AN INTIMATE MEMOIR FROM INSIDE THE OBAMA WHITE HOUSE

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The dictionary defines a stenographer as a person whose job is to transcribe speech in shorthand.

A book about a stenographer does not exactly scream the word riveting. But, From the Corner of the Oval Office by Beck Dorey-Stein defies that perception and then some.

In 2012, Beck was just scraping by in Washington DC when a posting on Craigslist landed her, improbably, in the White House as one of President Barack Obama’s stenographers.

She joined the elite team who accompanied the President wherever he went, recorder in hand. On whirlwind trips across time zones (including to South Africa), Beck forged friendships with a tight group of fellow travellers – young men and women who, like her, left their real lives to hop aboard Air Force One in service of the President. But as she learned the ropes of protocol, Beck became romantically entangled with a colleague, and suddenly the political became all too personal.

An insiders account about working in the intense travelling bubble of a White House job, would in itself make for interesting reading. But Dorey-Stein’s considerable talent as a writer, coupled with her acute powers of observation and introspection add considerable human texture to this outstanding memoir.

“One a night like this, I wait for the Voice of God.”

“Any minute now, President Obama will deliver remarks in the East Room of the White House.”

“Across one parking lot, down three hallways, and up five flights of stairs in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, I lie on the couch in my little office as the setting sun drenches the room in flammable orange. The Voice of God is the anonymous person who announces the president. “

“I’ve become so good at waiting. Finally I hear the Voice and walk over to the closed-circuit television to turn up the volume.”

“A minute later, the president appears on the screen, cracks jokes, and takes his characteristic pauses before addressing the topic of the evening.”

It is no surprise that the White House working lifestyle was an extremely demanding one, but Dorey-Stein and her colleagues worked hard and also played hard.

The reader who enjoys reading about those Obama ‘moments’ (and who doesn’t? Well the incumbent POTUS obviously doesn’t) will be well fed by this book. Yes, From the Corner of the Oval Office is about politics, and working at the White House, but it is also about life and is enriched by the sometimes dramatic personal journey of its young author.

She ends the book thanking President and Mrs Obama: “for the tireless work you did and continue to do. You demonstrate what grace and leadership look like, especially when the cameras are off and the crowds are elsewhere. You are simply the best, and the funniest, and the coolest. It was the honour and the privilege of a lifetime. Thank you.” Amen.

Beck Dorey-Stein has certainly ‘slam dunked’ her debut book. It is a really superb and entertaining read.

 

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MARVELLOUS ROBIN WILLIAMS BIOGRAPHY

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Even in an age of instantaneous information, the news of Robin William’s death was absorbed and circulated with bewildering speed. The example of a public figure who was recognised in every part of the globe and whose reputation for joyfulness and humour stood in stark opposition to the shocking and solitary manner in which his life came to an end.

Robin by Dave Itzkoff is the definitive biography of one of the world’s most loved comedic talents, Robin Williams. His career highlights are well known, but the person behind the many voices and characters may be less familiar.

From his rapid-fire stand-up comedy to his breakthrough television role in Mork and Mindy and his powerful Academy Award winning performance in Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams was a singularly innovative actor and comedian. He often came across as a man possessed holding forth on culture, politics and personal revelation – all with mercurial, tongue-twisting intensity as he inhabited and shed one character after another.

But as Itzkoff shows, Williams’s brilliance masked a deep well of conflicting emotions and self-doubt. In his comedy and in celebrated films such as Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, Aladdin and Mrs Doubtfire he showcased his limitless gift for improvisation, bringing his characters to life and using humour to seek deeper truths. Williams also struggled mightily with addiction and depression and with a debilitating condition at the end of his life that affected him in ways his fans never new.

With his own particular torment, Williams suffered greatly. The final blow was his being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, it broke the camel’s back. Robin could take no more and alone behind a closed bedroom door, he hung himself.

“Everyone felt as if they knew him, even if they did not always admire the work he did. Millions of people loved him for his generosity of spirit, his quickness of mind, and the hopefulness he inspired. Some lost their affection for him in later years, as the quality of his work declined, even as they held out hope that he’d find the thing – the project, the character, the spark – that had made him great before, as great as he was when he first burst into the cultural consciousness. And when he was gone, we all wished we’d had him just a little bit longer.”

“People expected too much of him,” his longtime friend Billy Crystal explains. “They wanted him to plug that burst, that comet, into every movie, and it just wasn’t fair. Then, when he would do a more sentimental piece, they would just crucify him as sappy, and it would crush him.”

