The value of life and the pleasure books bring


The value of life and the pleasure books bring

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH shares some of his week's reading highlights.


ANN Patchett makes the point that no-one ever reads a book about a serial killers and asks afterwards if it's realistic. They simply accept that it is. But let an author dare to write a book about happy people, and people ask how something like that could be possible.

Cherry orchard

Patchett's new novel, Tom Lake, is about happy people. The Nelson family are forced to flee to their family farm due to the Covid pandemic. There, Joe and Lara, both in their late fifties, and their three daughters (Emily, Maisie and Nell, all in their twenties), must harvest cherries from the orchard.

They work hard during the day and share long stories in the evenings. The daughters persuade their mother to tell them about a passionate affair she had as a young actress with a married man while they were  rehearsing for a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town in the village of Tom Lake. Today, the married man is a famous actor.

The whole idea of the cherry orchard immediately brings to mind Anton Chekhov's famous play — the play that Chekhov considered a comedy, but which was initially staged as a tragedy by Konstantin Stanislawski. It's a play about the futility of trying to sustain a cultural setup. Patchett uses Lara's memories of her affair to incorporate  Our Town into the fabric of Tom Lake. If you've seen Our Town, you'll recall the key scene where the spirit of Emily asks the Stage Manager whether the living are ever aware of the value of life.

Tom Lake is firmly rooted in that question. Patchett's cherry pickers live amid the tumult of Covid, isolated and, thanks to the close bonds of family, happy. Lara's memories trouble her daughters because they can't believe their mother did something as scandalous as dallying with a married man. The novel envelops you in delightful emotions. Patchett knows nothing is as amusing as people sharing a good gossip. When a mother is the narrator, and her woke daughters are shamed by some of the things she touches on, you understand just how tenuous culture can be.

I often reread certain scenes for the joy of seeing how skilfully Patchett can conceal deep, dark thoughts under a blanket of lightness. You're captivated by the breezy style, then you're startled awake. Reading books affords me great pleasure. When the book is at the level of Tom Lake, I know Patchett is included in the answer the Stage Manager gives to Emily in Our Town. She is one of the few who knows the value of life. A truly phenomenal writer.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett was published by Harper and cost $17.99 at Amazon

Tragic history

Whitney Houston was known as The Voice. Gerrick Kennedy's biography is presented as a defence of her uniqueness, which is hardly necessary. His thorough research allows you to reappreciate her career and art, but this time around your experience is devoid of the sense of doom and fear that you had while she was alive.

Whitney's life was the stereotype of the brilliant singer who wasn't equipped to handle her fame, and then had the misfortune of getting entangled with someone of the calibre of Bobby Brown. While she reached stratospheric heights as a singer, actress, concert performer and social activist (I Will Always Love You and the movie The Bodyguard are among my favourites), she could never shake off the grip of Brown, drugs and alcohol.

It's a tragic story, and  Kennedy doesn't pull any punches. He describes how a TV interview with Diane Sawyer revealed the tragedy — Whitney, completely unable to exorcise her demons, using bitterness to deflect and deny. By the end of Kennedy's book, you are convinced that Houston's life would have been different if she hadn't married Brown. Scant consolation.

Didn't We Almost Have it All by Gerrick Kennedy was published by Harry N Abrams and cost $7.97 at Amazon


It took me several weeks to get around to reading No One Prayed Over Their Graves. In broad strokes, it deals with how Syria changed from a country where different religious groups coexisted, forging friendships, to a nation where the fascism of fundamentalist faith controls everything.

At its centre are a Christian named Hanna (the male variation) and his Muslim friend, Zakariya. Both lose all their possessions when a flood wipes out their village on the banks of the Euphrates River, but Zakariya's wife and a friend, Mariana, survive.

Losing everything in a flood is one thing; witnessing how the old mindset and the people who represent it, such as Zakariya and Hanna, become obsolete afterwards, is an entirely different matter. I find solace in the humanity and compassion that Zakariya and Hanna possess, but the book shook me.

Hanna and Zakariya were indulgent before the flood, enjoying all that was forbidden. Afterwards, things become increasingly difficult, and it turns into a story of people anticipating their death every day. When it comes, the intimacy surrounding Zakariya's emotions rattled me. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

No One Prayed Over Their Graves by Khaled Khalifa was published by Faber & Faber and costs R414 at Exclusive Books.

The app to have

Here's the thing: everyone is afraid that TikTok is a clever Chinese trick through which the entire essence of Western culture can be undermined and subtly tailored to suit the Chinese. But in reality, you get to see the best of TikTok on Instagram anyway. That's why I approached this book by Chris Stokel-Walker with a wry smile. That smile quickly faded.

TikTok's story and the way it operates are astonishing. Next month, something else will take over from TikTok, but for now it's the app of our time. If you're in the social media game. Anyway, you're not Stokel-Walker's target audience. It's people like me he wants to reach. People who read books about social media because we don't spend much time on social media ourselves.

TikTok Boom by Chris Stokel-Walker was published by Canbury Press and cost $17.59 at Amazon.


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