Monthly Archives: July 2023

Bedside Table Books for July

Bedside July

These are among the books that landed on my desk in July. Some will be reviewed in full later. Four of them – Standing Up for Science, by Salim S Abdool Karim, Another Life by Kristin Hannah, The Wind Knows my Name by Isabel Allende, and Broken Light by Joanne Harris – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for July. – Vivien Horler

Standing Up for Science – A voice of reason, by Salim S Abdool Karim (Macmillan)

The man who became the face of SA’s response to Covid-19, “Slim” Abdool Karim, originally wanted to be an engineer. But it was 1977, and for students of Indian descent – even top students – there was no guarantee he would get into a top engineering school. And then there was the matter of the fees.

So as a back-up he applied for medical school as well, and three days after the start of the 1978 academic year, he was informed he had been accepted by the University of Natal’s Medical School with an annual scholarship of R1,200.

In early 2020, as Covid reared its ugly head, Abdool Karim was a natural to be asked to serve on the Ministerial Advisory Committee. He was as a leading SA epidemiologist and virologist, a world-class HIV researcher, and former head of the SA Medical Research Council.

The night after making a live presentation on Covid on TV in April 2020, watched by millions of South Africans, he was informed by his children that he was trending on Twitter. He told them he didn’t think he dressed that trendily, which generated serious eye-rolling.

But while he might not be a digital native, he knows his stuff when it comes to viruses and public health. His description of the early months of the pandemic in SA makes for engrossung reading, despite the alphabet soup of acronyms.

So little was known about the virus in the early weeks and months of 2020. He describes the process as “building the ship as we sail it” (from the title of a poem), but the MAC’s advice to the government set two early goals: pushing back the peak, and lowering the peak, and in this they were successful.

The peak was delayed by six to eight weeks, pushing it from April/ May to July, giving authorities the chance to build field hospitals and brace themselves.

At the beginning he joked it might be a good idea if we all were infected and got it over with, but he soon realised Covid was a different type of virus, nothing like flu, and something to be avoided.

Visiting hospitals in the early days and losing a key colleague acted as a wake-up call. His description of going to St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, where there was a spate of infections, was gripping.

The first patient was someone who had returned from the UK on March 9 – well before lockdown – and wanted a Covid test. This “patient zero” was followed by “patient one”, who had been admitted after a mini-stroke, and who tested positive for Covid a few days later. They did not come into contact with each other, but were treated by the same doctor and nurse.

Five more patients became infected, and when “patient one” returned to her care home, the infection spread to others there, with a high death rate.

This looks like a fascinating read.

The Wind Knows My Name, by Isabel Allende (Bloomsbury Publishing)

This novel encompasses children and stories of war. Samuel Adler is five in Vienna on Kristallnacht, the night his father is beaten up and transported to Dachau, where he dies of his injuries.

His distraught mother is persuaded to send Samuel on a Kindertransport train to England, where she promises the whole family will be reunited, a promise he remembers for the rest of his life.

In 1981 a civil war is raging in El Salvador. Leticia, who lives in a remote village, is a primary school pupil who has some sort of stomach problem. With village help to raise funds, her father takes her to hospital. While they are away from the village, it is attacked in what becomes known as the El Mozote massacre, and more than 800 people die, including Leticia’s whole family.

Later her father swims across the Rio Grande with Leticia clinging to his back, and she grows up in California.

In 2019 seven-year-old Anita and her mother flee El Salvador for the US, but when they arrive they become victims of Trump’s family separation policy. Anita is sent alone to a Home where she takes refuge in an imaginary world, while no one seems to know what has happened to her mother.

I’m not very far into this novel yet but, as one would expect from Isabel Allende, it’s very good.

Broken Light, by Joanne Harris (Orion)

Joanne Harris is the acclaimed author of Chocalat, the novel about a French chocalatier which was made into a movie starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She also wrote Five Quarters of the Orange set in France during World War 2, which I thought was brilliant.

I’m not so sure about Broken Light, although others have praised it extravagantly.

Bernie Moon, who has always been a little odd, is menopausal and feels she is fading. Then a young woman is murdered at a nearby park, which sparks a series of childhood memories for Bernie.

She also remembers a strange talent she had as a child and young woman to enter other people’s thoughts. She had firmly put the talent aside as she knew it was destructive – and yet now perhaps it’s the answer to her problems.

Another Life, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

I became a fan of Kristin Hannah’s when I read The Great Alone, published in 2018, about a war-damaged man who takes his family to live in a remote part of Alaska, without the slightest idea of what he is doing.

Then I read The Four Winds, published in 2021, about a family fleeing to California during the Great Depression, which was bleak but excellent.

Hannah is also known for The Nightingale (2015) which I haven’t read.

Now Another Life is in the stores. It was first published in 2004 in the US under the title The Things We do for Love, and has been re-issued this year.

I didn’t think it was as good as the two Hannah novels I have read, but then it is a much earlier work.

Angie De Saria’s marriage has failed, partly because she is has been utterly focused on a vain effort to have a baby. She leaves the big city to return to her hometown, where her Italian family run a restaurant.

But the restaurant is failing now that Papa has died, and Angie steps into try to save it.

