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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Inside Kimberley provides a glimpse into a vanished society – glamorous, hard-bitten and tragic – and the city that diamonds built

Kimberley is the city that quite literally sprang up overnight in the middle of nowhere late in the nineteenth century. For a while it was the hub of South Africa and a powerhouse of the British Empire. An early visitor to Kimberley once said: ‘The place was stuffed with money. There were more millionaires to the square foot than any other place in the world.’ And this financial muscle gave the Empire-builders the confidence to transform a mining camp into a modern city. Here began the life of industrialised South Africa.

Much of that early city has survived and Inside Kimberley reveals a diverse collection of historic buildings that made it through the 20th century. They conjure up a compelling impression of the diamond city 150 years ago – a city with enough architectural sights to satisfy any amateur historian or receptive visitor. The great personalities of the day are never really far of sight. From Cecil Rhodes, Ernest Oppenheimer and a coterie of diamond millionaires to Sol Plaatje and Robert Sobukwe – the larger-than-life characters who lived and worked here – Kimberley is dotted with places associated with them all.

Inside Kimberley presents 24 historically significant buildings that piece together the story of a city once the second most important in South Africa. From Gothic churches to Herbert Baker’s Honoured Dead Memorial, from the Africana Library to Rhodes’ Boardroom at De Beers Mining Company’s original Warren Street office, this book provides a glimpse into vanished society – glamorous, hard-bitten and tragic – and the city that diamonds built.

Take a sneak peek inside Inside Kimberley

The Big Hole Museum


From left to right: The Big Hole Museum; The Bungalow; De Beers Headquarters


The Honoured Dead Memorial


An interior shot of the Kimberley Club


A room in the McGregor Museum



From left to right: A stairwell in Kimberley’s synagogue; a stained window in the McGregor Museum

PAUL DUNCAN is the author of a number of books including Hidden Johannesburg, Hidden Cape Town, South African Artists at Home, Cape Town Louis Vuitton City Guide, and two collections of South African interiors, Down South and Down South Two. Formerly editorial director at Condé Nast Independent Magazines and editor of Condé Nast House & Garden, Paul Duncan is also editor of Condé Nast House & Garden Traveller.

ALAIN PROUST, photographer, specialises in architecture, food, still life, and landscape photography with varying emphasis on all these genres. His work has been published in Reader’s Digest South African Cookbook, Colonial Houses of South Africa, Portrait of Cape Town, Wines of South Africa, Wine Visionaries, Hidden Cape Town and Hidden Johannesburg.

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Edith Eger’s account of surviving the Holocaust shows us all how to embrace freedom, writes Nikki Temkin

Published in the Sunday Times

The Choice
Edith Eger, Rider, R320

Edith Eger was a 16-year-old ballet dancer in 1944 when, together with her Hungarian family, she was forced into the hell of Auschwitz. The last words her mother ever said to here as they were wrenched apart were, “Remember – no one can take away from you what you’ve put in your mind.”

Eger survived unimaginable trauma in the camp, including being singled out by the infamous Josef Mengele, who ordered her to dance for him.

She closed her eyes and transported herself to the opera house in Budapest, dancing Romeo and Juliet, petrified that if she displeased him she would be killed.

“I dance. I dance. I am dancing in hell.”

At the end of the war she and her sister were sent on a death march, ending up at a camp in Austria. Unable to walk (it later emerged that she had broken her back), she was thrown onto a pile of corpses. She was found, barely alive, by an American soldier who saw her hand move.

After the war she suffered severe depression and what she realised was survivor’s guilt. She married and emigrated to the US.

Before reading Man’s Search for Meaning by fellow Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, Eger shut away this part of her life and attempted to forget about it, not even discussing it with her children.

But then, influenced and mentored by Frankl, she decided to heal herself by consciously facing her inner shadows. They can only control or destroy us if we fear them and leave them to rampage.

Nelson Mandela’s quote, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” chimed strongly while I read this book.

