Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Beating a mountain of rock and ice, atoms and stars

Review: Vivien Horler

One Man’s Climb – a journey of trauma, tragedy and triumph on K2, by Adrian Hayes (Pen & Sword)

K2 is not the highest mountain in the world, but unlike Everest, very few people have climbed it.

It is more remote than Everest, which is why it never acquired a local name – the title K2 comes from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India, begun in 1802 and finished in 1871.

Italian climber Fosco Maraini referred to K2 as: “Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no sense to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has all the nakedness of the world before the first man – or the cindered planet after the last.” Continue reading

Chilling tale of murder in Nordic noir thriller

Review: Vivien Horler

The Reckoning, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Hodder)

yrsa Cold, snowy and bleak, the Reykjavik Yrsa Sigurdardottir writes about does not warm the cockles of a reader’s heart.

Yet Iceland is becoming a major tourism draw; according to Wikipedia the industry now contributes upward of 10% of the country’s GNP, and in 2017 the number of foreign visitors exceeded 2 million for the first time. I was one of them, and I was both fascinated and charmed.

The country, which virtually touches the Arctic Circle, could not be more different from South Africa, with its jagged volcanic mountains, its icebergs and its terrifying prices. Cars have heaters but no air-con, the default position of taps is hot and you have to let them run cold, and streets in the capital have underfloor heating – thanks to the wealth of free hot water produced by the country’s natural geysers (geysir is an Icelandic word). Continue reading

Old newspaperman looks back

Review: Vivien Horler

Vintage Love and Other Essays, by Jolyon Nuttall (Jacana)

vintage loveI spent my entire career as a journalist working for the old Argus Company, publishers of newspapers including the Cape Argus in Cape Town, The Star in Johannesburg and the Daily News in Durban.

One of the top guys in management, whom I didn’t know but with whose name I was familiar, was Jolyon Nuttall, who started at the Daily News as a reporter and went on to become the manager of the Star and a director of the company.

On newspapers there is a gulf between editorial, the people who produce what you read, and management, the people who control the money. Relations are not always cordial.

Or as Nuttall puts it in one of the essays in this small, delightful and beautifully produced book: “Management was the antithesis of everything Editorial stood for. It was there to curb editorial initiatives, to pay the staff as little as possible, to control – and cut – costs at every turn and place constant impediments in their way. Above all, Management failed to recognise that the very newspaper existed only because of Editorial and the content it produced.”

Nevertheless he made a successful career in management and when he retired he was delighted to be referred to as “an editor’s manager”.

Nuttall says that in early 2016 he spent two months within a bus ride of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became a regular. He found a section titled “Essays and Non-Fiction Literature”, which had a seat in an alcove where he spent hours, and essentially discovered what was to him a new literary form: the essay.

“It was neither memoir nor autobiography… It tended to focus on specific episodes, specific people, specific periods in which the essayist had been involved. It was time bound. In many of the essays there was a narrative…”

The experience in the Harvard Book Store led directly to this collection of essays, a form which, he says, has brought “astonishing focus” to his writing. There is no sequential connection between the essays other than the fact they are episodes and memories in the life of one man.

His subjects cover the death of his beloved wife Jean after more than 40 years of marriage, the pleasures of grandchildren, the freedom he and his twin brother experienced as young boys growing up in Newcastle in the old Natal, first love, the Alan Paton he knew (Nuttall’s father Neville and Paton were lifelong friends), spending a summer in New York with Drum writer Lewis Nkosi, managing stress (keeping chickens turned out to an inspired solution), trout fishing and newspaper publishing in the 1980s in South Africa.

His career in newspapers took place against a background of what he calls a darkening political landscape. The government of the day hated the press, particularly the “Engelse pers”, and introduced a series of increasingly draconian laws to keep its dirty secrets under wraps.

Nuttall recalls how a team of media lawyers was on hand to guide editorial through what felt like “walking blindfold through a minefield”.

Or as he puts it: “Our instruction to the lawyers in giving us this advice was to allow us to walk as close to the edge of the precipice as possible without falling off.”

It has become fashionable to decry companies like the old Argus company for continuing to operate in a tightening political landscape which demanded certain compromises, but in many cases editors and their journalists – reporters and photographers – functioned in a fraught environment with true courage.

