Thursday, August 27, 2009

Featured author quote

"This was the war of Bronkhorstspruit and General Colley and Laing's Nek. You have no doubt heard many accounts of this war, some of them truthful, perhaps. For it is a singular thing that, as a man grows older, and looks back on fights that he has been in, he keeps on remembering, each year, more and more of the enemy that he has shot.

Klaas Uys was a man like that. Each year, on his birthday, he remembered one or two more redcoats that he had shot, whereupon he got up straight away and put another few notches in the wood part of his rifle, along the barrel. And he said his memory was getting better every year."

Herman Charles Bosman, Yellow Moepels

Featured author quote

"Stoffel Oosthuizen added that, no matter what the difference in the colour of their skin had been, it was impossible to say that the kaffir's bones were less white than Hans Welman's. Nor was it possible to say that the kaffir's sun-dried flesh was any blacker than the white. Alive, you couldn't go wrong in distinguishing between a white man and a kaffir. Dead, you had great difficulty in telling them apart."

Herman Charles Bosman, Unto Dust

Quote of the day

"So as a prelude, whites must be made to realise that they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realise that they are also human, not inferior."

Steven Biko

Featured author quote

"Of course, I know about history - Oom Schalk Lourens said - it's the stuff children learn in school. Only the other day, at Thys Lemmer's post office, Thys's little son Stoffel started reading out of his history book about a man called Vasco da Gama, who visited the Cape. At once Dirk Snyman started telling young Stoffel about the time when he himself visited the Cape, but young Stoffel didn't take much notice of him. So Dirk Snyman said that that showed you."

Herman Charles Bosman, The Music Maker

Featured Author - Excerpt

An excerpt from “Bechuana Interlude” by Herman Charles Bosman

“When he had filled the whole sheet of blotting paper with small circles, Johnny de Clerk stopped talking and put the printed documents in order.

‘I have proved to you why you should be insured for a thousand pounds, Oom Piet,’ he said. ‘So just sign your name here.’

Piet Venter shook his head.

‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘I don’t want to.’

‘But you must,’ Johnny de Klerk went on, waving his hand towards Lenie, without looking up. ‘For the sake of your wife, here, you must.’

‘That is not my wife,’ Piet Venter replied. ‘That’s my daughter, Lenie. My wife has gone to Zeerust to visit her sister.’

‘Well then, for the sake of you wife and your daughter Lenie,’ Johnny de Klerk said. ‘and what’s more, I’ve already spent an hour talking to you. If I spend another hour I shall have to insure you for two thousand pounds.’

Piet Venter got frightened then, and took off his jacket and signed the application form without any more fuss. By the way he passed his hand over his forehead, I could see he was pleased to have got out of it so easily. I thought it was very considerate of Johnny de Klerk to have warned him in time. A more dishonest insurance agent, I felt, would just have gone on sitting there for the full two hours, and would then have filled in the documents, very coolly, for two thousand pounds. It was a pleasure for me to see an honest insurance agent at work, after I had come across so many of you might call the dishonest kind.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Did you know?

* Herman Charles Bosman’s collection of short stories, Mafeking Road, has never been out of print since it was first published in 1947.

*He sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Herman Malan, which was his mother’s maiden name.

*He wrote a number of Afrikaans short stories and poems that were published in numerous Afrikaans magazines. In 2001 a collection of his Afrikaans short stories with the title Verborge skatte was published.

*He is especially renowned for his “Oom Schalk Lourens” and “Voorkamer” stories. The actor Patrick Mynhardt won acclaim for his interpretation of Oom Schalk Lourens. He died in 2007 and was buried next to Herman Charles Bosman in the Westpark cemetary in Johannesburg.

Featured Author - Herman Charles Bosman

Our featured author for this week takes us on an incredible journey into the past – to the days of the Boer War, the rule of the British in South Africa and the dusty roads of the Groot Marico. To say that Herman Charles Bosman was an extraordinary writer would be an understatement in the extreme. The mark he has left on South African literature, I would hope, is impossible to erase.

Born in the Cape at Kuils River in 1905, Bosman’s family moved up to the Transvaal a few years thereafter. He spent his formative years with his mother’s family in Potchefstroom, where he was encouraged by his grandparents, mother and uncle, all educated and intelligent people, to read and discuss politics, history and literature.

