Clever fools and curious nuns


Clever fools and curious nuns

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH on books that will tickle you, make you wonder and keep you awake.

Clever fools

When Paul Johnson published Intellectuals in 1988, he was widely criticised. How dare he reveal the scandals and perversions of cultural heroes after their death? Times have changed, and we now know the difference between celebs and pricks, which is why Katie Spalding's The Limits of Genius won't provoke cultural tantrums. But it will be widely read.

Most people are now well versed in stories about the stupidities perpetrated by great minds such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.

Take Karl Marx, for example. As a student in London, he and two pals frequented 18 pubs in one night and drank a pint of beer at each. That's a total of just over 10 litres. One has to respect him, because he was still steady enough on his feet to flee from police officers who caught the drunken trio smashing street lamps with cobblestones.

Or consider Mayo Angelou, a woman with multiple gifts and even more talents. Her mother was Vivian Baxter, a woman who could handle every conceivable kind of revolver and pistol as if they were cutlery. Baxter believed in law and justice and was not shy about applying it herself.

After Angelou's boyfriend kidnapped her and abused and assaulted her in a hotel room, Vivian gave her a gun to take the man out. To her eternal credit, Angelou listened to her mother but couldn't pull the trigger. Every great spirit has a weakness...

Spalding has the following to say about Sigmund Freud's addiction to cocaine: “Far from being a dirty little secret or blot on his authority, Freud’s coke habit put him in the same league as people like Charles Dickens (opium), the pope (wine laced with cocaine, kept in a flask on his person at all times), the entire German military (a shit-ton of methamphetamines), and literally anybody who ever drank a bottle of Coca-Cola or 7Up (cocaine and lithium respectively).”

Maybe Spalding stretches the boundaries of credibility here and there, but it doesn't really matter. I can't remember the last time I lapped up gossip so greedily.

The Limits of Genius by Katie Spalding was published by Wildfire and costs $29.78 at Amazon.

Simply the best

Through the years, I've collected several books about, and by, Tina Turner. Be sure to avoid I, Tina (obsolete) and Donald Brackett's Tumult! (hardly any new information). Turner's own My Love Story, written with the help of Deborah Davis and Dominik Wichmann, gives a much more intimate inside look at her life, and is particularly insightful about her retirement, when she had a stroke and kidney failure. She was always a fierce warrior, and here we  sees how  truly unique she was.

My Love Story by Tina Turner was published by Cornerstone and costs R278 at Exclusive Books.

Down under

Gould’s Book of Fish was part of my Australian reading project, and what an incredible flight of imagination it is! The main character is an enigmatic artist who, during a time of punishment in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania), is commissioned to compile a book about all the fish caught off its coastline. A trustee initially tells us about that book, but he suddenly disappears from the stage, like countless others, and you start getting suspicious. Flanagan is an inventive writer and captures your imagination. Then, just to completely befuddle you, he concludes with a particularly peculiar afterword, forcing you to rearrange the entire narrative in your mind to be able to make sense of it. Truly a book that keeps giving pleasure long after you've read it. A week after I've put it down, the con man is still dancing in my mind.

Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan was published by Vintage Publishing and costs R253 at Exclusive Books.

Curious nun

Margot Douaihy's debut novel, Scorched Grace, provoked mixed reaction but I read it with admiration. Sometimes it takes a new writer to remind you how delightfully surprising the transgression of boundaries can be. Douaihy introduces us to an unusual detective, Roman Catholic nun Sister Holiday. She used to be a member of a punk-rock band, survived a series of rowdy lesbian relationships and was obsessed with drugs. Lots of them. But now she's a music teacher in New Orleans and decides to investigate a fire at her school. As more fires follow, Sister Holiday sorts out all kinds of issues other than the ones she's investigating. It's a peculiar novel, and I'm sure I laughed in the wrong places.

Scorched Grace by Margot Douaihy was published by Pushkin Press and costs R253 at Exclusive Books.

How are we hanging?

One doesn't really consider the whole idea behind hanging out. You're either hanging out or you're doing something serious that requires focus and purpose. You have to think and use your mind. Sheila Lemming, who is preoccupied with literature when she is not hanging out (or hanging, as the people in my 'hood say), reckons you can hang out purposefully, focusing and training your mind. What intrigues me is her definition of hanging out. It turns out that she simply found another label for socialising, chatting, chilling and shopping — all the things you do when you're not working.  (You don't hang out with  a prostitute, though, because one party is busy with work. To use an extreme example. And you don't hang out with the South African Revenue Service.) It's a lovely collection of thoughts, but it reminds me too much of people who write poems about the tooth fairy.

Hanging Out by Sheila Liming was published by Melville House Publishing and costs R564 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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