Bedside Books for February

THESE ARE AMONG the books that landed on my desk this month.  Some will be reviewed in full later. The first three are from Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for February. There was a fourth book, A Dangerous Business by Pulitzer prize-winning Jane Smiley, which I’ll review on Sunday. – Vivien Horler

How to Stand up to a Dictator – The fight for our future, by Maria Ressa (WH Allen)

Just a quick read of the foreword – by Amal Clooney – and the prologue by Filipino journalist Maria Ressa make one realise how important this book is. In 2021 Ressa, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Clooney writes that in an autocracy, a journalist’s opponent is the state – “which makes policy, controls the police, hires the prosecutors and readies the prisons… Its existence depends on ensuring that there is only one side to every story”.

In Ressa’s Nobel acceptance speech, she said, referring to social media, an invisible atom bomb had exploded in the world’s information ecosystem. Four months later, Russia invaded Ukraine, “using meta-narratives it had seeded online since 2014, when it invaded Crimea…The tactic? Suppress information, then replace it with lies”.

Ressa currently faces numerous court cases in the Philippines, and may go to jail, according to her lawyer, for more than 100 years. But she refuses to be silent. Democracy is fragile and it needs to be fought for, she says.

“This is what many Westerners, for whom democracy seems a given, need to learn from us.”

The Institute for Creative Dying, by Jarred Thompson (Picador Africa)

This debut novel is clearly something different. Five strangers – a former nun, a model, a couple in crisis and a recently released prisoner – all arrive at a house just below Northcliff Ridge in Johannesburg to discover an end to life as they know it.

They open their minds and bodies to a different experience, and not all of them survive.

The writer and critic Khanya Mtshali says of the book: “Jarred Thompson proves why he’s one of South Africa’s most daring young writers. Macabre, weird, zany and decidedly ominous, this gutsy debut novel explores the ethics of death and the value of life.”

Thompson is a lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s English department.

Living in Two Worlds – addressing humanity’s greatest challenge, by Ian McCallum and Ian Michler (Quickfox)

In 2010 authors and conservationists Ian McCallum and Ian Michler were sitting around a fire in a tented camp in northern Botswana when Michler came up with an idea.

“How about, one day, we do a circular walk… following the elephant migration routes through the Caprivi, into Zambia, Zimbabwe and back to Botswana?”

McCallum responded: “Sounds great, following in the tracks of giants… Why not?”

The idea eventually transformed itself into a four-month 5 000km journey, walking, kayaking and cycling, through six southern African countries: Namibia; Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east.

It turns out the old elephant migration tracks don’t really exist any more, but the expedition followed elephant cluster groups in the six countries.

And while they travelled, important questions came up: what would it take to change our anthropocentric mindset and question current values to understand a biosphere in which we co-exist with all living things? How are we going to address the human contribution to environmental issues? And how to get the environmental message across “in a way that those who hear it are left with the deepened sense of personal accountability?”

This book looks at some of the answers they discovered.

The South African Air Fryer Cookbook, by Louisa Holst (Human & Rousseau)

I was sent this cookery book late last year, but didn’t have an air fryer. Now, however, thanks to some Christmas and birthday vouchers, I do, and I’m becoming an enthusiastic fryer.

I bought a Phillips, not the smallest one, which comes with the most hopeless user’s guide. It didn’t even tell me how to turn it on.

But I retrieved this cookery book and it’s been extremely useful in giving me the basics.

This probably sounds bleeding obvious, but you have to rethink microwave oven ideas – you can’t use plastic cooking utensils but you can use metal.

The book begins with tips for success: should you preheat the fryer? Holst says yes. Don’t overload the basked. Turn or toss the ingredients halfway through. Make sure the fryer has space around it – it needs air to circulate. Temperatures tend to be lower, and cooking times slightly shorter. And so on.

The recipes are delightfully South African, from fishcakes with achar, and cream cheese and biltong spring rolls, curried chicken rotis, boerie burgers, and stuffed ostrich steaks to mielie-pap chips, mielie bread with biltong (that looks particularly delicious), sosaties, and steak Gatsby.

You can cook bobotie, snoek with an apricot glaze, and even milk tart and malva pudding.

So far I’ve done chips, chipolata sausages (it works really well with those), the most delicious cheese toasties, and – my big experiment – roast chicken, with chips on the side. They were delicious.

All the recipes are accompanied by fabulous pictures taken by Donna Lewis.

How to Steal a Gold Mine – The Aurora story, by Dianne Hawker (Tafelberg)

Reading the introduction to this book prompts a sense of “oh dear”. Another ghastly South African tale involving fraud, theft, corruption thought  to run into hundreds of millions rands, the loss of some 5 000 jobs.

But unlike state capture, this is about the capture of a private rather than state-owned entities. However, as Dianne Hawker points out, it reveals the same kind of collusion between government and politicians and business people with political connections – among them Jacob Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma, his lawyer Mike Hulley, and Zondwa Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela.

Hawker, a fine journalist with whom I once worked, says the book is intended to find out “what truly happened in the Aurora mine saga, and, at the same time, show how easy it can be to steal a gold mine”.

Noni Jabavu – A stranger at home, by Noni Jabavu (Tafelberg)

Noni Jabavu, born in 1919, came from a distinguished Eastern Cape family. Her grandfather was John Tengo Jabavu, owner and editor of Imvo Zabantsundu, and her father was DDT Jabavu, SA’s first black professor who was head of Latin and Bantu languages at the university college of Fort Hare. Her uncle by marriage was ZK Matthews.

In 1933 at 13 Noni, a pupil at Lovedale, was sent to England to continue her education, and never really came home again. She was studying music at the Royal Academy when World War 2 broke out, and became an oxy-acetylene welder in aircraft production.

She married an Englishman, had two children, and became SA’s first black female memoirist, writing several books including Drawn in Colour, The Ochre People and Life and Loves of an Ochre Lady.

This volume is based on a collection of weekly columns she wrote for the Daily Dispatch in 1977, drawn from a couple of visits back home to gather information on her father about whom she was planning to write a biography.

Having lived a self-confessed upper-class life in Britain, Kenya and elsewhere, returning to SA was something of a shock, and it started at immigration at the Durban docks. She was allowed to stay for only three months, despite having been born in the country.

Topics include: “Getting Used to Colour Again”, “The Special Branch Call”, Xhosa Men have Changed”, “Why Don’t our Blacks Read?” and “Smuts and I”.

She’s a lively writer and this looks to be both thought-provoking and fun.


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