Bosman’s mother, Elisa, an educated young woman from a well-to-do Afrikaans family, had married a mine-worker, to the consternation and confusion of her parents. Many years later it emerged that she had confided in a close friend that she had married Jacobus Bosman as a “necessary evil” – Herman was a love child, whose father she said she was “unable to marry”.

In 1918, Jacobus Bosman had found a job in Johannesburg as a waste-packer on the mines, and he promptly brought his family to live in Jeppestown. Bosman attended Jeppe High School, where for the first time he came up against mathematics, the subject that he would never master and would eventually cost him his matric. However, he had the good fortune to be blessed with an excellent English teacher, a subject he fell in love with and obtained excellent marks in. He began to contribute to the school magazine, and at the age of 16, was writing short stories which were published regularly in the Sunday Times.

He attended Houghton College in 1922 to study for his Cape Matriculation examination, but mathematics was again to be his ultimate academic Achilles heel. When he sat for his matric algebra paper, he decided to write the examiner an essay confessing his regrettable deficiencies in the subject, and suggesting they be overlooked given his talents in English.

It was during this year that Jacobus Bosman died in a mining accident. The only person who was truly grieved by this was Bosman’s younger brother Pierre, who was close with his father. Elisa was determined to take the insurance payout and find a new husband better suited to her “station” in life.

After eventually managing to graduate at the University of the Witwatersrand with a T2 teaching diploma at the end of 1925, he was posted as a teacher to the Groot Marico district on the border with Botswana. The experience was enthralling and enriching for Bosman, and eventually gave birth to his famous Oom Schalk Lourens and Voorkamer stories, all set in the Groot Marico region.

Tragedy struck soon thereafter, when Bosman went home to his mother for the holidays. Elisa had re-married a wealthy widower, William Russell, who had children of his own, three of whom came to live with Elisa when their father married her. Not long after Bosman arrived in the house, he killed one of his step-brothers with a hunting rifle. There are many hypotheses of what really happened that fateful night. But whether it was an accident, a heated disagreement turned violent or simply cold-blooded murder, Herman Charles Bosman was, after a sensational court trial, sentenced to death for murder.

Bosman spent nine long, agonizing days on Death Row in Pretoria Central Prison and then finally received a reprieve from the Governor-General, brought about by friends and family who had been campaigning tirelessly to save him. Bosman was sentenced instead to ten years’ hard labour, but served half his sentence before he was released on parole in 1930.

Bosman’s years in prison served as the basis for his semi-autobiographical Stone Cold Jug. After being released, he threw himself into writing stories and poetry and started his own printing press, associating himself with many poets, journalists and writers. He then took a nine-year hiatus and toured overseas, spending a lot of time in London, where he wrote the famous Mafikeng Road.

Upon his return to South Africa, he found work as a journalist and also managed to translate the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into Afrikaans. He married Ella Mason and the couple were well-known for their bohemian lifestyle and parties.

One of Bosman’s closest friends was Gordon Vorster, a local artist, and the two spent many nights together drinking at Johannesburg’s old bars and taverns, getting drunk and coming up with outrageous ideas. Together they decided to compile and anthology of English South African poetry and the criteria for selection were eccentric and probably decided upon in a drunken state. For example, a poem entitled “Pissed in Gaza” would be accepted solely on its title, while a more conservatively-titled poem might be rejected for the same reason, irrespective of the poem’s content.

Uys Krige, a great South African author, received a rejection letter from Bosman that went as follows:

"Liewe Uys, Ek het baie siek gewees met die griep. Hoe gaan dit met jou? Hierdie gedig is sommer 'n klomp kak. Jou vriend, Herman."

(“Dear Uys, I have been very sick with 'flu. How are you? Your poem is a load of shit. Your friend, Herman.”)

After a housewarming party, Bosman was taken to the Edenvale Hospital with severe chest pains by his concerned wife. When asked by the doctor as to his place of birth, he replied, “Born – Kuils River, Died – Edenvale Hospital”. He was released after his examination, telling Ella it was merely indigestion from the night before. When they reached home, Bosman collapsed shortly thereafter and died as he was wheeled into the Edenvale Hospital once again.

Bosman is buried in Westpark Cemetery in Westdene and his gravestone reads:

"Die Skrywer, The Writer, Herman Charles Bosman, b 3.2.1905, d 14.10.1951."

