Forget about being PC – this is a truly page-turning story

Review: Vivien Horler

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press)

Reviewing the novel American Dirt has been made marginally more difficult by “the firestorm” –  according to the US’s National Public Radio – that erupted when it was published in the United States in January.

It’s the story of a middle-class, bookshop-owning Mexican woman named Lydia whose family is gunned down by a drug cartel in Acapulco. She believes the cartel will come after her and her surviving son, eight-year-old Luca, and so they flee northwards, facing many dangers, towards the assumed safety of the US.

But critics, particularly Latino critics living in the US, have excoriated the book, saying it does not reflect the truth of the immigrant experience and that it uses harmful stereotypes,

One of the most uncompromising critics is Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez, who wrote: “In 17 years of journalism, in interviewing thousands of immigrants, I’ve never come across anyone like American Dirt’s main character.” Continue reading

A Cross to Bear – the tragedy of Fragile X syndrome

Review: Vivien Horler

The Trouble with my Aunt, by Hedi Lampert (Porcupine Press)

Aunty Vi is Granny’s cross to bear, a metaphor that 10-year-old Leah doesn’t entirely understand, but she gets the gist.

Being at a Jewish day school she doesn’t pick up the Christian reference, and imagines the cross as a large X of the sort Leah gets in class if she’s made a spelling mistake. If Aunty Vi is Granny’s cross to bear, then Granny must have made a mistake.

And so it turns out. Aunty Vi is strange – what in 1971 we might have called retarded or even simple. This suited Leah as a very little girl, as Aunty Vi was on her wavelength, but as Leah  grows older she sees that her aunt is not like other people.

One day Amy, Leah’s mother, confides that her mother, Sadie, became pregnant again when Amy was just nine months old and Sadie herself was only 20. She tried to abort the baby, and irreparably damaged her. Hence Sadie’s cross. Continue reading

If he hadn’t done it to me, he would have done it to someone

Review: Vivien Horler

Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking/ Penguin)

We all do foolish things occasionally, and mostly we survive unscathed. But in January 2015 Chanel Miller, then aged 22, went to a party on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, drank too much and passed out.

This was the beginning of a three-year ordeal which upended her life, led to the recall of a judge and saw state law changed.

She woke up in hospital, half naked, with abrasions on her body, pine needles in her hair, and bruises to her groin. She was told by a police deputy that there was reason to believe she had been sexually assaulted.

She had no idea of the details until a couple of days later when she read a newspaper report of the arrest of a Stanford student, Brock Turner, on charges of rape and sexual assault. It appeared that he had been spotted by a pair of Swedish post-graduates “dry humping” a comatose woman. They shouted and Turner fled, only to be pinned down by the Swedes until the police arrived. Turner was later released on bail of $150 000 (about R2.85million at today’s rates).

Continue reading

Surviving a bleak and desperate childhood

Review: Vivien Horler

A Childhood Made Up – Living with my mother’s madness, by Brent Meersman (Tafelberg)

Brent Meersman is an accomplished man and an accomplished writer. He is the co-editor of Ground Up, a news agency which has a particular interest in the rights of the vulnerable.

He’s the author of several books including the hilarious novel Primary Coloured, about a bossy coloured woman who launches a political party in Cape Town. Back in the day the founder of the Independent Democrats, Patricia de Lille, hired Meersman as the party’s CEO, and she told me: “He didn’t use people’s real names, but I’ve read it and most of the stories are true… In his shout on the cover Richard Calland said it was ‘remarkably authentic. It’s as if Meersman was actually there.’ Well, of course, he was.”

A Childhood Made Up is a different book entirely. In a piece in the Sunday Times he said he first wrote it as a novel, and only after that did he see his way to write this memoir of his childhood in a dysfunctional family in Milnerton in the 70s and 80s. Continue reading

Lightness in a time of plague

Review: Vivien Horler

Grown Ups, by Marian Keyes (Michael Joseph/ Penguin)

Marian Keyes is an acclaimed Irish novelist who bridles at the use of the term “chick lit” on the grounds that it is perjorative to both women writers and the books many women adore.

But the truth is that while exploring major human themes of betrayal and jealousy and love and reconciliation, her novels are somewhat light. They’re also charming and often funny, but you wouldn’t call them searing or particularly deep.

