Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria in her Hair-raising adventure Death on the Limpopo

Sally dancing in the Karoo
Sally dancing in the Karoo

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Ladismith’s Tannie Maria, DIANE DE BEER tells you why you should, in this, Sally Andrew’s third in the series, Death on the Limpopo:

Cover Limpopo finalOn my first meeting with Tannie Maria, I knew that she was the real deal. It’s easy to lose your heart to any of author Sally Andrew’s characters because the storytelling and writing both have authenticity and a sensibility that make the Karoo and her characters sing.

And by now, says Sally, her small-town characters are well established and she can no longer simply push them around.

Tannie Maria is a kind of agony aunt for the local Klein Karoo Gazette in Ladismith and she tries to lighten her reader’s dilemma with a recipe which should add to a swifter solution of whatever might be bothering them.

Sally describes the other regulars as follows: Jessie, the fiesty young investigative reporter; Hattie a Mary Poppins-like editor and Maria’s boyfriend detective Henk Kannemeyer with the distinctive moustache who keeps a protective watch on the woman who has captured his heart.

Tannie Maria loves Henk (pic by Sean Brown)
Tannie Maria loves Henk Picture: Sean Brown

Much as the people are the ones that steal the show, the backdrop is the Klein Karoo, a landscape that’s always hovering and means as much to Tannie Maria as the food she uses as nourishment for a healthy mind as important as body. Soul food probably describes it best.

Sally and Bowen Picture Andrea Nix
Sally Andrew and Bowen Boshier Picture: Andrea Nix

Sally lives(most of the time) with her artist-husband Bowen Boshier in a mudbrick house in a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo. This is where she finds her inspiration, especially when she wanders off on her own and allows nature to play with her over-imaginative mind. It’s also that playful mind that goes into entertainment mode when she plays dress-up for her book launch and introduces some animal characters which she either forgets can talk or puts some words into their mouths.

The biker outfit she wears to these latest book launches, isn’t random. Her latest invention arrives in the Klein Karoo with a screech of tires in a whirlwind of dust on her black Ducati motorbike. Zabanguni Kani is an investigative journalist from the Daily Maverick described by Sally as “strong, black, no sugar”.

There’s no messing with Zabanguni even in this part of the world where she stands out no matter what and Sally views her as her “inner biker chic” but also “the voice of my hardcore activist youth”. It’s an interesting and lively strand that she introduces into a book that deals more than anything with fathers and daughters.

That is bittersweet but perhaps not coincidental as the author’s father was very ill during the writing of this book and sadly died before the Death on the Limpopo was published. “He helped with historical research for this book, sharing his memories, and recommending books and articles to me,” she writes in the Acknowledgements. “He then listened to the whole manuscript as I read him a draft on his sickbed, two chapters a day. He was my best listener and editor, offering insightful comments. He cried quietly at the good bits and snored loudly during the boring bits.”

None of the darker elements in the writing are a surprise. Because of the main character, one might be forgiven if you don’t take any of this seriously, but the essence of the writing is always hardcore as the writer tackles issues in all three Tannie Maria books including spousal abuse, PTSD and there’s a constant quest for healing as her central character deals with her violent past.

As interesting as her characters and story lines might be, what gives the writing weight is the fact that all of this (perhaps not the sleuthing although she does that in her head) is this unusual writer’s real world and the life she leads.

She and Tannie Maria inhabit the same landscape and encounter the same plants and creatures, all of which play a dominant part in their lives.

Then there’s the writing:

The tar ended, as if a black brush had just run dry, and the wheels of my bakkie gripped the earth beneath us. My bakkie loves dirt roads. My red veldskoene got excited too, and added speed to the accelerator. I slowed them both down. I don’t like to go fast in the veld. You never know where there might be a tortoise or a meerkat crossing the road.

It’s evocative as it creates visual pictures that result in a colourful reading as the story races ahead.

Weerligkoek complete PvS. JPG
Weerligkoek Picture: Peter van Straten

Sally tries all the recipes herself and for those she doesn’t attempt, she relies on the help of others and sometimes like for this latest book, she finds specialists like Mari-Louise Guy who with her brother has built a cake and recipe book empire in the Cape.

Tannie Maria's milktart
Tannie Maria’s melktert

Mari-Louise for example took the traditional Ladismith recipe provided by Hetty Smit, and then developed the Weerligkoek (Lightning Cake ) which, when reading the recipe, tells you throughout that it is do-able, but seems quite a tough ask. And Sally assures me that the Melktert in the first book is one of the best. And so all her recipes should be, they’re read and experimented with all across the world. Her books are extremely popular and have been translated into many different languages.

 

You also know, spending some time with the author, that she would not settle for anything but the best. Just doing an interview was quite a mission because she didn’t want to clutter the conversation I was having with her for the Pretoria book launch at Uppercase Books.

I didn’t mind because artists have their own ways, they know what works for them and that’s the right time to indulge their whims.

Anyone who can come up with the Tannie Maria stories and set it in an authentic South African landscape that makes sense, capture the wonders of this country and its people and then do it in a language that has its own rhythms for these particular tales, gets my vote.

poppy seed rusks
Poppy seed rusks

Hopefully Tannie Maria still has much life left in her and will keep sharing her stories rooted in the Klein Karoo (or introducing other nature areas as was done here). She has crept into many hearts as we listen to her advice, dreaming of a coffee and poppy seed rusk that comes from her kitchen.

Journalist Tanya Farber Explores the Lives of SA’s Notorious Female Killers

Pictures: JEREMY DANIEL

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The statistics speak for themselves: 95 per cent of people who commit murder are male writes journalist/author Tanya Farber about her choice of subject for her book – Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers (Jonathan Ball Publishers). DIANE DE BEER gets the lowdown on the book, why she wrote it and why it is so compelling:

It is precisely the percentage of female killers that  makes the stories of the murderers in Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s Most Notorious Female Killers unusual: they come from the small 5 per cent of killers who are female. And this is what intrigued author Tanya Farber – that and covering one of the court cases, which drew her in.

While that already makes them more interesting, especially when coupled with the fact that they are seldom impulsive acts of violence, it also intrigued her to delve into the plotting and planning that went into each murder.

“Dina Rodrigues is a case in point – she had several opportunities to rethink her decision to murder a baby, and yet she stuck to it like glue. Daisy de Melker’s serial killing took place over several years, so what was going on in that mind of hers? I find it fascinating that the wiring could be so wrong inside the human brain.”

As a journalist, her interest was sparked when she was tasked to write court stories. “I am actually a science reporter, but as newsrooms have shrunk, one often writes stories outside of one’s own beat. That said, I have been utterly spellbound by the trials that I have covered, and I am particularly interested in forensics. This, of course, includes forensic psychology: I am particularly interested in the mind of a deviant person, and how that plays out in the courtroom.

“I begin the Najwa Petersen chapter in the actual court room because her public facade in the courtroom, and her interior world, were so very different.”

