Monthly Archives: October 2017

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

Fiction or factumentary?


Bare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

bare ground peter harris

Peter Harris seems to have an instinctive ability to tell a good story.

The lawyer turned writer has produced three books: two non-fiction titles – In a Different Time, and Birth – which read like thrillers, and the new novel, Bare Ground, which reads like a documentary. It’s made up, and yet the tale he tells is so plausible in the current South African context that it feels true, just one you haven’t read in the newspaper yet.

Bare Ground was launched at the Book Lounge recently, and Harris told proprietor Mervyn Sloman he felt this was a novel that needed to be published now, given the pace at which things move in South Africa.

“Some stuff lies beyond fiction, quite frankly. I wanted it to come out during the Zuma presidency – it’s important to tell this story now in our history.”

The story is of a mining company that needs to set up a consortium to give effect to a BEE deal. The boss is wealthy, urbane Max Sinclair, and his right-hand man is one Sifiso Lesibe, a geologist now working in head office.

The way the deal is structured is critical, Max realises. Do they go internally and give it to senior black employees in the company, with some going to black staff, or do they go to an outside consortium. Or should it be a mixture of both? Continue reading

History at the heart of the Man Booker prize winner

george saunders

Acclaimed American short story writer George Saunders has become the second American to win the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The £50 000 (about R850 000) prize was presented to him at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall by the Duchess of Cornwall last night (October 17).

The judges described the book as “utterly original” and “deeply moving”. Continue reading

October 16

rapid fireRapid Fire, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

Can a vegan eat a fig? Well of course. Except it turns out figs are tricky. Smyrna figs are pollinated in such a way that a female wasp dies inside the fruit. You won’t actually bite into the wasp – her body will be dissolved by acid – but technically the fruit will contain a speck of animal matter and that might put a very strict vegan off.

This is the sort of clever question – and answer – found in the book by John Maytham, who presents the afternoon drive show on Cape Talk radio. Because Maytham is a real know-it-all, he gets people to ring in on air with good questions to see if he and his team can answer them. Prizes are given for interesting rather than just difficult questions.

This is a fun quiz book covering topics from flags to food, from sport to spies. Here’s another question: which American president was the inspiration for a popular toy? Yes – you know this one, really.

The Blessed Girl, by Angela Makholwa (Macmillan)

Bontle Tau is gorgeous, and she knows it. If she had a choice between coming back as Albert Einstein or as Marilyn Monroe, she’d choose Marilyn Monroe every time. Marilyn Monroe was the original blessee, and you can quote Bontle on that.

Bontle likes the fine things in life – the designer shoes, the champagne, the penthouse, the expensive car, the beauty treatments. But all this costs, and she needs to keep her chaps on side, like Papa Jeff, who’s getting just a teeny bit fat; like Teddy, who seems to have messed up a tender business; like Mr Emmanuel, the lovely rich Nigerian; oh, and then there’s Bontle’s soon-to-be ex-husband.

It’s not easy, or as Bontle puts it, keeping all her boyfriends happy and living a fabulous life has its challenges.

This is Angela Makholwa’s fourth novel, following Red Ink, The 30th Candle and Black Widow Society. Makholwa is based in Joburg.

Taking a miracle for granted


The Most Perfect Thing – Inside (and outside) a bird’s egg, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)

WE take eggs utterly for granted. There they are, cream or brown or speckled, in their clever natural packaging, waiting to be boiled, fried or beaten.

Yet, seen through the eyes of British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, they are little miracles.

Hen’s eggs, the ones we buy from the supermarket, are unfertilised and unincubated, so we see only a fraction of the miracle they are, he says.

“Our familiarity with the eggs of one species has blinded us to the extraordinary diversity of egg size, shape and structure across the 10 thousand other species of birds that currently exist in the world.”|

Birkhead has made a career studying guillemots, northern hemisphere seabirds that nest on cliffs and lay eggs of an astonishing variety of size and colour.  In fact these eggs were the most popular and sought after for collections because of their variety, beauty and odd, pointy shape. (See the eggs on the cover of the book.) Continue reading

Nobel winner a fan of the BBC

Like millions of people the world over, the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, trusts the BBC.

He was at home in Golders Green in London on Thursday (October 5), about to sit down to brunch, when his agent rang to tell him the good news.

“I thought it was a hoax in this time of fake news and everything,” he said on a Guardian video posted on YouTube.

“So I asked them to check up because I hadn’t heard at all – I thought the normal procedure was that the winner is told first. So I didn’t believe it for a long time.

“Then my publisher phoned. And finally when the BBC phoned, I thought it might be true.”

Ishiguro is probably most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1989, and which was adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in 1993. Continue reading