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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book Bites: 14 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman (HarperCollins)
Book buff
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel is an uncomfortable read. Her exploration and critique of modern-day society’s obsession with consumerism is unerring. Within the first few pages Kleeman, via the narrator, comments on the warped contemporary ideals of female beauty; the dangerous allure of advertising; and our innate need and insatiable desire to consume. It’s told in the first person narrative, simply by someone known as “A” who lives with “B”. They are 20-something women living in small-town America who are basically your girls next door. But “A” becomes part of a cult and their lives begin to unravel. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is unsettling as it hits so close to home. The characters in the novel are people you know, people you’ve met, you. Kleeman has written an existential, accessible novel reminiscent of Requiem For a Dream and Fight Club which will make you think twice before buying into any trend of any sort. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016
PJ O’Rourke (Penguin Random House)
Book real
Veteran journalist/humorist PJ O’Rourke’s latest work, on the US election, asks the question in its title. Unfortunately, much of the first part of the book is unfunny, college-style humour that will fail to find traction among readers outside the US. But he later gets into his stride, commenting on the two candidates: “Yet to call Hillary robotic is an insult to androids. She’s more like someone trapped inside a Hillary costume, one of those dressed-up characters pestering tourists in Times Square.” As for Trump: “Trump was the guy from the mailroom who somehow wound up with a job interview for the position of national sales manager. If you promote him it will be a disaster. But if you leave him in the mailroom he’ll take his pants down, sit on the Xerox machine, and fax the result to all your customers.” The closing chapters of the book offer an insight into the populist wave sweeping world politics, not least here in South Africa where “radical economic transformation” has become a catch-all slogan and supposed popular remedy for our economic problems. Being a libertarian and believer in small government, O’Rourke cogently expresses his disappointment with the revolt against ruling elites in the US and around the world. Instead of pursuing a new, libertarian option, however, voters find populism more appealing. He writes: “We should be learning the value of individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility from the failure of the elites and the fiasco of their vast political power. Good things are made by free individuals in free association with other individuals. Notice that’s how we make babies.” He continues: “But we aren’t learning lessons in individual freedom, because we’re too scared. We’re daunted at the pace of material change, unnerved over social configurations, fretful about economic instability, and terrified by terrorism.” Yes, the elites have messed up around the world, O’Rourke says, but the answer is not populism and a narrowing of individual liberty and responsibility. And certainly not Trump. – Patrick Bulger

A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles (Penguin Viking)
Book thrill
This is a splendid tale of a man making the most of the cards life has dealt him. The story begins in the 1920s, when a Bolshevik tribunal finds Count Alexander Rostov guilty of being an aristocrat. His punishment: permanent house arrest in the attic of the luxurious Hotel Metropol. Here the count embarks on the biggest adventure of his life. It’s as much a tale of unlikely friendships and magnificent encounters as it is a fictionalised, wry account of Russian history. Towles is guilty of a well-wrought plot and vivid three-dimensional characters: the precocious nine-year-old, the volatile chef, the omniscient concierge, the nimble maître d’ and the conniving bishop make A Gentleman in Moscow a stylish, charming novel that informs and delights. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The Golden Son
Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins)
Book fling
Anil and Leena grow up together in the same Indian village. But the lives of the two friends diverge: Anil finds himself in the US training to become a doctor, while Leena is married to a man she doesn’t know and is brought to an unfamiliar village. The reality of their lives is at odds with their dreams: encountering racism, sexism, domestic violence, the culture of privilege and inequality. The Golden Son is a coming-to-America tale, illustrating the cost of travelling to new places: “He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie
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Jonathan Jansen and his sister Naomi Jansen pay tribute to their mother in Song for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother. Read the extract.

Published in the Sunday Times

In this extract, Jonathan Jansen pays tribute to the mother whose sacrifices helped him and their siblings achieve success despite the odds

Song for SarahSong for Sarah: Lessons from my Mother by Jonathan Jansen with Naomi Jansen (Bookstorm). Also available in Afrikaans as Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma

“When you thought about it, everything seemed to work against the Cape Flats mother, from family dislocation to financial hardship, to absentee fathers, to the relentless pressure of gangs and drugs. As an energetic teenager involved in church youth leadership in the southern areas, this single question would haunt me during the obligatory huisbesoek (house visits): how on earth do these mothers do it?

Consider Mrs Volmink from Belgravia Estate in Athlone who put four boys and two girls through tertiary qualifications. One son leads a university, another is a medical school dean, and the other a prominent public sector lawyer; in their number you would also find a distinguished teacher and one who made his career in the training and development of civil servants. The eldest daughter died after a car crash because the whites-only ambulance would take only her pale friend. For long periods of time Johanna Volmink raised the children alone. Hardship was ever present in her home and yet not a single child fits the stereotype represented in comedy routines or violent novels or the evening news. When it came to human decency, academic achievement and community service, Mrs Volmink achieved much more in her home than any of the white families I knew in the well-to-do suburbs of Upper Claremont and Wynberg Proper.

