dinaledi chamber as Elen just tweeted from the chamber about it! We all quite enjoy seeing our science become part of the popular and public sphere. It means more people hear about science and maybe it inspired people to dig a little deeper. I don’t know if you saw but Marvel Comics has sediba as the origin of the X-Men now! (which for a bunch of science nerds is very cool) – just google ‘Australopithecus sediba marvel X-Men’ for the pages.

***

(I did. Look what I found.)

Almost Human

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Launch – Cancer: A Love Story by Lauren Segal (26 September)

When Lauren Segal receives a call from her husband one wintry morning in 2014, the furthest thing from her mind is her biopsy results. For two years she’s been living a cancer-free existence after a double mastectomy that has put her in the clear. The call shatters the foundation of her world – the lump she thought was scar tissue is malignant. Her cancer is back.

Cancer: A Love Story is the intimately searing memoir of a four-time cancer survivor. The book magnificently tracks Lauren’s journey to come to terms with the untold challenges of facing the dreaded disease. Forced to face her needle phobia, the author leads the reader into her crumbling world as she confronts the terrors of treatment – from debilitating chemo to nuking radiation. Death is her uninvited companion.

But in the midst of her lonely horror, in a quest for deeper meaning, Lauren discovers the unexpected gift of awareness of unanticipated opportunities that cancer presents – to confront her unmasked humanity – her fears, strengths and weaknesses.

“Throughout my arduous journey into the world of cancer, I have discovered that proximity to death brings with it a new proximity to life. I have learned that luck and unluck, happiness and distress, hope and despair are tightly coiled into a life well lived.”

Lauren’s story removes the enormous stigma that still surrounds breast cancer; it tackles the deep fear surrounding diagnoses and treatment and it encourages us to take control of our health. It ultimately triumphs by showing the reader how a person in any unwanted life situation can come out on the other side. The book also provides vital insights for professionals involved in the care of cancer patients and a hugely informative section on chemo tips for those undergoing treatment.

Cancer

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Cape Town book signing: Killing Karoline (23 September)

Killing Karoline deals with important topical issues relating to adoption, identity, race, mental health and addiction.

Born Karoline King in 1980 in Johannesburg South Africa, Sara-Jayne (as she will later be called by her adoptive parents) is the result of an affair, illegal under apartheid’s Immorality Act, between a white British woman and a black South African man. Her story reveals the shocking lie created to cover up the forbidden relationship, and the hurried overseas adoption of the illegitimate baby, born during one of history’s most inhumane and destructive regimes.

Killing Karoline follows the journey of the baby girl (categorised as ‘white’ under South Africa’s race classification system) who is raised in a leafy, middle-class corner of the South of England by a white couple. It takes the reader through her formative years, a difficult adolescence and into adulthood, as Sara-Jayne (Karoline) seeks to discover who she is and where she came from.

Plagued by questions surrounding her own identity and unable to ‘fit in’ Sara-Jayne begins to turn on herself. She eventually returns to South Africa, after 26 years, to face her demons. There she is forced to face issues of identity, race, rejection and belonging beyond that which she could ever have imagined. She must also face her birth family, who in turn must confront what happens when the baby you kill off at a mere six weeks old returns from the dead.

Sara-Jayne King is a mixed-race South African/British journalist and radio presenter whose career spans over a decade and has taken her across the globe in search of remarkable stories and fascinating characters. While studying for an LLB degree in the UK, Sara-Jayne realised her passion lay elsewhere and, after graduating, she went on to complete a Master’s in Journalism in 2004. Her career began as a junior journalist in local radio in London and since then has included roles in the Middle East and Africa, most recently as a senior editor for news channel eNCA and presenter for Primedia’s talk radio station Cape Talk.

Don’t miss the opportunity to have your book signed by this singular author (and woman!)

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‘Have you ever wondered how a man becomes a rapist?’ – An excerpt from Khwezi

Published in the Sunday Times

KhweziKhwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo
Redi Thlabi

She changed the topic and left me a series of voice messages. I have listened to them regularly since her death. They break my heart every time. It is strange how we interpret words. When I first listened to the messages, they did not seem like a cry for help – just Fez talking as she usually did about how she felt. Now that she is gone, they have taken on a different meaning, a poignancy. I replay her words, detailing how overcome she was by pain, how she could not decide what to do with her life but that ‘that decision will take care of itself’. She was often overwhelmed by life, but would quickly bounce back, saying, ‘Anyway dear, I will take it one fool at a time.’ This time, she said, ‘I will just go with the flow.’