Robin is an honest but sensitive biography of a comedic genius. Not all his fans will be comfortable reading about the Williams “behind the laughter” curtain. But Itzkoff’s sensitive and perceptive portrayal of his subject’s inner torment and gradual decline of his powers, provide a harrowing but necessary climactic detailing of the complex and complicated Robin Williams whole.

Robin is a superbly nuanced, highly absorbing biography.

 

 

A POWERFUL BOOK ABOUT AN EXTRORDINARY IRANIAN WOMAN

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Most of us know very little about life in Iran, a new book, The Wind In My Hair by Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad is a tremendous memoir and takes us into the heartbeat of that country.

Alinejad was born in 1976 in rural Iran and she now lives in exile in New York. She is an author and an advocate for women’s rights. She is a presenter on VOA Persian Service, a correspondent for Radio Farda , and a contributing editor to IranWire.

Masih grew up in a traditional Iranian village where her mother, a tailor and respected figure was the exception to the rule.

As a teenager, Masih was arrested for political activism and while in police custody, discovered she was pregnant. She was released and married quickly, following her husband to Teheran, where she was served with divorce papers. Masih spent nine years struggling to regain custody of her beloved son and remains in forced exile from her homeland.

She says that: “The Wind In My Hair” is about my journey from a village in northern Iran to the metropolis that is New York City, a journey of self-discovery in which I forged my identity after I learned to say NO. It is a tale that may be familiar to many women.”

Every time Masih wanted to do something that the boys were already doing, she heard the same refrain: ”You can’t do that.” Her father expected girls to stay indoors and out of sight. He wasn’t alone in his thinking. No other girls were allowed to run around and play outside the house. Boys had freedom and girls were kept indoors.

Her mother gave her this advice: “Open your eyes wide, as wide as possible. Stare into the darkness and the shadows will disappear. Never be afraid of darkness, but stare it down.”

Masih paints a vivid and fascinating picture of growing up in a Ghomikola, a village of only 650 people. She says at that time she couldn’t imagine a better place anywhere in the world. It was when she reached her teens that she began to realise just how small the village was.

Even to this day almost forty years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Masih says that there are debates within Iranian families about whether her father’s generation made a mistake in overthrowing the Shah and his Western-inspired ideas to modernise Iran to bring in a regime that looked to the seventh century for moral and legal guidance.

The events of that Revolution are: “the most dramatic in the history of modern Iran. I am a child of that Islamic Revolution and have lived nearly all my life under its shadow. My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties.”

“The revolution changed much, but for the women it was many steps backward. In the Islamic Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability.” In her family, politics was talked about politics all the time and there were two distinct sides to most of the family’s discussions.

All the women in the Alinejad household slept with their head scarves on, but Masih felt that her hair was part of her identity, but you couldn’t see it. “When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf.”

Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was a country in which a law was passed forbidding women from wearing the hijab. Masih writes that were she around at the time: “I’d have opposed it, not because I believe in the hijab but because I believe in the freedom of choice.”

A photo on Masih’s Facebook page of a woman standing proudly, face bare, hair blowing in the wind. Her crime: removing her veil, or hijab, which is compulsory for women in Iran. This is the iconic self-portrait that sparked ‘My Stealthy Freedom,’ a social media campaign that went viral.

Masih has paid the price for her outspoken bravery and activism. “I am a child of an Iran that carries many scars – the scar of the revolution, the wounds of an eight year war, the lacerations of mass executions, the daily nicks and slashes of discrimination that women face daily. I now carry the scar of exile. “

“There are periods when darkness prevails and threatens to swallow you whole. To overcome the despair and the country’s dark era, I think about my mother’s words and open my eyes as wide as I can and stare out the darkness. The women of Iran want to be free to make their own choices. That’s why the struggle will continue….until we all feel the wind in our hair.

In The Wind In My Hair, Masih Alinejad’s voice is courageous, spirited, inspiring and passionate. Her personal story is an extraordinary one. The book is a tour de force of a memoir. Its balancing of personal account with an even insight into the little known world that is Iran, makes for an astonishing, powerful read

The questioning voice that started in her school years continues today in a woman who is undeterred and continues to fight for what she believes in.

Like I did after reading the book, I recommend watching Masih’s television interview with Tina Brown on stage during the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City. It makes for inspiring viewing and brings the power and commitment of seeing and hearing this extraordinary Iranian “in the flesh.”

