Leading through tumult – and emerging with dignity

Review: Vivien Horler

Statues and Storms – Leading through change, by Max Price (Tafelberg)

Max Price, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, came back from holiday in January 2016, and looked anxiously ahead to the coming year.

He wrote in his diary: “First day back after a wonderful holiday in Plettenberg Bay. For the first time in eight years I said to [my wife] Deborah, ‘I don’t know if I want this job’.”

The year 2015 had been a tumultous one for SA’s universities. It kicked off in early March with student Chumani Maxwele triggering the Rhodes Must Fall movement by throwing faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT.

Within a month the statue was gone, but that was just the beginning of troubles faced SA universities that year. Rhodes Must Fall segued into the Fees Must Fall movement and the vexed – and expensive – issue of insourcing of certain categories of workers.  Continue reading

They also serve – a gripping novel of saving stolen art in WWII

Review: Vivien Horler

The Paris Deception, by Bryn Turnbull (Headline Review)

Many brave people were part of the French Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, risking – and even sacrificing – their lives for the dream of a free France.

Others were involved in less dramatic acts of resistance but which, if discovered, would probably have had much the same outcome.

This is a novel about a group of people connected with the arts who decided to do what they could, in their own fields, to stymie the Germans.

A peripheral character, Rose Valland, was a real person, an art curator at the Paris-based Musee Jeu de Paume, a Resistance operative dedicated to safeguarding France’s cultural heritage. She secretly recorded the movement of priceless works of art, thousands of which were stolen from Jewish and other “untermensch” such as Roma, Communists and Freemasons, and shipped to the Third Reich. Continue reading

Bedside Table Books for September

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed n full later.

Three books – I Write the Yawning Void, by Sindiwe Magona and edited by Renee Schatteman, Painting a Life in Africa, by Joan van Gogh, and Prison Child, by Felicia Goosen, are among Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

They are some of the books chosen by the book chain as part of their annual Heritage Day celebration in which they highlight “Homebru” books – books that say: “That’s Home, Bru.” –  Vivien Horler


Statues and Storms – Leading through change, by Max Price (Tafelberg)

Max Price was vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018, with the two years between 2015 and 2017 coinciding with “sustained, widespread, disruptive and at times violent protests” of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall campaigns.

He was told afterwards he had appeared “unflappable”, and his response to that was: “Oh wow.” It seems he didn’t feel unflappable at all.

One night at the height of the trouble, he and his wife packed up their valuables and took them to a friend’s house off-campus for safekeeping, as they feared their official on-campus residence, Glenara, might be attacked.

His office was firebombed on the night of February 16, 2016. Emotions ran very high.

Speaking at the launch of this memoir at the V&A Waterfront last week, Price said his first seven years at UCT saw growth and success in research and teaching, and global recognition. Then came Rhodes must Fall.

A number of SA universities, including UCT, had been oases of freedom during apartheid, so many white academics were taken aback by black attitudes – of both staff and students – in 2016. This book was written partly to explore Price’s own and others’ blind spots, he says.

I look forward to reading it.

Painting Life in Africa – by Joan van Gogh (Rockhopper Books)

A talent for art evidently runs in some families, as Joan van Gogh is a lateral descendant of the legendary Vincent. She specialises in botanical art, and has designed postage stamps and illustrated including the SAPPI Tree Spotting series.

She’s also known for landscapes and seascapes as well as portraits of animals in both watercolours and oils.

This volume is an autobiography, starting with her Johannesburg childhood during World War II, and going on to describe a life of wandering the Karoo and bushveld, and painting their inhabitants – plants, animals and views.

My heart sank a little when I opened it – the font in which it’s printed is  unfriendly and the text needs more leading, but the story – as far as I’ve gone anyway – is engaging, and enlivened by delightful pen sketches. And she certainly is a gifted artist.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top titles for September.

I Write the Yawning Void – Selected essays of Sindiwe Magona, ed by Renee Schatteman

Sindiwe Magona is a celebrated and award-winning writer who spent 20 years working for the UN. On her retirement she could have remained in the US, but it was an exciting time in South Africa and she came home to be part of it all.

Despite this devotion to the country of her birth, she says in her introduction to this volume that her writing seems “to come out of anger, disgust, disappointment, sadness or grief; it is provoked by a deep dissatisfaction with some aspect of the life I witness all around me, a life gone all awry”.

