By BRUCE DENNILL
Mamushka by Olia Hercules 7
The Space Race by Alex Latimer 8.5
You Had One Job! by Beverly L Jenkins 6
Madam & Eve: Take Us To Your Leader by Stephen Francis & Rico 7
There are simply too many cookbooks around. There are so many recipes on the shelves of a single well-stocked bookshop that the average person will die long before they get a chance to work through even just the dishes with almonds in them. Angles are sorely needed, and themes that focus on specific cultures and not only examples of their cuisine but also the stories behind the development of that food are as good an option as any. Within that niche there are ideas of varying interest – there are enough publications dealing with French food, for instance – so it’s lovely, in this case, to be taken to a place not many people who haven’t travelled to or spent time living there would know much about: Ukraine. Each recipe in Mamushka begins with a paragraph or two detailing the origins of each dish, broadly and within the context of Hercules’ own family traditions. The author is only in her thirties, but is already well-versed in the food-based folklore of her forebears. She also has a pleasantly informal way of talking about her subject, using phrases like “Don’t be alarmed by the amount of garlic” when discussing a dish called “Garlicky white rabbit”, in which a certain amount of the herb is surely to be expected… There are various broths – the sort of thing necessary to survive the brutal northern winters, no doubt; pickles and conserves that can be packed in the pantry; recipes that start with the words “Armenian” and “Georgian” (to give you a sense of the region in general); and a number of desserts, including the unfortunately named “Floater dough”. This is a book interesting enough to read through without ever intending to cook a single thing, and well put-together enough as a cookbook to allow you to explore every idea it contains with a good chance of success.
South African commentators are correct when they stress the importance of dealing with the country’s complex past, present and future through literature and other art forms. But they’re off the mark when, in the course of doing so, they accept – and worse, celebrate – boring, clichéd ideas again and again. Alex Latimer is a skilled illustrator, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his prose comes from a different perspective to many of his fellow authors. His story here takes elements of truth – South Africa’s past nuclear capability and the capacity of parts of the country’s population, even now, to believe that segregation is still a workable solution to all their ills – and threads them into a plot that’s so left-field that it’s beyond the dug-out and all the way outside of the stadium. Nuclear blasts and unauthorised space rocket launches, unsurprisingly, attract the attention of the media, but only one journalist, Greg Hall, stumbles on the real story behind an explosion in the Kalahari Desert outside Upington, and quickly gets sucked into a saga he can scarcely get his head around. Latimer has imagined a future that the apartheid government might have thrown endless resources at, and then thrown a spanner in the works when their crazy plan was almost within a whisper of success. This is a hugely conceptual narrative in the guise of a quirky thriller, run through with sophisticated wit, action sequences that are often surprisingly vicious, and movements of weighty philosophical import when the author allows his characters to step outside of their roles as representatives of various groups and worldviews and to deal with their own foibles within the framework of the greater story. Clever, incisive and unique in the way it combines its facets, The Space Race crosses the boundaries between crime thriller, science fiction and dark satire.
Inspired by the many social media memes on this same topic, pop culture writer Beverly L Jenkins has curated an amusing collection of photographs of some bizarre instances in which the designers, labellers, artists and copywriters have presented work so bad that, as with really terrible B-grade films, it’s entertaining. Misspelled signage, defective engineering, awkward font choices or factory flaws all provide hilarious sight gags for readers flicking through this compact volume. Honest observers, though, will have their laughs catch in their throats every so often as they see a mistake that’s similar to something they’ve been responsible for in the past. A good gift idea with high novelty value.
Relatively speaking, Madam & Eve have generally been the gentler voice of reason when it comes to considering the top satirical perspectives in South Africa. Stephen Francis and Rico remove the kid gloves for this outing, though, with their major target, as suggested by the title of this collection, being the country’s Number One, Jacob Zuma. Inasmuch as these annual collections are rough round-ups of what happened in the news during the course of the past year, it’s perhaps not surprising that the frustration felt by Madam and Eve’s creators was channelled into more aggressive commentary throughout this collection – 2016 was a particularly tough year for observers concerned about corruption and stability. This tone makes Take Us To Your Leader a slightly different read to previous M&E books. There are still the non-political staples, from Thandi and Mother Anderson’s tetchy relationship to the one-off strips celebrating cultural events from the celebrating of Easter to the release of a new Star Wars film, and many of these will raise a giggle. But the intellect and knowing mockery in the material aimed at Zuma make this release feel like a tool for effective activism rather than just some collected quips.