Book Reviews: Darwin’s Breakfast, Or Marketing The Borgias’ Red Kids

April 1, 2018

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By ROB HOFMEYR, DRIES BRUNT, BRUCE DENNILL

 

Darwin’s Hunch by Christa Kuljian                                                 9

Red Earth by Tony Park                                                                   8

Kids’ Market Day by Sam Scarborough                                         6

Breakfast With The Borgias by DBC Pierre                                   7

 

Darwin’s Hunch has both extraordinary scope and fascinating detail: the better part of two centuries of scientific thinking and the intricate stories of the fossil-hunters. Charles Darwin, in 1871, suggested that humans had their origins in Africa. This is the account of how that thinking was rejected not on scientific grounds but because of the ideologies and world views of the scientists themselves: imperial rather than empirical? Obviously Darwin was right. Kuljian gives a brilliant account of the work of the women and men involved in developing the understanding of human origins, not neglecting the field workers and technical staff, the geneticists and those in supportive sciences. She gives us vivid insights into the lives and thinking of men like Robert Broom and Raymond Dart, Saartjie scientists and adversaries. Hertha de Villiers, Elizabeth Vrba and Joseph Kibii are amongst the many, many personalities discussed. And there are, of course, politicians, notably Jan Smuts, and notoriously Mathole Motshega. As a whole, the book is a well-articulated account of the series of discoveries, investigations, debates and tests that led to our present knowledge. There are, of course fierce rivalries both locally and internationally. Piltdown Man is found and discarded on the trash heap. Peking Man is assigned his proper place, as are Dear Boy, Mrs Ples and the Big and Little Feet discoveries. The emerging picture is not completely clear but there is much which has now come into focus and perspective. The principal theme is the way in which scientific investigation is often blurred by racial and political thinking. The early leaders in the field wanted to find that the “master race” was the most evolved form of human life. Many others were led into error by political circumstances. Kuljian does a great job is discussing the differences between race and culture. The San were often seen as less evolved, “living fossils”: a hideous fallacy. Today, however, land claims are an issue in the way the science is presented. There is a wonderful discussion of how Raymond Dart’s hypothesis on the use of bones as weapons, later discarded by scientists, formed the basis of Robert Ardrey’s exciting works of science fiction. Ardrey was, of course, writing for a world that was ready for a blood-stained understanding of early hominids. We read the story of the disrespectful exhumation of human remains from graves for “scientific” purposes, and now the partial restoration of some, with Sartjie Baartman coming home from Paris. This is an outstanding book, the best piece of scientific history I have read. It contributes to the popular understanding both of  evolutionary theory and of the fallible humanity of those who are scientists and scholars. – RH

 

There’s never a dull moment in this amazing book, which combines a number of South African background plots to make a superb thriller. Poaching, hijacking, kidnapping, diplomatic drama, helicopter tracking, bush lore and terrorism come together in Red Earth‘s sweeping climax. Park makes clever use of technical jargon to enhance fictional reality, making the book very readable and interesting. Reading, I kept thinking that somehow, God forbid, this story might be a marker of a dark future possibly awaiting our country, with terror groups moving southward down the African continent. The book is action-packed, with lots of bloody events (hence the book’s title, probably), and running and hiding that take the fugitives through the African bush to neighbouring countries. Right up to the end one wonders how all of it fits together. And then, it does. – DB

 

If there’s one thing most parents need less than surplus paper, cardboard or glass lying around, it’s the creations their kids construct from these materials and then, er, leave lying around. But these creatures, jewellery, sculptures and toys have the advantage of being able to keep their makers busy and out of mischief while they are being fashioned – and that capacity is infinitely more valuable to harassed adults than an old toilet roll inner with eyes and a smile. Author and compiler Sam Scarborough must be credited with two things in Kids’ Market Day: an excellent range of ideas, from boats to puppets and herb pots, play dough, stress balls and bird feeders (all reasonably useful items, as it happens); and the attractive, easy-to-use layout of the book, with all the necessary instructions accompanied by clear, good quality pictures. A great publication for young hobbyists or moms and dads with holidays or weekends to fill. – BD

 

There is a great deal of nostalgia that interferes with the clear judgement of any old Hammer Horror film. The special effects were clunky – that was part of the charm – and the stories were charmingly ramshackle rather than slickly thrilling. Breakfast With The Borgias is part of a series paying tribute to the Hammer brand, and it plays to that style, without being as knowingly hammy. DBC Pierre’s central conceit is sharp and on the mark – that being out of touch with loved ones, and unable to do anything about is, is as horrifying as any monster, ghost or malignant force. Ariel is a computer scientist en route to a conference and an illicit liaison with a student named Ziva in Amsterdam. She has grudgingly agreed to the tryst, being nervous of the possible implications of being discovered in the relationship, so she’s nervous to start with and increasingly frazzled as the story develops. Ariel has a tougher time. As well as being unable to use any of the technology he is so intimately familiar with in the forgotten backwater hotel on the English coast in which he lands up, he finds he is housed with an eccentric family into whose complex – and potentially alarming – relationships he is quickly drawn. The piece has an ominous claustrophobia that adds to its small dramas, particularly because you know as the reader that the protagonists in its divergent threads cannot get in contact with each other and explain their situations, feelings or worries. The Hammer horror part of it is often sidelined by the psychological creepiness – which, as it turns out, is a satisfying way for things to pan out. – BD[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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