Is it the ability to transcend the unforgivable, the unacceptable and the abhorrent that leads to humans achieving greatness? Being able, amid despair and depravity, to retain hope and wrest meaning and purpose from life?

This is a Holocaust memoir and so much more besides. It’s predicated on the belief that we always have a choice. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond to it.

Eger eventually returned to Auschwitz in 1990, where she made a choice: “To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence. To stop asking why I deserved to survive.”

There’s no changing what happened, “but there is a life I can save. It is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.”

In her 50s she became an internationally acclaimed psychologist focusing on abuse survivors and soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, some of whose stories of healing she shares.

Deeply affecting and inspiring, Eger’s book is a plea for all of us to find true freedom in whatever way is meaningful for us. It’s not about how she survived despite what happened, but how she thrived because of it. – @NikkiTemkin

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Dr Judy Dlamini donates books to initiative aimed at increasing equality among young girls and boys

Dr Judy Dlamini, accomplished entrepreneur, doctor, mother, wife, student, style icon and author is contributing to yet another initiative close to her heart by donating books to an initiative to inspire young boys and girls to succeed in their careers. This book drive is an initiative spearheaded by Book Circle Capital, a newly established book store situated in Maboneng. The donation of 500 copies of Dr Judy’s book Equal but Different will kick the initiative into gear.

Equal But Different is based on life story interviews from fourteen women from diverse backgrounds, all of whom have risen to top leadership positions. These include Phuti Mahanyele (exec chairman Sigma Capital), Coco Cachalia (CEO Grounded Media), Cora Fernandez (Former Head of Sanlam Investment Management), Gloria Serobe (Founder & Executive Director of WIPHold), Maria Ramos (first woman to lead one of the biggest Financial Services groups in the country) and Siza Mzimela (first black woman to lead a commercial airline company). The book also covers men’s voices, including the Deputy President of the country, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. While promoting the book, Dr Dlamini also donated books to underprivileged schools to inspire learners and demonstrate that nothing is impossible.

This spirit of giving is integral to Dr Dlamini and her husband Sizwe Nxasana’s business practices, and Dr Dlamini endorses the ethos of giving back, she believes that South Africa will only be prosperous if all who live in it have an equal chance to succeed. When she noticed Book Circle Capital’s CSI initiative on social media, which aimed to donate 10 000 books to schools across SA, she couldn’t resist contributing books to this initiative. This was not the first time she has engaged with the quirky bookstore as they have previously invited her to be a guest speaker at their book club, where she addressed a group of young professionals.

Book Circle Capital, owned by Sewela and Loyiso Langeni, started their initiative to promote the essence of equality among young girls and boys. They are also looking to inspire them through the stories and different experiences captured in Dr Dlamini’s book.

Book Circle Capital is highly appreciative of Dr Dlamini’s contribution towards their initiative. According to the partners, the publishing industry in South Africa is highly concentrated and competitive with small margins. Dr Dlamini’s contribution to their cause further cements the partnerships they’re hoping to cultivate in order to have an impact on the youth. Dr Dlamini’s personal journey is regarded by the Langeni’s as an inspirational story that many children need to hear.

The partners look forward to teaming with other corporate organisations and believe others will follow in Sifiso Publishers footsteps. Dr Dlamini echoes their sentiments and states that “all stakeholders in our economy have a responsibility to invest in our youth. Empowering their minds and showing them what they can become if they work hard is a good starting point.”

“My hope is that Equal But Different inspires the young readers encouraging them to reach for their dreams. I am living proof that hard work and determination ensure you achieve your dreams. I always believed that people are equal but different and that mindset helped me to achieve despite the apartheid system and all other obstacles I encountered along my journey. This hard-working attitude is one I would like to instil in those that come after us,” concludes Dr Dlamini.