However, as a former president of the Newspaper Press Union, Nuttall was often confronted by the apartheid machine, and he says he has subsequently questioned whether the actions and initiatives they took “in good faith stand up to scrutiny”.

A technique used by the government was to provide NPU members with confidential background briefings in a bid to make clear the challenges the government was facing, putting the more liberal side of the press into a very awkward position.

He writes: “In my mouth the distaste remains… The only ultimate satisfaction to be drawn from the saga was the collapse of the regime while the press survived to tell the story of the birth of a new South Africa.”

Because of my own history with the Argus company I found these reflections particularly interesting, especially when trying to put names to people he has tactfully left nameless (including my father-in-law).

But the collection contains so much more than newspapers. On the whole the essays make for a gentle, charming read and a reminder of a different time.

 

 

Author uncovers an extraordinary tale of her slave ancestors and their forgotten village

Review: Vivien Horler

Land of My Ancestors, by Botlhale Tema (Penguin Books)

land of ancestors

The cover picture features Botlhale Tema’s grandparents Stephanus and Elisa Moloto, with their daughters Bernice, Christina and Madira and their nephew William Moloto in the 1920s.

If you should visit the Pilanesberg National Park near Sun City,  you might come across an old monument and a newer memorial stone that hints at an almost forgotten history.

They are in the shade of an ancient wild olive tree under whose branches a small Dutch Reformed congregation used to hold their services until they built a little church. Today the church and associated cottages are gone, and the surrounding land is as empty as it was when the first missionary arrived on what had been the farm Welgeval.

In Land of My Ancestors Dr Botlhale Tema tells the extraordinary story of Welgeval, the origins of the people who lived and farmed there for more than a century, and how they lost the village in 1980 when the government of Bophuthatswana incorporated the land into the Pilanesberg National Park.

Tema says she grew up grew up happy. As a child every weekend she and her family would travel back to Welgeval, where she knew everyone and was related to nine out of 10 people she encountered. Continue reading

Kingsolver novel sugars the medicine, but gets its message across

Review: Vivien Horler

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber & faber)

unshelteredIt’s hard to imagine a world in which belief in Darwin’s theories was considered to be heresy, and yet it is said that around a third of Americans still reject them today (the same research, reported in January 2015 by the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC, found that half the population did not believe in human-generated climate change either).

Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels and other writing will know she is an earth warrior, unashamed to use her fiction as a vehicle in which to drive her views on the dangers of human profligacy and ignorance.

Her last novel, Flight Behaviour, about the plight of migrating butterflies, or Prodigal Summer, about the unhappy interface between small-time farmers and coyotes (in the South African context read sheep farmers and leopards and/or caracals) both have strong moral lessons. Continue reading

The Khamas and South Africa’s shameful part in trying to stop the marriage

Review: Vivien Horler

Your People will be My People – the Ruth Khama Story, by Sue Grant-Marshall (Protea Book House)

ruth khamaThe story of the marriage of Seretse Khama, a Bechuana chief in waiting, and Lloyds of London clerk Ruth Williams, has been told many times, most recently in the film A United Kingdom which was released in South Africa in 2016.

Not only was Ruth’s father vehemently opposed to the wedding, which took place in 1948 in a London very different from the multicultural city of today, so were Khama’s uncle Tshekedi, regent of the powerful Bamangwato tribe, and the British government.

But one of the major themes of this compelling biography of Lady Khama, as she eventually became, was the wily behind-the-scenes involvement of the South African government in the entire affair. And it doesn’t emerge with honour.

In the late 1800s Bechuanaland, Basutholand and Swaziland, as they were then known, feared amalgamation into what became the Union of South Africa, and sent representatives to London to ask Queen Victoria to protect them from this fate. She agreed, and as a result they became known as British Protectorates.

But as late as the 1950s South Africa was still hoping to absorb the protectorates. And naturally the last thing DF Malan’s government wanted was to deal with a territory where the chief of the most powerful tribal grouping was married to a white woman.

South Africa was helped in its campaign by Sir Evelyn Baring, who was not only Britain’s high commissioner to South Africa, but also represented Britain in the protectorates. Baring played a major role in persuading the British government to do everything possible to prevent the marriage, including telling the vicar on the morning of the intended marriage that he was not free to conduct the ceremony.

