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Lover of literature and reviewer of books. Happiest where the words are.

17 Feb 2018

Review: From Here to Eternity by Cailtin Doughty

Through her book, Caitlin Doughty raises a valid point which I’d never before considered – humans have vastly different views on death and death practices, spanning across cultures, geographies and time. From here to Eternity seeks not only to illuminate a few of the differing practices surrounding death, but to understand why the topic of death elicits such a variety of responses, when we all must succumb to it regardless of beliefs.

A mortician by trade, Doughty travelled the world to understand what death means to others. In her homeland of America, where funerals are among the most expensive in the world, traditional funeral pyres and not so traditional attempts at human composting are discussed. Doughty visits Indonesia, where corpses are mummified over time and treated as one of the family despite no pulse. Mexico’s Dias de los Muertos festivals honouring death are visited. Spain’s attempts at making death ‘green’ feature along with Japan’s culture of suicide and highest cremation rate in the world. Finally, we’re taken to Bolivia, where skulls are venerated without their bodies. In short, From Here to Eternity chases death, in a hope to understand it, and what a journey it is.

Caitlin Doughty has an easy yet respectful humour, which together with her informative yet conversational tone make the book not only easy to read, but highly enjoyable. In addition, there are beautiful illustrations which serve to emphasise certain points, which give the book an entirely relaxed, artistic feel. Far from a macabre fascination with death and dying, this is an intelligent look at how funeral practices, mourning and death itself differ radically across the globe, and an explanation of some of the reasons behind this.

From Here to Eternity is intriguing, directly asking the questions many find taboo, yet all must face when their time comes. A phenomenon as natural and unavoidable as birth, death is just another part of the great adventure of life, and Doughty emphasizes that we do not need to fear or shy away from it.

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Books, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

12 Feb 2018

Review: Under Glass by Claire Robertson

Mrs Chetwyn arrived in Africa with her young daughter amid a storm. Her husband went ahead, and while she fears they may not reach the shore, he hunts. Once safely ashore in Natal, she began the arduous journey of making a life in a foreign country. Chetwyn was promised assistance from his father, yet the couple soon discovers that any land which they purchase will belong to them only if they produce an heir. Yet Mrs Chetwyn’s second and third pregnancies produce girls.

Determined to try again for the security of the family, Mrs Chetwyn becomes pregnant once more. Cosmo, the fifth child of the pair, was the answer to their prayers – a son to whom the land could be left; a savior of the family, arriving at precisely the right time. Surrounded by the women in his family, he is a prized possession, with both his person and the weight balanced precariously upon his shoulders watched and guarded obsessively.

As Cosmo grows, so does his responsibility as sole son and heir. All the while, the family’s farm flourishes, and Mrs Chetwyn’s garden, gifted to her in unknown seeds by an enthusiastic botanist, becomes her sole escape and private sanctuary.

I was almost weary of reading Under Glass, for colonial-era literature can be tricky to navigate, the waters surrounding the topic both muddy and deep, yet Claire Robertson avoids all the usual pitfalls of literature of this type. Her focus on language and race is only as a foundation for an enchanting story, and not a focus point that dwarfs the plot. The plot itself is akin to the specimens in Mrs Chetwyn’s garden – multifaceted and eager to unfurl as petals on an exotic plant. Robertson has a talent for presenting the unexpected, and for shepherding the reader into a world beyond their own.

Under Glass is unpredictable, poetic, and deeply thrilling. It is a story of more than new beginnings and the family which casts them – it breaks borders between loves won and lost, secrets hidden and revealed, and circumstances beyond one’s control. A worthy read for any literary fan, Under Glass will find a home on any shelf, and certainly be cherished there.

Under Glass by Claire Robertson is published by Umuzi, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa.

31 Jan 2018

Review: Recovery by Russell Brand

Russell Brand has made a serious effort to redefine what an addict is – no longer simply a drug user or alcoholic, he insists that ‘addiction’ can cover any behaviors which can be detrimental to our well-being. Thus, it can include social media use, poor relationship choices, or the obsessive desire to be more and do more before we are happy with ourselves; to be workaholics or narcissistic. Once you see addiction through this lens, it becomes evident that the world we live in is geared towards addiction, and that we may all be affected more than we suspect.

I may not be addicted to hard drugs or alcohol, but upon reading Recovery, I realized that there were many aspects of my life that could be improved using The Twelve Steps, particularly as Brand explains them. As Brand admits, many people see the programme as having religious connotations, or being exclusive, and so prevent themselves from participating in activities that could lead to their recovery. I thought much the same. However, Brand (as an unreligious person in the traditional sense) points out that, as problems differ for each person, so too does our concept of a higher power, or what it means to make amends, or how we go about helping others.