And then she got serious, describing her condition. ‘I am not feeling so hot. It’s just … um. I think I am just still going through a rough patch and I must go with it, go with the flow. I don’t know what is going on.’

I expected that, in typical Fezekile fashion, she would describe, in detail, everything that was happening to her, everything she was feeling. I assumed she was only talking about her emotional state. Even though she had been off her ARVs for a while, it did not occur to me that the physical deterioration had started. Apart from a case of shingles earlier in the year, the first time she had ever suffered from an HIV-related illness, she seemed to be in relatively good health. She was religious about her vegan diet, supplements and meditation, but clearly something was missing.

She proceeded to inform me that she had been in bed for more than a week because her left leg was swollen. But that she was trying to move her body, because ‘My dear friend says it is important that I elevate my leg but also keep my body moving, and my heart moving. She has given me this exercise. Some yoga stunt.’ Several times a day, with the help of her mother she would get off her bed, lie on her back on the floor, elevate her legs and push her feet against the wall.

‘It is just Ma and I in the house so getting off the bed is a challenge. I almost, almost fell on her and she is confused, doesn’t follow instructions properly, and not too strong and doesn’t quite know what we are doing. It was hilarious, actually … huuu! Almost like a circus.’ She was laughing in her voice message, but her laughter was the sound of the vanquished – as if she has come to terms with the never-ending cycle of suffering that has become her life. By this I do not mean that she had come to terms with her death, but just accepted the frequency of her chapters of drama and sadness. She still believed – at that time, at least, a week before she died – that she would get well. She was delicate, animated and self-deprecating, drawing me in so that I could almost picture her and her mom, wrestling on the floor, trying to get Fezekile back on her feet.

I asked if she needed anything, how I could help.

‘Oh dear, where do I start. It is what it is.’

I checked on her every day, especially after the message she left me in which she expressed a desperation to visit her father’s grave.

In the next message, she told me she was going to send me all her passwords. This did not seem strange to me at all, given that I was writing her book; I had become used to her innocence and trusting nature. I figured she was giving me access to some of her writings and musings.

I did not have a chance to acknowledge this message before she sent another one immediately: ‘Today I miss my father Diza. Isn’t that strange? It feels like he never left. I see him everywhere. Yet I miss him terribly. Am I weird?’

‘Not at all,’ I messaged back. ‘I have been there. I think about my father often. But my heart no longer aches. The world was dark when he left it, though … but I am living.’

‘Oh. All sounds so familiar. It just flipped over. But when I am asked how I cope with life, I say it is those foundation years. It always hurts, though. Sometimes at the most inopportune time. Even now.’

‘What is hurting you the most, when you think about him?’

‘I feel robbed, dear. Just robbed. I look at the comrades and how they live, and I feel robbed. Diza would not recognise so many of them.’

‘Which ones in particular?’

‘Ah, the looters, the corrupt, the arrogant, the rapists.’

We don’t speak for a couple of hours; then, in the evening, she asks me, ‘Have you ever wondered how a man becomes a rapist? Do you think they wake up and decide, today, I am going to be an arsehole to a woman? I mean, are they born rapists, do they become rapists, do they think about it or, you know, spur of the moment? That’s been on my mind. What do you think, dear?’

On 2 October, she left me a voice message that she was coming to Johannesburg on the fifth. She was breathing heavily, her pauses just too long between each word. ‘I am just sick and tired and I do not know what is next. Anyway there is something in Joburg, on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth, this holistic healing thing. Ummm, anyway dear, I don’t know how I am going to get on an aeroplane.’ She had told me that her leg was swollen ‘from [her] bum to [her] toe’. She took a deep breath. ‘But it is important that I go. And Auntie Bunie believes that I, I’ll be better when I get there. So, let’s see, it is in two parts. The spiritual and the physical.’

‘What do you need?’

‘I have tried everything, meditation, acupuncture, so let’s see how this will work.’

Somehow, with her swollen leg – a suspected thrombosis – she arrived in Johannesburg. By this time, she was no longer answering her phone or replying to messages. The last message I sent her
was on the fifth, the day she said she was starting her healing course. I told her that I had finally finished reading the transcript of the trial, and that I was proud of her: ‘A bit broken, but I break many times over this subject. The system is entrenched. The point of my writing is exactly how the questions posed to you further entrench patriarchal and sexist views.’

