REINVENTING A CONTINENT

WRITING AND POLITICS IN SOUTH AFRICA

Like slightly stale bread, these essays (most from the 1980s and early 1990s) by one of South Africa’s leading novelists examining the role of that country’s literature have seen better days. The end of apartheid struck South African artists particularly hard, remarks Brink. So much of their work had been premised on bravely decrying myriad injustices, on supporting the “struggle” as a weapon of liberation. Within these confines, hemmed in by censorship and oppression, extraordinary creativity flourished. But as Brink (Imaginings of Sand, 1996, etc.) notes, “imagination remained predicated on the presence of prison bars.” As soon as the bars started to lift, many artists were overwhelmed by the burden of freedom. But Brink is an optimist. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he has avoided the deconstructionist obscurity or thinly veiled despair that characterizes so much white South African writing today. In fact, many of these essays revolve around potential new directions and roles for art. He goes as far as to compare apartheid’s end to photography’s freeing of 19th-century painting from the constraints of realism. Other essays are taken up with that perennial big issue: the role of art and the artist in society—especially a society where art, at first glance, looks like a luxury. Brink also examines Afrikaner society, rugby, and the minutiae of political developments. There are some embarrassingly adulatory encomiums to the African National Congress and its various politicos (though his accolades from the 1990s are a little more evenhanded). Brink has a clear and forceful, passionate style. But unlike an Orwell or a Greene, he is unable to transform the timeliness of most of these essays into something more timeless. Nelson Mandela contributes the book’s preface. As a record of liberal white South African thought ten years ago, this is a peerless collection, but by almost any other criteria, most of these essays—with a few notable exceptions—are fast slipping into irrelevance.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-944072-89-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1998

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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

THE LIBRARY BOOK

An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS

Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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