Apartheid Dreamers: August Book + Bottle Pairing
Dear Readers + Drinkers,
Welcome back! Did you enjoy My Brilliant Friend and that refreshing Greco di Tufo we picked for you? Last month we chose a back list book because it fit so well with summer’s vacation vibes. Did you travel somewhere fun in July? This month, we’re picking straight from the front list with a book hot off the presses - If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais. And, since you may have blown your summer budget doing all that July traveling, we’re going easy on you with a real steal from a local shop - M.A.N.’s South African Chenin Blanc from Rollin’ Oats St. Pete. And, instead of a recipe this month, we’re sharing some Book + Bottle fans’ pictures of their recent trips to South Africa! Read on!
If You Want to Make God Laugh was published mere moments ago on July 16th, so we grabbed it and read it as fast as we could to get this review ready for August’s pairing. It really wasn’t a tough deadline to meet because the story draws you in and keeps you in suspense at the end of each chapter, forcing you to read on and on. Don’t you love the feeling when you can’t put a book down? We knew this would be a good book because of the great reviews of Bianca Marais’s first novel, Hum if You Don’t Know the Words (2017), and it did not disappoint.
If You Want to Make God Laugh follows the story of three women in various parts of Africa who at first seem to be unconnected. As the book progresses, they all converge in Magaliesburg, South Africa (outside Johannesburg), and their lives reveal themselves to be inextricably entwined. Ruth is rich and famous, but is perpetually tormented by personal demons. In fact, all three women grapple with their own struggles throughout the book in wildly different ways. Zodwa is poor and spends her young life trying to keep her family together, and internalizes most of her secrets. Delilah is a former nun who has a man in her life that drives her decision making, including returning to South Africa to face her past. Nothing is what it seems, and Marais does an excellent job of keeping the reader on their toes. The characters seem like real people - these are strong women, and we also see their faults and find ourselves wanting to yell at the book when we’ve been let in on a secret that a character has yet to learn. We want to warn them, but alas, they make mistakes like the rest of us, which makes the characters so relatable, despite the fact that few of us have been a) rich and famous, b) an inhabitant of a squatter camp, or c) a clergy person.
Marais’s use of first person narrative allows us to feel the energy of just post-apartheid South Africa without having to explain anything to us. Themes of socio economic disparity and race relations are presented naturally as the characters experience them first hand, rather than having narrative asides that pull your attention off the story. We experience Truth & Reconciliation Committees, we see Nelson Mandela on T.V., we hear the derogatory racial slurs, and we feel the wary but frenetic energy of uncharted change. What does it mean to be a have or a have not or to be black or white? None of this is addressed explicitly, but the reader comes away with a better understanding of the “other” regardless of which side of the fence you stand on.
Also impressive is the author’s background. South African by birth, Bianca Marais spent time as a volunteer with Cotlands, working with HIV/AIDs infected youth in Soweto, another township near Johannesburg. This first hand experience is evident from her intelligent and empathetic descriptions of this awful disease and how it ravages people not just physically, but emotionally as well.
Marais doesn’t orientalize or fetishize Africa in the way that some authors do. To many of us in the west, Africa is exotic, full of wild animals*, and a place of myth that many of us haven’t been. But Marias doesn’t try to appease the western audience by putting scenes of elephants and zulu warriors between the pages. She focuses on the place only as it affects her characters who are just regular people who happen to live in South Africa. This is a book about people, real people, and from them you get a more honest portrayal of life in South Africa. ( *South Africa is home to some amazing wild animals, and while they don’t really play a role in Marais’s book, we’ve chosen to include some here for your viewing pleasure.)
We don’t want to reveal too much or give anything away because this book is anything but trite. Marais weaves a story so well designed, that you never know how a struggle will play out or when a character is hiding a secret that affects the others. It’s truly a page turner.
We listened to If You Want to Make God Laugh on audio book and highly recommend it - a different narrator read for each of the three main characters, which added a dramatic quality to the story, enhancing the feeling that these women are telling you their story first hand. We suggest getting a LibroFM membership — for the same price as an Audible membership, you can support Book + Bottle directly and get access to the best new releases and old faithfuls on audio and you can listen anywhere - in the car, on the beach, or in the shower!
Our wine pairing this month also hails from South Africa, and its winery is also a story of three women — Marie, Anette, and Nicky — whose initials form the M - A - N of the winery. M.A.N. Family Wines is actually run by their husbands, but the women so woo’d their men, that the winery is essentially dedicated to them. We love that the men introduce themselves in terms of which woman they’re married to. How sweet is that! We also loved that M.A.N.’s motto is “real people, real wine,” which we think reflects the nature of the characters in If You Want to Make God Laugh so well.
The wine itself is a Chenin Blanc. You might know this grape as “Vouvray” in France, but here in South Africa it’s often called “Steen.” It’s racy like Ruth, powerful like Zodwa, and sweet like Delilah. Chenin Blanc is a crisp and refreshing white wine, which you’ll be so thankful for as you get into the emotional rollercoaster of If You Want to Make God Laugh. The acidity of the grape helps it go great with food, but it’s well balanced enough that you can enjoy it on its own, hopefully sitting on your porch reading this book. There is some residual sugar, but again, it’s so well balanced that even those who don’t love sweet wine will be tempted. And, the wine has personality - it’s powerful and stands up, unlike so many bargain wines you can find these days.
Since you probably have already blown your summer budget on all that July travel, we’re keeping it reasonable with our wine’s price this month. Rollin’ Oats in St. Pete has an incredibly talented and well connected wine buyer which helps him offer great deals like this M.A.N. Chenin Blanc for about $6. You just can’t beat that price for the quality of what’s inside. Our days of two buck chuck may be over, but we still love a great deal!
This wine is also a good pairing for this book because, while good, it lets the book be the main attraction. If you do one thing this August, read If You Want to Make God Laugh and talk about it with your friends.