With the writing, her goal was to imagine a ‘day in the life of this particular woman’. “In some cases, I began with the day of the murder, so we see, for example, Celiwe Mbokazi on the phone om the day of her husband’s murder and we get a sense that she is speaking to her accomplices, knowing full well that this murder might take place in front of the children.

“In other cases, I described a day that would give the reader insight into the murderer’s background. Like in the Phoenix Racing Cloud Theron chapter, it starts off with her as a toddler living in a caravan with her often-absent mother, so I tried to imagine the world through her little-girl eyes,” she explained.

And when it came to choosing the women she would write about, she firstly excluded any woman who one could feel was justified in committing murder.

“Ellen Pakkies, for example, killed her son who was a tik addict and was literally tormenting the family, so she has no place in this book.”

blood author

She wanted to study women who in her opinion could not be absolved of their crime due to circumstances. “Even Charmaine Phillips – one can recognize the wretched and violent childhood she had but does that give her the right to take part in the cold-blooded murder of four men by shooting them at point blank range?” So, she made the cut.

And while she doesn’t think society is softer on women killers, they certainly illicit more interest than do their male counterparts. “As I discuss in the analytical chapter at the end, female killers in the past were often seen as being mad (as in seriously deranged and out of touch with reality) or else what would explain their deviance from being a nurturer?

“The point I make in the book, however, is that female killers can also just kill because they are murderous and bloody-minded just like any male killer who goes about plotting and planning someone else’s demise.”

Marlene Lehnberg, she argues, was just a teenager when she began plotting the murder of her boss’s wife because she was having a red-hot affair with him. “Her ultra conservative upbringing might explain how her brain was shaped, but then consider that there are thousands of others in our country who grew up in conservative households but didn’t go about killing people!”

The chapter dealing with Joey Haarhoof gave her nightmares – literally.

“Even more so than the Chane van Heerden chapter, even though she mutilated and decapitated her victim, and skinned his face.” Haarhoff had this impact for two reasons: Farber was not much older than the victims and remembers clearly the sheer terror of what was going on and the warning issued by her parents. She is also now a mother with two daughters who both fall within the age range of Joey’s victims and so, imagining the pain of the parents, is much more real for her now.

“In short: back then, I could relate to the victims. Now I can relate to the parents.”

It’s fascinating stuff and reading it, because of the way the topic has been approached has you turning the pages – even when in some instances you believe you know the stories. It is the psychological angle, the way this hard-nosed journalist tackles her subjects and then the softer approach, an almost a gentle voice, telling the story, which makes it so insightful.

It’s also telling which of the stories got greater play in the newspapers and media while some, perhaps just in my case, slipped completely under the radar. Even though each one is a story of horror, Van Heerden, Mbokazi and Theron were unknown to me. Why?

That’s probably also part of the greater story. And as a newspaper journalist at the Sunday Times, Farber has special insight into a world of stories that catch the attention and play out in specific ways. And she makes a strong case in a world of fake news and populism.

“Despite all the ‘noise’ of social media, and the power of citizen journalism, it is still crucial to have reliable reporters who can deliver the facts. My approach always with court reporting is to blend the facts of the case with observations in the court room – the silent power of body language, the fascinating way in which the English language is used and abused to paint a picture depending on which side you’re coming from … all of that.

“The media, be it newspapers or reliable digital sites, still have a crucial role to play in conveying this to a readership.”

In conclusion, for those considering telling their own stories or perhaps venturing into the world of  writing, she issues a warning and sound advice: “Writing a book is HARD work and if anyone is considering doing it, make sure it is a topic that absolutely draws you in as a writer or else you will find yourself hating the process.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nataniël, Master Storyteller of his Life, in Look At  Me: Recollections of a Childhood

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
― Cicero

 

DIANE DE BEER

When starting to write what was going to become a memoir, Nataniël first googled the meaning of the word and liked what appeared.

A memoir, he gleaned, is a book based on what you remember and what you feel. He doesn’t have ANY memories from before he was five – and that had me thinking too.

So memoir it would be, rather than an autobiography. For him it is all about making sense of his young world. “I didn’t write this book because of a need to share my life or about being famous,” he notes. “It’s about how I tried to figure out my life.”

That’s how it started…

“It’s a story of a young boy’s absolute fear of the ordinary,” he elaborates. “I needed to discover how it worked – families, friends, schools, towns, countries … everything.”

To him it felt as if everything was already in place when he arrived on this planet and only now, after a lifetime of research, does he feel more equipped … to live.

“The ‘70s was one of the worst times to land on the planet,” he concedes. To him it seemed as if the world was trending with bad fashion and zealotry.

“For those who know me, it will read like a memoir and for those who don’t, I hope it will be an incredible story.”

That’s also the reason the book will be published simultaneously in both Afrikaans and English. “It’s aimed at those readers who understand how big the inner life of a child is. It’s much bigger than the universe,” he notes. And that was really what fast-tracked him to tell this story.

It was the first time he was putting pen to paper not to be funny. Most of his other books were first written as sketches for the stage, which inevitably had to be funny. “It’s freeing,” he says of his memoir-writing experience. And nice to be old enough not to be intimidated by the whole gig, the process.

Nataniël has been writing all his life. From his stage scripts to magazine columns, which arguably should have made this another caper. But that’s not how this works, most authors will tell you. Even Nataniël, a man for whom creativity seems to come easily, found it hard going. Next time, he says, he will escape somewhere just to write, not try to do it in-between the rest of his life.

But he doesn’t feel he is asking for any literary feedback or judgement. The only thing he didn’t stick to are the real names in all instances. “I changed some,” he says and according to his explanation, he changed the names of people he didn’t want to glorify. “I have always been very specific with selecting names when writing anyway,” he says.

That’s true. Think of his shows. There’s Sabella, Romany Dippenaar, Mr Fazakas, Hildatjie … go to any  of his stage stories, open any page.

Once you start reading this one, you will realise that in his young life, he gave titles to everything – from streets to houses to trees and more. “The show has always been in my head,” he notes. People who knew him as a child will get that. “The book is about me functioning in the world.”

And if one goes by his shows, which have been thinly disguised life stories, his was never an easy fit. Ordinary is how he would describe it, while others might point to his non-conformity which has always been a problem, even in today’s world.

Please just don’t stick out was his solitary desire. “Ordinary,” underlines Nataniël, is what he was looking for. Creativity has always been second nature to him which immediately obliterated his longing to disappear in the crowd – at that young age.

This is not about him and his neighbours though, he says. It’s not about his life, it’s about how he navigated that life.

nataniel-.jpgTalking about the Afrikaans and English version, he wrote the Afrikaans and his translator, Iolandi Pool, did the English version. But, says Nataniël, it is not strictly speaking a translation. “She understood how I would have written it in English,” is how he best explains it.

“English is much more poetic and musical,” he explains. “Afrikaans is staccato and rhythmic.” If he had written the English version, it would have resulted in a very distant cousin of Jane Austen, is how he tells it. But he needed someone who got his distinct voice. They needed to capture that – and Pool certainly did that.