Explaining the title of the collection, she says she writes the books she wishes were not necessary. “However, to my way of seeing the world, each book is an injunction to some, if not all members of society, to stop doing what they should not have done… or to do what they ought to have done: acts of commission or omission.”

So don’t expect a comfortable and folksy read here, but much that she writes needs to be taken to heart in this tottering country of ours.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

Prison Child – The story of Vanessa Goosen’s daughter, by Felicia Goosen and Deonette de Kock (LuxVerbi)

In early 1994 Vanessa Goosen, just 21, was found guilty by a Thai court of drug trafficking and sentenced to death. But because it was a first offence, and she was pregnant, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Lard Yao prison.

Goosen, a Miss SA semi-finalist, had gone on a trip to Bangkok where she was asked by her boyfriend’s friend to bring back some engineering books he needed.

She willingly agreed, but when she was passing through immigration to leave the country, the spines of the books were slashed and heroin poured out.

Seven months later Felicia was born. By the rules of the prison, she was able to stay with her mother for three years, but on her third birthday she was sent to SA into the care of a family friend, who raised her for the next 16 years.

Although Felicia was well-treated and even loved by her foster family, she had enormous difficulty coming to terms with what she felt was her mother’s rejection. For a long time she was in a “deep, black hole”. Then, aged 24 she returned from a missionary outreach in Lard Yao, her birthplace, and finally found closure.

She is, she says, now able to talk about her life, and this book is her story.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

Fraud – How prison set me free, by Nikki Munitz (Melinda Ferguson Books)

A woman in prison is also the theme of this book. Nikki Munitz, born into a wealthy Johannesburg Jewish family, became hooked on heroin. She was sent to a rehab facility in Noupoort in the Karoo, where she met and fell in love with Jake, the son of what turns out to have been a dodgy Afrikaans family.

They married, but Jake continued his drug habit. Money was short, and Munitz got work at a law firm, where she discovered it was relatively easy to make life more comfortable by helping herself to the firm’s trust account – to the tune of R2.5 million.

At first she was terrified, but no one seemed to notice. By now the mother of two children, Nikki told Jake where the extra money was coming from, and he  promptly told his father. The father-in-law insisted some of the money be paid into his account.

Eventually they were all arrested, Nikki, Jake and the father-in-law. By now Nikki had left Jake, and had her own lawyer, who advised her to plead guilty. She was sentenced to eight years in prison, five suspended. Jake and the father-in-law were acquitted.

Prison was a devastating blow for a single mother of two young children, and yet, unlikely as it sounds, in prison Nikki was able to turn her life around.

The Girl who Survived her Mother – navigating and healing the mother wound, by Moshitadi Lehlomela (Tafelberg)

Moshitadi Lehlomela grew up in rural Limpopo where women did the washing in the river, cooked over open fires and had to collect water from a standpipe. The family were poor, there was physical and substance abuse and “oppressive gender scripts dictated by tradition and religion”.

Lehlomela was a first daughter, as were her mother and grandmother before her. She writes: “Our lives, my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine, when put under a microscope, tell a tale of generational trauma. A mother hurts her daughter, and the daughter becomes a mother that hurts her own daughters. They are women running on empty, because their mothers didn’t pour love into them.”

But after much suffering as well as introspection, Lehlomela says she became the cycle breaker, and in this book, should you be unfortunate enough to come from such a family, she tells you how you can do the same.

Moving to the UK – A concise guide for South Africans, by Sam Beckbessinger (Jonathan Ball)

There was a Biddulphs van outside my neighbour’s house the other day – they’re moving to the UK next week, along with their two kids and two small dogs. They’re very much interwoven in the neighbourhood and we’ll miss them.

If Sam Beckbessinger’s book had come out a few months earlier, I’m sure they would have found it handy.

If you’re thinking of heading to the UK, this book is probably for you.

It’s divided into four parts: Deciding to Move; The Move Itself; Setting up your New Life; and A Path Back to Happiness (because anyone who’s ever lived abroad for a bit knows it can be a hell of a wrench).

As Beckbessinger writes in her “welcome”: “This book will take you through the whole process of disassembling your life in SA and moving to the UK, from the first conversation with your family… to registering for council tax in your new UK home. Expect jokes, helpful downloads and to-do lists. So many to-do lists. To-so lists are your life now, sorry.”

