Some favourite books

My dad worked for an oil company, and growing up, we moved every two years. I went to eight schools – the record was four in one year – so every two years I was the new girl in the classroom.

This slows you down in the making friends department, so I learnt very early on that books are a comfort and a joy.

As a book reviewer I get sent regular parcels of books which cover a wide range, thrillers, love stories, current events, travel, history, politics etc etc. As I’ve got older I find I’m more drawn to non-fiction, although a good novel is a wonderful thing, putting you inside another reality.

Some of the books I review, some I give to others to review, and some never get reviewed at all. A recent one in this category was called something like A List of Angolan Plants.

The ones that don’t get reviewed are either sold for charity or given away. The tradition is that if you review a book, you get to keep it, and I sell some of those too, usually to buy new books (or second-hand ones from the wonderful Booke Shoppe next to Pick n Pay in Tokai).

But some are never sold, and stay on my shelves, books that have amused and delighted and interested me.

So when I was thinking about this talk I went to my bookcase and pulled some of my favourites. I was going to talk about 10, and then somehow the list grew. So here they are, some new, some not so new.

As by Fire by Jonathan Jansen. (Tafelberg)  This is a new one, came out about two months ago, and it talks about the student protests of 2015 and 2016. Jansen, the former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State has based the book on a series of interviews with 10 vice chancellors and of course has added his own insights. His thesis is that SA universities do not have a viable future, because of the effects of underfunding, political interference and instability on campuses.

The greatest single cause of the protests was the way the states subsidies had dropped over the past 23 years. He says in 1994 subsidies at Wits covered 70% of the university’s costs; today they cover about 35%. Meanwhile student numbers across the country have pretty well doubled, from just under half a million in 1994 to almost a million in 2014 – all against a background of declining subsidies and rising fees.

Not everyone agrees with him. SueEllen Shay, one of UCTs deans, says his book lacks a broad comparative perspective, and is also irresponsible, because Jansen has the power to shape the narrative about the future of universities. But I found it interesting because it gave me a glimpse into what happened and why. The more we understand the challenges faced by others in society, the better chance we have of creating a viable future.

Another new book is Pat Williams’s King Kong – our knot of Time and Music (Portobello). Pat Williams was 23 and a reporter on the Rand Daily Mail back in the late 1950s when she was asked to write the lyrics for King Kong the musical, about the tragic life and times of the boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini. Todd Matshikiza wrote the music, and the show launched the careers of the likes of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masikela.

Now in her 80s and living in the UK, Williams describes the flavor of the times of Johannesburg in the late 1950s, the joy and vibrancy of the music, the police harassment of the cast who needed special passes to be out after dark at rehearsals, and the fact that the show was first performed at the Wits Great Hall in 1959 because it was the only venue that blacks and whites could attend together, even if they did sit in different sections. If you’re interested, you’ve still got a couple of nights to see the revived show which is on at the Fugard until Saturday.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Profile). On the face of it, this wouldn’t seem to appeal to most people – it’s a book about marathon running and the importance of the right shoes, and about how the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico can outrun most people wearing shoes made of old tyres. But it’s great. McDougal was a runner whose feet hurt, and this led him to research that reached the conclusion that most of what we know about running is wrong. It’s clever, funny, full of amazing scientific facts, and one of my very favourite books.

He’s recently published another book called Natural Born Heroes, about parkour and occupied Crete during World War II, which is also good but not as good as Born to Run.

The rest of the books I want to mention are in no special order – the order I pulled them out of the bookcase.

Remember the late Lawrence Anthony, author of The Elephant Whisperer? The book I thought was even better was his Babylon’s Ark, co-written with Graham Spence.

At the outbreak of the Iraqi war in 2003 Anthony, who owned a private game reserve called ThulaThula in northern KZN, became obsessed with the fate of the animals in Baghdad’s zoo. He says he knew nothing about Iraq or the politics of war, but he did know that in all human hostilities animals have suffered. And so he decided to go to Baghdad zoo and rescue the animals. So he got himself to Iraq by way of Kuwait, and discovered a zoo of lions, tigers, bears, lynxes, lying in their own filth, hungry, thirsty and sick. But some of the previous zoo employees had moved heaven and earth to feed and water the animals as the city was being bombed. This is a tale of astonishing bravery and determination against appalling odds.

Down Under by Bill Bryson. Actually virtually anything by Bill Bryson. He is clever and funny and his books are a delight. He’s an American who has made the UK his home, and his book Notes from a Small Island about a tour he made of the UK is laugh-out-loud funny. He’s recently written a sort of sequel, another look at the UK about 20 years later, called Little Dribbling, which is also good. His A Walk in the Woods about an extended  hike in the Appalachians is wonderful, although a less-than-wonderful movie was made of it. At Home is another fascinating book, a look at the old parsonage he bought in Norfolk and the items in it, and then going into the history of some of the everyday items we have in our homes. Like forks. For some years Bryson made his life as a sub editor or copy editor on British newspapers, and he has written books on language, including a style guide called Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But I think Down Under, which I reread last year before a trip to Australia, is possibly my favourite. What sort of country is it, he asks, that can just lose its prime minister? In 1967 the PM, one Harold Holt, disappeared. Forty years later a coroner ruled that he had drowned.

Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. Young Australian Sarah Turnbull was hiking around Europe when she met a Frenchman who invited her to stay in his Paris flat for a few days. Eight years later she was still there, and married. This delightful book describes how she had to adapt to a very different way of life and different attitudes. Early one Sunday morning, dressed in a tracksuit, she told Frederic she was off to get some freshly baked croissants. “Dressed like that?” asked Frederic. She was just popping out to the baker, she pointed out, what was wrong with her tracksuit? Frederic replied: “It’s not very nice for the baker.”

