“GAGMAN: Exposing the horrors through humour” by Jessica Abelsohn

Could you entertain the commandant if it meant your survival? Can we turn horror into art and, dare we say it, humour? This is the question that Gagman – a uniquely uncompromising book by revered cartoonist Dov Fedler and his daughter Joanne Fedler – poses.

Gagman is scattered with comedian’s notes. The first one opens with the lines: “You think you’re a tough audience? I’ve died more times than you’ve belched …”

It’s these words that set the tone for the book, a Holocaust story with a difference and its certainly not the kind of book one would associate with a political and satirical cartoonist. Yet, it is written and illustrated by acclaimed South African cartoonist Dov Fedler along with his daughter Joanne.

Continue reading: Australian Jewish News

Book review: Gagman by Dov Fedler and Joanne Fedler

During my teens and twenties I gorged on Holocaust books until I could read no more, sickened to a point of no return. The depravity of that particular period and its effect on me made me swear never to read one again, and I never did.

I also avoid holocaust-themed movies and particularly the recent slew superficial ‘holocaust porn’ fiction like that Tattooist of Auschwitz book who’s insulting plot left me brooding darkly for days (I didn’t read it, but read reviews describing it in execrable detail).

And so when iconic cartoonist and writer Dov Fedler (a friend) and his daughter, writer Joanne Fedler (a friend) asked me to take a look at their joint effort, Gagman, I bowed out apologetically. I could simply not deal with its background and catalyst.- the camps of the holocaust.

Also, I try not to review books by friends. But the authors are not just friends, they are dear friends. So I relented and read it over the last few days.

The book is a soaring achievement, a great unrestrained explosion of creative imagination. Part novel, part history, part polemic, part graphic novel, part comedian’s philosophical musings, part confessional, part autobiography.

It is, by design, outside of any easily defined genre.

At is core, it is the story of one man, a minor conman and wiseguy who survives the camps by making the sadistic commandant laugh everyday. By telling jokes.

If he ever stops being funny, he dies. If he is funny, the commandant kills other Jews, but not our Gagman. And so he survives, day by day, as his campmates die around him, killed because of his comic survival skills.

The plot would be clever if it stopped here, but the (short) book grows other layers. The gagman’s relationship with the commandant morphs into an important and surprising climax (I won’t spoil.)

Our hero escapes the camp, meets Goering, finds his way to New York, and hangs on to life. He finds at least some redemption, not though faith, but through his adulation of the comic book hero Superman (created in real life by two Jews from Cleveland) and eventually and definitively from continuing to share his gift of making people laugh.

This book is a entirely new and wildly inventive addition to the canon of ‘serious’ Holocaust literature, notwithstanding that it boasts Jewish humour as its psychic fuel, and it deserves a wide readership.

It now increasingly stocked in various Holocaust and similar museum bookstores worldwide, but sadly not yet with national or international retail bookstores. If you want to read it, ask your bookstore to order though Protea Distributors.

It is an important book. Even if you, like me, cannot bear to read anything related to that sad time. Make an exception of this one.

Review by Steven Boykey Sidley, first posted on the Good Book Appreciation Society FB page

Joanne Hichens reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly for the Sunday Times

‘Boiling a Frog Slowly’ is an intensely personal memoir about escaping abuse

Cathy Park Kelly’s compelling and painstakingly honest book describes the insidiousness of abuse and how hard it is to leave a toxic and violent relationship

Boiling a Frog Slowly is a courageous, emotionally sincere exposé of a romantic relationship that slides into increasingly disdainful and abusive territory, when love indeed goes wrong. It’s about how terribly difficult it is, as a woman, to extricate oneself from a toxic, manipulative relationship in which one is treated with violence and contempt.

Right from the opening scene, which describes violence so extreme that I caught my breath, I was hooked and wanted to know how this could have happened to a woman I know — albeit on the periphery — as professional, caring and compassionate. What led to the point where Cathy was held down by her partner, as he scrawled the words slut, whore and c**t across her breasts with a red Koki pen?

Continue reading: Sunday Times

‘Reading Romance: Melissa Volker’s twisty love stories with an environmental agenda’ by Joy Watson

Daily Maverick

… Volker’s tales are carefully spun, a weave of gossamer thread of the finest ilk. Her books take a while to write and she has an uncanny ability to transpose the reader into time and place. 

