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"He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well" - Aerodrome reviews Marcus Low's Asylum

Asylum
Barry James is detained in a quarantine facility in the blistering heat of the Great Karoo. Here he exists in two worlds: the discordant and unforgiving reality of his incarceration and the lyrical, snowy landscapes of his dreams.

He has cut all ties with his previous life, his health is failing, and he has given up all hope. All he has to cling to are the meanderings of his restless mind, the daily round of pills and the journals he reluctantly keeps as testimony to a life once lived.

And then there’s an opportunity to escape. But to escape what? And where to? Can there be a life to go back to? Is there still a world out there in the barren wasteland beyond the fence?

Gareth Langdon recently reviewed Low’s remarkable, unsettling debut novel for local online journal, Aerodrome:

Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question.

What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum.

The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo.

His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape.

Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration.

Continue reading Langdon’s review here.

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Solve the girl-meets-boy equation by looking very closely: Rosa Lyster reviews Elif Batuman's The Idiot

Published in the Sunday Times

The Idiot
****
Elif Batuman, Jonathan Cape, R290

It’s difficult to classify The Idiot. Elif Batuman’s novel begins on the narrator’s first day of college. Selin, a tall and clever Turkish-American girl, is going to Harvard. She is going to do all the things expected of a protagonist in a coming-of-age novel: she is going to make some friends, take some classes, and fall in love for the first time with an unsuitable mathematician called Ivan. She is going to Experience Life. Easy.

Not at all easy, though. The Idiot is about experience, but it’s also about the way we describe and understand experiences, and how we summarise the incoherencies and absurdities of everyday life and turn them into a story that makes sense.

Early on in the novel, Selin describes her approach to literature (and to life: Selin’s world is made of words). Selin believes that “every story has a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.” How does she understand the meaning of the conversations she has with the unsuitable mathematician, where all they ever do is “mishear each other and say ‘What?’ all the time”, and yet she comes away from these interactions feeling so besotted and preoccupied she can hardly see straight? What is she supposed to do, and what is she meant to think, and how is she meant to behave all the time, and who is going to tell her? Who is going to decode the e-mails between her and the unsuitable mathematician, or explain what his sigh means when she produces a pack of alcohol swabs from her bag? Well?

This is all much funnier and much less tortured than it sounds. Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has a high sense of the absurd and a gift for observation that borders on the creepy. She see things that other people don’t see, and she makes her readers see them too. – Rosa Lyster, @rosalyster

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"Everything your ever wanted to know about crime but were too afraid to ask" - Robyn Sassen reviews The Truth About Crime

“The Truth about Crime is replete with original insights. Reflecting on the disproportionate relationship between fear and actual danger in a number of major countries, Jean and John Comaroff explain why criminality, although far from matching many other potential sources of public peril, elicits much more civic outrage. We learn how changes in the meaning of criminality and the nature of crime-and-policing are associated with the recent shift in the relationship between capital, governance, and the state. We also learn how these developments in both the United States and the Republic of South Africa have resulted in steps taken to discipline or control certain groups defined or viewed as threatening. This is a compelling book, a must-read for scholars and laypersons alike.” – William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged

The Comaroffs’ constant articulation of sparkling ethnographic vignettes, rich statistical data, and highly imaginative insights makes for a truly effervescent argumentation, creative and, at the same time, thoroughly documented. With this combination they offer a powerful book that newly addresses a theme that is becoming central all over the world: our increasing obsession with (in)security.“- Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust
 
 
 
In this book, renowned anthropologists Jean and John L. Comaroff make a startling but absolutely convincing claim about our modern era: it is not by our arts, our politics, or our science that we understand ourselves – it is by our crimes. Surveying an astonishing range of forms of crime and policing – from petty thefts to the multibillion-dollar scams of too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the collateral damage of war – they take readers into the disorder of the late modern world. Looking at recent transformations in the triangulation of capital, the state, and governance that have led to an era where crime and policing are ever more complicit, they offer a powerful meditation on the new forms of sovereignty, citizenship, class, race, law, and political economy of representation that have arisen.

To do so, the Comaroffs draw on their vast knowledge of South Africa, especially, and its struggle to build a democracy founded on the rule of law out of the wreckage of long years of violence and oppression. There they explore everything from the fascination with the supernatural in policing to the extreme measures people take to prevent home invasion, drawing illuminating comparisons to the United States and United Kingdom. Going beyond South Africa, they offer a global criminal anthropology that attests to criminality as the constitutive fact of contemporary life, the vernacular by which politics are conducted, moral panics voiced, and populations ruled.

The result is a disturbing but necessary portrait of the modern era, one that asks critical new questions about how we see ourselves, how we think about morality, and how we are going to proceed as a global society.

Artist, academic, and visual artist Robyn Sassen recently reviewed the book:

It infiltrates our very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams.

The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons.

This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written.

And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

Continue reading Sassen’s review here.

Book details

"I tried to find a way to make a book which told the stories of women from all backgrounds around the world." Co-author Geoff Blackwell discusses 200 Women on Classic FM

In 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World, 200 women from a variety of backgrounds are asked the same five questions. Their answers are inspiring human stories of success and courage, love and pain, redemption and generosity.