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. British writer Mantel won two Man Booker prizes for these two novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Machiavellian right-hand man. A third volume, detailing Cromwell’s fall from grace and execution, is in the pipeline but Mantel seems to be taking a long time to finish it. I thought Bring Up the Bodies was even better than Wolf Hall, so if she is true to form, the third book should be best of all. An excellent mini-series based on the first books and starring the dishy Mark Rylance was screened here last year.

Death’s Acre by Bill Bass and John Jefferson. In 1981 the late Dr William Bass founded the anthropology research facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It was the only institution in the world dedicated to research into the timing of how human bodies decomposed. He was given an acre of land on which to leave bodies to see how they decomposed under different circumstances: left in the open, for example, or buried or in water. Today the land is known as the Body Farm, and the research arising from it has revolutionized forensic science, helped to identify nameless corpses, and seen the successful conviction of many criminals. This is a somewhat macabre topic, but I found it absolutely riveting.

From a Clear Blue Sky – Surviving the Mountbatten bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull. Fourteen-year-old Tim Knatchbull and his twin brother Nick were on a family boat trip in Ireland with their great-grandfather, Lord Mountbatten, when the IRA exploded a bomb on board, killing Mountbatten, Nick and others. Knatchbull, who was seriously injured, goes back to examine the events of that day and their effects on his family. A gripping and thoughtful book.

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. This book was described by the New York Times as “one of the most profound and devasting novels ever to come out of Vietnam – or any war.” It’s not the sort of novel I would normally pick up, but I was a judge in an annual Exclusive Books readers’ competition, and so I had to read it. The Matterhorn of the title is a hill in Vietnam a US platoon are pretty securely dug into. Then they are inexplicably told to relinquish it, which they do, only to see it occupied by the Viet Cong and then be ordered by the brass to take it back. It is a searing look at the madness of war, and one that will stay with you. Author Karl Marlantes is a Vietnam veteran and clearly knows what he is talking about.

To the Letter, by Simon Garfield. Simon Garfield writes non-fiction about everyday things like the invention of the colour mauve (a dye which is a by-product of the petroleum industry), printing fonts and maps. This one is about the postal service and apart from the first chapter, which did not grab me, is a terrific book. Did you know in the beginning the British postal service occasionally delivered people as well as letters and parcels? He goes back as far as letters written in Roman times, quotes famous letter writers and their missives, famous letters being sold, why Jane Austen’s letters are so dull, and letters between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. And weaving a story through all this are the moving letters written between a young British couple who barely knew each other at the outbreak of World War II, and whose regular correspondence over the war years kindled a passion between them.

Krakatoa – the day the world exploded, by Simon Winchester. Actually, like Bill Bryson, almost anything by Simon Winchester is worth reading. This one is about a volcanic eruption on the island of Krakatoa, near Java, on August 27 1883 which killed almost 40 000 people. The explosion was heard as far away as Alice Springs in Australia, 4 800 km away. It triggered tsunamis, poor harvests, impressive sunsets for several years thanks to ash in the atmosphere, and barometers going haywire in Washington DC. And now a new volcano, Anak Krakatoa – Child of Krakatoa – is rising from the ocean in the vicinity and is already half the height of Krakatoa. It has already erupted several times, most recently in 2009. Winchester’s most recent books are Pacific and Atlantic, about those oceans and the communities bordering them. I also enjoyed his A Crack in the Edge of the World about the San Andreas fault on the edge of California, and Outposts, about small remaining outposts of the British Empire.

The Assassin’s Cloak – an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. This is a wonderful book, fabulous for dipping into, but you can just read it, although not at one sitting, as it runs to almost 700 pages. It’s divided into 12 chapters, each bearing the title of the month, so that you can follow a line of narrative in a single diary. For instance, on January 1 1902, Alma Mahler-Werfel, wife of the composer Gustav, writes how Gustav had a failure of “vigour” one night while they were making love, leaving to “unbelievable torment” on his part and Alma’s own suffering. But all was to be well: on January 3 Alma writes simply: “Bliss and rapture,” and the following day: “Rapture without end.”

And finally, Letters of Stone – from Nazi Germany to South Africa, by Steven Robins, published last year. Steven Robins teaches at the University of Stellenbosch. As a child he became interested in a photograph of three women that stood in their family dining room. He later discovered they were his father’s mothers and sisters, photographed in Berlin in 1937. In the 1930s Robins’s father and brother had left Germany for Southern Africa, and their family wrote to them regularly, talking of their plans to safely join the young men here. But they failed, and died in the holocaust. Robins has traced their lives, travelling to Berlin, Riga and Auschwitz. And he reproduces some of the increasingly anxious letters from the family in Berlin in 1938 and 1939, letters found in a plastic carrier bag in a cupboard of a Sea Point flat after his uncle’s wife died. An extraordinary story.


Down Under – Bill Bryson

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

From a Clear Blue Sky by Tim Knatchbull

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

Almost French – Sarah Turnbull

To the Letter by Simon Garfield

Letters of Stone by Steven Robins

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

King Kong – our knot of time and music – Pat Williams

As By Fire by Jonathan Jansen

Babylon’s Ark by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence

The Assassin’s Cloak, edited by Irene and Alan Taylor

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Death’s Acre by Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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