Book Review: Saracen at the Gates

Book Review: Saracen at the Gates by Zinaid Meeran

Saracen at the Gates is available at Lobby Books for R150

What happens when the self-declared princess of Johannesburg’s curry mafia falls head-over-heels, if rather unexpectedly, in love with a radical activist “coconut” girl? When Zakira, the heiress-to-be of a wealthy Indian bakery and shady business empire, meets Sofie, the political firebrand and libertarian daughter of a gentle academic, both of their lives take some entirely unanticipated turns. Zinaid Meeran’s gallivanting and OTT novel, which won the 2008/09 European Union Literary Award, is a hilarious satire that illuminates the frictions of religion and tradition within one of Jozi’s most colourful, but also incestuous and myopic cultural enclaves.

Meet Zakira and her shopaholic, alcohol-swilling, drug popping, Islamic entourage as they hold court at the local Milky Lane, her neurotic Mommy, her unhinged twin brother Zakir and her pillar-of-the-community diabetic Daddy: one fractious and lovingly dysfunctional family. Meeran’s prose is funny, witty and eminently readable. The swashbuckling plot of Saracen at the Gates will keep you guessing at the outcome of Zakira and Sofie’s entanglement until the very last page.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Saracen at the Gates is available at Lobby Books for R150.


Book Review: Nickel & Dimed

Book Review: Nickel & Dimed – Undercover in Low-wage USA by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel & Dimed is a book about economics for those of us who hate reading books about economics. This is not a dry tomb about market trends, global finance and hedge funds, but a thoroughly readable investigation into the lives and struggles of the working poor in the USA – and yes, they do exist, in their millions.


Nickel & Dimed is available at Lobby Books for R130


Nickel & Dimed is, at times, darkly funny, deeply disturbing throughout and still very poignant even though it was written almost ten years ago.

Ehrenreich, one of America’s most accomplished reporters, subverts the US military’s conception of “embedded journalism” by not simply observing and writing about her “subjects” from a detached and objective outsider’s perspective, but by becoming one of them. For a month at a time she tries to make a living from low-paid, blue collar jobs, sometimes holding down two of these at the same time. She waitresses in Florida, cleans houses in Maine and sells ladies’ wear in Minneapolis in a quest to understand how the low-income citizens of the planet’s most advanced capitalist nation manage to survive on a minimum wage.

Nickel & Dimed presents an insightful and eye-opening account of a USA you would not have come across in most American sit-coms, soapies or Hollywood movies.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Nickel & Dimed is available at Lobby Books for R130.

Book Review: Footnotes in Gaza

Book Review: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

If you’ve never read any of Joe Sacco’s beautifully crafted graphic novels, his latest work of comic-journalism, Footnotes in Gaza, is a great place to start. Sacco is a pioneer of combining investigative journalism and war zone reporting with the creative form of the graphic novel and has achieved widespread international acclaim for his award-winning previous works, including Palestine and Safe Area Goražde.

Footnotes in Gaza is available at Lobby Books for R330

If Palestine presented the reader mostly with snapshots of the lives of ordinary Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Footnotes in Gaza, which remains gripping throughout its 400-odd pages, has a more continuous storyline. Seamlessly weaving together his personal investigations and interviews in the Gaza Strip with compelling historic reconstructions, Sacco uncovers the shocking details of two bloody events that devastated the Palestinian settlements of Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956, but which have until now been all but forgotten by mainstream history.

While always maintaining his journalistic integrity, Sacco gives a voice to victims of atrocities that have been forgotten by the “official record” and in so doing turns their collective memories into an absorbing and disturbing true tale. As always, his artwork is brilliant.

This is book is a must for graphic novel lovers and novices alike, as well as for anyone interested in the past, present and future of Israel and Palestine.

Andreas Späth, Idasa

Footnotes in Gaza is available at Lobby Books for R330.

Book Review: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Book Review: Should I Stay or Should I Go? To Live In or Leave South Africa edited by Tim Richman

Although this book consists of stand-alone essays, I couldn’t put it down until I’d read them all. What they have in common is a freshness and honesty and excellent writing, much of it by previously-published authors and journalists.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? is available at Lobby Books for R145

There’s a wide range of viewpoints, experiences and countries and none of the defensiveness about choices made that so often marks conversations on this topic. I read Andre Brink’s contribution, And Yet I Wish To Stay, first and would have bought it on the strength of that.

Bronwen Muller, Idasa

Should I Stay or Should I Go? is available at Lobby Books for R145.

