Category > Biography

Sheila

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Sheila, Robert Wainwright, book reviewSheila by Robert Wainwright is the biography of Sheila Chisholm, an Australian later known as Lady Loughborough, Lady Milbanke and Princess Dimitri. Born on her family’s homestead of Wollogorang, two days from Sydney, Sheila met her first husband, Lord Loughborough, while working as a volunteer nurse in Egypt during the First World War. In London, she was an immediate success in society, and remained at the top of social circles in the decades to come. She became Lady Milbanke on her second marriage, and then in later life she married the exiled Prince Dimitri of Russia, ending her days as Princess Dimitri.

Prior to spotting this book in a list of upcoming publications from Allen & Unwin, I had never heard of Sheila Chisholm.


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When the Hills Ask for Your Blood

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When The Hills Ask For Your Blood, David Belton, book reviewDuring the Rwandan genocide in 1994, David Belton was working as a producer and director for the BBC’s Newsnight programme, for which he covered the genocide along with a reporter and small crew. He also co-wrote and produced the feature film Shooting Dogs, which was based on real events during the genocide. Twenty years later, he tells his story in When the Hills Ask for Your Blood, revisiting a country trying to recover from those horrific events. He also tells the stories of Jean-Pierre and Odette, a Rwandan couple fearing for their lives and those of their children, and Vjeko Curic, a Bosnian missionary who tried to save as many lives as he could.

The genocide in Rwanda is one of the most horrific periods in recent history, the pain of which Rwandans continue to live with.


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Peter the Great

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Peter the Great by Robert Massie, book reviewBorn in 1672, Peter the Great is credited as being the Russian Tsar who pulled Russia out of the medieval world it was living in, and transformed it into a Westernized empire, becoming a great European power in the process. Peter was the son of Alexis I, by his second wife, and came to the throne after the death of his sickly half-brother Feodor III. Ruling initially as joint tsar with another half brother, Ivan, Peter became sole ruler in 1696. Having spent much time in the company of Europeans in his youth, Peter was determined to turn the Muscovite people into a European nation, and brought in many reforms, including forbidding beards. He expanded Russia’s territories, with wars against the Ottoman Empire and Sweden. He had a huge love for the sea, and turned Russia into a naval power. On land won from Sweden in the Baltic, he built his new capital, St Petersburg, and insisted that the court move there. Peter the Great died in 1725, still issuing decrees to improve Russia.


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Young Elizabeth

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Young Elizabeth by Kate Williams, book reviewYoung Elizabeth by Kate Williams is a part biography of Queen Elizabeth II, covering her childhood, the war years, marriage and the beginning of her reign. I’ve read a lot about the Queen, but am always open to a well written biography, so when the BBC History magazine reviewed and recommended this, I decided it would be worth my while.

Born Princess Elizabeth in 1926, she was the first daughter of the then Duke and Duchess of York, and her early years were spent in a cozy and happy family home. That changed when Edward VIII abdicated, and the Duke of York became King George VI.


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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K Massie, book reviewCatherine the Great was ruler of Russia in the eighteenth century. Born Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Herbst in 1729, she was brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as bride to her nephew and heir, Peter. The marriage however was not happy, and when Peter ascended the throne and proved to be a poor Tsar, largely due to his idolisation of Frederick of Prussia, Russia’s enemy and ruler of Peter’s birthplace, Catherine staged a coup and became Empress, ushering in one of the golden periods of Russia’s history.

Catherine the Great by Robert Massie is not the first book on Romanov rulers by the author which I have read. Several years ago, having been fascinated by an exhibition on the last Tsars at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, I read and loved Nicholas and Alexandra.


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A Curious Man

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A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley, Neal Thompson, book reviewIf the life story of Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley was fiction, you would probably have given up on it after the first couple of chapters because it seems to bear so little relation to what most of us know as real life. While not exactly leading what you may call a charmed life – his father died when he was still in school (which, incidentally he did not finish) and his home town of Santa Rosa, California, was flattened by the 1906 great San Francisco earthquake – he certainly had an incredible knack for finding the right sort of people, ideas and innovations at just the right time. Considering how incredible his rise from dirt poor child to multi-millionaire celebrity journalist and globetrotter was, it is also surprising that Neal Thompson’s new book A Curious Man: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It Or Not” Ripley is the first biography to be written about the man. This biography may have taken a long time in coming, but the five years it took to compile it were clearly a labour of love.


