THE dreadful impact of the Harvey Weinstein saga was that I, like many other men, felt guilty by association. The man's a pig, but no matter how clean your slate is or how vehemently you speak out against him, you feel tainted by your gender because of what he did. The same obviously applies to gender-based violence (GBV), which I consider a heinous sin.
I started reading Helen Schulman's Lucky Dogs with mixed feelings. Initially, the book brought nothing but discomfort and unease for me because the marketing informs you that it is based on actress Rose McGowan's experiences with Harvey Weinstein.
McGowan complained on Twitter about a movie mogul who raped her, a year before Weinstein was exposed, and had to flee to Paris. Weinstein hired Stella Penn Pechanac from the Black Cube intelligence firm to collect dirt on McGowan. Schulman based her main character, Merry Montgomery, on McGowan, and used Pechanac as a model for her antagonist, Samara (Nina) Marjanovic.
You quickly realise that this novel dances a tango with reality. Many well-known names are involved with the Rug (presumably a nickname for Weinstein), and you get the feeling that if a fact-checker were unleashed on the novel, there would be no fake news.
But that's not why I enjoyed it so much. It's Schulman's writing that does the trick. Inventive, fast-paced, always planting a punch from an unexpected angle. She also weaves so much fiction around the well-known feud. Her portrayal of Merry — a whirlwind of cosmic proportions — is so strong that it carries the book. On the other hand, she intersperses it with Nina's history, which provides the novel with so much additional historical context, through refugees from Serbia. The contrast between American opulence and Eastern European destitution is enormous.
So, you start with a semi-comic novel which unexpectedly deepens into a larger vision of the people who are ground up when the wheels of conflict and religious wars start turning. There are several underlying themes. The most important of these, everything people will sacrifice on the altar of fame, gives the book its profound pathos.
Sexual harassment, GBV, the swirling thoughts of a scatterbrain versus the cunning of an ambitious outcast, all folded into a variation of the spy novel. I have never read anything more captivating.
Lucky Dogs by Helen Schulman was published by Vintage and costs $18 at Amazon.
Yes, I know. Rouge is one of the unexpected hits of 2023. A novel that tells how women are exploited and trampled by the beauty industry. Industry? The one that manufactures and peddles cosmetics to women who have mixed feelings about their appearance. Women who will never appear in public without a little extra colour.
But it's also a book that can be described as paint-by-numbers. Tacked-on colour themes. Tacked-on depth through fairy tales and myths. And then there are the Snow White myths that are plastered on like Bettie Cilliers-Barnard freaking out with her paint trowel. Approach it like you would a trifle — with brandy.
Rouge by Mona Awad was published by Simon & Schuster and costs $16.99 at Amazon.
Wizard with words
Bernie Taupin is Elton John's lyricist. He's spent all these years in the background while the flamboyant gay music icon does his thing. But Taupin's life is in many ways just as colourful and outré as John's.
Taupin, who describes himself as “as straight as a die”, has a lifestyle every bit as bacchanalian as John's, a life in clubs and dives with Oliver Reed, John Lennon, Freddy Mercury, Jagger and Richards, Harry Nilsson, Princess Margaret, and many more. He is fortunate to be “invisible" due to the fact that he never appears on stage, so no one recognises him in public. Except the kind of people whose names are tossed around. And he's a wizard with words.
If you consider the refinement in the lyrics John sings, it's no surprise that Scattershot is so delightfully readable. The man is a master of irony and suggestion. The chapter on John Lennon's “lost weekend" is remarkable — no one has lifted the veil so charmingly on a dark piece of history.
Scattershot by Bernie Taupin is published by Octopus and costs R452 at Exclusive Books.
Heat with everything
Chilli crisp is a concoction created by the Chinese chef Fly By Jing, inspired by the sauces she was served as a child by street vendors and in cafes. The ingredients are hard to come by locally, so you have to look for imported bottles of Fly By Jing's chilli crisp. It adds a nice strong chilli bite, the crunchiness of dried onions and garlic, and the richness of the oil in which these ingredients are preserved.
James Park is a Korean immigrant in the US and a great advocate for Fly By Jing's sauce. You can fry eggs in it, just to get into the swing of things. After that, you'll want to add it to everything. If you don't like chilli or garlic, you'll hate it.
Chili Crisp by James Park is published by Chronicle Books and costs $22.45 at Amazon.
♦ VWB ♦
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