Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Wanted: bodies for our current needs

Review: Vivien Horler
The Body – A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)
Sometimes it may be better not to dwell on the inner workings of our bodies.
I mean, do you really want to know this: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous …”
But Bill Bryson follows his statement with the good news: “… and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week … you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you.”
As you might expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, this book is packed with facts, most of them interesting. There is, for example, the story of Vitamin D. It is vital to health, helping to build strong bones and teeth, boost the immune system, fight cancer and nourish the heart.
We get it two ways: through sunlight or our diet. But too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. Diet is also problematic: Bryson says to meet Vitamin D needs from food alone, we’d have to eat 15 eggs or about 3kg of cheese a day.
Skin colour helps with the safe absorbtion of sunlight, but the slow evolution of different skin tones only really worked when people stayed put. “Nowadays increased mobility means that lots of people end up in places where sun levels and skin tones don’t get along at all.”
All of this means that around 50% of people around the world are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient for at least part of the year, while in the northern hemisphere it might be up to 90%.
Bryson takes us through our bodies from the outside – skin and hair – to our microbes, the brain, the head, the heart and blood, our body chemistry, bones, walking upright and exercise, immunity, breathing, food and the gut, sleep, sex and procreation, disease and death.
Much of the information is based on trends in Europe and North America, presumably the people who will be buying the book. As a result he says of TB: “It is another disease that we have mostly forgotten…”, which is hardly true for us down at the southern tip of Africa.
But he reminds readers that in fact, with the conquest of smallpox, TB is now the deadliest disease on earth. Around one in three people on the planet carries the bacterium, and some boroughs of London have rates of infection “that nearly match” those of Nigeria or Brazil. And Bryson says with the increase of MDR and XDR strains, “it is entirely possible that we could one day … be facing an epidemic of TB that medicine cannot treat”.
Our bodies are miracles, but not without their problems. Bryson points out that we are the product of three billion years of evolution. “We would all be a lot better off if we could just start afresh and give ourselves bodies built for our … needs – to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that.”
This is not one of Bryson’s funny books, and he does go in for quite a few meaningless comparisons, such as: if ocean viruses alone were laid end to end, they would stretch for 10million light years. Huh?
But it is written with his customary light touch and is full of interesting information that just calls out for a friend who will listen patiently as you read snippets out loud.

A memoir of children, lions and trauma

Review: Myrna Robins
Under the Camelthorn Tree – Raising a family among lions, by Kate Nicholls (Jonathan Ball)
Kate Nicholls says this is not an “and I was born” memoir, but rather a series of snapshots of events between 1994 and 2016. Her tale is not assigned to chronological chapters, but moves from Africa to the UK, jumping a decade or more and back again.
It all adds up to an extraordinary stretch of Nicholls’ life, a momentous 22 years during which she brings up her five children in a lion conservation camp in Botswana, is attacked by three men, descends into a mental hellhole fuelled by whisky, and pulls herself out of it slowly, healing helped by her work of home-schooling Russian children in London. Continue reading

Combining crafting and cooking in appealing guise

Review: Myrna Robins
All Fired Up – Vegetarian recipes and reflections fron a country kitchen and pottery, by Nina Shand (Millstone Pottery, McGregor)
Open this intriguing softback and enter the mesmerising world of potters and their wood-fired pots and dishes. Add a garden of locally grown ingredients which, when cooked, will fill those pots with appetising feasts.
The relationship is timeless and as inspiring now as it has been for aeons. It is one that merges seamlessly in this collection of recipes both for fine fare and beautiful glazes, interspersed with tales of a potter’s day, from dawn until dusk – and sometimes on into the night. Continue reading

A race, a donkey with heart, and a lot of humour

Review: Vivien Horler

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall (Profile Books/ Jonathan Ball)
This is a book about a donkey called Sherman. It’s also about burro racing – racing with donkeys; about the Pennsylvania Amish; treating depression; and how the relationship between people and animals keeps us human.
Because that’s the wonderful thing about Christopher McDougall’s writing: he has an ostensible topic, but then drifts into other areas, thinly related, in a generally fascinating way.
Readers of his bestseller Born to Run will know this. It was about ultramarathon running, a subject many of us have very little interest in. It sat on my bedside table for weeks. Then I picked it up and it was utterly brilliant. It was about a group of Mexican Indians who entered one of the toughest ultra marathons in the world, the Leadville 100, and wearing tyre-sandals, beat everyone else. Continue reading

The yachting dream that turned to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Not Child’s Play, by Dave Muller (MF Books/ Jacana)

Seth Muller’s fifth birthday is a day his parents will never forget.

