Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

The pattern of the stones: a look at Southern Africa’s ancient history

Reviewer: Myrna Robins

Palaces of  Stone, by Mike Main and Tom Huffman (Struik Travel & heritage)

This fascinating jam-packed softback’s subtitle is: “Uncovering ancient Southern African kingdoms”, and contains a wealth of information on both the stone palaces in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa and the legacy of their early inhabitants, from AD 900 to around 1850.

Whereas most of us know about Great Zimbabwe, the others are lesser known, as are their ancient civilisations. Authors Mike Main and Tom Huffman have uncovered more than 566 of these stone palaces, many of which exhibit intricate and beautiful stonework, illustrating exceptional craftsmanship for building in stone without mortar.  Readers find out not only about the architecture, but – contrary to popular belief – that this African hinterland was the scene of much activity involving mining, commerce, transportation, farming and hunting.

The story begins on the fertile floodplain at the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, near the current border shared by Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. This was the setting for human occupation from the Early Stone Age but it was around 900 that the first Bantu-speaking villagers settled in the area where fragments of their pottery have been found. Continue reading

If dictionaries, words and love please you, you’ll enjoy this book

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

When I was a news editor, a crime reporter whose mother tongue was not English,  wrote an article about a hold-up and said the victim had been “gunpointed”.

I was delighted by the word: its meaning was plain, and it was more concise than “held up at gunpoint”.

But I didn’t let it through, because “gunpointed” was not a proper word and I didn’t think it belonged in the newspaper. I was wrong.

The both moving and delightful Dictionary of Lost Words is about all about the compilation of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, a project that was set to take 10 years and eventually took 70. It was published in 12 volumes, which came out fitfully over the years and was completed in 1928.

The novel is also about the words that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the first edition of the dictionary. Continue reading

How a single family fuelled the US opiod crisis

Review: Vivien Horler

Empire of Pain: the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador)

I’d never heard of the Sackler family until I picked up this book. But it seems I should have. They were famous American philanthropists whose name adorned art galleries including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum; buildings at Harvard, Tuft’s and Oxford and even a museum of art and archaeology in Beijing.

They were richer than the Vanderbilts or the Carnegies had ever been, and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet as New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe points out, the precise origin of the Sacklers’ wealth was somewhat mysterious.

This was because they went to great lengths to avoid having their family name associated with the family business: a pharmaceuticals company known as Purdue Pharma which developed and sold a powerful anti-pain drug called OxyContin.

Continue reading

Uncovering the terrible truth of a secret massacre

Review: Vivien Horler

Bloody Sunday – the nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre, by Mignonne Breier (Tafelberg)

Mignonne Crozier has brought all her skills as a journalist, academic and researcher to uncovering the dreadful events of a massacre in East London on November 9, 1952.

She believes it is likely many more people died on that and subsequent days than the 69 who were killed eight years later at Sharpeville. But the official figures were eight Duncan Village residents shot or bayoneted by police, and two whites killed in retaliation, one of them a nun.

In the late 1940s and early 50s conditions in the tightly packed “locations” of East London were dire and people were angry. In June 1952 the ANC launched the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws.

The idea was for people to deliberately break apartheid laws, be arrested and overwhelm the jails. The campaign started peacefully, but from October there had been violence, first in Port Elizabeth, then Johannesburg and, on November 8, in  Kimberley. Continue reading

The story of love between an Afrikaner icon and a young Jewish woman

Review: Vivien Horler

Searching for Sarah – the woman who loved Langehoven, by Dominique Malherbe (Tafelberg)

CJ Langenhoven, the Afrikaans activist, writer and poet best known – to English-speaking  South Africans anyway – as the writer of Die Stem, the country’s former national anthem, had a long-time Jewish lover. Not only that, she had a son by him in the mid-1920s.

Skandaal – who would have thought?

After Langehoven’s death in 1931 Sarah Eva Goldblatt, the executor of his literary estate, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his work and his legacy.

By the time she died in 1975, aged 86, more than two million copies of Langenhoven’s books had been sold, one of the country’s greatest literary successes. In a blurb on the cover, publishers Tafelberg says Goldblatt made a significant contribution to Afrikaans literature – not bad for a girl reared speaking only English and Yiddish.