Book Review: The Lacuna

Book Review: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

So convincing is the lead character of Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel that I found myself driven to Google to find out more – only to learn that Harrison Shepherd is, according to an interview with Kingsolver, the only truly fictional part of this book. She uses the lonely, eccentric and increasingly anthropophobic and agoraphobic Shepherd as a literary tool to tell the story of the socialist revolution, as it made its way via Mexico during the 1930s through the Second World War’s complicated two-step between the US and Russia and America’s rapid descent into the chauvinism of the McCathy era.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220

Shepherd observes it all, trying to stay on the margins, but occasionally finding himself in the thick of it, first as cook and then secretary to artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the household that became the virtual headquarters of the left-wing movement in Mexico. When Kahlo sends him to the US on the pretext of overseeing her New York exhibition – thereby possibly saving him from the attention of both Stalin and US forces undercover in Mexico at the time ‑ he sets himself up as a writer in suburban Carolina, recording history from the point of the view of the antiheroes and ordinary folk.

His efforts to keep a low profile ‑ “writing books is a way to earn a living in my pyjamas” – backfire as his pot-boilers turn him into something of a literary celebrity and inevitably bring him to the attention of the Dies Committee, also known as the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

The advice offered by his chain-smoking “S-shaped” Jewish lawyer reminds us of why Barbara Kingsolver is one of the greatest writers today. I know it’s cheating to quote extensively in a book review but her words are irresistible:

“Okay, do you know anything at all about this Dies Committee?”

“Years ago they contacted my boss to come and testify. This was in Mexico…”

“Your Mexican boss had something to say about un-American activities?”

“He wasn’t Mexican. He was in exile there, under threat of death from Stalin. So he had a lot to say about the man. This was before the war, when the US was getting very friendly with Stalin. Trotsky felt the US was being hoodwinked…”


“Lev Trotsky. He was my boss.”

The cigarette ash fell to the floor. For a moment the lawyer himself seemed poised to follow it. He straightened, shook his head slowly, and reached for the letter on the desk. “I am going to give you a piece of advice. Don’t mention that you were once employed by the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

When Shepherd argues that Trotsky “hated Stalin even more than J Edgar Hover does”, his lawyer reminds him that “these subtleties are lost on the Dies Committee”.

It gets funnier, in places, and sadder, much sadder, in many too. It’s the story of a loner, who lives on the margins of society and of history, from where he observes it with sharp sadness and cynicism and records it with gentle irony. If you are interested in the development of communism at the time, this is a novel worth reading; if you are concerned about how ordinary people made their way through the political twists and turns of those years treat yourself to a memorable read.

Moira Levy, Idasa.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is available at Lobby Books for R220.

Book Review: Able-Bodied

Book Review: Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie Swartz

In Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life, Leslie’s Swartz writes an entertaining and very warm story of his childhood as the son of a man who didn’t let his strangely-shaped feet get in the way of his joy in spending Saturday afternoons on the golf course. I finished the book feeling that I would have liked to have known his father, portrayed by Leslie in beautifully written anecdotes as a thoughtful man who loved his family.

Able-Bodied - Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie's Swartz is available at Lobby Books for R190

Leslie works in the field of disability – he is a psychology professor at Stellenbosch University and an internationally recognised researcher and author. This book, which he says he took great pleasure in writing, tells his own life story with insight and humour and also examines issues of disability as he has experienced them.

Bronwen Muller, Idasa.

Able-Bodied – Scenes From a Curious Life by Leslie’s Swartz is available at Lobby Books for R190.

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Book Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

It’s very hard to write a review on Philip Pullman’s new addition to Canongate’s Myth series, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is available at Lobby Books for R140

When publishers choose the best known fantasy writer/atheist in the world to rejig the Jesus myth, they have made a very commercial decision to make a barrelful of religious zealots foam up money for them.

And impressed though I may be, it’s hard to step willingly into that barrel.

Luckily, Pullman writes so well that once you have got over yourself and actually picked up the book… the controversy settles into a very interesting, and personal, read. As an agnostic brought up Christian, I can relate to Pullman’s self description as a “Church of England atheist”.  I am also very familiar with the Gospels he has both unwoven and condensed.

The skill of Pullman lies in his ability to retain the beauty of Jesus’ philosophy of universal love and humility, while teasing out the biblical strands which underpin the prideful structures of the Christian church. It is up to each reader to weigh up the two mythical men Pullman fashions out of his own magical dust – the good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ – and decide for themselves how much resonates with their own experience of Christianity.

Personally? Pullman inspires me to take pride in what I revere from my upbringing and yet have the courage to actively, and angrily, decry that which I believe to be evil, masquerading as The Word. As for whether or not a book this controversial should be written at all… no one addresses this question better than Pullman himself:

Many of us won over by His Dark Materials consider Pullman to be a leading moral intellectual in the world today. And at this time, described by Pullman himself as the “twilight of enlightenment”, we need to hear him more than ever.

Sam Wilson, Editor in Chief: Women24, Food24 and Parent24.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman is available at Lobby Books for R140.