Reading it first in Nataniël’s own words and then the translation, the differences are fascinating. It’s exactly the same story but to get the voice strong enough in both versions took some vision – and the two worked very closely together with much toing and froing between them. The English almost has an old-fashioned feel, comes from this country but without moving into strictly speaking South Africanisms, which would have been the easier option. There’s a certain elegance in the telling.

“I live in Afrikaans and I read in English,” he says. “My Afrikaans is vocal and my English is written.” The challenge for him and Pool was not to become Herman Charles Bosman. For example, rather than use stoep they used porch. But writing in both languages was important.

“I wanted this to be a universal story and I wanted something of my own to give to foreign friends.”

“Those who want insight will get that, for others it will be entertaining and intriguing,” he believes. “It’s about someone who refuses to follow any rules.”

It’s memories of a childhood more than anything else, which he describes as “50% horror and 50 % complete fantasy amongst his paper dolls and rugby balls. It is the best shape on which to practise make-up,” he vows. “It’s the same shape as my face!”

“My childhood was the perfect storm of fear and fearlessness,” with the horror beginning as soon as  he stepped into the world. Back home he could create his own fantasy world. “I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the rest of the world. How could or should we obey, if it wasn’t deserved?

What I really loved about the book was that, like anything Nataniël does, he isn’t following a recipe. He tells his story as only he would. Through the years I have watched many talented artists trying to copy his successful “recipe”. You can’t. It’s about his identity, who he is, how he operates in the world and how he likes to show and tell. All of that is quite unique and what gives him his cachet in whatever he wants to do.

And it could almost be anything, because he has such a determined and decisive attitude about who he is, what he wants and what he won’t do.

That’s the right time to write your memoir and to share your life with the world. And thank goodness it could be done in English too so that his magical stories could spread wider than an Afrikaans only audience.

His wisdom is witty and wacky and takes you into a world that is weird and wonderful. I have watched him on stage for almost his whole career and was still surprised by how he chose to tell us about his young life.

I should know by now that Nataniël always does it his unique way – and his success relies on that individuality.

As with his stage stories, it is his voice and language that captures your heart, that makes you listen and laugh and perhaps in what was the saddest moment in the book, have you screaming in laughter and pain.

If you understand the language, read it in Afrikaans. Yet, for English readers, the experience will be as rich and intense as they follow one young boy’s determination to find his way. I loved having the choice of reading both.

Look At  Me – recollections of a childhood/Kyk Na My – herhinneringe aan ‘n kindertyd (Human&Rousseau) should be read widely as we pay attention to the world as seen through the eyes of a child.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gene: An Intimate History Takes You Into a Brave New World – Or Perhaps Not

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.― Oscar Wilde

 

 

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DIANE DE BEER

 

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of all Maladies) published by Scribner

 

This isn’t my normal go-to literature as I would much rather focus on people and their intriguing  lives but as I was pointed in this direction not only because of the content but also as a result of brilliant writing, I decided – wisely – to give it a go.

The author had scored a Pulitzer prize for his previous book investigating cancer and as with this one, he was initially pushed in this direction because of family and their influence or lack thereof on one another. “Madness,” he writes, “has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in my father’s grim recognition that some kernel of the illness may be buried like toxic waste, in himself.”

He explains that the story of the birth, growth and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the “gene”, the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.

In this prologue, he also notes that there are stories within all the stories he tells as he goes along, “But this book is also a very personal story – an intimate history. The weight of heredity is not an abstraction for me.”

So apart from the personal touch which turns the reading into something easily accessible, Mukherjee is an extraordinary writer. It’s not just the language he uses to tell his story (and I have to assume English is not his mother tongue) but also the way he tells it, how he questions the world and also that he comes from a unique perspective.

The book is 495 pages long followed by extensive notes, a bibliography and index and some parts of the reading might be more gripping than others, but if like me, this is foreign territory, you will be gripped from start to finish. After all, we are talking about every human being, how they are formed and how they function.

It’s all a complicated business and it is this that keeps you fascinated. A sentence like this for example: “The results were startling for three reasons. First when Wilson measured the overall diversity of the human mitochondrial genome, he found it surprisingly small – less diverse than corresponding genomes for chimpanzees. Modern humans, in other words, are substantially younger and substantially more homogeneous than chimpanzees (every chimp might look like every other chimp to human eyes, but to a discerning chimpanzee, it is humans that are vastly more alike).” Makes you think.

As do his musings on the beginnings of the human race in southern Africa. “The population was likely quite small, even minuscule by contemporary standards. The most provocative estimate is a bare 700.

“Mitochondrial Eve may have lived among them, bearing at least one daughter and at least one granddaughter.” That’s why it is a difficult book to put down.

Some sentences will stop you in your tracks: “You can sequence DNA from an African-American man and conclude that his ancestors came from Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But if you encounter a man whose great grandparents came from Nigeria or Sierra Leone, you can say little about the features of this particular man. The geneticist goes home happy; the racist returns empty-handed.”

This is an endless trove of gene information that might influence health and happiness – or not. Though, as it frequently does when talking genes, the story comes with a twist writes Mukherjee: “The very genes that enable a cell to peel away mortality and age can also tip its fate toward malignant immortality, perhaps growth, and agelessness – the hallmarks of cancer.”

You very quickly understand that there are no easy answers. Someone might think they have found a cure for something and around the corner, there’s information that turns the whole theory around. It puts a whole other spin on this field and an understanding as a novice when you hear certain public pronouncements, it can just as quickly fade away not to be heard of again. Only to appear much later in a different guise.

Just reading about the different findings and how patience, often the best attribute when dealing in this kind of painfully slow research, was often missing, resulting in mistakes – and sometimes hampering ongoing research and findings because of blunders – some of them fatal.

But with patience comes perseverance and these scientists know how to keep pushing and putting their heads down until they find positive outcomes to the benefit of mankind.

One of the scary things according to the author for many is what is known as “gene management”. And he quotes: As the political theorist Desmond King puts it, “…We are all going to be dragged into the regime of ‘gene management’ that will, in essence, be eugenic. It will be in the name of individual health rather than for overall fitness of the population, and the managers will be you and me, and our doctors and the state.

“Genetic change will be managed by the invisible hand of individual choice, but the overall result will be the same: a co-ordinate attempt to ‘improve’ the genes of the next generation on the way.”

He points out that all the parameters whichever way we look at it are inherently susceptible to the logic of self-reinforcement. “We determine the definition of ‘extraordinary suffering’. We demarcate the boundaries of ‘normalcy’ vs ‘abnormalcy’. We make the medical choices to intervene. We determine the nature of ‘justifiable interventions’.”

He underlines that in the final analysis, humans with a specific set of genomes are responsible for defining the criteria to define, intervene on, or even eliminate other humans endowed with other genomes.