As I pondered that haunting “how” question about these mothers over the years I realised that the answer was in front of me, all around me, even gave birth to me. That Cape Flats mother was Sarah Susan Johnson, married Jansen. Suddenly it all made sense. How they dealt with their pasts. How they organised their homes. How they raised their children. How they made sense of politics. How they managed affection. How they drew on their faith. How they communicated core values. How they thought about education. How they led with their lives.

The products of their labour were no accident, as the poet Shirmoney Rhode would tell Litnet of the grandmother who raised her at Nomme 20 Delphi Straat (the 2016 book title) in Elsies River:

Ek is ’n produk van haar 3am prayers

En harde werk of course

(I am a product of her 3am prayers

And hard work of course)

The Cape Flats mother was not faultless. Who is? To the children growing up, the mother was seen as being too harsh at times but was always deeply respected. This praise song is not, however, about the failings of our mothers but about the fact that they succeeded at all. None of the children was perfect. Whose are? To the mother the child was never one to be abandoned in the wrong but to be picked up again and again, and nudged towards what was right. And they did this work of correction day after day, for weeks followed by months, and year after year, sometimes even into adulthood and marriage.

The matriarchal figure hovered over that child for life. Many stories have been told on the Flats of a small-bodied mother reaching out to deliver retribution to the tall, well-built son who stands there quietly as he takes the timid smack to the face or the ineffectual punch to the body. She had earned the right to reprimand her grown child. This story of the Cape Flats mother, and of many mothers across the length and breadth of South Africa, will be told in this book.

Being the eldest in the family, my siblings suspected that I was favoured by my parents. Of course I felt differently because of the constant pressure from my mother to “set the example” as the eldest. “Firstborn”, my sister would nevertheless tease me, and that will be my third-person voice in the main text. For a reality check, I asked this sister of mine to add in her own reflections on our mother as the only girl smack bang in the middle of two older and two younger boys.

Naomi Jansen has the knack of saying and seeing things as they really are. One day that sting in her commentary really got to me as a boy so I chased her along the very short route from the kitchen to her bedroom. By dint of practice she managed to dash into the room, close the door and secure the latch bolt lock in one and the same swift action but it was too late. I ran right through the flimsy green planks of that wooden door. The personal shock probably saved my sister from further repercussions although I never could raise a hand against any of the siblings.

Her sharper eye and tongue therefore qualify Naomi to give another view of our mother. My sister’s voice appears in italics as “Naomi remembers”. In appropriate places she shares her own experiences and insights into our remarkable mother. Sometimes Naomi’s recollection or interpretation of events is different from mine, and that is fine. It is what gives this work of memory an added and special value.

“While you are under this roof,” my mother would often chide, “you will do as I say.” Under this roof is both a telling metaphor about us and the interwoven tiles above us. Sarah knew that she had little direct control over what happened in the harsh outside world. We would all grow up one day and make our own decisions as working adults and parents of children. There was little our mother could change about that. But while under her roof, the rules applied. That was where she had authority over the five children and, as will be explained, also over her husband. There was not much overhead roof to speak of in the small council house, but anyone who stayed in that confined space, including a string of relatives, would abide by Sarah’s rules.

It was under Sarah’s roof that I learnt how to live and where she would teach us how to die. Under that roof I learnt the value of selfless giving and the importance of personal discipline. Sarah did not only tell, she showed. And nothing impressed more heavily on the children’s consciousness than what my mother taught us about the ethics of work. She laboured day and night, literally, as a shift nurse. “Nobody ever died of hard work,” she would say all the time and you knew that offering a medical science rebuttal might lead to a premature meeting with your Maker.

Mrs Sedras, Mrs Volmink and Mrs Jansen are not alone. There are thousands of mothers spread across the Cape Flats and throughout South Africa who deserve recognition for their heroic efforts in raising families under difficult conditions. On one hand, this book could be read as an attempt at recovery of “the other mothers” whose stories have been buried by unrelenting stereotypes of women from the flatland areas of the Cape. On the other hand, such heroic mothers are found in every community where ordinary people struggle to make impossible ends meet. This work of recovery is offered, therefore, as a song of gratitude for all mothers.

Or to borrow from Diana Ferrus in A poem for Sarah Baartman:

I have come to take you home

Where I will sing for you

For you have brought me peace

The floppy brown purse
Nothing would test Sarah’s resilience more sorely than when the children went to university. Apartheid created universities for people they labelled by both race and ethnicity. Since Firstborn was deemed coloured, his destination was the University of the Western Cape in Bellville; the University of Cape Town was so much closer but they could not have him. The young student was also proud enough not to plead for a government concession (the permit, they called it) to attend a white university and specify a course not offered at UWC to justify studies in nearby Rondebosch.

The long journey from Retreat in the southern suburbs to Bellville in the northern areas took forever. And it was costly. One Monday morning Firstborn desperately needed money to take the taxi, train and bus to get to university. Hiking, as he normally did when there was no money, might get him to campus too late for a scheduled chemistry test. So he slunk into the bedroom where Sarah was in a deep sleep after working the hospital night shift. “Does Mummy have any money?” he whispered and instantly woke her up.

