Nina Simone’s gum and other holy relics


Nina Simone’s gum and other holy relics

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH introduces us to the latest wonders on the bookshelf.


Plenty to chew on

I don't know where to start with this. A book like Nina Simone's Gum exposes too many of my secret inclinations. The moment I reveal how many times I've said “snap", or how I sat weeping when Warren Ellis recounts how he dropped to his knees at Beethoven's grave and started crying himself — those things you want to keep to yourself. Let me not reveal the story of Nina Simone's chewing gum for those of you who will read the book, and simply say it's magical.

Ellis, a genius Australian musician and member of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, has created a kind of memoir that unlocks more than his own life and music. In hindsight, you'll catch a glimpse of Nina Simone. You won't get to know her, merely understand a few things.

He recounts, for example, how, totally blitzed after a Prince concert, he almost walked in front of a car and was rescued by a stranger. He got to know his saviour, Mick Geyer. Geyer told him about Nina Simone's music. Mick “had this incredible radar for greatness". He had the vision and knowledge to make the timeless wonder of Simone accessible to Ellis.

What Mick Geyer did for Warren Ellis, Ellis does for you, the reader, and hopefully converts you into a Simone fan. You don't need to know Ellis's work with Nick Cave or the Dirty Threes. You'll want to, afterwards, but first you'll go in search of Simone. Great art like hers leads to self-knowledge. This is Warren Ellis's inspiring story. Isn't that the point of memoirs? To show the lives of others but also, in the process, make you evaluate you own?

I was also struck by the way Ellis's life is filled with magical events. Some happen without him looking for them, others he creates himself. Like the acquisition of Nina Simone's piece of chewing gum. As far as his music career goes, listen to She Walks In Beauty, the album by Marianne Faithfull for which he composed and performed the music. Wizardry.

I wish it was possible to meet Ellis. But life has its limitations, and this book is more than enough for now.

Nina Simone's Gum by Warren Ellis was published by Faber & Faber and costs R277 at Exclusive Books.

In Books next week, read about the day Marita van der Vyver met Warren Ellis. — Ed

Hotel Metropol

It is remarkable how many books have been published in the wake of Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow. Alan Philps jumps on the bandwagon with The Red Hotel, which is also about the Hotel Metropol. He chooses to interfere with the hard facts. He doesn't write about Michael Jackson, Bertolt Brecht, Bernard Shaw, Sophia Loren or Lee Harvey Oswald's stays in the legendary hotel. Instead, he tells the story of Western journalists who were allowed by Stalin to stay there in 1941 and after. People like Godfrey Blunden, Vernon Bartlett, Margaret Bourke-White and Charlotte Haldane. Through the mediation of Winston Churchill, Stalin allowed the journalists to write and submit their war reports from the cozy rooms of the hotel. Also unleashing on them a horde of translators, secretaries and prostitutes, all members of the KGB. The journalists were fed with disinformation, lies and fables to make the Stalin regime look good. Philps also lingers, extensively, on the underhanded methods and blackmail with which the journalists were gagged. An enormous story is told here, but without the charm and allure of Towles's fiction.

The Red Hotel by Alan Philps was published by Headline Publishing Group and costs R622 at Exclusive Books.


Let me confess: I have a long history of checking in with astrologers, spiritualists and mediums. I don't always believe what they say but sometimes there's something that hits home. I simply couldn't resist this novel. Set in London in 1873, it's about the crisis in the life of Mrs Wood, a clairvoyant. One night, in the dark room where she holds her séances, she hears someone yawning loudly. Can the prestige of London's leading medium in the golden age of spiritualism be so blatantly challenged? Of course, you need to suspend disbelief. This is a wonderfully light novel. It gave me that nice sense of superiority you get when you see through other people. Illusion, says Mrs Wood, is everything.

The Other Side of Mrs Wood by Lucy Barker was published by HarperCollins and costs R420 at Exclusive Books

Extraordinary people

This book is still on its way to me, but I am happy to announce its arrival to anyone who, like me, loves Richard Russo. He is an author who specialises in novels about ordinary people in a gigantic attempt to prove repeatedly that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. They are unusual souls whose ailments and oddities resemble yours and mine. With this book, Russo concludes the Fool trilogy that embodies such a huge part of his writing career — Nobody's Fool (1993), Everybody's Fool (2016) and now Somebody's Fool. Sully Sullivan died in Everybody's Fool but there's another generation of Sullivans around. Don't worry if this book is the first Russo you read; I read the previous parts of the trilogy in the wrong order and considered it a blessing in disguise.

Somebody's Fool by Richard Russo was published by Knopf and costs $24.84 at Amazon.

Culinary school

What an incredibly wide field of reference this chef has! She studied at Prue Leith's cooking school, worked at one of Yotam Ottolenghi's gastronomic dream palaces, and rose to fame with her first cookbook, Mamushka (2015). In her fourth, she delves into the culinary traditions of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and environs, as well as dashes of Cyprus and Britain. She is married to a British vegetarian who is also handy in the kitchen. From her writing style, one can infer that the two have a lot to talk about. She's a magician with potatoes but my love for her art derives from her “Big Baked Snail", a kind of cinnamon bread which includes stewed naartjies. You will never look back. And a wealth of anecdotes makes this cookbook worth reading.

Home Food: Recipes to Comfort and Connect by Olia Hercules was published by Bloomsbury and costs R735 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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