Reading highlights of 2011

2011-11-23 00:00

THIS week, we are starting our annual look at what some of our reviewers have been enjoying during their 2011 reading year.

They were given a length limit, but if one book really blew them away, they could give it all to that, or squeeze in a few more.

The mixture – old books, new books, fiction, non-fiction, local and overseas – is always fascinating, and let’s hope it will give you some ideas for your holiday reading, and your present buying. Interestingly, a couple of the books feature in more than one list, and that must say something. More to follow.


Anthony Stidolph

If any modern singer and musician ever insisted on doing it his way, Bob Dylan deserves first place honours. One of rock music’s few genuine geniuses, he has, in a career which has now spanned five decades, mercurially continued to shift gears, always managing to remain a leader not a follower, despite an iconoclastic refusal to conform to his fans often irrational expectations of him.

While his prodigious output has often varied in content and quality, it also contains a huge amount of extraordinary music stunning in its originality and easy grasp of a variety of forms.

Encapsulating the life of such a prolific talent was never going to be easy but British author Clinton Heylin manages to do just that in his highly praised biography, Behind the Shades, first published in 1991 and now in its 20th Anniversary Edition. Completely revised and updated and including 60 000 words of new material it offers a frank and utterly fascinating portrait of the man who single-handedly changed the course of rock ‘n roll.


Stephanie Saville

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh was one of my best reads. Not usually a great fan of American books, I loved it for being off-beat and unconventional. The story follows Victoria Jones, an unwanted child who grew up in a series of unsuccessful foster situations and children’s homes. The book charts her journey to self acceptance and self forgiveness and if it’s a little sentimental at times, that’s okay. Victoria knows little about human relationships, but is well versed in flowers and the language they represent, a forgotten code from Victorian days.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern which I have recently finished. It will be a wonderful Christmas present which will transport the happy recipient to magical places and mystical situations. Very entertaining and with a good story line, The Night Circus tells of a late 19th Century circus at which strange feats and spectacular illusions play out amidst human drama and riveting action. Unputdownable.

Another great read this year which was not a new book was the Diary of Cynthia Asquith (1915-1918). She was a socialite, author and in later life personal assistant to J.M. Barrie. Her edited diaries provide a wonderful window into a period in her life. I was enchanted by her.


Moira Lovell

Of the books I have reviewed this year, the most striking is Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, which tells of a three-week sea voyage from Sri Lanka to England made in 1954 by the 11-year-old narrator-protagonist, Michael. The experiences the boy has, both with his contemporaries and with a miscellany of adults, notably a notorious prisoner, profoundly affect his development and influence his future. Ondaatje combines humour and pathos in a compelling novel.

Among local publications I would highlight Wessel Ebersohn’s The Classifier, set in the 1970s in Natal. The novel deals with the illicit love, at the height of Apartheid, between a young white Afrikaner and a Coloured girl. The situation is compounded by the fact that the boy’s father is committed to the policies of segregation and wields power as the provincial head of the Race Classification office. Ebersohn has written a heartbreaking story of a heartless time.

Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter is a moving account, based largely on her diaries, of her meeting with, and marriage to, British playwright and Nobel laureate, Harold Pinter, who died in 2008. Fraser writes of the feverish work in a household shared by a writer of historical biography and a playwright-director-actor; of their lives among thespians, politicians and the literati; of Pinter’s final illness; of a relationship of deep mutual love and respect.


Stephen Coan

Thinking back over the reads of the year the book that immediately springs to mind is Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s follow up to Seabiscuit: An American Legend. A human not a horse – the seemingly immortal Louie Zamperini – is her subject here and the result is equally unputdownable. Born in 1917, Zamperini’s meteroric athletic career was cut short by World War Two. After joining the U.S. air force, he flew missions in the Pacific where, in 1943, he and his crew were forced to ditch in the ocean. Zamperini and two surviving crew members took to life rafts and over 47 days fought thirst, starvation, and sharks. Worse was to come in captivity under the Japanese. There’s more to follow post-war but Hillenbrand’s brilliant rendering of the nightmare ordeal of the downed fliers in the ocean makes her book worth the price of admission alone.

Otherwise it’s been a thin year for contemporary reads which is why my other stand-out is Antony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time – a sequence of 12 novels written between 1951 and 1975 in which Powell’s narrator follows the fortunes of a group of characters from youth to age as they navigate the changing mores of high society, politics and the arts from before World War One through to the Seventies. A brilliantly observed human comedy.


Maragret von Klemperer

Top of my list has to be the wonderful The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It is several things: the story of a family of originally Russian Jews through the turbulent 20th Century in Europe and beyond; a history lesson and, above all, an intelligent meditation on the meaning of ownership of beautiful objects. Moving and brilliant.

Then a photo finish between Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam, the magical tale of epileptic, damaged Zan and her nerdy nephew Henk, and Michiel Heyns’s Lost Ground, part detective story, part homecoming tale, part state of the nation novel – richly entertaining, genuinely shocking and a real page-turner.

And to end, a great love story. Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go, her memoir of her love affair with and marriage to Harold Pinter. Two public people who survived intrusive publicity to develop a profound and moving relationship. Beautifully written and compelling.


Safoora Ebrahim Motala

James Patterson has had more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer, ever, according to Guinness World Records. Exclusively for World Book Day, this year James Patterson brought his unique story telling gift to the Quick Reads scheme. Bloody Valentine tells the story of Mega rich restaurant owner Jack Barnes and his second wife Zee. Their plans for Valentine’s Day are about to be torn apart by the most violent murder.

Another great read is Roslund and Hellström’s Three Seconds. Put aside quite a few hours of your life when you start this one, an addictive thriller that has deservedly won Sweden’s main crime ¬fiction award.

Kathy Reichs is a bestselling author and producer of the Fox television hit Bones and the fourteenth book in the long-running Temperance Brennan series, Flash and Bones is a must read. In this latest offering we enter a world of fast cars, cold cases, right-wing politics and stonewalling from the FBI.


Alwyn Viljoen

Ode to cheap, old books. I literally stumbled on my paradigm-shifting read among the tumbled R2-pile on the floor of the Hospice shop. The Territorial Imperative, authored before I was born by anthropologist Robert Ardrey, explains the root cause of animal behaviours – like road rage and why even the dumbest sportsman can instantly memorise ALL the rules. Ardrey’s predictions, made in 1965, why Israel would succeed against all odds (as they are); and why the Afrikaner will disperse like chaff when segregation stops in SA (as they did), also explain a lot about the current state of our world. The Territorial Imperative is still as mind-opening now as it was in the 60s.


Hazel Barnes

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna is a highly satisfying read, weaving the complexities of three people’s lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone, into a compelling story of a society trying to come to terms with the aftermath of a brutal civil war. The difficulties of finding a morally ethical pathway through such extreme circumstances are revealed with compassion.

Peter Harris’s In a Different Time and David Klatzow’s Steeped in Blood are two recent books which give insight into the effects of apartheid on the authors’ lives and careers, in the first case as a human rights lawyer and in the second as a forensic pathologist, revealing fascinating and horrific attitudes and deeds not formerly available to the general public. They are particularly interesting for those of us who have lived through that time, but equally informative and shocking to people who were only infants at the time, as a young friend of mine informed me.

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