There is of course nothing wrong with this. There are times when one wants deep and searing, and times when one doesn’t. Summer holidays beside the pool are perfect times to read Marian Keyes.

And for many, a period of staying home in Covid-19 lockdown, when there is so little else to do, might also be a perfect time to read Marian Keyes. On the whole her books are cheerful, often uplifting, and have largely happy endings. Continue reading

Beware hubris – or how Thomas Cromwell was brought down

Review (part 2): Vivien Horler

The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate/ Jonathan Ball)

Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) in the miniseries based on the first two volumes in the Wolf Hall trilogy.

There is something bizarrely prosaic about the Wikipedia entry for Thomas Cromwell.

“Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, KG, PC was an English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England from 1532 to 1540, when he was beheaded on orders of the king. Born: 1485, Putney, London. Died July 28, 1540, London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Cause of death: Decapitation.

Tower Hamlets? Well, it was certainly the Tower. Decapitation? That would do it.

And he wasn’t the actual first Earl of Essex – that honour went to Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in 1144. His line went extinct, and in 1199 the title was recreated, with Geoffrey Fitzpeter becoming the 1st Earl of Essex. He died in 1213.

More than 200 years later one Henry Bourchier became 1st Earl of Essex, dying in 1483 and leaving the title of 2nd Earl of his son, also Henry, who died in 1540. He had no heir, and so Henry VIII recreated the title of 1st Earl for his trusted minister Thomas Cromwell, who kept it for just three months or so before he was beheaded.

There is still an earl of Essex, the 11th,  Paul de Vere Capell, born in 1944 . If I have read the family tree right – and I may not – he appears to have a cousin called Kevin.

At least Capell, a retired schoolmaster, and Kevin, are likely to keep their heads. There was no such certainty in Cromwell’s time, and he certainly helped made it possible for Henry VIII to execute many enemies and perceived heretics, as well as, famously, his second wife Anne Boleyn. Henry also had his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, beheaded, but that was nearly 18 months after Cromwell’s death and presumably cannot be laid at his door. Continue reading

The book to see you through the lockdown – the last in the Cromwell trilogy

Review: Vivien Horler

The Mirror & the Light, by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate/ Jonathan Ball)

If there’s ever a book to see you through a 21-day lockdown, I reckon it’s this: Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited final volume of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The first two were long; Wolf Hall running to 650 pages and Bring up the Bodies to just over 400. The Mirror & the Light is a door stopper of almost 900 pages (and beautifully bound, my trade paperback copy has stood up to more than 10 days of being dragged from couch to bed to garden chair.

Now I’m going to do something I’m not sure I’ve done before: review a book I haven’t finished. But I haven’t read anything else in the past fortnight and it’s time to write my weekly review.

Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for both the two previous volumes, making her one of only three authors to win it twice (the others were South Africa’s JM Coetzee and the Australian Peter Carey). Will Mantel make it a hat-trick? Continue reading

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

The true story behind the whimsical film Goodbye Christopher Robin

Review: Vivien Horler

Goodbye Christopher Robin – AA Milne and the making of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Ann Thwaite (Pan)

One of the first books I recall owning was a red cloth-bound copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, with a map of the Hundred Acre Wood where all the stories happened, marked: “Drawn by me and Mr Shepard helped”.

I loved it. Years later, in matric, I rediscovered the book and realised for the first time how funny it was. For instance: “Next to (Piglet’s) house was a piece of broken board which had “TRESPASSERS WILL” on it. When Christopher Robin asked Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one – Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.” Continue reading

Virus leads to postponement of Jewish Literary Festival

The organisers of the Jewish Literary Festival, due to take place in Hatfield Street on Sunday, have postponed the event in the light of Covid-19.

Spokeswoman Beryl Eichenberger said they did not yet have a new date, but the festival would place at some stage. People who had bought tickets should hold on to them as they would remain valid.

“We have decided to be proactive and postpone the festival. This regrettable but responsible action is to limit transmission of COVID-19.

Our team has been working for the past 18 months and so we are  deeply disappointed at having to make this call but our responsibility is to act in the best interests of our literature-loving community.”