Book Reviews: The House Of Rommel, Or The Joy Of Turkish Cuisine

July 3, 2023




The Blackridge House by Julia Martin

South Africans Versus Rommel by David Brock Katz

The Book of Joy by 14th Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams

Anatoli: Authentic Turkish Cuisine by Tayfun Aras

Boerekos With A Twist by Annalien Pienaar

Go! Braai Time by Aletta Lintvelt


Julia Martin’s mother, Elizabeth, is losing her memory. There’s no way to tell whether she’ll understand why she – a woman who, in another lifetime, relished the challenge of a hike and had to keep active – is now confined to a bed in a retirement home, with a view of leafy branches her only means of escape; no way of knowing, either, whether this understanding will cause her distress (as it does, sometimes), or if she’ll feel resigned and grateful to know that her daughter is doing what she can to take care of her (ditto). One thing that stands out in her mind, as other memories slip away like a bar of soap held too tightly, is her childhood home or, as she calls it, the Blackridge House. Julia fixates on finding the house as a last gift she can give her mother: an apology for the connections that are slowly unravelling. It’s an almost impossible task: to find a home with no known address, in a corner of the country that has changed drastically over the past decades. That’s where the magic of this story comes in. The Blackridge House is so much more than a memoir or a record of Julia’s journey to Blackridge: it’s an exploration of the bonds between us – the ones with people we know so intimately it’s hard to know where their stories end and ours begin, and the ones with strangers so complete our stories have yet to become entwined, and who come to matter to us. It’s a story of a country’s painful history, and a family’s painful present, and through it all, how those bonds shape us and those around us. Apart from being a poignant reminder of the pains and pleasures that make up our everyday, this is also a beautiful read. Julia Martin is one of those writers who makes the arrangement of words seem easy and effortless, and they read the same way, too, making this the satisfying kind of book you’ll want to set aside big chunks of time for, rather than reading in rushed intervals. I loved it. it made me feel hopeful and optimistic, and I definitely wanted to hug my mother afterwards. – LW


I last read about military strategy and tactics with any seriousness when I was doing Caesar’s Gallic Wars in high school some 50 years ago. Elite education for whites was like that in those days. Although the technology of war has changed much in more than 2000 years, it is astonishing how little the basic principles of warfare have changed: know the terrain, the climate, the weather conditions; know the mind of your enemy; have excellent intelligence; maintain the morale of your troops; undermine the morale of you opponents; keep focused; adapt to changing circumstances; ensure discipline; have covert operations, employ deception, rely on surprise, etc. The author, David Brock Katz, is an accomplished military historian. Although he provides a wealth of detail that may be intimidating to the ordinary lay reader, Katz has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of South Africa’s role in what was undoubtedly the war the changed the world forever. Despite its title, South Africans Versus Rommel is, in fact, a history of South Africa’s involvement in the war right from its beginning until the end of the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. Alamein was probably South Africa’s ‘finest hour’ in the history of war. Our country played a significant role in preventing Axis forces from cutting off the Allied control of a strategically important position in Egypt. The Axis forces in North Africa had been led by Erwin Rommel, a professional soldier and gifted general who had received his formative military training before and during the First World War. Known as the ‘Desert Fox’, Rommel’s military cunning as well as the fact that he was involved in the plot to stage a coup to overthrow Adolf Hitler earned him lasting respect. Rommel was forced by Hitler to commit suicide as a result of his involvement in the plot. Otherwise, his would have met with an even more gruesome end. The assessments of many a war leader have been revised in recent decades, but Rommel’s reputation has survived substantially intact. That the South Africans succeeded in bringing him to the brink of nervous breakdown is high credit indeed. A fascinating aspect in Katz’ book is how history, experience and culture shaped the attitudes of the professional military leaders on the different sides. The Germans, like Julius Caesar, believed in the benefits of moving ‘under cover of darkness’. The British considered that the perils thereof tended to outweigh the advantages. The Germans believed in ‘movement’, the British in capturing a position and then holding it. Affected by the Anglo-Boer war, the South Africans, much more than any of the other Allies, were averse to casualties, not only on their own side but also of their opponents. The South Africans had serious differences of opinion with the British, who tended to treat the South African military leaders with condescension. The British were often found wanting. For example, they had exaggerated faith that tanks would win the war on land. South African involvement in the Abyssinian campaign is at risk of being forgotten. Katz has helped to keep alive the memory of this important contribution to the Allied War effort. Italy, under the fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, had invaded what is now known as Ethiopia and then Abyssinia in 1935. Mussolini joined forces with Germany in the war. The Allied powers were worried that the Axis of Italy and Germany would use Abyssinia and Somalia, which was then an Italian colony, to secure the hugely strategic Mediterranean rim in North Africa. There were also concerns that the Axis powers could use the Italian occupation in parts of Africa as a base from which to push southward to control the Cape sea route. For these reasons, South African troops were sent to fight in Abyssinia. Urban legend in South Africa is that the Italians were poor soldiers. Katz argues convincingly that this was not the case. Particularly illuminating is how woefully underprepared South Africa was at the beginning of the war, in terms of its numbers, professional leadership, equipment and training. The ‘invincible’ Royal Navy patrolled the seas around our coastline and we had no enemies to the north of us. Defence was not a priority, especially after the hard years of the drought and great depression in the 1930s. Looming large in the history of South Africa’s involvement in the war is the figure of Jan Smuts. Not only is it most doubtful that, without his leadership, South Africa would have joined the British in the war but also he must take credit for superb skill in turning the country around on to a war-footing. Indeed, it was under Smuts’ leadership during the war that the industrialisation of our economy began in earnest. One wonders how much more can be written about the enigmatic Smuts, about whom there has been a recent revival of interest in South Africa. Katz lays bare Smuts’ almost megalomaniacal ambitions generated by the war. He envisaged a huge southern African federation of states, extending at least as far as Kenya and perhaps even including Ethiopia, with Pretoria as its capital. Smuts also thought that at least part of Moçambique could be annexed so that the port at Delagoa Bay could be incorporated into our country.  Smuts reckoned without British seriousness on two significant commitments: (i) a non-racial future for all ‘subjects’ in His Majesty’s empire and (ii) the world’s longest surviving treaty of friendship, peace and mutual support, which existed between Britain and Portugal, going back to the 14th Century. Katz’ book makes it plain that South Africa’s destiny is not only closely tied to the rest of our continent but also the politics of the world. – NW


