Category > Biography

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

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The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker, book reviewThis is a story which strengthens the belief that truth is stranger than fiction. Browsing the New York library archives ‘on the prowl’ for a subject to write about, biographer Deborah Baker stumbled upon a file containing the papers of Maryam Jameelah. The sight of a lone Muslim name in those conservatively American stacks piqued Baker’s interest. She rummaged through the papers and came upon the intriguing story of Margaret Marcus, an intellectual misfit born to Jewish parents in New York State. Known as ‘Peggy’ the girl had no use for teen fashions or preoccupations like dating – instead she was obsessed from an early age with spirituality. “Even if there is a God, what sense did it make for Him to restrict His truth to a single people?” she wrote in a letter when she was eleven.


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Konstantin

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Konstantin - Tom Bullough, book reviewBeing an ardent Russophile, Tom Bullough’s Konstantin caught my eye on the virtual bookshelves. It’s a piece of biographical fiction, and recounts the early years of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the man regarded as the founding father of Soviet space travel. His is not a name I was familiar with before picking up this book and I can’t say that I’m much the wiser as to his legacy having read Konstantin but I found this a highly enjoyable read all the same.

The story stops short of describing Tsiolkovsky’s real achievements and focuses instead on the making of the man. The story starts in the 1860s when young Kostya (the diminutive of Konstantin) and his family are living in Ryazan, a town some 200 kilometres from Moscow.


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Portrait of a Paradox

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Didi: A Political Biography by  Monobina Gupta, book reviewWhatever Mamata Banerjee’s government brings to West Bengal she has found a place for herself in history as the woman who brought down the world’s longest serving communist government. Monobina Gupta’s biography is an incisive analysis of the factors that brought Didi – as Mamata Banerjee is fondly referred to by the world at large – to the forefront of power.

Monobina Gupta begins by describing the character of a woman who can be exasperating and magnetic by turns. She points out that Mamata hails from the lower middle classes and therefore is not a bhadralok as many of the top echelons of the CPI-M are.


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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad

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Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad: The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship - Bee Rowlatt, May Witwit, book reviewWhen I heard that there was a book called Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad – The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship my first thought was that it sounded just a bit too similar to ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ and I will admit that I dismissed it as another ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ book and thought no more of it. Then in autumn 2011 BBC Radio 4 did an adaptation, teasing the listener with just 15 minutes each day and I was hooked. I loved the adaptation of the book so much that I ordered a copy almost immediately – though perhaps to call it a ‘book’ is the wrong way to describe this. In effect, it’s just a collection of emails gathered over several years of friendship between a UK-based journalist and an Iraqi academic.

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Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life

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Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,  Jr. Douglas M. Knight, book reviewBalasaraswati was unique in that she was one of the few lightbearers for her community of dancers and represented a form that was almost lost after Independence took Bharat Natyam over and brought it within strict, almost sanitized guidelines. Balasaraswati along with Rukmini Devi Arundale belonged to the form’s renaissance. She came from the matrilineal devidasi tradition of South India, which like Indian classical music performed by the courtesans of Delhi and Lucknow, has a long heritage of artistic practices. Before she turned thirty, this dancer had become a legend in her own time. However she and her family relocated to the United States in an attempt to preserve what had been handed down to them through the generations, which was gradually being sidelined in the post 1950’s since it was seen as being very far from the mainstream.


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Philip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage

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Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage -  Gyles Brandreth, book reviewPhilip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage by Gyles Brandreth looks at the nature of the relationship between Prince Philip and the Queen over the six decades of their marriage, and prior to that through the years they knew each other after they met when the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was only thirteen. Brandreth is quite open about his intentions in writing the book: he is reasonably well acquainted with Prince Philip (he would not say they are close friends) and wants to dispel some of the myths that he is a grumpy and rude man.

Unlike the marriages of most of their children, the marriage of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II has stayed the course. They were married in 1947, five years before the death of King George VI.


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Satyajit Ray’s Boswell

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Manik Da Memories Of Satyajit RayOf all the people who knew Satyajit Ray, one man still considered the last word on the filmmaker is photographer Nemai Ghosh. For 25 years, Nemai recorded almost every moment of Ray’s cinematic life – his expressions, his movements, his moods. He is still called ‘Ray’s photographer’. “I found him more interesting than his actors,” says the 71-year-old, who has over 90,000 photographs of the filmmaker.

Ghosh’s interest in photography developed quite by accident. He was 34 and his passion was theatre. He had a group of friends who came to his home to play cards consisting of well known actors and cinematographers like Robi Ghosh and Bansi Chandragupta.

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The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde

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The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, book reviewThe Secret Life of Oscar Wilde was written by Neil McKenna and published in 2004. I can never resist books about Oscar Wilde and had never heard of this one until fairly recently. This is not so much a biography of Wilde though as a biography of Wilde’s private life, specifically his homosexuality. The author begins by explaining that he wanted to discover more about this side of Wilde’s life, which of course ultimately led to his downfall. When did Wilde first realise he was attracted to men? Why did he get married? Did his wife suspect anything? Why did he not take the advice of his friends to go abroad when his court battle against the Marquess of Queensberry collapsed and he faced charges of ‘gross indecency’?


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The King’s Speech

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The King's Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, book reviewThe King’s Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi is about Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, the man who helped King George VI overcome his stammer. It accompanies the recently released film of the same name, but it is not a novelisation, nor is it the book the film was based on.

Mark Logue is a grandson of Lionel Logue, and in his introduction he describes his quest to learn more about his grandfather, and also his reasons for wanting to tell his story. While the film covers only a decade or so, from 1926 to the start of the Second World War in 1939, Mark Logue wanted to provide a fuller picture of his grandfather’s life, from his life in Australia right through all the years he worked with and became friends with the King.

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The Real Me is Thin

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The Real Me is Thin By Arabella Weir, book reviewThe Real Me Is Thin is a biography by actress, comedian and writer, Arabella Weir. Arabella was a regular face on the comedy series ‘The Fast Show’ with Paul Whitehouse, where her catchphrase “Does my bum look big in this?” featured regularly. As well as being a regular on the series ‘Grumpy Old Women’ she has appeared in plays and TV series such as ‘Skins’.

A few years ago I read a previous book of Arabella’s which was named after the aforementioned catchphrase “Does My Bum Look Big In This” and quite enjoyed it, so when I was given a copy of her latest offering, ‘The Real Me Is Thin‘ I was interested in reading it, particularly as this was a biography highlighting her issues with food and eating throughout her life.


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Late for Tea at the Deer Palace

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Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family By Tamara Chalabi, book reviewLate for Tea at the Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi charts the history of the authors Iraqi family through the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. She starts with her great-grandfather, then her grandparents and their children, her father and his siblings. As a prominent family and opponents of the regime which overthrew the royal family, the Chalabis, a Shi’a Muslim family, were forced into exile in the late 1950s, moving to London and then Lebanon. Only once Saddam Hussein was removed from power could they return to their beloved Iraq.

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Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography

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Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography By William Shawcross, book reviewQueen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: The Official Biography by William Shawcross was published in hardback in 2009, six years after being commissioned by the Queen. The paperback came out in July 2010.

The Queen Mother is a remarkable figure in the history of the monarchy. Born in 1900 as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, she married Bertie, Prince Albert the Duke of York in 1923 and became Duchess of York. When his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, the couple and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, were suddenly propelled onto the throne, something they had not expected nor wanted.


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