Book Reviews: Radical Crime, Or Crochet Over The Top

October 18, 2021

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American Radical by Tamer Elnoury with Kevin Maurer

Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele

Ministry Of Crime by Mandy Wiener

Hello, Crochet by Cornel Strydom, Elsbeth Eksteen and Anisa Fielding

Over The Top And Back by Tom Jones

Tasty WasteNots by Jason Whitehead and Sally-Ann Creed


Of the many recent books I have read about Jihad, Muslim fundamentalism and the present and past politics of religion, post-9/11 America and the Middle East, American Radical is one of the best. It is entirely different in that it is the factual and personal account of an FBI agent set against infiltration and planned terrorism. Tamer Elnoury is the pseudonym used by an agent who moves from the world of narcotics to terrorism. He’s an Egyptian by birth, a Muslim from his earliest  years, an immigrant to the USA and a fervently patriotic American. This could be a novel, so compelling is the story. We are taken into the horrendous world of drug-dealing and the intricate policework that is employed in combatting the overlords, importers and dealers. Elnoury has learned the dangerous business of espionage. He is recruited to a new world because of his faith, his language skills and his hugely effective ability to work undercover. His job is to befriend and win the confidence of a young Islamic fundamentalist, an academic and researcher who through his own personal circumstances has come to believe in jihad and is under the direction of Al Quaeda. This Elnoury does successfully, creating a persona for himself as a sympathiser and benefactor. He learns the young man’s convictions and intentions, himself passing every test of his own credibility. This story takes us into Canada and the tricky relations between police forces operating under different legal systems. It takes us also into the elaborate technology of wiring up an agent, so that the incriminating conversations are recorded against the future, and the surveillance team with whom Elnoury debriefs almost on a day-to-day basis. The worth of the book is the real understanding it brings of the mind of a terrorist, the theological justifications for acts of civilian destruction and the frightening conviction of absolute rightness. Elnoury deals well with the dangerous bias in the United States against all Muslims. There are nuanced discussions of Islam and jihad. This one is telling because it focuses on just two extremists, and their minds are under a magnifying glass. – RH


Nthikeng Mohlele has seized the chief character from JM Coetzee’s classic Life And Times Of Michael K and given him a home and in an extraordinary settlement known as ‘Dust Island’. You will not find this on a road map nor in an atlas, but it is a place you will recognise, even if you have not spent time there. Here we find the heartbreaking desolation of the platteland and those who eke out a living there. It exists far outside the limits of cities and towns, beyond the reach of welfare and state, with no formal structures, but with a community of those who scratch a survival and cooperate and share. There is a rudimentary form of governance, and those with recognised roles, but no clinic, no doctor, no schooling. Michael K arrives here, dropped off by a truck, and here he lives a solitary existence, growing vegetables and fruit. It is a precarious existence, but he relies on no other person and communicates little with anyone. Here he dies, quietly, without any appeal for help. Here he is buried, but when he is being laid to rest in his dusty grave, strange celebrities arrive, attended by journalists. His death is even more mysterious to those among whom he has been living than the time he planted and watered and built his little pyramid of a dwelling. The narrator, Miles, is a former civil servant in his fifties, whose own drama is played out in the city and in the remote Dust Island. He pursues poetry, examines the relationship between philosophy and verse, looks for his own fulfilment, and seeks to exorcise the horror of his father’s senility and death. He has a strange and ongoing intellectual relationship with a professor of philosophy; an ongoing argument with himself. This is a brilliant work. The prose is rich and vivid. The personalities are compelling. And the sense of place is extraordinary. – RH