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Book Bites: 28 January

Published in the Sunday Times

Manhattan Beach
Jennifer Egan, Corsair, R315

The US has finally joined World War 2 and women are working in jobs that were once the exclusive domain of men. In a Brooklyn naval yard, Anna Kerrigan, supporting her mother and disabled sister, fights to become the first woman diver. After work one evening, she visits a nightclub and runs into Dexter Styles, known gangster, and her absent father’s former boss. The encounter reopens old wounds and raises new questions. Egan crochets the three stories – daughter, father, gangster – into an interesting tale inspired by actual historic groundbreakers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Logical Family: A Memoir
Armistead Maupin, Doubleday, R340

A delight for fans! Who would have known that Armistead Maupin, author of the wildly popular Tales of the City series detailing life in San Francisco from the late ’70s to today, replete with spliffs and gay sex, was a southern Republican conservative? Maupin’s autobiography surprises: growing up white in North Carolina in the ’40s and ’50s is strikingly similar to growing up white in South Africa in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s also his fraught relationship with his parents, his discovery of his gayness, serving in the US Navy during the Korean war – and revelations about some of the people who inspired the characters in Tales of the City, including the identity of the closeted Hollywood A-lister with whom he had an affair. One does get the feeling that Maupin holds back though, perhaps for another installment of his life story. One can only hope. – Russell Clarke @russrussy

Promise me, Dad

Joe Biden, Macmillan, R300

Former US vice president Joe Biden cemented a name for himself as Barack Obama’s second-in-charge and for his role in negotiations with global leaders. This book, however, gives readers a touching portrayal of the man behind the scenes. Biden’s son Beau was diagnosed with a brain tumour during Biden’s term in office and this beautifully crafted story tells of how the family rallied together during those months and how, even after Beau’s death, they remained firm in the face of sorrow. His friendship with Obama is well-known, but here we get an inside glimpse of their dynamics. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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Death, dining and dynamic women – here’s what Andrew Donaldson read this week


Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was fortunate enough to meet (in a B&B in Melville, Johannesburg, of all places) Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s greatest war correspondents. I’d long been an admirer of her books; in particular View From the Ground, The Face of War (both Granta) and The Trouble I’ve Seen (Eland Publishing). All highly recommended.

Gellhorn was then old and frail, and I was warned not to ask about Ernest Hemingway, which seemed absurd. She may have been his third wife, but her own accomplishments were legion; having covered every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War through to the wars in Central America in the mid-1980s, it perhaps would have been more apposite to ask Hemingway about her.

Gellhorn and Hemingway are just two of the myriad characters that pop up in food historian Laura Shapiro’s fascinating What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories (Fourth Estate).

The pair had been invited to the Franklin D Roosevelt’s White House for dinner in 1937. It was a first for Hemingway, and he was greatly surprised Gellhorn wolfed down three sandwiches on the way there. “When you’re invited to a meal at the White House,” she told him, “eat before you go.”

Sage advice. Contemporary presidential menus were horrific. Hemingway complained of “rainwater soup” and a “cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

The Roosevelts didn’t have to tolerate such fare. But Eleanor Roosevelt perversely insisted on employing one Henrietta Nesbitt, an exceptionally untalented cook and housekeeper whose reign of terror at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue included mayonnaise dyed green. Why? It was how she got back at her philandering husband. Revenge was served up to three times a day, hot or cold, and tasteless. It does all seem Raold Dahl-ish, doesn’t it?

The other women in Shapiro’s book are Eva Braun, Helen Gurley Brown, Rosa Lewis, Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Pym. What’s the link between them all? Absolutely nothing.

The first ever words, incidentally, uttered by Braun to Adolf Hitler were apparently: “Guten appetit!” She had just served Bavarian sausage to a vegetarian.


Most of us want to die in our beds at home, surrounded by loved ones and creature comforts. Instead, most of us will die in hospitals. Cheery stuff, I know. But nothing is more certain than death, or more bewildering and strange. In recent years, there’s been heaps of books by writers who’ve scrutinised their final days: Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens, Jenny Diski and Atul Gawande, among others.

