17 June 2012

Bubbles (Rahla Xenopoulos)

It’s a flimsy premise.

A beautiful young girl grows up on the wrong side of the tracks in 1940s South Africa. She moves to big, bold Joburg where an Orange Grove bookie takes her under his wing.

Having mastered the (tawdry) tricks required to ‘beguile’ a man, she joins a circle of rich but sinister young hotshots. Utterly out of her depth and completely mis-reading how high society works, Bubbles lands in real danger.

Flimsy yes, but a) exquisitely written with fascinating first-person narration, b) based on the true local mystery of the life and death of Bubbles Schroeder, whose murder has never been solved, and c) unputdownable in its flow and rhythm.

Here’s a quick sample:

“Wouldn’t you know, for all that hard work and self-educating, I misunderstood a lot of things in my short life. But he seemed so utterly taken with me, why, I still think that if he hadn’t had his friends with him that night, we may just have stood a chance. I had played myself so carefully, always careful to be gay and never have my own opinions. They don’t like it when a woman has her own opinion, you know. Better just to smile sweetly and agree with everything they say. Oh, a man never goes for a thinking girl, opinionated girls have absolutely no appeal.”

Another lovely part of this story is the setting: Lichtenburg, Vereeniging, Orange Grove, Rissik Street, Illovo, all circa mid-1940s.

Department store John Orrs is a hugely big deal. Real people travel by tram, but a select few drive cars. Artists live in ivy-tendrilled cottages in big gardens on Dunkeld’s Bompas Road. And there’s nothing finer than high tea at Anstey’s: sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Bubbles says,

“The casuals sat around the card table…just talking. Not about me or races and bets, it was all about the Nats who had beaten Smuts at the polls. ‘It will just be vetkoek, not fettuccini, they won’t want Italians cooking,’ said Luigi, looking sombre. ‘There’s talk of them moving the black people out of town into shtetls,’ said one. ‘I think you’ll find you’re overreacting there,’ said another.”

This is a wonderful book. And a superb piece of local fiction. Read it. Please.

Bear Takes a Trip (Stella Blackstone & Debbie Harter)

[This post originally appeared on the JoziKids blog.]

‘Bear has a very long journey to make. There are lots of things for him to take.’

So he wakes up early, at 7.00am. By 8.30am he’s made his bed, washed his face, eaten his breakfast and packed his case. 

Filled with vibrant illustrations – some of the prettiest and most colourful I’ve seen in a children’s book – this wonderful story introduces little readers to telling the time, but it also has supplementary messages about making preparations, about taking trips and about spending time with friends.

(In terms of age range, I’d say older toddlers – aged 2 to 5 – who are still being read to, and 6- and 7-year olds who are just starting to read for themselves.)

If you’re a family that travels regularly, or that is planning a trip, this is a great way to introduce your kids to getting ready, getting going, being patient and enjoying their surroundings. But beyond that, the story’s core focus is time-telling.

We have a seven-year-old littlie living with us, and she’s starting Clocks at school, so I’m planning on testing this book out with her to see how she likes it…

There are clocks and watches on every page, explanations of ‘noon’, ‘midnight’, ‘quarter to’ and so on, and pictures of different clock faces, with the big and little hands in different positions. I love it. It’s a nice buy, too, for a long car journey.

We All Went on Safari (Laurie Krebs & Julia Cairns)

[This post originally appeared on the JoziKids blog.]

Subtitled ‘A Counting Journey through Tanzania’, this lovely book introduces little readers (I’d say older toddlers – aged 2 to 5 – who are still being read to, and 6- and 7-year olds who are just starting to read for themselves) to three things:

1.     Tanzania
2.     Safaris
3.     Counting

The story starts with a large extended family going on ‘safari’ at the start of a sunny day and spying a lonely leopard. They count ‘one’ (in Swahili, ‘moja’). Then, two (‘mbili’) ostriches running. Then, three (‘tatu’) giraffes grazing. And so on, through beautifully illustrated and laid out pages, to ten (‘kumi’) enormous elephants.