Yet until now her efforts have hardly been acknowledged, and in her dedication to this quest, author Dominique Malherbe says her book is for “the memories of countless women like Sarah, whose lives were lived in the shadows”. Continue reading

He writes so well, dammit

Review: Vivien Horler

But He Speaks So Well – Memoir of a South African identity crisis, by Ivan Johnson (Tafelberg)

Ivan Johnson is something of a shape-shifter. He’s hard to pin down – he found himself hard to pin down. But he’s had a lot of fun trying in the writing of this delightful and often hilarious memoir of a young man growing up in Cape Town.

Today Ivan Johnson is a veteran ad man with his own agency, 3Verse. He’s won awards, he writes radio commercials, and has been a juror and president at industry award shows all over the world.

But once he was a little coloured boy in Belgravia Estate, living with his parents and two older sisters in a comfortable home on the edge of Athlone. Or Rondebosch East, as he then preferred to call it. Aunts and uncles and cousins lived nearby. He was part of a close community.

Continue reading

When you and your family don’t speak the same language

Review: Vivien Horler

A Long Letter to my Daughter, by Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg)

Fifteen or so years ago, I was one of a handful of book journalists invited to interview the Afrikaans writer Marita van der Vyver at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

Van der Vyver was on a visit to South Africa to promote a new book, and had brought her daughter Mia, then about five, to the interview because her child-minding plans had fallen through.

After about 20 minutes of beautiful behaviour, the little girl became bored and started climbing over the backs of the chairs in the elegant tea room, and looking with chilling intent at the bone china cups and saucers.

“Ag Mia,” said an anxious Van der Vyver. “Jy’t mos gesê jy gaan soet wees!”

To which the little girl replied with an angelic smile: “Maman, je t’aime.”

In this delightful memoir, Van der Vyver writes: “…in the meantime I continue to write and speak and live in Afrikaans, at least some of the time. Because although ‘the future’ surprised me two decades ago by washing me ashore in France, and although these days I speak three languages every day, Afrikaans remains the one I speak best. And because as a mother I believe that I should give my children the best, I still speak to you in Afrikaans. Even though you often answer me in a different language.”

Forty or so years ago Van der Vyver, at that stage the single mother of a son, went to France to see what it was like. There she met a Frenchman, a father of two sons, and they ended up married with a daughter of their own.

Four decades ago she never dreamed, she says, that she would end up living in Provence with a French daughter. Many Afrikaans parents today live between languages, having been blown away to faraway lands “like the poet Van Wyk Louw’s plumed grass seeds. And the fact that our children no longer even know who NP van Wyk  Louw was, is part of the dilemma.”

Van der Vyver has lived in France for longer than she lived in South Africa, and yet South Africa is still in a vital sense home, and Afrikaans is the language of her heart (this memoir was translated into English by Annelize Visser). Her novels are first written in Afrikaans, a language her French husband cannot read.

The first time Mia flew between Europe and Africa she was barely two months old. Van der Vyver, now in her early 60s, flew for the first time when she was 18. Boys in her matric class left the country as conscripts “to do things that they would never be able to talk about to their loved ones”.

Her youth, she says, was like living in a bubble of blissful ignorance. There wasn’t even television here then. “We are contemporaries, your father and I, we born in the same year. But we were raised in different worlds.”

And so this letter is an attempt to explain to a young French woman where her mother has come from, and therefore where she has partly come from herself.

Van der Vyver writes of her great-grandparents, whose only book was a bible. Yet for Van der Vyver herself, books have played a vital role in her life. Books, starting at the Bellville library, stories that she loved and yet stories her daughter will never read, because mother and daughter, like Van der Vyver and her husband, grew up in different worlds.

She muses on growing up white in apartheid South Africa, on the future of Afrikaans, on writing, on philosophy, on travel, on motherhood.

As someone who is also in her 60s and also grew up white in apartheid South Africa, I find much of what she says about this country deeply familiar. But there is plenty that is different and surprising too. A Long Letter to my Daughter has been a joy to read.

  • A Long Letter to my Daughter is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 recommended titles for May.