Sarah knew that she did not have a cent but nevertheless reached for her flat brown purse, opened it up and pretended to search for coins among the scribbled papers inside. There was nothing and the tears started welling up in her eyes. That day Firstborn decided to drop out of university and look for a job; the pain on Sarah’s face was simply unbearable.

Of course that was the last thing Sarah wanted and so one day she arranged with an uncle to collect Firstborn and drive him to Bellville while persuading him all along the way not to give up. If Sarah had not made that arrangement Firstborn would still be drifting between Anchor Yeast where he started in a laboratory with far too few skills and helping a brother from the church sell his fish on Prince George Drive, the M5 which linked the white suburbs to the north with the whites-only Muizenberg beach on the False Bay coastline. Where Sarah found the money none of the children ever knew, but from that day there were always a few coins in her purse “just in case” Firstborn needed them. But he never asked again.

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Balancing the book shelves: Anneke Rautenbach interviews women who are creating more diverse stories for children

Anneke Rautenbach writes for the Sunday Times

Good Night Stories for RebelsGood Night Stories for Rebels
Various (Penguin Random House)

“Daughters can also be heroic.” If there is a maxim that Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo – co-founders of the children’s media company, Timbuktu Labs – live by, it’s this line by the 18th-century Chinese poet and astronomer, Wang Zhenyi. They would stake their career on it.

Wang is one of 100 women – including Ada Lovelace, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller and Miriam Makeba – whose sumptuously illustrated biographies make up Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book created by Favilli and Cavallo and published by Penguin Random House in April. It chimes with a moment when parents and children across the world are demanding more diverse and positive representation – of gender, race, and sexual orientation – in children’s literature. Nothing speaks to this more than the project’s success on platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo: having raised more than $1-million, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls has become the most highly funded original book in crowd-funding history.

The 30-something Italian duo say Donald Trump’s election in November gave their project a greater sense of urgency. About a month before, The Washington Post revealed the video in which the future president brags that his celebrity status allows him to do “whatever he wants” to women – even “grab them by the p**sy”.

“So many people have thanked us,” says Favilli. “The book represents not only a collection of bedtime stories, but a set of values that are now in danger.”

In a recent article for The Guardian, Favilli and Cavallo quoted the kinds of statistics that have galvanised them since starting Timbuktu Labs: by the time girls are six, they already perceive themselves as intellectually inferior to boys, according to the journal Science; and a survey by the University of Florida of children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 revealed that 25% of them had no female characters at all and 37% had none who spoke.

“Children’s media lacks diversity not only in terms of gender,” says Cavallo. “We looked for women from countries that are not usually represented, and we wanted to feature as many fields as possible.”

One of the first stories in the book belongs to Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates. The book also features the story of Coy Mathis, a transgender girl who, in 2013 at age six, won a landmark case when a Colorado judge ruled in favour of her choice to use the bathroom she prefers.

A little closer to home, Buhle Ngaba, 26, a stage actress from North West, wrote The Girl Without A Sound specifically for black girls – “the ones with moonlight in her skin”. Originally intending to create a gift for her aunt who read her stories and nursery rhymes as a child, she found that she had written the fairy tale that was missing from her childhood – “about a little girl who looks like me.” Ngaba’s character isn’t waiting for a prince to save her.

“She simply goes out in search of a sound of her own.”

Ngaba, who is also the founder of KaMatla, a non-profit arts organisation that develops storytelling among underprivileged youth, describes her publishing model as the reverse of crowd-funding. “I didn’t have a lot of money, but just got the book out there.”

A team of talented friends helped to edit, promote and illustrate the story using a combination of drawing and photography. In February last year, a free PDF was made available online in English and Tswana. Within the first week, 3000 copies had been downloaded.

“I liked that you could print it yourself,” says Ngaba. “Because that means any little girl can do it.”

They have since received support from the Centre for Early Childhood Development. A month after the online launch, printed copies were made available, and more South African language translations are in the pipeline.

The response has been extraordinary, adds Ngaba, especially from black women. “We didn’t even know we were missing ourselves.”

Ngaba sees her book as part of movement towards fairer representation in local fiction, always tagging her social media posts #booksforblackgirls. But by no means does this mean that children of other races can’t enjoy it too, she says. “It’s a self-love thing. It’s simply about balancing the bookshelves.”

Similarly, Rebel Girls is not about excluding boys. “Girls are used to being the guests in other books,” says Cavallo. “We identify with Sherlock Holmes, with Inspector Gadget, Pinocchio, Superman. People often ask us when we are going to make a book for rebel boys – this is the book for rebel boys.”

Crowdfunded books that are making waves

•The Princess Who Saved Herself by Greg Pak, about a rock ‘n’ roll princess and her pet snake. It “reinvents the princess myth for a new generation of proactive girls”. With a $15000 goal, it has raised $111759.

•Wollstonecraft by Airship Ambassador. A “Snicketesque” fictional adventure for 8- to 12-year-olds, featuring Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world’s first science-fiction author. With a $4000 goal, it has raised $91751.