Quote of the day

"In battling evil, excess is good; for he who is moderate in announcing the truth is presenting half-truth. He conceals the other half out of fear of the people's wrath."

Kahlil Gibran, 'Narcotics and Dissecting Knives,' Thoughts and Meditations, 1960

Friday, August 21, 2009

What to look out for next week

Next week’s author is the South African literary giant Herman Charles Bosman. If you are as old and wrinkly as I am, you may remember studying HCB in school, and I am quite sad to note that it has been removed from the list of school set books by the Department of Education, probably because of the repeated use of the word “kaffir” in his Oom Schalk Lourens stories.

Although it is an uncomfortable term for us today, it is certainly not racism on Herman Charles Bosman’s part. In fact, the truth is that through the use of the subtle irony and humour of which he was so fond, he has been able to clearly portray the shocking extent of racism in the old Transvaal of which he wrote. Reading his books is akin to opening a portal to another time and witnessing first-hand the treatment of blacks as second-class citizens.

It is unfortunate that today’s pupils are denied the opportunity to study and discuss Bosman’s short stories – I think they are the legacy of a genius and a valuable part of South Africa’s literary heritage that deserves more acknowledgement. If you have an opinion on HCB, please leave a comment below.

Quote of the day

“I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

G. K. Chesterton

Did you know...

The oldest book in the world was written in the lost Etruscan language and was found 60 years ago in a tomb uncovered by excavators in south-western Bulgaria. The book is comprised of six 24-carat solid gold pages and is believed to be around 2,500 years old.

The Etruscans are believed to have migrated from modern western Turkey, settling in northern and central Italy nearly 3,000 years ago and were wiped out by conquering Romans around 400 BC, leaving few written records.

The book can be seen at Bulgaria’s National Museum of History in Sofia.

Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon to fight Google book deal

Three of Google's largest rivals are joining a coalition to oppose a legal settlement that would give the Internet search leader digital rights to millions of copyrighted books.

Microsoft, Yahoo and are all part of a group called the Open Book Alliance. It's being put together by the Internet Archive, a longtime critic of Google's digital book crusade.

Google contends its rivals' objections are rooted in a fear of more competition in the digital book market.

The class-action settlement that would expand Google's digital library is scheduled to be reviewed in a court hearing on 7 October.

Source: Associated Press

Parting shots...

This week’s reviews on Tahir Shah were very fun to do as he is one of my favourite authors. Unfortunately, he was unable to give us an interview due to time constraints – he tells me he’s working on something very exciting and time-consuming but as yet he can’t give us any details. We will definitely be keeping our eyes peeled for news on that front.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Quote of the day

"But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?"

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front

Review – In Arabian Nights

“The torture chamber was ready for use. There were harnesses for hanging the prisoners upside-down, rows of sharp-edged batons, and smelling salts, used syringes filled with dark liquids and worn leather straps, tourniquets, clamps, pliers, and equipment for smashing the feet. On the floor there was a central drain, and on the walls and every surface, dried blood – plenty of it. I was manacled, hands pushed high up my back, stripped almost naked, with a military-issue blindfold tight over my face. I had been in the torture chamber every night for a week, interrogated hour after hour on why I had come to Pakistan.”

Arrested by Pakistani security forces while making a documentary on the lost treasure of the Mughals, the only comfort Tahir Shah found in his cold, bare detention cell was in the memories of his peaceful home in Morocco and the stories his father would tell him as a child.

After being released, Shah realises he must delve deep into the culture of Morocco to better understand the stories his father told, and the meanings hidden in them. Told of the Berber legend that each person must strive to find the story in their heart, Shah becomes obsessed with finding the story in his heart and begins to travel throughout the Saharan country, seeking out traditional Moroccan storytellers in traditional Moroccan tea-houses and ancient medinas.

With dismay, he discovers that the tradition of storytelling in Morocco has been dying out since the advent of television and Egyptian soap-operas. Old storytellers have had to find other occupations to earn a livelihood and they find themselves unable to find apprentices to pass on the oral tradition to, but he perseveres and travels to Fez, Marrakech and deep into the Sahara in his search.

The book is interspersed with brilliant tales transmitted to him by the locals and stories his father had told him as a child. He is especially fascinated with the many stories contained within his father’s first edition copy of “Alf Layla Wa Layla” (A Thousand and One Nights) compiled by the nineteenth-century British explorer Richard Burton.

