Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alice LaPlante's Knockout Debut

Trust me, you will not be able to forget Dr. Jennifer White! This woman once excelled in her chosen field. As a renowned orthopedic surgeon who did not suffer fools gladly, she was a formidable presence in the OR, in the classroom, and even at home. She commanded respect and, no matter how brittle, she received love from her husband James, her kids Mark and Fiona, and a semblance of that complicated emotion from her best and only friend Amanda, a woman with whom she had a long-standing, prickly relationship, yet trusted with godparenting her children.

I speak of Dr. White in the past tense though Alice LaPlante presents Dr. White as the present tense narrator in her outstanding, unique, and yes, deeply disturbing debut novel, Turn of Mind. Dr. White suffers from early onset Alzheimers disease but is still able to live in her family home with a permanent care-giver as long as the money holds out and she behaves relatively well.

But readers learn, through Jennifer's stream of consciousness narration, that she is losing ground daily, a trait of early onset vs. the more dementia type alzheimer's which attacks later in life. What is sinister and devious about the disease is the roller coaster nature of conscious thought, capable of recalling exact details of long ago incidences yet unable to recognize Fiona or Mark when they come to visit. Her addled mind though, is still able to discern who means harm and who is caring or neutral in terms of her well being.

It's a remarkable, realistic, terrifying journey that LaPlante takes us on. The author's research into diseases of the brain must have been inordinately in-depth to create such a multi-faceted character, imperious, hard nosed, funny, and oh so sympathetic, even if we believe that she murdered her friend Amanda and surgically removed four fingers from one hand.

The police investigation of Amanda's death, with Dr. White at its core, is the ostensible subject of this book, but the subtext is what really keeps you reading late into the night. Family secrets are alluded to in snippets of Jennifer's memories, in the diary that visitors write in when they come so that Jennifer can keep a handle on her days, and in the tense conversations she often has with her troubled son Mark or with Fiona, who holds the purse strings.

LaPlante teaches creative writing at Stanford, no surprise there. She doles out clues, stirs in a few red herrings, throws us off the scent (though I managed to sniff it out), presenting us with a novel that's difficult to classify and all the better for that. It's a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, a character study, and a dysfunctional family drama, rolled into one knockout book. Unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice, it isn't really about the disease per se, though it still convinced me to run, not walk, to a lawyer and get that will updated.

Friday, October 28, 2011

When She Woke - Be Very Afraid

I was having such a love/hate relationship with this book that I almost cashed it in. I'm so glad that I didn't! Without a doubt, it's one of the most terrifying novels I've ever read. Though reviewers are saying it's supposed to be a modern day Scarlet Letter, I'm thinking that it's much more akin to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book, I might add, that can still give me nightmares twenty some years after reading it.

Hannah Payne (initials H.P. like Hester Prynne) awakens in a hospital ward/prison as a "red." She is under 24 hour video surveillance by anyone in the entire country who wants to witness her shame and tragically, like a reality TV show, people do.  She has been chromed.

You see, in the not too distant future - just imagine Rick Perry as your President - the United States (this particular novel begins in Texas) has become an evangelical Christian nation with laws that make Sharia look loosey goosey. The only problem is that the prisons are just too full and costly to maintain - sound familiar?
 Criminals are treated with a drug that changes the color of their skin to match their crime. Hannah has had an abortion and to add to that sin, she has refused to give up the name of her lover or the doctor who took mercy on her and performed the procedure. Her red skin is now the outward symbol of her treachery, putting her at the mercy of vigilante groups like The Fist who can monitor her every move through advanced gps technology.

In this eerie time in our nation women are relegated to being seen and not heard. Their education consists of mastering the domestic arts, sewing, cooking, and raising a family. Their opinions are not solicited and, if offered, are ignored. Over a few generations, a woman might not realize what she's lost. But Hannah, who spends a horrifying few weeks in a halfway house undergoing "enlightenment" treatment, meets other women, in particular a college educated woman named Kayla, who offers her  the possibility of another kind of life.

With the help of an underground railroad of activists called It's Personal, Hannah embarks upon a journey of self discovery, an awakening if you will, an arduous trip to safety and reversal treatment for her skin pigmentation.  The question is, will she have the moral courage to proceed?

