Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Vibrant, delectable Lebanese food

Review: Myrna Robins

Saffron in the Souks, by John Gregory-Smith (Kyle Books)

Such an English name penning a cookbook on Lebanese cuisine was my initial reaction; then I found out that Gregory-Smith is a best-selling food and travel writer who specialises in Middle Eastern fare.

He  has published four books of recipes highlighting both this and North African cuisine, among them the sweetly named Orange Blossom & Honey.

Vibrant is the thought that comes to mind when contemplating the delectable, colourful food of  Lebanon, with its generous use of herbs and spices. Although I have never visited this small country, I have relished several of its classics, thanks to Lebanese chefs and restaurants in the Western Cape.

As the author says, mention Lebanon and images of war are likely to come to mind –  and today volatile politics and perilous finances pile additional problems onto a population that is a melting pot of cultures. Muslims, Druze, Christians, Armenians, Syrians and Palestinians have all helped shape the cuisine that started with the Phoenicians in the third millennium BC followed by the Romans in 64BC. Continue reading

Conquest of Africa at 80 – in a good way

Review: Vivien Horler

My African Conquest – Cape to Cairo at 80, by Julia Albu (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

JULIA Albu likes a road trip. Her epic covered about 11 000km through 11 African countries and 9 European ones. But unlike most overlanders, Albu was 80 and her car, a bog standard Toyota Conquest, was 20.

Breathlessly she told John Maytham on Cape Talk in June 2016: “Next year I’m going to be 80 years old. My car will be 20 years old. Together we’ll be 100. We’re going to drive to Cairo.”

Surprised, he responded: “And what route are you going to take?”

“I have no idea. I think I’ll keep to the right.”

And that’s what this indomitable woman did: head north from Jakkalsfontein on the West Coast to Cairo and Alexandria, via Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. Continue reading

Page-turning story of the Kindertransport

Review: Vivien Horler
The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)
Everyone is Present, by Terry Kurgan (Fourthwall Books)
When you’re 15 and the scion of a wealthy and influential family, national and international politics are, usually, peripheral to your life. There are more important things, like friends and school and, for Stephan Neuman of Vienna, the burning desire to be a playwright.
But it’s 1936, Stephan is Jewish, and life is about to change in every possible way. March 1938 brings the Anschluss, and Hitler marches into Vienna.
Hitler’s lieutenant in Vienna is the icy Adolf Eichmann, who has been tasked with solving the “Jewish” problem in Austria. His idea is to provoke the Jews to leave the country by undermining their economic footing.
In the eight months between the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and business across the Reich are vandalised, many people are killed and 30 000 Jews, mainly men, aree arrested, life in Vienna alters unrecognisably. Stephan’s father is beaten and taken into custody, and Stephan, by now 17 and nearly a man, goes into hiding. He also keeps away from his non-Jewish friends, especially maths whizz Zofie-Helene.
Meanwhile in Britain parliament is debating the issue of allowing large numbers of Jewish children into the country. There is resistance – do they want a lot of Jews, even if they are children? Will the taxpayer be forced to pay for them? MPs are assured: it will be just for a time, until the present unpleasantness is over, and then the children can go home.
In the Netherlands a childless woman, Truus Wijsmuller, has been smuggling small numbers of children, most of them Jewish, out of the Reich to various countries in Europe including Britain. Now she feels she has to up her game.
She gets an appointment with Eichmann in Vienna and obtains permission for 600 children to go to Britain, provided she can arrange it all in a matter of days. And it must be exactly 600 children – one more or fewer and none can go. Continue reading

For women it’s a different world, thank God

Review: Vivien Horler

Mrs Everything, by Jennifer Weiner (Piatkus)

I remember as a small girl in the 1950s, being told to sit with my knees together like “a little lady”. I remember overhearing my mother once telling my dad, apologetically, that she couldn’t seem to interest me in domestic matters, like cooking.

It was such a different world from the one we’ve partly inherited, partly created today. Expectations, particularly of women, have changed so much, thank God.

Mrs Everything is a family saga about two Jewish sisters growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, and how expectations can be turned upside down. There is Jo, tomboyish and the despair of her mother, and Bethie, sweet, pretty and biddable.

The book opens with the Kaufman family moving from an apartment in the poor part of town to a nice house with a lawn in the suburbs. Proud that he has been able to buy it for his family, Jo’s dad tells his wife this is “the American dream”.

He sets up a picture of them in front of the house, but Jo ruins it. She hates girly clothes, she feels as though she’s in disguise when forced to wear lacy socks and puffed-sleeve dresses.

Jo doesn’t know how to fit in, how to be good, like Bethie. Later she realises she likes girls much more than boys, and that she really is different.

But years later life has turned out not as planned. Jo is the wife who stays home with her daughters, while Bethie has joined the counter culture, going to music festivals and enthusiastically embracing drugs and free love, all against a background of Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib.

This is a love story – occasionally a fairly raunchy one – but it is also about expectations met and unmet, about being Jewish in a largely non-Jewish society, racism, and frustration.

It is also about how sisters can blame each other for the way their lives develop, about guilt, and eventually about feeling whole and accepted in one’s own body.

And it illustrates the change in society from the 60s to now, from a time when an abortion can upend a life to the present when an unplanned pregnancy is not a disaster and the resulting baby is accepted and loved.

It’s a different world.

Tenderness and the Beast

Review: Archie Henderson

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan)

Even for those who have played rugby over the years, the front row is the place to avoid. It’s where the grunts of the game live, and terrible stories are told at beer-drinking sessions in the clubhouse about it after games. 

The front row is the front line; it’s where opponents literally knock heads. Once a scrum is set, the exponents on both sides – from the left, the loosehead prop, the hooker and the tighthead – engage in activities that the referee cannot see, not even the television match official with his probing cameras. Punches can be thrown, ears can be bitten, testicles can be kicked, thumbs can be broken. And all of it out of sight. Continue reading

How Hitler misled Chamberlain – and other lies with fatal results

Review: Vivien Horler

Talking to Strangers – What we should know about the people we don’t know, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books)

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling, interesting and insightful writer credited with developing the 10 000 hours theory of success: anyone can be an “overnight” winner when they’ve put in the hard work, usually around 10 000 hours of it.

Until Talking to Strangers, I’d read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, both of which I found fascinating. Actually Talking to Strangers is interesting too, full of striking anecdotes about how strangers tend to misunderstand each other, often with fatal consequences.

A story familiar to most of us is that of the meetings between Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Germany a year or so before the outbreak of World War 2. Hitler was being increasingly bellicose and, amid fears of war, Chamberlain went to see him to judge whether he was going to be satisfied with annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, or whether he had wider territorial ambitions. Continue reading

Novel of courage to make a life in a narrow society

Review: Vivien Horler
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press/ Jonathan Ball)
The deaths of millions of young men in World War I meant a generation of young women was unable to marry and have children.
Society has changed so much since the early 1930s when this novel, by the author of the bestselling Girl with a Pear Earring, is set. We may think our world lacks kindness and tolerance today, but prejudice was rife in middle class England in 1932 and being a “spinster” was a challenge.
Violet Speedwell, born in the last years of the 19th century, loses both a brother and a fiance in the war. In her mid-30s at the start of this novel, she has moved away from her family home in Southampton, Continue reading

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