Call the Midwife – the true stories behind the hit TV series

Review: Vivien Horler

Call the Midwife – a true story of the East End in the 1950s; illustrated edition, by Jennifer Worth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

call the midwife I have been an enthusiastic viewer of the TV series Call the Midwife, so when I came across this illustrated edition of the Jennifer Worth’s bestseller, originally published in 2002, I fell upon it with glad cries.

In fact it turns out Worth, known as Jenny Lee when she was a midwife in London’s Docklands, wrote three books, Call the Midwife, Shades of the Workhouse, (2005), and Farewell to the East End (2009). The trilogy has sold almost 2million copies worldwide. Continue reading

It’s hard to fight when you’re laughing

Review: Vivien Horler

Marriageology – the art and science of staying together, by Belnda Luscombe (Oneworld/ Jonathan Ball)

marriageologyThere is not much fairytale magic about marriage in South Africa.

In 2016, according to Stats SA, a total of 25 326 marriages ended in divorce. And almost half – 44.4% – of those divorces took place within 10 years of the wedding. Most happened between five and nine years afterwards.

In one case I know of, the couple divorced well before her parents had paid off the wedding.

As we’ve read in dozens of self-help books , marriage has to be worked at, but what exactly does that mean?

Belinda Luscombe, an Australian living and working in New York, has written about and researched marriage for Time magazine for more than 10 years and has picked up some useful information. She has interviewed therapists, sociologists, demographers and researchers, read many studies, journals and books. And she got married. Continue reading

How do you face the world when your grandfather was Verwoerd?

Review: Vivien Horler

Verwoerd – my journey through family betrayals, by Wilhelm Verwoerd (Tafelberg)

verwoerdMost whites with a modicum of sense will acknowledge that almost 30 years after apartheid began to be dismantled, they are still advantaged.

And so are their children, even children born today. It’s what the often tiresome trade unionist and former city councillor Tony Ehrenreich correctly refers to as the apartheid generational advantage.

But what is a white person to do? How do you acknowledge the harm that has been done in your name and that of fellow whites, and move on? Is it possible to move on?

If you’ve ever grappled with this, spare a thought for Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of the man often referred to as the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd.

He has found himself torn by his rejection of his grandfather’s beliefs and actions, and his love for his family; despite the subtitle of this painful memoir, it is dedicated to “my family”. How do you reconcile these polar opposites? Continue reading

FDR: a great manipulator but also a great humanitarian

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

War and Peace, by Nigel Hamilton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

war and peaceWinston Churchill, so the legend goes, said that history would treat him kindly for he intended to write it. Even if he never actually said it, he did write it. His six volumes of The Second World War, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, has long been a standard reference for historians and World War 2 buffs.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his friend, ally and often sparring partner in the war, did not get the same treatment, dying in February 1945 relatively young at 63, before the war ended and before he got the chance to tell his side of the war. Nigel Hamilton has recently completed what amounts to Roosevelt’s memoirs, a three-volume work, FDR at War.

War and Peace is the final volume, with the sub-title FDR’s Final Odyssey: D-Day to Yalta 1944-45. The first volume was The Mantle of Command: FDR at War 1941-42, followed by Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill 1943. Continue reading

A moving memoir of joy, pain and boundless love

Review: Vivien Horler

The Year of Facing Fire – a memoir, by Helena Kriel (MF Books Joburg/Jacana)

year of facing fireHelena Kriel gets about. When this memoir begins she has been commissioned to write the screenplay of a 1996 Hollywood film called Kama Sutra, and goes to India to do research.

Many years later she is the founder of Baby Rhino Rescue, an organisation with two sanctuaries that is trying to save rhinos from extinction. She divides her time between Hollywood and South Africa, “is happiest when in the middle of nowhere with just a rhino or hippo for company”,  and according to the cover blurb, “facilitates adventures through India”.

None of which is the focus of this memoir – the focus of this memoir is love.

