Book Reviews: Historians And Horses, Or Ground Glass

June 2, 2019

[vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]By ROB HOFMEYR, DRIES BRUNT & BRUCE DENNILL


Hermann Giliomee: Historian by Hermann Giliomee

The Glass Universe by Dava Sorbel

Bare Ground by Peter Harris

A Little Horse Called Pancakes / A Little Horse Called Pancakes And The Big Mountain Fire by Candice Noakes and Wendy Paterson


Needless to say, Hermann Giliomee: Historian is an autobiography. Hermann Giliomee is a well-known historian and political analyst – a scholar rather than a player. This is a different book to recent biographies and autobiographies of important political figures, though it covers a similar era. Giliomee cares far more about the accuracy and scholarly credibility of what he writes than he does about his own role in that history. At every point, Giliomee not only recounts but also analyses and considers the views of others in the field. This book is a reflection of South African political thinking and a statement of the author’s own philosophy of history. Giliomee studies his own Huguenot and Dutch origins, the stories of his grandparents and through those stories the origins of the Western Cape Afrikaner community and of the Afrikaner people – “the song of a nation’s awakening.” And already, there exists the dilemma of the coloured community with whom he came into contact. His own academic career, the development of his thinking, his move from the University of Stellenbosch to the University of Cape Town and his own interactions with politicians and events are carefully set out. This is inevitably a book about South African political history. There are many episodes that are, for the first time, given full significance. “The Battle of Adringa Street” is a gem. More significant is Giliomee’s analysis of the extraordinary economic development of the Union of South Africa, which he convincingly attributes to a professional civil service. Equally important is the subsequent rise of the Afrikaner in the world of business, self-empowerment and not the gift of English capitalists. There is little emphasis on his diplomatic career, but it of course gave him a real understanding of international politics and the growing isolation of South Africa prior to 1990. Giliomee was a participant in famous/infamous Dakar meetings of 1987 (where business and political thinkers met with the ANC leadership). He analyses the discussions and the general euphoria of the Afrikaners and his own more critical responses. The book contains solid blocks of excellent material. His analysis of the negotiations between 1990 and 1994 and the failure of the Nationalist Party in the face of a far more astute ANC is invaluable to an understanding of this complex period. He bewails the move of the University of Stellenbosch to become principally English-medium. This is a well-argued but less convincing. Giliomee gives a remarkable account of the writing of his magnum opus, The Afrikaners: Biography of A People – the conception, the publishers, the editor and the remarkable assistance given by, among others, the novelist JM Coetzee. Here, as elsewhere in the book, we are given glimpses of some of the greater and lesser intellects on our political landscape. An elaborate, beautiful book, deserving of reading and rereading. – RH


Dava Sobel has, in The Glass Universe, written an engrossing account of the women, known as ‘computers’, who were employed by the Harvard College Observatory in the latter part of the 19th Century through to the first half of the 20th Century. ‘Employed’ does not reflect any degree of equitable payment or official recognition. It signifies chiefly that they worked all hours of the night, and of the day. And they contributed enormously to our understanding of the universe. Despite the pittances paid, the jobs were highly prized, as were the opportunities. These were women of huge intelligence and astounding application. They were often graduates, though the most distinguished of all began as a servant in the residence of the Director. Their chief responsibility was in ‘taking’ photo images from the telescopes on glass plates and painstakingly interpreting and cataloging those images. In so doing they began a process of bringing a new understanding of the universe. There are fascinating accounts of individual women who made enormous contributions to the science of astronomy. It remained a male world and Harvard would not accord any woman, however valuable her work, a College title or any form of recognition. It is interesting that a particular ‘law’ attributed to Hubble, has now been renamed “Leavitt’s Law” because the research and insights are clearly those of Miss Henrietta Leavitt. The book is also a chronicle of the astronomy of the period: the great personalities, the setting up of observatories in distant parts of the world, including Bloemfontein, the ‘proving’ of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as well as the women’s rivalry and the collaboration. A lovely book, lucid and far-seeing! – RH


Johannesburg has in its history many faces and a rich mining and construction heritage that shows in the make-up of its people. In Bare Ground, we meet the good guys and the villains in the higher echelons of society.  Wheeling and dealing, tender rigging and extortion opposes the efforts of Max Sinclair, who operates within the rules of black empowerment, trade union demands and taking his family responsibilities seriously. This book is a magnificent portrayal of life in this city, among upper-class people, some of whom seem to still be suffering gold rush fever, whereas others show compassion and care. Power, money and politics are the ingredients of a plot that takes you to the inner circle of society influencers. – DB


A Little Horse Called Pancakes and A Little Horse Called Pancakes And The Big Mountain Fire are the first pair of books in a series that aims to educate readers about the joys of interacting with and owning horses. The titles introduce a young girl named Anna B and her equine companion Pancakes, along with their various activities and adventures. Similar in tone and appeal to the popular Angelina Ballerina series (replace the horse with a mouse and the activities with ballet), the stories are family-friendly and sweet – just the thing for children past the simplistic early reader stage but not yet ready for several full pages of text. The illustrations are lovely, sometimes full colour and sometimes outlines only. In the latter case, there may be a danger of kids taking their coloured pencils to their reading book, but provided you’re not too picky about appearances, there are far worse ways to keep youngsters enthusiastic about books and stories. An encouraging start.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]