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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Reviewed: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller, Simon & Schuster

After telling the story of a Wyoming oilman in The Legend of Colton Bryant, Alexandra Fuller is back on familiar territory in this latest book, essentially a love letter to her “fierce, broken, splendid” mother.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of ForgetfulnessWe first met Nicola Fuller Of Central Africa ten years ago in Alexandra’s vivid childhood memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight. In it her mother was portrayed as eccentric, alcoholic and mentally unstable and she now refers to it as “that Awful Book”. Now, it seems, age and her own experiences as a mother have softened Alexandra’s stance and the woman who emerges from these pages is a complex, aristocratic, grand romantic. She is also immensely courageous.

Cocktail Hour traces Tim and Nicola Fuller’s own childhoods, his in England and his wife’s on the Isle of Skye and in Kenya. Her mother is, she writes, “one million percent Highland Scottish”, from the McDonald of Clanranald clan. “We’re very mystical, very savage people”, she tells her daughter.

She and Tim met in Kenya, a land, Fuller writes “of forbidding perfection”. Nicola was beautiful; Tim patricianly handsome and they were a glamorous couple. But Nicola’s desire for a glorious, adventurous colonial life was shattered over years of loss and hardship. Fuller tacks deftly backwards and forwards through their history, through wars and poverty, farms that went bad and others that were all-too-brief paradises.

From reading Dogs we know that Tim and Nicola lost three children, but still Fuller moves us to tears revisiting their deaths. Such is her range, though, she moves us to loud laughter in many chapters, too, such as an hilarious account of her mother dressing her up in an insecticide barrel for a fancy dress party. And as always in Fuller’s stories, peculiar characters abound: Nicola’s best friend in childhood was a chimpanzee called Stephen Foster; an ancestor called Muncle kidnapped two Tasmanian aborigines and brought them home to Skye; drunk grannies fried themselves in fireplaces and deranged ayahs pinched their charges black and blue.

The story has a happy ending. Tim and Nicola now farm successfully in Zambia, surrounded by grandchildren and the elderly set of orange Le Creuset pots that are virtually the only things they have carried with them over the years. Their story is one of deep love and endurance.

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Reviewed: Paper Sons & Daughters by Ufrieda Ho, Picador

Paper Sons and DaughtersWe’ve all read the big non-fiction South African books, the histories of The Struggle, the biographies of the figures that played a part. But it is the smaller, personal histories of South African families and communities that interest me. Chris van Wyk’s moving, funny stories of growing up in the Coloured area of Riverlea, Rrekgetsi Chimeloane’s boy’s-eye-view of a Soweto upbringing in Whose Laatie Are You? and Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia. Darryl Accone wrote an excellent account of growing up in the Chinese community in All Under Heaven and he has been followed by Ufrieda Ho with her engrossing memoir Paper Sons & Daughters.

Ufrieda, an award-winning journalist, recounts her upbringing in Bertrams, a former “grey” area, where Chinese families strived to make a life in this strange, brutal world they called Gum Saan – Golden Mountain, but also Naam Fey – Southern Darkness. Ufrieda’s father was a “fahfee” man, that is, one of the near-invisible Chinese men who ran the illegal, arcane gambling game that has long flourished in the cracks and poor corners of Johannesburg.

As well as being an intriguing window into this closed community, Paper Sons & Daughters is a meditation on identity and belonging. How to make sense of a childhood with a poster of Johnny Depp on the wall, feasting on Portugese cakes and yet making offerings to ancestors on the home altars? Of growing up in such a closely tied community that is officially not recognised as exisiting? Rich, vivid and thought-provoking, it is a welcome addition to the jigsaw of stories that make up the true picture of South African life.

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Reviewed: Stones Against the Mirror by Hugh Lewin, Umuzi

Stones Against the MirrorThis is an important book, one that will have you thinking deep on the issues of cowardice and self-preservation, on the crippling weight of guilt and blame and the fine, indestructible filaments of friendship.

1964 was another time, and South Africa then was certainly another country.
Hugh Lewin was a student activist, fired by idealism and fury at the apartheid state. He joined ARM, the African Resistance Movement, a group of mostly white, middle class militants who sabotaged railway lines and electricity pylons. They were, by his account, somewhat inept and ill-suited to violent action.

The security police came down hard and arrested them one after another, to be beaten and tortured. Lewin was picked up after his best friend Adrian Leftwich cracked and gave names in return for his own freedom. After he testified against him in court the 24-year-old Lewin was jailed for seven years, while Leftwich fled to the UK.

Lewin has carried the corrosive burden of this betrayal for 40 years, through decades of exile in the UK and Zimbabwe, but in latter years, especially when he was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his feelings began to shift.

In 2005 he travelled to York to finally face his betrayer, the man who was his closest friend, his comrade, his “twin brother”. In so doing he was able to circumscribe his anger and to assay the elements of responsibility and moral ambiguity.

His sedulous exploration of this painful subject has resulted in an emotive, perceptive book.

