Tuesday, 26 February 2008


What would you say if you were asked to sum up your life in six words? "Did that, got the tee-shirt"? "Round peg in small square hole"? "Wine, women, song; everything I wanted"? "Trapped wild animal longing for freedom"? "Got over myself and found happiness"? "Ate lotsa ice cream: loved it"?
This is a question that Smith Magazine, an online home for storytelling and personal narrative, asked its readers. The result is the upcoming book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, compiled by the magazine's editors, Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser.
Intrigued by the legend that Hemingway had once been challenged to write a story in only six words (he came up with "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."), they decided to ask their readers what they would say about their own lives in such a short phrase.
The response was overwhelming, and they received "short life stories" in droves, from the bittersweet "Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends" to such gems as "Business school? Bah! Pop music? Hurrah!" (a personal favourite for someone like me who also gave business school the finger!).

Eight hundred of these are now collected in a book due out in early March and which, as the subtitle suggests, includes contributions from both big names and everyday folk like us.

According to Smith and Fershleiser, the overriding theme across the 15,000 submissions they received was "life happens - good things, bad things, and crazy things you never expected".

And their favourites? Well, "Wasn't born a redhead. Fixed that!" had them admiring a writer who had clearly taken life by the horns. "Followed white rabbit. Became black sheep" struck a chord; "I'm 10 and have an attitude" brought on peals of laughter; while "Found true love, married someone else" spoke of life's unbearable disappointments. And then, of course, there was "After Harvard had baby with crack-head", which Fershleiser wanted to use as the title of the book but, as she says, "no one else was having any of that".

So, what would your six words be? Use the comments button at the bottom of this post to share them with us, or visit http://www.smithmag.net/.
Me? I think you know: "So many books, so little time".

To find out more about this book, or to pre-order a copy, click here:

Life in six words

Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this feature in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail sabookworm@telkomsa.net with any queries.

Sunday, 24 February 2008


As soon as I had read the first fifteen pages of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, I knew I would read it again ... and again, and again. For Liz Gilbert's story, really, is everybody's story.

At some time in our lives, we all feel the need to "find ourselves", to discover or re-discover the essence of who we are. Inevitably, this is the most profound personal journey we will ever undertake, as the search for ourselves is life's greatest challenge.

Here then, is one woman's story of that search, from the realisation that she doesn't belong in her seemingly perfect marriage, through a bitter divorce, a rebound romance and debilitating depression to a year-long journey of discovery that takes her to Italy, India and Bali.

"Anyone steeped in western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife," says Germaine Greer in the opening line of her latest book, Shakespeare's Wife. And it is a question Liz Gilbert must surely have asked herself often, either consciously or subconsciously, when she faced her thirtieth birthday knowing beyond doubt that she did not want to be married anymore.

This is not an easy sentiment for a man - any man - to accept, and the long and the short of it is that Gilbert's husband kicked against the subsequent dissolution of the marriage in every way possible.
This crisis and the failure of her subsequent relationship, as painful as they were, brought her to the doorway of prayer and spirituality. And, once those relationships were over, she resolved to explore her own soul, to re-discover the woman who had been lost in them: "The Bhagavad Gita - that ancient Indian Yogic text - says that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's with perfection. So now I have started living my own life."

Armed with a publisher's advance for the book she intends to write about her experiences, she stores her few remaining possessions with her sister, and sets out to experience both "worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence - the dual glories of a human life."

First stop - and what better place to experience pleasure? - Italy. Here she takes an apartment in Rome, and sets about the pursuit of worldly enjoyment with envious abandon. Having decided to stay celibate for the duration of her year's adventure, this becomes a glorious unwrapping of the many-faceted pleasures of life, from finding a motley assortment of new friends to napping in the garden in a patch of sunlight, experiencing the "richness" of the Italian language at a football game, and locating a hidden gelateria which is home to the most sublime flavours of ice cream imaginable.

It is in Italy where she discovers "the idea that the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one's humanity", that simply being present to and enjoying the pleasures of everyday life is its own form of prayer. Twenty-three pounds heavier for it, and having learnt the joys of the Italian phrase attraversiamo (let's cross over), she heads off to India to explore the other glory of human life, divine transcendence.