Yet two new books – From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (W&N) by Caitlin Doughty, and With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial (William Collins) by Kathryn Mannix – seem to make the point that, although it’s easier to live longer these days, it is becoming more difficult to die well.

Mannix is a palliative doctor, or “deathwife”, as she refers to herself. She spends her days with the terminally ill and their families. To her, death is something that visits families slowly, over months and years, and while much of her work is medical and diagnostic, she also crucially helps those who are dying and their loved ones to find ways of dealing with the final, great event.

Once you’re gone, well, that’s when Doughty takes over. A rather boisterous American mortician, she earned a reputation for telling it like it is with her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. (Crematorium work, obviously.)

Her From Here to Eternity is an oddly cheerful travel book, and she relishes those rituals from various cultures around the word – from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the breaking of bodies in Tibet so they may be more easily consumed by vultures – that openly acknowledge death’s enormity.


Rest in peace, then, Peter Mayle, who died last week at 78. The retired advertising executive whose 1989 bestseller, A Year in Provence, started a major trend in memoir and travel writing. Mayle, who started his writing career in his 30s with sex-education books for children, had moved to France in 1987 with the aim of renovating an 18th-century farmhouse and writing a novel. Hassles with the former interfered with the latter, and so his agent convinced him to drop the novel and write about the distractions instead.


“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.” – The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad (Tim Duggan Books)

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View From the Ground


The Face of War


The Trouble I've Seen


What She Ate


From Here to Eternity


With the End in Mind


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes


A Year in Provence


The Last Girl

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Mike Procter’s autobiography a witty, concise read on the events that shaped his life after his storied career as a player, writes Khanyiso Tshwaku

Published in the Sunday Times

By Khanyiso Tshwaku

Caught in the MiddleCaught in the Middle
Mike Procter, Pitch Publishing, R370

The title of Mike Procter’s autobiography Caught in the Middle is an apt one considering he found himself at the centre of two of cricket’s hairiest moments in the mid-2000s. Those events were the “ball tampering” Oval 2006 test match between Pakistan and England and the infamous “Monkeygate” New Year’s test between Australia and India in Sydney in 2008.

On both occasions, he was the match referee. After those acrimonious tests, the International Cricket Council changed the rules to ensure certain infractions were dealt with at a level higher than that of a match referee.

In the 2006 encounter, the Pakistan team led by Inzamam-ul-Haq refused to come out after tea on the fourth day after being accused by the abrasive and controversial Australian umpire Darrell Hair of altering the condition of the match ball.

The 2008 issue centred around Indian offspinner Harbhajan Singh racially abusing Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who is of West Indian descent, by calling him a monkey.

These two moments are the centre of the well-crafted 239-page book, which focuses on Procter’s career as referee rather than player.

Procter said the incidents in London and Sydney changed his outlook on the game.

“The Darrell Hair thing was part and parcel of cricket. It was very unusual but that’s something you’d expect to see in cricket once in a while, but the Harbhajan Singh one, I would’ve preferred not to deal with that one,” Procter said.

It’s a book that can be devoured easily, thanks to Lungani Zama’s brevity and Procter’s witty but concise tone. With this book being Procter’s third, it was a smart move to speak less about his storied career as a player – cut short by anti-apartheid sanctions – and focus more on the events that shaped his life afterwards.

It’s worth remembering he was South African cricket’s first post-isolation coach, from 1991 to 1994, a tenure that included the five-run win over Australia in Sydney in 1994. – Khanyiso Tshwaku @kaymorizm

Book details

  • Caught in the Middle: Monkeygate, Politics and Other Hairy Issues; the Autobiography of Mike Procter by Mike Procter, Lungani Zama
    EAN: 9781785312168
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Gossip, glitz and true grit: Michele Magwood reviews Tina Brown’s riveting memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Vanity Fair Diaries
Tina Brown
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

If you are of a certain age and a certain inclination – a lover of gloss and gossip and scandal, of witty writing and ace reportage – then you will know the name Tina Brown. For eight heady years in the ’80s she edited Vanity Fair and in the process she didn’t so much as raise the bar for magazines as lob it, blazing, into the stratosphere.

