Book Reviews: Farewell To Truth And Power, Or The Three Scrabble Words

September 8, 2015

By ROB HOFMEYR & BRUCE DENNILL

 

Farewell Kabul by Christina Lamb                                       8

Speaking The Truth To Power by Didi Moyle                     8

The Three by Sarah Lotz                                                       7.5

Official Scrabble Words                                                        5

 

Christina Lamb is a journalist of note: she has written, inter alia, two outstanding books on Africa: The Africa House: The True Story of An English Gentleman and His African Dream, and House of Stone: The True Story of a Family Divided in War-Torn Zimbabwe. However the major part of her career, 27 years, has been spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She writes, in Farewell Kabul, with clarity, authority, distress and deep compassion. How did a woman manage to gain access to key personalities in Pakistan and Afghanistan? I believe through enterprise, integrity and hard work. She obviously enjoys enormous credibility among heads of state, tribal leaders, Taliban, and even the diplomats, commanders and foot-soldiers of Washington and London. Having read I believe the bulk of the popular novels set in Kabul, I found her hard-edged views and profound insights helpful in clearing the mythology and establishing a more rational and meaningful understanding of the conflict in the region. The book reviews the British and Russian invasions, culminating in each case in ignominious defeat and withdrawal. Harold Macmillan”s famous dictum, “Rule number one in politics – never invade Afghanistan”, was of course ignored by the Americans and their unwilling (?) allies the British. Lamb takes us through the blundering, uncomprehending reasoning behind the present conflict. The short-sighted support of the warlords, providing them with literally suitcases full of money and loads of weaponry to enable them to fight the Russians, following the thinking of Cold War politics, created the conditions for the spread of terrorism throughout the Islamic world. American fundamentalism, both religious and in the field of international politics and diplomacy and in the strategies of war, meant that there was no real engagement with or understanding of the tribal and religious structures of this harsh area. The appalling blunders, the simplistic backing given to some leaders, the attempt to set up a friendly government with Karzai as President, the total misreading of the duplicitous Pakistani agencies – all come under Lamb’s dissecting knife. A series of American commanders each attempted to bring the situation under control. Lamb again analyses their strategies: probably the least successful and most guilty would be General McNeill with his “we’ll kill them” strategy, using daisy-cutter bombs and every high-tech armament available. Probably the most astute of them lost his job because of frank and unplanned discussions with journalists. Lamb deals with the lives of extraordinary citizens in horrendous circumstances. Death of a Poet is a particularly moving account. She also visits Guantanamo in Cuba and jihadi camps in Pakistan. She dines with ministers of state and joins the entourage of America’s top military commander, Admiral Mullen. This is a highly readable, indeed compelling, book, in the best traditions of great journalism. Picking up a volume of 599 pages can be daunting. My normal reaction would be: what could have been edited out? In this instance I believe every page is informative and telling. – RH

 

Speaking The Truth To Power is the official account of two NGOs – the AIDS Law Project and the Treatment Action Campaign – engaging government and civil society on a number of fronts. The talented and committed people who make up those NGOs are given due place and importance. Likewise the inept politicians and officials are shown no mercy. Tragic rather than comic are the blunders and prejudices of government. In his forward Judge Edwin Cameron says this, “The entire history of HIV/AIDS in South Africa has been marked by deep ignorance about the virus and its effects – and often plain prejudice. The people who are the real heroes of this book refused to allow this mindset to dominate. They went to court to be heard and they made sure that the media was there to report on it, so that the South African public could truly understand what HIV and AIDS were.” Each of the twelve chapters chronicles one or other of the battlefields. The importance of the first, when an AIDS patient took his doctor to court for breach of patient-doctor confidentiality, and won, cannot be over-emphasised. The courage of Barry McGeary was the inspiration for legal boffins to establish the ALP and the beginning of a succession of important cases. The activists in the legal profession and the judiciary rose to the challenge time after time. The Aids Law Project has been of national and international importance. The case of the applicants refused employment by SAA on the grounds of their HIV status changed thinking and law in South Africa. Zackie Achmat is, of course, a national figure, but his has been a long and hard battle – as a gay man, as HIV positive and as a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights. His biggest challenge was as leader of the Treatment Action Campaign. This is well chronicled and worth reading. Achmat is given due recognition. Napwa, the pro-government agency, Mbeki himself, and his Minister of Health Manto Tshabala-Msimang, receive the treatment due to them. Each chapter is worth reading: it will remind the reader of court cases, the names of brave individuals, landmark decisions and a Parliament forced to rewrite laws. Some of the episodes, like that of BAD Dr Rath, of course made headlines. The often anonymous good doctors, such as a prison doctor who set in motion a chain of good events, are heartening. It reminds us that small people doing the right thing, showing compassion, overcoming prejudice, are important. This is a monumental book: a big volume; memorialising many good people and good causes; a story of wrongs done and wrongs righted; a reminder of injustices, prejudice and problems faced by many on a daily basis. An unfinished story therefore. It is extremely well written. The appendices are very good. Highly commended. – RH

 

Sarah Lotz has a prodigious output as a writer, and her work in her own right (write?) and as half of horror duo SL Grey with Louis Greenberg has helped her build a formidable reputation in South African and international literary circles. The Three is the book that has helped bump that status from “respected player” to “dangerous competition”, as is confirmed by the shoutline on the back cover, where no less than Stephen King gushes about how he enjoys it as much as the work of Michael Crichton and Shirley Jackson. The narrative is built around four near-simultaneous plane crashes in different parts of the world, from which emerge only three survivors – all children. The story is cleverly constructed, with the multiple locations allowing Lotz to explore the varying reactions to the crashes and their outcomes through the filter of the culture in each location and the perspectives of the characters closest to those who were lost or who made it through the disaster. Add to this an over-arching atmosphere of uncertainty and superstition – four planes going down on the same day feasibly suggests the apocalypse, either in the Armageddon sense or via large-scale terrorism – and the multiple threads about desperate people working through this single, life-changing event becomes enthralling. Lotz also spices her story with sinister moments – not enough to make any of her ideas seem outlandish, but just enough to inspire a feeling of vague, delicious discomfort. This atmosphere is maintained, via a combination of a vivid, twisted imagination and scrupulous research, for the vast bulk of The Three. Wrapping it all up at the end of the book is done quickly, and while the tone is maintained until the last page, there’s a feeling that perhaps a fuller, more satisfying outcome could have added to the overall package. But perhaps that’s a function of having enjoyed yourself so much along that way as a reader that turning the last page is a sad occasion, not the author running out of inspiration. – BD

 

Had I owned Official Scrabble Words 14 years ago, I would not be married today. Playing my then girlfriend over the course of a few days of holiday, I was on a Scrabble losing streak that both “xylorimba” and “zamindary” – just two of the huge selection of obscure terms collected in this 1 216-page tome – would have ended, had I been aware that such words even existed. Instead, I had to come up with an alternate strategy, so when my partner left the room momentarily, I took extreme action, sweeping the board clean and cherry-picking letters from the detritus to write “Marry me Kate” down the middle of the board (making the most of the triple word score, obviously). When she returned, she was, at first, outraged at such a blatant cheat and then, fortunately, won over by the dubious romance of the situation. For my part, I saw revealed that part of my future wife’s nature that placed kicking my butt at a board game above accepting a proposal that would change our collective future. Back to the book. Split into halfs (two to nine-letter words and ten to 15-letter words), it is simply a very long list – five columns a page – designed to settle arguments and increase players’ enjoyment of a classic game that will only become more enjoyable for players who use this book. – BD

 


 

 

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