She takes a cold hard look at costs, the best age to move children, organising visas, how to find a UK job, where to live in the UK, what you’re going to take with you, moving pets, financial advice, your first week in the UK, making friends, how to do basic things, keeping the house clean, and dealing with homesickness. And remember, she says, it just takes time.

Moving countries is a big deal but this should book help a lot.


Despite crippling MS, this is a praise song to a life well lived

Review: Vivien Horler

Short Circuit – A brief meander through memory – and malady, by John D Phillips (Munster Publishing)

It started with a classified ad in the Cape Argus. A Cape Town couple was looking for a like-minded couple to “swing” with.

My colleague John and I looked at each other in astonishment. We’d heard of swinging, but in Cape Town in the mid-70s? Nah!

We were both young reporters on the Argus, and this looked like a fun story. Could we pass ourselves off as a married couple, respond to the ad and find out more about this kind of thing – with no intention whatsoever of actually having group sex with the other two, or one on one, or each other.

But still, it looked interesting. We got permission from the newsdesk, went through our personal background details so we could sound married, and answered the ad.

Which is how we ended up one evening in the Woodstock Holiday Inn with the couple, he a doctor – or was it a dentist?

The doctor and I went up to a room he’d booked, while John sat downstairs with the wife. It was all a bit awkward, really, because I needed to escape before the doctor got too frisky. Meanwhile John was downstairs comforting the wife, who was in tears, saying none of this had been her idea. Continue reading

Courage and dark humour in the face of World War 2 tyranny

Review: Vivien Horler

My Father’s House, by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)

For decades after World War 2, BBC television had a popular programme called This is Your Life, in which someone who was impressive for one reason or another was surprised on TV with the appearance of people who had been pivotal in their lives.

One of those featured was a former British officer and twice-escaped POW, Major Sam Derry, who found haven in the Vatican – neutral during the war – and who helped organise what was known as the “escape line”.

As cover, Derry took on the role of a clerk in the Church, and was assisted by a senior Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, based in the Vatican. It is said they helped more than 4 000 Jews and POWs escape the clutches of the Gestapo. Continue reading

You don’t have to tell your children all your secrets

Review: Vivien Horler

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury Publishing)

This a story about three sisters in a Michigan cherry orchard, about Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and the strange time of the lockdown.

Lara and Joe Nelson live on the family farm where they grow cherries, apples, pears and rear goats. Thanks to the lockdown of 2020, the seasonal workers cannot come to help with the harvest – but also thanks to the lockdown, Lara and Joe’s three grown daughters have come home. And there, with everyone’s life on hold (except no one told the cherries) they pick fruit and talk.

The daughters, Emily, Maisie and Nell, have always known their mother was an actress in her day, with a film under her belt and a season of summer stock behind her, in which she played Emily in Our Town.

They’ve also always known that during her summer of acting at Tom Lake, she had a fling with another of the actors, Duke, who much later went on to be a seriously famous Hollywood actor. Continue reading

Unpacking Michelle Obama’s toolbox

Review: Vivien Horler

The Light We Carry – Overcoming in uncertain times, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

If there is one quote associated with former US First Lady Michelle Obama, it is probably: “When they go low, we go high.”

In this, Obama’s second book after her best-selling memoir Becoming, she says whenever she is interviewed or sits down with a new group of people, someone will ask her: “What does it mean to go high?”

She first uttered the sentence at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running for president. And we know how that turned out. Continue reading

Top reads for August

Bedside Table August

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The top four – Lost Property, The Bookbinder of Jericho, The Paris Deception and The Light We Carry, along with The Covenant of Water (reviewed on Sunday August 27) are among Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month. – Vivien Horler

Lost Property, by Megan Choritz (Melinda Ferguson Books)

The birds are everywhere. Some are real, some are imagined, but they comfort a young Laine as she grows up in a dysfunctional Jewish family in pre-1994 Johannesburg.

For Laine’s chain-smoking mother, life is all about her. She frequently takes to her bed with migraines, shouting to Dora, the domestic worker, to bring coffee and a clean ashtray.

Laine’s father is an altogether nicer person, but rarely stands up to his wife.

There is a younger brother, but he doesn’t really count.

And then there’s beloved, live-in Dora, who provides the mothering Laine yearns for.

Years later, Laine moves to Cape Town where she marries and settles in Woodstock. Her husband is useless, hopeless and selfish, and comes from a pretty ghastly family. In fact there are a lot of unlovable characters in Lost Property.