I just realized that I haven't yet mentioned the outstanding young author of this incredible novel, Hillary Jordan, whose first book, Mudbound, received all kinds of kudos. I suspect that, with this second endeavor, she has cemented her position as another one of these talented young writers who will be producing glorious works of literature for years to come.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Europa Editions, You've Done it Again

My love affair with this publisher continues unabated as they persist in putting out the loveliest looking books from Europe's best, I would guess, mid-list authors. No slam bam James Pattersons for Europa, no sir. The latest of their impressive releases is Laurence Cosse's An Accident in August, an absolutely stunning examination of the effects of guilt on the human psyche.

AN Accident in August: A Novel

Like foreign films, these novels translated into English, are meant to be savored. They begin slowly and build gradually so that when you're hit between the eyes with the action it's shocking, unexpected and fabulous. This particular book would make a terrific movie. All the camera would have to do is follow Lou around for a week trained on her face. With the right actress for the role, the entire novel would be to told through her expressions.

Lou is a victim of Fate with a capitol F. At the wrong place, the entrance to the Alma tunnel in Paris, at the wrong time, the exact moment that Princess Di's Mercedes is barreling away from the hotel, her slow moving Fiat is clipped by the Mercedes as it rams out of control into a cement piling, resulting in the accident of the decade.
Lou is so stunned and shaken that she just continues to drive away, unaware of the famous victims she's abandoning in her wake, until the next morning, that is, when the media frenzy changes the direction of her life.

As Lou changes before our very eyes one wonders why her lover, Yvon, doesn't force her to unburden herself of the guilty load she's carrying. Cosse gets the reader inside Lou's head as she plots and schemes to cover her tracks and erase all evidence of her presence at the scene of the crash. One bad decision after another brought to my mind that old saying "oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive."

Cosse, whose A Novel Bookstore, I wrote about here last year, has outdone herself with this small but incisive character study that managed to shock me more than once by taking off in directions I never would have expected. This is a very satisfying read.

 I'm sorry that I can't say the same for the madly far-fetched novel, The Informationist, which I also finished this week.  Can someone who read this, Linda perhaps, tell me how early in the book you were able to surmise who the bad guy was? OK, admittedly, I stuck with it to its conclusion but Michael/Vanessa was without a doubt the most unbelievable character I've ever encountered in literature.

 I almost laughed out loud at some of the deadly predicaments she managed to fight, slash, and shoot her way out of. Shades of 007 abound and the willing suspension of disbelief is a requirement if you intend to hang with Taylor Stevens to the end of this debut thriller. But don't take my word as the be all and end all, the Amazon reviewers went mad for this novel, comparing Michael Vanessa Monroe to Lizbeth Salander and pre-ordering the follow up due out in December.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree....

...of Forgetfulness. Not that long ago I raved here on this blog about Alexandra Fuller's story of her African childhood and now she's going to force me to do it again! I read the new book about her mother, Nicola Fuller, in a record two days and, though I was fully prepared to be appalled at the arrogance of these people who go into Africa and expect to make it their own with no concern for the people whose lands they are adopting, I was surprised and pleased to discover that Tim and Nicola Fuller did finally come to terms with the new Africa and made their peace with black rule.

Ms. Fuller had to face her mother's wrath after she opened her family up to criticism in Don't Let's go to the Dogs.... Her mom continues to refer to it as "that AWFUL book." Yet, Ms. Fuller's respect and love for her mother's resilience glows from every page of her latest reminiscences. Some of the stories I remembered from the first book. I knew that Nicola Fuller suffered from extreme bouts of depression and mania that caused her to over imbibe in alcohol. I knew that she was tough on every one around her, including her husband, daughters, and servants. Still, she never expected more of any of them than she expected of herself.

Under the tree of forgetfulness the now grown up Alexandra questions her larger than life mother Nicola about her dreams and regrets. Nicola Fuller's Scottish family had settled in Kenya during colonial rule. Africa was in her blood from a very young age so that the prejudices that she developed over time had trickled down through generations and would require time to dispel. When she met the like-minded Tim there was no doubt that they would settle on a farm in Africa despite the hardships, of which there were plenty.

Besides being a book about her mother, this is also a clear, understandable, brief history of the end of colonialism in parts of Africa. As a land owner in the former Rhodesia, Ms. Fuller's father was drafted into the army, often gone fighting for months at a time while Nicola kept the kids, the cattle and the crops under control, fending off stray soldiers who wanted them off what they considered their land.

