Book Reviews: Miniature Birds, Or Born To Run To Cape Town

November 2, 2017

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Roberts Bird Guide: Second Edition by Hugh Chittende, Greg Davies and Ingrid Weiersbye      8

 The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton                                                                                                      6.5

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen                                                                                                    8

Cape Town: A Study In Watercolours by Ronald Cohen                                                                  7


One of the go-to guide books for South African twitchers, Roberts is an institution that, through meticulous updating, remains not only relevant but informative for long-time readers and users who thought they might know all there is to know. This new version, bound in a sensible flexible and waterproof cover, has all the usual information and illustrations, with updated distribution maps. In addition, it has a large number of photographs to supplement the familiar paintings, as well as extremely helpful paragraphs expounding the details that often get stuck in the craw (if you will) of the average-to-serious birdwatcher, such as the differences between true shrikes and cuckooshrikes or elaborating on characteristics shared by a number of species under a certain classification (eagles, waders, etc). A brilliant reference book and a start-to-finish bucket list for anyone who’s only just caught the birding bug. – RH


Amsterdam in the late 17th century was not the romantic tourist drawcard it is now. A burgeoning centre of trade and commerce, it was a good place to try and build a fortune and an empire – South Africans will remember the VOC and their interests locally. But even if you were rich, or potentially so, based on deals you’d made but not yet been paid for, it was not an easy place to live. Jessie Burton does a phenomenal job of creating the atmosphere of the place: claustrophobic yet desirable; exciting, but terrifying. And into this place, she brings a teenaged country girl, Nella Oortman, as the wife of an influential trader, Johannes Brandt. Arranged marriage, social naivety, unfriendly family members, racism, homophobia and a number of other issues are combined in a narrative that has (ironically) only one detail that’s not completely convincing – the miniaturist. The title character is the most esoteric of the lot and, though she adds a touch of creativity to the historical detail, the thread she’s part of is relatively weak. The drama of the rest of it, though, is well-developed, and the story compels throughout. – BD


Bruce Springsteen’s career has, to some degree, been defined by the mythology ascribed to him – the working man’s hero, blue-collar values, integrity-over-all stuff. Writing an honest memoir could ruin that. Cultivate an air of mystery for the best part of half a century and then … tell all? Well, sort of, but not quite. Springsteen writes pose as well – and as carefully – as he does songs, ensuring that each chapter has maximum potency in reader enjoyment terms, but also that it says exactly what he intends it to. So readers are made privy to the details of everything from the singer-songwriter’s complicated childhood – an emotionally absent father, a general shortage of cash, the role music played in building self-esteem and relationships – to the cleverly edited genesis tales behind most of his important work. Everything is presented according to a very distinctive Springsteen template – you can hear his drawl as you read – as he strives to (successfully) evoke the soul of the places he has lived in and which have influenced his worldview, and to pay tribute to some of the most important people he has interacted with along the way – his wife Patti Scialfa, his manager Jon Landau, his bandmates in his various bands and a handful of other notable personalities. Springsteen is clearly aware of his own context – rich, persuasive, important, flawed – but he never comes close to rubbing his readers’ faces in either his achievements or his meanderings off the path he’s assigned himself. His writing has the same gruff poetry as his songs, as entertaining as it accessible for 500 pages. A notable feat. – BD


Bloemfontein-born architect Ronald Cohen was a well-travelled professional with an eye for detail and colour, which he expressed in fine watercolour paintings. A selection of the Cape Town scenes he painted are collected here – he apparently loved the city for its warm afternoon light. The collection contains a number of studies of mosques – part of Cohen’s understandable fascination with architecture from an artistic point of view, and perhaps also the result of his visits to a range of locations in Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa. Table Mountain makes an inevitable appearance in the back of many of the paintings, but not in an obvious, looming way – the focus is always on some architectural aspect of the city. That said, Cohen’s take on the scenery is almost never obvious – he looks at the gateposts of the Castle of Good Hope rather than the more striking shape of the bastions; the Prince Of Wales Gateway rather than the Mount Nelson Hotel behind it and so on. Paintings published by Penguin Random House? It’s not a conventional way to discover a new artist, but it’s an interesting way to do that and to learn a little more about Cape Town and its history into the bargain. – BD[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]