“Choice seems like an illusion devised by genes to propagate the selection of similar genes.” And that’s the scary thought. You can see the red lights flashing all over the place especially in the kind of environment we find ourselves in today.

If people successfully start meddling with the gene pool and someone in power says to a certain group of people, “if you’re not happy here, go back to where you came from”, just imagine what could all go wrong in our world when people really start fiddling with genes.

In the end, normal is defined by whom?  “The book,” says Mukherjee, began as an intimate history – but it is the intimate future that concerns me.”

The last century, he reminds us, taught us the dangers of empowering governments to determine genetic ‘fitness’., then the question that confronts us now in this current era, is what happens when this power devolves to the individual.

“It is a question that requires us to balance the desires of the individual with the desires of a society.” That will remain the dilemma.

It is one thing to manipulate genes, he notes, it is quite another to manipulate genomes. And it is that difference that a reading of this book will explain in much fuller detail and understanding, something we should all understand in a field that could improve our world in unimaginable ways but also steer humankind into a world we would rather not imagine.

That is why he is pleading for a manifesto for this post-genomic world. He was already predicting that by the time this book was published (2017) new frontiers would have been reached and I’m sure they have been.

It’s a glorious and gripping read about something that is applicable to everyone on this planet. Many will know exactly what the author is talking about and might find his specific take on this world the thing they focus on, for others, who have perhaps only a vague understanding, this is a book that navigates the world in a way that will make sense to even the novice.

Books That Gift You The Time To Dream

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

 

 

Diane de Beer reviews a a few fascinating reads:

 

 

Book Zulus of New York

The Zulus of New York by Zakes Mda (Umuzi):

It’s a remarkable story that Zakes Mda has unearthed here.

He knew just how to approach the telling of it in a time when finally it seems there’s more awareness in the world of problems in the past that have never been acknowledged. It meant that these persist in exacerbated form to this day. And with people like Trump and Johnson leading powerful nations, it only gets worse.

Nevertheless, just the title should pull you in. Who would have thought? In New York and paraded in all their powerful mysticism of the time, yet naturally, at their cost. They had to play the savage because that’s what gawkers came to see, hearing the stories of the infamous King Cetshwayo. And in the process, the performers were losing their souls. Until a love story of sorts unfolds in all this darkness and brings some light.

Mda has a magical touch and a way of drawing his readers into a world that might not be familiar. And then he punches you in the gut as he holds up the mirror of what people do to those they don’t recognise as themselves.

Book Theo Flora coverTheo and Flora by Mark Winkler (Umuzi) which has just been shortlisted for the Sunday Times fiction list:

It’s an intriguing tale and really reminds me of the idiom to spin a yarn. With novelist Charlie Wasserman left by his investment-banker wife with the means to stay on in their home, he discovers a box of her family letters written between 1940 and 1944. The letters reveal a love affair between her grandfather, a 40something lawyer at the time and Flora, a much younger journalist.

Even though Wasserman’s former wife instructs him to destroy the letters, he has found a way to revive his somewhat slumped writing career. Interesting characters wander in and out of this novel tale which keeps you engaged from beginning to end.

It’s an addictive yarn.

Book Milkman

Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber&Faber):

This is a book that probably accidentally came in a time of #MeToo and Brexit which compounds the meaning in a story that is set in an unnamed Irish city where the aim of living is to blend in.

To be noticed is not only damaging but dangerous. Middle sister is leading a life of terror and it is all exacerbated because she tries to keep it quiet that she has a maybe-boyfriend and that she is being terrorised by a very scary character called Milkman.

If you want to know what it feels like to live in a world where people are terrified to breathe yet some are determined to live their lives in spite of a rumour mill that can destroy the little you have, this is one, hand-in-hand with Margaret Atwood’s television adapted Handmaid’s Tale, to immerse yourself in.

Then re-look the life you have been gifted and smile.

Book Cul de SacCul de Sac A Memoir by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg):

A moving farewell from one of our great writers. That’s JM Coetzee writing about this memoir and indeed it is that – moving.

But what it also reminded me of was the different ways people approach any stage of their life.
In her 95th year, she explores the continent of old age says the blurb on the back cover. And that plays a role – her age. A few decades ago, not many people were reaching their 90s, but now with modern medicine and more emphasis on health during your lifetime, it’s possible.

But she lost her life partner and with that her independent spirit – somewhat – which rather colours her perspective it seems.

Also, the choice of where she lives and how she copes with the devastation of a diminishing world, even with caring family around, is quite harrowing. “That’s why they have this big, long lift, to take out the coffins at night when we’re asleep,” she writes.

I found it moving and admirable that she is still determined to tell her story, a life so great and so rewarded, and so magnificently captured.

And yet, I’m still determined to go out singing!

Book TranscriptionsTranscription by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday):

This is another of those writers you don’t want to miss. From her early writing to the present, she keeps swinging with stories that surprise and delight.

Atkinson has a specific smartness about her writing which always keeps you engaged. I recall years back when reading the description of Life after Life and wondering how she would pull me into the lives of people whose lives kept turning on the same dime, but in different directions – and she did – masterfully.

It was simply a masterpiece. Perhaps following that one and the companion,  A God in Ruins, she should have turned away from War stories to something completely different. Think of this as an adventure, one of the characters say at the beginning of what turns out to be a rather pedestrian spy story.

If not even Atkinson can light a fire under a Girl’s Own type of adventure, perhaps it’s not to be. It doesn’t grab you and neither do the characters who all seem a touch lukewarm – as do their actions.

I didn’t think it possible to feel indifferent about an Atkinson story – sorry – but about this one I do.

 

Book The DistanceThe Distance by Ivan Vladislavic (Umuzi):

Anyone who has read this author will know you can drift on clouds in his words. He just has a unique way.

Similarly, with the topics he tackles and the stories he tells. While it might feel as if it is about one thing, there are different things going on.

This one is ostensibly about siblings and their life stories. Is one voice more important that the other, who remembers the truth and who decides about that?

These are some of the questions posed. But he also spotlights the country and the time we live in, and the harshness of our lives while living in a time when life isn’t valued. Yet with the number of refugees battling out there in an unwelcome world, is it even possible to think of more ordinary lives in this way?

Everything begins with a young Pretoria boy’s obsession with Muhammad Ali. Now, as an adult, he turns back to the scrapbooks of his youth, asks for help from a somewhat unwilling brother but also tries to unravel the mystery of writing, how it happens and why he does it.

It’s simplicity itself and yet there are underlying streams that keep popping into the story and strangling any thoughts you might have had about what this story is about and why it is being told.

And that is precisely this astonishing writer’s strength.

 

Book There Goes English teacherThere Goes English Teacher A Memoir by Karin Cronje (Modjaji Books):

As a huge Korean fan, having visited the country twice as a guest of the government, I was hugely intrigued by this book which deals with someone teaching English.

We all know South Africans who have done that but in Cronje’s case, she’s slightly older than most graduates who almost use this as a gap period. For her, it was is a gap year while ageing and coping with major life changes that had her almost gasping for life.

