Tag Archives For: biography

29 Sep, 2017

Victoria and Abdul

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Victoria and Abdul Victoria And Abdul: The True Story Of The Queens' Closest Confidant by Shrabani Basu
on April 1st 2010
Pages: 223
Narrator: Elizabeth Jasicki
Length: 11:09
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction
Published by History Press (SC)
Format: Audiobook
Source: Playster
Setting: England

The tall, handsome Abdul Karim was just twenty-four years old when he arrived in England from Agra to wait at tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. An assistant clerk at Agra Central Jail, he suddenly found himself a personal attendant to the Empress of India herself. Within a year, he was established as a powerful figure at court, becoming the queen's teacher, or Munshi, and instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. Devastated by the death of John Brown, her Scottish gillie, the queen had at last found his replacement. But her intense and controversial relationship with the Munshi led to a near-revolt in the royal household. Victoria & Abdul examines how a young Indian Muslim came to play a central role at the heart of the Empire, and his influence over the queen at a time when independence movements in the sub-continent were growing in force. Yet, at its heart, it is a tender love story between an ordinary Indian and his elderly queen, a relationship that survived the best attempts to destroy it.

Goodreads

The central mystery in this story is Who Was Abdul Karim?  Was he a selfless aide and friend to Queen Victoria or was he an enterprising, self-promoting, dangerous con man like the people around her believed?  I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

There is no question that he was a devoted servant of the Queen.  He gave her Urdu lessons every day for years.  He helped her answer her correspondence.  He did influence her to be very concerned about Muslims in India.  He also liked the trappings that came along with high status in the Royal Household.  He insisted on not being treated as just one of the nameless servants.  He would storm out of public events if he felt he was being slighted.  He would get newspapers to write articles about him.  He did suggest to the Queen that she give him and his family more and more honors.

This book did a wonderful job of getting into the mind of Queen Victoria through her writings.  You understand where she was coming from.  She loved Karim and his family.  She was hurt by her family’s and staff’s hatred of him.

I don’t think the book did as good of a job figuring out what was going on in Karim’s mind.  There are letters from him but he still felt like an enigma at the end of the book.  He was in a hard position.  There were several Indian servants but he was the only one in the closest inner circle to the Queen.  The Royal Family and the household were both incredibly racist and classist.  They hated him not only for being Indian but for not being an upper-class Indian.  How dare he assume he was their equal?

Put in that situation I can’t fault him for looking out for himself and his family.  The Queen was elderly and he knew that he would be dealt with harshly after her death.  He had to provide for his family while he could.  Did he push too hard?  Maybe.  It doesn’t excuse how he was treated though.

This is an infuriating read.  The racism is so overt.  Many letters from high British officials are included that just drip with disdain.

My only complaint about this book is that it is perhaps too detailed.  There are so many letters cited that they started to all run together.  But, I’d rather get too much information than not enough.

The narrator did a great job with all the voices required in this book – male, female, English, Indian, and Scottish.

There is a movie version of this book out now.  I’m interested to see what angle they take on this story.  Is it going to be a feel-good “Queen Victoria had a friend!” or is going to dive into the hatred from the people around her?  I’ll do a compare and contrast post after I get to see the movie.

 

About Shrabani Basu

Shrabani Basu graduated in History from St Stephen’s College, Delhi and completed her Masters from Delhi University. In 1983, she began her career as a trainee journalist in the bustling offices of The Times of India in Bombay.

Since 1987, Basu has been the London correspondent of Ananda Bazar Patrika group –writing for “Sunday, Ananda Bazar Patrika, “and “The Telegraph.”

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Audiobooks
  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Europe
  • POC authors
02 May, 2017

Colour Bar

/ posted in: Reading Colour Bar Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation by Susan Williams
on 2007
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

London, 1947. He was the heir to an African kingdom. She was a white English insurance clerk. When they met and fell in love, it would change the world.
This is the inspiring true story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, whose marriage sent shockwaves through the establishment, defied an empire - and, finally, triumphed over the prejudices of their age.

Goodreads

I had never heard of Seretse and Ruth Khama until I saw an advertisement for the movie adaptation of Colour Bar.  It was only playing for one night here and I wasn’t able to go.  The story sounded interesting so as soon as I realized that it was based on a book, I got it from interlibrary loan.

Seretse Khama became the kgosi (chief) of his tribe at the age of four.  His uncle was installed as his regent.  They lived in Bechuanaland which is present day Botswana.  At the time this was under the control of England.  His uncle made sure that he was well educated by sending him to schools in South Africa and then sending him for a law degree in England.  There he fell in love with Ruth Williams, a white woman.

When he announced their intention to marry in 1949, opposition came from all sides.  They married anyway.  Eventually, he was able to convince his tribe that this marriage was acceptable.  He was not able to convince white people though.

The main objection came from South Africa.  They were in the process of codifying apartheid law.  They did not want the leader of a country on their border to be in an interracial marriage.  Since this was an hereditary position, the next leader would be mixed race.  If Bechuanaland was successful, it would make of mockery of the South African laws.  South Africa was an important part of the British Empire.  They fought to make sure that Seretse Khama was unable to lead his people.