The vibrancy of Shah’s characters simply cannot be made up. He has a true gift for exposing their quirkiness so that the reader feels a kinship with each one of them. In between the tales he effortlessly weaves threads of his domestic life, such as his struggles with protecting the honour of his guardians, the rivalry between his two maids and his efforts to pass on the storytelling tradition to his children.

In Arabian Nights
makes the reader begin to doubt the wisdom of Western pragmatism and will make everyone fall in love, even if just a little, with Morocco and the exotic, mysterious layers of Eastern thought.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Featured Author Quote - Tahir Shah

"The fact that the Caliph's House is located where it is - slap bang in the middle of the city's prime shantytown - gives us a window into a world where people are less financially fortunate. As time has passed, we have developed an abiding respect for everyone who lives in the bidonville. The people who live there may not have pockets lined with money, but their heads are screwed on right. Their values are rock solid.

If the shantytown is at one end of the equation, then Casa Trash can be found far at the other extreme. Their lives are created from an alphabet of name brands, cosmetic surgery and monstrous black SUVs. Female Casa Trash is dressed in the latest Gucci or Chanel, is heeled in Prada and is so thin that you wonder how her organs function at all. Her vision is obscured by oversized sun goggles and her mouth is masked in lipstick of such thickness and viscosity that it hinders her speech."

In Arabian Nights

Featured Author Quote - Tahir Shah

"When you hire a Moroccan maid, you imagine she will cook, clean and generally help to run the house. You believe this because at the first meeting she paints a vision of tremendous comfort - the clothes washed and expertly ironed, the house spic-and-span, delicious meals bubbling away on the stove. If you're lucky, there's a honeymoon which lasts a week or ten days. After that she settles into her role and the true character burgeons forth."

In Arabian Nights

Quote of the day

"Every author really wants to have letters printed in the papers. Unable to make the grade, he drops down a rung of the ladder and writes novels."

P. G. Wodehouse

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Review – The Caliph’s House (Tahir Shah)

The Caliph’s House was a book written by Shah when he took the decision to move his family from the security and dullness of life in England to a new life in Morocco. Shah buys a haunted palace called Dar Khalifa (the Caliph’s House) in the middle of a Casablanca bidonville (slum) and the book documents the struggles the family has trying to adjust to life in an unfamiliar country.

Dar Khalifa is a rambling, ancient house, opulent and filled with the ghosts of times gone by. Shah has a passion for the Moroccan way of life and thinking and he readily agrees to any number of insane suggestions from the three caretakers he inherited with the house to get rid of the jinns, much to the distress of his long-suffering wife, Rachana.

After a string of bad luck affects the house and its occupants, an ostentatious exorcism is performed, to Rachana’s horror and the delight of the guardians. But the book is far more than just a story about fixing up a house. It delivers clever insight into the real spirit of Morocco – its people.

The friendships that Shah develops over time in Casablanca are qualitatively different to the acquaintances he had made in London, and he finds himself living life at a somewhat slower pace – and exploring the somewhat esoteric cultural beliefs of his new countrymen on the way.

The book has plenty of both quirky and profound moments and will leave you with a strong desire to visit Morocco yourself, if only to see if will affect you in the same way.

Quote of the day

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Featured author - did you know?

Tahir Shah's book Trail of Feathers (2001) investigated the notion that men may have been able to fly. Having read an ancient Spanish manuscript that stated "the Incas flew over the jungle like birds", Shah set off on a journey to the Peruvian Amazon. After research that included a stay with the Shuar tribe, Shah concluded that the Incas partook of a powerful hallucinogen called Ayahuasca which made them believe they were actually flying.

This week’s featured author – Tahir Shah

Tahir Shah hails from a distinguished Afghan family, but was brought up in England and is the author of more than a dozen books and several documentary films. Shah is the son of well-known Sufi teacher, poet and writer Idries Shah and his paternal great-grandfather was the nawab of Sardhana in UP, India.

Growing up, Shah was greatly influenced by the teachings of his father, who drummed into him that education was about much more than attending school and that his quest for knowlegde was something that he should continue until death. Prevented from returning to his native country by the Taliban regime, Idries Shah took his family to Morocco each year for holidays and the young Tahir became besotted by the mystery and spirituality of the country, with its rich culture and traditions.

