For my favourite fiction books of the year, go here.
I have always enjoyed reading non-fiction, particularly history books, memoirs, biographies and socio-political analysis. These are my favourite five from 2015 (in no particular order).
Rape: A South African Nightmare by Pumla Gqola
Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend by Arianna Stassinopoulos
The Dressing Station by Jonathan Kaplan
Goodbye Sarajevo by Akta Reid and Hana Schofield
Seminary Boy by John Cornwell
“Rape is not a moment, but a language”
“The threat of rape is an effective way to remind women that they are not safe and that their bodies are not entirely theirs. It is an exercise in power… It teaches women about their vulnerability [by] showing them that it could happen to them next. It is an effective way to keep women in check and often results in women curtailing their movement in a physical or psychological manner.”
Pumla Gqola’s most recent book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, is a gem. It is clear, accessible and simply written – although deals with some complex concepts and issues – and is definitely not only written for academics. It is also difficult to read and rage-inducing. When I purchased the book, I thought: “Oh, it’s less than 200 pages. I’ll finish it in a couple of days”. It took me two weeks as I couldn’t manage to read more than a few pages at a time.
Gqola does a superb job of addressing the fear and experience of rape in South Africa, with a clear articulation of how the different dimensions of gender, race, class and sexuality shape those experiences. This includes tracing the history of how rape and sexual violence were an integral part of the experience of slaves and women of colour in South Africa in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. For me, one of the best things about the book is that Gqola addresses men and toxic masculinity head on, and she does not avoid talking about the ways in which men who do not rape can be complicit in creating an environment in which sexual violence thrives:
“It is also important for men who choose not to rape to stop being complicit and sometimes directly undermining attempts to end rape culture. Men who are not violent need to stop responding angrily to those who seek to end rape, accusing us of blaming all men, and requiring that we start by staying ‘not all men’… Stop sabotaging those who engage in a fight to end rape by insisting that any critique of endemic rape be prefaced with ‘not all men rape’”.
This is an excellent book and highly recommended.
“To sing is an expression of your being, a being which is becoming”. – Maria Callas
I first read this book when I was 11 or 12. You can’t be raised in a Greek household and not know who Maria Callas was. I’m not sure I really understood much in the book at the time, but it did spark my interest in Maria Callas and I have listened to her music since I was a teenager. I realised a few years ago, however, that Callas is at her most magical when you watch her performances rather than only listen to her music and I wish that more of her performances were available in watchable quality.
Some online reviewers have accused this book of being dull and boring, and it seems that many people started this book with the hopes that it would focus on Callas’s relationships with powerful men, particularly Aristotle Onassis, and other high profile aspects of her life (insert requisite political commentary on how women’s lives are seldom worth talking and writing about unless they centre around men). Arianna Stassinopolous clearly intended this to be a book which looks beyond the public persona and image of Callas, and instead tries to understand her philosophy about opera and her commitment to her craft, her troubled relationship with her family, and the extreme self-doubt that plagued her until her isolated and lonely death at age 53.
If you are interested in Callas the girl, the woman and the singer, then this is an excellent place to begin. It certainly counts as one of my favourite biographies. I recommend listening to her music while reading this, particularly her performances in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Tosca, and Verdi’s La Traviata.
Two of my favourite Callas interviews have been with Lord Harewood, both in 1968.
The Dressing Station by Jonathan Kaplan
“All doctors have their ghosts. Sometimes they jostle me: the ones I couldn’t save, the ones I killed… Every loss diminishes us, yet we continue, always in the hope of redemption.”
Jonathan Kaplan is a surgeon and doctor who was born and studied in South Africa but has practiced medicine all over the world, including Namibia, Kurdistan, Mozambique, Burma, Eritrea, England and the United States. He has worked as a surgeon in makeshift hospitals in war zones and refugee camps, as a medical officer at airports and on cruise ships, and as an emergency room doctor in South Africa and England.