Perhaps that’s not the best time to jump into this kind of adventure. A third into the book, I almost put it down which isn’t something I often consider, choosing my reading matter carefully.

Nevertheless, I decided to keep going because while I found her writing frustrating in many instances, I was also enchanted by others.

I still feel that it needs a strong edit which would (for me) turn her into the brilliant writer she is some of the time. Too often, it was just too much, she had made the point clearly. And yet, there she goes on again… and again.

But then again, it might just be me.

 

The Sorrow of the Same Train: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long …

True stories of the persecution of black boys and men in the United States have, perhaps, never been as raw as in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Her four-part miniseries about the Central Park (Exonerated) Five is breaking viewing records on Netflix. But when DIANE DE BEER read James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968) at the same time as watching the miniseries, the 50 years between the two explorations of the same agonising topic burned away, into the same history of hate:

 

 

When two brothers, Caleb (17) and Leo (10) are stopped by the police in James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968)

I’m glad you were with me, because if it hadn’t been for you, they’d have given me licking …

What for?

Because I’m black, Caleb said. Because I’m black and they paid to beat on black asses. But with a kid your size, they just might get into trouble. So they let us go.

 

Anything changed? That was written more than 30 years before the last century ended and we are almost 20 years into the new one.

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A scene from Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us

And yet horror is still being expressed by the events (1989) of the exonerated Central Park Five. The story has suddenly been given life again by the expressive Ava DuVernay’s evocative and brilliantly blunt When They See Us, recently released on Netflix.

You just need to focus on the name of the four-episode dramatised version of five black and brown teenagers wrongly accused of the assault and rape of a woman jogger in new York’s most iconic public park – hence the name, the Central Park Five. The men were exonerated years later, in 2002, but this series is a reminder once again of the horrific racism of the American justice department including the police and the prosecutors as well as the wrongful rage of the media at the time. Property magnate Donald Trump further exacerbated and fuelled the fire of an already baying white citizenry with full-page ads (at the cost of $85 000) in the New York Times and other papers. He called for New York State to adopt the death penalty.

What DuVernay does in this particular series is focus on the young boys (from 14 to 16 at the time of their arrest), the way they were mistreated, the absence of any rights for the young boys and their parents and how far and wide the damage spreads in a community when this kind of devastatingly wrongful act is taken to its conclusion – one of the young men, 16 at the time, was tried as an adult and sent directly to Rykers, one of America’s most notorious prisons.

Ava DuVernay at work
Ava DuVernay at work on When They See Us

 

To witness only his story which unfolds in harrowing detail in episode 4, is devastating. I cried from start to finish. To see a life destroyed in such a wilful manner is impossibly sad. But DuVernay knows exactly what she is doing and she doesn’t hold back.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour for example, when talking about Donald Trump (now president of course) she explains why she included particular clips of him and a television interview: “What he said at the time contributed to the air of criminal bias pointing to black and brown boys and girls as animals, a wolfpack, dehumanising black people.”

The Trump interview itself is also packaged in a way that is both screamingly funny yet shows the contempt of  the two women when they hear him speak.

As he talks about black people (in 1989), he says he would like to be a “well educated black because I do believe they have an actual advantage today”. The real interview is played on a television screen in the room with two of the mothers of the accused boys watching. The one turns to the other and says:

“What is a black?”

“I don’t know,” says the friend, “but when is the white man going to get a break in this country?”

A retort follows sharply: “They have to keep that bigot off TV.”

“Don’t worry about it, his 15 minutes is almost up!”

And knowing what we know now, that’s no longer funny.

 

James Baldwin writes further in his book about his white fellow Americans: I did not want to leave this fire, leave this room, but I wanted to get out of this country. I had had it amongst all these deadly and dangerous people, who made their own lives, and all the lives they touched, so flat and stale and joyless.

My countrymen impressed me, simply as being the emptiest and most unattractive people in the world. It seemed a great waste of one’s only lifetime to be condemned to their chattering, vicious, pathetic, hysterically dishonest company.

For these people would not change, they could not, they had no energy for change: the very word caused their eyes to unfocus, their lips to loosen or to tighten, and sent them scurrying into their various bombshelters.

 

What is so astonishing about DuVernay’s stubborn spotlight on issues and people who have never had a voice, is that she has obviously decided to take a stand and speak her mind on issues that people have been pussyfooting around to the consternation or confusion of the rest of the world watching.

When referring to Trump, there’s no hesitation when she points to his “racist supremacist views and opportunist buffoonery of the time”.

She’s equally blunt when speaking about the US prison system, something she has invested in keenly with her Academy Award winning documentary 13th which exposed the historical racial bias in the system.

Answering a question by Amanpour about the broken system, she again approached it head-on: “I don’t believe the system is broken. It’s working exactly as it was meant to work.”

And that’s exactly what she focussed on in 13th: “How the system came to be, the historical context of a criminal justice system that overindexes on the criminalisation of people of colour in the US.”

“It can’t be reformed,” she tells Amanpour. ”It has to be completely overhauled.” And then she adds, “We need massive work to reframe how we think of criminality in the US.”

That is precisely why the five young men (Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson) turned to her as their saviour, the one they wanted and willed to tell their story.

They knew she had the insight and would get it right. For her it was about showing their innocence destroyed as they were ripped from their youth in a matter of moments. They didn’t stand a chance. The prosecutor of the case is heard saying: “Every black man who was in the park that night is a suspect. I need all of them.”

She got what she asked for and more. Corey Wise wasn’t in the park, he simply accompanied a friend to the police station as support. He was sentenced for 15 years and because he was unwilling to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, he wasn’t allowed parole.

 

A final note from James Baldwin: People become frightened in many different ways – the ways in which they become frightened may sometimes determine how long they live. Here I was, in the country, and on a country road, alone, facing two armed white men who had legal sanction to kill me; and if killing me should prove to be an error, it would not matter very much, it would not for them be a serious error. It would not cost them their badges or their pensions, for the only people who would care about my death could certainly never reach them Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

Watch both 13th and When They See Us on Netflix if you haven’t done that already.

 

  • The details are easy to look up on the internet, but in case you want to know: The case was heard in two 1990 trials. In one, Salaam, McCray, and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery, and riot, and sentenced to the maximum, 5 to 10 years in a youth facility. Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, and robbery and was also sentenced to 5 to 10 years. Wise, at 16, tried as an adult and convicted of sexual abuse, assault, and riot was sentenced to 5 to 15 years. Santana, Richardson, McCray, and Salaam went to juvenile detention for five to seven years but when they were released, they were required to register as sex offenders, which limited their ability to find work. Finally they were all exonerated when a man already in prison, came forward with a guilty plea.

Choices Choices Choices: Entertainment In Style – Out On The Town Or At Home

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Cinema in style at Cine Prestige The Grove

There’s a world of entertainment out there for you to tap into whatever your interests. DIANE DE BEER explores some of the options and the way it stretches your mind:

 

 

If your movie-going days seem to have dwindled, The Grove Ster-Kinekor recently launched its revamped Cine Prestige theatre with a screening of action thriller John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum – and all of Cine Prestige’s signature comfort.