The use of descriptive verbs (‘Up bobbed some hefty hippos’), colourful adjectives (‘Grasslands damp with dew’, ‘Zigzag zebras’) and tidy rhyme is careful and clever. And right at the end, as an extra, are pages on the animals of Tanzania, the Maasai people, Swahili names and their meanings, facts about Tanzania, a map and the full list of numbers, one to ten – all with stunning illustrations and useful pronunciation.

I can’t wait for my littlie to be just old enough to graduate from board books and have this read to her. In the interim, you should buy it. It’s something really different. 

African Animals ABC (Philippa-Alys Browne)

[This post originally appeared on the JoziKids blog.]

I’m not fussy when it comes to choosing books for my one-year-old. But I am discerning. (Which, my husband says, is a euphemism for fussy.)

You see, so many of the kiddie books we’re given have pretty pictures, but rhymes that don’t quite scan. Or missing apostrophes (Its fun at the sea-side.) Or a warped sense of gender roles (He likes to work. She likes to cook.)

And this is why I’m extremely careful when buying books for our daughter. I check them for spelling, grammar, rhymes that flow properly and messages that – while they needn’t be hugely meaningful – aren’t socially worrisome.

Philippa-Alys Browne’s AFRICAN ANIMALS ABC is a magnificent book, and one I can’t wait to read to my daughter. Or, if we’re being accurate, have her ‘read’ to me.

Its pictures are authentic and beautiful African-style illustrations (or perhaps lino-cuts) of African animals – some common, some less so – with an appropriate verb:

Bushbaby blinks
Dassie drinks
Impala grazes
Quail scuttles
Yellow-billed kite soars in the sky

The words chosen are lovely – some are easy, like ‘Crocodile snaps’; others are a bit more challenging, like ‘Porcupine quivers’. And, at the back, there’s a useful blurb on each of the pictured animals for when she’s a bit older or starts asking questions:

The umhutu or mosquito is an insect. The common household mosquito can be found throughout Africa.

Nyala are antelopes that can be found in Southern African. They live and graze in forests and when they are scared, they make a barking sound.

Also, it’s a sturdy board book, which means my little monster can’t rip it to pieces.

In the 13 months of her life, our daughter has been to the bush twice, with a third trip coming up in a few months. So, to have a book with which she can grow accustomed to some of the interesting animals (her word: ‘amals’) we see there, is a great gift.

AFRICAN ANIMALS ABC is also a wonderful gift for foreigners with small children.

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood (Scotty Bowers)

Disclaimer: I have developed, recently, quite a passion for salacious non-fiction; among them, the memoirs of porn stars, pick-up artists, weirdo rock stars and dysfunctional politicians. This review refers to the book that started it all.

This is the juicy, filthy memoir of a Hollywood ‘fixer’. Scotty Bowers, now 88, was a Marine paratrooper, petrol pump attendant and bartender who carved a bizarre niche for himself during Hollywood’s Golden Age.

For six decades he claims to have arranged or participated in the sordid trysts of some of the biggest names: Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Tennessee Williams, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, J Edgar Hoover and even the Duke of Windsor and ‘Wally’.

Although fascinating, Full Service isn’t an easy book to read, for several reasons.

Chief among them is the reader’s growing skepticism about the book's veracity, especially because almost so many of the celebs Bowers mentions are long dead and unable to refute his accounts of their peccadilloes. (Interestingly, Gore Vidal, who is apparently an old friend, vouches for Bowers’ authenticity on the cover.)

The prose is also what we call ‘purple’: so extravagant or flowery as to draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sexually suggestive beyond the requirements of its context.

This could be why critics have been skeptical. “This is offensive gibberish,” said The Daily Mail. “If you take it as a novel, however, rather than non-fiction, it is weirdly impressive.” Yes, there’s another way to look at the book, which reads like a historical document – the Kinsey report, if you will, on the sex lives of the rich and famous. (Bowers claims to have helped Alfred Kinsey research his famous book.)

The only endearing aspect of Full Service is the author’s astonishing tolerance for the weirdness of human passions. Nothing shocks him. He will describe some outrageous preference; then say how charming the person was who held it.

If you're looking for a morality tale where Bowers eventually realises the error of his ways, this isn’t it (Jenna Jameson’s How to Make Love like a Porn Star is – read that instead). But if you're looking for an unvarnished account of the shenanigans of 1950s Hollywood – and you like a good trashy read – Full Service will enthrall you.

