Book Review - Mzansi Zen

by Antony Osler (Jacana) ISBN 9781431423224

 
Mzansi Zen is Osler’s third book about the distinct flavour of Zen practised in South Africa and more than in his previous Stoep Zen and Zen Dust, he steps up as the wise teacher that South Africans in these confusing, painful times so sorely need. 

Using stories, memories, poetry, drawings and photography Osler shows us how to offer ourselves to whatever is in front of us with an open heart, ‘clean ears’ and compassion for our interconnected lives. 

At its heart, the book beats to the rhythm of a Zen meditation retreat as hosted by Osler and his wife Margie on their farm in the Karoo. In a daily schedule of sitting, walks in the veld, chanting, work and talks, retreatants experience how from paying silent attention great clarity arises. 

Osler recounts a number of koans from the Zen tradition and explains that the purpose of these wonderful but often confusing stories isn’t to fix or explain but rather to invite a response and in that response find our teaching. His observations of South African life often read like koans, in fact the whole book, that for me brought about smiles, tears, insight and question marks, is a special teaching story in itself. 

Josine Overdevest
www.writerswrite.co.za
4/5

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Book Review - Zero K

by Don DeLillo (Picador) ISBN: 9781509822850


Not since his Underworld, which I read in 1998, have I been so singularly occupied by the body of thought presented in a novel as by Zero K.  To me it is a meditation on life and death in a time when life on earth seems apocalyptic and alternatives are available. 

Jeff Lockhart is invited to The Convergence, a remote cryogenic centre, by his billionaire father Ross to say goodbye to his terminally ill stepmother who will undergo the body freezing process hoping to return to life in a healthy condition. During his bewildering stay Jeff learns that the treatment is also available to people who choose to suspend living until they can return to a better world with better people. Ross has chosen this option but it takes another two years before he does it. 

His visits to The Convergence cause Jeff, who doesn’t commit to much, and who makes sense of people and events by naming and defining them, to reflect on life and how people try to control it. 

In just 274 pages of profound prose, DeLillo opens a visionary portal to questions of language, art and contemporary life that has yet to release its hold on me. 

Josine Overdevest
www.writerswrite.co.za
4.5/5

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Book Review - A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador) ISBN: 9781447294832

 
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ aptly sums up the life of the protagonist of Yanagihara’s second novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2015. In 700 pages, she examines how a horrific childhood casts its shadow over a happy adulthood and questions which of the two will dominate. 

Four college friends move to Manhattan to start their professional lives. After introducing the four, the story focuses on Jude St Francis, the successful lawyer whose early life remains a mystery to the others and an unspeakable truth to himself.  Jude is very popular with his friends and at age 30 he gets adopted by a loving couple.  Shame about his past makes it difficult for him to accept unconditional friendship. An upsetting relationship in his forties unleashes his suppressed memories and his fight for survival truly begins. 

Although the book made me feel anxious and tearful throughout, I could not stop reading it. At times I considered ‘the worst of times’ too horrid and ‘the best of times’ bordering on sentimental, but Yanagihara’s masterful pacing of the plot, the alternating perspectives and her insight into human relationships make for an impressive read. 

Josine Overdevest
www.writerswrite.co.za
4/5

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Book Review - Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights

by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape) ISBN: 9781910702048

How do I write a 200-word review for a book that I’m reading for the third time? A book that has so many wonderful lines leaping of its pages that I had to stop writing them down. A book that had me laughing, gasping and talking to it out loud. A book that made me research many interesting things. A book that is simultaneously a fairy tale, a satire and a philosophical treatise and lets you choose how deep you want to delve into these layers. 

That’s the challenge that Salman Rushdie has created for me with his latest novel in which he picks up the ancient debate between philosophers Al-Gazali and Ibn Rush. He does this in a magical tale in which an epic war of 1001 nights (or two years eight months and 28 nights) is fought between faith and reason. The outcome of this battle is narrated by the inheritors of our human world who live, quite happily, with its consequences. 

Reading this review and seeing all the things I didn’t cover, I realise that the only succinct review for this book are the words that best express what I feel it is: A love letter to humanity. 

Josine Overdevest
www.writerswrite.co.za
5/5

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

Book Review - Satin Island

by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape) ISBN: 9780224099349 

After C in 2010, Satin Island is the second Tom McCarthy novel to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His work is often referred to as ‘avant garde’ which made me curious to read it. 

U. is an anthropologist who advises organisations how to narrate meaning around their service offering. In addition to working on one of his firm’s main projects, his boss has tasked him with creating The Great Report, ‘the First and Last Word on our age’. U. is flattered to be working on it but he’s also overwhelmed by its enormity. This leads him to procrastinate. He just creates folders filled with news and articles on such diverse topics as oil spills, buffering and crashing parachutists and philosophises on how these, and all other topics of our time, are connected. 

The novel seems to lack a clear plot and character development, but I was fascinated by U.’s research and his thoughts about it.  At times McCarthy writing has such a tangible quality that I could imagine a physical work of art based on U.’s ideas. I wasn’t surprised when I later read that McCarthy is also a visual artist. 

