Category > Biography

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde By Richard EllmanOscar Wilde is a comprehensive (my paperback copy is well over 600 pages long with the index) and acclaimed biography by Richard Ellmann. The book took two decades to complete and was only finished shortly before the author’s death. Ellman completed the biography in the face of incurable illness and his affection and love for the subject shines through this astonishingly erudite and very sympathetic account of the writer’s life. ‘Oscar Wilde,’ writes Ellman. ‘We only have to hear the great name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will surprise and delight us. Among the writers identified with the 1890s, Wilde is the only one who everybody still reads. The various labels that have been applied to the age – Aestheticism, Decadence – ought not to conceal the fact that our first association with it is Wilde – refulgent, majestic, ready to fall.’ The book is split into five sections (BEGINNINGS, ADVANCES, EXALTATIONS, DISGRACE, EXILE), each of which consists of chapters and is like a mini-book in itself.


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One World – One Great Big Family

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Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents By Minal Hajratwala“Indian diaspora” is one of those phrases that have become part of conversation these days. Most people mouth the phrase without thinking too much of it – yes, yes, it covers UK, New Jersey, somewhere else in America, Canada. And then the conversation trails off in vagueness. The reality of the far flung Indian diaspora does not become apparent until you get hold of a book like Minal Hajratwala’s. Her extended family consists of 36 first cousins strung out across the globe between Fiji, England and South Africa, literally five continents when you sit down to analyse them.

What she does is follow her ancestors on a very personal journey. One that started from Navsari in Gujarat in 1834, just after slavery was outlawed in the British colonies and replaced by another form of servitude, indentured labour.

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Child Soldier

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Child Soldier By (author) China KeitetsiWhat is it about misery that makes for such compelling reading? Tales of miserable childhoods fill the shelves of the nation’s bookshelves. Remember ‘Angela’s Ashes’, filled with grubby little Irish children picking coal off the streets and drinking their tea out of jam jars? Or Dave Peltzer kicking off a glut of impassioned shock-lit, stuffed full of physical, mental and sexual abuse, each book striving to be more shocking than the one before? It reminds those of us old enough to remember of the Monty Python sketch in which a bunch of northerners compete over who had the worst childhood – “We were so poor we lived in a paper bag at the bottom of a lake!”

These books all cry out “My mum/dad/gran/school/priest/social worker treated me worse than a dog …… but I’m a survivor” and the public laps them up in a frenzy of voyeuristic fascination. How many autobiographies can you think of about happy childhoods? I can’t think of any but then I don’t suppose “My mum and dad were fantastic and my childhood was full of love and comfort” shifts the mountains of paperbacks that publishers are looking to sell.

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The Life and Times of Pearl S Buck

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Burying The Bones: Pearl Buck in China By Hilary SpurlingPearl Buck was born to missionary parents in America, but the family moved to Zhenjiang in China while she was still very small and Pearl grew up bilingual – in many ways, she was more Chinese than English. Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a determined man and although his beliefs were frequently rejected by the Chinese, he forged ahead with his teachings. Carie, his wife, supported him as best she could, although they often argued over what was best for the children. Pearl grew up into a determined young woman herself, who also became a missionary, although her views were much less forthright. Marrying John Lossing Buck, an agricultural missionary, she lived through one of the most violent periods of unrest in Chinese history, until finally forced to move to the US permanently in 1935.

Apart from the fact that her experience of China and the Chinese people at that time was second to none, her main claim to fame is that she was an author, using her storytelling skills to educate the West about the ordinary Chinese people. Her most famous book, The Good Earth, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and she was later awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

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I Will Survive

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Emergency: One Man's Story of a Dangerous World, and How to Stay Alive in it By Neil StraussIf you had asked me a week ago what one thing I would most want if I was about to live through the collapse of Western civilisation, my answer would almost certainly have been “Ray Mears”. As a life-long urban dweller who has only once been camping, my only means of survival should we lose all the comfy trapping of civilisation that most of us have come to depend on for food, warmth and safety is a battered old Swiss army knife dating from the days I went on archaeological digs; a pair of hiking boots (ditto); a torch, and a husband who was once a boy scout. Thinking about it now, it seems quite a trivial haul to last until rescue comes (you will be on your own for 3-5 days is case of a major disaster according this book, if help comes at all). In an emergency, people apparently respond in one of three ways, known as to 10-80-10 rule: 10% would be utterly useless and a potential liability to their fellow survivors, 80% would be too shocked to think or act rationally, and 10% would remain calm and become the leaders of the group. A sneaking suspicion that I would definitely fall into the second group if not the first suggested that it would be no bad thing to read Neil Strauss’ “Emergency”; it may not make me into a Ray Mears, but I might just pick up something useful from it.


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