As anyone who has ever spent time in an ashram or retreat house will testify, this is no walk in the park. Here she has to surrender to the daily routine, and accept whatever tasks are given to her as part of her contribution to communal life. This involves, amongst other things, getting up at three am, scrubbing the temple floor, meditating in a cave, and reciting the 182-verse devotional poem, the Gurugita, every day. But it is here that she finds a way to finally walk away from her persona and embrace her self. Here, as she puts it, she assumes custodial responsibility for the maintenance of her own soul.
With both pleasure and devotion explored, she then sets off for Bali in an attempt to reconcile the two, to find that illusive balance we all long for: "The ingredients of darkness and light are equally present in all of us, and then it is up to the individual (or the family or the society) to decide what will be brought forth - the virtues or the malevolence. The madness of this planet is largely a result of the human being's difficulty in coming to virtuous balance with himself. Lunacy (both collective and individual) results."

It is on this small Hindu island in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago that she manages to track down an old medicine man she had met on a previous trip, and to learn balance from both him and from a culture fundamentally different to her own. And it is here that she also finds a new, unexpected and extraordinary love, one that she is able to embrace fully for having been "the administrator of (her) own rescue". And what a rescue it was!

To find out more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:

One woman's search for everything
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail sabookworm@telkomsa.net with any queries.

Friday, 22 February 2008


South African writers are becoming spoiled for choice, with the introduction of more and more outlets for their work. Last year, The Citizen and 30 Degrees South Publishers launched a new kind of writing prize called The Citizen Book Prize, and response to it was so positive that it has now been turned into an annual event.
What makes the prize different from any other is that it is based on the votes of the reading public. Writers are invited to submit synopses of their manuscripts for consideration, and a shortlist is selected from these. Then, over a ten-week period, The Citizen publishes 500-word extracts from each of the shortlisted books, and readers get a chance to vote for the one they like the best.
Voting for each entry, which is done on a grading system, is open for one week only, starting the Thursday on which that entry is featured in the newspaper. This allows the same voting period for each entry, and encourages readers to participate on a week-to-week basis.
The 2008 competition was launched on Tuesday, and entries close on 30 April. Further details will appear every Thursday in The Citizen's Citivibe section, and writers are invited to submit synopses as soon as possible (see http://www.30degreessouth.co.za/ for more).
The winner will receive R10 000 in cash courtesy of The Citizen, and a writing course to the value of R4 500 courtesy of The Write Co. The winning manuscript will also be published by 30 Degrees South Publishers in time for Christmas 2008, and the book will be submitted for the 2009 Exclusive Books Homebru promotion.
So, all you scribes, you know what to do!
And all you readers, if you want a taste of what's to come, click through here to find out more about the 2007 winning book, Home Affairs by Bree O'Mara:

Winner of The 2007 Citizen Book Prize

Wednesday, 20 February 2008


Here's a fun new opportuntity for writers - a recently-launched web publishing initiative called AllAboutLove.net, which is dedicated to, well, love. You can read love stories and book extracts on the site, or submit your own contribution. And, hey, you can even earn royalties.
AllAboutLove.net is an independent site, just like SAbookworm and, as well as fostering both new and estalished writing talent, it'll be publishing lots of love-related features too.
lick through to http://allaboutlove.net/ to investigate.


Penguin Books and Exclusive Books invite all SAbookworm readers to the official launch of Durban in a Word, which was the Bookworm Review book on 10 February.
Meet editor, Diane Stewart, and authors John van der Ruit and Devi Rajab at the launch of this really special collection of musings on the city.
When? Wednesday, 27 February 2008
Where? Exclusive Books, Shop 339/340, Cinema Level, The Pavillion, Spine Road, Westville, Durban
Time? 17:30 for 18:00
RSVP: Exclusive Books: 031 265 0454

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


I confess I have mixed feelings about Valentine's Day. It is, after all, rooted in pre-Christian festivals that celebrated love and this, as Pooh Bear would say, is a Good Thing. Then again, it's been commercialised outta sight which, in my opinion, is a Bad Thing.
No worries, though - I've found the perfect answer to this dilemma!
You'll all remember Mr Splashy Pants, the mascot of the Greenpeace Anti-Whaling Campaign. Well, in a non-lethal scientific breakthrough, Greenpeace has figured out how to translate whale song into English, and they have Splashy himself standing by to sing a Valentine's message for that special person in your life.
Click through to http://www.greenpeace.org/international/fungames/e-cards/splashy-love?utm_source=gpi-cyberactivist-list&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=valentine to personalise your own greeting. It doesn't cost a thing, and it's a great way to say "I love you".
And, if you'd rather spend your money on something meaningful this Valentine's Day instead of the usual over-priced roses and choccies, you can make a donation to the Greenpeace campaign.
Gotta love it ...