Josine Overdevest
www.writerswrite.co.za
4/5

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Inspector Minahan Makes a Stand

by Bridget O’Donnell (Picador) ISBN 9780330544641


The title led me to think I was about to discover another fictional hero detective. Instead I was pulled into a fascinating historical account. It tells how the courage of one man was a catalyst for the 1885 turning point in a Victorian revolution that saw the rising middle class wrest influence from the aristocracy.
Inspector Minahan’s report about the corruption at his station, including the blind eye turned to Mrs Jeffries’ brothels where underage girls are offered to the nobility, leads to his demotion and resignation. He takes the issue to Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, who turns out to be his nemesis. His fight crests a wave of developments that leads to the change of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. It was scary to read how themes of the 1880s like child trafficking, beliefs that sex with virgins cures disease, arrogance of a privileged class and poverty breeding crime are still alive today.
Bridget O’Donnell’s story is thoroughly researched. Her writing is fast paced and entertaining. I liked her references to authors like Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson showing how much they were chroniclers of that time. Inspector Minahan did not get a happy ending like our present day fictional detectives but I think he was more heroic than most of them.

Josine Overdevest 
4/5

Searching African Skies

by Sarah Wild (Jacana) ISBN 978-1-4314-0472-8 



Space is the new frontier and as main host to largest radio telescope in the world, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), South Africa is perfectly positioned to explore these new vistas of opportunity. 

Sarah Wild, Science and Technology editor for Business Day, explains why. She tracks South Africa’s long history in (radio) astronomy which begins with the /Xam Bushmen stories on the origins of celestial bodies. Scientists, academics, and subsequent governments have initiated and supported the construction of various observatories and telescopes. The ANC-led government has spent more on radio astronomy than previous governments since 1910 combined and further facilitated developments by lawfully declaring most of the Northern Cape “an astronomy advantage area”.  This has allowed South Africa to position as a “supplier of knowledge and innovation”. 

By awarding the SKA the international astronomical society has endorsed this position. The economic impact of the project might not be as immediate as the poor communities in the Karoo hope but the SKA will contribute to development and jobs.  Its human capital development programme greatly boosts interest and capability in the fields of Science & Technology for (South) Africans. 

Although the scientific content went over my head at times, Sarah Wild’s enthusiasm for this amazing South African achievement and its further potential is catching. 

Josine Overdevest
3.5/5

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Sweet Tooth

by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape) ISBN 9780224097383 



Is a balance of power, even if it means mutual deceit, essential for peaceful relationships? We follow voracious reader, Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) from her student years in Cambridge into her first job at the Secret Service (MI5), for which her middle-aged lover recruits her.

It is the early ‘70s of the Oil Crisis, miners’ strikes, the emergence of the IRA and the Cold War. MI5 devises Operation Sweet Tooth in which novelists will be supported financially to contribute to a war of ideas against the Soviet Union. The selected novelists won’t know about MI5’s involvement or objectives.

Undercover, Serena enlists writer Tom Haley and starts an affair with him. This puts her in a precarious position of divided loyalties.
This is a book about books, even more about “invention”, as Serena grasps that that is what makes a story more than the sum of its parts. Invention also explains why the cultural cold war doesn’t work although inspired by successful operations in WWII. At that time “invention, imagination drove intelligence”, and Sweet Tooth “that precursor of decay, reversed the process and failed because intelligence tried to interfere with invention.”

I have not yet answered McEwan’s question for myself, but what an intelligent and entertaining way to pose it.

Josine Overdevest 
4/5

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. To find out about Writers Write - How to write a book, or The Plain Language Programme - Writing courses for business, email news@writerswrite.co.za

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The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket

by John Boyne (Doubleday) ISBN 978-0-857-53146-9

 

John Boyne’s third novel for young readers has been listed for the Irish Book Award: Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal 2013. It tells the story of Barnaby Brocket, born in Sydney “the Most Magnificent City in the World”, to parents who above all else need their lives and children to be normal.

 

That is where the trouble begins since Barnaby is not normal. Defying the laws of gravity Barnaby floats and is simply unable to keep his feet on the ground. His parents put up with this condition for eight years and then do a terrible thing: they cut Barnaby loose, literally.

 

Barnaby drifts on a wonderful journey around the globe meeting many wonderful people who also don’t fit their parents’ ideas of normal whether by some innate condition or by choice. In breaking free from their moulds they often find extraordinary lives.

 

But young Barnaby misses his family and via regular postcards updates them on his return. This is postponed by various mishaps, the last one floating him to a place where he for the first time feels so at ease with his condition that we wonder whether he ever wants to be normal.

 

With lovely illustrations by Oliver Jeffers this is a fun and inspirational book about the perks of being different. 

 

Josine Overdevest

3.5/5

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The Miracle of Crocodile Flats

by Jenny Hobbs (Umuzi) ISBN 978-1-4152-0062-9

 

Subtitled An Affectionate Satire, Jenny Hobbs presents a miraculous South African story that shows Ubuntu in action.

 

Crocodile Flats is a dwindling rural community with an astonishingly diverse population, not only are various races represented but also most religious denominations.  Everyone is hanging on for survival and a government relocation scheme is impending. Then young Sweetness Moloi has a vision of Ma-Jesu, with a brown face and leaving the smell of peach blossoms and vanilla cupcakes in her wake.

 

After squabbling about the veracity of the vision, the seemingly opposing sides pull together to deal with the hordes of pilgrims and press that descend on the village. The miracle impacts the community as a whole and many individuals in it. There are too many stories to summarize but I loved how strong women like Tannie Charmaine and Sis’ Diliza, fed up with their anachronistic husbands, claim their rightful position.

 

Introducing the multitude of characters takes Hobbs over sixty pages and had me nearly putting the book aside. I suggest you skip the last chapter. It could be intended as the satirical icing on the cake but was too sugary for me and lessened the book’s punch.

 

In between that slow start and the last chapter Hobbs spins a wonderful story with tongue-in-cheek observations that had me chuckling with delight.

 

Josine Overdevest 

3.5/5

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. To find out about Writers Write - How to write a book, or The Plain Language Programme - Writing courses for business, email news@writerswrite.co.za

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