Monthly Archives: Aug 2021

Two women who never meet, whose lives become entangled

Review: Vivien Horler

Two Women in Rome, by Elizabeth Buchan (Corvus)

Lottie Archer is a London archivist who meets Tom at a wedding and falls in love. He lives in Rome, where he works for the British Council.

He hears of a job for an archivist in a private Rome archive, one that collects the papers of hundreds of British and American ex-pats who have lived and died in the city.

Lottie gets the job, and melts when Tom asks her to share his home. She was abandoned as an infant and has never really had a home. Within nine months of their meeting, they are married.

Much of the material in the archive is damaged and musty, and needs to be sorted. Among the first files Lottie starts work on are those of an Englishwoman, Nina Lawrence, who died in Rome in 1978 aged just 38. A note on the file says Nina had “no known contacts. No known issue. No claimants”. Continue reading

Why honing your bullshit detector matters

Review: Vivien Horler

Fake History: Ten great lies and how they shaped the world, by Otto English (Welbeck)

The trouble with fake history – like fake news – is you end up not knowing what to believe.

Everyone needs a bullshit detector, but even quite good ones can let you down from time to time. Otto English (the pen name of one Andrew Scott) is a British blogger, author and journalist who says we get our history from dimly remembered school classes, things that happened to our families or “the generally agreed notions” of what we all believe is true. And very often they aren’t.

So by the end of this book, after the debunking of scores of wonderful but apparently untrue stories – he says the better the story, the more likely it is to be false – you start to doubt yourself.

In the second last chapter, he tells an incredible story about Donald Trump. In a speech on Independence Day in July 2019, he claimed that during the US War of Independence in 1775, George Washington’s troops had had air supremacy and taken over the airports. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for August

 

These are a few of the books that landed on my desk recently, and some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Fake History – Ten great lies and how they shaped the world, by Otto English (Welbeck)

Remember the great comeback from Winston Churchill when British Labour MP Bessie Braddock him: “You’re drunk!” To which he replied: “And you’re ugly, but in the morning I’ll be sober.” Apparently Boris Johnson, Britain’s current prime minister and a great Churchill fan, has identified the very spot in Westminster where the exchange took place. But journalist Otto English says it probably never happened. It was first related by English writer Augustus Hare in his diary about an encounter between two unnamed British MPs in 1882, when Churchill was eight years old and Braddock not yet born. This is just one of English’s fake-history put-downs in this fascinating book that exposes myths of World War II, the adventures of Christopher Columbus (who never set foot on the continents of north or south America), the belief that Britain’s royal family is German, that Abraham Lincoln believed all men were created equal and that ancient people thought the Earth was flat (they knew it wasn’t).

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.

 

Afraid of the Light, by Douglas Kennedy (Hutchinson)

Veteran novelist Douglas Kennedy, who has been described as the “maestro of family noir”, has written about one of big divisive issues of our time: abortion. An Uber driver has to drop off a retired professor at the abortion clinic where she volunteers, and is caught up in a violent vortex of protest. Afraid of the Light is described as “a novel of high suspense and considerable moral complexity”.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.

 

 

Two Women in Rome, by Elizabeth Buchan (Corvus)

Lottie is an archivist at Britain’s National Archives at Kew when she meets Tom at a wedding. He lives in Rome, and within nine months persuades her to marry him. A whole new life beckons for Lottie when she secures a job as an archivist in the eternal city. She discovers a valuable 15th century painting, and decides to explore the life of Nina Lawrence, the woman who left it behind. Nina had gone to Rome after World War II to restore gardens that had been devastated by war. But when she died in 1978 no one attended her funeral and Lottie is puzzled by this. She uncovers a complicated love story set in the turmoil of post-war Italy, and what she finds will come to affect her own future. Elizabeth Buchan is a best-selling prize-winning British novelist and Two Women in Rome looks like a wonderful read.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.

The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris (Bloomsbury)

Twenty-six-year-old Nella works as an editorial assistant at a New York publishing company. But the job isn’t great in that she’s the only black employee, and she becomes tired of loneliness and what she sees as her colleagues’ micro-aggression. And then Hazel, another black woman, joins the staff, and Nella is delighted. They hit it off, but a series of events follow which leave Nella under a cloud of opprobrium while Hazel is seen as the office darling. Shortly after this, nasty notes appear on Nella’s desk saying she should resign. Is Hazel writing them? What is going on? Soon Nella realises there is more than her career at stake. This novel has been described as “dark, funny and furiously entertaining”.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top 25 books for August.

 

Comrade Editor – on life, journalism and the birth of Namibia, by Gwen Lister (Tafelberg)

Anyone who followed the news of the struggle in Namibia in the 1980s would know the name Gwen Lister, who first worked as a journalist in Windhoek with the maverick Hannes Smith on the Windhoek Advertiser and later the Windhoek Observer, and then founded her own newspaper, The Namibian, in 1985. Feisty, brave and intolerant of cruelty, she exposed atrocities of the SA Defence Force during the Border war. She was born in East London, studied at UCT and went to what was then South West Africa when she was just 21as a reporter for the Windhoek Advertiser. This is her account of the tumultuous years of Namibia’s struggle for freedom, and the many dramatic stories that accompanied it.

 

 

 

 

Entertaining memoir of a career in aviation provides almost too much information

Review: Vivien Horler

Secrets from the Cockpit, by Robert Schapiro (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

I am not a nervous air passenger. I have every faith that the pilots know what they’re doing, and ditto for air traffic control and the maintenance staff.

Now I’m not so sure. In a flying career spanning over 30 years, with the SAAF, SAA and eventually Japan’s Nippon Cargo Airlines, Rob Schapiro discovered all sorts of things could go wrong.

One of the most terrifying was over Alaska when his heavy cargo 747 and a formation four US F-15 fighters found themselves on a collision course in heavy cloud.

To make things worse, the captain on the flight, an ex-British RAF type who always believed he knew better than anyone else, refused to obey frantic instructions to descend and actually tried to climb. Continue reading

Booker longlist choice a great satisfying novel

Review: Vivien Horler

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)

In her acknowledgements at the end of this marvellous novel, author Maggie Shipstead thanks her editor for “paring down an unwieldy thousand-page manuscript into this slender wisp of a thing”.

Well, Great Circle, is not really a wisp of a thing, running to 589 pages, but quite frankly I enjoyed it so much I would happily have settled for the 1 000-page version.

A great circle is the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere. The equator is a great circle, as is every line of longitude.

Marian Graves is an early female aviator, and her dream is to fly around the world, north to south and back. In her flight log she writes she was born to be a wanderer, “shaped to the earth like a seabird to a wave”. Continue reading

Fascinating tale of the SAA heist and the whistleblower

Review: Vivien Horler

Hijackers on Board – How one courageous whistleblower fought against the capture of SAA, by Cynthia Stimpel (Tafelberg)

The wholesale looting that has made up the State Capture project is so overwhelming that among many media consumers, including me, there is a tendency, when coming across some new malfeasance, to roll one’s eyes and move on.

It’s not that I don’t care – I do. But it’s all too much to keep track of.

And then you come across one focused, coherent account that details one aspect of the project, and it’s as if someone has shone a spotlight on what has been going on.

The someone in this case is Cynthia Stimpel, who was head of treasury at SAA.

Everything she describes in this book is in the public domain, much of it at the Zondo Commission, but her detailed and chronological account makes for truly absorbing reading. And it made me wonder how I would have responded had I been in a situation where I had a bond and children at university, and where pressure was mounting at work to just “Sign here”, “Just do it, Cynthia.” Continue reading