Book Reviews: Win Twelve Roses, Or Does Trump Play God?

March 5, 2020

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By BRUCE DENNILL, ROB HOFMEYR & NIGEL WILLIS

Where’s Trump? by Anastasia Catris

Win! by Jeremy Maggs

Wars Of The Roses: Bloodline by Conn Iggulden

Twelve Plus One by Mike Alfred

Do Dice Play God? The Mathematics Of Uncertainty by Ian Stewart

 

Many presidents have books written about world leaders, perhaps focusing on their leadership skills, their policies or their conduct during some or other significant series of events. That Donald Trump has been “honoured” with a Where’s Wally-style satirical activity book seems about right. The book’s very existence is the main punchline, but illustrator Anastasia Catris is not content with a single gag, adding ten or more pop culture references to each spread and expecting readers to find those as they work their way through a work no less ridiculous than the reality it rips off. So, as well as a smug man in a long red tie, you’ll find yourself squinting as you try to track down Obama’s birth certificate, a bottle of Smell Of Success aftershave, Hillary Clinton behind bars and a Trump Towers sandcastle. It’s a fun diversion, and less heartbreaking than reading the news. – BD

 

Win! is a singularly optimistic and encouraging book. Twenty well-known South Africans speak to journalist and TV presenter Jeremy Maggs about their lives and careers and how they have achieved success in their different fields, which range from politics to sport to business to politics. The responses in the interviews  range from plain mediocre to very convincing. Pravin Gordhan is my favourite, followed by Cheryl Carolus, Sizwe Nxasana and Reuel Khoza. I am judging them not so much on what they have achieved, but  by the insight they have into themselves and the reasons for their achievements. There are remarkable people on the list who simply do not show any such insights, despite Maggs’ attempts to draw them out, or who are simply boringly trite. Attempting to find the “winning formula” is hugely problematic. Anyone who has attended a business school will know that this year’s success stories may well be discards within a decade or less. However, Maggs is not seeking any simple template for success in the limited field of commerce or industry. He is probing the personae who make a worthwhile difference, who gain recognition and respect and who contribute to the life of the country. We should be a poorer society without them. I recommend the book for the wide variety of those interviewed. Maggs is to be commended for his catholic selection – though it is perhaps sad that there are no academics and no artists. – RH

 

The third in another epic series from an author whose previous works (about autocratic leaders of, respectively, the Roman and Mongolian empires) have extended to five volumes each is packed with both action and detail, making it – without being trite at all – an ideal way to learn the history of the period and place involved (though ensure you read the author’s notes about the minor liberties he took for the sake of story flow. The ascent to the throne and subsequent rule of the young, headstrong Edward IV are at the core of a grand narrative in which the massive battle at Towton (against the forces of the sitting King, Henry VI) underlines both how brutal the Wars Of The Roses were, and how fickle the reasons for beginning and maintaining the conflict. The depth of Iggulden’s research shows in how easily he maintains the divergent thread of what becomes an international tale, and there’s a corresponding sense of the author’s enjoyment of the characters he fleshes out that makes it difficult for the reader to feel that any one historical presence is either hero or villain. Bloodline is a fantastic standalone read, though its quality will likely make readers want to work their way backwards in the series before they settle into the later instalments. – BD

 

