Book Reviews: The Wright Rift Then And Now, Or A Walking Cookie Mood

December 18, 2022




Walking To Australia by David Robbins

The Cookie Jar by Lisa Clark

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

Johannesurg Then And Now by Marc Latilla

Moods Of Nature by Heinrich van den Berg

The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry


David Robbins is an intelligent, liberal South African. He writes beautifully. He has an autistic grandson, Dylan, who was born in Ireland, spent his early childhood in Scotland and then moved to Australia. Geography has had the consequence that Robbins sees his grandson rarely, years sometimes elapsing between encounters. It is the fact that members of Robbins’ family live in Australia that is at the root of his visits to that subcontinent. A sensitive man, Robbins’ feelings about Australia are ambiguous. White South Africans and white Australians share similar historical explanations for why they live where they do. Australia was not marred and scarred by apartheid but its colonial history, especially the cruel upheavals that the Aboriginal people experienced as a result of colonialism were, in many ways, more devastating to the indigenous people than the South African experience. It troubles Robbins that so many white South Africans emigrated to Australia, not merely in search of prosperity but mainly in order to escape the perceived risks of living under ‘black majority rule’ in this country. In Walking To Australia, Robbins is fascinated by the deeper history of how the aboriginal people came to settle on the Australian subcontinent. That modern human beings began their migration out of Africa somewhere between 60 and 90 000 years ago, travelled across the Middle East to India and then down to Australia is now conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, there would have been oceans to cross. How did the aboriginal people do it and why? The branching out of these migrations into Europe, China and the Americas is much more easily comprehensible than that into Australia. Over some eight years, with gaps in between, Robbins travels to destinations along the way of the exhilarating ancient ancestral journey from Africa to Australia. He visits Ethiopia in East Africa, Djibouti, Muscat in Oman, Shiraz and Yazd in Iran, northern and southern India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Banda Aceh in Indonesia, Bali and Timor. The ‘walk’ to Australia is that which Robins imagines the Aborigines must have taken. Understandably troubled by the autism of his grandson, the great theme of this book is not only why are human beings who and what they are, but also where they are? In his travels, Robbins imagines that he is in the company of Dylan, who has the role of a confidant of sorts. Robbins delights in meeting different people and cultures and in seeing different places but the book is no mere travelogue. It is a treat to read, helping us to think more deeply about the human condition. – NW


Because biscuits are relatively simple to make, they’re usually something that even average bakers are able to produce a reasonable range of. That usually extends to a few tasty clichés, though – chocolate chip cookies, crunchies, shortbread and maybe some sort of rusk. The Cookie Jar, slim though it is, includes recipes for 100 different cookies, both sweet and savoury, many of which show a great deal of originality or left-field thinking in their genesis, meaning that both the baker and whoever is lucky enough to share the results of their labour are more or less guaranteed a taste and/or a texture they’ve never had before. Try Rooibos tea biscuits (from the Favourites section); raw coconut triangles (filed under Healthy); black pepper parmesan biscuits (Savoury); fudgy meringue cookies (see Home-style) and fig and walnut biscotti (should you be in the mood for something Fancy). Again, because of the comparative straightforwardness of this sort of cooking versus some sort of pulled pork dish that requires four days of preparation, it might be the case that, ultimately, you’re able to work your way through this entire collection. If so, your family and friends will thank you. – BD


Author David McCullough’s status as a double Pulitzer Prize winner is comforting when diving into The Wright Brothers, a biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright: it’s essentially a given that the research will be flawless and the narrative punchy and flowing. And, happily, this proves to be the case. The Wright family, it seems, realised the importance of what the brothers were up to throughout their careers and documented everything extensively. McCullough’s book is rich in detail, keeping the focus tightly on Wilbur and Orville’s many achievements, though not without balancing those with perspectives from their competition and other naysayers. Most readers will be familiar with the Wrights getting their careers off the ground, literally, with their early successful aircraft designs. This narrative reveals the full extent of not only their collective ingenuity, but their prodigious work ethic in every area of their lives and the perhaps less glamorous effects of suddenly becoming two of the most famous men in the world, with the pressures and stresses that came with that status. This is superb journalism that is as easy to read as a novel, and as entertaining. – BD