Rhodesia eventually gained independence, becoming Zimbabwe, but still the Fullers would not be moved. "People often ask why my parents haven't left Africa. Simply put, they have been possessed by the land. Land is Mum's love affair and it is Dad's religion," says Alexandra, and though she currently lives in the United States, one senses that she too is constantly struggling against the pull of that continent. She has penned a beautiful love story to her parents and to the land where humanity began, a place that has mesmerized explorers for better or worse for centuries.

As someone who's recently returned from Africa and from weeks of talking with native Africans and Afrikaners like our guides Henk or the gun toting Max whose families have also lived in Africa for generations, I've tried to put myself in their shoes. I love my home, my little piece of land that I've cultivated and made my own over the past nearly thirty years.

The question is, would I feel justified in fighting for it if I was suddenly confronted by the unfortunate truth that this land belonged to the Seminoles, who were pushed further and further into the Everglades by northern developers generations ago. Hmmmm - it gives one pause, does it not?

Friday, October 21, 2011


A five letter word so fraught with meaning that there are some who will refuse to even discuss it,  faith is a powerful thing. What does it conjure up for you? As a kid being raised a Catholic, if we entertained doubts about the catechism and dared to openly question it, we were simply told that we had to believe, it was a matter of faith. When you're eight or ten years old that might be a good enough answer but as you mature you might think that it just doesn't fly. Personally, I'd prefer to entertain faith in the innate goodness of my fellow man, though that's been taking a beating lately too!

As it does in Jennifer Haigh's outstanding new novel, Faith. You don't need to be a Catholic, recovering, former, or otherwise, to appreciate Ms. Haigh's examination of the pedophilia scandal that's been plaguing the church for the past century, but it certainly added to the sense of familiarity I had while reading. You see, my Irish family had a deeply troubled priest in our midst so this novel really hit home.

Arthur Breen is a wonderfully complicated character, a popular and by all accounts successful priest, practicing (you've got to love that word) in a south Boston parish where his days are filled with hospital visits, council meetings, and long, comfortable silences with his loyal housekeeper and cook, Fran. But beneath this tranquil surface run longings and doubts long held in abeyance that bubble to the surface when Fran begins to supervise her grandson after school.

In 2002 in the Boston archdiocese all hell broke loose when it was discovered that abuse of children was running rampant throughout the priesthood and was being covered up by those in authority. Suspicion and accusations abounded in a "his word against mine" atmosphere that was difficult to counter. But this isn't really what Haigh's novel is about as much as it is the catalyst for a heartbreaking novel about family secrets, a failure to communicate, and that word again, faith.

When Arthur is accused of molesting Fran's grandson it seems an outrageous lie, especially to his mother, steeped in the rigors of Catholic tradition, and his half sister Sheila, the one person with whom Arthur can normally be himself. But when Sheila rises to his defense Arthur withdraws even from her, planting seeds of doubt that will plague her conscience as she tells the story in flashbacks.

Every single character in Haigh's brave, tragic novel is so nuanced, so believable, that I felt I knew each one of them. Their motivations, actions and reactions make perfect sense and I love that she doesn't judge them or make caricatures of them. From Arthur's half-brother Michael, former tough guy who married up and made good, to his once bullying step-father, now suffering from dementia, to Aiden's mother Kath, a barely recovering addict wounded over and over by wrong men and wrong choices, Jennifer Haigh has penned a novel that cries out to be a movie with the scope of Mystic River.

I hope that my customers at the library feel the same way since we'll be discussing this novel in a few weeks as our 2011-2012 season gets into full swing. I'll also be tackling Ann Patchet's new book State of Wonder, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, and Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Small Hotel

One of those authors who's always been on my "to read" list is Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler. I'm glad that I didn't wait for retirement to get to him. Reviews, not to mention the cover, of A Small Hotel, beckoned to me. I finished it this morning and had to write immediately.

The Olivier House in New Orleans, room 306, has been a refuge for Kelly and Michael since their first encounter twenty years ago, a crazy Mardi Gras night when Kelly, disguised as Catwoman, strayed from her friends and wandered into a dangerous situation.
Michael could have come off as a caricature of the tall, dark stranger swooping in to rescue the damsel in distress but in Butler's capable hands it feels not only plausible but so right that he would take Kelly back to room 306 and offer to give her privacy for the evening until she regains a sense of safety and trust.

