Book Reviews: The Other Side Of The Places To Go, Or Meditations On The Midnight Line

July 8, 2020

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By ROB HOFMEYR, BRUCE DENNILL, VINCENT PIENAAR & NIGEL WILLIS

Fatima Meer by Fatima Meer

On Track & Behaviour Briefs by Chris & Mathilde Stuart

The Other Side: Behind the News Pt 1 by Harvey Tyson

All The Places To Go: How Will You Know? by John Ortberg

Meditations Of A Non-White White by Allan Kolski Horwitz

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

 

Fatima Meer is a posthumous memoir rather than an autobiography and it gives an interesting insight into the structure and dynamics of an Indian family in 20th Century South Africa as well as the life of a stormy, clear-thinking and deeply loving woman. It’s hardly necessary to say much about Fatima Meer herself: she was an academic, an activist and a writer and intense family person. Extraordinarily independent in her thinking, she lived out her young life in a family with two mothers, both of whom she respected and loved, and both very different. She was the favourite of her father, who early on recognised her intellectual ability and strong personality and encouraged her in her independence. Committed to equity and justice, she became politically engaged as a teenager, was regarded as a threat by the state and found herself repeatedly warned and restricted. Her marriage to a lawyer and activist took her into the mainstream of protest. She became in due course a respected sociologist and writer and a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement, winning the respect of the leadership of the UDM and the ANC. This volume gives a detailed account of Meers’s childhood and the intricate nexus of family relationships. Her family moved again and again, each time setting up a home which would give accommodation to kinsfolk and members of the Indian diaspora. I was amazed at the capacity of this nuclear family to absorb into its hospitality uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and political colleagues. The family swelled from seven or eight to 24 or more, and then shrink again, but offering beds and meals and support. Members of the family would come from India, return again, always maintaining close contact. The detail with which Meer has recorded these comings and goings is quite amazing. We read also detailed accounts of her schooling, her close friendships with girls of different backgrounds and her intellectual growth. Her early political activity, and her marriage and new family life are equally well documented. This is an interesting book to read, but ultimately the detail overwhelms. A good autobiography is more selective, interprets the influences and events and helps the reader understand how the persona became what she is. Perhaps if the author had been able to complete her account and possibly give it more structure we should have had such an autobiography. Nevertheless this is worth reading and reflecting on. – RH

 

Comprehensive wildlife guides are good and well, but they’re often to weighty to carry around when heading into the scenarios where an interesting creature (or traces of one) might be spotted. Chris and Mathilde Stuart’s pocket guides to spoor (On Track) and activity (Behaviour Briefs) are concise, to the point and helpful – that is, not so entrenched in scientific jargon that they confuse as much as they help. They are necessarily superficial, covering only a few species and only a few facets of each of those, but they provide solid points of reference for any animal lover heading into a wild area where they may encounter some South or East African wildlife. – BD

 

Harvey Tyson is pre-eminent among South African journalists. In the course of his long career, spanning the period 1946 to 2018, he has been a reporter, commentator, author and editor. His shrewd observations and wise judgements have been a gold standard for South African journalism. The Other Side begins with a short history of the 1820 Settlers – among them Tyson’s own forebears – the frontier wars and the early emergence of printed propaganda, the a strong statement of the need for balanced reporting and for history which does justice to all parties. He brings into his narrative many unsung heroes and many nearly forgotten episodes. The autobiographical section which follows is amusing, poignant and informative. It begins with a family chronicle, fills out with days at boarding school and his early introduction to the world of newsprint. The structure of the book is informal: personal memories are entwined with world events; interviews with politicians lead into reflections on journalism and kindred topics, and then back into political commentary. It’s a book rich with memories and more important insights. He is a wise and thoughtful man but with a wry sense of humour. Some of the reminiscences are trivial, but most are valuable. Most enjoyable are the stories of being the man from the press and then of being the man in charge, editor and then editor-in-chief. The business of editing a newspaper under the last decades of apartheid makes for good reading, with decisions needing to be finely balanced. No-one reading this book, other than a professional in the arena of news, can fail to learn and also to come to a deeper understanding of the problems of maintaining journalistic standards when unsympathetic buyers want to make money and cut costs. I’d love to have an in-depth, off-the-record discussion with Mr Tyson on his take on our present blight, especially as a reader of the newspaper he once captained. Not an academic analysis of the world of the newsroom, not a finely honed business report: instead, this is a highly entertaining, informative, somewhat sprawling book by a man of great talent and insight and dedication. More books are on the horizon. – RH