Sunday, 10 February 2008


I can remember, as a child, travelling to Durban before there were freeways - along a two-lane road that passed a stop-off on Van Reenen's Pass where lovers used to carve their names into the rock. Once at the coast, the lush vegetation canopied overhead, monkeys scattered at the sound of oncoming cars, and bananas could still be bought by the branch at the side of the road. One of the greatest disappointments of my adult life was travelling to the south coast along the N1, and realising with a shock that this was all gone.
So, naturally, I wanted to read Durban in a Word, a collection of short stories and essays about this holiday destination of my youth, as soon as it came out. Edited by Dianne Stewart, it's the fourth in a series of books in which the great and the good write about their home cities. And who could have guessed it would have struck such a chord?

For this isn't just a travelogue or compilation of bland observations, it's a literary collection of work commissioned from writers, journalists and other Durbanites that captures the spirit of the city and its people in a truly vivid way. It's a colourful body of work, embracing many styles and points of view (much like the city itself), and it left me feeling both at peace and sadly nostalgic. At peace because of the way in which the writers give voice to the diversity of the place; sadly nostalgic for a time before the Kwa-Zulu Natal coast was scarred by commercial development.

It is this kind of nostalgia that is so subtly captured by John Coningham in his piece, Another Country. Coningham, now in his early fifties, grew up on a sugar farm on the north coast, and tells of the regular shopping expeditions he used to make to Durban with his parents and grandparents. He describes a gentler way of life, one lived in much greater symbiosis with nature, which is now lost forever:

"My earliest recollections are of the old road that wound along the inland route through Shakaskraal and Tongaat and Verulum, past sugar mills and across metal bridges, but my clearest memories are of a later highway along the coast (the same two-laned road of my own recollection). To its left, through strips of sugar cane or waxen bush, intermittent views of rolling surf, and occasional thrilling glimpses of dolphins beyond the breakers could be seen."

But at the end of this, as inevitably it must, comes what it feels like to be looking back at one's childhood through the lens of tumultuous change:

"And at a time when another cultural revolution is seeking to commandeer the reality of Durban's origins, I find myself looking pensively along the Esplanade at the Da Gama clock and the Dick King statue and the Durban Club, and the plunder of my mythology."

Other tales and recollections are, of course, different, but all of them portray a depth seldom acknowledged as part of the Durban experience. In John Pillay: Temple Sculptor, for instance, Andrew Verster describes a master craftsman of Hindu temple sculptures who lives quietly "in a house (now) caught between two blocks of flats, with a temple he built in the garden thirty years ago".
He tells of how, at seventy, Pillay is still quietly transforming cement into flesh, as he has always done, using the precise canons of proportion laid down for holy figures. He is in no hurry, this ordinary man creating images of the extraordinary. "In my next life there is time ...", he says.

And therein lies the special wonder that these thirty stories of Durban capture, the extraordinary behind the facade of the everyday ...

For more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:

Explore the extraordinary in Durban
Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail sabookworm@telkomsa.net with any queries.
To read more about the other titles in this series, or to order copies, click on these links:

Stories about Africa's Infamous City

Imagine Cape Town

Soweto as it really is

Wednesday, 6 February 2008


I thought all you book lovers would like to hear about an amazing new web-based innovation, especially as it's book related. Introducing (drum roll ...) the webinar. Yup, interactivity is being taken to the next level with the live online seminar.
In a ground-breaking first, Oprah.com and Penguin Books will be collaborating to bring readers across the world a free online seminar that will focus on Eckhart Tolle's latest book, A New Earth.
Tolle, whose legendary The Power of Now has been translated into 33 languages, will discuss this follow-up title with Oprah chapter-by-chapter over ten weeks, starting 3 March.
I'm generally cautious of books that cross the divide between self-development and spirituality because, let's face it, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. Still, those that do it well, like some by Deepak Chopra for instance, have an important and timeous message. Simply put, unless we can collectively find a way to transcend the ego-based consciousness on which our global socio-economic system is based, the consequences might just overwhelm us all.
Have your say on this and related issues on the webinar.
To find out more, watch Oprah's promotional video at http://www.oprah.com/index.jhtml, and pre-register to participate at http://www.oprah.com/obc_classic/webevent_registration.jsp.