Even if you don’t know her name, you’ll remember her epochal covers: a ripely pregnant and naked Demi Moore, a platinum-wigged Joan Collins with the headline “She Rhymes With Rich”, Ronald Reagan giving Nancy a twirl and a sulky-looking Princess Diana under the banner “The Mouse That Roared.” That story in 1985 was an absolute scoop, the result of Brown’s own contacts in the UK. When she heard gossip of the parlous state of the Wales marriage she hopped on a plane from New York to London, wined, dined and whispered with impeccable sources and blew the lid on Charles and Diana’s rank unhappiness.

It was the first the world had ever heard of it.

She reported that Diana would ignore the family at Sandringham or Balmoral, cut off by her Sony Walkman, dancing to Dire Straits and Wham!; her murderous rages that were beginning to concern the Queen and Prince Philip, and the hours she spent studying her press clippings, “almost as if she’s trying to figure out the secret of her own mystique”. Charles, she said, had abandoned the image of Action Prince and was surrounding himself with “a motley band of mystics and self-sufficiency freaks”. We’ve long known the details of the unravelling of the Wales marriage, but it was Brown who originally blew the story.

From Demi to Diana, Leo to Joan and Whoopi submerged in water – these are but a few iconic images associated with Vanity Fair during Brown’s reign as editor

Brown was herself, if not a dinkum blue blood, steeped in those circles. Her father was a film producer and she grew up in a country house where her parents entertained “rising starlets, operatic art directors, tragic comediennes, moody directors, on-the-make leading men and the odd literary lion … you could spot the latest James Bond or the star of a Carry On comedy lying contentedly inebriated under the Christmas tree.”

Brown’s father was always on the look out for a “cracking good yarn” to bring to the screen and the whole family would be required to mine the newspapers, books and scripts that piled up around the house. What better training for a future magazine editor? Brown was no blue stocking. She was expelled from three schools for subversive behaviour, such as organising a protest against the school’s policy of allowing a change of underwear only three times a week. She made it to Oxford, though, where she dated novelist Martin Amis and wrote for the newspaper Isis.

By the age of 25 she was editor-in chief of the once flagging Tatler, where she developed a witty, sassy editorial style, a clever alchemy of in-jokes and satire. Sales boomed and the magazine was bought by Condé Nast.

Cut to 1983 when she was transplanted to New York by Si Newhouse, the owner of Condé Nast, to advise on an ailing Vanity Fair. Within months she had been appointed editor, at the age of just 31. With a fat budget and that nose for a cracking good yarn, she launched like a highlighted missile into New York society, accompanied by her husband, the feted British newspaper editor Harold Evans. The Vanity Fair Diaries chronicles the next eight dizzying years as she both reflected and shaped the zeitgeist. She perfected her editorial mix of high and low culture, blending glitz with politics and serious reportage. A typical issue would include an exposé of Saddam Hussein, a scandal in the art world and a high-profile murder case, all stirred together with Hollywood lovelies and society soirées.

She paid her writers a fortune – $10000 is a lot of money for a feature even today – and put their bylines on the covers. When she was introduced to the recovering alcoholic Dominick Dunne at a dinner party, and he told her that he was going to sit through the trial of his daughter’s murderer, she begged him to write about it, thereby launching the career of one of her finest writers. When she heard the author William Styron speaking at a function about his depression, she had him signed up before the dessert plates were cleared; his article led him to write the definitive account of depression: Darkness Visible.

While Annie Leibowitz had long been taking photographs for Rolling Stone, Brown stole her away and pushed her to ever-increasing heights of creativity, demanding, and getting, superbly original pictures, like Whoopi Goldberg naked in a bath of milk, or Leonardo DiCaprio adorned by a swan.