Kriel comes from an atypical, non-observant Joburg Jewish family. Her father, Dr Kriel, smoked three packs of Camels a day and died of lung cancer. Her mother is a writer, beautiful and tough; her sister lives in a temple in India with her SA-born Indian husband; one brother, the beautiful Evan, 29, is gay, had something of a dissolute youth in clubs but is now a reformed character who is studying with a rabbi; and her second brother dives with sharks in Mozambique. Continue reading

The doctor who travels the world in search of trouble

Review: Vivien Horler

War Doctor – surgery on the front line, by David Nott (Picador)

war doctorHere at the southern tip, caught up in our own news cycles, world dramas like Afghanistan and Libya, Haiti, Bosnia and Syria, seem a long way away.

Sometimes that’s just fine too. Who needs to know about barrel bombs and cluster bombs and what they can do to soft human flesh?

Fortunately for humanity there are people, like London surgeon David Nott, who know only too well the damage bombs do, and try in the face of horrific cruelty to make things better.

Welsh-born Nott works as a general and vascular surgeon attached to several major  London hospitals. But for the past 20 years, for several weeks a year, he goes to places of disaster and war and tries to make a difference. He has worked under the auspices of Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and Syria Relief. Continue reading

Old age is not for sissies

Review: Vivien Horler

Cul-de-Sac– a memoir, by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg)

cul-de-sacThis poignant memoir, first published in Afrikaans when Elsa Joubert was 95, is an exploration of extreme old age.

It is a time of life, she writes, which almost represents “the laying down of dreams”, where the only road that can be ventured on “with a minimum of anxiety is the road to the past”.

The Afrikaans version, published under the title Spertyd, came out two years ago. Spertyd means deadline; the English term for cul-de-sac is dead end; and the Afrikaans version that we grew up with was “straat loop dood”. Of the various alternatives, cul de sac seems gentlest translation.

Yet old age is not gentle. As the title suggests, you’re not going anywhere. At one point Joubert describes old people as being members of the “last shift”. Life’s options progressively close down.

And yet in the hands of a a writer as accomplished and reflective as Elsa Joubert, her memoir is not discouraging; it is rather a glimpse of another stage of life, if we live long enough to get there. Or as someone once said: old age is what happens if nothing else does. Continue reading

Zimbabwe and the coup that was not a coup – the inside story

 Review: Vivien Horler

Two Weeks in November, by Douglas Rogers (Jonathan Ball)

two weeks in novemberThis is the “astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe” in Zimbabwe in November 2017.

I watched the televised Sunday night press conference where the frail old man sat, surrounded by generals and a priest, shuffling his papers and, against all expectations, not resigning as president.

In the previous few days there had been reports of tanks on the streets of Harare – something was going on but, after 37 years in brutal control, Mugabe being toppled in a coup seemed unlikely.

Rhodesian-born Rogers, author of the delightful The Last Resort, about his parents clinging on to their tourist resort near Mutare in the east of the country during the land grabs, says a reported global audience of one billion people watched the press conference on the evening of November 19. Continue reading

André Brink biography may contain just a touch too much information

Review: Vivien Horler

The Love Song of André P Brink, by Leon de Kock (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

love song brinkA three-and-a-half-year undertaking to produce a significant work on groundbreaking South African author André Brink has turned into a marketing nightmare for publishers Jonathan Ball.

The author is Leon de Kock, poet, novelist and professor emeritus in English Studies at the University of Stellenbosch who, apparently overwrought at completing this major book, allegedly called an Observatory restaurant worker the k-word, and then also made sexual advances to a second woman present.

De Kock was arrested and appeared in the Cape Times Magistrate’s Court on May 10 on a charge of crimen injuria. Instead of appearing in triumph at the Franschhoek Literary Festival over the weekend of May 17 to 19, he stayed away. Continue reading

A poignant tale of a boy who wanted to fly

Review: Archie Henderson

Gunship over Angola, by Steve Joubert (Delta Books)

gunshipThis story is not as gung-ho as the title implies. It is a charming, and at times even poignant, memoir of a boy who wanted to fly.

Steve Joubert grew up on the outskirts of Pretoria in Wonderboom. Watching the SA Air Force pilots, in a variety of aircraft, pass overhead every day, he had the classic little boy’s dream of becoming one of those men in their flying machines.

His dream came true early. Progress from the Air Force Gymnasium to the pupil pilot’s course was swift despite some amusing setbacks at the start. He literally stumbled in his interview before a pilot’s selection board headed by none other than the legendary Korean War fighter pilot General Bob Rogers. At the time, Joubert believed his dream to be doomed before it even took off. Continue reading