After her husband leaves, Laine befriends a little coloured girl, Tina, who lives across the road in another dysfunctional family – considerably more dysfunctional than Laine’s own, but also featuring a small girl who needs love.

At one point, when Tina has reluctantly agreed to go home, Laine points to a starling on the roof and tells Tina it will keep an eye on her. Tina mishears, and says she is glad a darling will keep her safe.

Tina wants to move in with Laine permanently, but Tina’s mother, who is regularly beaten up by her boyfriend, resents the relationship between her daughter and her  middle-class white neighbour.

I’m making Lost Property sound ghastly, but it isn’t – it’s a tender, touching story of finding love in unlikely places.

The Bookbinder of Jericho, by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

Unlike The Beekeeper of Aleppo and other similarly titled novels, this one is not set in the Middle East – Jericho is an area of Oxford close to the Oxford University Press, which is at the centre of this historical novel.

From the pen of the author who wrote the delightful bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words – about the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary – comes this tale about Peggy, a folder in the bookbindery and her twin sister, at the outbreak of World War 1. After the men all march off to the Western Front, the women left behind have to pick up the slack and keep the press operational.

But Peggy has ambitions to be more than a worker in the press – she’s a reader and she wants to study, to improve her life. And yet what are her chances of overcoming her working class background and reading for a degree at Oxford?

Meanwhile the war is absorbing more and more people, not just young men but young women as well as they volunteer to help with refugees, to work as nurses. Suddenly Peggy has more choices than she knows what to do with.

I’m very much looking forward to this one.

The Paris Deception, by Bryn Turnbull (Headline Review)

Another wartime novel, but this is World War 2. It opens in Berlin in March 1939 with an appalled Sophie, an art restorer, watches as Nazis fling “degenerate art” and books on to enormous bonfires.

She leaves Berlin for Paris, but the Nazis aren’t far behind.

Working as a restorer at the Jeu de Paumme museum, she wonders whether it is possible to save priceless works of art from a fate similar to that of the “degenerate art” of Berlin. And then comes a daring plan – could they copy some of this work skilfully enough to fool the Nazis, and hide the originals?

The Light We Carry – Overcoming in uncertain times, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

I found Michelle Obama’s first book, Becoming, a great read. Not only did it record how a black girl from a working-class family became the First Lady of the United States, it also provided wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpses into what life is like at that rarified level.

You’d think, after all that, Michelle would have life sorted. She says she’s frequently asked for answers and solutions, how to navigate a life full of unfairness and uncertainty.

In the introduction to this volume she says if she had a formula, she’d hand it over. But no, she admits that she too lies in bed, sometimes, wondering if she’s good enough.

So there’s no formula. What this offering contains is an insight into her “personal toolbox”.

It’s “… what I use professionally and personally to help me stay balanced and confident, what keeps me moving forward even during times of high anxiety and stress”.

But it’s not a how-to manual either. What the reader will find in the book “is a series of honest reflections on what my life has taught me so far, the levers and hydraulics of how I get myself through”.

She writes that we become “bolder in brightness… One light feeds another. One strong family lends strength to more. One engaged community can ignite those around it. This is the power of the light we carry.”

Hiking Beyond Cape Town – 40 inspiring hikes outside the city, by Nina du Plessis and Willie Olivier (Struik Travel & Heritage/ Penguin Random House SA)

Just the cover of this glorious little field guide makes you want to lace up your hiking boots and get out there.

The cover picture is taken on Hangklip Peak near Pringle Bay, less than two hours from the Mother City, a trail that offers fabulous views of fynbos, mountains and sea.

The guide features 40 trails, mostly involving one-day trips taking between two and seven hours. All ages and abilities are catered for.

Willie Olivier is a known veteran explorer on foot, road and 4×4, while his daughter Nina du Plessis spends most weekends on a mountain somewhere in the Western Cape.

Each hike entry contains a map, a route description, a summary of the distance, time and trail difficulty, as well as details of the fauna, fynbos and features you can expect to see. And there are lots of great colour pictures.

I have done only one of the trails featured, the 3.7km circular Hangklip Lighthouse Trail, which wanders along the coastline and reaches three gorgeously deserted beaches as well as circling the lighthouse, built in 1960 and SA’s first fully automated light.

It’s a lovely, level dog-friendly walk, but you have to keep an eye out for sneaky roots snaking across the path.

This is a marvellous guide.

