Monthly Archives: June 2021

How a single family fuelled the US opiod crisis

Review: Vivien Horler

Empire of Pain: the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador)

I’d never heard of the Sackler family until I picked up this book. But it seems I should have. They were famous American philanthropists whose name adorned art galleries including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum; buildings at Harvard, Tuft’s and Oxford and even a museum of art and archaeology in Beijing.

They were richer than the Vanderbilts or the Carnegies had ever been, and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet as New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe points out, the precise origin of the Sacklers’ wealth was somewhat mysterious.

This was because they went to great lengths to avoid having their family name associated with the family business: a pharmaceuticals company known as Purdue Pharma which developed and sold a powerful anti-pain drug called OxyContin.

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Uncovering the terrible truth of a secret massacre

Review: Vivien Horler

Bloody Sunday – the nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre, by Mignonne Breier (Tafelberg)

Mignonne Crozier has brought all her skills as a journalist, academic and researcher to uncovering the dreadful events of a massacre in East London on November 9, 1952.

She believes it is likely many more people died on that and subsequent days than the 69 who were killed eight years later at Sharpeville. But the official figures were eight Duncan Village residents shot or bayoneted by police, and two whites killed in retaliation, one of them a nun.

In the late 1940s and early 50s conditions in the tightly packed “locations” of East London were dire and people were angry. In June 1952 the ANC launched the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws.

The idea was for people to deliberately break apartheid laws, be arrested and overwhelm the jails. The campaign started peacefully, but from October there had been violence, first in Port Elizabeth, then Johannesburg and, on November 8, in  Kimberley. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for June

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

The story of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary is well known. Published by the Oxford University Press, it took many more years than the 10 originally planned, and began in a garden shed grandly known as the Scriptorium. The walls were lined with shelves which housed millions of slips of paper sent in from around the world giving the use and meaning of individual words. In The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams invents a young orphan called Esme who spends her days under the sorting table in the Scriptorium. One day a slip of paper flutters to the floor containing the world “bondmaid”. Eventually Esme realises some words, especially those relating to women and their experiences, somehow never make it into the dictionary. So she starts collecting them for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Bomber Mafia – ­ a story set in war, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin)

We’ve all heard of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought World War II to an end. But I didn’t know anything about the incendiary bombing of scores of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, which must have killed hundreds of thousands of people, in the months between March and August 1945. The bombing, by the Americans, was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay and was springboarded from the Marianas islands which, after they had been wrested from the Japanese in 1944, finally put Tokyo within flying distance of B-29 bombers. And yet all this is not really what The Bomber Mafia is about. It is about a dream that went wrong, and what happens when technology and good intentions collide.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Suitcase of Memory, by A’Eysha Kassiem (Kwela Books)

Cape Town journalist A’Eysha Kassiem has a way with words. This is how she opens this novel, set mainly in Stellenbosch: “The smell of death is always the same – camphor and incense. These are the first hosts that will meet you at the door.” Set during the height of apartheid, the book tells the story of Bastian Bredenkamp, heir to a farm, and a man who has the unusual ability to remember everything that has ever happened to him since birth. And then his heart is captivated by Rashieda. Which is going to make things very tricky indeed.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Promise, by Damon Galgut (Umuzi)

The Swarts are an ordinary white family, clinging to what they call their farm on the outskirts of Pretoria. The story of their decline is told in four snapshots, each one involving a family funeral, and each one happening in a different decade of South Africa’s recent past. The protagonists get older and life grimmer, and at the novel’s heart is a promise made years ago, and not kept. One reviewer says the prose is “leavened with languid comedy, as thought Galgut had collaborated with Tennessee Williams. The effect is utterly compelling.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Empire of Pain – The secret history of the Sackler dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Oxycontin: “Oxycodone, sold under the brand names Roxicodone and OxyContin among others, is an opioid medication used for treatment of moderate to severe pain. It is highly addictive and is commonly used recreationally by people who have an opioid use disorder.”  The Sackler family are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the developers of Oxycontin, and this book is about three generation of the family and their legacy. It is said that the company helped spark an opioid epidemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans in the past 20 years.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse – a memoir of childhood, by Robert Muponde

Telling stories staves off hunger, which is just as well as Father doesn’t have a job and Mother’s miserable maize plants aren’t going to feed many. This is a coming-of -age novel set in Gushure Village, in rural Zimbabwe in the period from the Second Chimurenga to independence, and according to the cover, features malevolent mermaids, eccentric shamans, outrageous relatives, fearsome teachers and men who transform hippos.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021


Go Away Birds, by Michelle Edwards (Modjaji Books)

Go Away Birds is a lovely read about Skye, a young woman who’s more or less lost the plot. She is suffering from grief for a loss she has never been able to talk about, not even to her husband Cam. She and he own a restaurant in Cape Town, but then an unwise remark in a magazine interview upends the business. Meanwhile during a Christmas with Cam’s family at Misty Cliffs, things unravel. Skye flees back to her family home in Mpumalanga, where her decidedly strange mother is running writing retreats and is possibly going bankrupt. Her brother is deeply suspicious of what is going on and is in some trouble too. Skye is convinced her marriage is over, and there is a rather nice chap on the farm next door, but things go awry there too. Maybe it’s time for her to stop running. Set in modern South Africa, the novel is nuanced and warm.

Midlife Money Makeover, by Kim Potgieter (Tafelberg)

Most of us worry about money. And we especially worry about whether we will have enough money to retire on. In her introduction Kim Potgieter, a financial planner, says starting to think about your money at 60 is too late (so that’s me, then) and she adds: “The earlier you start, the more options you have.” She says her book is a call to action, a reminder that one’s second chapter is a chance to create one’s best life. Midlife, she says, is the perfect time to pause, tune in and decide what you’re going to do next.

The story of love between an Afrikaner icon and a young Jewish woman

Review: Vivien Horler

Searching for Sarah – the woman who loved Langehoven, by Dominique Malherbe (Tafelberg)

CJ Langenhoven, the Afrikaans activist, writer and poet best known – to English-speaking  South Africans anyway – as the writer of Die Stem, the country’s former national anthem, had a long-time Jewish lover. Not only that, she had a son by him in the mid-1920s.

Skandaal – who would have thought?

After Langehoven’s death in 1931 Sarah Eva Goldblatt, the executor of his literary estate, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his work and his legacy.

By the time she died in 1975, aged 86, more than two million copies of Langenhoven’s books had been sold, one of the country’s greatest literary successes. In a blurb on the cover, publishers Tafelberg says Goldblatt made a significant contribution to Afrikaans literature – not bad for a girl reared speaking only English and Yiddish.

Yet until now her efforts have hardly been acknowledged, and in her dedication to this quest, author Dominique Malherbe says her book is for “the memories of countless women like Sarah, whose lives were lived in the shadows”. Continue reading

He writes so well, dammit

Review: Vivien Horler

But He Speaks So Well – Memoir of a South African identity crisis, by Ivan Johnson (Tafelberg)

Ivan Johnson is something of a shape-shifter. He’s hard to pin down – he found himself hard to pin down. But he’s had a lot of fun trying in the writing of this delightful and often hilarious memoir of a young man growing up in Cape Town.

Today Ivan Johnson is a veteran ad man with his own agency, 3Verse. He’s won awards, he writes radio commercials, and has been a juror and president at industry award shows all over the world.

But once he was a little coloured boy in Belgravia Estate, living with his parents and two older sisters in a comfortable home on the edge of Athlone. Or Rondebosch East, as he then preferred to call it. Aunts and uncles and cousins lived nearby. He was part of a close community.

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