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Psyching Me Out: Eusebius McKaiser Reviews The Good Story by Arabella Kurtz and JM Coetzee

Reviewed by Eusebius McKaiser for the Sunday Times

Kurtz and Coetzee debate philosophical issues raised by truth and fiction.

The Good StoryThe Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy
Arabella Kurtz and JM Coetzee (Penguin Random House)
**** (4 stars)

The other day I found myself in a spirited discussion with a good friend about a funeral he had recently attended. He was surprised by the way in which, as far as he was concerned, the deceased’s past was reinvented by those still alive.

He seemed to imply that this failure to stick to the truth is a moral shortcoming on the part of those doing the eulogising. The deceased deserved the whole truth to be told about a painful end to their life; not a reimagined, joyous end after what was a horrendously painful illness. I disagreed, wondering whether “truth” should always be the most preeminent value in life. Truth isn’t always conducive to auspicious flourishing, just because it often is.

The discussion came back to me as I worked my way through the incredibly nuanced interaction between Arabella Kurtz and JM Coetzee in this book. A central motif in this exchange between these two very competent interlocutors is the relationship between “personal truth” and “historic truth”.

Kurtz, a student of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, is impressive in her reflections on the relationship between the therapist and the patient. Coetzee pushes her to soften the role that “truth” does, and should, play in that relationship. He suggest that “authenticity” is sometimes more useful than searching for historical truth.

If we accept that all we have are imperfect and varied memories of the past, and our own individual fictions, rather than easy access to “objective reality”, then the aim of therapy should perhaps be to help us live authentically. A life could be authentic without constantly buckling under the pressure of discovering and “coming to terms” with historical truth.

I find this thought attractive, and even liberating, although it requires more patient exposition and discussion than is possible here. My first attempt to write a full manuscript was a memoir about my high school experiences as one of the first generation of black kids at a formerly whites-only schools. I abandoned that project and went on to write two very different books.

The reason I abandoned it is precisely because of the burden of recalling historical truth, perfectly. I was obsessed with not being able to verify every tentative memory that I had of my childhood and I assumed that imperfect memories, personal truths and fictions are unacceptable sources of memoir. This exchange between Kurtz and Coetzee is making me reconsider.

Kurtz pushed back against some of these non-expert intuitions from Coetzee. Personal narrative and authenticity may sound like concepts that can lead to a life of content, but the role of “objective reality” in a well-functioning life remains important. False beliefs can lead to disastrous decisions.

And so the book is ultimately a dialectic about truth, the reader left with persuasive claims and counter-claims and the critical space to adjudicate the debates.

By the end of the conversation, the exchange goes beyond psychotherapy and considers the wider roles that fiction and imagination play in our interpersonal relationships. Coetzee even suggests, in the end, that the point of fiction writing, in fact, is to reveal the fictions of real life that we normally playfully hide as we make our way through the world.

This book is ultimately a commendable meditation on truth and fiction.

Follow Eusebius McKaiser on Twitter @Eusebius

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Book Bites: 4 October 2015

Find MeFind Me
Laura van den Berg (Penguin Random House)
Book fiend
Dystopia strikes again, but in an interesting form. Joy has been scooped up from her hideout after a disease has decimated the population of the US. She is one of those immune, and ends up in The Hospital with a roommate called Louis. Unlike other dystopian novels, the people outside the doors are not baying to get in. They are standing, silently, pleading. Will Joy find her birth mother, and what does she carry inside herself? A terrifying read, brilliantly crafted, in which the psychological becomes more interesting than violence and anarchy.
- Jennifer Crocker

The Sense of an ElephantThe Sense Of An Elephant
Marco Missiroli (Picador)
Book buff
Begins as something Wes Anderson might want to make a film out of: a lyrical, quirky tale in a place – the suburbs of Milan, where an old concierge named Pietro keeps an eye on the residents of his building – that lends itself to doors opening on the minutiae of curiously inter-related characters. But it loses its way somewhat, getting bogged down in the repetition of a number of central themes. The philosophical threads and the pacing make the experience of reading the book more satisfying just after you’ve finished it than when you’re turning the pages.
- Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

The Versions of usThe Versions of Us
Laura Barnett (Orion)
Book fling
Those nagging “what ifs” in a romance are answered in this tale of parallel universes. We have three different versions of Eva, David and Jim’s story. In one version Eva and Jim meet, fall in love; in the second, Eva and Jim’ cross paths but they carry on as they were; and in the third, they meet and fall in love, only for Eva to discover she is pregnant with David’s child. All three versions are kept as solo stories: you have to read the book in one go so as not to get confused. The elevator pitch for this one is “Sliding Doors meets One Day”. Pretty accurate.
- Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

All Together NowAll Together Now
Gill Hornby (Little, Brown)
Book fling
The future is uncertain for the small English town of Bridgeford and its bric-a-brac choir. The singing citizens will press on, with tea and determination. For this is the land where people have whispered hissing matches about who shall answer the door. Burglars can be nabbed by the ear and threatened by the homeowner. Past contestants of the Eurovision song contest are recalled and discussed. Dotting the prose is pop music and whimsical melody. People are trying to sing, after all. A read to enjoy with your shepherd’s pie and possibly a pint of oatmeal stout.
- Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Will Oscar Pistorius Be Released From Prison? Parole Board Meets Today to Decide

The Oscar Pistorius saga continues.

