The joy of reading other people’s letters

letters of noteReview: VIVIEN HORLER

Letters of Note – Correspondence deserving of a wider audience

compiled by Shaun Usher (Canongate/ Unbound)

A tremendous cacophony of barking heralds the arrival in my street of the postman on his bike.  He puts something in my letter box but I do not rush out to see what it is.

It’ll probably be the rates and Telkom bills. These days the interesting stuff comes via e-mail. But I remember a time, not that long ago, when there was a good chance of a long and chatty letter from friends in London or elsewhere, and the receipt would brighten my day.

Shaun Usher, who compiled this volume, says in his introduction that he wanted “to illustrate the importance and unrivalled charm of old-fashioned correspondence just as the world becomes digitised and the art of letter writing slips from view”. Continue reading

Illegal firearms on the Cape Flats, and what this has to do with Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers

Review: Vivien Horler

The President’s Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison, by Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)


Excuse the squeaking noise – my eyes have been out on stalks and I’m reeling them back in.

A variety of emotions go through your mind as you read The President’s  Keepers, from depression (lots) to mirth (not so much), from wanting a double brandy to wanting to emigrate.

Much of what Jacques Pauw writes is not new. You have read and heard hints here and there, and he quotes extensively from journalists such as Marianne Thamm, Richard Poplak, and Justice Malala as well as publications like the Daily Maverick, the Mail & Guardian and City Press. Continue reading

Beautiful read that pushes the boundaries of convention, hope and desire

third reel

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

The Third Reel by SJ Naude (Umuzi)

Recently I had the privilege of moderating a panel of writers at the Open Book Festival. The theme was boundaries, which posed an interesting angle on the books I had to read and also opened up a number of questions about what we perceive as boundaries and how we push them ourselves (but that’s another story.)

SJ (Fanie) Naude was one of my authors with his debut novel The Third Reel.

A work that definitely pushes the boundaries of convention, hope and desire, it is written in an eminently readable and beautiful style. Part serious, part thriller, the novel explores obsession in an era of cold war.

Set in the 1980s, the story concerns Etienne, a young South African studying film in London after escaping conscription and Continue reading

Book club at my house tonight – so what will we choose?

It’s book club at my house tonight, so I’ve had two milk crates of books cluttering up the dining room for a month, and now two brown bags full of new books.

Our club, The Observatory Book Club, has been going for well over 25 years, starting when most of us were young mothers living in and around Obs. Today we’re scattered across the Peninsula, but most of the original members are still with us. We include a couple of journalists, a former town planner, two doctors, a couple of academics and a retired (but not retiring) headmistress.

Originally we used the stokvel approach – we each paid in R20 or R30 a month to fund the purchase of a pile of books, because we were young and fairly poor and books were very expensive. But the collection of the money became problematic, and we also got a bit better off, so now the host just pays for the lot. Continue reading

Why do cats lie in the sun? The answer is stranger than you think

rapid fire maytham

rapid fire maytham

Review: Vivien Horler

Rapid Fire – Remarkable miscellany, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

JOHN Maytham says he has “a magpie memory”, one that is attracted by bright, shiny facts that he stores in “the large and messy nest” of his memory.

Certainly anyone who listens to Maytham during his afternoon drive show on 567 Cape Talk radio is aware he knows almost everything, which is why his daily “Rapid Fire” segment is so compelling. You really want to beat him, and I think I have the question to do it.

He says in his preface (what he calls “The short bit before the proper book”) that originally the format of Rapid Fire was to award the prize to someone who could stump the team, but this often meant boring questions won prizes. “Does rubidium or strontium have a higher value on the table of valences?” Who cares, says Maytham.

So they changed the format to give the prize to the person asking the most interesting question. And then Maytham collected them, googled the answers Continue reading

Looks like a jaw-dropping read

The President’s Keepers, by Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)

You’d have thought there was nothing left to surprise us regarding Jacob Zuma’s shenanigans, but my chin was on my chest while reading the Sunday Times a couple of days ago. My first reaction was astonishment, followed by rage: how dare this man treat all South Africans with such contempt? When I spoke to Tafelberg publicist Jean Pieters about getting a copy of the book, she said that what the Sunday Times had published wasn’t the half of it.

A South African bestseller traditionally sells between 5 000 and 10 000 copies – this book was launched only on Sunday October 29 and already 20 000 have been printed, with a second print-run of 10 000 ordered.

I can’t wait to read it. Respect to Jacques Pauw and Tafelberg for uncovering the truth.