The Wind In My Hair is a powerhouse of a book, one that should particularly appeal to feminists but also to a broad readership as well. It is one of my top reads of the last few years.

A TOPICAL AND FASCINATING READ

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South Africa is undergoing yet another spate of daring Cash-In-Transit Heists (CIT). If ever the publication date of a book was fortuitously timed, Heist! by Anneliese Burgess is it.

When Burgess started writing the book at the end of 2016, the perception then was that the phenomenon of CIT heists had been brought under control and was no longer a significant crime issue. (As at 6 June, there have been 159 cash-in-transit heists (CIT) in 2018, a marked increase over the same period last year).

She suggests that: “CIT heists have been commonplace for so long, that they mostly don’t even make a blip on our collective radar. They happen. They are noted. And then they silently slide into some or other statistical crime bucket.”

From the horror of the 2006 Villa Nora heist, in which four security guards were burnt alive in their armoured vehicle after a ferocious fight-back against highly trained mercenaries, to the 2014 robbery of a cash centre in Witbank, where a gang made off with almost R104 million after impersonating police officers – the book provides a richly-detailed expose of a topical crime phenomenon.

Using the information gleaned from thousands of pages of court documents and press reports, as well as interviews with police officers, crime intelligence agents, prosecutors, defence lawyers, researchers, journalists, security guards and the criminals themselves, Heist! Provides unprecedented insight into a crime that increased by a staggering 49% in the first eight months of 2017 alone.

She has broken the big issue down into series of interlinking, smaller stories looking at ten individual heists over two decades – a tiny but carefully selected sample from a sea of cases.

With the huge amounts of cash involved, CIT is a crime ‘that is planned and perpetrated by networks of experienced and hardened criminals, aided and abetted by law enforcement officers and security company employees. It shows an astonishing brazenness: how criminals operate without fear of being caught; how they solicit investments to buy in expertise, and pay off lawyers, court officials and high-ranking police officers. Cash heists are about greed, not need and avarice turns people into monsters.’

Heist! is not the most pleasant of reads, nor because of its subject matter should it be. The book makes for a disturbing, engrossing and important read. CIT crime is a complex issue with “more than its share of unpleasant truths.” The narrative that takes one into the engine-room of a CIT heist gang, is fascinating in its detail and mind-blowing. For me it is the most powerful part of Heist! and huge praise must go to Anneliese Burgess for this privileged insight.

The book’s final chapter, Dirty little secrets, is a fitting climax to an extraordinary book, it is eye-opening, gasp-inducing stuff and it ends with a glimmer of hope…personnel changes that have been made at Crime Intelligence and at SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority ‘starting to make gurgling noises – a sign that it might come out of its politics-induced coma. All this is good news, because, without a new approach to organised crime, the gangs will keep on winning.’

 

TWO SISTERS LEAVE HOME FOR SYRIA, NEVER TO RETURN

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Best known for her international best seller, The Bookseller of Kabul, Norwegian author, Asne Seierstad has come up with another powerhouse work of non-fiction.

Two Sisters tells the true story of 19 year old, Ayan and her 16 year old sister, Leila. On 17 October, they left their family home near Oslo, seemingly as usual. Later that day, they sent this email to their parents:

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind, we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best as we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear that ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement. Please try to understand, do not be cross with us.”

The two girls come from a devout but tolerant family who had emigrated to Norway from Somalia, they were educated at a good school and enjoyed a comfortable family life. Their parents Sadiq and Sara, and their sibling Ismael are torn apart by Ayan and Leila’s decision. Sadiq embarks on a dangerous journey to try and bring his girls home.

What follows is a totally engrossing and informative account of that journey, one that takes the reader deep into the heart of the Islamic State, beyond the headlines. Seierstad provides much enlightening contextual information and a useful Islamic glossary

It was the sisters’ father, Sadiq Juma who wanted his daughters’ story told: “I want people to recognize the danger signs. We were blind. We thought it would pass. Now we know better.”

Seierstad started by listening to the Juma family and writing down their stories, interviewing friends and classmates, teachers, principals and other adults whom the girls had been in contact with in early adolescence. She subsequently tried to trace the path that led Ayan and Leila to radical Islam, to try and understand what inspired the two sisters to travel to Syria.

“I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings.” She leaves it up to her readers to draw their own conclusions. Of approximately ninety sets of Norwegian parents whose children have travelled to Syria, only a handful came forward. The rest have remained silent.