In fact, trust is a major player in this tight little novel of a relationship in which the words unsaid threaten to unravel the finely honed agreement between husband and wife, between father and daughter, that has been forged from one generation to the next. "I love you." Three little words fraught with meaning. Do we say them so often that they lose their power to convey their depth? Or do we withold the words to avoid losing ourselves in someone else?

Butler teaches creative writing at FSU, a coup for that university for sure! I read the first sentence of the book and was caught up in the pleasure of the words. "On the afternoon of the day when she fails to show up in a judge's chambers in Pensacola to finalize her divorce, Kelly Hays........" The entire novel will take place over the course of one evening in room 306 where Kelly will relive the highs and lows of her marriage to Michael, who is reliving the same, though he is in another hotel with another woman only fifty miles down the road.

This book, in only 239 pages, manages to beautifully convey the complications, the baggage we now call it, that we take from our childhoods, store away in our psyches, and unconciously unpack in our adulthood, thwarting our ability to make connections. When you think about it, it's a miracle that there are as many fulfilling relationships as there are out there and that we continue to try, in the face of daunting odds, proves the old adage that hope springs eternal. For more on Robert Olen Butler check out his website at

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Old Hippies Never Die.....

......I'll admit that my memories of that first march on Washington in the late '60's have become somewhat jumbled up in my head with other memories of DC, where I spent lots of time and lived for the summer between my junior and senior years of college. What I do remember is the sincerity with which my buddies and I drove to Falls Church that spring where we were to all camp out, girls upstairs, guys in the basement, at the home of one of my college chums. Her dad was a colonel, having served in Viet Nam and recently returned to the U.S. We were there to march in hopes of ending this deadly, unpopular war that was threatening to take our brothers, lovers, and friends.

We were terrified of Col. Hamblen - he seemed so formidable - but I think often of what an intuitive and sensible dad he was. His daughter was pretty headstrong - why tell her and her crew what they can't do? In stead he welcomed us to take his hospitality and to join the march - perhaps a little part of him agreed with us? On another visit he invited us to the Pentagon for lunch - obviously pre-Homeland Security. I found his impressive obituary the other day and understood a lot.

We thought we were being careful, sensing that we were a part of something so much greater than ourselves, a turning point. Until the tear gas began to roll over us from  up ahead. I can tell you that it only takes a second for panic to set in and chaos to reign.

Over the years I've been so fortunate to be able to travel to various dream destinations - dreams to me anyway - and it never seems to fail that I arrive just as something momentous is happening and I'm thrown back to the '60's and that pride that one feels for taking a stand. In Florence, in the middle of an anti-Bush rally, our tour company asked us to forgo the city as it wouldn't be safe for Americans. Andiamo, we replied, voting for Florence and maybe even to take up a banner!

In Paris a few years ago Don and I were out strolling one evening, drawn to the glorious sight of the illuminated tour Eiffel . As we neared we could hear low singing, chanting almost, and closer still, we saw hundreds of people with candles lit and swaying. You got it, a peace rally. C'est magnifique!

Athens? We arrived only a month after the worst rioting in years to see bank windows boarded up or taped, paint stains that had splattered the sidewalks. We spoke with locals who explained their anger to us and, as we generally do, we empathized with these people. The advent of the euro had not been the panacea the government had hoped for. The gap between the wealthy and the working poor was growing all too quickly.

So I wasn't even remotely surprised when we arrived in the Mpumalanga delta outside Nelspruit, South Africa, for our week long stay at a lovely lodge on acres of land basically in the middle of nowhere, to find that there would be no housekeeping service or food service that week as there was to be a strike! Yes! Right up my alley. I didn't need to ask why, (but of course Don did) you have to know how underpaid these workers are - I worked as a housekeeper myself back in the hard days. They were asking for a 50 rand per month increase, about $6.00. We wished them all the luck in the world.