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What followed was years of exile from Africa and abuse at the hands of British officials. This book is exhaustively researched. It quotes from many, many letters and official documents to let the English racism speak for itself. It is brutal. There is also a lot of discussion about what type of woman Ruth must be to be willing to marry a black man.

This book was fascinating but it is a slow read. It is very dense with details of meetings. It focuses on the political aspects of the story, not the human ones. You don’t get much of a sense of Seretse and Ruth’s personalities except for in a few of their reactions to what is being said. It doesn’t delve much into what is going on in their minds or the true stresses on their relationship while all this is going on.

I wasn’t surprised by the racism that they encountered but there times when I had to take a minute to digest the absolute depth of the hatred and ignorance in the writings and public statements of British officials. They were so willing to appease the hatred of whites living in southern Africa that they would go to ridiculous lengths. There was always a problem of getting the Khamas to and from Bechuanaland from England. They had to land in Rhodesia which was strictly segregated. You’d think they were negotiating a nuclear treaty the way they had to deal to allow planes to land with them onboard or to let Ruth and the children stay in a hotel overnight. (They basically had to promise that the children would not be seen so they didn’t offend delicate white sensibilities.)

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Africa
23 Dec, 2016

Hidden Figures

/ posted in: Reading Hidden Figures Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
on December 6th 2016
Pages: 368
Genres: 20th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Civil Rights, History, Nonfiction
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Format: Paperback
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Goodreads

“Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.
Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.
Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.”


In the 1940s airplanes were being studied in Virginia. Wind tunnels were built to evaluate minute changes in plane design in an effort to help win WWII. Large amounts of data were being collected. In order to process the numbers female mathematicians called computers where hired do crunch the numbers. Because Virginia was a segregated state, the women were kept in two areas. The East Computers were white and the West Computers were black.

A job as a computer was a step up for women with advanced degrees whose only hope for a job before this was teaching. This book covers the years from World War II to the beginning of the space age when Langley’s operations moved to Houston.

The author’s father had worked at Langley. The author grew up knowing several of the women but did not realize what they had done for space research. Most of the women were uncredited although several managed to get papers published over the years.

Eventually, women were absorbed into the labs that they had been supporting and the East and West Computer sections shut down. As machines became able to calculate faster than they could, they had to adapt to survive. Some moved more into research. Others became computer programmers to teach the machines the jobs that they previously did.

Among the women’s contributions were:

  • Calculating the time and location for a rocket to take off in order to have the capsule splash down near the Navy ships waiting to rescue the astronaut.
  • Calculating all the variables involved in getting the lunar landing module off the moon and able to meet up with the orbiting ship for the return to Earth.
  • Imagining the need for and then designing response scenarios for a systems malfunction like what happened on Apollo 13.

The scientific achievements of the black women profiled in this book were set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination that they faced when they weren’t at work.  A good companion book to this would be Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County about the shut down of all schools by a county that did not want to integrate them. Many of these very educated women were from this area and/or had families affected by the shut down of the schools.

I enjoyed this book.  I’m looking forward to seeing the movie also even though it appears that it will be focusing mostly on the John Glenn orbital flight.  Read the book to find out the whole story.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins
| Amazon
| Barnes & Noble

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About Margot Lee Shetterly

margot-lee-shetterly-ap-photo-by-aran-shetterly Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the
women in Hidden Figures. She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the
recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on
women in computing. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Find out more about Margot at her website and connect with her on Twitter.

26 Apr, 2016

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia?

/ posted in: Reading How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sophia? Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
on January 13th 2015
Pages: 416
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Great Britain, History, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon (affiliate link)
Set in England and India

In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, one of the greatest empires of the Indian subcontinent, a realm that stretched from the lush Kashmir Valley to the craggy foothills of the Khyber Pass and included the mighty cities of Lahore and Peshawar. It was a territory irresistible to the British, who plundered everything, including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond.
Exiled to England, the dispossessed Maharajah transformed his estate at Elveden in Suffolk into a Moghul palace, its grounds stocked with leopards, monkeys and exotic birds. Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman: presented at court, afforded grace and favor lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and photographed wearing the latest fashions for the society pages. But when, in secret defiance of the British government, she travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary.
Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage.

Goodreads

Ranjit Singh was the last ruling emperor of the Punjab.

Mahraja-Ranjeet-Singh

After his death, the British used the confusion surrounding his heirs’ succession to move into the area. Most of the adult heirs died suspiciously. When it was over, the ruler of this prosperous area was an 1o year old boy, Duleep. His mother was very politically astute so the British had her exiled from the country and then forced the child-king to sign over his lands and the symbol of his rule, the Kor-i-Noor diamond.

Maharaja Duleep Singh, c 1860s

Duleep Singh was then raised by British people until Queen Victoria decided that he was really cute and wanted him to go to England. She lavished attention on him and considered herself to be his best friend. He was not reunited with his mother until he was an adult.

Eventually Duleep married a woman from Egypt and had six children. The children were known as Princes and Princesses. Princess Sophia was his youngest surviving child from this marriage. Arrangements were made with the India office to provide for the family because they did not want them going back to India and stirring up trouble.


