Fiction and faith, as strange as fact


Fiction and faith, as strange as fact

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH read about Madonna, superstition, a Neanderthal embryo and magic.


YOU know who Madonna is, don't you? Madonna Louise Ciccone. What? Never heard of her? She sings and dances. You truly have no idea who she is?

Then I have just the book for you. More than 800 pages cover the first 65 years of Madonna's life: Madonna: A Rebel Life by Mary Gabriel. You're in a great position, but it's going to take you a long time to read the book because everything is going to be fresh and new to you.

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We are not as fortunate as people living such isolated lives that Madonna's uniqueness, her entire essence, has completely passed them by. We basically grew up alongside Ms Ciccone, and in a way learned to intimately coexist with the things she said, the things her advertising team told us, and everything her admirers and critics said about her.

We meticulously combed through her brother Christopher Ciccone's memoir, Life with My Sister Madonna, for juicy stories and big secrets. We can play every song referenced in this book on the grand turntable of our memory. For us, there's nothing bizarre or scandalous, just the unknown that makes the book a proposition for us.

But Gabriel's compendium does have good qualities, aside from the fact that it is comprehensive. Because she presents the book strictly according to the chronology of Madonna's life, it's enjoyable to jump to years where you feel a bit vague about the Madonna phenomenon and  catch up with the whirlwind life.

It would have been nice if Gabriel had conducted in-depth interviews with Ms Ciccone about every phase of her development because, make no mistake, she has developed. More times than possible. But even a seasoned journalist has her limitations, and one of them is that it's impossible to talk to someone who doesn't want to talk because she has already said everything she could.

The necessary consequence is that we get the entire Madonna construct the way the star built it over the years. Nothing is known about Madonna that she didn't want known. Madonna is living proof that it's possible to build an impenetrable facade around something that to me looks suspiciously like a vacuum. Does Madonna have a deep, rich inner life? Is she as knowledgeable about politics and religion as Gabriel thinks she is? How will we ever know? Madonna doesn't participate in this conversation.

I read the book on my tablet. In it, Gabriel provides a link to a website where her bibliography and list of sources are supposedly extensively detailed. Unfortunately, the link leads only to the publisher's information page about the book, minus any bibliography or source list. It's sloppy.

Madonna: A Rebel Life by Mary Gabriel was published by Little, Brown Company and costs $21.93 on Amazon.

Nowt as queer

The poet Ina Rousseau had a favorite reaction every time she heard about the foolishness, insanity and irrationality of the things people do: “There’s nowt as queer as folk."

People do and say stranger things than anything you can imagine. Dina Nayeri's Who Gets Believed? is a meditation on the faces of belief, not only religious but also in the way people have certain intuitive reactions and the manner in which they accept whether someone is telling the truth or not. It's a fascinating book that takes place in torture chambers, institutions for the mentally ill and in her own experience, as a rational person, of how people set rationality aside when religion is involved.

It's not an easy read — torture, for example, can never be justified. But Nayeri is willing to examine it. My stomach turned, and I set the book aside for a week after reading the first chapter about a man being tortured in prison. But it's worth persevering. You can trust her. There is nothing as strange as belief.

Who Gets Believed? by Dina Nayeri was published by Vintage Publishing and costs R360 at Exclusive Books

Strange fruit

I've been a fan of Sebastian Faulks since Birdsong (1993). I love his style, the “voice" he gives to each novel, and the way he perceives things, big and small, that motivate ordinary people.

The Seventh Son might have produced something Michael Crichton could have peddled on Infowars with Alex Jones. However, Faulks has the writerly eye to make the theme of unethical medical research credible. He uses an Elon Musk-esque Australian swine named Lukas Park to carry his story.

Park, who immerses himself in the Silicon Valley atmosphere and mindset, wants to see what happens when a modern human gives birth to a child conceived with the semen of a Neanderthal. The latter's remains are perfectly preserved and found in ice, and with a bit of manipulation, introduced into a surrogacy situation. But typical of Faulks, he shifts his focus to the ordinary people affected by this. What do you do when the fruit of your loins isn't what you expected? Faulks at his best.

The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks was published by Cornerstone and costs R405 at Exclusive Books


It's probably a bit hypocritical to say I don't believe in magic. I play the Lotto too often to pretend that. But it's nice to see there are still writers who dare to make magic a part of their narrative.

Breanne Randall's debut novel suggests that each member of the Revelare family is endowed with some kind of magic, but unfortunately, there are also dangers. The delight of this novel is that it's predictably unpredictable. And thank goodness, Randall likes happy endings. Pay attention to the title, it's the roadmap.

The Unfortunate Side Effects of Heartbreak and Magic by Breanne Randall was published by Alcove Press and costs $17.09 at Amazon.

♦ VWB ♦

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