Living his dream, architect Dave Muller and a friend have spent 10 years building a yacht on which to sail around the world. In the Easter holidays of 1990, Dave, his wife Sandy, Seth and 8-year-old Tammy have sailed north from East London, planning to meet up with a friend on Seth’s birthday in the Bazaruto Islands of Mozambique.

It’s been a pretty good voyage so far, and with Arwen well out to sea, Dave settles down to sleep. He feels content – he’s finally achieved his dream of sailing to a tropical island.

He is woken by a thump, to realise Arwen has run aground on the beach. He starts the engine, but the yacht is heeled over at an angle of 45 degrees, and her prop spins uselessly in the air.

Continue reading

Jackie and Lee were synonymous with glamour, tragedy, and lots and lots of money

Review: Vivien Horler

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters – the tragic and glamorous lives of Jackie and Lee, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper/ Jonathan Ball)

The reported crudity of the Donald Trump-led White House stands in stark contrast to the style in which Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived their White House years.

Elegance, beauty, appreciation of art and erudition were hallmarks of their lives (with a fair bit of bed-hopping thrown in).

Like Trump, both the Kennedy and Bouvier families were wealthy, although like Trump, Jack’s father Joe Kennedy sen was, according to the American writer Gore Vidal, “exuberantly and successfully a crook”.

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Le Carré cashes in rivetingly on resumption of Cold War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House UK)

Moscow Centre is up and running again, its tentacles stronger and more malicious than ever. Its agent are all over London. It has a US president in its boss’s pocket, has begun to break up a European market alliance and even undermine its greatest enemy, Nato. All the hard work done by George Smiley to turn Moscow Centre’s mastermind Karla and foreshadow the end of communism has been undone in only a few years. No wonder John le Carré is in his element.

Our greatest spy novelist never quire reached the heights of the Karla trilogy once the Cold War ended. With Agent Running in the Field, he might be touching them again. 

Except that Moscow Centre, back to its old brutal efficiency, is less of the story than Le Carré’s usual theme of betrayal, which I hope is not giving too much away in a story that is riveting from beginning to end. Continue reading

A story of love and loss and the meaning of home

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

The Dutch House is an opulent home built by a Dutch couple in a small town in Pennsylvania, with carved staircases, guilded ceilings, a ballroom and a lavish light-filled glass hallway.

It is also filled with the Dutch couple’s possessions including carpets and oil paintings, and when Danny Conroy’s property developer father buys it, it is statement that he has arrived.

Young Danny takes the house for granted, never having lived anywhere else, but his beloved older sister Maeve remembers a more impecunious past. Their troubled mother never settles, and eventually leaves, while their father is distant. But the children have each other and a couple of devoted family retainers. Life is pretty good.

Continue reading

A media story that is not over yet

Review: Vivien Horler

Paper Tiger, by Alide Dasnois & Chris Whitfield (Tafelberg)

We staff were pretty pleased when Dr Iqbal Survé bought Independent Newspapers in 2013. For years the Irish owners of the group, headed by Sir Tony O’Reilly, had been exporting the company’s profits to shore up his failing media empire in the UK and Ireland.

Under O’Reilly, bureaus in London, New York and Washington were closed, as was the Argus Africa News Service. Newsrooms were juniorised and staff was shed. In 2011 the Media Workers Association of South Africa published a case study which pointed out staff numbers had dwindled from 5 223 in 1994, around the time the Irish bought the company, to 1 500.

Assets were stripped. The Pretoria News lost its presses and its printers, the old Argus garage building on its valuable site off Buitensingel Street was sold, followed by the Newspaper House presses and then Newspaper House itself.

