By ROB HOFMEYR & BRUCE DENNILL
Lies We Believe About God by Wm Paul Young
The Sentinels: Cranes Of South Africa by Daniel Dolpire & David Allan
The High Mountains Of Portugal by Yann Martel
An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni
Kids’ Snakes Of Southern Africa by Johan Marais
Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
The writer of Lies We Believe About God is of course the author of that astonishing book The Shack. That is a novel, a piece of startlingly creative writing, an allegory. This is a series of essays all under the title of “lies”. It has and will continue to raise all sorts of debate, discussion and controversy. It is a work of prose theology, but not at all prosaic. Having read it through twice, I am still of several minds. Let’s consider some of the “lies”: God loves us, but doesn’t like us; God is good, I am not; God is in control; God is a Christian; God wants to use me; God blesses my politics; you need to get saved; sin separates us from God; and not everyone is a child of God. Some of this is of course a timeous reaction to United States fundamentalism – it’s easy to agree. Some of this is a strong critique of 19th Century evangelicalism and its 20th and 21st Century aftermaths. But that in turn takes us back to Calvin, to the English Reformers, and then the issues become more challenging. The arguments Young makes have grown from wide-ranging and deep conversations, interactions and relationships with folk who have fundamental problems with traditionally stated Christian belief. It is born also of his own experience of family and acute perceptions of the harm that can be done by building walls, digging moats and shrinking into enclaves. This is a book to read, to discuss and to re-read and to consider seriously. You may ultimately decide to disagree with some of his conclusions. Whatever transpires, you will have had to reformulate your own thinking, deepen your own convictions through real and careful consideration of the issues. There will be light shone on dark places in your own mind, hope and comfort given in areas of despair and doubt. Those with no formal belief systems or affiliations will find interest and challenge in what Young writes. I recommend this refreshing book. Certainly, God is given a much better press than is often the case. – RH
Cranes, thanks to their impressive size and plumage, are some of the more noticeable birds around – when you’re able to find them (most species are endangered to a greater or lesser degree). South Africa’s three species – the Wattled Crane, the Grey Crowned Crane and the Blue Crane (the country’s national bird) – are the focus of The Sentinels, an attractive, large-format coffee table book, put together with considerable dedication by photographer Daniel Dolpire, aided by writer David Allan. The elegance of the birds means they’re generally photogenic and make for striking spreads in the book, and the habitats in which they live, including the southern Cape and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands are just as striking. Where there may be a challenge for readers is in the relative lack of range in the content. With only three species to focus on and take pictures of, it’s necessary to have a similar level of passion for the cranes to that displayed by Dolpire in order to fully enjoy every photograph and paragraph. That said, dip into the book a little at a time for a while and you’ll learn about some gorgeous creatures and understand more about the effects our behaviour and lifestyles can have on those we share our country with. – BD
The High Mountains Of Portugal by Yann Martel is an interesting book to read, perhaps because it’s a completely unconventional one. It’s called a novel, and it superficially looks like a novel, but it’s a collection of three stories that have a geographical overlap and some passing cultural dovetailing. Story one involves an eccentric who only walks backwards (his reasons remain unclear) and who goes on the hunt for a potentially game-changing piece of ancient art in a very early, unpredictable motor car. Story two involves a small-town coroner and bizarre discovery he makes when opening up the body of a mysterious local woman. And the final story involves a disillusioned retiree who adopts a chimpanzee and abandons the rat race for life in his ancestral home. Some of it is just odd, while other parts are curiously lyrical – much of the narrative exists somewhere in the middle. There are sublime passages (a dialogue between the coroner and a late-night visitor is perhaps the highlight of the book) alongside long threads of rambling surrealism. Ultimately, it’s not wholly successful, but it is escapism of a more than usually poetic sort. – BD
As with so many good children’s stories, An Extraordinary Egg extols values that all people are enriched by and which, if they are internalised by children, help to shape those kids in positive ways. In particular, this tale of a trio of frogs who have no concept whatsoever of prejudice and whose reactions to newcomers are based in gentleness paints a wonderful (simplistic, yes, but certainly achievable in small doses) picture of what is possible – standing against the negative, heartbreaking images on the daily news. Jessica is a frog who collects beautiful stones, and one day the stone she brings home turns out to be an egg – a chicken egg, her friends tell her. When the egg hatches, it is not a chicken. It is an animal that would usually present a danger to frogs. But all its interactions with its surrogate family are affirmative and loving, and its behaviour reflects that. The late Leo Lionni illustrated his own story, and the pictures reflect the quiet kindness of his characters.
Education about creatures as divisive as snakes is incredibly important, and giving children accurate, interesting information about these wonderful creatures will help young readers make intelligent decisions about their treatment of and respect for these animals. Johan Marais structures Kids’ Snakes Of Southern Africa in an accessible, easy-to-digest way, beginning with an overview of basic snake biology, illustrated with large, clear pictures (always better for a beginner’s understanding of a subject than stylised drawings). From there, he deals with different types and groups of snakes – mambas, tree snakes, secretive snakes, huge snakes and more – with an occasional focus on a specific species. Marais’ summaries are excellent, containing all the information needed to gain an understanding of the beauty and threat posed by different species and families while keeping layouts simple and easy to understand. A recommended guide for all youngsters – even those without a focused interest in snakes can gain a useful, healthy understanding of the animals, which will benefit them and the animals in future life.
Andrew Caldecott is, when not writing novels, also a lawyer and a playwright, so his eye for both detail and drama is not surprising. In Rotherweird, the first instalment in a trilogy, the English author introduces readers to a region – the town of the title at its centre – that is cut off, by ancient statute, from the rest of England, removing both its obligations to general society and the accountability that broadly applicable laws require. The world Caldecott creates is richly detailed – evocative of everything from Dickens to Gaiman – and layered in terms of its appeal, from the quirkiness of its curiously named characters to the genuine sense of dread that underlies the darkness at the town’s core. There is both swashing and buckling, as well as intellectual engagement as you figure out how exactly everything fits together. And many of the characters are extremely relatable (for different reasons), making getting invested in the outcome of the story and the wellbeing of all involved relatively easy. The ending is flattened and foreshortened to make it a clear link to the next book, which is a pity, but that doesn’t take away from the excitement created in advance of the follow-up. Recommended.