•Flamingo Rampant by S Bear Bergman. A racially and body-diverse series about LGBT2Q families and their children, in which girls and women are “problem-solvers and action-takers”. The latest in the series has raised $70305 with a $63000 goal.

Q&A with Ambre Nicolson, author of the crowdfunded An A to Z of AmaZing South African Women – forthcoming from Modjaji Books

Was this book inspired by Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls?
It was actually inspired by the American book Rad American Women A-Z. I saw the book two years ago and immediately wished there was a local version. When I realised there wasn’t, and on a dare from a friend, I decided to make one – with permission from the American publisher, City Lights, and support from the local female-centred publisher, Modjaji Books. Our book does share one thing with Rebel Girls, and that is that the makers of both books wanted to create the book we wished we had when we were young.

Why now?
At a time when the idea that women’s rights are human rights seems so imperiled, it feels like any project that recognises women as multi-faceted, powerful protagonists is urgently needed. Particularly in South Africa, with its troubled history and terrible record of gender inequality and gender-based violence, I think too often women are presented as one of several stereotypes: the tragic heroine, the angry humourless banshee, the sexpot. I think it’s important to provide stories that show South African women in all their complexity – this is what we hope to do with our book.

How did you choose the women for each letter?
Choosing only one woman for each letter of the alphabet was an almost impossible task. For every one woman featured, we debated dozens of others. Trying to showcase a breadth of human endeavour as well as ensure that the demographics of the women featured reflect the reality of South Africa made the selection process all the more complex. But what a wonderful problem to have! Beyond trying to showcase the diversity of amazing South African women, we also wanted to make sure we didn’t just choose the usual suspects. The question we asked ourselves was always, “Is she a badass?” As a result I like to think we featured a healthy amount of rebels, troublemakers and rabble-rousers. These are women refuse to sit down and keep quiet. Not one of them “knows their place” I’m very happy to say.

What else unites these women?
I have been humbled by so many stories of resourcefulness and resilience and compassion. Looking at these stories as a whole certain themes also emerged: The women in our book are all united by experiencing adversity, in fact often this was essential to their development, as well as having a certain bloody-minded persistence.

What do you think of the potential of crowd-funding as a publishing model?
When it comes to books, I think crowd-funding is an exciting way to create interest around a project, while at the same time allowing people to pre-order copies. Arthur Attwell, [co-founder of Book Dash, a grassroots children’s publishing initiative] recently put it well: “Crowd-funded publishing is no longer an unusual way to fund important books. This is the way it’s going to happen, and it turns every one of us into talent-spotting publishing investors.”

Is this book by women for women? Or is it for everyone?
This book is about our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends. So I do think it is for everyone. I think it should be a book that you buy for the amazing woman or women in your life. But if I could choose just one person to give this book to it would be that 13 or 14-year-old girl who is just starting to figure out who she is in the world. I would like her to know that the South African women who went before her are truly amazing.

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Book Bites: 7 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Traveling with GhostsTraveling With Ghosts
Shannon Leone Fowler (Orion)
Book real
In 2002, Shannon and Sean are backpacking through Thailand when Sean is stung by a box jellyfish. In a matter of minutes, Shannon’s fiancé is dead. Days later, Shannon miscarries their child. Finding herself unable to cope with the normal day to day, Shannon uses her savings to travel through Eastern Europe. Traveling with Ghosts is a journey of grief, that is interwoven with memories of her life with Sean. She lays out the rocky journey of loss: from the well-meaning but hurtful platitudes, to what actually helps a person as they grapple with tragedy. A powerful read, especially for people who struggle to live with death. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Stephanie Garber (Hodder & Stoughton)
Book fling
Think of the Carnival of Venice – the equivalent of the Mardi Gras of the hot southern climes but more mysterious, dignified and exclusive. Caraval shares the magic and mystery, not to mention the canals, of this pre-Lenten festival. Scarlett and her younger sister Tella, live under the cruel and tyrannical thumb of their father: Scarlett is eager to marry an unknown suitor who will take her and Tella away from their sadistic father, but when she receives an invitation to attend the magic circus run by Master Legend Santos, she cannot resist. Scarlett, Tella and a “golden brown” sailor, Julian, reach the magical island and take part in the game of caraval. Rich, luscious, intriguing, Caraval is an exciting read. – Aubrey Paton

SlippingSlipping: Stories, Essays and Other Writing
Lauren Beukes (Tachyon Publications)
Book fiend
Lauren Beukes can be so cool and cutting it leaves you cold. Her uber-trendy style is signature, but Slipping shines when she eschews the snark for intimacy and heart. This collection showcases the range of her talent across 11 years of speculative and experimental fiction, intense relationship dramas and journalistic essays (in which you can see much of the inspiration for her stories). Beukes excels at writing body horror and unhappy endings. She shows readers the brutality in the way bodies are modified for the pleasure and profit of others (contrasted with power in revelling in your own body) and articulates what social media and reality TV are doing to us. Occasionally alien life appears, terrifying and incomprehensible, yet humans are always far worse in comparison. It’s funny and entertaining too, but perhaps best read when you want something to creep under your skin and connect. – Lauren Smith @violin_ina_void