As a young man, Shah became a successful journalist, travelling to far-off countries, reporting on women’s issues. It was then that he decided to move full-time into writing books and travelogues about far-off lands. His travels took him to India, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Tired of living in London, Shah decided to move with his wife and two young children to Morocco in 2003. He purchased a grand but derelict house in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown called Dar Khalifa (the Caliph’s House) with the intention of restoring the ancient dwelling to its former glory.

In July 2005, while making a documentary, Shah and two colleagues were arrested and detained by Pakistani security police in Peshawar. They were held without charge and interrogated for sixteen days. Upon their release, the Pakistani government admitted Shah and his colleagues had done nothing wrong. Despite the experience, Shah still retains a deep affection for Pakistan and is passionate about bridging the divide between East and West.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Quote of the day

"It is not permissible to add to one's possesions if these things can only be done at the cost of other men. Such development has only one true name, and that is exploitation."

- Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Kindle - doomed to fail?

Although the Kindle e-book reader was launched in a blaze of publicity by Amazon a couple of years ago, it may become obsolete as phones get smarter. The popularity of touchphones is unquestionable, and they come with large enough screens to be used as e-book readers themselves.

Barnes & Noble Inc., one of the U.S.’s largest book retailers, has launched its own free e-book reader application which can be downloaded onto your iPhone, Blackberry, PC or Mac and versions are coming out soon for most other makes and models of touchphones. And B&N are not the only ones developing free e-reader apps for phones.

This may well render the need for a separate lump of plastic – and very expensive plastic, I might add – to read e-books on unnecessary. The limitations of the Kindle may also see it become outmoded, as the Kindle is only available in the U.S. and us poor non-American folk will likely never see it implemented in other countries.

Barnes & Noble’s e-reader can be downloaded here, and it comes with a few free classics, such as the Last of the Mohicans, Dracula, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

I prefer the feel of paper under my fingers, myself, but e-books can serve a useful purpose, such as those times you travel by bus or train. Hey presto – you can now read an e-book on your phone and can avoid making eye contact with those sitting next to you.

Quote of the day

"Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it... All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children."

- George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 2

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Quote of the day

"Because, if one is writing novels today, concentrating on the beauty of the prose is right up there with concentrating on your semi-colons, for wasted effort."

Neil Gaiman

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Booker Prize longlist is out!

Here are the nominees (courtesy of

The Children’s Book
A.S. Byatt

This vivid, rich and moving saga is played out against the great, rippling tides of the day, taking us from the Kent marshes to Paris and Munich and the trenches of the Somme. Born at the end of the Victorian era, growing up in the golden summers of Edwardian times, a whole generation grew up unaware of the darkness ahead.

J.M. Coetzee

A young English biographer is working on a book about the late writer, John Coetzee. He plans to focus on the years from 1972-1977 when Coetzee, in his thirties, is sharing a run-down cottage in the suburbs of Cape Town with his widowed father. This, the biographer senses, is the period when he was 'finding his feet as a writer'. Never having met Coetzee, he embarks on a series of interviews with people who were important to him - a married woman with whom he had an affair, his favourite cousin Margot, a Brazilian dancer whose daughter had English lessons with him, former friends and colleagues. From their testimony emerges a portrait of the young Coetzee as an awkward, bookish individual with little talent for opening himself to others. Within the family he is regarded as an outsider, someone who tried to flee the tribe and has now returned, chastened. His insistence on doing manual work, his long hair and beard, rumours that he writes poetry evoke nothing but suspicion in the South Africa of the time. Sometimes heartbreaking, often very funny, Summertime shows us a great writer as he limbers up for his task. It completes the majestic trilogy of fictionalised memoir begun with Boyhood and Youth .

The Quickening Maze
Adam Foulds

Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, The Quickening Maze centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum - an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum's owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen. For John Clare, a man who had grown up steeped in the freedoms and exhilarations of nature, who thought 'the edge of the world was a day's walk away', a locked door is a kind of death. This intensely lyrical novel describes his vertiginous fall, through hallucinatory episodes of insanity and dissolving identity, towards his final madness. Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates - the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and John Clare himself - are brought vividly to life. Outside the walls is Nature, and Clare's paradise: the birds and animals, the gypsies living in the forest; his dream of home, of redemption, of escape. Rapturous yet precise, exquisitely written, rich in character and detail, this is a remarkable and deeply affecting book: a visionary novel which contains a world.