  • Nov 4: Am half-way through and this book is extraordinary, doing what Pravin Gordhan said we should all do: joining the dots. Who knew it would be such a complicated dot matrix!

Some worthy November book club suggestions

East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I have to confess that my own book club voted against this, but that is their loss. I got to read it anyway and it was a brilliant read. It is a Holocaust book but also a great deal more than that. Philippe Sands’ Jewish grandparents were from Lemberg in Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine) and were murdered during the Nazi occupation. Sands himself is a British-based international lawyer, who became fascinated by two former Lemberg lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who were responsible for introducing the legal concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” to the Nuremberg Trial. The other main character in this sweeping book is Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland and an enthusiastic servant of Hitler’s. He was one of the defendants at Nuremberg.

bare ground peter harrisBare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

Peter Harris’s books of non-fiction read like fiction, and Bare Ground, his first novel, reads like fact. His first book, In a Different Time, was about the trial of the Delmas Four, and was quite literally a page-turner. Bare Ground is set in Joburg, and deals with the people in and around a mining company which is setting up a BEE consortium. The deal has to have government approval, but people in the presidency are distinctly dodgy. As is the president, who is backed by a wealthy Indian family. Sound familiar? At the launch in the Book Lounge a couple of weeks ago Harris said he occasionally wondered, while writing it, whether he was stretching the truth, but then the articles in current newspapers assured him he wasn’t.

course of loveThe Course of Love, by Alain de Botton (Penguin)

Shakespeare said: “The course of true love never did run smooth”, and it certainly doesn’t in this novel. Rabih and Kirsten are Londoners who fall in love, marry and have children. They believe their love will carry them through, like a buoyant tide, bur they discover you don’t stay afloat if you don’t keep paddling. The trajectory of the story is supplemented with passages of commentary on how well – or not – Rabih and Kirsten are doing, and the mistakes or otherwise they are making. It’s tender, perceptive and often instructive. The Daily Mail said The Course of Love should be “compulsory reading for anyone contemplating tying the knot”, while the Evening Standard said: “It may even save some marriages.”

a legacy of spiesA Legacy of Spies by John le Carré (Penguin)

George Smiley must be over a hundred, Peter Guillam well into his 80s and Jim Prideaux about a thousand years old. Jim was always old. These three old secret service hands come together in John le Carré’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, where he returns to his old haunt, the Cold War. Or rather, the detritus of that part of his life and genre which produced his best works. (Archie Henderson)







Mental disease is an illness, not a character flaw


Review: Thomas Horler

Turtles all the Way Down (Penguin)


I have been a fan of John Green since before I knew he was an author. I discovered him on YouTube giving a lighthearted review of world history.

He opened the first episode announcing that there would be a test, saying:

“The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and dorm rooms and in places of worship.

“You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football, and while scrolling through your Twitter feed. The test will judge your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric, and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context. The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, will make your life yours. And everything, everything, will be on it.” Continue reading

Brilliant view of one man’s history against the sweep of war

nuremberg trial

The defendants at the Nuremberg trial are sitting in the two rows in front of the military police. Hans Frank is the man in the sunglasses in the middle of the front row. The men in front of the defendants are their lawyers.

east west street

Review: Vivien Horler

East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld and Nicolson/ Jonathan Ball)

Many people have written accounts of their experience of World War II or the Holocaust, each story becoming part of a mosaic that contributes to a bigger picture of a time that tore the world apart.

What Philippe Sands has done in this extraordinary book is to write an account of his family’s experiences, but set it into the wider context of war and of the Nuremberg Tribunal that followed.

This wide view enables him to write adjoining sentence like: “The elderly living in Austria or Germany would first be sent to an old people’s ghetto in Theresienstadt. My great-grandmothers Malke Buchholz and Rosa Landes were among them.”

Sands is a professor of law at University College London, and has worked as an international lawyer in cases involving the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and Guantanamo. Continue reading

Great read, but do your (pleasurable) homework

legacy of spiesReview: ARCHIE HENDERSON

A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré (Penguin/Viking)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré (Pan Macmillan)

A Call for the Dead, by John le Carré (Penguin)


George Smiley must be over a hundred, Peter Guillam well into his 80s and Jim Prideaux about a thousand years old. Jim was always old.

These three old secret service hands come together in John le Carré’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, where he returns to his old haunt, the Cold War. Or rather, the detritus of that part of his life and genre which produced his best works.

Guillam, this time, holds centre stage while Smiley and Prideaux have bit parts. Ghosts of Smiley and Guillam’s past have come back to haunt both spies in the form of the offspring of a dead agent and his innocent bystander/lover. Continue reading