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Entertaining, yet saccharine - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Tom Hanks's Uncommon Type

Published in the Witness (21/02/2018)

Uncommon Type
Tom Hanks

William Heinemann Ltd

TOM Hanks has what I hope is a deserved reputation as Hollywood’s Mr Nice Guy, making him probably the most unlikely person there to be outed as yet another of the industry’s serial gropers.

It’s hard to even imagine him playing a villain, though apparently he did once play Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Now that he has turned his hand to fiction with this collection of short stories it would be pointless to expect anything dark or villainous here. Hanks is no Roald Dahl.

Apparently he is a collector of old typewriters – I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do that and they must take up a lot of room, even if you have a Hollywood-style mansion – but never mind. Typewriters provide a tenuous connection between the stories, featuring more prominently in some than in others, but getting at least a mention in all of them. And some of the characters also appear more than once.

The two best stories have a hint of sci-fi about them. One, “Back from Back in Time”, deals with time travel, back to the World’s Fair in 1939. It is the only story in the collection that doesn’t have an entirely upbeat ending, of which more later.

The other, “Alan Bean Plus Four”, has four friends (who turn up in several of the stories) building a rocket in the back yard and setting off on a mildly hilarious trip round the moon, and back.

Obviously the publisher reckons that the author’s name will sell the book. Fair enough. There are plenty worse things being published, and as long as the reader treats this as something to dip into, rather than settle down to read from cover to cover, Uncommon Type offers entertainment. But the relentless happy endings do begin to pall. It’s a bit like living on an unvaried diet of lemon meringue pie – or watching endless re-runs of Forrest Gump. Once is fine, but something a little darker or more astringent would be welcome.

Just a bit less Mr Nice Guy to add some bite.

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Alzheimer's, guns, fantasy and hard rain are the subjects of the four novellas in Joe Hill's great collection, writes Diane Awerbuck

Published in the Sunday Times

Strange Weather
Joe Hill, Orion, R295

Joe Hill’s new collection of four novellas, Strange Weather, is a great one – and not only if you’re a Capetonian staring down Day Zero with its poverty porn, blame and bad neighbourliness.

The first novella, Snapshot, is a reverse Alzheimer’s metaphor.

Butterball teen Michael Figlione finds himself taking care of his childhood nanny, Shelly Beukes. He realises that it’s not just her dementia talking: there really is a creepy stranger, Polaroid Man, with a special camera like a gun that takes photos of people to steal their souls. In a parallel process, as the Polaroids famously develop – and Shelly’s memory gets patchier – Michael finally understands how much she really loved him.

Shelly’s worried husband is a Schwarzenegger-esque South African expat cheekily named Lawrence Beukes. While that’s not incredibly significant, it illustrates how much Hill actively enjoys writing.

Named Joseph Hillstrom King (after the activist and songwriter) by his famous parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, Joe Hill writes under his own name. In-jokes, thought experimentation and sarky political commentary aside, writing is also a serious commemorative act – for the dead, and for our own dead selves. That goes double for horror, and triple for horror as beautifully rendered as Joe Hill’s.

Look here: “There is no system of measurement that can adequately quantify how much resentment I carried in my heart when I was young and lonely. My sense of personal grievance ate at me like cancer, hollowed me out, left me gaunt and wasted. When I set off for MIT at 18, I weighed 330 pounds. Six years later I was a buck-70. It wasn’t exercise. It was fury. Resentment is a form of starvation. Resentment is the hunger strike of the soul.”

We see it particularly in the second novella, Loaded – a didactic, heavily sexual exploration of America’s “national hard-on for The Gun”. Hill says that he “had that one in my head ever since the massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut”. The story is incredibly powerful: a young woman’s affair with her jerk-off boss ends in tears and bloodshed for everyone in the mall, including a Muslim mother with her baby strapped to her chest, the carrier conveniently mistaken for a suicide bomb.

The weakest – most deliberately fluffy – novella is Aloft, set mostly on a cloud. A one-sided crush on his fey bandmate, Harriet, makes Aubrey Griffin determined to skydive with her. At the last minute Aubrey tries to back out, but there are technical difficulties with the plane and everyone is forced to jump.

Aubrey lands on a cloud (cold, and a bit like mashed potato) and must confront his sad realisation that he can touch either terra firma or Harriet’s boobs again, but not both. The novella is a palate cleanser and a spot of stylistic showing off, but it’s no great shakes other than as a continuation of the real theme of all the novellas – how to let go.

The brilliant Rain completes the quartet. Boulder, Colorado, suffers a rain of fatal and needle-sharp shards of space-age rocks. Hill has fun with our beliefs and what we need to tell ourselves in order to survive. The histrionic president blames cloud-seeding religious fanatics, while the crazed comet cult next door accepts all comers. We follow Honeysuckle Speck, whose angelic girlfriend Yolanda was one of the first to die, impaled by the celestial spikes.

Honeysuckle must deliver the news to Yolanda’s minister-father, travelling a highway of murderous shards.