How To Paint A Dead Man
Sarah Hall

Italy in the early 1960s: a dying painter considers the sacrifices and losses that have made him an enigma, both to strangers and those closest to him. He begins his last life painting, using the same objects he has painted obsessively for his entire career - a small group of bottles. In Cumbria 30 years later, a landscape artist - and admirer of the Italian recluse - finds himself trapped in the extreme terrain that has made him famous. And in present-day London, his daughter, an art curator struggling with the sudden loss of her twin brother while trying to curate an exhibition about the lives of the twentieth-century European masters, is drawn into a world of darkness and sexual abandon. Covering half a century, this is a luminous and searching novel, and Hall's most accomplished work to date.

The Wilderness
Samantha Harvey

It's Jake's birthday. He is sitting in a small plane, being flown over the landscape that has been the backdrop to his life - his childhood, his marriage, his work, his passions. Now he is in his early sixties, and he isn't quite the man he used to be. He has lost his wife, his son is in prison, and he is about to lose his past. Jake has Alzheimer's. As the disease takes hold of him, Jake struggles to hold on to his personal story, to his memories and identity, but they become increasingly elusive and unreliable. What happened to his daughter? Is she alive, or long dead? And why exactly is his son in prison? What went so wrong in his life? There was a cherry tree once, and a yellow dress, but what exactly do they mean? As Jake, assisted by 'poor Eleanor', a childhood friend with whom for some unfathomable reason he seems to be sleeping, fights the inevitable dying of the light, the key events of his life keep changing as he tries to grasp them, and what until recently seemed solid fact is melting into surreal dreams or nightmarish imaginings. Is there anything he'll be able to salvage from the wreckage? Beauty, perhaps, the memory of love, or nothing at all?

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII's court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king's favor and ascend to the heights of political power
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king's freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

The Glass Room
Simon Mawer

The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure - these are things that happen in the Glass Room. High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor's lover and her child. But the house's story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events come full-circle.

Not Untrue and Not Unkind
Ed O’Loughlin

In Dublin, a newspaper editor called Cartwright is found dead. One of his colleagues, Owen Simmons, discovers a dossier on Cartwright's desk. And in the dossier Owen finds a photograph, which brings him back to a dusty road in Africa and to the woman he once loved. Not Untrue and Not Unkind is Owen's story - a gripping story of friendship, rivalry and betrayal amongst a group of journalists and photographers covering Africa's wars. It is an astonishingly powerful and accomplished debut that immediately establishes Ed O'Loughlin as a mature master of the novel form.

Me Cheeta: the Autobiography

The incredible, and moving true story of Cheeta the Chimp, star of countless Hollywood blockbusters, told in his own words The greatest Hollywood Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, died in 1984. His coffin was lowered into the ground to the recorded sounds of his famous jungle call. Maureen O'Sullivan, his Jane, died in 1998. Weissmuller's son, who first played Boy in the 1939 film Tarzan finds a Mate, has gone too. But Cheeta the Chimp, who starred with them all, is alive and well, retired in Palm Springs. At the incredible age of seventy-five, he is by far the oldest living chimpanzee ever recorded.

Colm Toibin

Hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking, Colm Toibin's sixth novel, Brooklyn, is set in Brooklyn and Ireland in the early 1950s, when one young woman crosses the ocean to make a new life for herself.
Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following World War Two. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find a job in the miserable Irish economy. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood just like Ireland -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Love and Summer
William Trevor

No information available

Looking ahead to next week...

Next week's featured author is Tahir Shah, compulsive traveller, adventurer and writer. If you haven't read his books yet, you need to. We're looking forward to reviewing his books next week and hopefully doing an interview with him, schedule permitting.

Watch this space...

Review: the Bicentennial Man

The Bicentennial Man is a collection of short stories by this week’s featured author, Isaac Asimov. The title story is about a robot who is given the name Andrew Martin after the family he works for. Andrew discovers he has extraordinary artistic talents and as the decades pass by Andrew begins to fight for what he believes are his rights; to own money and property and to become emancipated from his owner. After tremendous legal battles, he is finally declared legally human.

This book raises many questions about artificial intelligence which may become more and more relevant as time progresses. If mankind creates an intelligence which becomes superior to his own, should they ever be given freedom and rights? Asimov delivers thought-provoking insight into a potential future challenge.