In A Fractured Land, we are able to visualise the arid landscape, the sweat of hot nights is tangible, and we can smell the lingering scent of wisteria on dry, balmy days. Volker is adept at breathing life into the South African landscape, making it jump off the page to embed itself in the reader’s mind. 

“Quite a lot of work goes into my books,” says Volker. “I have been working on my current novel for about three years. I’m quite fussy. I try hard to layer the characters, to make the dialogue work. I feel like each novel is taking longer – maybe I’ve become a harsher critic of my own work, or maybe I am learning the craft of writing more.” 

The time that Volker invests in her writing is evident in her other books, Shadow Flicker (released in 2019) and The Pool Guy, a novella published in 2021. Attention to detail sets her work aside from other books in the genre, where some writers have managed to push out many books in a short time. 

Volker’s writing stands out in its meticulous effort to cobble together a love story that is complex, exquisitely told and of a high calibre. 

What also sets Volker apart is that both A Fractured Land and Shadow Flicker skillfully incorporate an attempt to pluck at the strings of environmental consciousness. 

“I write about the environment because it’s an issue of concern to me. When writing the books, I thought about some of the social circles that I am in where these issues don’t even touch ground. I realised that one way of getting people to think about it is through fiction. 

“Sometimes people are just so fatigued about bad news and watching it on TV. So I wanted to package it in a way that was palatable… in a way that raises awareness.”  

Daily Maverick

Ambre Nicolson Hsu reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly for Woman Zone Book Club

“If someone in your life is not sane, then expecting the best from them or working on yourself or breathing into the pain is a long road to misery. Sometimes you just need to walk away.”

These lines, drawn from the end of Cathy Park Kelly’s Boiling a Frog Slowly (Karavan, 2021), explain the central premise and plot of this compelling memoir. Don’t be fooled by their simplicity though, Park Kelly’s clarity is hard won.

In fact, what makes this book so riveting is the way in which Park Kelly describes just how complex and subtle the descent into an abusive relationship can be. What begins as an exhilarating new love unravels slowly into the terror and claustrophobia of mental and physical abuse.

While this book is about a difficult subject, it is not hard to read. Many memoirs of abusive relationships go heavy on the unremitting horror of the situation with the sad effect of numbing a reader. Instead, Park Kelly tells her story with warmth and wry humour. This has the effect of making her unflinching descriptions of the abuse and terror she experienced even more harrowing when you get to them.

What I like best about this book is the author’s quiet commitment to telling the truth, even when it is complicated, unpretty or ordinary. This is particularly apparent in her telling of how she extricated herself from the relationship. Whereas many such memoirs end with a flourish (the blinding once-off revelation, the dramatic flight, the packed suitcase), Park Kelly details instead the slow, hopeful, painful and painstaking journey towards recovering her agency and the confidence to leave the relationship behind. This rigour and integrity acts as a wonderful astringent against the often cloying “happy endings” that such books sometimes claim. Instead of ending with the first glimmer hope, Park Kelly looks beyond the easy ever after to paint a much more compelling portrait of a woman who, in the end, rescues herself.

Nancy Richards reviews A HIBISCUS COAST by Nick Mulgrew

In my opinion, Nick Mulgrew is the most extraordinary young man of words. Quick bio run down: In 2014, in his early twenties, he founded uHlanga, a magazine of poetry from KwaZulu-Natal – the now award-winning uHlanga Press publishes poets more widely. Personally, he’s had the support of the German Sylt Foundation, the Swedish Literature Exchange, amongst others, and was a Mandela-Rhodes scholar. His work, mainly short fiction and features, has won lots of awards and accolades, including a Thomas Pringle and Nadine Gordimer Award. He’s written four books, was born in South Africa in 1990, raised both in Durban and Orewa, New Zealand, is currently doing his PhD at Dundee University and is based in Edinburgh. This is not to over-brag on his behalf, just to expand on his background which again, in my opinion, throws light on why this, his fourth book and first novel is also completely extraordinary. And absolutely original.

The story starts in South Africa – the opening line, ‘The neighbours were murdered at Christmas.’ lays the cards on the table, and then, through the person of 19-year-old Mary, makes its way across oceans to New Zealand. It’s no coincidence that there is a Hibiscus Coast in both countries.

