Sinéad, Oppenheimer and other stories


Sinéad, Oppenheimer and other stories

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH took some old favourites down from the shelf after their authors died, and discovered a beautiful account of supportive grieving.


SEVERAL trees have recently been cut down in my forest. It's never easy to process, even though you often know it's a welcome escape for the departed. But mourning is one of life's experiences for which you must write your own textbook. I always feel it's the duty of those who have already gone through a grieving process to support and uphold others who are struggling with it. Even if it's just to bring certain books to their attention.

Grieving is an exploration of loneliness. No one can truly help carry the burden of your emotions, but books create windows in the room of your imagination. Windows through which you can see, and in which you will find your face reflected at night.

Mutual comfort

All of this leads me to The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a book that resonated with me in so many ways that I can say without hesitation that you have to read it. It was published in 2018 but it is timeless, and now that I've read it my whole year seems different. Better. (I thank my friend Annelize van Rooyen for the recommendation.)

Nunez tells the story of a middle-aged academic who inherits her best friend's dog after he commits suicide. The widow doesn't want the dog, so the narrator of the story ends up taking care of and keeping the large Great Dane named Apollo. She is a cat lover, an orientation problem that under any other circumstances would have had an easy solution: Apollo would have been sent to join his owner beyond the rainbow bridge.

But our narrator is not heartless. What follows is the story of mutual consolation and friendship that develops. The narrator gets the opportunity to thoroughly explore her friendship and memories of the deceased, and in doing so she helps Apollo go through his grieving process. The novel is an account of that journey. It touches on great literary themes, and Nunez has the gift of articulating things that spring from the vast collective realm of experiences.

One example: “The dead dwell in the conditional tense of the unreal. But there is also the extraordinary sense that you have become omniscient, that nothing we do or think or feel can be kept from you. The extraordinary sense that you are reading these words, that you know what they’ll say even before I write them.”

A good friend once said that he didn't read this book; it read him. I can attest to that.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez was published by Little, Brown Group and costs R276 at Exclusive Books.


This book was published in 2005 but is drawing much attention because the new film Oppenheimer is largely based on it. If you're not in the habit of tackling biographies about scientists, make an exception and read this one.

Oppenheimer was an incredibly gifted individual, and his expertise was extensive enough to lay the foundation for his moral resistance against the weapon he put into the hands of humanity in service to his nation — the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer was a genius, a giant among scientists, and an easy target in the first major period of American ignorance, the McCarthy era of the mid-fifties. It is books such as this that restore one's faith in morality and rational thinking.

American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin is published by Random House USA and costs R534 at Excusive Books.

The nature of bullshit

The passing of Professor Frankfurt last month prompted me to take his surprising 2005 bestseller off the shelf. It's a slim book in which the philosopher tries to unravel the precise nature of bullshit. How do you know when someone is speaking the truth? Can you confidently distinguish between an outright lie and bullshit, where someone is trying to make something impossible sound credible?

Frankfurt takes bewitching turns, including a gem of an anecdote that Fania Pascal told about her friendship with Ludwig Wittgenstein. She had her tonsils removed in the 1930s (when Wittgenstein was affiliated with Cambridge). Wittgenstein called her, and she told him she felt like a dog that had been run over by a car. Wittgenstein was indignant: “How can you know how a dog feels when it's hit by a car?" was his reaction. Well, surely there lies a lesson for everyone fond of figurative language.

On Bullshit by Harry G Frankfurt was published by Princeton University Press and costs R271 at Exclusive Books.


I have always found O'Connor's music moving. There was a time when I listened to Nothing Compares 2 U on endless repeat. Among her other creations, My Darling Child and Thank You for Hearing Me are songs that surpass everything she has ever done or said. Especially the latter, which deals with the breakdown of her relationship with Peter Gabriel.

This autobiography offers a good depiction of the extremes of her life and music. O'Connor was bipolar (she claims it was a misdiagnosis) and was caught numerous times playing fast and loose with the truth, such as regarding her relationship with Gabriel. She said he abused her; he had to enlist his lawyers' help to stop her harassment.

What is so striking about her recollections is that she had an incredibly strong foundation of faith. One gets the impression that despite the formal religious affiliations she may have embraced at any given moment, an underlying current of true belief and morality guided her. She studied theology at a Christian seminary in 2000; she passed away last week as a Muslim. A unique individual, and although she may not have attempted to objectively assess her life in detail, we can do so. I would have loved to meet her.

Rememberings by Sinéad O'Connor was published by Penguin Books and costs R276 at Exclusive Books.


Once you come to terms with the profound seriousness with which Frances Haugen approaches her writing (and herself), this becomes one of the most fascinating non-fiction books of 2023.

Haugen is the person who blew the whistle on Facebook's shenanigans in 2021, exposing the way the company capitalises on human weaknesses and our willingness to believe everything. It's a complex matter, and her portrayal of it, in my view, makes Mark Zuckerberg the greatest atrocity among us other mortals.

The Power of One by Frances Haugen was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R469 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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