Killer Cop – The Rosemary Ndlovu Story, by Naledi Shange (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Daisy de Melker, who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of her son, the improbably named Rhodes Cecil Cowle, has been the subject of a recent book by Ted Botha, Hiding Among Killers in the City of Gold (Jonathan Ball Publishers).

She is also believed to have poisoned two husbands, although was never convicted of their murders.

In her introduction to Killer Cop, author Naledi Shange points out that the presiding officer in the Rosemary Ndlovu case, Judge Ramarumo Monama, said a matter like this had not been heard in a South African court since the days of De Melker.

But it seems Ndlovu was a much more determined killer than De Melker, being found guilty of at least six murders, mostly of relatives, having taken out insurance policies on all of them. She even planned to kill her mother, a woman who ended up giving evidence in her defence during the trial.

Many consumers of news were riveted by this case, and one of the people who reported on it extensively for the Sunday Times and TimesLIVE was Shange.

Ndlovu eventually received six life sentences, with an additional 145 years behind bars.

Anyone who found reports of the trial fascinating is likely to be equally absorbed by this book.

A great, sprawling triumph of a novel

Review: Vivien Horler

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese (Grove Press UK)

Years ago I was in a book shop trying to decide between three novels, one of which was John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  The bookseller looked at my selection, handed me Garp, and said: “After you’ve read this one you won’t need those.”

I feel a bit that way about The Covenant of Water. It’s a big, long, sprawling triumph of a novel, one in which the author disconcertingly doesn’t hesitate to kill off characters you’ve come to admire and love, and yet there are enough others to keep you going with enthusiasm.

Abraham Verghese’s first novel was the acclaimed and brilliant Cutting for Stone, about a doctor in Africa, which remained on the New York Times bestselling list for two years.

His background is interesting – he was born in Ethiopia to Christian parents from Kerala in India.

After the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, the family left for the US. Later the young Abraham studied medicine in Madras, now Chennai. Following his graduation he returned to the US where he worked in hospitals in Tennessee and Texas. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford.

In this novel, which is set in a Christian community in a Kerala in 1900, a 12-year-old child bride arrives terrified at the home of her small-landowner husband, a 40-year-old widower. At first he refuses to marry her, pointing out he already has a child to look after and doesn’t need another.

But the marriage goes ahead and the couple eventually gel, finding love and comfort in each other. The young bride, who soon becomes known as Big Ammachi, bonds with little Jo-Jo, her stepson, who is not that much younger than she, and he with her.

One day Big Ammachi finds a collection of moth-eaten papers that amount to a family tree, and she discovers that in each generation someone dies by drowning. In Kerala you can’t avoid water – what with rivers and canals and the province’s famed backwaters, it is everywhere.

Big Ammachi comes to think of it as the Condition, something that appears to be passed down. Her husband avoids water, and so does Jo-Jo, and yet, years later, her granddaughter Mariamma is a great swimmer.

The novel is rooted in Parambil, the family estate, and explores the links between various family members and the people of different castes who work for them.

But there is a wider world, and interwoven with the story of Parambil is a second story of Digby, a young Glaswegian doctor who joins the Indian medical service during the flagging days of Britain’s colonial project in India. He becomes an expert in hand surgery, a skill that serves him well when working in a leper hospital not far from Parambil.

The novel covers the period from 1900 to 1977, and we see many beloved characters born and die, some peacefully, some not. We follow historical events, World War 2, independence, the coming of electricity to Parambil, and eventually even a hospital.

Big Ammachi’s granddaughter, Mariamma, becomes a doctor who begins to uncover the genetic secrets of the Condition – it turns out it’s a real thing. Standing beside the river she realises: “This is the covenant of water: that  they’re all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission, and no one stands alone. She stays there listening to the burbling mantra, the chant that never ceases, repeating its message that all is one.”

Eventually the interwoven threads between the lives of Mariamma and Digby – many years her senior – become clear.

I’ve read reviews that say the novel flags towards the end, but I didn’t think so. The surprises keep coming.

I thought it was brilliant.

  • The Covenant of Water is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month.


Does SA’s way of war work?

Review: Archie Henderson

20 Battles – Searching for an SA way of war, 1913-2013, by Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz (Delta Books)

“In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.” It’s one of the more famous quotes from Sun Tzu, general, philosopher, strategist and author of The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago.

It applies to many walks of life – especially in the corporate world – but Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz are more interested in its literal meaning.

Both are civilians and also military men. Continue reading