The Fire ChildThe Fire Child
SK Tremayne (HarperCollins)
Book thrill
Chilling. Terrifying. It plays out like a movie in your head, one you can’t stop watching. Rachel is married to the charming, successful, and rich David. She moves into his old family house in an isolated part of Cornwall. But when her stepson Jamie starts to claim that he is haunted by his dead mother, Rachel begins digging. David refuses to talk about what is happening to Jamie or about his ex-wife, and Rachel becomes very suspicious. An eerie thriller with a satisfying end. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Story with a shaggy dog: Anton Ferreira talks to Michiel Heyns about his latest book I am Pandarus

Michiel Heyns retells ‘Troilus & Criseyde’, writes Anton Ferreira for the Sunday Times
I am PandarusI Am Pandarus
Michiel Heyns (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Ever since devouring Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels, I have come to regard a list of characters at the start of a book to be an auspicious omen of what is to come. In the character list for I Am Pandarus, Michiel Heyns had me right after Achilles, at A is for Adrastos.

Adrastos is the Anatolian shepherd dog of Pandarus, one of two narrators in Heyns’s reworking of the Troilus and Criseyde/Cressida story that has been told previously by Chaucer and Shakespeare, among others. (Full disclosure: I have an 80kg Anatolian shepherd dog at home in real life, and he is the sweetest, handsomest, and most devoted companion imaginable.)

“I have a dog in every book,” Heyns tells me. “Anatolians are a very old breed and would have been around in Troy. I like having dogs in my books.”

That he loves his dog adds to Pandarus’s likeability. A skilled archer for the Trojans, he spends much of his time during the siege as Cupid, trying to get his friend Troilus into bed with his niece Criseyde. You have to like a person who sees the importance of love in a time of war.

“Chaucer’s story is a love story,” says Heyns. “The love aspects became more important as I was writing, and it’s actually very sad in that it’s a reflection on the impermanence of love. Troilus at the end, in the Chaucerian version, he goes up to the seventh sphere of heaven or somewhere, and he looks down and he sort of laughs at the people grieving next to his dead body. Because he says, ‘Well there is a greater love up here; that is so trivial, earthly love,’ which is one perspective. In one way it’s a consolation and in another way it makes it sadder.”

Heyns, who taught Chaucer’s 14th-century Troilus and Criseyde for many years during his tenure as an English professor at Stellenbosch University, says he has wanted to write his own version for a long time. “I started with Troilus and Criseyde and then through that I went back to the Iliad which is the ultimate source of all these stories. These things overlap and combine in this novel which is a bit of a hodge-podge of Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Iliad.”

“As I was working it became more contemporary; originally I tried to keep to the story as handed down by Chaucer and Shakespeare, and then as I was working at it I thought well there’s no reason I can’t change this, because every generation rewrites the Iliad. There is no actual history, these are all versions… so I thought I might as well create a new one.”

The Heyns version is somewhat more accessible than some of the previous ones, and is laced with reasons to chortle; in I Am Pandarus, Helen of Troy, for example, “may have been the world’s first trophy wife – and if she wasn’t much of a wife, she was indubitably a trophy, albeit of the floating variety”.

Heyns faced a difficulty in having Pandarus talk about modern concepts like trophy wives. “I had a terrible problem with anachronisms – where do I situate this story? In Troy, in 14th-century England, in 16th-century England? And what kind of frame of reference do I give these characters? So I thought let’s have an overarching frame of reference, which would be the modern one… So it was a cheat in a way but it permits me to introduce what would otherwise be a very anachronistic frame of reference.”

His solution was to have Pandarus materialise in a contemporary London gay bar, Halfway to Heaven, and give his memoir to a publisher. The London publisher develops little depth as a character, and the sections set in Halfway to Heaven have a whiff of bolted-on contrivance, but the story that unfolds in ancient Troy is riveting.

One of the excerpts with which Heyns prefaces the book is from Milan Kundera: “Today, the history of the planet has finally become one indivisible whole, but it is war… that embodies and guarantees this long-desired unity of mankind.”

The extract is “rather gloomy”, Heyns acknowledges. “But it’s not the last word on the story, it was just a way into the story: ‘here’s a story about war’. We are now at a time when we seem to staring war in the face again.”

A good time to keep our eyes on the antidote. As Heyns notes, “It was Philip Larkin who said, ‘What will survive of us is love.’”

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Carving beauty in adversity and betrayal: Hamilton Wende reviews Simon Bruinders’s A Handful of Earth

Published in the Sunday Times

A Handful of EarthA Handful of Earth
Simon Bruinders (Penguin Random House)

October 1939. The world is at war but Abraham de Bruyn is picking tea high in the Outeniqua mountains. Originally published as Die Sideboard, A Handful of Earth tells the story of Abraham and his wife Stella and their struggle to raise a family during these turbulent years. Abraham is an illiterate carpenter who lives on a rented piece of land near George. He loves the soil and the fruit and vegetables he produces on it. “The soil is like us humans,” he tells Stella when he is still courting her. “Everything begins there and everything ends there.”

