Tuesday, 16 December 2008


At last 16 December has arrived, marking an end to the lunacy of the last few weeks of the working year, and ushering in the long, lazy days of the summer holidays. Finally we can all take to our hammocks (or beach chairs or pool loungers or overstuffed couches, as the case may be) with that pile of books we've been dying to read, but simply haven't had the chance to look at yet.
The pile I've been collecting lately would surely flatten a 4x4 if it fell over (and maybe that's good enough reason to give it a push!), so I won't get to them all, but here are some of the titles that have caught my eye this summer:
Hot, Flat and Crowded
by Thomas Friedman
Alan Lane Publishers
What the publishers say: The World Is Flat (this book's predecessor) has helped millions of readers to see globalization in a new way. Now Thomas Friedman brings a fresh look at the crises of destabilizing climate change and rising competition for energy - both of which could poison our world if we do not act quickly and collectively. His argument speaks to all who are concerned about the state of the world in the global future.
Friedman proposes that an ambitious national strategy - which he calls 'Geo-Greenism' - is not only what we need to save the planet from overheating; it is what we need to make us all healthier, richer, more innovative, more productive, and more secure.
As in The World Is Flat, he explains a new era - the Energy-Climate era - through an illuminating account of recent events. He sets out the clean-technology breakthroughs the world will need; he shows that the ET (Energy Technology) revolution will be both transformative and disruptive; and he explains why America must lead this revolution - with the first Green President and a Green New Deal, spurred by the Greenest Generation.
Hot, Flat and Crowded is classic Thomas L. Friedman - fearless, incisive, forward-looking, and rich in surprising common sense about the world we live in today.
What the bookworm thinks: After torturing myself through about two-thirds of this book, I decided to stop short of the final section. Never before have I felt so ideologically at odds with someone writing about green issues. It's not that the issues aren't precipitously valid, or that some of the solutions Friedman proposes to climate change, overpopulation et al don't make a helluva lot of sense. It's the socio-political framework of his argument that I can't agree with and which, in fact, not only wore me down, but detracted from what was pertinent about his message.
It was Einstein who said that problems can't be solved using the same thinking with which they were created, and yet Friedman can't move beyond his Western capitalist world view, despite the increasingly desperate social, economic and ecological situation we find ourselves in.
His position is predictable: capitalism will save the day, and America will lead the way. Blinded to the fact that capitalism is ... um ... at the heart of all levels of the crisis we are currently facing, that there are other models to consider and other people's voices to listen to, and that the USA's cultural, economic and military imperialism is the single most significant driver behind global terrorism today, he sticks to the orthodoxy.
So, basically, read this book and weep. Friedman outlines some creative strategies that could gainfully be used in a transition period between what we have now and a new way of living sustainably and peacefully on the planet, but don't expect anything other than the established ideology from him. And I don't think that's enough.
Note to self: Don't forget to mention that:
  • Friedman's central metaphor - that the world is flat - is meant to communicate the "equalizing power" of technology that, in his view, enables more people to "plug, play, compete, connect and collaborate with more equal power than ever before". While that may be true from a developed world perspective, nothing could be further off the mark if the whole world is taken into account. On that broad canvas, technology and access to technology is the dividing line in the new 21st century class system, separating those who are "wired" from the "serf class" of those whose access to technology remains largely or absolutely limited by poverty, infrastructure limitations and a whole host of other factors. Again, this is an example of the very definite lens through which this author views his subject.
  • The World is Flat, Friedman's first book on this subject, was awarded the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award when it was published. 'Nuff said.
  • It's a well-established capitalist strategy to colonise ideas and actions that are critical of the system - that's how Che Guevara's face ends up on T-shirts for sale all over the world or "green" becomes a business strategy. This, I believe, is exactly what Friedman has done in these two books.
  • If readers would like an independent take on "green" and other issues - by writers who aren't fundamentally part of the system that created the problem - they might like to have a look at the New Internationalist's superb series of No-Nonsense Guides.
Playing the Enemy
John Carlin
Atlantic Books
What the publishers say: 24 June 1995. Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The Springboks versus The All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final. Nelson Mandela steps onto the pitch wearing a Springbok jersey and, before a global audience of millions, a new country is born. This book tells the incredible story of the journey to that moment.
As the Springboks faced New Zealand's mighty All Blacks, more was at stake than a sporting trophy. And, when Nelson Mandela appeared wearing a Springbok jersey, and led the all-white Afrikaner-dominated team in singing South Africa's new national anthem, he conquered white South Africa.
Playing the Enemy tells the story of what lead up to that moment, and what made it possible. It shows how a sport, once the preserve of South Africa's Afrikaans-speaking minority, came to unify the new rainbow nation, and tells of how - just occasionally - something as simple as a game really can help people to rise above themselves and see beyond their differences.
What the bookworm thinks: I've been to two rugby matches in my life; the first a compulsory weekend match at a brother school in the 1970's, and the second the World Cup final of 1995. I don't intend to go to any more rugby matches if I can help it, but that World Cup was a once-in-lifetime experience I'll always remember.