Panorama Tour 1 054.JPG

All this was brought home to me the other day when I began to read about the movement Occupy Wall Street which is spreading across the country. My faith in Americans has been revitalized! I'm so happy that FINALLY someone is mad as hell and doesn't want to take it any more. I was working this past Saturday and will be for the next few but kudos to my buddies, my old hippies, who were in downtown Ft. Myers this weekend walking to Bank of America. I'll join you as soon as I can.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Enright's The Forgotten Waltz

Like a drug addict, book addicts have similar nightmares, that is, being somewhere without something to read! And so it was that, even though I had loaded my Nook with plenty of reading material, my deep seated fear of being without a book got to me. What if the battery life wasn't as long as advertised? What if our electrical adapter didn't work in the bush? I packed light, I'm getting really good at that, but what harm could it cause if I threw in just one paperback?

Thanks to my friend Jessica I had an autographed copy of Anne Enright's new book The Forgotten Waltz, so on a day of rest, when I needed respite from the heartbreak of The Warmth of Other Suns, I settled into another kind of heartbreak - relationships. Enright won a Booker Prize a few years ago so you know that the writing here is stellar. We settled in on our porch, periodically joined by the peacocks, Don making a spreadsheet of our expenses (thank goodness he enjoys that kind of thing!) and me to my novel. I couldn't put it down.

Cape Town Day 2, Sudwala 040.JPG

I've said this before and I have to say it again. How on earth do writers of distinction like Enright take the mundane happenings of anyone's everyday life and turn them into high drama, suspense, and raw, biting humor? How do they create characters so flawed yet so sympathetic? How do they take the "same old, same old" story of an affair and a divorce and elevate it to literature? I'm so envious!

Two sisters, Gina and Fiona, two men, Conor and Sean, both pairs as different in make up as any pair can be, are the central characters, but the heart of the story, the catalyst, is really Sean's strangely "different" daughter Evie. Because of Evie's misbehavior, because Gina needed to sneak away for a smoke, because Sean, too, was putting distance between himself and his wife Aileen, eyes met and an unspoken world of knowledge passed briefly between Aileen and Gina, then Gina and Sean.

It would be a few years before Gina and Sean would act upon their attraction, keeping the affair secret for as long as possible, but one knows these things don't often go unnoticed by those around us. What's interesting, in retrospect, is that the reader doesn't truly "get" the attraction between these two and at times Gina and Sean question it themselves. The more visceral feelings this reader got was for the discarded spouses, the innocent, almost puppy dog-like, loveable Conor, and the cold, suspicious, but knowing Aileen.

Their individual reactions as knowledge of the affair becomes clear are so palpably realistic that I shake my head in wonder. This novel is spot on in its depiction of a disintegrating marriage, the suspicions, the guilt, the crazy mad sex as Conor and Gina try desperately to recreate their initial attraction, then the unwinding of shared responsibilites, the house, the bank accounts, the families turning away in disappointment and disgust. It's all too sordid yet all too impeccably depicted.

Enright is brilliant! This novel is far from uplifting but, as literature goes, it's an inspiration.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson's ( National Book Critics Circle award winning book was the perfect companion piece to my tour of South Africa. The irony of the fact that sanctions were placed on South Africa's Apartheid regime (by most civilized countries but notably NOT by the United States), while our own citizens were suffering under the more sinister, unspoken rules of Jim Crow, was not lost on me.

 In fact, while I was drawn to and loved the quote from Richard Wright's Black Boy regarding the "warmth of other suns," I wondered toward the end of this phenomenal book whether or not Ms. Wilkerson was using the title sarcastically. The truth is that the families whose lives she scrupulously follows over a forty year time period were not welcomed with warmth as they migrated from the cotton fields of the south to the factories of the north. Because the prejudice was more nuanced than the do's and don't's of the south, they wounded even more deeply and were more difficult to navigate.

It's no mystery why Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. The Warmth of Other Suns reflects years of in-depth research yet there isn't a dry moment in this almost 600 page volume. For those who like to catagorize things, this is one of those "non-fiction that reads like fiction" type of books. It's one that needs to be read in sections and then put aside for a while for something lighter, then returned to. These stories are true and they're not easy to take.

How does one begin to tell the story of "America's great migration?" The subject matter is so enormous, the task of getting her mind around it must have been daunting. Ms. Wilkerson wisely chose to follow the lives of three disparate families as representatives of the whole, a theme that personalizes the struggle for readers the way no history book could. I'll admit to having had some  knowledge of the flight of black families from the south as my friend Don's mother was one of those who followed an aunt from Mississippi to Los Angeles, California in the late 30's.