The message remained unread; she deteriorated further. After all the battles she had fought and won – and fought and lost – she would not survive this one. When death came knocking at her door, I imagine her answering the door with her signature, ‘One fool at a time, please.’ I was deeply saddened, especially since her last messages were still full of hope.

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Sisonke Msimang’s memoir out in October!

In her much anticipated memoir, Sisonke Msimang writes about her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, young adulthood and college years in North America, and returning to South Africa in the euphoric 1990s.

She reflects candidly on her discontent and disappointment with present-day South Africa but also on her experiences of family, romance, and motherhood, with the novelist’s talent for character and pathos.

Militant young comrades dance off the pages of the 1970s Lusaka she invokes, and the heady and naive days of just-democratic South Africa in the 1990s are as vividly painted. Her memoir is at heart a chronicle of a coming-ofage, and while well-known South African political figures appear in these pages, it is an intimate story, a testament to family bonds and sisterhood.

Sisonke Msimang is one of the most assured and celebrated voices commenting on the South African present – often humorously; sometimes deeply movingly – and this book launches her to an even broader audience.

Sisonke Msimang currently lives in Perth, Australia, where she is Programme Director for the Centre for Stories. She is regularly in South Africa where she continues to speak and comment on current affairs. Sisonke has degrees from Macalester College, Minnesota and the University of Cape Town, is a Yale World Fellow, an Aspen New Voices Fellow, and was a Ruth First Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand. She regularly contributes to The Guardian, The Daily Maverick and The New York Times and has given a very popular TED Talk which touches on events which appear in Always Another Country.

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Launch: Race Otherwise by Zimitri Erasmus (18 September)

Race Otherwise brings together the full amplitude of Zimitri Erasmus’s thinking about how race works. It tunes into registers both personal and social. It is not without indignation, and not … insensitive to emotion and … the anger inside South Africa. It is a book that is not afraid of questions of affect. Eros and love, Erasmus urges, are not separable from the hard work of thinking.’ – Crain Soudien, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa

How is ‘race’ determined? Is it your DNA? The community that you were raised in? The way others see you or the way you see yourself?

In Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa Zimitri Erasmus questions the notion that one can know race with one’s eyes, with racial categories and with genetic ancestry tests. She moves between the intimate probing of racial identities as we experience them individually, and analysis of the global historical forces that have created these identities and woven them into our thinking about what it means to be ‘human’.

Starting from her own family’s journeys through regions of the world and ascribed racial identities, she develops her argument about how it is possible to recognise the pervasiveness of race thinking without submitting to its power. Drawing on the theoretical work of Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter and others, Erasmus argues for a new way of ‘coming to know otherwise’, of seeing the boundaries between racial identities as thresholds to be crossed, through politically charged acts of imagination and love.

Zimitri Erasmus is a professor of Sociology in the department of Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She is the editor of the seminal volume Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town (2001) and in 2010 she was a UCT-Harvard Mandela Mellon Fellow. Race Otherwise: Forging a New Humanism for South Africa is her first monograph.

Race Otherwise

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Launch: The Cowboy Capitalist (19 September)

“Charles van Onselen’s richly informative and gripping Cowboy Capitalist offers intrigue, betrayal and suspense worthy of a spy thriller in a deeply documented account of international entrepreneurial capitalism, labor exploitation, and political conspiracy in the age of imperialism.” – Robert E. May, Professor Emeritus of History, Purdue

The Jameson Raid was a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa, linking events from the Anglo-Boer War to the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910. For over a century the failed revolution has been interpreted through the lens of British imperialism, with responsibility laid at the feet of Cecil John Rhodes. Yet the wild adventurism that characterised the raid resembles a cowboy expedition more than a serious attempt to overthrow a Boer government.

In The Cowboy Capitalist, Charles van Onselen challenges a historiography of over 120 years, locating the raid in American rather than British history and forcing us to rethink the histories of at least three nations. Through a close look at the little-remembered figure of John Hays Hammond, a confidant of both Rhodes and Jameson, he discovers the American Old West on the South African Highveld.

This radical reinterpretation challenges the commonly held belief that the Jameson Raid was quintessentially British and, in doing so, drives splinters into our understanding of events as far forward as South Africa’s critical 1948 general election, with which the foundations of Grand Apartheid were laid.