Brown was not afraid to take risks. It was she who ran a shattering gallery of men in the creative industries who had died of Aids. This was the ’80s, after all, when Aids was the Illness That Dared Not Speak Its Name and her overt support was critical for the gay community.

The Diaries are full of the stories-behind-the-stories but also delicious gossip, such as her description of Jackie Onassis as a crazed and dim puppet: “It’s as if somebody jerks the strings, the body lurches to life, then she gradually sinks back into starry-eyed repose.”

She sits in a meeting with Michael Jackson in full makeup with his nose held together by Elastoplast, notes that wealthy Upper East Side matrons take off their earrings over dessert “as if to demonstrate the sheer weight of the rocks” and recounts a slightly cracked Warren Beatty making a pass at her.

Best of all, we meet the early Donald Trump who from the get-go she regarded as crass. A full year after Vanity Fair ran an unflattering piece about him, he emptied a glass of wine down the back of the writer Marie Brenner at a black-tie function. Brenner looked up to see “his familiar Elvis coif making off across the Crystal Room.”

All immensely entertaining, but what saves the book from merely being a fluffy, smug gabfest is Brown’s honest wrestling with work and motherhood, especially as it becomes clear to her, and the reader, that her son George has special needs. He was born two months premature and she has never stopped asking herself whether it was her drivenness, her refusal to rest, that caused it. He was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s. One diary entry notes: “The weekend was hard, with G being very difficult and Harry chained to his computer as bloody always. Two workaholics don’t make a rightaholic, particularly when it comes to raising kids.”

She confesses to wrong decisions, to failed experiments, to doubts and confidence crises and to routinely reducing nannies to tears. She’s constantly purging whingers and underperformers from her staff. She couldn’t have been an easy boss, but once again circulation soared: from 200000 to 1.2 million.

As the ’80s morphed into the more serious ’90s, Brown became restless and set her sights on the venerable New Yorker. Needless to say, she lobbed a few grenades into that mix, before being lured away by none other than Harvey Weinstein to launch the disastrous Talk magazine. From there she founded The Daily Beast website and now runs the annual Women in the World Summit, where she pulls in such participants as Hillary Clinton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and actress Scarlett Johannson. The Queen of Buzz is now a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Recently Brown was interviewed about the #MeToo movement. She fixed the interviewer with her famous steel-blue stare and said: “The way to keep sexual harassment at bay is to be the one in charge.”

And if that’s not a clarion call to women in the media, I don’t know what is.

The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992

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Book Bites: 21 January

Published in the Sunday Times

100 Nasty Women of History
Hannah Jewell, Hodder & Stoughton, R315

Every feminist and generally decent person felt a severe pang of disappointment when Trump won the US elections. Hannah Jewell wrote 100 Nasty Women of History in retaliation for his calling Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman”. Open this book and learn the names and stories of some of history’s coolest “nasty” women – like the most successful pirate ever, or some of the many brilliant female poets forgotten over time. Be pleasantly surprised by the number of factors in today’s everyday life that have been shaped by women, like the technology used for Wi-Fi or the numbering system of 1, 2, 3. This light-hearted collection of brief biographies provides, in very crude language and colloquialisms, a small bit of justice every feminist needs. – Jessica Evans

I’ll Take the Sunny Side
Gordon Forbes, Bookstorm, R290

Gordon Forbes is best known for his tennis memoir A Handful of Summers, which decades on is still in print. In this new book he returns to the international tennis circuit of yesteryear, but he adds much more. Forbes belongs to a distinguished lunch club that meets once a month and includes such friends as the historian Charles van Onselen, columnist James Clarke and the author Richard Steyn. All are men of letters, all are of a certain age, and they ruminate and crack wise about politics, growing old and sport. From discussing the oysters on the buffet table, to the unseemly yowls of women tennis players to the best boots for the Otter Trail, this is a charming memoir of full lives and friendship. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Future Home of the Living God
Louise Erdrich, Corsair, R295