Quote of the day

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing. ~ Harper Lee

Featured author - did you know?

Here are some random and totally useless facts about this week’s featured author, Isaac Asimov:

- Asimov died on the 6th April 1992 of heart and kidney failure. When his biography was published ten years later, it was revealed that Asimov had been living with HIV contracted from a blood transfusion performed during his December 1983 triple-bypass surgery.

- The famous and celebrated writer, whose science-fiction novels often described space travel, himself had an irrational fear of flying, which severely limited his ability to travel throughout most of his life.

- Asimov was a teetotaler in his later years.

- He was completely inept at any activity that required motor skills – he never learned to swim or ride a bicycle.

- When he was in the army as a young man he achieved the highest score in his company’s intelligence test, although he got the lowest score in the physical-conditioning test.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quote of the day

A book reads the better which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots, and dog's ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins.

~ Charles Lamb, Last Essays of Elia, 1833

Review: The Foundation series

The winner of the once-off Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, the Foundation series of books have had a profound impact on the world of science fiction. Originally written as a trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation) in the 1950s, Asimov’s publishers pressured him to write a sequel, resulting in Foundation’s Edge being published in 1982, followed soon after by Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation.

The main concept surrounding the series is the belief by scientist Hari Seldon that the future of the Galactic civilisation could be determined by applying a mathematical principle he had developed called psychohistory. The principle of the theory is that the behaviour of a large mass of people can be predicted using the law of mass action. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict the decay and collapse of the Galactic Empire, and contrives a plan whereby the resulting anarchy and barbarism would be limited to a thousand years before the rise of a new central civilisation, instead of thirty thousand years.

Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the Galaxy, the first a repository of all human knowledge, where the inhabitants of the planet Terminus are working on creating a galactic Encyclopaedia and are initially unaware of Seldon’s plan or of the existence of the Second Foundation.

How the Foundation responds in times of crisis is the test for Seldon’s theory of psychohistory, and each successive leader of the planet Terminus has critical challenges to meet. Eventually the leadership of the First Foundation slides into decay and dictatorship, and Seldon’s plan is challenged by an unpredicted variable, the rise of a galactic conqueror, known as the Mule, who is able to control others by his mutated telepathic abilities. He topples the Foundation and Seldon’s plan hangs by a thread. The Second Foundation, a clandestine group with empathetic powers, acts to set the Galaxy back on par with the Plan. Further on in the series, the search for the Second Foundation intensifies and the involvement of robots is eventually revealed.

The prequels delve into Hari Seldon’s efforts to set up the two Foundations at the beginning of the decline of the Galactic Empire and his relationship with the oldest humanoid robot in the Galaxy.

It is worth noting that that this series beat the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien to receive the special Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series. Asimov’s plots and scientific theories are gripping, enthralling and intriguing and this series is easily his best and most inventive work.

Featured Author Quotation - Isaac Asimov

[In response to this question by Bill Moyers: What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?] "It's going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren't you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies."

- Interview by Bill Moyers on A World Of Ideas.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

This week's featured author - Isaac Asimov

One of the most famous science-fiction authors of all time, Isaac Asimov was a prolific writer, penning hundreds of books in a wide variety of different categories as well as numerous short stories. Asimov was also a professor of biochemistry, writing a great many popular science text books and other works of non-fiction.

His most popular science-fiction works included the spectacular Foundation, Robot and Empire series, altogether spanning 15 novels and dozens of short stories. Asimov was known for his fascination with the relationship between man and machine, which spawned countless short stories and novels on the subject of robots and the exploration of the recurring concept of the Laws of Robotics throughout a number of his science-fiction works. He is responsible for coining the word robotics, as well as the less widely used positronic and psychohistory.

Asimov’s writing is strangely stark, with minimal emphasis on main characters or settings and a lack of philosophical ramblings. This skin-and-bones style ensured Asimov wrote solely on the strength of the actual plot and not on florid frills.
Asimov’s scientific theories are so profound that one cannot help but be carried away by the sheer invincibility and solidity of his storylines.

Isaac Asimov died in New York, on the 6th of April 1992 at the age of 72, leaving behind a legacy that can scarcely be challenged by contemporary writers.

Quote of the day

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy. ~ Edward P. Morgan