Fabulous tome full of wry humour about the Fab Four

Review: Vivien Horler

One Two Three Four – The Beatles in Time, by Craig Brown (4th Estate)

You could wonder what more is to be said about the Beatles – certainly the bibliography at the end of this book is a reminder of how much has been written about them.

There have even been books about the guys who weren’t in the Beatles during their post-Hamburg years, like Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best.

But Craig Brown has managed to pull together an engaging, lively and readable tome (628 pages) about the Fab Four and their relatively brief time as the Beatles.

Brown’s writing has a hilariously dry touch, which is probably why he has been writing the parodic celebrity diary for Private Eye magazine for more than 30 years. His last book was the wonderful Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, which I loved.

Early on in One Two Three Four we go on a tour with Brown to 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool, now owned by the National Trust, where Paul grew up. It’s one of an “unassuming row of nondescript houses most National Trust members would normally drive through, rather than to”, Brown confides.

Continue reading

New Tempe Brennan thriller keeps you turning the pages

Review: Vivien Horler

The Bone Code, by Kathy Reichs (Simon & Schuster/ Jonathan Ball)

When reading a brief bio of thriller writer Kathy Reichs, you wonder how she manages it all.

Not only has she now written 20 Temperance Brennan novels, as a forensic anthropologist she divided her time between working for the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina, and for a similar organisation in the Canadian province of Quebec.

She co-produced the TV series Bones, based on her boks and her own life.

She’s also been a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and served on the board of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

When I interviewed her some years ago, she told me she had been a member of the team who sifted through tons of debris created by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, searching for human remains and trying to put names to them.

Her life certainly seems to be just as dramatic and interesting as that of Tempe Brennan, although hopefully it has never been as terrifyingly life-threatening as that facing Tempe at the end of The Bone Code. Continue reading

In the 1990s did we move too quickly to ‘normalise’ sport?

Review: Dougie Oakes

Pitch Battles – Sport, racism and resistance, by Peter Hain and André Odendaal (Rowman and Littlefield)

This is a book about the fight against apartheid sport, by activists in South Africa and across the world.

It is a story about how apartheid in sport, like apartheid in South African society, was defeated. But it is also a story brimming with examples of missed opportunities – and filled with questions that, almost 30 years into democracy, have still not been adequately answered.

Was South Africa’s re-entry into international sport done with insufficient thought and too much haste, as many are now suggesting? Was too much sacrificed too quickly by those who had struggled for too long for equal rights? And was too much taken and too little given in return by those who had enjoyed the fruits of apartheid?

Some pointers, if not all the answers, are contained in Pitch Battles by Peter Hain and André Odendaal.

It is one of the few books that tells the story of the efforts to isolate white South African sport from the 1960s to the early 1990s, just before what many believed was the collapse of apartheid.

Importantly, it also examines what happened to the plans and promises for sport in a new South Africa, in the first two decades of democracy.

The book begins dramatically: “Sport had never experienced anything like this before,” it says in the first sentence of its introduction.

And for the next 500-or-so pages, it explains exactly why.

Sometimes, timing is important.

Many would argue that the real impetus against segregated sport took place in 1969-70, when “mass demonstrations and field invasions during the whites-only South African Springbok rugby tour … shone global attention on apartheid in sport and, more broadly, the iniquitous system itself”.

Thousands of protesters disrupted the activities of whites-only teams from apartheid South Africa, leading to the unprecedented stopping, in May 1970, of a scheduled South African cricket tour.

“A year later, the new, headline-grabbing, direct action form of sports protest spread from Britain to former white-run British colony, Australia, and then to New Zealand.”

South African-born Hain, whose family had been forced into exile in Britain, became a key figure in these protests.

To white South Africans he was an ogre. He was “Public Enemy Number One”. He was a longhaired “kommunis”.

Odendaal’s political activism, by contrast, was played out in South Africa many years later. The book describes him as having “participated in small ways through sport and the heritage sector in the broader micro-negotiations that led to the abolition of apartheid”.

Pitch Battles contains several intriguing features – not least the opportunism of so-called sporting greats who reinvented themselves – from being supporters of the apartheid regime and its sports policies to fawning supporters of Nelson Mandela and mainstays of non-racialism.