If you are one of those people who are reluctant to leave the comfort of their home because cinemas have become rowdy places with cell phone interruptions and blinding screen lights that detract from the experience, then this might be a way to entice you back.

cocktails at cine prestige
Cocktails at Cine Prestige

It reminded me of business or first class flying with seats that move and change into comfortable sofas with you and your partner sweetly ensconced into your own private space.

The experience also includes a cosy private lounge, and a full bar offering with a range of drinks from wine, beer, cocktails, and hot drinks.

You are no longer reliant on popcorn and coke, although those are also available for those die-hard movie memories. Guests can also enjoy gourmet snack platters, and a selection of desserts, all served in the comfort of a fully reclining leather seat. It’s a great way of watching a movie.

All of this comes at a price, naturally (R161 a ticket without refreshments) but assuming you want to watch movies on a big screen in extreme comfort, this certainly is that.

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Fight or flight in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

Personally, I realise that I’m not the target audience of the John Wick franchise which we were invited to see yet fortunately this was my first experience of this particular Keanu Reeves strongman, which meant there was an element of novelty involved.

But not for too long. These films are simply a series of flight and fight scenes in various guises, with little happening in-between.

Their next offering, Longshot, is a love story that tracks the life of a free-spirited journalist who keeps running into trouble. Played by Seth Rogen, Fred unexpectedly charms Charlotte (Charlize Theron), who is smart, sophisticated and sassy. The combo of the silly and the serious should be fun and our girl is always someone to watch.

This will be followed by Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which won’t be diarised, and Rocket Man, which is described as an epic musical fantasy which makes sense if you’re told it is based on the unfiltered story of Elton John’s breakthrough years. It nevertheless is not an unauthorised version, Sir Elton was a big part of the process.

Cine Prestige, it seems, is about a fun experience rather than movies that might seriously engage your mind, but we need these escapist adventures as well. And seeing the whole adventure as a bit of a fantasy, the movie itself might just as well fall in that genre too.

But while on the subject of entertainment and keeping up with the latest out there in a way that’s easy – and perhaps not putting you out of pocket, I was recently watching a Christiane Amanpour programme on CNN. This is one of the few that cover politics but also the arts with authors, filmmakers, directors and the like all making an appearance. (Check it out on CNN, currently at 7pm on weeknights and again repeated at 5am in the morning. She keeps you in touch.)

But this particular segment featured two extraordinary women who are both tasked with introducing us to a new world fast emerging out there.

Radhika Jones
Radhika Jones

The first was Radhika Jones, the first mixed race editor of the pop culture magazine Vanity Fair, which immediately impacts their cover and story choices to reflect the world we live in – all of it – not just from a certain vantage. She makes some brave decisions for the future of the magazine, and this is where you get to play around for a while. She recently opened up the Vanity Fair archives, free of charge for now.

Vanity Fair archive
From the Vanity Fair archives

That means you can sit endlessly scrolling through issues from the beginning of time depending on your interest. Vanity Fair has always been a magazine that homes in on the zeitgeist which is what makes it of interest internationally.

As Jones explained to Amanpour, her cover choices weren’t really the result of who she is but rather of what is happening in the world around us, with the success for example of Black Panther and Get Out and she wants to capture the spirit of the times. To allow readers into this world through the archives is a treat. Go and have a look. Just make sure that you are in the archives, not the magazine itself which is limited to four articles a month, of Vanity Fair and then have fun with your reading choices.

 

And on that note, if you have a Netflix account, don’t miss the Rachel Lears documentary Knock Down The House. It looks at the primary campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin, four Democrats endorsed by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress (the names say it all) who ran for Congress in last year’s US midterm elections.

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The four women competing in the Midterm Elections

It premiered at Sundance 2019 in January, was voted an audience favourite and was bought by Netflix for the most money ever paid for a documentary.

These women were running together on a grassroots level and what the filmmaker wanted to explore was power now and what it looked like, how representatives and money converge and what happens when people who don’t have the money, are brought into the process. Because of the large amounts of money required to run, usually only certain kinds of people can access the process, but this is changing with Ocasio-Cortez and her particular brand (and charisma)  turned into hot currency with the current crop of Democratic Presidential hopefuls whenever they have a stage.

She was the only one elected and has already challenged the status quo in a country where a largely white male Alabama senate recently passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the US deciding about the rights of women and their bodies, “the only thing men cannot control,” argues Gloria Steinem.

All of the above are “entertainment” options in our new world of access, streaming and many other avenues that keep popping up.

It’s time to play and stretch the mind – and that’s the best way.

Author Lauri Kubuitsile – Force of Nature

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” 
― Haruki Murakami

 

 

Evil cover HR

DIANE DE BEER

 

Everything about author Lauri Kubuitsile is unexpected.

First there’s the name which (for me anyway) implied that I was meeting a black Botswana writer, only to be surprised by this Baltimore-born woman appearing at the guesthouse in Johannesburg where we were set to meet.

She moved to Botswana in 1989 (first running away from home at the young age of 16), where she met her husband (they are recently divorced). She declares herself a proud Botswana citizen hence the stories she has written especially in her last two books: The Scattering with at the centre the Herero who were forced to flee in 1904 South-West Africa when the German colonial authorities issued an extermination order; and now But Deliver Us From Evil (Penguin Books), a story about a young Koranna woman who is mistaken for a kidnapped white child, something that determines her whole life.

Kubuitsile only started writing at 40 and that was by accident. An unscrupulous business partner left her with a publishing business which finally led to this former science teacher publishing the first of many books.

Before these two books, she has won or been shortlisted for many awards. She twice won Africa’s premier prize for children’s writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana’s Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa’s most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize.

She writes across the age spectrum for adults, teens and children and her books cross many genres. Her book, Signed, Hopelessly in Love was recognised by South Africa’s O Magazine as one of the best reads in December 2011. The first book in her Kate Gomolemo Mysteries series, The Fatal Payout, is a prescribed book in Botswana for all junior secondary school children.

And she writes easily it seems. Once the story is in her head, she rushes through that first draft just to get it down on paper. Only then the tough work begins as she starts editing. That takes much reading and rewriting, but the process has always worked for her. “I know I won’t die while I have a story in my head because that need to get it out on paper is too overwhelming,” she says – only half in jest.

The thing about Kubuitsile’s writing is her storytelling ability. She draws you in immediately with a style that is focussed on plot rather than characters, she says, but even copping to this penchant, she manages to flesh everything out: the places, the people and their incredible lives. That’s what keeps you turning those pages as you delve back into a history that’s familiar but unknown.

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Fearless author Lauri Kubuitsile

Many of us would know about the Koranna, but that’s probably in most instances the extent of our knowledge. Their history is vague. “I’m surprised by how few people know their story or even about them,” says Kubuitsile, who hopes to change some of that with this and hopefully a next book (following another story in-between) which will also be revealing.