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Reviewed: Relish: My Life on a Plate by Prue Leith, Quercus

RelishI tore through this astonishing memoir in record time, caught up in the sheer vigour and drama of Prue Leith’s life. Ignore the staid cover: the story contained herein is so racy, frank and – dare I say it – stirring, you regret it when you have to turn the last page.

Here in South Africa we regard Prue Leith, who was born in Johannesburg, with pride. We know her as a chef and businesswoman, the recipient of an OBE and a CBE; she is one of our golden exports. What we learn here is not just how high she has flown in her positions on boards and such prestigious organisations as the Royal Society of Arts (where she butted heads with Prince Philip) but of her failures, too, and her complex personal life. Leith conducted a 13-year secret affair with her mother’s best friend’s husband whom she eventually married, and late in life, after he had smoked himself to death, she fell in love with a man who suffers from bipolar disorder.

The narrative speeds along with gusto, with Leith cooking fry-ups for the Beatles and hiding dope in the garden for her tenants, The Hollies. She finds herself, mortified, at an orgy in Paris and in one hilarious story she clears the newspaper offices where she is writing a cookery column when she receives what she thinks is a letter bomb. In fact, the parcel contained an orthodontic retainer stuck in a lump of burned sugar, the result of a mistake in her marmalade recipe. The disgruntled sender had also sent in a bill for the retainer’s replacement.

Once, called on to cater a dinner party at a grand house, she finds the regular cook has sabotaged her team and she is forced to boil potatoes in a tea urn in the butler’s pantry and cook the salmon in hot tap water. She is nothing if not resourceful. At another grand event at the Tate gallery she realises the mussel soup has fermented, and in just 40 minutes she runs home, throws litres of tinned soup, cream and herbs into several pots and returns to serve it up to a satisfied arty gathering.
It is this redoubtable energy and zest, her self-deprecating humour and candid accounts of love and mothering that make Prue Leith so likeable, although there are doubtless those who have felt the lash when they don’t live up to her standards. We look forward to hosting her at the Book Salon when she visits South Africa later this year.

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Reviewed: Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother by William Shawcross, Pan Books

Queen Elizabeth the Queen MotherAfter reading this book I cannot wait to see the film The King’s Speech. William Shawcross’s official biography is a monumental work, studied and scholarly. There’s little here that’s salacious – and I would have liked to know more about her famously mischievous side – but we get a rich portrait of a woman who put duty above all else. Elizabeth Bowes Lyon came from a sprawling aristocratic Scottish family. Prince Albert, the King’s younger son, was entranced by their easy informality, their teasing and cheerfulness. After the stuffy, strict protocols of life at court Elizabeth’s home was a paradise. He fell hopelessly in love with her. She refused his marriage proposal three times and one gets the impression that she finally married him out of duty to the royal family – her refusals infuriated the old Queen. Having succumbed, she set about making a happy marriage, and making something of her shy, stuttering husband. She also melted the glaciers surrounding Buckingham Palace.

At a thousand-odd pages this is a book to read in fits and starts. I enjoyed it as a work of history, for the story of the Queen Mother is also the story of the 20th century, and she played a remarkable role in it.

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Reviewed: 3,096 Days by Natascha Kampusch, Penguin

3,096 daysNatascha Kampusch was just 10 years old when she was snatched on a Vienna street and imprisoned in an underground dungeon. Eight years later she sprinted to freedom. The world was mesmerised by her story, the depredations she suffered, the suicide of her captor and her unquenched will to survive. It has taken her four years of recovery to write this fascinating book and the young woman who emerges is dignified, thoughtful and wise beyond her years.

Wolfgang Priklopil locked her in a five square metre cell behind a metre-thick concrete door. When she was older she was occasionally allowed up to do the housework, but always half-naked. Bizarrely, Priklopil’s mother used to come and stay with him in the house, not knowing of the wretched captive far below her. Natascha was beaten and starved, and clearly molested too, but she refuses to write about this aspect, begging privacy from what she has found to be a very prurient world.

It has been an unspeakably difficult road to recovery: she has battled the police who bungled the investigation into her disappearance, and faced down a public who wanted a broken victim, not a defiant, self-possessed survivor. (Helpful people sent her their old clothes and offered her jobs cleaning their houses. When she refused she was labelled ungrateful.) But recover she has, as she writes ‘What I have experienced also gives me strength: I survived imprisonment in my dungeon, freed myself and remained intact. I know that I can master life in freedom as well. And this freedom begins now, four years after 23 August 2006. Only now can I put the past behind me with these pages and truly say: I am free.’

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Reviewed: Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, HarperCollin

Coco Chanel So much of Chanel remains enigmatic – the more you run after her the more elusive her ghost becomes.” So writes Justine Picardie in this splendid biography of one of the last century’s most enchanting characters.
Rather than running after her, Picardie spent 13 years quietly tracing Chanel’s life, visiting her homes and the places she frequented. She visits Chanel’s private apartment in Paris above her celebrated atelier, kept as it was when the great couturier entertained there. It is ornate, stuffed with Coromandel screens, leather-bound books, gilt and crystal and sculpture. But the place where she slept was as white and austere as the convent orphanage in which she was raised. It is fascinating to learn how much of this upbringing was reflected in Chanel’s vision: the black of the nuns’ habits, the white cuffs, the stars of the abbey floor which became a favourite motif. She had a near-fetish about cleanliness all her life.