When I started as a junior reporter in the 1970s, the Argus boasted three court reporters; a crime staff; defence, religion and shipping correspondents; political staff who covered Parliament as well as provincial and local authorities; education and health reporters; financial and property staff; an arts department; two women’s departments, each with its own women’s editor – which did seem a bit much; its own subbing pool and a well-staffed cuttings library.

By the time the Irish went, most of these had gone too. Newsrooms had been sharply reduced, the cuttings library closed and the cuttings dumped, and a general subbing pool served all the titles in the group.

At this stage the authors of Paper Tiger – Alide Dasnois, editor of the Cape Times, and Chris Whitfield, editor-in-chief of Independent Newspapers Cape – found their jobs increasingly difficult. They write: “Editors’ roles became complicated: on one hand they were trying to bring out credible newspapers, on the other to protect their dwindling resources from cost cutting.”

So there was optimism when Survé bought the group. He said at the time he did not intend to make any major changes in his first 100 days of ownership while he assessed operations.

Late on December 5, 2013 – almost exactly 100 days later – President Jacob Zuma announced Nelson Mandela had died. By that time of evening newspapers across the group had largely finalised the next day’s morning editions, and now had to scramble to get the latest news into print.

As anyone who has followed this saga knows, different newspapers adopted different strategies. At the Argus editor Jermaine Craig opted to clear several pages including page one, page three and the “oped” comment page. Despite various claims to the contrary by people including former Cape Times reporter Tony Weaver and media commentator Ed Herbst, this was perfectly possible in spite of time and equipment constraints.

Dasnois, on the other hand, famously chose to leave the Cape Times as it was and instead carry the Madiba news, comment and tributes in a four-page wraparound.

The Cape Times’s lead for the morning of December 6 – which remained in place inside the wraparound – was a report on the findings of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela into what she referred to as the “improper” awarding of a contract to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium. Survé was chairman of Sekunjalo.

The next morning Dasnois was effectively fired.

This was one of the first of a raft of changes to Independent News & Media. Many experienced reporters – of all colours – left over the next few years, some saying they had been forced out, others no longer feeling at home in the company. One of the first to resign was Whitfield, who left in early 2014, followed by most my colleagues and friends.

The subtitle of Paper Tiger is “Iqbal Survé and the downfall of Independent Newspapers” but in fact the book focuses to a large extent on events at the Cape Times around and after the firing of Dasnois.

The book makes for gripping reading, although close followers of what has happened at Independent Newspapers will be familiar with a lot of the content, much of which has appeared in various media in the past six years.

However, in the style of recent local histories such as Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State, Pieter du Toit’s The Stellenbosch Mafia, Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage, and Crispian Olver’s How to Steal a City, Paper Tiger provides a useful and  comprehensive record of events as they have unfolded.

But times roll on. In the past week the Public Investment Corporation, which provided a chunk of the money Survé used to buy the media company, filed liquidation proceedings in the Western Cape High Court against Sekunjalo Independent Media, which the company has rejected as “incompetent, mala fide, malicious and frivolous”.

Clearly this story still has a way to go.


If Mediterranean food is good, Cape Med must be better…

Review: Myrna Robins

Cape Mediterranean, by Ilse van der Merwe (Struik Lifestyle)

Neither heritage nor nostalgic – the contents of this colourful hardback focus on the fare you would find on long lunch  tables, set in vineyards, on patios or under beach umbrellas.

The meal starts with breads and spreads, goes on to tapas-like starters, followed by generous salads and vegetable dishes around crisp roasts or grilled seafood. Such appetising scenes can be found all over our country, but are more prevalent in the Western Cape, where the Mediterranean climate calls for seasonal, sustainable al fresco feasting.

The cuisine of the Mediterranean basin incorporates that of south-western Europe, the Middle East and north Africa, and is driven by olive oil, fruit, vegetables, seafood and wine, with some meat and dairy. Many South Africans who relish contemporary fare embrace CapeMed, as it also known, while often adding more poultry and meat than the northern cooks do. Continue reading