Brand’s key explanation, as I understood it, is that we are all connected through this experience that is life, and would all do well to be mindful, to give and receive love, and to work towards helping others, in order to better our own experience. This is both noble and inspiring. The world could certainly do with more love and acceptance, and this does not need to be dictated by your status or your religion, simply by your desire to be your best self, and to help others achieve the same goal.

Brand does a great job of writing about the programme, and not his addiction – while he gives examples for context, there are no morbid details of past horrors, which I admire. This gives the book a decidedly adult feel, and clearly exhibits Brand’s desire to help others while working on his own narcissism – he avoids the easy route of celebrity tell-all, and provides instead a meaningful experience to be shared.

Undoubtedly Russell Brand has his faults (as we all do) and he is gracious enough to admit this himself, but his willingness to help others, and his patience in doing so are clear and heartfelt. While it directly discusses the Twelve Step Programme in detail, it can also be read – as I did – as a general guide to living a fulfilling, peaceful life. So even if you think you have no addictions, give it a read. You may learn something wonderful.

Recovery by Russell Brand is published by Pan Macmillan

23 Jan 2018

Review: How to be Human by New Scientist

How to be Human is officially the ultimate learning experience. Think textbook, but you’ll actually want to read it. Mind-blowing is perhaps the easiest way to describe the adventure that is this book. The sheer level of expertise, evident through the meticulous research and many contributing writers (each specialists in their field) make it sexy. New Scientist has done a great job of compiling their best articles on human nature, biology and society into a single, beautiful collection.

Learning has never looked this good, seriously. Each chapter features articles concerning a wide range of topics from why our minds wonder, to the pheromones that make us attractive to others, the reason we form habits, and why we show emotions. Ever wondered why we cry, dream, lie or show empathy? Read this and find out. Similarly, prepare to discover the working behind introverts and extroverts, and the subtle differences in brain mechanics and chemistry between the genders. Basically, human beings are extraordinarily complex beings riddled with mysteries. Yet this book exposes myths about society, explains social aspects you’ve always wondered about, and expertly makes sense of previously unknown and oft-pondered questions of what makes us us. For every random question you’ve ever wondered about your brain and body – including those deep shower thoughts – here is an answer.

Mesmerizing facts and information aside, the style of the writing in How to be Human is equally attractive. Filled with witty banter and sly humour, the writers certainly make facts fun.

Go on, learn something, demystify your life, and impress (or annoy, there’s a thin line) others with a myriad facts about why and how we do what we do.

How to be Human by New Scientist is published by Hachette Books, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

4 Jan 2018

Review: Mythos by Stephen Fry

You want to read this book. This way, you’ll be regaled by tales of the gods, through the creation of the world (over, under, and terra firma). You’ll get that pesky who’s your daddy stuff down pat (hint: it’s nearly always Zeus), get the chronology of the three orders of gods right (note: Aphrodite is the oldest of the Olympians) and have a damn good time doing it. You’ll struggle not to read everything in Stephen Fry’s voice, but let’s be honest, that’s not at all a bad thing. 

Intricate, detailed, and humourous, these are the Greek myths as you've never seen them before.

Mythos was such a great adventure into the many possible explanations of life, the universe and everything, and yet it was strangely comforting. Here, you learn one version of how man came to be, through being sculpted in clay and brought to life, only to have their creator suffer, horrors unleashed by the first human female, and later an almighty flood which aimed to wipe us all out entirely. In addition, there’s the constant theme of Zeus’ lusty and often hilarious conquests. Mythos has a little bit of everything, literally. The correlation with many current religious beliefs inspires a sense of pride in humanity’s power to tell tales, especially the seemingly unbelievable great ones.

If you’ve ever been a fan of Stephen Fry, you already know that he gives a sassy, intellectual feel to anything he discusses. No different here. Mythos is an arresting read, filled with witty jokes, banter, and surprisingly honest yet thorough footnotes. Fry has an ability to make ancient history feel contemporary, exciting and sexy. Bet you never thought you’d read a sentence like that, eh? The eternal applicability and relatability of Greek myths is perhaps what makes them stand the test of time, seemingly always relevant, with worthwhile moral stories, to boot. Yet Fry’s take on these well-known myths goes a step further; you want to continue reading. If only classes taught about Zeus and his many lusty adventures from a source as delightful as this book. In case I am being too subtle, I call for my old Classics teacher at varisty and his brethren to include this book in their syllabus.

I dare you not to love all things (Greek) mythological after reading this.

Mythos by Stephen Fry is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House.