Sara and Sadiq experienced one of the worst things imaginable to a parent: their children leaving them with no intention of ever returning.

Two Sisters is a powerful work of investigative writing. The Juma family’s heart wrenching story provides a strong core to this extraordinary book, but its real strength is its revelatory insights into aspects of modern Islamic radicalism.

Seierstad cleverly makes no judgement, but such is the strength and topicality of the narrative, the reader will be challenged not to have strong views on the book’s controversial subject matter.

Not an easy read, but a compelling and dare I say, an important look at how society can surrender to unquestioning, fanatical belief.

A REMARKABLE TRUE STORY

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The year was 1899, as the old people told the story; the place a sweltering tobacco farm in Truevine, Virginia in the United States of America, the heart of the “Jim Crow” South where everybody the Muse brothers knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves.

George and Willie Muse were black albino brothers, just six and nine years old, but they worked in the fields from dawn to dark. Until a white man offered them candy and stole them away to become circus freaks. For the next twenty-eight years, their distraught mother struggled to get them back.

But were they really kidnapped? And how did their mother, a barely literate black woman in the segregated South, manage to bring them home? And why, after coming home, did they want to go back to the circus?

At the height of their fame, the Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success was in the colour of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even ‘Ambassadors from Mars.’

This story line might sound like a work of fiction, but is the subject matter of a truly remarkable work of non-fiction, Truevine by Beth Macy. Macy writes about outsiders and underdogs, and she is the author of the New York Times bestseller Factory Man. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers and has won more than a dozen national awards.

The path to writing Truevine is an astonishing example of extensive research, commitment and dogged determination. The book is the result of hundreds of interviews and decades of research.

“Harriet Muse has already been robbed of dignified work, of monetary pay, of basic human rights, all because of the colour of her skin. Now someone had come along and taken the only thing she had left, her children.”

“For more than a century, that was the story Willie Muse and his relatives told. Their descendants had heard it, all of them, since the age of comprehension, then handed it down themselves, the way families do, stamping the memory with a kind of shared notarization. The story was practically seared into the Muse family DNA.”

“And although it wasn’t entirely accurate, not to the letter, the spirit of it certainly was. The truth was actually far more surprising and, as it usually is, far more tangled.”

There is much in Truevine that will resonate with its South African readers.

Those who saw the film, “The Greatest Showman”, will have a good background to the parts of the book that deal with PT Barnum collection of oddities, the side show era and the times in which the Muse story takes place.

Racism and assault on human dignity and rights permeate much of the early narrative. And even today here in South Africa, people living with Albinism often face discrimination and ridicule.

Beth Macy was forced to play detective with finding the “truth” as it came together, piece by piece. The task started when, thirty years ago, she learned about the Muses when she began worked at the Roanoke Times in Virginia. She was told that it was “the best story in town” but that no one had been able to get the complete story due to the protectiveness of the Muse family.  She wrote a series of news articles about the two brothers died in 2001 and many years later, revisited the story and developed it further until Truevine was the result.

Beth Mace reveals that driving into Truevine today, you will still see hints of the hopelessness that hung over the tiny enclave a century before. Chestnut Mountain stands sentinel to the west, and farm plots give way to sagging trailers and tidy brick ranch houses. Joe-pye and pokeweeds wave along the roadside and sagging tobacco-curing barns, most of the logs hand-chinked by Franklin County slaves and their descendants. They are a decaying nod to the cash crop that has long driven the economy of the region, most of it farmed on the backs of minority labour.

But year after year, the past grows fainter. From slavery to segregation, from integration to globalisation, the economic history of the American South intersects in these unincorporated crossroads. Truevine is a speck of land where slaves and their descendants became sharecroppers, then sewing machine operators, then unemployed workers, finally, those who could afford to, fled…

The process of writing the book is as engrossing a read as is the Muse narrative itself. After so many decades, the extraordinary story of what really happened to the brothers has been told for the first time.

The brothers never married and retired in 1961 and lived the rest of their lives in Roanoke, Virginia. George, the oldest of the Muse brothers died in 1971 and Willie lived until the remarkable age of 108, passing away in 2001.

Mace relates that: “More than a decade later, mourners are still talking about the burial of Willie Muse, and not just because of the wind or the snow but mainly because of what happened next. The nurse, Diane Rhodes said that it had been so warm that morning and then so cold. And then, just like that, a rainbow appeared and everyone just stood there stunned. ‘And we were all of one accord. Heaven was opening the gates to welcome Uncle Willie home.’”

