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Reviews

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The Messiah’s Dream Machine by Jennifer Friedman. Published by Tafelberg, 2019.

 

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Like  many other South Africans I devoured Jennifer Friedman’s first memoir, Queen of the Free State with relish. So I was anticipating the sequel with enthusiasm, especially since the first title ended with Jennifer about to leave for boarding school in Cape Town, unhappy and furious with her parents for being sent away from her beloved Free State. In the epilogue she sums up the years at boarding school as ‘a nightmare she couldn’t wake up from’, and also packed away her dream of learning to fly, pushing it “far, deep into the furthest corner of my mind."

I had to wait to find answers to several questions as this second part of her life story took us back to her home town, where Jennifer reminisces on the excitement of circus acts, human and animal, in the big tent before she turns to the train journey to Cape Town and boarding school. With that incredible ability of hers to recall in such detail scenes, events, action, and most of all landscapes far and near – we read about life in the boarding house (and hope she is exaggerating, just a little, about the appalling food served up to the girls!)

Next she is back in her beloved home province, plus a fiancé, introducing Allan to her Uncle Leslie as her own parents have departed the Free State. The wedding is in Cape Town and the newly-weds settle in Johannesburg.

Not one but two family members – Jennifer’s great-uncle John followed shortly by her grandfather, die, and stories follow around the customs that precede and follow death, until the deceased are buried in the family cemetery on the Free State farm - and even that event descends into a fiasco...  The stories of the exploits of these two men during their lives   range from sentimental to uproarious.

In 1977 we find the family – Allan, Jen and little Adam in Haifa, about to return to Johannesburg where a baby girl Leah takes the family count to four and Allan’s mother seals her fate as an unwelcome visitor. But its her house that becomes their chosen home in Morningside when mama joins the exodus to Australia. They followed, but settled in Sydney where they were happy for three years until Allan is diagnosed with a cancerous ulcer in his mouth. Jennifer starts flying lessons, Allan’s gift to her, as his cancer spreads and they know their time together is limited. Her description of the pain-filled months ahead until his death just before his 49th birthday makes poignant reading, and so well illustrates her story-telling brilliance.

But there’s plenty of humour  to offset the sadness, wherever she lives, even when she goes back for a visit to the Free State farm and joins her cousin Wilfrid for a trip up the mountain in a fearsome truck that ends on the summit, where she describes in brilliant detail, the view, the colours, the hills and sky, the distant farms that encompassed her childhood.

We are told in publicity releases that Jennifer lives in Australia where she flies herself  all over that vast continent, sometimes just heading off to a dot on the map to a lunch date. So, there’s a lot more to tell her readers. The third title is no doubt in the making and will update us with laughter and sighs.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF MODERN ANGOLA by David Birmingham. Published by Jonathan Ball publishers, Cape Town, 2019.

 

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Did you know that a Jewish colony was nearly created in Angola in 1912 backed by the Jewish community on the Witwatersrand and those on the Congo copper belt?

Or, that in the 1840’s, in Luanda’s  small stone prison one prisoner was being held in solitary confinement: He was a royal prince who had fallen foul of the authorities through non-payment of taxes due to the Portuguese. He insisted he had been wrongly accused so he was allowed to exchange his prison rags for his full dress uniform with braids and epaulettes once a month and march to the palace where he petitioned for a reprieve. This was always turned down, so he had to return to his cell and don his convict rags once again.

These are just two of several little-known vignettes in this very readable history. First published in the UK four years ago, Birmingham’s own experiences in Angola make fascinating reading in his preface, which also offers a useful summary of its history to this western land which has seen such flows of migrant peoples. During the 19th century more than half a million Africans were taken to work the coffee estates of the newly independent Brazil and the cocoa plantations of the island-colony of Sao Tome. During the 20th century the flow was reversed as close to half a million European migrants arrived in Angola, from northern Portugal, Madeira and the Azores. After 1975 change occurred again when the white population flowed back to Europe leaving black nationalists to struggle for control of their rich economic heritage.

