Totalitarianism, memoirs and kitchen basics


Totalitarianism, memoirs and kitchen basics

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH zipped through this year's unforgettable Booker winner, entertainers' lives and a cookbook.


MERCIFULLY, there is no cure for my addictions — books and music. With music, I know it's about a form of physical stimulation alongside the inner strengthening. With books, it's something else. I need the immediate satisfaction of light reading. But one cannot live off it alone, which is why I also read more widely and intensely.

It's about one thing in particular; in hindsight, I want to feel the book has changed me. Claire Keegan's books got it right for me this year, and now Paul Lynch's Prophet Song has done the same. I read the book because it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and lo and behold, last Sunday it won.

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Reams of paragraphs

Prophet Song makes great demands on the reader. Lynch created a style for the book that is more rounded than that of his previous novels (Grace, Beyond the Sea), and one recoils at the reams of thick paragraphs and so little typographical white. One of those books. They don't come by too often, but when you hit them you read more slowly, you make notes in the margins, you reread entire passages to savour them and to be able to grasp them more thoroughly.

It is set in Ireland in the near future, with the state devolved into totalitarianism. A scientist's husband is detained by the secret police and her son joins a rebel group. Her world is getting smaller, the joys are fading.

When she gets a chance to flee to Canada, she has to make a decision but doesn't feel up to it. Lynch describes the resentment and anxiety and the ultimate clarity of her insight in a way that immediately places him in the higher sphere of gifted writers.

The novel envelops its reader with a sense of foreboding and prophecy; your discomfort rises because you have so many premonitions of what is already visible elsewhere in the world and right here. Afterwards, you try to focus on the muscularity and prowess of Lynch's writing to banish the trauma from your mind.

You know that when the boundaries of democracy narrow, there will still be people who keep a clear head. That's what Lynch did for me. At a time of abysmal collapse, he brings a small ray of hope.

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch was published by Oneworld Publications and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.


On the morning of 9 December 1980, the SABC used Barbra Streisand to pay tribute to John Lennon, who had been killed the day before. It was a gooseflesh moment, as she sang his song Mother absolutely and memorably beautifully. Not such a big moment for the SABC — it still had a ban on The Beatles' music.

Now I'm stuck with Streisand's memoir, and she doesn't even mention that song in its 976 pages. What she does do is go into the smallest detail of every glorious moment of her life and how she personally made sure it was so fabulous. For the unpleasant moments, she points 10 fingers in 20 directions to make sure everyone knows who were the flies in her ointment.

The woman loves herself so much, is so impressed with her own fabulousness, that she makes a spectrum narcissist such as Donald Trump look like a philanthropist.

That's the ugly side of the book. The pleasant side is to relive the highlights of her life with her. It's not surprising to see the big chances come her way — there were always employers willing to endure her ego in order to ensure success at the box office.

She has a voice the angels envy, she is an excellent comic and serious actress, a first-rate director, and some of Hollywood's cutest men (Ryan O'Neal, Elliott Gould, James Brolin and many more) have adjusted their aesthetic judgment, ignored the elephant in the room (her ego) and fallen in love with her.

She likes to make fun of her nose but mentions the problems with her septum only in connection with the beginning of her career. She then remains silent on the subject, like Britney Spears in her memoir.

I read My Name Is Barbra with great joy — bits at a time but ultimately every word, even the photo captions. Her father died early, her mother was a witch and we should be eternally grateful to her for bullying our Babs.

One cannot compare fiction like Paul Lynch's to metafiction like Barbra's, but in a sense it also entered my mind. The book bears all the signs of what the late Hans Büttner called a “difficult author". She insisted on the most unforgivable misdemeanour in a memoir — to omit the index. Probably to make room for the enormous photo gallery she included.

Such things won't bother the millions of people who will buy and devour this memoir. It is the book for Christmas 2023.

My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand was published by Cornerstone and costs R925 at Exclusive Books.

Nice guy

The best way to describe Henry Winkler (other than to immediately ID him as the TV character Fonz from Happy Days) is to say he is the opposite of Barbra Streisand. He is a decent person who can make fun of himself and does not hesitate to talk about his mistakes. He's a nice guy.

Being Henry is his third book about himself, perhaps pointing to a well-hidden huge ego, and still one feels he go on telling his life story. The book is so good because Winkler dictates everything — the conversational style is striking. This is largely due to the fact that he is severely dyslexic. The Hank Zipzer series of children's books he wrote were also done in collaboration with someone who is not dyslexic. Winkler wrote the books with Lin Oliver — he talked, she wrote. He's not shy about writing about his great successes (Happy Days, Barry, Arrested Development and the children's books) but he's in his element when he tells of the quiet times in between, when he started thinking his days of glory were over. Being Henry is the story of a nice winner.

Being Henry by Henry Winkler was published by Pan Macmillan and costs R572 at Exclusive Books.

Carrot cake

In the great circle of cookbooks, someone new emerges every 10 years and tries to teach people how to cook. Most cookbooks assume you have at least mastered the basics. Donna Hay, an Australian, had great success in 2016-2017 with a TV series in which she introduced people to the principles of good cooking. This was followed by a book, Basics to Brilliance, and now this sequel. Wonderful carrot cake recipe, may I just mention?

Even More Basics to Brilliance by Donna Hay was published by HarperCollins and costs R845 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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