This sets the tone for Simon Bruinders’s book. Its central theme is hope and the yearning that Abraham and those around him have for a good life. He longs for nothing more but to live on his own plot of land with Stella, grow his own produce and give his children a better life. The forces of white supremacy, though, callously betray him time and again.

The first betrayal is when he and his family, along with their neighbours, are forced to leave the plots they have been renting for generations and move to a new place called The Island. Abraham cannot believe that it is happening and he lashes out in a fit of violent anger at the men who bring the magistrate’s order to their home.

He is powerless to prevent it happening, and Bruinders’s simple, clear prose hauntingly draws the contrast between Abraham’s naivety and the rage he finds within himself. He never gives up his belief that someone can have his own piece of land, and he volunteers to fight against Germany because the army recruiters tell him that coloured soldiers will be given plots as a reward for serving their country.

When he is fighting the Italians in Abyssinia he sees a beautiful sideboard that becomes a symbol of the beauty and love that he feels for Stella, and for the life he wants them to build together. He is wounded at El Alamein and returns to South Africa to find that there is no land for coloured soldiers after all.

He is betrayed by white cruelty yet again. He refuses to give up, though, and he carves a sideboard himself that echoes the one he saw during the war.

He and Stella and their family live in the new home they have created with the stately sideboard taking pride of place as the children grow up and begin studying, something Abraham never had the chance to do. But then the National Party takes power and the full malice of apartheid descends. The family are moved yet again, their church is destroyed and the new house they are forced to live in is too small for the sideboard.

At times, perhaps, the narrative skips the years a little too swiftly, but the historical research adds a deeper dimension to this tale of suffering leavened by courage, compassion and beauty. Bruinders tells of Abraham’s pain in language that simmers with rage but never descends into bitterness, and never loses hope.

Follow Hamilton Wende @HamiltonWende

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9 books to read in May

Compiled by Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Free AssociationFree Association, Steven Boykey Sidley (Picador Africa)
Sidley goes from strength to strength and here he applies his biting humour to the world of podcasts. Max Lurie’s delirious podcast about his own life is a runaway success, but as he begins to sex it up with embellishments and inventions, things get unhinged.
No Longer Whispering to PowerNo Longer Whispering to Power, Thandeka Gqubule (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A portrait of one of the most courageous women to hold public office in South Africa. In her seven years as public protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela fought relentlessly against the abuses of public office, corruption, mismanagement and negligence. A true hero of our times.
AsylumAsylum, Marcus Low (Picador Africa)
There’s a buzz building around this dystopian debut novel, about a man locked up in a quarantine facility in the sweltering Karoo. He drifts through the days, his health failing but his mind alive with dreams and memories. Then there is an opportunity to escape, but what awaits him in the bare world beyond the fence?
Miss BehaveMiss Behave, Malebo Sephodi (Blackbird Books)
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” When Sephodi came across the old adage something clicked, and she realised she wasn’t going to let anyone else have a say in who and what she should be. She boldly renounces societal expectations placed on her as a black woman and here she shares her journey towards “misbehaviour”.
The Third ReelThe Third Reel, SJ Naudé (Umuzi)
The much-anticipated first novel from the author of the outstanding short story collection The Alphabet of Birds. In 1986 a young South African film student in London finds the first of three reels of a film made by a group of Jewish filmmakers in Germany in the 1930s. He sets off for Berlin to find the two missing reels.
Into the WaterInto The Water, Paula Hawkins (Penguin Random House)
It must have been a daunting task to follow The Girl on the Train, but Hawkins doesn’t miss a step in her second outing. When the bodies of a single mother and a teenage girl are found at the bottom of a river, just weeks apart, the ensuing investigation dredges up a complicated history. Hawkins proves herself again as a master of the clever reveal.
Black MosesBlack Moses, Alain Mabanckou (Serpent’s Tail)
A new novel from the superb Congolese author, a titan of contemporary French literature. In vivid, colloquial style, he tells the comic tale of a hapless man determined to help the helpless in an unjust world. Could he really be the Robin Hood of the Congo?
The Roanoke GirlsThe Roanoke Girls, Amy Engel (Hodder & Stoughton)
This is a dark, unsettling tale. Beautiful, rich, mysterious, the Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies. Can Lane Roanoke escape the curse?
The Inside-Out ManThe Inside-Out Man, Fred Strydom (Umuzi)
Billed as a “mind-bender” of a book, Strydom imagines a brilliant, troubled musician living from gig to gig in a city of dead ends. Then he meets a wealthy jazz lover who has an unusual proposition for him. A Faustian tale set in a hall of shifting mirrors.
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Presidential karma: Rosa Lyster reviews George Saunders’s debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo

Things get strange when we die, but George Saunders is a very good guide, writes Rosa Lyster for the Sunday Times

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo
George Saunders (Bloomsbury)

Everyone who loves George Saunders felt the same thing when they heard he was publishing a novel: please let this be good. It will not be as good as Tenth of December, because nothing is as good as Tenth of December, but please let this be good.