George Swanson Starling's story was the most eye-opening for me. A citrus fruit picker from Eustis, Florida, George was an early activist for better pay for field workers and, with a couple of years of community college under his belt, was seen as "too big for his britches." He chafed under the harsh treatment he suffered and knew himself well enough to understand that he'd end up at the wrong end of a rope if he didn't escape. Harlem was his destination.
Florida, I'm sorry to say, has an abominable history of civil rights violations, lynchings, and burnings of whole towns, just read about Rosewood, yet it doesn't often suffer the stigma of the so-called deep south of say Alabama or Mississippi.

Ida Mae Gladney had family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but put down roots in Chicago where the South Side was becoming home to a future black middle class like Michelle Obama's parents. Dr. Robert Pershing, a surgeon good enough to operate on soldiers during WW II, but not able to touch a white patient in his own hometown, Monroe, Louisiana, endured the humiliation of the cross country drive to California without the respite of a bedroom or a bathroom along the way, only to find that LA would not greet him with open arms. It took him several years to achieve his goals and bring his wife and children west to join him in the land of mild and honey.

These families are not set up as gods but are portrayed with all the warmth and humanity of any family just trying to do better than the previous generation. They give honest interviews and Wilkerson does not shirk from illuminating their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are simply fellow Americans with all the foibles and nobility of each of us.

Please, do yourself a favor and delve into this incredible book. If we are ever to learn from our mistakes, avoid repeating a shameful piece of our history, or want to understand why some believe that reparations in the form of education or a leg up is due to the families of sharecroppers and former slaves, then books like Wilkerson's or Rebecca Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are must reading. It's easy to visit other countries and shake our collective heads at the rights violations that we see but it behooves us to remember that "he among us who is without sin can cast the first stone."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Day Like No Other!

Every once in a while you begin to feel your age and it really is so irritating, you know? I had planned this day for so long, knowing it would be a once in a lifetime deal (and it was), but make no mistake, I was not a happy camper with the weather! I’m in Africa, am I not? Where’s the heat?

Henk picked us up at 5AM for our trip to Skukuza Gate at Kruger Park. It’s a school holiday week here so he expected the lines to be long – they weren’t – and, because of the gray, drizzly, overcast, he told us we’d see a lot more animals – we did!
I’ll tell you that I’ve never been one for zoos or animal parks. I hated the circus as a kid, it terrified me, had a sinister feeling to it that I just couldn’t shake, and that watching Water for Elephants on the plane over here did nothing to dispel! Seeing caged or impaired movement in the animal kingdom goes against nature and causes me to be too depressed to enjoy it. Whenever I hear of an animal retaliating against its keeper I do a silent fist bump.
So it is with great joy that one experiences the animals in the wild in a paradise like Kruger, an animal refuge as large as the state of Israel. It’s difficult to comprehend. Even with an experienced guide like Henk your head is on a constant swivel, straining into the veld to catch a movement. One can only marvel at the creativity of mother nature and the way she shields her charges from harm, their coats of many colors blending so well with their surroundings and changing with the seasons.

An elusive Kudu spotted by Don. My  favorites, I thought were the giraffes until we spotted the herd of zebra!

But then how can you resist the Impalas who rove in large groups for protection, I’m sorry to say that mother nature has determined that they are the weakest link in the wild and are there to feed the more aggressive animals, in particular, the lions (of which we only spotted one elusive guy resting on a rock).

We left this area of the Kruger around 2 in the afternoon to meet up with a character right out of a novel. A rifle toting tracker, Magda, who prefers to be called Max, was to take us on the next leg of our day, to a private game reserve within Kruger where we would transfer to open top Land Rovers for a four hour game drive that would place us right in the middle of the animals’ territory. This was to be the highlight of our day – why oh why did it begin to rain with a vengeance? The temperature dropped to about 50 something and all I could think of were Ann’s last words to me as I left for vacation, “don’t come back sick.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Physical Beauty of South Africa

After a lay-a-bout day of rest we got up early for our first of two full days that we had booked with Henk and Lizelle Gous, an extremely hard working couple who run Sundowners Tours. Henk was oddly apologetic that some other people were going to be joining us but we were thrilled when we saw it was the four young women we had met the previous day as they rode horses through the compound. You could just tell right away that they were going to be fun!