The other intriguing aspect of her writing is that she is telling the story of especially the women – and added to that, the women of the oppressed/vanquished, which makes it doubly hard but also timely. These stories of our past were mostly recorded by men thus writing the odd throwaway line about women or their place in society into the actual history being told, those of the men and their wars.

But we know, says Kubuitsile that these women were doing a lot and often keeping things going. “This is history as a narrative,” she explains. “You can’t find the voices anywhere, but you are given leeway to fill in, because the evidence is there.”

She loves the research and has stumbled on the most amazing stories that have informed her own writing or even set a book in motion, like this one. It was while researching The Scattering that she read a line about “the daughter of the maid at the missionary’s home” as well as a letter by Kgosi Sechele (the ruler of the Bakwena of Botswana) in which he corrects a letter that accuses him of killing 25 witches to say that they were only five and in any case well known as witches. All of these fuelled her imagination as the story so masterfully unfolds.

More than anything though, it is her fascination with the Koranna that first piqued her interest. She explains that most of them came from the colonies, some mixed race but more a mix of many people including the Batlhaping, San, Griqua, Baster, Dutch and other Khoi people, hence the lightness of her protagonist Beatrice’s complexion, lived on islands in the Gariep River and were big raiders. “They wanted to be free and to be left alone,” she says and what kept them alive was their ability to swim and navigate the river, better than anyone else.

She talks about her books in the same way she writes, with a confidence and credibility that sits comfortably with someone who has published 30 often very different books, with much success.

She calls herself a generalist, loves the fact that she can make her living from writing, but that’s only half of what is going on in her life. She talks of many different projects, amongst others writing computer games, the one she had to tackle immediately and features hugely in her life.

But there’s also a book with the current title of Reflecting Light that she describes as probably her most autobiographical. It tells the story of a woman who grew up with a very famous mother followed by a famous husband. Her light was always reflected by who they were, making compromises, and being defined by feelings that weren’t her own.

That’s not all – naturally! She is currently collaborating on a project with with an established well-known South African  author, which they are writing as a first-person narrative. “We come from very different places, she is character driven and I do plot,” she says. “We will have to see if two people can get their brains together to make one!” It’s early days still but if anyone can, it will be these two.

That is if either of them can be penned down to get it done. For Lauri Kubuitsile, for a story to be written, it must be aching in her head.

And thank goodness, that’s exactly why But Deliver Us From Evil is so riveting. She desperately needed to tell that story and did so quite brilliantly.

“Take good care of it, it is my life,” said artist Charlotte Salomon about Life? or Theatre? which was also her Life’s Work

Pictures are all the work of Charlotte Salomon from Taschen’s  Life? or Theatre?

Charlotte SalomonDIANE DE BEER

Charlotte by David Foenkinos (Canongate) and Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich (Taschen):

Charlotte Salomon is born into a family stricken by suicide and a country at war – but there is something very exceptional about her. She has a gift, a talent for painting. And she has a great love, for a brilliant, eccentric musician.

But just as she is coming into her own as an artist, death is coming to control her country. The Nazis have risen to power and, as a Jew in Berlin, her life is narrowing – she is kept from her art, torn from her love and her family and chased from her country. But still she is not safe, not from the madness that has haunted her family, or from the one gripping Europe…

Charlotte is a heart-breaking true story – inspiring, unflinching, awful, hopeful – of a life filled with curiosity, animated by genius and cut short by hatred. A beautifully, lucidly told memorial, it has become an international success.

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Inside cover of Life? or Theatre?

These are the words on the jacket of David Foenkinos’s Charlotte (Canongate).

I was given this book as a gift by an astute friend together with Taschen’s Charlotte Salomon Life? Or Theatre? – Charlotte Salomon’s artistic feat under the Third Reich which includes essays by Judith C.E. Belinfante and Evelyn Benesch as well as a selection of 450 gouaches.

Because I didn’t know the artist at all, I didn’t immediately connect the two books but soon discovered, the first, written almost in poetic prose –  like an epic poem – was inspired by Charlotte’s lightly fictionalised memoir consisting of hundreds of paintings, sketches, text and musical annotations created during the years she was in hiding.

Foekinos is an award-winning French novelist and screenwriter who won the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and Charlotte has sold more than half a million copies in France and was translated into 19 languages.

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And they walked home together, absorbed in silent communication.

It is excellently translated from French into English by American Sam Taylor. So once you have read the intriguing story by the novelist who simultaneously with Charlotte’s life story shares his own tale of discovering the artist, you can follow that with the Taschen art collection which again delves into Charlotte’s life but this time with the paintings and illustrations in hand.

It is an extraordinary insight into an artist who before these two books, might not have been familiar to you.

Foenkinos, for example, only discovered her work in 2004 in a museum in Germany and this propelled him to tell her story. It’s difficult to imagine that the life you encounter was such a short one and in a time as a Jewess in Germany (1917 – 1943), there wasn’t much chance of her visibility as artist flourishing.

Executing her gouache series Life? Or Theatre? she pleaded with a friend to “take good care of it, it is my entire life.” Perhaps she had a premonition because a few months later, the 26-year-old was deported to Auschwitz where she was killed shortly after her arrival.

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Out there in the forest there he stands – there dwells many a beautiful king’s child – in the forest there we want to listen.

The work tells her life story with a ground-breaking narrative that spans her entire short life: her complicated family life coloured by the high incidence of female suicides; her youth in Berlin marked by die rise of the Nazis and the oppression that followed; her close relationship with singing teacher Alfred Wolfsohn; her exile in France where her masterwork was accomplished; as well as abuse suffered on different levels from different people.

All these are reflected in her personal story that she embellishes with pseudonyms and fantasies to hide the actual personae, but reading both books, the story is clear. It’s an astonishing insight into her inner world, into that time, the way people lived and were terrorised, the decisions you make under duress and without foresight of course. Now we know everything in full colour, but at the time, the citizens of Germany, especially those being persecuted, had no idea of the horrors lying in wait.

But what also makes this such an intriguing read is the passions of the artist when it comes to the people and her painting and how she told her personal story in a way that kept her sane and allowed her artistic expression to flower.

Illustrated diaries, art books, aren’t uncommon anymore but at that time, given her youth and her life, what she produced is astonishing and adds greatly to her story and her art – both in equal measure and with astounding strength.

In 1947, her parents discover her life project in the South of France. They decide to donate it to the Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) in Amsterdam in 1971. Throughout the years, parts of the work have been displayed in museums around the world, but many art lovers are still unaware of this artist and her body of unique and unusual art.

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…and died under the slowly dying flames of the blazing flag.