For more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:
An exploration of consciousness

Sunday, 3 February 2008


With the Penguin Celebrations collection now widely available, I decided to get myself my own copy of Freakonomics, the cult contemporary classic by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. For one thing, who wouldn't want to own a book with such a great title?? For another, in re-reading it two years after its initial launch in 2005, I knew I would be reminded of the tremendous social value the so-called empirical sciences have to offer - if they're approached creatively and with a healthy dose of irreverence, that is.
By way of background, Steven Levitt is an award-winning young economist at the University of Chicago, who is known for his unconventional way of looking at some of society's most puzzling issues. He met his co-author, Stephen Dubner, when the latter interviewed him for the New York Times Magazine in 2003, and this book was born out of that meeting.
But what exactly is freakonomics? Well, it certainly isn't traditional economics; rather, it's a way of using the mathematical and statistical tools of the discipline to get to the hidden truths below many seemingly impenetrable social phenomena. Why for instance, do drug dealers so often still live at home with their Moms? What really is in a name? What makes the perfect parent? What causes the crime rate to drop, and what do the Klu Klux Klan and estate agents have in common?
This is the kind of free-ranging questioning that gets underneath so-called conventional wisdom, and often reveals how different the reality of a situation can be. Because, at the end of the day, numbers don't lie. This especially as economists work with existing sets of data and, by the nature of the subject, are unable to set up controlled experiments that might be tainted by conscious or unconscious bias.
Particularly relevant to South Africans are the chapters dealing with drug dealers and the 1990's drop in the US crime rate. Could there be a thing or two for us to learn here?
In the former instance, the sad truth is that drug cartels are run like big businesses, with the few at the top of the pyramid becoming exceptionally wealthy, but with those at the bottom of the pile often earning less than minimum wage. Surprisingly, the incentives to become a member of a drug gang, Levitt shows, nevertheless precisely mirror the incentives that see young people working long hours in junior corporate positions in the hope of some day becoming CEO.
There is the pull of the big bucks, of course, the status of making it to the top, and the social and economic benefits these obviously offer. And then there's the simple fact that, for many poor young Americans, drug dealing is the only occupation that offers any sort of promise beyond flipping burgers or stacking shelves. Sound familiar?
Interestingly, the conclusion that the authors fall short of making in this analysis is that, as long as a society is defined by wealth and status, and as long as legitimate access to the channels for achieving these objectives are closed to so many, crime in all its many manifestations can only remain intractable.
What then, does impact directly on the crime rate? In the case of the US, the authors put forward a startling hypothesis about the social impact of legal abortion, which needs to be read in full in order to be understood. More generally, there are three factors that are proven by economics to curb crime - a greater number of police officers, consistently censorius punishment, and innovative policing strategies.
In short, if you're going to stop criminals from doing what it is they do, you have to have sufficient well-paid, well-trained and motivated police to do the job. Secondly, punishment has to be certain enough and severe enough to act as a deterrent. And in case this has you raising your voice in favour of the re-introduction of the death penalty, sorry for that, as a friend of mine would say. Even in states in the US where the death penalty is still on the statute books, it is so seldom carried out as to have a statistically zero deterrent effect.
As I understand this, violent criminals are more likely to be deterred by mandatory prison sentences without the possibility of parole than by the remote possibility of receiving the death penalty - and the even more remote possibility of it actually being carried out.
Not that this means small and petty crimes should overlooked in the rush to get serious crime off the streets, although the authors challenge the "broken window" concept of crime management (based on prosecuting every offence, even the smallest), that was hailed as such a success in New York City. There are, after all, quantum physicists who would argue that every small crime or legal infraction cumulatively contributes to a single tipping point which, when reached, can lead to a precipitous decline into anarchy.
In a society such as ours, in which social and public services are stretched to the limit, perhaps the economic solution and, arguably, the course of right action, would be to begin imposing mandatory community service sentences for small and petty crimes. This would relieve the pressure on the courts and keep non-violent offenders out of the overcrowded prisons system, while simultaneously imposing appropriate sanction that would directly benefit the community.
Whichever way one sees issues like this, Freakonomics gets one thinking. It isn't bedtime reading, but it isn't dense either. So, if you have a Saturday afternoon to spare, and an enquiring mind to take for a walk, read this one.

For more about this book, or to order a copy, click here:

Freak out!

Editors and Webmasters: Interested in using this review in one of your publications or on your web site? Mail sabookworm@telkomsa.net with any queries.