He inspires this kind of goodwill in people because he is so good and generous himself. It isn’t just that he is brilliant; it’s that he is kind. Saunders’s gift is his ability to imagine himself into the minds of others. He is constantly asking his readers to think about the lives of people they wouldn’t normally think about. He can make the inner life of an obscure teenage nerd seem not only riveting but morally important. A lot of the stories in Tenth of December take as their subject the lives of apparently ordinary people, but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel, focuses on someone so well-known you wouldn’t think there’d be anything left to say.

It’s Saunders, though, so of course he has found something new.

These are the facts: Abraham Lincoln and his wife had four boys, Robert, Eddie, Willie and Tad. The only one who lived past the age of 18 was Robert, the eldest. The Lincolns were deeply affected by the deaths of all their children, but Willie’s death in 1862 (a year into the Civil War) seems to have been the one that broke his father’s heart. Historical accounts depict Willie as an especially loved and lovable child, very close to his father, whom he resembled in many respects. He died at age 11 of typhoid fever, and was interred in a Georgetown cemetery. The first night after the funeral, his father came to visit the grave twice.

I can think of a lot of novelists who would take this information and make a good book out of it. I can’t think of anyone who would do what Saunders did. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a bardo is an intermediate state of existence between death and rebirth, a transitional phase of consciousness. During the bardo of the time of death, souls either ascend toward nirvana or descend gradually and violently into a new body, doomed to start all over again. Saunders, a practising Buddhist, has incorporated aspects of that belief system and fused it with American history.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes place over one night in the cemetery where Willie Lincoln lies. The story is told, mostly, from the perspective of the spirits in the cemetery with him, souls who are trapped in the bardo for one reason or another. Some of them can’t leave, but most of them don’t want to. Moving on means accepting the fact of their deaths, and they can’t do that. They don’t call it a coffin, they call it a sick-box. They don’t call it dead, they call it being less well.

The forms that the spirits take on are informed by their personalities and preoccupations while living, which means that parts of the story are told by things with 1000 eyes, women enclosed by orbs, people without hands or feet. Willie, being a child, has no reason to linger in such a strange and scary place, but he is held back by his father’s love and devastation at his passing. Everyone knows he shouldn’t be there, but he is.

The above makes the book sound stranger and more difficult than it is. It is a strange book, no getting around it, but it’s also lovely and beautiful and so, so sad.

Saunders is never weird simply for the sake of being weird. He is experimental, but never for show. A clever writer who doesn’t care about seeming clever is a rare thing. Saunders is trying, always, to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, and he uses every creative tool at his disposal to do that. His inventiveness is linked to his humanity — he is weird because he is trying to make us see something we haven’t seen before.

Follow Rosa Lyster @rosalyster

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Tenth of December

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Book Bites: 23 April 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Heartbreak HotelHeartbreak Hotel
Jonathan Kellerman (Headline)
Book thrill
A refreshing departure for Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels. Instead of being thrown into LA’s sick psychosexual underworld, this novel opens with Delaware being asked to meet an almost-centenarian at a once-glamourous LA hotel. He likes the dynamic Thalia Mars, who asks him questions about guilt, victim selection and patterns of criminal behaviour. Thalia, though, is dispatched swiftly, and it’s up to Delaware and his cop pal, Milo Sturgis, to unravel her murder. A heart-thumping romp through LA gangster history, replete with jewel heists and blood feuds, Kellerman’s latest is the most genteel of his novels in a long time – and all the more enjoyable for it. – Russell Clarke @russrussy

Affinity Konar (Atlantic Books)
Book buff
Mischling is a horrifically beautiful novel that follows 12-year-old twins Stasha and Pearl. It’s 1944, and they’ve been brought into Auschwitz and placed in the notorious Mengele’s Zoo. “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele especially sought out twins to perform grotesque experiments on. The fictional tale has been well researched. Mengele is the main factual character. The rest are imaginary but, like the twins, have been modelled on people who suffered during the atrocity. Konar’s artistic prose sucks the reader into a nightmare where children endure the unbearable. The devastating contrast between the writing and the monstrosity creates an eerie and unforgettable read. Keep the tissues close. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Fiona Cummins (Pan Macmillan)
Book thrill
Former Daily Mirror showbiz journo Fiona Cummins’s debut thriller has a shout by Val McDermid, no less, and is rumoured to be in the works as a TV series. Detective Sergeant Ella Fitzroy is investigating a spate of missing children: her personal life is a mess so she invests her energy in her job, trying to discover what links the abductees. A psychopath is using London as his hunting ground, stealing children with bone deformities so he can add their skeletons to the collection in his private museum. A story the Daily Mirror would love. – Aubrey Paton

Turbo Twenty-ThreeTurbo Twenty-Three
Janet Evanovich (Headline)
Book fling
It’s just more of the same Stephanie Plum adventures: gun-wielding Lula, two unbelievably sexy gents vying for Plum’s attention (the cop Joe Morelli and the mysterious Ranger), her unconventional grandma, and Rex the hamster. Many readers must be hoping that this will be Evanovich’s last, because the magic seems to be dwindling – maybe due in part to the disastrous film adaptation with the badly miscast Katherine Heigl. The banality of this latest endeavour will not change their minds. But if you are looking for nothing more than a light, funny read, Turbo Twenty-Three is not too bad. In this one Stephanie has to go undercover in an ice-cream factory. Hi-jinks involving human lollies and nuts abound. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Lives the numbers game: Michele Magwood talks to Paul Auster about his latest novel 4 3 2 1