The couple were eventually married in a registry office a couple of days later, leading to consternation in Britain, Bechuanaland and South Africa. The Bamangwato people eventually accepted the marriage, but South Africa did everything possible to lobby Britain to prevent the Khamas returning to the territory, and at one point the British government banned them from the protectorate for life. Later they were allowed to return, on condition that Khama renounced his claim to the chieftainship for himself and his heirs.

Taking their lead from the British government view of the marriage, many British officials working in Bechuanaland shunned the Khamas socially. This was not a major hardship for Seretse, but was tough on Ruth who had exchanged a busy life in London for a large dusty village which had none of the amenities she was used to and to whose people she was unable to speak because of the language barrier.

Behind South Africa’s attitude, the British government was told, was the fact “the very existence of white settlement in these territories depended, in view of the numerical inferiority and defencelessness of the white population, upon the principle that the native mind regarded the white woman as inviolable”.

The Transvaler wrote in a leading article that the British government “must know that there is no room or role for a native with a white wife and coloured child in the territories surrounding the Union”.

Seretse questioned whether the British government “was prepared to sacrifice the friendship of 60 million Africans for the doubtful friendship of Union Prime Minister Dr Malan”, but it was clear that in fact the British government was. This was partly due to the fact Britain very much did not want South Africa, her staunch ally in the recent World War II, to leave the Commonwealth, and partly to the strong personal relationship between Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts.

It was a shameful episode for all concerned – except the couple at the centre of the storm who behaved throughout with courage and grace. And as we know, the story eventually had a happy ending, with Seretse becoming the first president of an independent Botswana, and Ruth the country’s beloved first lady

Sue Grant-Marshall, a former reporter with the Cape Argus, grew up partly in Bechuanaland where her father, Peter Cardross, was a district commissioner. He worked in the Khama’s home village of Serowe, among other places, and became friends with the Khamas.

This gave Grant-Marshall the access to Ruth for the interviews on which much of this book is based. It was finished around 1984, and then languished for want of a publisher. Some felt the story was too romantic, others too political, and one London publisher told her no one was interested anyway.

But now Protea Books has published it and it is well worth reading, not only for the romance and the politics, but also for a glimpse into the history of the time.

Grant-Marshall says of Seretse: “I thought he was incredible, with a wonderful sense of humour, no bitterness and a gorgeous personality.

“But I was much closer to Ruth, especially after Seretse died. She became like a second mother to me. She had a sharp wit, was incredibly intelligent, and as a young woman was beautiful. And when I think of her, the word that comes to mind is courage.”

Sadly, Ruth did not lived to see the book’s publication as she died in 2002. But Grant-Marshall is “over the moon” that her work has finally been recognised, and feels that she has been true to the passion that both she and Ruth put into it.

  • A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 17, 2019.

 

A tale of adventure, courage and bitter failure in the polar seas

Review: Vivien Horler

Erebus – the story of a ship, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson)

ErebusThree years ago a 68 870 ton cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, sailed through the icy waters of the almost mythical Northwest Passage.

For well over a century Europeans had hoped to discover a route through Canada’s Arctic archipelago which would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and provide a shortcut to access trade with the Far East.

Scores of sailors and explorers, many of them British, died in the efforts to find what was the inpenetrable ice-choked passage.

Now, thanks to global warming, the passage is open to cruise liners carrying more than a thousand passengers. Continue reading

Teaching English in South-East Asia – with difficulty

There Goes English Teacher – a memoir, by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books)

VIVIEN HORLER

english teacher

Karin Cronje with her book.

Anecdotally it would seem that hundreds of young South Africans have gone to South-east Asia to teach English. The money is good, prices are cheap, and the social life with South Africans and other expatriates is fun.

Karin Cronje did it too, but she was 49, she went to a small village in South Korea where virtually no one spoke English – her Korean was non-existent – and there were few expatriates with whom to bond socially.

As for making friends with Koreans, that was a pretty hopeless task. “It’s just too foreign. The society is fundamentally different from the way we are. They won’t let you in, you will forever be this outsider to whom they are mostly very polite, and that’s it.”

Cronje had planned to stay in Korea until what she calls her decrepitude, building up her pension, saving money to put her son through his architecture degree and also raising money for her former domestic worker’s pension. “I was going to make loads of money and spend a substantial chunk of my life there, like 15 years or so.”