What can I say about Henk? He’s been extremely helpful and professional with us but – if we were back in the States – we would not likely be friends. In Florida you’d refer to him as a “good old boy,” (God, Guns, Family) and he now and then slipped and let certain prejudices surface  “the Indians always do this, or Muslims are taking over.” Somehow it’s easier to ignore these comments  or try to understand where he's coming from but you can see that the rift the will always be here between the blacks and the Afrikaners, a divide that’s been hundreds of years in the making.
We took off on our Panorama Tour to see the beauty of the African countryside and found the beauty in our traveling companions as well, four single gals who work for the government pension office in Pretoria. Mathilde, especially, was so well-read and informed, that we learned more from her over the course of the day about the political situation here in SA and how young people see the future of their country than I think we had up to this point.

                                               In the meantime, Henk had the chance to share his obvious love and pride in his country and we got to see it through his eyes. Blyde River Canyon, a place that could pass for a miniature Grand Canyon, the Three Rondovals, a mountain range of mysterious formations, and God’s Window, a secret place where the clouds come down to cover the view one moment and retreat the next to reveal a breathtaking sight.

And yes, it was cold and cloudy! Who knew you’d be cold in Africa?

If there’s one thing that white and black agree on, sadly, it’s the massive corruption in the current South African government. How does a man like Jacob Zuma, who spent time as a political prisoner on Robben Island for speaking out for the underserved, end up ignoring them for his own enrichment? That’s a tough thing to swallow. How tragic to hear 35 year old Mathilde, a woman who must remember the horrors of Apartheid, posit that perhaps the country would be better off returning to it. What could she mean by that? Thankfully, I later chatted with Thulia, only ten years younger, who sees nothing but a positive, co-operative government in her future. My hope is with the young!

Wet and Wild Sudwala Welcome

Friday we vacated the understated luxury of An African Villa, for the puddle jumper that would take us up to Nelspruit and our week of rest at the Sudwala Lodge, a glorious piece of property about an hour from several gates to Kruger National Park. While waiting to board the plane in Joburg I noticed a woman in full black chador, nothing visible but her deep brown eyes and amazingly smooth young woman’s hands, engrossed in a dog eared paperback that I assumed (you know what they say about those who assume) was the Koran. What a laugh I had at myself when I found her sitting next to me on the flight. The book that had her so intent? Danielle Steel!

After grocery shopping, we’re in a self catering unit but there is a restaurant on premise, we settled in with Henk from Sundowners-Tours to plan our week. Yes, we wanted a safari in Sabie Sands and yes, we wanted a day in Kruger, but we also wanted to be sure that we could just sit around and read. Our chalet is about a half mile walk to the restaurant and, though it was pouring down a much needed rain, we set out for a hot meal. Sadly, the restaurant had closed, only a few staff members sitting outside waiting for their rides home.

As we began the return trek the thunder and lightning stepped up their commotion and suddenly we were thrust into utter darkness. Not a light to be seen anywhere throughout the compound. We had yet to reconnoiter or to remotely have familiarized ourselves with the grounds and I immediately went into full panic mode. Don, with the calm of a pilot who suddenly loses his instruments, found our way back by stopping, waiting for a lightning strike, and then walking until another one guided us safely home. We found out later than the emergency generator goes off at 10 pm. In other words, most folks should have been in bed, not out looking for food!

Speaking of food, and wine, or was I speaking of wine? Americans can do VERY well here with the exchange rate. On average,  80 rand = one U.S. dollar. We have yet to pay more than ten bucks for any meal and the food is outstanding everywhere we go. Wine? A normal bottle of the local pinotage, quite a bit stronger than our pinot noir grape, runs three to four dollars. A splurge might go as high as $7!

The windows here are all floor to ceiling wood framed glass, the roof is faux thatch because the baboons ate the real thatch roofs! They try very hard to give one an authentic feeling of being outdoors and within nature. They needn’t have worked so hard. This is what greeted us Saturday morning after our good night’s sleep Friday:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Deon Meyer's Cape Town

A very different picture emerges when you read the dark thrillers of Deon Meyer. He recently appeared at a reading festival in Cape Town which we missed by just a few days. That was a disappointment! Still, I had made sure to download at least one of his novels to have with me while visiting this city that seems to have a noir underbelly which is only alluded to by your shopkeepers and hoteliers.