Published in the Sunday Times

4 3 2 14 3 2 1
Paul Auster (Faber & Faber)

In the first cycle of Paul Auster’s colossal new book, a young boy is recovering in bed, having broken his leg falling out of a tree. He is musing on things more suited to an older child: on happenstance and destiny, on what is predetermined and what is fortuity or accidental. If his friend Chuckie Brower hadn’t asked him out to play, if his parents hadn’t bought a house with a tree in the backyard, if his parents had bought a house somewhere else and he wouldn’t even know Chuckie Brower. “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree.”

“So there, right at the beginning” says Paul Auster, “we’re being told what kind of book this is going to be, and how to read it.” He is speaking from his home in Brooklyn, his famously gravelled voice is warm and he is genial and expansive, despite dozens of interviews and appearances for the new book.

Now 70, Auster is a giant of American letters, frequently bracketed with De Lillo and Roth, or Thomas Pynchon. He is known as a writer of concision and elegant brevity and in latter years there have been murmurs of the Nobel Prize.

At 866 pages, though, 4 3 2 1 is a behemoth, a sprawling Bildungsroman that owes more to the German writer Heinrich Von Kleist than to spare modern stylists. A character’s description of Von Kleist could be applied to Auster here too: “The speed of his sentences, the propulsion. He tells and tells but doesn’t show much, which everyone says is the wrong way to go about it, but I like the way his stories charge forward.”

This is the story – or rather, four stories – of Archibald Ferguson, a Jewish boy born in New Jersey in 1947. He is the only child of Rose and Stanley and first we read of how they met and married. After that the story splits into four different trajectories, four different roads that Ferguson will travel.

In each of the contiguous versions, things change. The circumstances of his parents, for instance. In one Stanley dies in a fire, in another he divorces Rose. One Archie never has to worry about money, another gets by on scholarships and hauling furniture. One is bisexual, another learns he is sterile and will never have children. The extended cast of characters is the same, too, so his cousin Amy becomes a stepsister in one version, in another she’s no relation but Ferguson’s first great love.

Round and around the cycles whirl, charging on, intricately detailed, sentences streaming at times for half a page.

There are important similarities between the four. Every one of them is athletic and adores baseball and basketball, each will become a writer of some sort – poet, journalist, novelist – each loves old movies and classical music. All are precocious readers.

Midway through the book, however, they start to blur and one almost needs family trees to refer to. Is this the Ferguson whose cousin Francie is a saint or a harridan? Whose mother is a brilliant or a middling photographer or who has succumbed to depression? It is frustrating and all the reader can do is be carried along until it crystallises again.

“I didn’t want to write one of those wild fantasy books,” Auster explains. “Where one Archie becomes an astronaut, another becomes a scientist or a criminal. It didn’t seem plausible. They are the same genetic person, they have the same parents, after all. I didn’t want to do anything that seemed juvenile. I wanted to write a very serious book about human possibility.”

It is not a spoiler to say that one Archie dies, appallingly, at the age of 13 at summer camp. Another’s friend dies, equally awfully, at summer camp, a death that will stain that Archie’s life forever. Auster himself witnessed such a death at camp when he was 14, something he says has influenced his writing ever since. In much of his work cruel accidents or disaster strikes. This, then, seems to be the apogee of this theme.

“I think it’s the reason I wrote this book,” he agrees. “I was right next to my friend when he was killed in a lightning storm. It was probably the most important thing that happened to me in my young life. I had a sudden understanding that anything can happen at any moment to anybody. And that the solid ground I thought I’d been walking on up to that moment was not very solid at all. It’s affected me in all kinds of ways and certainly as a writer.”

4 3 2 1 is being described as “the crowning work of a masterful writer’s extraordinary career”. It’s going to be hard to cap that, but Auster has other plans. He was most recently in the headlines describing Donald Trump as “deranged and demented” and is determined to make his voice heard. He is set to become the head of PEN America next year. “Writing articles isn’t very useful, “ he says. “Anything I would publish would be read by people who agree with me. Whereas PEN has more of a presence in the world, a platform from which one can speak out more effectively.”

It reminds us of a note he wrote to JM Coetzee, with whom he has a close friendship. Their letters were published in 2013 in the book Here And Now, and in one he teases Coetzee about their advancing years. “I feel it is our duty to gripe and scold, to attack the hypocrisies, injustices, and stupidities of the world we live in. Let the young roll their eyes when we speak… we must carry on with utmost vigilance, scorned prophets crying into the wilderness – for just because we’re fighting a losing battle that doesn’t mean we should abandon the fight.”

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

*Listen to the podcast of Paul Auster here.

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4 3 2 1 is also available as an eBook.

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