 

It’s (admittedly) Dr Seuss-referencing title makes this book about making wise, Bible-based decisions sound, initially anyway, somewhat frivolous. The text soon reveals itself as anything but, however. Ortberg’s writing is the equivalent of the best sorts of lectures or sermons – relatable, easy to understand and packed with excellent, well-researched teaching. Decision-making, particularly when metaphorical doors are concerned – is it open or closed; it it a gateway or an obstacle? – is an apparently permanently fraught pursuit for Christians. That there is hypocrisy involved there, for believers who have the means to educate themselves in the Sriptures and should theoretically be more comfortable with committing to taking certain routes based on that support, is acknowledged but not judged. Instead, Ortberg’s experience (he is a career pastor as well as a prolific author) sees him cover a vast number of different facets under his central theme – all the many perspectives, both positive (ideas) and negative (excuses) that the average Christian might come up with over the course of their answer-seeking life. All The Places To Go is a challenging, engaging read that is also an excellent resource to regularly revisit for advice.

 

What a pity that a work like Meditations Of A Non-White White doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Perhaps it is because the book’s unfortunate title implies that it is another book about a white man’s travails in a tough black environment, when instead it tells short stories of love, heartbreak and joy set in the troubled South Africa, a world Horwitz clearly understands at a fundamental level. Almost any of the 16 stories will suffice, but I have focused on The Colour Of Joy to illustrate what the prospective reader can expect. In about 6 000 words, Horwitz tells a complete love story with brightly lit, well-crafted characters, each with their own doubts and fears, angers and passions. The story starts with a letter from Tony to Shirley. They are in the process of getting divorced. No matter how hard he tries to keep the letter matter-of-fact, there is the most subtle whimpering and then, in the last sentence, he falls apart. “I want you again, Shirl,” he writes. Later she dismisses Tony’s letter as a string of rationalisations. So much for love. Horwitz seamlessly switches perspective from one character to another and gives them all their own voices. The book is authentic; clearly written by a person who understands these things from the involved individual’s perspective. Likewise, the first story is not about some brutal cop beating up some innocent wanna-be martyr, but the story of a Polish immigrant who gets sucked up in the classic situation of the older white guy who falls in love with a much younger Zulu woman. What these days would be described as a “blesser” situation is not that simple. Maintaining the close perspective of the man, it deals with the shattering disappointment of finding out that she is not entirely devoted (or faithful) to him but at the same time has to decide what he will do when her “minders” (would that be pimps?) put the screws on her, demanding first R4 000 from her which, as he provides the cash, he steps into a deadly abyss. Meditations is a work to be proud of. – VP

 