According to Wikipedia, in 1981 the Museum presented 250 scenes in narrative sequence, and critics began to comment on the work.  An exhibition was presented at the London Royal Academy in 1998  and was an unexpected sensation, helped by the publication of a complete catalogue. Part of her anonymity, they believe, is the result of Salomon’s work not appearing on the international art market, as the whole archive belongs to the protective Charlotte Salomon Foundation based at the Joods Historisch Museum. The art historian Griselda Pollock dedicated a chapter to Charlotte Salomon in her Virtual Feminist Museum, analysing her work in terms of contemporary art, Jewish history and cultural theory.

And most recently Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre? was exhibited at the Joods Historisch Museum from October 2017 to March 2018.

With these two latest books, there’s a chance of a wider audience and perhaps a deeper understanding of her work. But more than anything, it is the excitement of discovering an artist with such a strong voice, a woman to boot, who tells her story in such an individual and inspiring fashion.

It’s not an uplifting story, but it is inspiring that she could find a way to express herself so magnificently and with such a unique voice in such dark times. And leave such an luminous legacy.

 

 

 

 

Author Vincent Pienaar is Riding the Wave with his Own Special Tsunami

BK Too many tsunamis

Author Vincent Pienaar is experiencing his own tsunami with his latest book Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light. He tells DIANE DE BEER why:

 

With a book titled Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light, and incidental humour (Penguin Books) and an opening sentence that deals with suicide – more the dilemma of being or not being – author Vincent Pienaar’s latest book is hard to resist.

And if you don’t know who this journalist/writer is, he gives some clues with a dedication that includes names like Gabriel García Márquez, Etienne Leroux, Damon Runyon, Eugène Marais, Virginia Woolf, Elmore Leonard, Akira Kurosawa, Lennon-McCartney and Harrison for the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night… and more.

All of these are hints of what’s to come. And it’s joyous. “When I wrote Too Many Tsunamis, I deliberately decided to write an amusing story that didn’t explore the standard ‘troubled country’ story lines. I set out to write a story that was only incidentally set in South Africa. I love it when people tell me things like ‘this doesn’t feel like a typical South African story’. While I don’t want to speculate what a ‘typical’ South African story is, I happily admit that I wanted to write (let’s call it) a universal story. I’m fascinated by the way storytelling has changed (catering for a faster world) and I absolutely love the challenge of telling my story at breakneck speed.”

I had asked him about what I perceived as a breakaway from his usual style and while he confessed to not having a particular style, “I do believe this is the style I want to retain. It really works for me.” It did for me too.

The story is fast-paced which, as he explains above, was the idea but there’s a filmic element to the storytelling that makes everyone on the page come alive.

“If Bert truly wants to commit suicide he certainly finds a number of reasons why he simply can’t do it right now. He is always working on a magnificent bestseller, but it is never identified – and whether it exists or not is for the reader to decide. He lives in a fantasy world, where he talks to his conscience – or Conscience the character – who does not necessarily like or support him.

“His mother – or Mother – spends a lot of time getting him a job or a woman and if the gods allow it, both.

“My favourite character is Light, an unkempt young woman who appears to be deliberately slovenly, slow, and certainly deliberately overweight. The character development (and I really enjoy this) comes from Light – and what a gem she turns out to be! Mother, Bert, Light and Conscience are the main protagonists I suppose, but I have populated the book with many minor characters who are all quirky in their own right. (Boring people really are boring, aren’t they?)

Vincent Pienaar (002)
Author/journalist Vincent Pienaar.

“The story, although not a mystery or anything like that, has a number of reveals that I hope induces the occasional minor gasp.

“It’s a style that is balanced (as you say) on a knife’s edge a little and might not have worked. To maintain the right balance is quite something.”

Following this Pienaar monologue, as the interviewer, I have to make a confession. It was unfair to ask a journalist to tell us about his book, because if like Pienaar, you’ve just invented this incidental magical tale, your response will have the same effect – in essence writing the interview. Apologies though, but in this instance, no one can talk about his book better than the author.

Talking about the style, he immediately used a musical metaphor and the names he drops into his book and the conversation explain why.

“I have developed a style with surprises. I enjoy the ‘duel’ with the reader to offer something unexpected every now and then, to keep the reader just a little off balance (and interested). I have, over the years, developed an aversion for ‘dead words. I don’t want to write them, and I don’t want to read them. (With this my mentors Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Benyon helped me to weed them out and slaughter them.) I like the idea of what you call the ‘knife edge’ because it is an indication that the action propels this story.” Which it certainly does.

“I applied a different rhythm to different sections. It’s deliberate and it is an attempt to make it easy for the reader to remain interested.

“A late (erudite) friend said the difference between jazz and blues is that jazz is performed for the enjoyment of the musicians themselves and blues is performed for the satisfaction of the audience. There is often that part in a jazz piece where the audience sits patiently and reverently while the musician is ‘performing his art’. I, too, don’t mind sitting quietly waiting for solos to end. But when I write, I write the blues. I work at making my writing for the benefit of the reader and not the writer.”

He’s achieved all that and more. Perhaps there no longer is a typical South African novel although we all know what he means when living in a country where reality has for most of our lives felt like fiction. How could writers not go there?

But Pienaar wanted to write something different and he achieved that with aplomb.

“A movie? I wish! I know that I write scenes instead of chapters. If I have helped the reader to forget about the words and to see the images, I’m very happy. I wanted to write a book that would make people smile. Believe me, the style was deliberate and no coincidence.”

How could it not be? When (not if) you read the book, you will discover what that means. It’s like slipping into a world of merry-go-rounds, slightly crazy, yet delightfully so. And it keeps you smiling even when there are the occasional sad undertones.

Elaborating about his own reading preferences even if he lists some in his dedication in the book, he comes up with the following:

“In my pursuit of universal writing, I have drifted further and further into the arms of the classics. I read, with admiration, works by Virginia Woolf and sections of Anthony Powell and the short novels of John Steinbeck. I have read and re-read two short novels, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not the terrible movie) and The Great Gatsby. They both have great plots and subplots and no dead words. I ponder why they are so great. I read Hunter S Thompson as a study in breathing fire. Would he write: ‘The car drove off at high speed.’? Fuck no! He might possibly write: ‘Tyres howled and smoke billowed as the car shot from the sidewalk into the fast lane.’ Yeah!

“I watch a lot of movies and very often the classics. I think His Girl Friday (from 1941!) has the best dialogue I have ever seen. Some Like it Hot is a study in timing. The Lion in Winter has acerbic dialogue that needs to be watched in two-minute sections. (O’Toole to Hepburn: ‘Will you give me a moment’s peace, woman?!’ Hepburn: ‘I can give you eternal peace. Now there’s a thought.’)”

With Pienaar doing most of the talking, hopefully he has said enough to get you reading – and you should. Apart from the battered-feeling Bert who has written a brilliant suicide note but can’t quite get to the brilliant suicide, it’s a deliciously discordant romantic romp with much more than the haphazard Bert, although he is the perfect anti-hero in today’s world, that seldomly has you smiling for the right reasons.

Pienaar brilliantly manages that.

To top it all, his book has just been picked for the 2019 Longlist of the Sunday Times Literary Awards’ Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.