Charles van Onselen is the acclaimed author of several books including The Fox and the Flies, Masked Raiders, and The Seed is Mine, which won the Alan Paton in 1997 and was voted as one of the best books to emerge from Africa in the 20th century. His latest book, Showdown at the Red Lion, has been opted for a TV series. Van Onselen has been honoured with visiting fellowships at Yale, Cambridge, and Oxford, and was the inaugural Oppenheimer Fellow at Harvard’s WEB Du Bois Institute. He is currently Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.

The Cowboy Capitalist

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Mysteries, myths, and military facts: Archie Henderson looks at two books that cover the Angolan civil war

Published in the Sunday Times

Cuito CanavaleCuito Cuanavale
Fred Bridgland, Jonathan Ball Publishers
*****
 
 
 
 
 
A Far Away WarA Far-Away War
Ian Liebenberg, Jorge Risquet and Vladimir Shubin (Editors), Sun Press
**

It’s been 30 years since Cuito Cuanavale became a landmark in the Angolan civil war. South African and Angolan troops, some of them just boys, died there. So did many Cubans. The full casualty toll in a war that was fought mainly in secret is still unknown.

Along with the mysteries are the myths, one of them being that a decisive battle was fought around the little town between 1987 and 1988. There certainly was some fighting, but the big battle was fought 170km to the southeast on the Lomba River and it ended decisively in favour of South Africa and its ally Unita.

An entire brigade of the Angolan army was wiped out at the Lomba, forcing a retreat by the Angolans and Cubans back across the confluence of the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. There, in 1988, the fighting ended in either a stalemate, if you accept the military facts, or in a victory for the MPLA and Cubans, if you believe Fidel Castro’s propaganda.

Veteran journalist Fred Bridgland, author of Cuito Cuanavale, says: “If anyone won, I’m afraid it was the South Africans because [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev gave Fapla a final £1-billion. ‘Go and take out Jonas Savimbi and his headquarters in Jamba. But if this doesn’t work, that’s it. No more money.’”

Since Angolan independence in 1975, the country’s recognised government, the MPLA, had been fighting a civil war against Savimbi’s Unita. The two liberation movements had fought the Portuguese. Both needed outside support: the MPLA got it from Cuba, East Germany and the Soviet Union; Unita from South Africa and the US.

Bridgland’s book remains one of the best accounts of the war. As a Reuters correspondent assigned to Lusaka, he arrived as a young idealist filled with notions of “liberating the whole of southern Africa by the power of my pen”.

He made an auspicious start. Being in the right place at the right time, he got a scoop on South Africa’s invasion of Angola in 1975. “I began to realise that the war was a lot more complex than the musings of an undergraduate,” he says. “This was a grown-up story. Very complicated things were happening.”

Bridgland became enamoured of Savimbi, made many friends among the Unita commanders and covered the war mostly from their side. It put him in touch with the South Africans, whose military commander, Jannie Geldenhuys, allowed him to interview his troops. Those interviews make for a compelling story.

Bridgland has two big regrets: Savimbi turned out to be not a charismatic guerrilla leader, but a madman who murdered his own people; and the other side of the story – that of the Angolans and Cubans – was closed to him. Apart from a limited budget that prevented him from reaching the Havana archives, the Cuban bureaucracy was “horrendous”.

This should have made Far-Away War, which had the benefit of Cuban and Russian editors, a welcome addition to the war’s literature. Sadly, it’s disappointing. There is too much academic pontificating and no personal stories from commanders in the field, or soldiers in a trench or tank. Its value is the photographs from Cuban archives and the extensive bibliography.

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Book Bites: 10 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Gather the DaughtersGather the Daughters
Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press
****
Given how long it takes to write and publish a book, it is unlikely that Jennie Melamed timed her debut novel to benefit from the popularity of the TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale. Melamed is probably sick of having her book compared to Margaret Atwood’s. But it can’t hurt. Melamed’s fictional world, like Atwood’s, can be read as a dark allegory of patriarchy. Her central characters are children living on an island in a religious community cut off from “the wastelands” – the wider world into which only select male elders, the “wanderers”, may venture to bring back supplies and occasional fresh recruits. On the surface this is a gentle, pastoral life, but every time a girl-child is born, all the womenfolk wail and weep. The island way is to give fathers free access to their daughters until the girls reach “fruition”. Far from looking forward to the day when they can kick dad out of their beds, the daughters dread it because it signals no more summers of freedom. Until puberty bites, children run unfettered for a quarter of the year, roaming the island in naked, muddy packs. When one of these wildlings sees something she shouldn’t, it triggers a rebellion led by a 17-year-old who has staved off menstruation by starving herself. Melamed tells a stirring story in lucid, luminous language. – Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

