September’s bedside table suggestions

Bedside table September

These are among the books that have landed on my desk in the past couple of weeks. Some will be reviewed in full later.

A Pretoria Boy, by Peter Hain (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

South Africa-reared Peter Hain, in his efforts to fight apartheid by campaigning against South African international rugby and cricket tours, became known here as “public enemy number one” and in the UK as “Hain the pain”. But he and those who campaigned with him – and some of their campaigns were pretty dramatic – inflicted major damage on white South Africa’s soft sports-loving underbelly. Legendary rugby boss Danie Craven said during Hain’s Stop the Seventy Tour in the 1970s: “There will be a black Springbok over my dead body.” Well, we know how that turned out. This is Hain’s autobiography, starting with his boyhood in a family of both liberal and Liberal Party principles in Pretoria, where he attended Pretoria Boys’ High, to his departure with his family to the UK, his rising political profile within the Labour Party and the anti-sports tours campaign, to his becoming a Labour MP and eventually British peer, still fighting for justice. South Africa remains close to his heart, but he certainly doesn’t subscribe to the adage of “my country right or wrong”. He celebrated in 1994, but doesn’t pull his punches when assessing where we are today. Now 71, he is still fighting campaigns, and has given testimony to the Zondo Commission. He says (his italics): “I have learnt that if you try to do too much, you’ll end up doing too little, that if you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing. Better to focus on concrete objectives and not to get carried away with grand designs, ideological rhetoric or the supercilious purism of the armchair critic. Instead, as Alan Paton once counselled me, try to be an all-or-something person, not an all-or-nothing person.”

A Home on Vorster Street ­– a memoir, by Razina Theba (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Although Razina Theba lived with her parents and sister, every day she would find her way to the tiny flat occupied by her grandparents in Vorster Street, Fordsburg. The older couple had brought up seven children in it, and though by the time Razina came along, most had married and left, it was still the family HQ to which uncles and aunties and many cousins gravitated. All the residents in the block were of Indian descent, and lived together in loose neighbourliness, swopping cakes and snacks at Eid and Diwala. Theba has written a charming, often sad, occasionally frightening story of an Muslim family in the dying days of apartheid.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

A Brief History of South Africa – from the earliest times to the Mandela presidency, by John Pampallis and Maryke Bailey (Fanele/ Jacana)

The authors of this book, teachers and educationalists, have managed an astonishing feat – a compilation of South African history in just under 300 pages (although with pretty small print). As the subtitle indicates, the volume begins with the ancestors of the modern San over 10 000 years ago, but concedes little is known of  those societies. It is written in two parts: a chronological history and then a section on themes in South African history, such as the economy, the Bantustans, life under apartheid and the trade union movement. At the end of each chapter are a set of discussion questions as well as book titles for additional reading, and a list of online visual resources. The authors say they have not produced a comprehensive history, but are rather trying to present a progressive introduction to local history and to encourage critical thinking about it, because most South Africans, those who were schooled both before and after 1994, have scant knowledge of the country’s past. In his foreword, former president Kgalema Motlanthe says: “History is not just an account of past events. It is also an interpretation of those events and developments… It is for this reason history is deeply political.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak (Viking/ Penguin Books)

Ada Kazantzakis is 16, in her second-last year of school in north London. She lives with her father, Kostas; her mother is dead. She knows very little about her family history, only that her parents, one Greek and one Turkish, came from the now divided island of Cyprus. Her parents did not talk about their families or their youth, and when her mother died no one from Cyprus bothered to come to her funeral. But back in 1974, teenagers Kostas, who is Greek and Defne, who is Turkish, meet in secret in a tavern, a place where they are able to forget the sorrows and tensions of their island. In the tavern a fig tree grows through a hole in the roof, and the tree knows the teenagers’ secrets. It’s also there when Nicosia is destroyed and the teenagers have to part. Years later, the only link Ada has to her home is a cosseted fig tree growing in the back garden. Elif Shafak, a prize-winning British Turkish writer whose work has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has dedicated this novel to: “Immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless, and to the trees we left behind…”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.

Such a Quiet Place, by Megan Miranda (Corvus)

Hollow’s Edge is a quiet community on the edge of a lake. Everyone knows everyone else, and they’re supportive of each other. But then one night Brandon and Fiona Truett are found dead, and their neighbour, Ruby Fletcher, is convicted of their murder. But after a mistrial she is freed, and she comes back to Hollow’s Edge, to the consternation of the community in general and of her old housemate, Harper Nash in particular. People start to turn on each other and it soon becomes clear that not everyone was honest about the events on the night the Truetts died. Harper realises it is time she tried to uncover the truth. The Observer has described this book as “An unnerving and extremely classy thriller.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s top books for September.








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