On the imprint page, it says ‘This book is a work of fiction. Any descriptions…of actual persons, places, events or organisations are fictitious.’ I’m sure this is quite true, but the persons, places, events and organisations here are so meticulously described as to ring peels of bells – both in what a reader may have experienced or imagined. Whilst I’ve never been to New Zealand, the images, and dialogues especially, appear to have been born from close and processed observation. And research. Mulgrew acknowledges, together with the South Coast Herald archives, the National Library of New Zealand, the Auckland City Library, Takupuna Library and UCT Library as some of his sources. Interestingly, something of a graphic artist, young Mary spends a bit of time in libraries too.  He was also helped tremendously by ‘komiti members of Te Herenga Waka of Orewa’ – so those who know little of the indigenous culture of NZ are in for some lessons. Now I know what a ‘hangi’ is, and that it needs to get laid. In fact I think I learnt quite a bit about South African culture too – for better and worse.

But aside from the extraordinary insight that’s gone into this book, as well as lived experience and research, what I found to be so absolutely original is its construction. The text is ‘illustrated’ with what you might call ‘supporting documentation’ – affidavits, newsletters, newspaper cuttings, posters, flyers, even hand-written notes. It’s been conceived and laid out with such care, that it commands respect – as well as a place in the timeline of both countries. I’m sorry not to have given any details of the plot itself, but oty to discover. Finally, they say you can’t tell a book by its cover, but what you can tell from this one, is that it really IS absolutely original.

First published on the GBAS FB page.

Nancy Richards reviews CONJECTURES by James Leatt

If ever there were a time to be asking the big questions, it’s probably now. I mean – commercial Christmas, COVID, universal chaos, climate change crisis – you know. But let’s narrow it down and start at the top – Is there a God? And / or is it possible to be good without God, the ‘standover man’? Endless list really. But these and so very many more are the questions with which James Leatt has been living – for a very long time. In his 80s now, Leatt set out on the religious path as lay pastor for the Order of Christian Service aged just twenty. He recalls spending his twenty-first ‘preaching on a hot February day in a tent mission at a new housing estate in Retreat.’ His calling to the ministry was loud. But not impervious to question. ‘Doubt,’ he quotes a proverb, ‘is the beginning, not the end of wisdom.’

In this book, he charts for the reader his path over the decades of religion, faith, doubt and questions, all the while spilling out some contagiously quotable lines and thoughts from a lifetime of reading and thinking. He was captivated for instance by Durkheim’s view that ‘religion provides the glue that holds societies together.’ He quotes a Dutch Reformed Minister who said a mining disaster was ‘an act of a wrathful God calling a sinful nation to repentance.’ He talks about ‘theodicy’ (the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil) and of a ‘crisis of credibility in religion’ … and more.

Interestingly however, he has not been sitting Buddah-like under a tree mulling over all this enlightenment doing nothing, he has led an exhaustively busy life teaching Social Ethics at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, becoming Deputy VC and Vice Principal at the same institute, later becoming VC and Principal at the then University of Natal. He was a founder member of the Independent Mediation Service of SA and Deputy Chair of the Institute for Democracy in SA (IDASA) – amongst other roles. But I tell all this, not to knock you dead with his CV, but to indicate that the path he has trodden has also wound its way through some hectic, challenging and revealing times here in South Africa. That he has emerged as a mild-mannered, silver-headed man still questing and questioning when others of his era have taken up bowls, is inspirational. Especially thought-provoking are his chapters on ‘Looking east’ and ‘Living without gods’ – but it’s all interesting, and as I opened by saying, infinitely quotable. My favourite takeaway is the parable of dharma – which he writes, is like a raft that you build out of all the things that come your way. You use it to ford the river in front of you, then you leave it on the other side for someone else to use. Like a legacy. I’m sure James Leatt will leave many others, but this book is truly a nine-carat piece of legacy for thinking readers to use. 

First published on the GBAS FB page.

Nancy Richards reviews BOILING A FROG SLOWLY by Cathy Park Kelly for Woman Zone Cape Town

Someone once explained to me the frog in increasingly hot water concept – that he won’t notice till he literally boils to death. I remember being horrified that such an idea could have been put to the test – poor frog, for heaven’s sake.
More shocking though is the thought that such a concept could apply to a human being – but seems it can.  Despite an increasingly hot water relationship, Cathy Park Kelly, hung on in for eight tortuous years with a man she calls here Karl. Her book, a vivid recall of the undermining, violent and over-heated treatment she tolerated, just made me want to weep for her. And lash out at the perp …

Woman Zone Cape Town