She discovered that while the money was good for young people who had just finished their studies and needed to pay off loans, it wasn’t really enough for a woman entering her 50s who had more extensive goals.

In fact she stayed for just two years, returning to South Africa in time for the publication of her second Afrikaans novel Alles mooi weer.

“There’s a line in English Teacher that says you have to go home before home isn’t home any more. I saw expatriates in Korea who had completely lost touch, with home and with themselves. They never settle there properly, and they become floaters. One woman who had been in Korea for five years summed up the danger – she said she was not at home in her own country any more, and she was certainly not at home in Korea.”

One of the aims Cronje wanted to achieve in Korea was to rewrite Alles mooi weer, whose protagonist, Hilette, was so obnoxious even Cronje couldn’t stand her.

“It’s one thing to have an anti-hero – I enjoy anti-heroes more than beautiful heroes – but I had such a deep hatred for Hilette. Every negative feeling I had about myself and my culture I projected on to Hilette, and I thought going away would help me change the tone of that woman. In that sense Korea was a success story because I started to have some empathy with her – I must have been feeling more at ease with aspects of myself.”

And the book, when it appeared, was critically acclaimed, winning the Jan Rabie / Rapport prize.

There were, says Cronje, beautiful moments in Korea. She became close to Dae-ho who taught meditation and with whom she connected on a spiritual level: “Without that man, that gentle man, I don’t know how I would have survived.” She also made a couple of Korean friends.

But the work wasn’t satisfactory. Her first job was at a private after-care centre for children whose parents were paying a premium for them to learn English, and the children would be there till all hours of the night after a full day at government schools. There was far too much emphasis on rote learning and ticking off boxes, and too little on really learning to speak English.

Her second job was at university which was better, but a she was unnerved by what she calls the cesspool of gossip among the expats. As a result of trying not to stand out like a sore thumb among the tiny and reserved Koreans, and not getting involved in expat politics, Cronje increasingly isolated herself and shut herself down.

She returned home to Cape Town and had to find somewhere to live as she had tenants in her Newlands home. Then followed an unsettling period staying with various friends, trying to find her scattered boxes, and coping with some of the dodgy friends her son Marko had made in her absence.

She had changed, but her friends hadn’t and relationships suffered. She worried about money, about getting older, about her relationship with Marko, and whether she would ever have sex again. One night, while staying in her friend Dorrian’s cottage, she had a meltdown. Her description sounds like a nervous breakdown but Cronje says no, it was a breakthrough.

“There had been the two years in Korea where I had to be silent and make myself small. Then back here people messed me over while I was trying to fit in and not connecting, making me not me, and on top of all that being exhausted. And then that night in Dorrian’s cottage I thought, f*** that! I found my voice again. That’s what broke through.”

After years of staying in other’s people’s houses, renting here and there, today Cronje lives in a light, bright house she has bought in Simon’s Town with sweeping views of False Bay. Marko is married to a wonderful woman and Cronje now has two small grandchildren. Life is looking good.

There Goes English Teacher is both highly readable and brave. Not many of us would lay ourselves open the way Cronje has. But she has no regrets.

“I was happy to reveal the Korean experiences, even though I was writing about personal and intimate things. But the stuff I wrote about life after coming back – that gave me sleepless nights.

“However, the worst thing that can happen for me is self-censorship. If I start censoring myself then I don’t want to live any more. I expect the world to do that, but bloody hell, if I start doing that to myself, it’s like cutting out my tongue.”

  • This review/interview also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday January 27 2019.

 

Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved. Continue reading

‘That should shut you up!’ – How Barack Obama proposed to Michelle

Review: Vivien Horler

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

becoming michellleThere’s a joke that has Barack Obama telling his wife: “I may not be the perfect husband, but you did get to be the wife of the president of the United States.”

“Oh,” replies Michelle, “that was always a given.”

But that’s not how Michelle Obama comes across in this highly readable and absorbing autobiography. She is a self-confessed control freak, often irritable with her husband, and likes everything planned, sorted and organised. But she also tries to live out the motto: “When they go low, we go high”, and it shows.

As an ambitious high school pupil in Chicago’s working class South Side, Michelle told the school counsellor she wanted to go to Princeton, one of the US’s top universities. The counsellor replied: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” Continue reading