Picardie sets out to explain the enigma. This isn’t easy, for Chanel, a master seamstress, stitched and unstitched the details of her life at whim. She was an extraordinary inventor, blithely throwing out the mincing corsets of women’s fashion in the early 1900s and replacing them with simple, comfortable clothes. It was she who put women into trousers, invented the “little black dress”, who cut her hair short, wore flat shoes and made a tan fashionable. Of her many powerful lovers the Duke of Westminster had the most influence on her. He gave her the ropes of pearls – one for each birthday – that became her signature, and during the time she spent at his estate in Scotland she synthesised the tweeds and golf shoes, the livery of his servants, into her designs.

She was vital, insouciant and tireless in her work. She chose the company of artists over socialites and was a clever businesswoman. She was the first to “brand” herself, to sell her own perfume, and she reinvented herself over and again. Marriage and children sadly eluded her, but she was a woman of enormous passion and acute creativity.

Chanel died in her late 80s in 1971, busy with her next collection. Interest in her has never abated. At the time of writing, the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is on circuit, and if you haven’t seen it, Coco Avant Chanel is a must-see from your DVD store.

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Reviewed: Life by Keith Richards and James Fox, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

LifeThis book should be under the Christmas tree for anyone who plays air guitar in the shower. By now you will have read fragments of the juiciest bits in the press – such as that Mick Jagger is under-endowed – but there is so much more in this absorbing book.

The first surprise is how utterly likeable he is. James Fox has preserved a casual, talking-shit tone that sounds as if Richards is sitting chatting in the pub next to you. He just tells it as he remembers it, and takes you on a hallucinogenic trip. There’s the bullied childhood in drab post-War suburbia, his discovery of Chicago Blues music and meeting on a train station with another fan, Mick Jagger. There’s the beginning of the Rolling Stones when they were so broke they collected empties to get money to buy guitar strings, living in a squat with crusted dishes piled up to the kitchen ceiling. On it goes, to the first concerts with screeching fans (“Not a dry seat left in the house”, observed the night watchman), to the drugs and Bentleys and all-night song writing sessions.

The second surprise is how sharp and perceptive the old pirate is, and how shy. He took drugs, he reckons, to deal with the fame. And though he is a towering icon of rock ‘n roll, he’s always been able to stand back from the legend.

“I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me,” he writes. “I mean the skull ring and the broken tooth and the kohl. Is it half and half? . Image is like a long shadow. Even when the sun goes down you can see it.. It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”

He writes a lot about the music, how it is made, and how many of the most famous songs came to be. He wrote the singular melody of Satisfaction literally in his sleep, waking with a hangover one morning and finding it recorded on his tape recorder, followed by 40 minutes of his snoring.

He tells of first loves, and of great loves, and of destructive loves, and he writes candidly about his complicated 40-year relationship with Jagger, a man, he says, addicted to flattery.

All in all, it’s a tremendous work of rock history and a chronicle of a surreal life. Richards is a living treasure.

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Reviewed: Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books

Hitch-22When Christopher Hitchens announced he was suffering from terminal oesophageal cancer some months ago, readers across the world gasped.

Surely this brilliant, bellicose voice was not going to be silenced? Hitchens revealed his illness in the lustrous pages of Vanity Fair where he is a contributing editor, and in the next issue noted grimly that the zealots were abroad, crowing that God was punishing him for his blaspheming. Hitchens is not so much an atheist as an anti-theist, as he elegantly argued in his 2007 book God is not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. The health zealots have also been smirking unbecomingly, given his famously prodigious intake of cigarettes and scotch.

We should be thankful that he got around to writing this captivating memoir, packed as it is with anecdote and spleen. He traces his life as the son of a wintry naval commander and a tragic, devoted mother, who sent him to boarding school at the age of eight. With a quick tongue and a preternatural grasp of literature, he went on to Oxford and life as a journalist and public intellectual. “I learned that if you give a decent speech in public or cut any sort of figure on a podium, then you need never dine or eat alone.”

He writes movingly of his friendships with Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, and blisteringly about arch enemies like Kissinger, Clinton and Mother Teresa. There are numerous barbarous asides, too, such as what he calls “the bogus refulgences of Kahlil Gibran and the sickly tautologies of The Prophet.” His has been a lifetime of tilting against mediocrity and mendaciousness, but of sybaritic pleasures, too. Hitchens has his detractors, mostly from those on the Left whom he abandoned. But this book is a fascinating chronicle of an intellectual and cultural hell raiser.

In a recent interview his host noted “You burned the candle at both ends.”

“And it gave a lovely light,” rejoined Hitchens.

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