Things Are Seldom What They Seem – Biography Picks For October 2013

“Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream,” sings Buttercup to the Captain in ‘HMS Pinafore’. This is very true of several of this month’s picks which deal with secret and unexpected aspects of the subjects’ lives.

Rick Stein is known to millions aound the world as a genial and assured television chef but his path to success has been a hard one. There is pain behind the smile. Although well-born and privately educated he has had to overcome the shadow of his father’s mental illness and early suicide. Through much travel and many adventures he eventually found his path in life. Read his fascinating and inspiring life story in this month’s top pick ‘Under A Mackerel Sky‘.

Also hidden was John Profumo’s affair with good-time girl Christine Keeler – and that secret brought down a government. Read about him and the goings-on of an influential section of the British upper class in ‘An English Affair‘ by Richard Davenport-Hines. This a thoughtful and insightful book which analyses this episode in both an historical and cultural context.

Magic is another field where appearances are deceptive. What sleight-of-hand produces the rabbit out of the hat or the playing card from behind the ear? Don’t expect television celebrity Dynamo to tell you this, but he does share his dramatic life story with us this month.

There was nothing very secret about Oscar Wilde’s life – he was relentlessly self-promoting and mad for publicity. On entering the United Stated he famously said to to an Immigration official, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” That quip gave rise to the title of the book about his year in that country – featured here.

We hope you find something to interest you below:

Syndetics book coverUnder a mackerel sky : a memoir / Rick Stein.‘All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why’ Rick Stein’s childhood in 1950s rural Oxfordshire and North Cornwall was idyllic. His parents were charming and gregarious, their five children much-loved and given freedom typical of the time. As he grew older, the holidays were filled with loud and lively parties in his parents’ Cornish barn. But ever-present was the unpredicatible mood of his bipolar father, with Rick frequently the focus of his anger and sadness. When Rick was 18 his father killed himself. Emotionally adrift, Rick left for Australia, carrying a suitcase stamped with his father’s initials. Manual labour in the outback followed by adventures in America and Mexico toughened up the naive public schoolboy, but at heart he was still lost and unsure what to do with his life. Eventually, Cornwall called him home.” (Summary from Books In Print)

Syndetics book coverMy brief history / Stephen Hawking.
“Stephen Hawking, the brilliant cosmologist and author of the ten-million-copy bestseller A Brief History of Time, at last tells the story of his own life. This concise memoir covers Hawking’s post-war childhood in London, his undergraduate years at Oxford, his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of twenty-one, and his transformation into the explorer and explainer of the universe that we all know today. Written with wit, humility, and warmth, My Brief History candidly examines a life well lived, including insight into Hawking’s marriages and family, as well as a portrait of his intellectual evolution, adding up to an unprecedented glimpse of what it feels like to be one of the most world-changing people of our time.” (Summary from Books In Print)

Syndetics book coverAlone together : my life with J. Paul Getty / Teddy Getty Gaston with Digby Diehl.
“Though she was one of New York’s bona fide debutantes, Teddy Lynch’s life was not all cotillions and roses. Desperate to escape the sexual predations of her alcoholic stepfather, she was determined to launch a career as a cabaret singer in Manhattan. When she began singing at the renowned Stork Club, Teddy thought she might be on her way to making her dreams come true. In the audience one night was none other than burgeoning oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, and their meeting was a classic case of love at first sight. While their whirlwind courtship and marriage spanned continents and survived wars, Teddy came to realize that she had only traded one life of privilege and physical abuse at the hands of her lecherous Haggas.” (Summary from Booklist)

Syndetics book cover“Lady Catherine and the real Downton Abbey / The Countess of Carnarvon.
‘Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey’ tells the story of the beautiful American heiress who lived at Highclere Castle, the setting for Julian Fellowes’ award winning drama Downton Abbey. Glamorous and wealthy, Catherine became the toast of London society when she travelled across the Atlantic in 1920 to marry the Earl of Porchester, or ‘Porchy’, as he was known. At just 19 Catherine had to learn how to organise and host the lavish banquets and weekend house parties that Porchy so loved.” (Summary from Books In Print)

Syndetics book coverA history of silence : a memoir / Lloyd Jones.
“The 2011 earthquake which shook Christchurch to its core led Lloyd Jones to investigate his own foundations and family past. And so begins a quest to revisit what has been buried by a legacy of silence. Piecing together his own memories with clues of what has been deliberately forgotten by his parents, Jones embarks on a journey of discovery – uncovering hardships endured and sorrows kept hidden. Grandparents never spoken of or met emerge from dusty archives as he unearths lives torn apart by tragedy and unspoken mysteries. Like the city that is exposed, Jones must come to terms with a history that is not one he may have imagined” (Publisher description)