As major world cities go, Johannesburg’s history – particularly architecturally speaking – is terribly under-explored. That’s understandable because of the legacy of apartheid and the periods during which the inner city’s vibrancy has been sadly surpressed by crime. Marc Latilla’s scrupulous research brings to life not only the better part of a century and a half of Johannesburg life but many subsidiary cultural facets as well – theatres that have long been demolished, and the cycles that have seen well-known contemporary areas like Newtown change their appearance multiple times. It’s probably fair to say, based on many of the photographs collected here, that the developers of the last 50 years or so have some explaining to do regarding the aesthetic impact their work has had on the city, with striking Art Deco and other creations replaced by stark brutalism, with red brick and sandstone removed in favour of dull concrete. Again, simply bemoaning bad construction decisions or heritage protection campaigns is pointless, as this ignores the socio-political situations and urban decay that made any of the old buildings dangerous and the activities that were carried out there unsustainable. Look at the pictures of the old shopping arcades and you’ll think of London or Paris, but such sites are nothing if vendors don’t feel secure trading there. Happily, there are also stories of restoration, with a number of derelict structures having been, and still being, reclaimed and repurposed. Any lifelong resident of Johannesburg – in any era – will recognise this schizophrenic personality as authentic: a spot someone’s mom and dad might’ve gone dancing in 30 or 40 years ago could since have served as a mechanic’s workshop and a hipster coffee shop, and be destined to endure a period as a squatter’s haven before again being relaunched as a independent fashion outlet or community college or who know what. A wonderful historical reference work, Johannesburg Then And Now also underlines that the city’s heritage is anything but linear, but should not be considered less valuable because of that. – BD


Large-format coffee table books, at a time when printed books are allegedly increasingly out of favour, might seem like a quaint idea, but happily, nobody has told photographer Heinrich van den Berg, whose Moods Of Nature is a follow-up to a trio of other similar publications – Reflection, Shades Of Nature and Art Of Nature. Van den Berg’s philosophy involves keeping matters particularly simple, trusting his large black and white photographs to convey what he wants to say and backing up those inferred messages with brief captions – not direct descriptions of the images, but further poetic, metaphysical additions to the pictures. There are a number of different, loosely collated sections – mountains, wilderness, desert, water and more – with a separate, smaller booklet tucked in the back of the book with some additional thoughts on the provenance of the photographs. On a first look through the collection, many of the pics don’t make much of an impact, and it’s easy to imagine that Van den Berg included them more because of some nostalgia regarding when and where the photographs were taken than because of their artistic value. However, if patience allows, revisit each spread and appreciate the textures and the shading of the layouts – the moods, as the photographer has called it. There are a few shots that are immediately notable, including a gemsbok sheltering the shade of an overhanging boulder on the face of a much larger expanse of exposed rock, a tree petrified in a Namibian sandbank and a beautifully fine-focus study of a miniature chameleon on the tip of a magnified finger. This book will be appreciated most by readers (viewers?) who share Van den Berg’s sensibilities – an abiding passion for wildlife and the wilderness, but integrated with a quirkily whimsical perspective. – BD


Alex Perry was the Africa bureau chief for Time magazine for the better part of a decade leading up to 2013 and did anything but sit around in an office or hang out at his home in Cape Town, endlessly criss-crossing the continent on assignment. Happily for readers of The Rift: A New Africa Breaks Free, he was and is also the sort of journalist (how sad that there are other types), who not only exhaustively researches the topics on which he is reporting, but also intelligently analyses his findings. The latter capacity often finds Perry going against the current, and confidently so, given the meticulousness with which he does his work. This makes for exciting reading regardless of subject matter, but that interest intensifies and becomes thrilling as your notions of what you’ve considered trustworthy (or indeed news-worthy) stories. This is a book by an Englishman that makes sense of Africa in a way that few African readers will be used to, which is a mark of the excellence of Perry’s commentary and the integrity of his approach. It redefines the way even relatively well-informed readers will approach reporting on hugely complicated hotspots like Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria, and on wider themes such as the influence of Chinese investment in Africa. It highlights Africa’s strengths and the cynicism of outsiders who choose to ignore those for their own commercial or narcissistic benefit. It gives clarity to problems like shortfalls in leadership and others that mean the continent’s figurative road ahead is as potholed as, well, many of the continent’s roads. There is often brittle, cautious hope and there is occasionally deep sadness and regret on behalf of those who are still suffering. Perry doesn’t offer solutions – that is not his job as a journalist – but he does offer, in this one volume, more insight and information of real value than most news-consuming readers in South Africa will have had access to (in print or online) in the last several years. It this book does nothing else – its contents will age – it is worth reading for the guidance it gives in adjusting the filter we use to sieve out the truth from the piles of content flung in our direction every day. A superb, eye-opening read. – BD