Not only was it a demonstration of Nelson Mandela's extraordinary statesmanship, but it was a potent symbol of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the ancestral homeland of Ubuntu (African humanism), and the birthplace of Satyagraha (Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence), Mandela showed that there can - and should - be unity in diversity.
Our recent history has shown that it was a glorious, fleeting moment, but we know we're capable of it, and that's what matters. Perhaps we can get back there ...
Garden of My Ancestors
Bridget Hilton-Barber
Penguin Books
What the publishers say: Sex, drugs and gardening. That’s the spirit of Garden of My Ancestors, a story about a family farm set in the wild and misty reaches of Limpopo province.
The farm belongs to an infamous family whose ancestors settled here more than a century ago. This is no tedious or anguished account of stoic, hard-nosed colonials, however. This is the tale of a wild and wonderful family, an African tale in which White Mischief meets magic realism.
Set in an incredible garden against ancient mountains that change every day, Garden of My Ancestors is sad, tragic, funny and philosophical – and an evocative testament to the healing powers of gardening.
What the bookworm thinks: This book, which is the one I'm reading at the moment, is a pleasant read, if sometimes confusing and a little difficult to follow. It's also unfortunately laid out in conference-style square paragraphs rather than the traditional text format usually used in books and newspapers, which further detracts from the narrative for me.
On a visceral level, it leaves me feeling like a "kaalvoet klonkie" that has mistakenly - and for the first time - stumbled across a softly-lit fantasy palace on a warm summer evening, and who is standing secretly in the dark garden, gazing in on a strange and unattainable world.
So different is Barber's experience of her childhood in South Africa from my own that this book affirms something I've often tried to explain to others, without much success - that white South African experience is not homogeneous.
That, of course, is why all of our stories need to be told, so that the old, false divisions can be seen for what they are, and the true diversity of our history and our current experience can be known.
Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Tycoons
Max du Preez
Zebra Press
What the publishers say: This title (the sequel to Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets) is a collection of more colourful, fascinating – and mostly unknown – characters, spanning more than three hundred years of South African history.
There are stories of slaves, lively Khoisan characters, and the first Muslim "Cape Malays". And the tale of the Xhosa prophet Makhanda, who nearly succeeded in taking Grahamstown from the British in 1819, and who later escaped from Robben Island, will take most readers by surprise.
Also covered are the Foster gang of Johannesburg, who were indirectly responsible for the killing of Boer hero Koos de la Rey; David Pratt, the man who shot Hendrik Verwoerd in the head at the Rand Easter Show; and the three men who pulled off the biggest jewellery heist of the time, stealing Bridget Oppenheimer's jewellery in 1956. And there’s the sensational and previously unknown story of how a right-wing attack using small aeroplanes at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994 was thwarted at the last moment.
What the bookworm thinks: I have enormous respect for Max du Preez as a journalist, and look forward to reading these stories, in which he turns his eye on some of the lesser known aspects of our history. For me, it's part of the process of bringing to light all the untold records of our past, so that we can have a better understanding of where we come from and who we are as a people.
History, as the saying goes, is the account of the victors. In books like these, though, the more subtle layers of humanity below the victor's version begin to be known, and there could be no more important archaeological undertaking than uncovering them.
Of particular interest is the summary of South African history at the back of the book, which contextualises colonisation and apartheid, and records important events that were all but expunged from history under the apartheid government. As always, du Preez brings history and current affairs to us in an accessible, understandable way.
The Orange Trees of Baghdad
Leilah Nadir
Scribe Publishers
What the publishers say: Born to an Iraqi-Christian father and a British mother, and raised in Britain and Canada, Leilah Nadir has never set foot on Iraqi soil. Distanced from her Iraqi roots by emigration, and now cut off by war, the closest link she has to the nation is through her father, who left Baghdad in the 1960s to pursue his studies in England. His Iraq is of mythical origins; his beginnings are in a garden at the family home that now stands vacant.
Through her father's memories, Leilah recounts her family's lost story, from Iraq at the turn of the twentieth century during the British occupation, to the Iraq-Iran War and the Gulf War. Through her cousins still living in Baghdad, she experiences the thunderous explosions of the present-day conflict.
Then Leilah's friend, award-winning photographer Farah Nosh, brings home news of Leilah's family after her visits to Iraq, as well as stunning photos of civilians and their tragic stories. The Orange Trees of Baghdad is at once harrowing, touching and painfully human. It is an unforgettable debut.
What the bookworm thinks: I'm always fascinated by debut books; by an author's first turn on the dance floor of the written word, and look forward to retiring to my hammock with this one. The title is evocative of a landscape now lost under Humvees, tanks and car bombs; of the Byzantine Empire - its magic not lost, but now holed up in small enclaves and carefully-guarded cultural rituals.
And this exploration of an individual's lost history is the perfect foil for Hilton-Barber's book and Max du Preez's stories.

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