From well-known activists, artists, and innovators to everyday women whose lives are no less exceptional for that, each woman shares her unique replies to questions like “What really matters to you?” and “What would you change in the world if you could?”

Interviewees include US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor and human rights activist Alfre Woodard, and Nobel laureate Jodi Williams, along with those who are making a difference behind the scenes around the world, such as Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Each interview is accompanied by a photographic portrait, resulting in a volume that is compelling in word and image – and global in its scope and resonance. This landmark book is published to coincide with an immersive travelling exhibition and an interactive website, building on this remarkable, ever-evolving project. With responses ranging from uplifting to heartbreaking, these women offer gifts of empowerment and strength inviting us to bring positive change at a time when so many are fighting for basic freedom and equality.

Local interviewees include Graça Machel, Caster Semenya, Zelda la Grange, Mpho Tutu van Furth, Hlubi Mboya, Sahm Venter, Joanne Fedler, Ingrid le Roux, Gillian Slovo and Zoleka Mandela, among others.

A minimum of 10% of the project’s revenue will be distributed to organisations devoted to protecting and advancing the rights of women. Each interviewee can nominate an organisation (or themselves if they are in financial need) to receive their portion of the charitable pool or they can select the principal charitable partner, the Graça Machel Trust.

Co-author Geoff Blackwell recently discussed the motivation behind writing the book with Tamara LePine Williams on Classic FM.

Listen to the podcast here.

200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World

Book details

  • 200 Women Who Will Change the Way You See the World by Ruth Hobday, edited by Kieran Scott, Geoff Blackwell, Sharon Gelman, Marianne Lassandro
    EAN: 978-1-928257-41-7
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!

A Good Country is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story which explores racism and stereotyping in contemporary America, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times

A Good CountryA Good Country
Laleh Khadivi, Bloomsbury, R290
****

Rez Courdee is the good, obedient 14-year-old son of Iranian immigrants in sunny California. His marks are top notch, and he’s winning prizes for chemistry. He keeps to himself and is home every night for supper with his stern, demanding father and meek mother, until a new friendship and his hormones draw him into a world of surfing and smoking weed.

Laleh Khadivi’s description of the lazy days of privileged adolescence and teenage angst and transformation are nuanced and vivid, with a powerful sense of how mutable and scarily vulnerable we are at this age. Nonetheless, Rez’s trials and tribulations are fairly standard fare – until a bomb goes off at the Boston Marathon, followed by a bloody attack at a mall close to home. His world changes.

Suddenly, he’s a threat, an outsider. For the first time, he experiences racism and stereotyping. As his white friends turn away form him, he bonds increasingly to charismatic Arash and beautiful Fatima. Like him, they are of immigrant descent.

Like him, they’d thought themselves regular American kids. Now they find themselves under suspicion. Their response is to look to their faith to make sense of their changing world. Rez starts to explore Islam, first through his friends and then, increasingly, online.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking coming-of-age story, with a twist. Rez asks himself ordinary teenage questions – who am I? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? – in extraordinary circumstances. His radicalisation and the choices he makes are quite devastating. – Kate Sidley, @KateSidley

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Book Bites: 5 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight
Naoki Higashida, Sceptre, R315
*****

Naoki Higashida allows a glimpse into the life of autism. He was declared a “non-verbal” autistic, but can communicate through an alphabet graph, and what he says for himself and those like him will astound you. Between poetry, memories and musings, Higashida shows that “non-verbal” does not mean he cannot communicate. He shares his frustrations and offers alternatives to pre-conceived notions of autism. His simple request is to allow people with special needs to be accepted along with everyone else, and to avoid autism dictating every aspect of their lives. Higashida decries pity, and believes in humanity, love and hard work. He is wise beyond his years, and profoundly admirable. – Samantha Gibb (@samantha_gibb)

A Thousand Paper Birds
Tor Udall, Bloomsbury Circus, R318
****

Green thumbs will delight in this wondrous novel set in the Kew Gardens. Meet Jonah the musician and widower, Milly the inquisitive child, Harry the lonely gardener, and Chloe the artist who finds comfort in origami. These characters have only two things in common: an attachment to the world-famous gardens, and Audrey, Jonah’s dead wife. Mystery abounds in this lyrical tale, treading lightly into the supernatural. But this story is not all sunshine and orchids; thorns poke and puncture with the raw realities of grief, loneliness, and human imperfection. It’s The Secret Garden for grown-ups. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng, Little Brown, R275
****

A fascinating slice of life in small-town America during the Clinton years. Artist Mia Warren moves herself and her teenage daughter Pearl to the conservative community of Shaker Heights in Cleveland. Here everything is carefully ordered, just as Mrs Richardson prefers. But soon Mia and Pearl disrupt the “perfect lives” of the Richardson family. Ng builds up the tension wonderfully, and her storytelling is refreshing as she doesn’t feel the need to wrap everything up neatly. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

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