Birmingham starts his tale early in the 19th century when the Portuguese colony of Angola was formed as Portugal gradually replaced their former Asian empire with an African one. By 1960 Angola had become Portugal’s most treasured overseas possession. The slave trade proved profitable until the anti-slave movement in Europe saw Portugal follow other countries outlaw the trans-Atlantic trade in 1836. But labour remained the main theme of Angola’s history until after 1910.

The influence of the missionaries in Angola was important – with the Jesuits and the Franciscans taking Christianity inland. In the second half of the 19th century       a fine mix of French Catholic, British Baptist, American Methodist and Swiss Congregationalist brought religion, education and hospitals to various parts of the country.

The story of capital city of Luanda makes the subject of the second chapter - from mid-19th century when it was a picturesque market town where the wealthy households were run by armies of slaves of all ages. Along with blacks and whites the population of mixed race pointed to colonisation which had been almost exclusively male.

Life and trade in the inland areas varied immensely, with the Ambaca district, some 200 miles north of Luanda, standing out from neighbouring territories. The population considered themselves Portuguese , spoke the language, were educated , baptised as Christians and had a fine sense of dress style.

After the end of World War 2, Portugal – which had been neutral territory during the war - was debarred from joining the UN. The country and its colonies was the poorest in Europe, only Albania suffering worse poverty. In Angola life started to improve thanks to the world’s craving for coffee as planters and peasants began to meet this need. Labour practices and the rise of nationalism led to an uprising in Luanda in 1961, emphasising the the winds of change speech made by British PM Harold Macmillan. A violent outbreak followed in northern Angola weeks later, resulting in a huge conscript army being assembled in Portugal and dispatched to Angola . This saw the start of guerrilla warfare, led by Agostinho Neto in the north while in the south UNITA gained an exile base in Zambia, led by Jonas Savimbi.

After years of guerrilla warfare the coup of 1974 saw the Lisbon government overthrown mounted by young military captains in the Portuguese army. This led to a re-alignment of forces in Angola as the Portuguese prepared to leave Africa. In January 1975 an interim government was established that included Portugal, the FNLA, the MPLA and UNITA. Sadly instead of peace, a new war of foreign intervention ensued: the Congolese, Russian, Cuban, South African and American interests vied with locals in an offensive that saw South African troops invade along the coast . The extent of the horror endured by civilians and soldiers were made known, to some extent, to South Africans who had sons, brothers, uncles and friends doing their compulsory national service who were sent into Angola as part of the South African invading army.

As foreign forces withdrew, only the MPLA remained strong enough to eventually take control of Angola which had gained independence from Portugal. The fruits of freedom were not experienced by the people and a revolution took place in 1977 which was shortlived but violent. The liberation wars of liberation of the 70’s were followed by others through the 80’s with many causes – the Soviet Union, the Americans, the oil wells, Cuban support and South African destabilisation efforts among others: its intricacies and corruption make depressing reading. Worse was to come after a brief period of celebration of peace in 1991 with a civil war in late 1992 .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               After another peace accord negotiated by the UN, dos Santos became president and proceeded to develop the country into a presidential state with his power emanating from his vast palace complex.

The saga of violence and corruption is countered to some extent at the end of the text by optimism increasing in the 21st century as hope  centred around the energy and inventiveness of the women of Luanda and inland areas. They had developed giant markets which kept the city fed and clothed and inland by establishing many small scale business enterprises.

This softback contains no illustrations but there is a bibliography and an extensive index.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

 

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FIELD GUIDE TO WILD FLOWERS OF SOUTH AFRICA by John Manning, Struik Nature, 2019

FIELD GUIDE TO FYNBOS by John Manning, published by Struik Nature, 2018.