Twelve Plus One is a delightful book, made up of interviews with Johannesburg poets. Mike Alfred, himself a poet, has met with 11 poets living and working in the city, recorded the interviews and painstakingly replayed and given them literary shape and form so that we can enter with him into the poet’s lives, their thinking and their writing. Without attempting a precis of each of the interviews, I’ll simply list the poets involved and then choose my favourites (not favourite poets, but liveliest interviews.)  They are Jane Fox, Frank Meintjes,  Phillippa Yaa de Villiers,  Ike Mboneni Muila, Gail Dendy, Ahmed Patel, Lebohang Nova Masango, Lionel Murcott, Makhosazana Xaba, Siphiwe ka Ngwenya, and Allan Kolski Horwitz. Horwitz has interviewed two poets himself, one being Mandi Poefficent Vundla, and then Mike Alfred. Gil Dendy is my number one. She is articulate, fun and extremely self-aware without any pretentiousness. She is in her own words, “A very focused, very organised individual”. She is able to describe the processes of her mind and how it is that she creates. She admits she is extremely self-critical, perhaps too much so. But she is highly productive and loves reading her work before audiences. She has selected a variety of poems, of which Darkroom is my favourite. Lebohang Nova Masango is my next choice.  She has strong views on many issues. She sees herself personally as “navigating” the change and confusion of the New South Africa. She believes the ANC Women’s League is patriarchal and must go. She loves public readings and sees herself as “a performance poet”. But she is a visible shaker when she reads; her audiences are mainly young. Composition comes from sadness: only when she is in a sad place does she feel deeply enough to write, when there are no distractions of pleasure and excitement. My favourite poem from her selection is To-Do List for Africa. Makhosazana takes pride of place. I love what I read about her as a person and I love her poems. A creative writer at school, she became a political activist after completing her matriculation, but read prolifically even though she did not riot write.  She worked for the Voice of Women, a journal of the ANCWL in exile, and received her first opportunity to study journalism when she went to the International College for Journalism in East Germany. Returning to South Africa in 1990 as a journalist, she immersed herself again in creative writing: short stories, biographies, creative non-fiction and of course poetry. The struggle now is about time – so much to write and so little time to write it. She bewails the paucity of academic involvement in contemporary South African poetry. She is winning recognition on all fronts and that is understandable. Of the six poems included I choose To My Librarian. Each poet interviewed has merit, and readers would each choose differently. This little book gives a helpful and informative insight into the literary scene in Johannesburg today: who is writing, who is reading, and who is listening. Highly commended also for the gentle style, the genuine love of people and of poetry. – RH

 

Without an ability to discount risk, reduce uncertainty or plan for the future with reasonable accuracy, human progress would not have been possible. Indeed, the roots of the discovery of mathematics may have lain precisely in our desire to reduce the uncertainty that we face on almost every front. Ian Stewart, the author of Do Dice Play God?, is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Warwick, and has written many books in his field. He has a well-deserved reputation for being able to excite the reader with complex mathematical ideas, presented in language that is easily understandable. As the subtitle of this book suggests, it is all about the mathematics of uncertainty or probability. Early on, Stewart records that most of those who have been untrained formally in probability theory tend to overestimate or underestimate to a large extent the probability of an uncertain future event occurring. The pattern, either for overestimation or underestimation (as the case may be), repeats itself across a spectrum of levels of socio-economic status, according to the nature of the question presented. Stewart speculates – and he puts it no higher than this – that there may have been certain evolutionary advantages to survival either in overestimating or underestimating certain types of risk. If you know that lions are lethal, it pays to take special care when you see anything that looks like a lion, including a log. On the other hand, you would not sail the ocean blue if you fully understood quite how dangerous it was to do so. Survival is different from progress. Our spectacular progress as a species has been made possible by persons of genius, especially mathematicians of genius. If nothing else, this book heightens awareness of the enormous debt we owe to these mathematical geniuses. Stewart’s mathematical quizzes are a delight, even if one often gets the answers wrong. His chapter on the difference between weather and climate is timely. He explains how certain politicians are dangerously dishonest when it comes to the question of global warming. Stewart deserves many accolades for explaining quite why a change of average temperature of one degree Celcius over the whole globe over a century is so serious and why the extent of the change is so much greater at the poles, with catastrophic consequences now and even worse yet to come. His explanations for why fake news has gained ground is about the best one is likely to come across. It all has to do with the mathematical ‘multiplier effect’ of posting ‘information’ on the internet. Lawyers may be riveted by his accounts of where persons were wrongly acquitted or convicted because judges and juries just did not have a sufficiently good understanding of probability. Interestingly, no such spectacular errors of judgment seem to have occurred in South Africa. Perhaps the reason lies in the strong focus on context in our law. Context, according to Stewart, is everything when it comes to probability theory. And the context always needs to be properly understood. The reasons why weather forecasting is so difficult are keenly absorbing. Stewart also explains chaos theory very well. The problem with the apparent chaos is not the mathematics but the inadequacy of the data or, put differently, the inadequacy of our present knowledge. According to Stewart, accurate investment analysis is akin to weather forecasting. Wrong forecasts about the state of the world’s economy can have consequences more serious than those about the weather. The title of the book is an obvious wordplay on the famous theological question “Does God play dice?” Stewart is astute to avoid metaphysical explanations for the world. He writes entertainingly about priests and prophets having been spectacularly wrong when predicting the future, before science displaced their status as “diviners” of thereof. In the chapter with the same title as the book, Stewart concludes that there are indeed mysterious holes in our understanding of the world and that we can be certain that “a deeper reality is involved.” This sounds suspiciously like the “ultimate reality” of theological enquiry. Stewart aptly quotes Isaac Newton describing us all as “children playing on the seashore, finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before them”. The book is a compelling read. – NW[/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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