As can be expected, there are holes in the narrative, unable to be filled, but Beth Macy’s achievement is an outstanding one.

Truevine is written with great style, compassion and sensitivity. Some remarkable old photographs provide a vivid visual reminder of the Muse Brothers themselves and an era long past. The book is rich in detail and works on so many levels and I for one, will certainly enjoy giving this quite remarkable book a second read.

 

A giant among journalists

 

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Adrian Anthony (A.A.) Gill was born in Edinburgh and was a writer and a critic. He passed away in 2016.

He was maybe best known for food and travel writing, was The Sunday Times’ restaurant reviewer as well as a television critic. He also wrote for Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire, and published numerous books.

Gill’s writing style was often acerbic and his views and opinions controversial and he wrote on an amazingly diverse range of topics. His peers referred to him as: The Londoner everyone wanted at their table; A golden writer; A giant among journalists. Interestingly enough, he was a chronic dyslexic and had to dictate all his writing.

The Best of A.A. Gill encapsulates some of the very best of his work: the peerlessly astute criticism, the extraordinarily knowledgeable food writing, historic assignments throughout the world and his reflections on life, love and death.

His long-time book editor, Celia Hayley, who compiled this selection, says: “Adrian is gone and we are all the poorer for it: we need that fearless, dazzling, opinionated, provoking and hilarious voice more than ever. But it lives on in the writing he left behind, of which this book is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope it makes you laugh, I hope it makes you gasp, and I hope it makes you miss him.”

There are many highlights in the hugely readable book, and with the breadth of topics covered not all inclusions will have appeal.

Vegetarians will likely be umbraged by his piece about a visit to a vegetarian restaurant: “The first thing you notice is the smell, the round, mushy, slightly acidic odour of sanctimonious worthiness. We queued with a tray and surveyed the repast set out to tempt us. Vegetarians aren’t big on presentation; everything looks as if they’ve got a bulimic hippo as a food taster. The thing a diligent critic must have.to be fair to vegetarian lunch, is a gnawing hunger. Peckish won’t do, you’ve got to be famished to pass this on to trusting peristalsis.” Hopefully things have changed for the better in the thirteen since this was penned….

For me, and I suspect for most all of the book’s South African readership, the stand out piece was the one entitled: Nelson Mandela, written in July 2008. It is a magnificently written and observed, sensitive example of AA Gill’s writing. Its setting – a photoshoot in London for Madiba to have his 90th Birthday picture taken “with a hundred folk he didn’t know”. And it contains these superb lines: ”He looks up and around and smiles this brilliant, beatific smile, a smile that could break your heart. It is the most conscience-tugging, soul-moving facial expression in the world, and he got it in jail. He came out twenty seven years later with this miraculous face, moulded and creased by injustice into a transcendent African mask, this expression that speaks every language…..”

Whether or not one shares Gill’s opinions, The Best of A.A. Gill is a beautifully compiled tribute to a man’s whose pen wrote words at a level of excellence admired by many.

THERE’S HOPE FOR ALZHEIMER’S

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The Alzheimer’s Society defines the disease this way: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means that gradually, over time, more parts of the brain are damaged. As this happens, more symptoms develop. They also become more severe.

“It is impossible to escape the drumbeat of grim news about Alzheimer’s disease: that it is incurable and largely untreatable, that there is no reliable way to prevent it and that the disease has for decades beaten the world’s best neuroscientists. No wonder we have come to fear Alzheimer’s as omnipotent. As hopeless. As impervious to any and all treatments.”…..

Until now.

Dr Dale Bredesen, Professor of Neurology at the University of California, is internationally recognised as an expert in the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

In his book, The End of Alzheimer’s, he offers real hope to anyone looking to prevent and even reverse Alzheimer’s Disease and the cognitive decline of dementia.

Dr Bredesen reveals the 36 affecting metabolic factors and outlines a proven programme to rebalance them, which patients can follow with the help of a healthcare professional. There are also general lifestyle and dietary changes all readers can adopt to improve cognitive health.

Although there is much scientific evidence in the book to support Dr Bredesen’s conclusions, it is in part a practical, easy-to-use, step-by-step manual for preventing and reversing the cognitive decline of early Alzheimer’s disease or its precursors, mild cognitive impairment and subjective cognitive impairment, and for sustaining that improvement.