Louise Erdrich has created a chilling dystopian thriller. In the spirit of The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s bodies are the central theme as Cedar and her family attempt to hide her pregnancy. Evolution has stalled, reversed, genetically malfunctioned, creating religious fervour and a national state of emergency. Women are being torn from their families, held captive, while the survival rate for birthing mothers plummets. This is a new beginning, where your friends may be your enemies, your postman a spy, and women are drafted in and forced to incubate embryos from a different age. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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“Their legacy endures because of the intellectual and emotional potential they unlocked for us to recognise” – Karina M. Szczurek on Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World

Published in the Sunday Times

By Karina M. Szczurek

Clockwise from top left: Virginia Woolf, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Mary Shelley.


Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World
Lyndall Gordon
Little Brown, R315

In 1915, Virginia Woolf emerged from a mental breakdown only to witness the madness of the Great War’s slaughter. Opposed to violence, she felt she had no country to call her own. Disillusioned, she encouraged women to form “the outsiders society”. Woolf is one of the women Lyndall Gordon includes in Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World.

The inspiration came to her in 1975 on a train journey to Reading, where Gordon was to give a talk on DH Lawrence. “It was early morning, a beautiful day,” she remembers. “I suddenly thought I wanted to write a book about women through the generations, and the kind of ideas they had about how the world could be.” The seed for Outsiders was planted, but Gordon went on to write six individual biographies – of TS Eliot, Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Emily Dickinson – as well as two memoirs before embarking on the project.

Gordon’s oeuvre makes it clear that the vision on the train did not remain dormant. Even when writing the two men’s biographies, she focused on the women who shaped their creative consciousness. She is drawn to women who, like James’s Isabel Archer, “affront their destiny”.

It is late morning when we meet in her flat in Sea Point. Her permanent home is overseas but she always returns to the Cape with longing. In person a compelling storyteller, she enriches the conversation with luminous literary quotes and insights.

Looking out to sea from where we sit, it is easy to picture Woolf’s “fin of a submerged form lurking in the waves”. Much is at risk. Outsiders, a “dispersed biography”, is unlike Gordon’s other work. She recalls her apprehension before it went to print. A culmination of four decades of meticulous consideration, the book is a record of revolutionary outlooks.

Interweaving the intellectual and creative work of Shelley the “prodigy”, Emily Brontë the “visionary”, George Eliot the “outlaw”, Olive Schreiner the “orator” and Woolf the “explorer”, Gordon shows how they imagined a new world order into existence. By staying true to themselves, the five defied norms and expectations.

“I wanted to show how these women looked at what is crude, ugly, abusive, dismaying in human nature, but then found a voice that was a different strain in civilised men and women: Mary Wollstonecraft spoke of ‘tenderness’ and George Eliot of ‘sympathy’.” Each rebelled against inequality and misogyny.

“Power is rotten,” Gordon says, appalled at the hunger for it, in men and women alike. “I feel like an outsider as a feminist because I don’t think power is a good thing.”

At the core of this book is what Gordon refers to as “an alternative to power”. The Brontë sisters were criticised as “brutal, unwomanly” for exposing domestic violence in their novels, she points out. “This speaks right to this time when there is a tsunami of public opinion sweeping everywhere with the #MeToo campaign.” The challenge of silence surrounding victims of power persists.

Gordon quotes the young Jane Eyre: “Speak, I must.” For the five writers speaking was a “creative and moral act”. Gordon herself believes in “being a moral being”.

“The moral being inside me is responding in a small way to the gigantic moral being in all these writers,” she says.

They wanted to be seen for who they believed themselves to be. Their legacy endures because of the intellectual and emotional potential they unlocked for us to recognise. It dazzles in Outsiders.