Joe Hill – and Capetonians – understand that only hard rain will fall.

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Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, straight up - Michele Magwood reviews Joe Hagan's account of Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner

Published in the Sunday Times

Joe Hagan, author of Sticky Fingers. Photo supplied (©Yeh/Getty Images).

Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
Joe Hagan, Canongate, R330

Jann Wenner is not happy with this biography. Despite persuading Joe Hagan, an investigative journalist, to write it and giving him hundreds of hours of interviews and access to his archives, Wenner has now pronounced the resulting book “deeply flawed and tawdry”.

Which is pretty much how Wenner comes across himself over 500-odd pages. It’s a story of barrelling ambition and excess, of sheer genius and sordid appetites.

The cocky, sybaritic college dropout was just 21 when he dreamed up Rolling Stone. It was San Francisco, 1967, and the only music journals that existed were fanzines and an obscure magazine called Crawdaddy.

Wenner saw an opportunity in the Haight-Ashbury scene: not only did fans want to read more about bands, but record companies needed to be connected to them. With a loan of $7500 from his girlfriend’s wealthy parents, he put out his newspaper.

His first subscriptions came with a roach clip. It took off.

Wenner effectively bottled the ’60s and ’70s, making stars of singers and songwriters and extending the editorial reach to politics, sexual liberation, investigative reportage and drugs, of course.

“It was a man’s magazine,” writes Hagan, “though women read it; it was a white magazine, though African-Americans were fetishised in it.” It was a left-wing magazine but Wenner was unashamedly establishment.

He minted some of the most famous names in journalism: Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Greil Marcus.

The former two invented “Gonzo” journalism, making an indelible mark on writing forever.

He’s a complicated man, hiding his bisexuality for decades, described variously as “a fascist”, an “incorrigible egotist” and “a troll”. Yet he boasts among his greatest friends Mick Jagger, Bono and the late John Lennon.

Now 71, it’s hard to believe he is still standing, such was his intake of booze and cocaine. Instead of a canteen, Rolling Stone had its own inhouse drugs room. There were outlandish parties, sex on the desks and wild rides on his private jet. Tawdry but riveting.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, straight up. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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Book Bites: 18 February

Published in the Sunday Times

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah, Headline, R305

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut is a vibrant collection of 12 compelling stories set in the US and Nigeria. From fantastical myths to a post-apocalyptic world, all the shorts are varied but cleverly connected by the theme of complexities in relationships, focusing on women in particular. “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.” Women find themselves in extraordinary situations: a daughter whose mother’s ghost appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot, another woman, who, haunted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair. Arimah is a new literary talent to watch out for. – Nondumiso Tshabangu @MsNondumiso

Can I Speak to Someone in Charge?
Emily Clarkson, Simon & Schuster, R285

Emily Clarkson was tired of seeing clothes that only catered for size 12 women. She was surprised at the emergence of online trolls and, like many women, had tons of thinspiration. So, she started a blog, Pretty Normal Me, which led to this book. It is a series of letters to herself, Hollywood, trolls and, well, just about everything and everybody who is living and affected by various societal norms. It’s often funny, sometimes sad but always honest. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Keep You Safe
Melissa Hill, Harper Collins, R285

Hill jumps straight into modern-day controversy, pitting anti-vaccination parents against pro-vaccination. Two five-year-olds come down with the measles. The first is Clara, whose parents didn’t vaccinate their children due to personal choice. Three days later, Rosie, who is allergic to the vaccination, is ill. But unlike Clara, Rosie doesn’t get better and ends up in hospital fighting for her life. Tension fills the small Irish village while internet opinions explode: should Clara’s parents be held accountable for what happened to Rosie? A fast-paced drama with twists. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Churchill's confidant: Jan Smuts, enemy to lifelong friend

By Rony Campbell

Who would have thought that two men from such dissimilar backgrounds could forge a friendship that would change the world’s history? Richard Steyn has painstakingly gathered letters, telegrams not just between Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts but others as well to show us just how deep their partnership was during both the First and Second World Wars.

Winston Churchill came from an aristocratic background, where he was used to all the finer things in life. Although used to getting his own way from an early age, his ambition was present from the very beginning and his superiors had very little chance of keeping him under their control. He decided very early on in his army career to supplement his income by becoming a war correspondent. It was as a war correspondent that took him to South Africa. He was captured by the Boers and after he managed to escape he returned to fight the war with his exclusive and upper-class cavalry regiment, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars.

Jan Smuts was four years older the Churchill. He was born on a farm in the isolated area of Riebeek West. His parents were deeply Calvinist of Dutch origin. He was only sent to school at the age of twelve. He managed to not only catch up but to also surpass all his classmates. He graduated from Stellenbosch University and won the Ebden scholarship to attend Cambridge University where he studied law.