Syndetics book coverAn appetite for wonder : the making of a scientist : a memoir / Richard Dawkins.
“Born to parents who were enthusiastic naturalists, and linked through his wider family to accomplished scientists, Richard Dawkins was bound to have biology in his genes. But what were the influences that shaped his life and intellectual development? And who inspired him to become the pioneering scientist and thinker now famous around the world?” (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverI kiss your hands many times : hearts, souls, and wars in Hungary / Marianne Szegedy-Maszák.
“This tragic family history weaves together the lives of journalist Szegedy-Maszak’s parents and their extended families with the fate of their native Hungary during and after WWII. The author’s father, Aladar, was a Gentile civil servant in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, whereas her mother, Hanna, came from a family of Jewish industrialists who converted to Christianity. Aladar and Hanna’s romance blossoms under the shadows of war and anti-Semitism, and continues to grow even after Aladar is shipped off to the Dachau concentration camp for voicing his strong anti-Nazi opinions. Hanna and her family, meanwhile, strike a deal with Heinrich Himmler to trade most of the family’s holdings for passage out of Hungary.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverThe education of a British-protected child : essays / Chinua Achebe.The Education of a British-Protected Child
“As he celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his world-altering novel, Things Fall Apart, and his own seventy-eighth birthday in 2008, the great Nigerian writer Achebe was completing this collection with high hopes that it would convey the deep connection between his life experiences and his writing. This meshing begins with the title, his official designation as a child in colonial Nigeria, a time and place he examines in surprising and revelatory ways in his wise and scintillating essays. Achebe shares stories about his family, the Igbo village of Ogidi, his love of British fiction, and his faith in the middle ground, a lucky space in the Igbo tradition, where both the past and the future, playfulness and possibility, coexist. This is the intellectual terrain Achebe occupies as he considers the Seaman.” (Adapted from Booklist).

Syndetics book coverDeclaring his genius : Oscar Wilde in North America / Roy Morris, Jr.
“In this enjoyable biography, Morris (The Better Angel) captures Wilde’s yearlong 1882 North American lecture tour. Month after month, Wilde, already deemed the “public face of the Aesthetic Movement,” filled theaters and halls in 140 cities and towns over some 15,000 miles of the United States and Canada. His lectures were met with mixed reviews, but he was able to socialize with some of the best, including artists and actresses, literary men such as Whitman and Longfellow, senators, and even Jefferson Davis. In this way, the book serves not just as an account of Wilde’s year, but of a year in American cultural history-and thanks to helpful accounts from the droves of newspapermen and journalists that flocked to Wilde’s year.” (Adapted from Publisher Weekly)

Syndetics book coverNothing is impossible : the real-life adventures of a street magician / Dynamo.
“When you’re a kid life can seem tough; tougher for some than others. But the darkest of times can be the most enlightening, and in the case of Steven Frayne from a rundown estate in Bradford this couldn’t be truer. When his late grandfather showed him magic for the first time, Steven knew there was more to life than hiding from bullies.” (Publisher description)


Syndetics book coverGandhi : a spiritual biography / Arvind Sharma
In his Autobiography, Gandhi wrote, “What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realization, to see God face to face. …All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end.” While hundreds of biographies and histories have been written about Gandhi (1869-1948), nearly all of them have focused on the national, political, social, economic, educational, environmental, or familial dimensions of his life. Very few, in recounting how Gandhi led his country to political freedom, have viewed his struggle primarily as a search of spiritual liberation. (Library catalogue)

Syndetics book coverAn English affair : sex, class and power in the age of Profumo / Richard Davenport-Hines.“A wonderful evocation of the period; a Rolls-Royce ride, with that hugely enjoyable sense of a writer being op top of his material and perfectly attuned to his subject David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain and Family Britain Fascinating An English Affair is a meticulous and witty portrait of a society built on the shaky foundations of snobbery, suspicion, hypocrisy and sexual anxiety Mail on Sunday Compulsory reading Guardian This highly readable book shocked me several times. Davenport-Hines, a sparkling and compelling writer, is excellent at detailing the background politics and sexual attitudes of the era There is a huge cast of characters, each meticulously researched. Few behaved well.” (Summary from Books In Print)

Syndetics book coverOur hidden lives : the everyday diaries of a forgotten Britain, 1945-1948 / Simon Garfield.“A skillfully woven tapestry of diary entries of ordinary Britons in the rarely discussed but pivotal period of 1945 to 1948. The result is a moving digest of thoughts and emotions in the post-war period.” (Summary from Books In Print)