WE ARE NOT SUCH THINGS:
The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation
By Justine van der Leun
Spiegel & Grau, 544 pp., $28
Amy Biehl was just 26 when she was beaten and stabbed to death in Cape Town. It was August 1993, in the waning months of the violent and oppressive apartheid rule that had brutalized South Africa’s black majority. Biehl, a white American academic and anti-apartheid activist, was in the country as a Fulbright scholar. Her brutal murder, followed by her parents’ public forgiveness of the men convicted of killing her, became an international sensation. Much like the then-recently freed Nelson Mandela’s forgiving those who had imprisoned him and the nationwide redemption promised by the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Biehl story seemed to illustrate how the best in human nature could triumph over the worst.
That inspiring narrative is what Justine van der Leun, an American living in South Africa, set out to write. “But you won’t read about that here,” she warns. “In its stead, a different story emerged.” That story, which blends deep historical research with dogged, on-the-ground reporting, begins a little slowly but builds into something unforgettable. In trying to untangle what happened the day of Biehl’s murder, Van der Leun talks with black township residents and retired Afrikaner police officers, disillusioned revolutionaries, and hopeful teenagers. The result is a gripping narrative that examines the messiness of truth, the illusory nature of reconciliation, the all too often false promise of justice.
ON TRAILS: An Exploration
By Robert Moor
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $25
Robert Moor first encountered the Appalachian Trail as a 10-year-old summer camper on a hike up Mount Washington, burdened by a heavy backpack that, he writes, “resembled a piece of full-body orthodontia.” When a counselor told them they were on a trail that stretched from Maine to Georgia, Moor recalls the “tingle of wonder” at the idea of something so large.
Years later, hiking the full expanse, Moor began to think about where he was walking, and why. “Piece by piece,” he writes, “I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet,” from the pheromone trails left by ants to the unerring wisdom of the ancient buffalo traces through the prairies.
Part natural history, part scientific inquiry, but most of all a deeply thoughtful human meditation on how we walk through life, Moor’s book is enchanting. He talks with paleontologists studying the world’s oldest fossil trails, and biologists pondering the exquisite delicacy of an elephant’s foot, which allows it to detect distant thunder, and thereby lead the way toward water. Even more fascinating, if sometimes troubling, is Moor’s examination of the human relationships to trails, how history and culture influence our understanding of the land, whether we view it as a resource to conquer, a wilderness to fear, or a treasure to protect. “Walking creates trails,” Moor writes. “Trails, in turn, shape landscapes. And, over time, landscapes come to serve as archives of communal knowledge and symbolic meaning.”
By Rob Sheffield
Dey Street, 208 pp., $19.95)
A contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield writes about pop music with a critic’s deep, nerdy knowledge of the genre’s history, its web of personalities and bands and who influenced whom. But more importantly, and most ardently on display in this new book, he writes about music as a fan. The night the world learned of David Bowie’s death in January, Sheffield writes, what he witnessed was “overwhelming gratitude for his life.” In this brief yet rich look back at Bowie, Sheffield, a Milton native, never breaks that mood of thankful wonder, the feeling you get when you hear a song that helps you understand your own self.
Bowie was a protean figure, constantly inventing new names, personas, masks, and moods, but Sheffield reminds us that some things were constants in his music. “He sang about the transformative power of desire,” he writes, “the way it warped his body and soul, which is why he attracted his own breed of young folk going through that difficult phase.” Then there was Bowie’s love for his audience — “he makes them feel like stars” — and for the dizzying array of music that fed his own, from Motown to punk to hip-hop to all those ’80s bands that grew up on early Bowie themselves. Sheffield’s book has all the bounce and joy of an uptempo love song. You can almost dance to it.