Invaluable and beautiful, these substantial paperbacks are both new editions, fully updated by author John Manning, an internationally respected botanist at the SA National Biodiversity Institute in Cape Town. He is also renowned for his botanical illustrations and flower photographs, many of which feature in both titles. Manning is a world authority on the Iris and Hyacinth families, has written and co-authored several other books on South African flora and is the recipient of several awards in recognition of his work.

He appears on the back cover of both books, against different floral backgrounds, along with his dachshunds adding a human and canine touch to the galleries of magnificent flowering species within the covers.

 

Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa

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The title presents nearly 500 pages of more than 1,100 flower species, and focuses on the more common, conspicuous and showy plants found in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. The text opens with an introduction covering diversity patterns, floral regions and vegetation types. with a key to identifying plant groups.

The preface points out that around 20 000 wild flowers are indigenous to the region, along with grasses, sedges, reeds and rushes with insignificant flowers and no single book can attempt to cover even a small percentage of all these. Those that have been included are all carefully described, for easier identification, along with their scientific details.

Each entry is accompanied by its botanical name, common names, its family, genus and species a clear colour photograph, a distribution map and a key to the plant’s flowering season.

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Advice on how to use this guide to the best advantage makes important reading for any new enthusiast to the fascinating hobby of identifying what they find on hikes.  First find the right group, where plants have been divided into three categories, then consult the pictorial guide to wild flower families, then turn to the page where the relevant family is listed in the main body.

The entries for the 10 groups of flowering plants form the main body of the text, followed by a glossary of terms, further reading list and a detailed index of scientific names.

 

Field guide to Fynbos

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Another new edition, updating the original best-seller published in 2007, this one updated to reflect recent findings and taxonomy. More than 1 000 species are described,

The introduction identifies fynbos, offers a history of this unique and extraordinary African flora, defines it and describes its distribution. Its diversity, adaptations, reliance on fire, pollination and conservation.  There’ a guide to family groups, useful when accessing the entries which are arranged by these eight groups under which the entries are organised.

Each lists the scientific and common name, offers comparisons with  similar species, traditional uses, distribution map and key to flowering season, The captivating clear, colour photographs were taken by the author or by Colin Paterson-Jones, another renowned natural history photographer and writer. A detailed index of scientific names and glossary of terms completes the text.

 

To conclude, these two indispensable treasure chests of information for botanists and amateurs  are each packed into handy-sized formats where no square centimetre of paper is wasted!

Endpapers are used to illustrate flower parts and leaf shapes to complement the glossaries, while the edge of the back cover can be used as as a 20cm ruler to measure your floral finds.

 

Some fynbos beauties:

 

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Mimetes hottentoticus on Kogelberg peak

 

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Aspalathus costulata

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Muraltie spinosa

 

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THE WOMAN IN THE BLUE CLOAK by Deon Meyer, published by Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2018.

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As usual, diverse strands of a necklace are  interwoven in Meyer’s impressive yet almost nonchalant way, as readers get caught up in a tale that strides across centuries and continents with consummate ease.

A woman’s body is discovered, naked and washed with bleach, on a rocky ledge at the top of Sir Lowry’s pass, on route to Elgin and the Overberg.

Detective Captain Benny Griessel is focussed on buying an engagement ring for his singing star friend Alexa, and wondering how he is going to pay for it.

In Holland a young man is fleeing from would-be captors as he runs through the night toward Rotterdam, then diverts to head to Delft....

Back in Cape Town the dead woman is identified, and Detectives Benny Griessel and his partner Cupido are on the case, wondering why a foreign visitor, who had been in the country just one day, was the murderer’s victim, and why she had wanted to go to Villiersdorp, a dorp near Elgin, that was not on the usual tourist trail.

Readers are taken to London to find out that the victim, Alicia Lewis,  was an expert in classical and antique art, who worked for an art loss register that searched for and recovered stolen art.