Take Gary Player….

During apartheid he stated proudly: “I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid.”

South Africa, he added, was the “product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised standards among the alien barbarians because to have abandoned them would have meant its disappearance.”

These words were as racist as those uttered by any of the National Party stalwarts of the day. But not once did he apologise. And yet, after the collapse of the apartheid government, Player inexplicably emerged as one of the “ambassadors” of the new South Africa.

And then there was Ali Bacher….

In 1989, in a South Africa dominated by defiance marches and rallies involving 10s of thousands of protesters by the Mass Democratic Movement, and in which Mandela’s fellow Rivonia trialists were released, Bacher organised a tour by rebel English cricketers.

Brushing aside what was happening in South Africa, he said: “It’s totally unfair for cricketers to say they are against the government. I can assure you I wouldn’t have signed a statement deploring apartheid or the South African Government if asked by [Peter] Hain, or anyone else.”

It sparked the drawing of battle lines between those for and against the tour – at breakneck speed.

Opponents were furious.

The National Sports Congress, strengthened by the “defection” of several top officials from the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), took up the fight.

While this was happening, Hain slipped into South Africa incognito and “illegally”, as a member of Granada Television World in Action team investigating sport in South Africa.

In a daring, high-risk mission, he travelled around the country interviewing some of the top sports anti-apartheid figures (sometimes, under the noses of the security police).

Incredibly, he also interviewed his old enemy, Danie Craven, in his offices at Stellenbosch University. Craven, sounded out beforehand, had agreed to a secret interview with him.

Faced with unprecedented protests, damage to the Newlands pitch, and bomb blasts at one of the Newlands turnstiles and in Paarl (courtesy of MK), the tour was cut short, and the second part, scheduled for 1990, cancelled.

The 1990s were period of unbelievable change in South Africa.

Marches and demonstrations became part of a final big push to defeat apartheid. Mandela was released in 1990. Confidence that freedom was at hand soared, dissipated and soared again. Massacres occurred in the townships of present-day Gauteng and the rural areas of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. White South Africans were asked to agree in a referendum in 1992 to a proposed new South Africa. Chris Hani, the popular SA Communist Party and ANC leader, was assassinated in 1993. The country lurched towards civil war – and then came back from the brink. Agreements were reached, put on hold, and then started up again.

But, overall, political progress was slow.

In sport, though, things moved quickly – too quickly, in the view of many outside the ambit of the ANC.

ANC negotiators believed white South Africans wanted international sport more than anything else – and it was a carrot that they were prepared to entice them with.

There was a cricket tour to India in 1991, a visit to the West Indies shortly afterwards, followed by a World Cup in Australia.

South Africa went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, without a flag and without an anthem.

But despite this generosity, Mandela was betrayed by many for whom he had bent over backwards. The first quarter century of sport in a democratic society had a few notable triumphs, most notably Siya Kolisi becoming the first “black African” to captain South Africa – in the 2019 rugby World Cup tournament in Japan, leading the country to its third World Cup triumph.

But there were far too many racist incidents in different codes of sport – and far too many promises made by newly installed ANC leaders to black sportspeople that did not materialise.

The ANC government discovered, like the National Party had, that politics and sport are inextricably linked.

I pointed this out in the book. In what was described by the authors as “an uncomfortable grounded verdict” on rugby in South Africa, I accused the game’s establishment of being “culpable in that they have collaborated repeatedly with national and provincial governments throughout the country in pretending that all South Africans have equal opportunities on the country’s sports fields”.

I was quoted as saying: “Today, more than ever, entry into the game for black players is still a carefully managed and white-controlled process.

“Players from the townships with aspirations of playing at the highest level have to squeeze their way through a narrow pipeline of elite rugby playing schools, like Kolisi did.”

Pitch Battles is the most comprehensive book ever written on the relationship between South African sport and politics. It should be required reading for anyone wanting a clearer understanding of why during the South Africa of apartheid (and even of today) so many people swore by the mantra of “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

  • Dougie Oakes is a veteran South African activist-journalist and a strong opponent of the retention of the Springbok symbol in rugby.