    Book details

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Andrew Donaldson on Heinrich Gerlach’s “lost” fictional account of the Battle of Stalingrad, Sue Grafton’s passing, and Michael Wolff’s inside look at the sentient naartjie’s presidency


Breakout at StalingradSOMETIMES the story behind the publication of a novel can be even more extraordinary than the novel itself. This is certainly the case with Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad (Apollo), which is now published in English for the first time after being “lost” for 70 years. This is the original version of Gerlach’s 1957 classic of post-war literature, The Forsaken Army, an epic, fictionalised account of the battle of Stalingrad from the invading Germans’ point of view.

The 30-year-old Gerlach, an academic, was drafted as a reservist into the Wehrmacht in 1939, and in November 1942 was one of the 300 000 troops trapped by the Red Army outside Stalingrad. When the Germans surrendered in February 1943, only 91 000 remained. Gerlach, severely wounded, was one of them.

As a Soviet prisoner, he worked on an anti-Nazi newspaper, Free Germany. For this he was tried in absentia by the Nazis who sentenced him to death. He also worked on his novel, convinced the Soviets would allow its publication. They confiscated it instead. In 1950, the Soviets offered Gerlach his freedom – if he spied for them. He refused, but then changed his mind when he realised that failing to cooperate would result in a 25-year prison sentence. He was put on a train to Berlin where he was to meet his East German spymasters.

Fortunately, his train arrived hours early. The platform was empty. Gerlich hopped off and caught a local train to the western sector. In West Germany, he returned to teaching – and started afresh with his novel, taking a course in hypnosis to recall the contents of his confiscated manuscript. That 600-page manuscript, untouched for decades, was found in a Moscow archive in 2012 by Carsten Gansel, a researcher working on an unrelated project.

According to the London Sunday Times the differences between the two versions are instructive. “Where The Forsaken Army is almost thematically analytical, emphasising the deliberate betrayal of the army by Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the original Breakout at Stalingrad is more obviously built of viscerally immediate experiences.”


Farewell, then, to Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically titled detective series that began in 1982 with A Is for Alibi who passed away last month at 77.

The series’ female protagonist was introduced thus: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

The latest in the series, Y Is For Yesterday (Mantle) was published in August last year. At the time of her death, Grafton had been battling with a final, Z Is for Zero.

Grafton’s daughter, Jamie Clark, has said that it would not be completed. Her mother, she wrote on the author’s website, “would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”


Fire and FuryDid you know Donald Trump pronounced Xi Jinping’s name as “Ex-ee”, and had to be reprogrammed to think of the Chinese president as a woman so that he would be able to pronounce “She” when they met? True story, apparently.

By now, most of us are familiar with the contents of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown); its revelations about the childlike nonentity now sometimes resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that made pre-publication headlines are now old news.

Reviews have been mixed. Most of his detractors have accused Wolff of unethical journalism. All those off-the-record comments from Steve Bannon, the most indiscreet of the author’s informants, now on-the-record? As critic Peter Conrad put it in The Observer, Wolff’s observation that Trump is “a symbol of the media’s self-loathing” is an indictment that applies to Wolff in particular.

Conrad does have a particularly elegant turn of phrase. “Fire and Fury,” he writes, “also gives the lowdown on the lacquered trompe-l’oeil that is Trump’s hairdo, with those tinted tendrils combed over a cranium that is totally bald and resonantly empty. But beyond such acts of exposure, what makes the book significant is its sly, hilarious portrait of a hollow man, into the black hole of whose needy, greedy ego the whole world has virtually vanished…”

Fire and the Fury has however found favour in North Korea. According to the country’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, run by the ruling Workers’ Party, “The anti-Trump book is sweeping all over the world so Trump is being massively humiliated world-wide… Voices calling for the impeachment of Trump are on the rise not only in the United States but also abroad. Since the book was published, it has triggered a debate on whether Trump is qualified to be president, even in Western Europe.”


“Factory manufacture robs us of a special something: contemplation.” – Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands (WW Norton & Company)

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