Two great spiritual leaders meet for a week in Dharamsala, in the mountains of northern India, and their discussions are carefully recorded and sensitively reflected by an experienced writer. So we have here the world’s best-known monk and leader of a significant group of Buddhists, the world’s best-known Anglican, and a secular Jew. They know and trust each other. The result of that week is this very moving work, The Book of Joy. It is not a work of theology nor of philosophy nor of psychology, but reflects the deep beliefs and the extraordinary lives of the two great men and draws on all three of those disciplines. Both men share a puckish sense of humour, have a deep friendship and an “unbiased love for all humanity humanity”. And so as they approach each of the questions Douglas sets for them, they laugh and reminisce and goad each other, full of fun, full of mischief but serious in their intent. The discussion ranges from the nature of true joy (to which material ambition is the antithesis), to true generosity. There are references to neuro-psychology, to studies in animal behaviour, to politics and to other academic disciples. However all these are part of the knowledge and life experience of the two men. They have absorbed the research and thinking and have made it their own. They are not simply quoting. They are sharing what they themselves have proved as true and of good report. When they recount their own lives, exile, persecution and conflict with authorities, we know that their knowledge and experience of joy is hard-won. There is an account of an exuberant 80th birthday celebration, when the Dalai Lama and his guest go out into the community, to children especially who have been sent out of Tibet by their parents to experience a spiritual life not possible under the Communist regime. The sheer joy of the occasion is a fitting climax to the week, an affirmation of the discussions. Not orthodox Christian doctrine, not textbook psychology, but a highly readable account of the thinking of two great men who share their very profound insights with each other and make them accessible to ordinary people, challenging us to live and to think differently, more richly and more lovingly. – RH


Turkey is currently topping my travel bucket list. I dream of floating between the bays on a gullah, eating copious amounts of baklava – but, while my budget sadly doesn’t stretch to Istanbul, I can certainly take time out at the landmark Cape Town restaurant, Anatoli, via its signature cookbook. Every page in Anatoli: Authentic Turkish Cuisine looks like a taste adventure. Although some of the dishes may be familiar (think shakshuka, grilled haloumi and hummus), they are great reminders of why the world loves Middle Eastern flavours. Most are satisfyingly exotic: alinazik is a kaleidoscope of mince, yoghurt, brinjal, garlic and herbs coming together in a wonderfully complex and multi-dimensional bite, while the tavuk guvec (chicken baked with feta) is a bold explosion of sunshiny flavours. Best of all, although these dishes are certain to impress at Sunday lunch, they are all quick and easy to make. A must for your recipe book shelf. – LW


Can you really call yourself South African if you haven’t sipped on moer koffie while munching krummel pap? In my opinion – no. But, whether you’re wanting to explore these familiar flavours, or eager to celebrate new tastes, you’re certain to find a recipe (or two) to add to your list of regulars. In Boerekos With A Twist, Annelien Pienaar presents a treasure trove of South African favourites that most of us will greet like old friends, thanks to their regular appearance at Saturday afternoon fetes or weekend braais. Here you’ll find classics like ‘Mealie meal tart fit for a king’, beef and beer potjie with dumplings and chocolate bazaar cake – the kind of food many of us have grown up with. But, if you’re looking for some taste tourism, Annelien delivers: check out the curried brawn or, for test your cheffing skills by making your own boerewors. If I have any criticisms, it’s that I would have liked to have seen more recipes for dishes like melkkos and its ilk, but the extensive baking chapter, with several variations of rusks, make up for this. – LW


Forget the tongs and wood chips: Go! Braai Time is all you need to make the perfect braai. It has every aspect covered, from starters to salads and braai breads. Here’s an example: imagine tucking into pan-baked brie (with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, served on ciabatta), followed by prego ribs or ribeye with homemade BBQ sauce. Aletta has provided recipes for any fire-fuelled feast, from potjie (oxtail tacos with salsa) to camping (sweet potato hash with eggs). The book is gorgeous, too, with lick-the-page food photography interspersed with destination pictures so beautiful you’ll want to fill up the caravan and leave right now. Pass the firelighters! – LW