David Whyte, the author of Consolations, reminds us that to be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or to do anything. It is to make conscious the things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of its consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world, to be open to the unknown that begs us on. Boiling a Frog Slowly is an effervescent narrative of what happens when we dare to open up to the unknown, to move on.
A Hibiscus Coast does not simplify anything, does not try to redeem nor condemn—it complicates. It shows how much we lose when we close ourselves off to that which is strange, Other and new—whether it is at home or somewhere else. Although it resists a linear path of character growth and healing for Mary (or any of the other characters) it does offer hope; hope in connection and relation, and in the expansive power of opening oneself up to that which is unknown and outside.
“Much of the story reads like an allegory, but Jennings, despite her insight, never implies that Samuel’s actions are generalizable to a nation. This is simply how isolation, humiliation and disappointment at the hands of friends, family and institutions crafted one man.”
And the team at Hogarth Books shares on Instagram:
“When An Island arrived on our desks last summer, several of us here at Hogarth closed our laptops for the afternoon and read it in one sitting. It’s that kind of book–short, fable-like, written in a timeless quality that makes it feel like it’s been with us forever. And its ending–it has an ending we’ve been thinking about ever since. This is one of those books that you will turn over in your mind again and again, with no simple interpretation or single meaning, and that you will desperately want to discuss with one of your best book friends. Returning to Lydia Millet’s question: An Island is history written via literature. Don’t miss it.”
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.
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
‘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?
… 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.”
“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.