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J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing

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J M Coetzee, J.C. Kannemeyer, book reviewThe South African writer J. M. Coetzee is a notoriously private and quiet man. In a 1990 profile by journalist Rian Malan, it was noted that “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” For there to be a new and official biography (A Life in Writing) of the Booker and Nobel prize-winning author is therefore quite surprising. For it to be done with the full and enthusiastic cooperation of Coetzee himself is remarkable – publisher Scribe even go so far as to describe it as a “global publishing event”.

Curiously, despite his unwillingness to be interviewed about his private life prior to the publication of this new biography, Coetzee has produced a trilogy of novels that he describes as “fictionalised memoir”: Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002) and Summertime (2009).


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Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times

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Narendra Modi The Man The Times, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, book reviewFor political India Narendra Modi is very much the up and coming man. He has been making his presence felt on the political landscape for a long time, most specifically during his first stint as Chief Minister of Gujarat when he found himself at the vortex of a Muslim pogrom, part of the Godhra incident fall out. The question was did he order it or did he not, a question which still continues to be asked as Gujarat’s Chief Minister goes from strength to strength, especially now when he is aiming for the Prime Ministerial post.

Journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has been covering Modi’s career for a long time. ‘When he was seventeen, Narendra Damodardas Modi had an extra middle name—‘Trouble’’ Mukhopadyay wrote in an Outlook newsmagazine piece.


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Raffles

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Raffles, Victoria Glendinning, book reviewWhen I visited Singapore in 2009, I was of course aware of the world famous Raffles Hotel. I even visited it, as many tourists do, to enjoy a Singapore Sling or two in the renowned Long Bar. During the course of my trip, I began to notice that the name Raffles popped up in many other places around the city-state: a hospital, a leading school, a shopping mall and numerous businesses, not to mention the elegant statue on the quayside of the man who bore this name, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. For a man who was an imperialist – something we generally frown upon now – he seemed remarkable popular in the country that he played a key part in establishing. He was viewed not as a man imposing one country’s governance upon another, but rather as a founding father, without whom the Singaporeans of today would not be enjoying such prosperous lives. This attitude intrigued me. It was therefore with considerable interest that I read Victoria Glendinning’s Raffles and the Golden Opportunity, the first biography of Raffles to be written in over forty years.

While not full of the unequivocally glowing praise of earlier biographies, Stamford Raffles does come out of this book looking rather good.


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Mahanayak Revisited: The World of Uttam Kumar

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Mahanayak Revisited: The World of Uttam Kumar, Swapan Mullick, book reviewOddly enough, despite the fact that he passed away in 1980 no one has yet written an English biography of Bengal’s first superstar till senior journalist Swapan Mullick took up the challenge posed by Tranquebar and tried to make sense of the legend and the madness. He starts with the rumour that crept round the shabby Tollygunge studios in the 1970’s that Uttam Kumar was leaving Calcutta for Mumbai and this time for good. Bengal’s superstar had yet to make his mark in Hindi films, mainly because his Hindi pronunciation left much to be desired and his voice was too well known to be dubbed.

Mullick organizes Uttam Kumar’s life into various chapters that deal with his co-stars : Sabitri Chatterjee, Suchitra Sen, Supriya Devi who became his live in partner, his relationship with Satyajit Ray, who refused to use him in most of his films, barring Nayak which was based on the legend of a superstar and asked Uttam Kumar to delve into his darker side, influences from Hollywood for some of the films he acted in and his art compared to that of the other leading actors of the time.


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84 Charing Cross Road

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84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff, book reviewLong before the internet, or even computers, New Yorker Helene Hanff started buying books from Marks & Co. in London, thereby beginning relationships that lasted for decades. Her account of this was made into the book 84 Charing Cross Road.

It is a rare instance when non-fiction reads like fiction, and Helene Hanff’s book 84 Charing Cross Road is exactly one of those exceptions. Long before the age of the Internet and on-line book sellers like Amazon, New York writer Hanff saw an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature for a second-hand book shop called Marks & Co, which was located on 84 Charing Cross Road, in London, England. As she was in need of some items that were either out of print or unavailable in the USA, on October 5, 1949 she decided to write to them.


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Mohammed Rafi My Abba – A Memoir

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Mohammed Rafi, Yasmin Khalid Rafi, book reviewMohammed Rafi, known for his songs and his playback in Hindi films, died over three decades ago. Between 1940 and 1980, he dominated the Hindi film music world and the leading star of the time, names like Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna, competed to have him sing in their films. However since his passing, there really have been no definitive biographies of Rafi the human being till this volume written by his daughter in law. Yasmin Rafi and her husband Khalid lived in England, near Windsor and life with dominated by visits from their much loved Abba. Mohammed Rafi, from all accounts, was a very affectionate man and his daughter in law was fond of cooking for him.


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