Sophia grew up in luxury until her father’s debts became too much.  He then tried to return to India with the family but was taken off the ship at the Suez Canal.  The family was sent back to England but Duleep Singh did not go with them.  Instead he publicly disowned them and started another family while trying to get back to India.  He never did.

Sophia and her sisters were able to get to India as adults. The experience of meeting people fighting for Indian independence awoke the political consciousness of Sophia. She returned to England and threw herself into the fight of Women’s Suffrage in the 1910s.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh selling Sufragette subscriptions in 1913

I love this picture. Sophia lived across the street from the gates of Hampton Court Palace in a grace-and-favor house. That meant that she was allowed to live there as a favor from the monarch. She protested in front of the tourists coming to Hampton Court and sold suffragette newspapers to them. Despite being involved in many of the major protests of the era and even attacking politicians, she was never sent to prison like her fellow suffragettes.  She even refused to pay any taxes in an attempt to get arrested.  The spectacle of putting a Princess in prison was too much for law enforcement.

World War I curtailed the suffragette movement.  She became a nurse for Indian soldiers brought back to England for rest.


While I was reading this book, the Indian solicitor-general came out and said that India should not try to get the Kor-i-Noor diamond back and said it was “neither stolen nor forcibly taken”. It was a present.  Yeah, because a 10 year old with no friendly adult counsel can make those kinds of gifts.
AlexandraKohinoor

The Kor-i-noor is the diamond in the center of the front cross on this crown.  This is what reading nonfiction gets you.  It gets you yelling at the news in an very angry, yet informed, way.


The part of the book I found the most touching was a memory of the daughter of the elderly Princess’ housekeeper.

“We’d be walking, and she’d be telling me about the world and elections and how important they were.  And then she would kneel down in front of me, looking me right in the eye and say ‘I want a solemn promise from you’ even though I don’t think I knew what a solemn promise was at that stage.  She would say ‘You are never, ever not to vote.  You must promise me.  When you are allowed to vote you are never, ever to fail to do so.  You don’t realise how far we’ve come.  Promise me.’ For the next three years, Sophia made Drovna promise again and again.”

Drovna has kept her promise to the woman who fought hard to win the right for English women to vote.

14 Jan, 2016

You Can’t Make This Up – a sports memoir

/ posted in: Reading You Can’t Make This Up – a sports memoir You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television by Al Michaels, L. Jon Wertheim
on November 18th 2014
Pages: 304
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Nonfiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library

One of America’s most respected sportscasters—and the play-by-play voice of NBC’s Sunday Night Football—gives us a behind-the-curtain look at some of the most thrilling games and fascinating figures in modern sports.
No sportscaster has covered more major sporting events than Al Michaels. During the course of his forty-plus-year career, he has logged more hours on live primetime network television than anyone in history, having covered all four major sports championships—the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA finals, and the Stanley Cup final—as well as the Olympic Games, the Triple Crown, and many more. He has witnessed firsthand some of the most memorable events in sports, and in this highly personal and entertaining account, he brings them all vividly to life.

Goodreads

While most kids dreamt about playing in the World Series, young Al Michaels wanted to announce it. He followed his dream to being the voice of a minor league baseball team in Hawaii in the 60s. Then the major league came calling but required him to move his family from Hawaii to Ohio – oh, the horror!

He moved up from there to a place announcing all types of sports including football, horse racing, and motorcycle racing on ice.

He covered hockey at the Olympics including the dramatic ‘Miracle on Ice’ game between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

I thought his most interesting stories were the ones that didn’t directly involve sports.

  • He had just opened the broadcast of the World Series when the Northridge earthquake hit. The game was cancelled and he broadcast from the street until the next morning for ABC’s live coverage.
  • One of his best broadcasting partners, tennis partner, and neighbor was O.J. Simpson. He had been to the house many times and was even able to secretly tell ABC not to broadcast the news that O.J. was trapped in his house because he knew that there were other ways out.

This was a great overview of the world of U.S. sports in the last 40 years from Wide World of Sports to Sunday Night Football.

01 Jun, 2014

It’s Monday! What are you reading?

/ posted in: Reading


In the midst of all the Armchair BEA doings (which was a blast!) I managed to get a few books read and reviews posted.

Devotion and Defiance by Humaira Awais Shahid is the memoir of a female member of the legislature in Pakistan who worked for women’s rights.

Honolulu by Alan Brennert is the story of Korean “picture brides” in the early 1900s who came to Hawaii in hopes of a better life.

Click on the titles for the reviews.

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief JusticeBelle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Biography

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy captain and an African slave.  She was sent to live with her white great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who was a powerful judge and ruled on many of the most important cases leading up to the abolishment of slavery in England. 

Dido was raised with her cousin, whose mother had died when she was 5.  When the Earl commissioned a portrait of his two wards together as equals it was shocking to London society.

jones

This book was written as a companion to the movie about their life called Belle that is coming out soon.  As an American I didn’t know a lot of details about the Abolitionist movement in England.  This was a quick overview of that period in time.

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