It was after the ill-fated Jameson Raid in December 1895 that Smuts lost his trust in Cecil Rhodes and decide to join the Boers in their fight against the English. President Paul Kruger very quickly realised that Jan Smuts would be his best representative in the negotiations with the “uitlanders” (men who came from all corners of the earth to seek their fortune in the Transvaal gold rush).

Jan Smuts was devastated by the British, under the leadership of Governor of the Cape, Alfred Milner, when they refused to negotiate with the Boer contingent when they met in Bloemfontein on 9 October 1899 and shortly after this, the Boers declared war of Britain.

Jan Smuts was twenty-nine when the war started. He “virtually singlehandedly” ran the administration of Paul Kruger’s government in Pretoria.

Smuts and Churchill first encountered each other after Churchill was captured. His escort took him to the tent of Commandant-General Joubert. Smuts happened to be visiting Joubert at the time. They were not introduced. However, Churchill made an impression of Smuts who described him thus, “Winston was a scrubby, squat figure of a man, unshaved. He was furious, venomous, just like a viper.”

They were to meet officially when Jan Smuts was in London for the British to grant permission to the South Africans for self-government. At the time, January 1906, Winston Churchill had “crossed the house” and had joined the Liberals. He represented the government as the Undersecretary for the Colonies. South Africa was one of Churchill’s primary responsibilities. Churchill had great respect for the Boer army. He wrote that “the individual Boer, mounted in suitable country, is worth three to five regular soldiers”.

Their friendship and the respect they had for each other started at this meeting and was to continue through both world wars and through their roles in the establishment of first, The League of Nations (after WW1) and then The United Nations (after WW2).

What is so very clear in this book is that the world was “given” two men with vision. Men who could work together and had complete understanding of each other. Smuts, much to the hatred of the Afrikaner opposition party, took South Africa into the First World War because he realised that unless there was a combined force to stop the Germans, the balance of the world would be overthrown. He took a similar stance to send troops to help the allies during the WW2.

I shudder to think how the the world would look today if Winston Churchill was not at the helm during those long years of fighting. I also hate to think what would have happened to Southern Africa if Jan Smuts had not brushed his critics aside and stopped the Afrikaner Broederbond (brotherhood) from allowing the Nazis to take hold of the entire area from East Africa to what is now Namibia.

What is also astonishing that Mohandas K Gandhi who played such a pivotal part in India had started his legal career in South Africa and was one of the first people to fight against the system of keeping the white race “pure.” Both Churchill and Smuts admired his initiative for peaceful protest but neither particularly liked the man.

This is a book that anyone interested in not only the Boer War, but the role that South Africans took in the two World Wars, thanks to their leader, Jan Smuts.

I wonder if we will ever truly appreciate just how much Winston Churchill did for the freedom of world from what could have been worldwide capture by the Nazis and their allies. But what this book has also given me is the insight into not just these two formidable men in Churchill and Smuts but at the same time a man like Gandhi.

Will we ever again see three men with so much foresight and intelligence prepared to do whatever was necessary to preserve justice and (relative) peace for the world as a whole?

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"Walters creates a sense of claustrophobia and fear which is compelling" - Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Last Hours

Published in The Witness, 12/02/2018

The Last Hours

Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin

Minette Walters, better known as an author of psychological crime novels, has moved into new territory here – back to the 14th Century and the arrival of the Black Death in southern England.

The results, the loss of around half the country’s population and with that, a mortal blow to the old feudal system of serfdom, are well documented historically and form an important backdrop to what is planned to be a two novel saga.

In the manor of Develish, the brutal Sir Richard of Develish is planning to ride to a neighbouring estate to arrange a marriage for his deeply unpleasant 14 year old daughter, Eleanor. He leaves his wife Lady Anne in charge, and while he is away, news of the rapidly spreading plague arrives.

As the bodies mount up, Lady Anne bars the estate to all comers, including her dying and unlamented husband and his entourage. Only when the survivors are out of quarantine (she has considerable medical knowledge, considering her era) does she let them return. But besides the plague stalking the countryside there are other dangers: starvation and marauding bands of dispossessed and chancers.

Walters creates a sense of claustrophobia and fear which is compelling – her work as a writer of psychological drama standing her in good stead here. She also draws a hierarchical and patriarchal society, ruled by an often corrupt church.

Tensions rise within the barricaded estate as serfs begin to realise there will be advantages for them once they can sell their labour. Their loyalty to their mistress keeps things on a more or less even keel – she has protected them against her horrible husband, and, maybe a trifle anachronistically, taught many of them to read and write.

Once a group of lads, led by the bastard Thaddeus, heads out to see what is happening beyond their boundary and to look for desperately needed food, the story divides into two parts, and loses a little of its tension. But it still rollicks along, and should delight fans of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and the like.

My main criticism would be that the goodies are so good and the baddies so bad that there is little room for nuance. But Walters produces a suitably cliffhanging ending so that there will be plenty of readers keen to find out the further fortunes of Lady Anne and Thaddeus, and even nasty little Eleanor. - Margaret von Klemperer

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