Kaplan started his work in conflict zones during apartheid in South Africa, where he treated protesters attacked by the police, and survivors of gang violence in Cape Town. As a young white man, Kaplan was expected to serve in the military, possibly using his medical skills to the advantage of the apartheid state, and he and his fellow students constantly discussed what it meant to be a doctor under this kind of regime. Deciding that he could not serve in the military in defence of apartheid, either as a soldier or an army doctor, and also frightened of the prospect of fighting in South Africa’s border wards, Kaplan left for England to begin his medical career six days before he was due to begin his compulsory military service. So began his globe-trotting journey.
Kaplan does a good job of exploring the ideals medicine is based on, but also critiquing how medical practice so often strays from these principles. While the book is a memoir, it is not a particularly personal one. The narration of his experiences is interesting, but he does not stray too far into intimate accounts of his life. Nonetheless, it is a compelling read.
Here is an interview with Kaplan regarding his experiences and work as a doctor, writer and filmmaker.
“Grandma’s firm belief in God gave her the strength to keep going… When I asked her how God could allow all these horrors, she simply replied that this evil had nothing to do with God… I admired her unshakeable faith.”
The Siege of Sarajevo lasted for 1 425 days (5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996) during the Bosnian War, and is regarded as the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.
The book begins in May 1992, only weeks before the siege of the city begins. Two sisters, Hana and Nadia, get on a bus evacuating Sarajevo. Akta, another sister, stays behind with their grandmother, father and other siblings. Hana and Nadia end up as refugees in Croatia, where their mother eventually joins them, while Akta and the remaining family struggle with severe food shortages, mortar attacks and snipers. The story is told from the point of view of two of the sisters: Akta (21 years old) in Sarajevo who tries to keep the family functioning in the face of incredibly difficult living conditions, and Hana (12 years old) in Croatia, separated from most of her family and living with strangers.
Essentially, this story is about trying to hold a family together during war and separation, and about the need to carry on with life even under incredibly difficult circumstances. It is also about the kindness of strangers, as Hana and Akta and their family are helped by people both inside and outside Sarajevo who provide assistance in the form of supplies and transportation, and ultimately assistance in starting a new life.
The book is a very personal account, and while there is some background on the war itself and commentary on the political situation (including the failings of the United Nations), the emphasis is on the two sisters and their family’s survival during one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since WWII. It will be a more enjoyable read if you know a little about the Bosnian War.
Here is an interview with the authors about their book and surviving the war.
Seminary Boy by John Cornwell
“I surveyed the Godless landscape, rejoicing inwardly that I was soon destined to depart for a very different world where there would be constant visible reminders of the Mother of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Relationships between children and adults to whom they are not related can be a dangerous thing, particularly if those children come from a difficult, violent or otherwise painful home life and are vulnerable to the kindness and attention of adults. These relationships, however, can also be powerful, positive and ultimately change the course of a child’s life. John Cornwell’s memoir, Seminary Boy, reflects on both of these possibilities, and I found myself both frightened for him when confronted with predators in positions of authority over children, but also rejoicing for the positive relationships he developed with priests.
In the 1950s, at age 13, Cornwell leaves his troubled family and grinding poverty to begin studying for ordination into the Catholic clergy. He is not going just to escape his family; he has a deep passion for the rituals of the church and the spirituality of religion. He anticipates that the seminary will be his sanctuary, and does indeed form strong friendships with fellow students and some of the priests, and begins to feel increasingly like an outsider from his family whose circumstances go from bad to worse. However, the repressive nature and rigid hierarchy of the seminary and his increasing obsession with the concepts of sin and penance begin to take their toll, and he struggles to find spiritual and emotional equilibrium.
If you are familiar with Cornwell’s other work, particularly his sharp critiques of the Catholic Church, then you will know that his experiences ultimately led him away from the priesthood, and despite his early enthusiasm for becoming a priest, he concludes that “a thread had loosened in the fabric of my vocation; it might take a long time unravelling, but it seemed to me the process was irreversible”. This is an interesting and thought-provoking memoir.
Here is one of Cornwell’s articles on his views regarding the Catholic Church and sexual abuse of children by the clergy.