How to Get Quoted in the Media (Damaria Senne)

I seldom agree to review e-books. 

First, I’m skeptical of writers who opt not to publish ‘real’ books.

Second, they’re so often the province of people who aren’t experts and should not have published anything at all, except maybe a long-ish blog post.

But I am pleased that I ignored my own biases and read this little gem. And by little, I mean little. It’s an easy, quick, interesting read, at 38 pages.

Here’s more:

1.     This topic is ideal for e-publishing. In fact, I’d be less skeptical about e-publishing in general if more e-books were like this: short, clear, inexpensive and accessible to those outside of the industry.
2.     How to get quoted in the media does what the title suggests: it gives businesses, brands and organisations insights into how to get, and then maintain, media coverage.
3.     It’s intelligently structured, with short sections that speak to specific issues, like preparing for interviews in person and on TV, radio, email, etc.
4.     It covers some critical and often-overlooked ground, like ensuring that you have, or can present, a ‘So What?’, i.e. a real benefit to the market, the population, the industry, etc. (If you can’t, don’t send the release. It’ll annoy the editor, who’ll mark your email address as Junk for next time.)
5.     I appreciate the emphasis that there should always be various versions of a release, differently slanted for different audiences and journalists.
6.     About half-way through, I was getting itchy at the absence of a mention of free media monitoring services, like Google Alerts, and…there it was!

I have only two (small) reservations about How to get quoted in the media:

1.     I’d have liked to see a short section on when to out-source press release and communique writing to the relevant professionals, and when doing so is unnecessary.
2.     There are a few typos in the text, and a couple of formatting inconsistencies. Now, in a print book, this would be unacceptable, but in an e-book (especially one in its early iterations) it’s easily fixable. Having said that, I’d have liked to see a more gimlet editorial eye from authors who themselves are communicators.

My closing advice? Get a copy. It’s a must-read for anyone with a business, brand or cause that requires media exposure.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)

I love books about cults. The more polygamous marriages, multiple children, bizarre religious practices and outlandish views, the better. I also love novels set in the Amish community, the Mormon community and the Quaker community because, as a Jew, I find insights into little-known or oft-misunderstood religions fascinating.

It’s strange, then, that in my literary travels, I’d never come across Mennonites.

They’re a devout but very friendly and unusually tolerant (of non-Mennonites, that is) sect of Christian Anabaptist denomination, with their origins in German and Dutch-speaking central Europe. It’s from the Mennonites that the Amish broke away in the 17th century because the former were ‘too liberal’. I mean, have you ever?

But this little write-up makes them sound very boring, when they’re quite divine. The book in question, Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, reveals the eccentricities, naiveties and family foibles with which the author is faced when she moves back home after having been abandoned by her suddenly-gay husband.

Her people welcome her back with open arms and weird advice, like “Why not date your first cousin? He owns a tractor!” This, from Janzen’s mother. Her father is a theologian and doyen of the community, so Janzen grew up in a traditional household. Most things were banned, she explains, like "Drinking, dancing, smoking, sex outside of marriage, sex inside of marriage, gambling, playing cards, foul language like the word 'fool', Ouija boards, slumber parties, divorce, Prada…”

Written with self-effacing, delicious humour – and tackling universal issues like faith, love and family, Mennonite is both moving and absolutely hilarious. I adored it. 

My May radio reviews on 101.9 ChaiFM

So May was my Non-Fiction Period. Like Picasso's Blue.

But smaller.

For some reason, I couldn't seem to pick up anything that wasn't a memoir, a behind-the-scenes or a biography.

And I loved every minute of it.

So my third book review show on ChaiFM was dedicated to three non-fiction delights:
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
  • How to Get Quoted in the Media by Damaria Seine
  • Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood by Scotty Bowers, Lionel Friedberg
Having lapped up non-fiction-ish May, I made a list of some biographical want-to-reads:
  • Growing Up Amish (Ira Wagler)
  • Jackie, Ethel, Joan: Women of Camelot (J Randy Taraborrelli)
  • The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (Marilyn Manson)
  • The Game (Neil Strauss): read it, loved it, couldn't stop thinking about it
Look out for a coming summary of June's reviews, and listen in on Tuesdays from 11-11.30am.