Various media outlets report that the parole board will meet today to decide whether or not Pistorius will receive an early release from Kgosi Mampuru II Prison in Pretoria.

Pistorius was originally scheduled to be released from prison on 21 August, after only serving 10 months of his five-year sentence, but Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha called for a review of the decision by the parole board.

Pistorius’ legal team was then given until 17 September to file their response to the State’s appeal against the Paralympian’s culpable homicide conviction.

The parole review was set for 18 September when three judges will decide whether or not to release Pistorius from jail.

News24 reports that the parole board did meet in Durban in September, but the hearing was postponed. The board meets today in Johannesburg:

“The hearing will go ahead on Monday,” correctional services spokesperson Manelisi Wolela reportedly told AFP.

The parole board met in Durban in September, but postponed the hearing for two weeks.

At the time, the justice department said it did not get a chance to complete Pistorius’s case due to having several matters to review.

eNCA reports that the parole board will decide the Paralympian’s fate today:

JOHANNESBURG – The parole review board is on Monday set to decide whether or not to grant Oscar Pistorius early parole.

The board was unable to reach the decision when it met on the matter in September.

Earlier this year, Pistorius was granted permission for early release which would have seen him serve the rest of his sentence under house arrest.

Follow the hashtag #OscarPistorius on Twitter for more updates:

Related links:


For more on the Pistorius trial, see the following publications:

Chase Your ShadowBehind the DoorReeva: A Mother's StoryDie staat vs OscarVan sprokie tot tragedie in die kollig

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Image courtesy of Times LIVE

For Lovers of Books, and Lovers of Animals: Stray, Edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett, Launched at Kalk Bay Books

Tracy Gilpin, Helen Moffett and Diane Awerbuck

The latest act of literary generosity by South African authors and publishers was celebrated with much mirth, hilarity and, quite literally, the wagging of tails at Kalk Bay Books last month.

An evening of stories and poems celebrated the launch of Modjaji Books’ latest publication, Stray: An Anthology of Animal Stories and Poems. Edited by Diane Awerbuck and Helen Moffett, the stories, artwork and editing were all donated by the contributors so that all royalties will go to TEARS Animal Rescue.

Moffett welcomed those gathered – lovers of books, lovers of animals, lovers of books about animals, and the animals in the audience. She invited Tracy Gilpin to the podium, who spoke most eloquently on behalf of TEARS.
ThuliStray“As we all know, stories do not begin with well-polished sentences, but with a thought or sometimes a simple wish. Then come words. The vehicle for our thoughts, they can inspire people to act, or to change their way of thinking,” she said.

She described how TEARS’ story began with a young woman’s simple wish to relieve the suffering of animals in Masiphumelele. “But in every story, heroines and wishes are always tested. Emma [Geary-Cooke] was killed in a car crash just as her wish began to take form. But Emma’s wish was a powerful one and it was carried forward by two of her friends,” Gilpin said. She acknowledged the presence of Marilyn Hoole, who chose the organisation’s name.

“The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS) was born of Emma’s simple wish – to turn tears of sadness into tears of joy. It lives on in the treatment, rescue and rehabilitation of thousands of dogs in low-income households,” she said.

Gilpin said it was fitting for TEARS to benefit from the Stray, project and expressed her gratitude for the endorsement by Helen Macdonald (author of the bestselling H is for Hawk) who said that Stray “ripples and shines with scales and fur and feathers, a collection of stories and poems whose words give voice and form to the existence of animals that so closely share our lives”.

John and JetMany of the contributors were present in the audience and they each took a turn to read their contribution aloud. Liesl Jobson read “Petting”, a short short story about a parrot who acts like a jealous wife. Mike Cope followed with his epic poem, “Dawn”, which features a rabbit and the moon, the wind rattling and a car door slamming in the dark.

“One of the things that makes this anthology different than others of a similar nature is that it also includes poems,” Moffett said, rather than fiction or essays only. She expressed her delight that this had received the support of her co-editor, Awerbuck, and paid tribute to the award-winning author who had been the driving force behind the completion of the anthology. Stray was originally the brainchild of Moffett and Sarah Lotz, which they conceived over cappuccinos at The Food Barn Deli.

Moffett read a number of poems, including Rustum Kozain’s “The Adoration of Cats”, Colleen Higgs’ “Ode to Perry”, as well as her own poem, “Falling”:

Falling in love at 49
is like finding a salamander
among the spinach and spring onions
while weeding the vegetable patch –
or the mingled horror and wonder of
sliding a trowel into innocent soil
and uncovering a milky albino toad
topaz eyes and throat pulsing.
I fed this soil compost and mulch,
expecting no more than carrots and tomatoes.
Not this amphibian enchantment;
not this stinging sweetness.