Ministry Of Crime, an excellent non-fiction crime investigation write-up, tells the story of South Africa’s underworld. Mandy Wiener, a journalist, has collated facts from interviews, personal reporting and newspaper items, adding her own observations to cover the story about the deep rooted rot that settled in this country from 2000 onward.  State capture started with Brett Kebble and Radovan Krejcir, before the term was coined under Jacob Zuma. Krejcir infiltrated South African police services, crime investigators and corrupt politicians to have complete control, carrying out gangland crimes including extortion, protection, tax evasion, bribery and money laundering. Bodies pile up with Lolly Jackson, king of sleaze, probably the best known victim. Disbelief and astonishment are guaranteed, but the facts speak for themselves. SA suffered an Mafia-esque nightmare, the poisoned fruit of which we still see. Cleaning this Augean stable, flooding out the filth, is an ongoing job. Wiener covered this dark period in our recent history and has presented it in a readable style. In addition, she has made us conscious of the serious decline that caused our country to sink into the murky sludge of criminality. – DB


Only extreme introverts may not be aware of the parallel, but not necessarily related, revivals of gin and tonic and crocheting. Making a G&T probably takes five minutes, and the (not unpleasant) effects are proportionally short lived. Enter crochet! As the recipe books say, “Some effort required, but well worth it.” Brightly coloured and featuring 64 projects, Hello, Crochet will have crafters’ fingers itching to begin. Strydom, Eksteen and Fielding are bloggers and magazine contributors as well as friends. The twist in the tale here is that 15 patterns created by the trio have been interpreted in a number of ways highlighting different styles, catering to the bohemian, the artistic, the contemporary and the romantic. The vital statistics for each pattern – difficulty rating, amount of yarn needed, other equipment, final size and so on – are set out in a helpful box at the beginning of each project, followed by the road map. While this is not a “I’ve just bought my first hook, where do I start” manual, the projects provide an accessible range from beginner to advanced, and with YouTube to help, the sky (and your yarn budget) is the limit. – KD


As big and robust as its subject, Tom Jones’ autobiography stands out for the clear-eyed, unpretentious way in which the singer relates his story, throwing in plenty of warmth and humour along the way. He starts Over The Top And Back at a point in his career where he is playing awful rooms in depressing American strip malls, a million miles away from the glamour readers might associate with his reputation, and there is a good deal of that honesty as you read further. Jones takes responsibility for the bad – and the lazy – decisions he made as he came up through the ranks, and the moments he wishes he could’ve gone back to and been truer to his core values. Some of those are surprising, too. One of the enduring images of Jones as a performer is with his hairy chest exposed, a gold medallion gleaming there, as he holds up a pair of panties a female fan has thrown on stage. The suggestion is that he’s a ladies’ man through and through, but that is not what comes through in the narrative here. For readers steeped in the tabloid fodder about the singer, or indeed most of the music magazine coverage of his career, this may feel like an odd public relations exercise; perhaps trying to redeem an aging artist’s status for his equally mature audience? But Jones surprises again, celebrating, late in the book, the fact that he and his wife Linda had been married for nearly six decades at the time of writing, and that she remains his centre and his foundation. There is also, of course, the music – the huge hits and unexpected misses; the graft needed to make it in the first place and to get back to the summit between less successful periods, and performances and collaborations with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Ed Sheeran. Ultimately, this is a portrait of a talented but grounded bloke who had to learn how to be a performer and star as he went along and recognises that he is still doing so even now. Over The Top And Back underlines the effect Jones has had on popular culture while also recognising that success can be defined in a dozen different ways. An excellent read.


Hands up if you’ve ever shoved the last bit of wilting lettuce to the back of the fridge because you feel guilty about throwing it away, and you’d rather wait until it’s positively putrid so that you can do so legitimately? Sound familiar? Then Tasty WasteNots is the book for you. Jason Whitehead has cleverly taken all the little bits and pieces we feel reluctant to discard but have no idea how to use and turned them into genuinely delicious feasts in their own right. It may sound like a tricky task, but dishes like Thai cucumber and pork broth and Irish coffee braised lamb shanks with ginger and pumpkin mash will leave you convinced that nose to tail eating not only makes sense from an environmental and economic point of view, but is also mouth-pleasing. I particularly like the fact that Jason has given a nod to local ingredients (as in the buchu and honey spritz), and that there are sections devoted to vegetarians and serious health nuts alike. – LW

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