She takes on a desperate teen as a waitress, a clever girl with excellent grades who needs a full scholarship to go to college as her wastrel mother cannot afford the fees, even if she wanted to.

The only real bright part of Lauren’s life is her boyfriend David, the son of a rich family who expect him to get into an Ivy League college. But then Lauren falls pregnant.

The trouble with this novel is that the baby is obviously a solution to Angie’s predicament, and Angie the solution to Lauren’s, and you can see it coming from a mile away.

But fortunately it doesn’t quite work out like that.

What also saves the novel is the evocation of family, Angie’s relationship with her mother and two sisters, the mouth-watering descriptions of the food, and the way Hannah brings to life the setting in a small coastal town on the Pacific North West over a very wet winter. (I understand all winters in the Pacific North West are very wet.)

Girls of Little Hope, by Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Halvorsen (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Three 15-year-old girls live in a boring-ass town called Little Hope in California, helping to keep each other sane. One of their favourite activities is some amateur sleuthing into the town’s mysteries, such as why Ronnie Gaskins burned his parents alive.

Following their hobby they are led to a cave in the woods, but only two of them return alive. Donna can’t remember what happened in the cave, Rae seems to be trying not to remember, and Kat is missing, maybe dead.

And then they encounter a shattering secret.

In a cover shout, SA bestselling writer Lauren Beukes says of Girls of Little Hope: “Sharp as a DIY-piercing, with a fierce punk heart – I loved the hell out of this.”

Holocaust: it is our duty to never forget

Review: Vivien Horler

I am Ella – A remarkable story of survival, from Auschwitz to Africa, by Joanne Jowell (Kwela Books)

After the unimaginable horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, losing her family, then incarceration in Majdanek, Auschwitz and eventually Bergen-Belsen, Ella Blumenthal married, came to South Africa and became a wife, mother and businesswoman.

For 40-something years she didn’t speak of her war-time experiences. Her South African husband made it clear he did not want to know, and somewhere in this searing book she says she doubts if he ever knew the names of her six dead siblings.

Then, after his death, she began speaking in public, tentatively at first, dredging up the past. Sometimes, she says, when recounting her experiences, she can hardly believe it all happened to her. Continue reading

Dismissed by a new generation, Oppenheimer played major role in 20th century SA

Review: Archie Henderson

Harry Oppenheimer: Diamonds, Gold and Dynasty. By Michael Cardo (Jonathan Ball)

Michael Cardo’s book can be read on two levels: as biography of a titan and as history of a country that experienced dramatic changes in the subject’s lifetime. And because he was Harry Oppenheimer, his life bisected key historical moments through famous people he knew.

Oppenheimer was born in 1908, two years before union; he was 10 when one world war ended and 21 when the next broke out. He served as an intelligence officer with Colonel Dennis Newton-King’s famed 4th Armoured Car Regiment, a widely admired South African unit in the Western Desert campaign against the Germans of Erwin Rommel. Continue reading

She lived a lie – and left a lasting legacy

Review: Vivien Horler 

The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray (Berkley/Penguin)

The Personal Librarian is a fictionalised account of the life of a remarkable American woman, Belle da Costa Greene, as her employer and pretty well everyone knew her.

Her boss was the beyond wealthy American financier JP Morgan, and she was his personal librarian, curating the fabulous John Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan, negotiating to acquire rare manuscripts and artworks from top collections around the world.

But there were people, notably Belle’s father, who knew her as Belle Marion Greener.

And the difference in her names hid a remarkable secret – Belle was born a fair-skinned coloured girl in Washington DC in the late 1800s and, along with her mother, brother and three sisters, successfully “passed” for white from the age of 16. Continue reading

De Ruyter tells his shocking inside story of Eskom

Review: Vivien Horler

Truth to Power – My three years inside Eskom, by André de Ruyter (Penguin Books)

In January 2020, on one of André de Ruyter’s first days at Megawatt Park as Eskom CEO, he looked out of his office window and spotted the SA flag flying upside down.

He was outraged – he believes disrespect for the flag means disrespect for the country – and summoned security officials to have it hung properly.

Later, after the depths of Eskom’s woes became apparent to him, he learnt flying a flag upside-down is universally recognised as a sign of distress.

He says wryly: “Perhaps the two officials had not been so mistaken after all.”

Not since reading Jacques Pauw’s eye-widening The President’s Keepers, about the corruption of the Zuma years, have I come across such a jaw-dropping book. If you’re trying to decide whether or not to emigrate, this might be the tipping point. Continue reading

A startling view of a different South Africa

Born White Zulu Bred, by GG Alcock (Tracey McDonald Publishers)

GG Alcock has had a life most white South Africans can’t imagine.

Thirty years after democracy I still have a mainly white surburban lifestyle, a long way from how many black Capetonian neighbours  live.

I’m not proud of this, it just is so. We were brought up in silos, thanks to apartheid, and it’s hard and often uncomfortable to break out.

GG Alcock had an alternative upbringing, thanks to parents who chose to live differently. They were the only white family in Msinga, a troubled Zulu-speaking area not far from Tugela Ferry in today’s KZN, and GG and his younger brother Khonya grew up as white Zulu kids, speaking Zulu and and being immersed in the local children’s lives. Continue reading