Devil’s Peak is a tough read for those who may not have started at the beginning of the series. Benny Griessel is an Afrikaaner, an intuitively astute detective on the verge of collapse. He is a raging alcoholic and at the beginning of this story, he has been kicked out by his wife Anna and given an ultimatum, 6 months to get it together if he wants his job and family back. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling, devastating description of what goes on in the mind of a person whose only reason for existence is the next drop of alcohol.

There are two cases going on in the novel, one is being told in retrospect by Christine, a young, single mom who has turned to prostitution to support herself and her daughter Sonia. Her reasoning is clear-eyed and sensible but she didn’t bank on Carlos Santenegra, a proud drug baron whose possessiveness and jealousy moves him to begin stalking her, beating her other clients, and finally asking her to move into his Camps Bay compound where she’ll be monitored 24/7 by his henchmen.

On the other hand there is an ongoing situation involving a vigilante killer who employs an unusual weapon, an old-fashioned, assegai, warrior’s spear. Benny is in rehab, only 9 days sober, but has been assigned to head up this investigation, to resentful doubts from his co-workers. An additional concern is that many on the department believe that the murderer is doing the right thing, targeting pedophiles and baby killers whom the laws can’t seem to convict.

These two stories move toward each other at a compelling speed until you simply can’t put the book down. Underlying the traditional police procedural is Meyer’s nuanced take on post-Apartheid South Africa. He manages to show readers the tenuous truces that have been made between blacks, coloreds, and Afrikaaners while allowing his characters’ actions to also explicate the simmering resentments still there beneath the surface.

Cape Town - First Impressions

My first impression of Cape Town was that I could have been in any city in the United States - perhaps that’s why so many Americans who come to South Africa rave over its beauty. It better fits their comfort zone. For me, after Senegal and Joburg, I kept wondering, “where are the Africans?”

I soon found out. As we drove in from the airport our guide tried to avoid talking about the corrugated iron shanty towns that sit in the bowl of this glorious city surrounded by mountains and the sea. One million souls subsist in these places that are truly indescribable to someone who hasn’t seen them. No slum in the United States would look like this. It seems that, after the end of apartheid in the ‘90’s, the new government promised to build housing for all those who had been disenfranchised, but they couldn’t possibly provide housing for so many.

The majority of these people were denied an education or a means to make a living so, even in new housing, how would they provide food for their families? We’ve been told by various taxi drivers and guides so many tragic stories unknown to most of the world. In this case, people rented their new government provided homes in order to earn enough money to get by, continuing to live in the shacks.

On the waterfront, named ironically for previous oppressors of the African people, you can purchase souvenirs at the very finest name brand stores. You’ll also find Sotheby’s for real estate sales, Dior for fashion, and fine wines and beers. 100 yards away you may decide to board the catamaran that will take you to another world, Robben Island, home of political prisoners accused of treason by the apartheid government for “plotting” to take back their country.

Most readers will know the most famous prisoner held in cell #7, Nelson Mandela, and will be appalled at the size of the cell, the austerity and loneliness of the island, the bone chilling cold, a wind that never rests, the work in the mines and the cruelty that segregated even the prisoners into blacks and others. Blacks received fewer grams of food. More horrific than what you see on Robben Island is the fact that you are being lead on your tour by former prisoners.

Our guide told about the time the world finally received news that people were being mistreated here. A delegation of journalists were sent by the BBC to verify the reports. Prisoners who were formerly clothed in ragged shorts, not even underwear or socks, were given warm, full length farmer’s jeans and jackets to wear for the photo shoot. The second it was over, so was their comfort.

Yes, I am getting an education. As I’ve written previously, this is why one travels. But please, don’t think it is all so horribly depressing. It has been an eye-opening adventure, the best of which is the people we have met. All Don has to do is ask an open ended question of a cabbie, a tour guide, a person sitting next to us on a boat or bus and it’s fabulous! It’s like speaking to living encyclopedias. We share, we spar, and we understand another’s point of view. At the end of the day, we sit over our wine and meal , discussing what we’ve discovered, what we didn’t expect, what was a revelation and we marvel at all that we have in common with the rest of the world.

We are now spending a week unconnected to the world, no phone, no Internet, just days of listening to the wildlife and reading. Wait until I tell you about today!!