A painting now takes centre stage, a portrait of a woman, naked except for a blue cloak, attributed to Rembrandt ‘s star pupil Fabritius, and painted in Amsterdam in 1654. The woman was Rembrandt’s mistress and the painting had arrived at the Cape soon after where it ended up being sold to a member of the Van Reenen family who lived at that time in  Papenboom in Newlands. It was traced to a family descendant farming in the Villiersdorp district.

Of course Benny and Cupido get their man, an unlikely murderer, and it seems as if Alexa is going to receive a beautiful diamond ring from her lover, so all ends reasonably well, as things do in real life.

As always, the conversations between our much-loved detective Benny, and his partner Cupido, along with the action that moves across the city to the Cape winelands are realistic, accurate and convincing. 

Afrikaans fans got their dose of Griessel and co for Christmas, English addicts had to wait a little longer but both raced through this 140-page novella, finishing with appreciation and just one complaint. “It’s so short – hope the next one is back to normal. “

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THE LAST HURRAH by Graham Viney published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town, 2018.

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A whopping 386-page softback that embraces not just three extraordinary months in 1947, but an overview of South African politics at that time. It is a very readable work of history, in which the reader can follow the progress of the White Train as the British Royal family travelled 11 172km across the country and also absorb enjoy the social life and febrile politics of the day, which Viney weaves skilfully into the royal stops.

Just how far, long and deep Viney travelled to dig into sources on three continents can be gleaned from the list on pages 364-372. Also worth reading are the pages of acknowledgements: it cheered me to see the list of libraries and archives in this country that have not fallen foul of any ‘must fall’ protests, and continue their precious roles of keeping safe our written and photographic records of the past centuries. And then there are all the senior citizens, from Cape Town to Pretoria who shared their memories of the royal visit with the author.

The black and white photographs add much to the reader’s enjoyment – many gleaned from libraries such as Transnet Heritage, others from newsreels and there’s an inset of colour shots in the book’s centre. Some have not been published before, others bring back memories of those seen in South African newspapers and cinemas.

Viney opens with an introduction on his tale “of long ago”, featuring a crowd of players that have mostly left the stage with the exception of Queen Elizabeth II. The South Africa in which the scene is set has also gone, but this book attempts, the author tells us, to place the royal tour in its post-war context of the history of South Africa and the Commonwealth.

The southeast gale  blew itself out on the evening of February 16, 1947, much to the relief of Cape Town organisers, whether at the docks, the Westbrooke garden party, the mountain floodlighting and fireworks – so that the HMS Vanguard sailed into a calm Table Bay to the newly completed Duncan Dock, its bugles sounding out across the water. Thus does the author set the scene for an account of an exhaustive and exhausting journey, during which the crowds, white, brown and black, flowed like a great tide to the events, to the roadside, to the railway line, in cities, villages, and deep rural regions, to catch a glimpse of the royal family.

(This was despite National party politicians playing down the importance of the tour, and Indian and black activists also advising against their followers joining the throngs to welcome the visitors)

The chapter headings lead readers north from Cape Town, across the Karoo to Bloemfotnein, on to Durban, then to the old Transvaal, with time in Pretoria and a shorter, but packed programme in Johannesburg. Special chapters are given to two teatime gatherings – one with Ouma Smuts in Irene and the other at Vergelegen at Somerset West which is worth chuckling over... Princess Elizabeth’s coming of age and speech to the Commonwealth reminds readers of the promise of dedication to service that she has so diligently lived up to.

As Rian Malan expresses succinctly “Viney’s South Africa is a country most of us will barely recognise, teetering on the brink of convulsive change and yet almost united, at least for a moment, by love for a king and queen who wen’t really ours.” It certainly managed to unearth memories of a small child, in butcher blue Rustenburg school uniform, standing on the edge of De Waal drive in scorching February sun, waiting for the royal Daimler to pass. Some of my kindergarten fellow pupils fainted in the heat, I just got redder and hotter but remember that at last the open car drove past, allowing a glimpse of the Queen’s hat and her wave...

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