GraceGrace
Barbara Boswell, Modjaji Books
*****
This gripping story tells of how a woman from Cape Town was subjected to abuse from her father. Later in life, Grace thinks she has overcome her hideous childhood until two people from her past make a reappearance in her life. Her suburban lifestyle is on the brink of collapse and it is only Grace that can save herself. The graphic details of the abuse that Grace endures is chilling. Her relationship with her father, and how she thinks she has “beaten” her past, makes the story so relatable and even more worthy of a reread. This book has earned every one of its five stars. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Koh-i-NoorKoh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond
William Dalrymple & Anita Anand, Bloomsbury
****
The Koh-i-Noor brings out so many angry emotions, because it is at the centre of important historical issues: why is it still part of the crown jewels of England? Where does it belong? Dalrymple and Anand investigate the history, dismissing the mythology around the diamond. What they find, is what one suspected – there has been misappropriation by all sorts, along with plenty of torture and murders. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Garden tomes: Bridget Hilton-Barber on gardening books and happiness

Think of them as self-help books — they inform and inspire, and set you on the right garden path, writes Bridget Hilton-Barber for the Sunday Times

In the chaotic pile of books that lives next to my bed, at least three will be gardening books. Bedtime gardening is one of my favourite things, and about once a week I fall asleep alongside Bold Romantic Gardens or Jane’s Delicious Garden or How to Propagate, depending on whether I’m concerned about my aubergines, needing an escape or just playing part scientist, part philosopher. I have a thing for gardening books, and am lucky to have inherited a fine collection from my grandmother and mother, to which I keep adding. I’m happy to lend them out as long as they get returned. If not – as we gardeners say, with fronds like you, who needs anemones?

In my grandmother’s day, gardening books were illustrated with exquisite line drawings; these days they use full-colour photography and enormous imagery, Lord help us and our credit cards. It was Cicero who said that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need. I’ll raise the game and say that if you have a garden and a library full of garden books you have more than your heart could desire.

Just what is it about gardening books that makes us happy?

Well they aren’t just about gardening, they’re about life, history, drama, travel, passion, escape and autobiography. One can pick a gardening book according to mood and genre. If I’m inclined towards local travel for example, I may take to bed Remarkable Gardens of South Africa (Nini Bairnsfather Cloete, Quivertree Publications, 2012) – and have an imaginary twirl around some of the most beautiful private gardens in the country, from the amazing food gardens of Babylonstoren in the Western Cape to the moody farm gardens of the misty KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

For the reassurance of the value of beauty, I will go for something like The Classic Italian Garden (Judith Chatfield, Rizzoli Books, 1991); if it’s history I’m after, perhaps I’ll meander through Great Gardens of the World (Ronald King, Peerage Books 1985), taking in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the nymph-haunted gardens of classical Greece and Rome.

In a crime-solving mood? I’ll try What Rose is That? (Mary Moody, Weldon Publishing, 1992). After personal inspiration – hand me Pippa’s Organic Kitchen Garden (Pippa Greenwood, Dorling Kindersley, 2000) in which she transforms a patch of weeds into a glorious kitchen garden. And if I’m into a little eroticism, I’ll dip into Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening (Louise Riotte, Storey Communications, 1975). There’s something deliciously racy in the slow unfurling of fronds, the skyward thrusting of velvety nosed shoots, the tangle of tendrils… As British author Sam Llewelyn wrote, in vegetable gardens beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death.

Garden books fulfil a variety of needs. You can read the real-life stories of those whose gardens were a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself. You can lose yourself in the micro world of composting and mulch, or soar heavenward with a book on remarkable trees around the world, from the giant sequoias of Canada to the ancient baobabs of Madagascar.

There is an increasing and healthy trend towards indigenous and water-wise gardening and these books can be invaluable, covering everything from how to grow an urban edible garden to recycling water. Change is part and parcel of gardening history – which is why gardening books are so important. Not only do they offer inspiration, but they provide a record.


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