After initiating the project and calling for submissions, it had got shelved behind other more urgent and substantial challenges. The files languished untended on various harddrives until Awerbuck’s tenacity and persistence, organisational skills and editorial nous ensured that the project came to fruition. She read “After the Jazz” by Makhosazana Xaba, a sensual piece combining some most unlikely elements.

Moffett said she had hoped to find a unicorn amongst the submissions to the collection, so was entirely delighted when Nerine Dorman sent in her fabulous story about a magical cat woman. She read her hilarious story, ‘Riddle Me This’ about a man who gets entangled with a creature he will have a hard time explaining to his wife.

Next up was Julia Martin who observed that as she drove to the event she’d realised she was covered in cat hair – a fitting outfit considering the event. She read her tender “Letter to the Management”, which explores the remarkable relationship an elderly woman in an old age home develops with the doves she feeds and names as she faces the loneliness of ageing.

Moffett read the swansong for the evening on behalf of the poet, Margaret Clough:

It’s Difficult to Explain

Why was my car standing as though abandoned in Waterford
road, you ask?
It is difficult to explain; it’s a long story –
because my grandson drove it home,
because he took it to his work
because it had to be repaired
because it had a nasty dent
because I ran into the gate
because the gate began to close
because its motor didn’t work,
because the remote was bust,
because it got wet in my jeans,
because I fell into a pond,
because I tried to catch the dog,
because she tried to catch a duck.
(At least the duck survived.)

The authors who donated their words to help raise funds for TEARS Animal Rescue are Arthur Attwell, Diane Awerbuck, Gabeba Baderoon, Robert Berold, Margaret Clough, Mike Cope, Colleen Crawford-Cousins, Gail Dendy, Richard de Nooy, Isobel Dixon, Nerine Dorman, Finuala Dowling, Tom Eaton, Justin Fox, Damon Galgut, Robyn Goss, Michiel Heyns, Colleen Higgs, Jenny Hobbs, Liesl Jobson, Rustum Kozain, Jacqui L’Ange, Sarah Lotz, Sindiwe Magona, Siphiwo Mahala, Julia Martin, Joan Metelerkamp, Niq Mhlongo, Thando Mgqolozana, Helen Moffett, Mmatshilo Motsei, Paige Nick, SA Partridge, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Beverly Rycroft, Alex Smith, Fiona Snyckers, Ivan Vladislavić, Zukiswa Wanner, James Whyle and Makhosazana Xaba. The delightful cover was designed by Joey Hi-Fi.


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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) live tweeted the event using #livebooks:



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Wilbur Smith Reignites Cecil the Lion Controversy

Golden LionIn an interview with the UK’s Observer, bestselling author Wilbur Smith says he believes Cecil the lion’s killer probably “did his offspring and his pride a favour”.

The black-maned lion was killed by Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota in the United States, near the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe on 1 July, causing a major public outcry. The lion had been collared by researchers from Oxford University, although shooting a collared lion is not illegal. The Zimbabwean authorities are however seeking to prosecute Palmer for allegedly hunting without the correct permit.

Smith was a keen hunter himself, although at 82 he says he does not hunt any more, and many of his novels involve big game hunts. Similarly to Palmer, Smith has been photographed proudly displaying his big game kills.

Read an excerpt from the interview:

I don’t hunt any more, mostly because I discovered buffalo run faster than I do. I hunted because it was the right thing to do. Game was a very valuable asset to local people, and for that reason there is still game in those regions.

Poor Cecil the lion was 18 years old, losing his teeth and going downhill fast. The American dentist probably did his offspring and his pride a favour.

However, Brent Staplekamp, a researcher from Oxford tells The Guardian:

“Smith says Cecil was 18 and his teeth were all but finished. That’s wrong. Cecil was in his prime. He was 12,” Brent Staplekamp said. “So 12 might be quite old in terms of what we see in Hwange where lions are shot at so much by hunters, but Cecil still had a good few years to go and his teeth were perfect.”


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5 Sunday Reads, Including Shakespeare in Translation and a (True?) Ghost Story From David Mitchell

Hamlet1. A Facelift for Shakespeare

From the Wall Street Journal: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations — because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension.

The Story of the Lost Child2. The Author Is Purely a Name

From Guernica: By Elena Ferrante – Fragments on writing, publishing, and being an anonymous worldwide phenomenon.



Freedom3. Jonathan Franzen: “Modern life has become extremely distracting”

From The Guardian: The author on the “meaningless noise” that pours through the internet, the writing of his fourth novel, Freedom, and the death of his friend David Foster Wallace


M Train4. Patti Smith Talks Fame, Youth, and Her New Memoir, M Train

From Vanity Fair: As the follow-up to 2010′s Just Kids hits shelves, the punk pioneer discusses her literary inspirations.

From Vogue: Patti Smith Makes a Pilgrimage to French Guiana in This Exclusive Excerpt From Her New Memoir.

Cloud Atlas5. A Possibly True Ghost Story From David Mitchell

From Lit Hub: Once upon a time in Japan, at the foot of the bed …


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