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Wed Apr 16 06:16:50 SAST 2014

SA's best reads of 2010

Andrew Donaldson | 20 December, 2010 22:200 Comments

Selected by employees and critics at The Times, and compiled by Andrew Donaldson

The Times of London described it as "absolutely brilliant". Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Galgut's intense and acclaimed triptych - a collection, if you will, of three novellas - has drawn the inevitable comparisons with JM Coetzee, but Galgut's really is a unique and original voice in South African fiction. In the stories here, a young man embarks upon a series of journeys, through Greece, India and Africa, in a search for love, identity and home.

CONVERSATIONS WITH MYSELF, Nelson Mandela (Macmillan)

Gathered from unpublished writings, diary entries and correspondence in a seemingly raw and unmediated manner, Conversations gave us the most moving and intimate portrait of the former president. Certainly, it refreshed parts that A Long Walk to Freedom failed to reach. Though Mandela took great care to mask his emotions and feelings, his letters to his wife and children reveal a loneliness and isolation that is utterly heartbreaking.

TELLING TIMES: WRITING AND LIVING, 1950 - 2010, Nadine Gordimer (Bloomsbury)

A companion of sorts to Life Times, an anthology of her best short fiction, this hefty volume gathers up a half-century of non-fiction and reveals Gordimer's life as a moral activist, political visionary and literary icon. The range of this book is staggering, and stretches back to the dying days of colonial rule to the present-day conflicts of HIV/Aids, xenophobia and globalisation. Throughout all this, of course, was the scourge of racism and apartheid, and it is Gordimer's brave and commendable engagement with the Nationalist government and the order it sought to impose upon us that particularly enthrall.

SUMMERTIME, JM Coetzee (Vintage)

Completing the trilogy of "memoirs" that began with Boy and Youth, Summertime is a story about a young biographer working on a book about a dead writer, John Coetzee, by focusing on the 1970s when the awkward and bookish Coetzee was finding his feet as a writer. So the biographer interviews a married woman with whom he had an affair, a favourite cousin, a dancer whose daughter was taught English by Coetzee, as well as other colleagues and friends. Praised as edgy, black, remorselessly human, Summertime was also humorous and offbeat, even wacky a portrait of the artist as outsider.

WAKE UP DEAD, Roger Smith (Serpent's Tail)

Smith has been called the Tarantino of South African crime fiction, but this is nonsense. Tarantino is an old maid, a boring gasbag, too wordy by half, when compared to Smith, whose crackerjack narratives (this is his second novel) don't so much drag you through a Cape Town that the tourist brochures don't mention as just kick you from one end of the story to the other. Here's the first line: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore." And it takes off from there like a rocket. Very, very noir.


It was, to say the least, a difficult time. There were bombings, assassinations, massacres. Inkatha was prepared to go to war for KwaZulu-Natal, ditto the white right for a Volkstaat. As an independent election monitor, lawyer Harris was in the right place at the right time to witness the unfolding drama as the country seemingly tottered on the brink of disaster in the days before the first democratic election. It is his skill as a writer, though, that makes this book such a class act. Business Day observed: "Being in the right place at the right time is good fortune; bringing it to life in a page-turner bound to win a literary award takes immense skill."

THIRTEEN HOURS, Deon Meyer (Hodder & Stoughton)

Meyer is die grootbaas of local police procedurals. His protagonist, Detective Inspector Benny Griessel, now enjoying his second outing, might come with the overly familiar cop thriller baggage - a problem with alcohol, hassles with the wife, at odds with his superiors. The uniquely South African political baggage and the enduring difficulties with transformation might also seem a little worn. But any doubts about Meyer's story-telling skills are soon swept aside in this gripping saga. A bloody good read.


Beresford, a correspondent of the Guardian, had wanted to write about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but what emerged instead was an apparently haphazard collection of what he described as "curiosities, ruminations, observations, anecdotes, snatches of remembered dialogue, letters, and stories" from 1960 to 1994, the years of the commission's remit. The most moving is that of the "station bomber", John Harris, hanged in 1965. Despite initial irritations - an index and chapter headings would have been helpful - the book presents a disturbing portrait of the country.


In November 2007, Fred van der Vyver was acquitted of the murder in 2005 of his girlfriend, Inge Lotz. The killing and the subsequent trial had transfixed the public. Initially, it seemed that the police had a strong case against Van der Vyver. But, as it turned out, it was all fraudulent; he was framed by the cops. In his detailed dissection of this trial, criminologist Altbeker grapples with the difficulty of building a decent criminal justice system from the ashes of its apartheid predecessor. At the same time, though, his book examines notions of identity, change, religion and culture within the broader Afrikaans community. A vital, important book.

THE WAR FOR SOUTH AFRICA: THE ANGLO-BOER WAR, 1899 - 1902, Bill Nasson (Tafelberg)

Nasson is an academic with a novelist's deft touch. His battle scenes are startling and vivid. This is a highly accessible revisiting of the Anglo-Boer War that has a lot to offer, both for those wanting an introduction to the conflict that shaped the modern South Africa and those buffs who are seeking new interpretations of the war. Nasson leaves it open as to whether the British won the war or the Boers lost it, but does provide a telling analysis of what one reviewer termed "the war's victimology and the poisonous nationalism it subsequently served" - even now, in a post-apartheid society. A fascinating study.


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