Why are some nations rich and others poor? What are the factors that may explain why some succeed in raising the standard of living and improving the quality of life of their people, while others do not? These are big questions that have concerned the educated public since at least the time of the first publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, the year in which the USA declared its independence from Britain. Smith argued that there were a number of factors that were at work in the process of economic development – or the lack thereof. But he reasoned that, primarily, the explanation lay in what we today would call ‘political economy’. The rise of nationalism, colonialism and imperialism led to the pervasive ‘transatlantic’ idea, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that the explanation was to be found in the inherent genetic superiority of certain peoples of the world. In the period following the end of the Second World War until the Fall of the Berlin Wall, intellectual opinion elucidating the wealth or poverty of nations was divided into two broad camps. There were the liberals who believed that culture answered the question and the socialists who contended that a Marxist analysis of the forces of class exploitation got to the root of the issue. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 presented evidence that made it plain to all but the most obtusely doctrinaire that neither culture nor class analysis provided remotely adequate explanations for difference between rich and poor nations. It is no accident that, in the past 30 years, there has been a slew of bestselling publications that substantially revise ideas on history’s real reasons for economic development. Among them was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond in 1997. It was rated by Time magazine as one of the best non-fiction books of all time. It has now been republished by Penguin Random House as part of their Vintage Classics series. A similar genre is to be found in other outstanding, widely acclaimed works like David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, published in 1998 and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens in 2014. Guns, Germs and Steel deserves a re-read because it not only illuminates how complex the issues are but also, as Diamond’s own afterword in the book written in 2017 so clearly illustrates, our knowledge and understanding have developed enormously in a mere 20 years. Diamond’s essential thesis is that the root cause, from which all else derives, is geographical location. This affects not only climate, the type of seasons, the length of days, the harshness or gentleness of daily experience, the animals and plants which may be hunted or farmed and so on but also the responses thereto, which affect the development of culture. Culture, in turn, affects trade and conquest. This may sound a reductionist narration of world history but Landes too follows it, at least to some extent. Landes postulates that one of the main reasons for Western dominance across the globe for the past several hundred years is the obsession with time, its measurement and the management of affairs within it. This, in turn, derives from the dramatic variation of seasons within Europe as well as the variation between the length of daylight and night. Harari argues that we all tend to underestimate the importance of the agricultural revolution, which relates directly to the challenges presented by geographic location in the face of rising population numbers. Although he is an agnostic, if not an atheist, Harari contends that religion has been hugely significant in economic development. Religion and culture are, of course, closely linked. Judaeo-Christian religious beliefs may even, for example, have been influenced by long, lonely nights looking at the stars while watching sheep by night. Diamond, Landes and Harari present persuasive arguments but it is hard not to believe that other factors may be at work. Diamond makes a distinction between ‘ultimate’ and ‘proximate’ causes. He accepts that culture, derived from certain conditions related to geography, may be exported, along with germs and tools of oppression, like firearms and ammunition. In the end, all three of these bestselling authors accept that it is a multiplicity of complex factors that explains economic development. This was precisely what Adam Smith argued well over 200 years ago. But Smith made the all-important point: based on the evidence, we can make choices. Interdisciplinary studies extending from DNA analysis to archaeology, social anthropology and sociology have made it now obvious that we human beings are all far too closely related for ‘race’ to explain progress or the lack of it. So too, the evidence is clear that culture is not static. Countries poor in natural resources can prosper magnificently. Evidence-based political economy should enable us to make the necessary choices to build prosperity, dignity and a very much better life for all. – NW

 

Lee Child’s most famous creation, Jack Reacher, has a few standard settings: he’s grumpy, he’s violent, and he’s more or less unstoppable. In The Midnight Line, the ex-military policeman displays what normal people would call empathy, and it’s an emotion that inspires him to go on a quest to find a fellow soldier he has never met, but whom he senses is in trouble. The story involves a lot of distance covered and a slower, more police procedural-type unfolding of the plot than is usually the case. This is not to say that there is no action: Reacher regularly finds someone to pulverise, or at least to lightly rough up. He also eschews his usual strictly solo policy in an effort to complete his task as, even for him, finding a single person who wants to remain hidden in the wilds of South Dakota and Wyoming presents a challenge that is too much haystack and not enough needle. One of the central themes of the book is the shabby – and that’s a polite word for it – way in which the US so often treats its veterans; not only failing to properly care for them on their return from some distant war zone, but also leave enough loopholes in the system to allow criminals to manipulate these often damaged people for profit. It’s the righteous anger that results from observing this scenario that fuels Reacher throughout this tale, even in the moments when he understands that his impact on the problem will ultimately be negligible, and it’s a slow-burning fury that’s easy to identify with, making Reacher’s unconventional methods more palatable, if not possible to enthusiastically endorse.[/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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