It is also a guidebook by which the millions of people who carry the ApoE4 gene can escape the fate written in their DNA. The protocol behind this is called ReCODE, for reversal of cognitive decline.

Dr Bredesen opens the book’s concluding chapter with this: “Give how often we hear that Alzheimer’s disease is neither preventable nor reversible, I wouldn’t be surprised if the success stories I’ve shared and the scientific research that underlies ReCODE have left you sceptical…to make the end of Alzheimer’s reality for everyone, however, will require that we update our practices from 20th century medicine to 21st century medicine and that we are proactive about our own cognitive and general health.”

“Everyone knows a cancer survivor, but no one knows an Alzheimer’s survivor. As I hope I have succeeded in showing you in this book, that is yesterday’s news. The world has changed.”

According to www.alzheimers.org.za : “Already 62% of people with dementia live in developing countries, but by 2050 this will rise to 71%. According to South Africa’s 2011 census, there are approximately 2.2 million people in South Africa with some form of dementia.”

At the very least, read Dr Dale Bredesen’s The End of Alzheimer’s – the First Programme to Prevent and Reverse the Cognitive Decline of Dementia, make sure your medical practitioner does as well and get the conversation started.

The book and Dr Bredesen’s protocol have been called ‘phenomenal’, “a monumental work’, ‘a masterful, authoritative and, ultimately, hopeful patient guide’.

Not all that is in the book is that easy to follow, but its key elements are. I found it eye-opening, fascinating and uplifting and ultimately hopeful.

ALL ABOUT ALI

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ALI – A LIFE by Jonathan Eig

There can be but a handful of people who don’t know anything at all about him, for those very few:

Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016, was an American professional boxer, three time heavyweight champion of the world. He is regarded as one of the most iconic sporting figures of the last century, if not of all time. He was a larger than life and often a controversial figure both inside and outside the ring.

“His great-grandfather was a slave. His grandfather was a convicted murderer who shot a man through the heart in a quarrel over a quarter. His father was a drinker, a bar fighter, a womaniser, and a wife beater who once in a drunken rage slashed his eldest son with a knife. These are the roots of Muhammad Ali, who was born with what he called the slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, and who ultimately became one of the most famous and influential men of his time.”

There have been many books written about Muhammad Ali, but Ali – A Life, by Jonathan Eig is the most comprehensive biography of Muhammad Ali that has ever been published.

Eig conducted over 600 interviews with those who new Ali best and has given us a captivating, comprehensive and well-balanced portrait of the man, neither idolatry nor sensationalistic in treatment.

One gets the whole Ali, from his childhood, his boxing career, his private and family life. One learns too of the many causes and issues he championed such as his involvement with the Nation of Islam, which had a profound effect on him.

These two paragraphs from the book, maybe more than any others, provide so much insight into Ali’s formative make-up:

“While his spelling and punctuation were better than his parents’, the young Cassius was a slow reader and hesitant writer. The written word frustrated him and would for much of his life. Years later, family members would say that Cassius was dyslexic. But the diagnosis was little known and infrequently applied when he was young. The only thing about school that he liked was the audience it provided. Attention was what he craved most, and he earned it with irrepressible exuberance as well as with boxing.”

“Boxing, he said, ‘made me feel like something different. The kids used to make fun of me. But I always liked attention and publicity….attracting attention, showmanship, I liked the most. And soon I was the most popular kid at the school’.

Of course, Ali – A Life extensively details Ali’s boxing career. As familiar as many will be with this aspect of his life, in the boxing chapters so much more is revealed including how the “boxing business” is conducted, it doesn’t make for happy reading.

“Sooner or later, just about every great fighter attracts an entourage. At first the athlete is flattered by the attention of people who want to be near him. He thinks the sycophants might be fun and perhaps even useful to keep around. Before he knows it, he’s travelling in a crowd with a bunch of men in possession of vague titles and even vaguer job descriptions, men who expect first-class hotels, fine food, beautiful women, and payment in cash.”

It is astonishing how many people benefitted financially from Ali’s success, and the longer he continued to fight the more they stood to gain. It is alarming just how many times Ali donned gloves and climbed into a boxing ring. After reading this book, few will view the sport of boxing in the same light. The downside of the sport is revealed in all its depressing detail in the Ali experience of it. If this is what happened to one of boxing supreme exponents, one shudders to imagine what befell those many, many fighters without Ali’s skills….

“In an early interview, a reporter asked just how much of his bragging was genuine. How much of his ‘I am the greatest and gee ain’t I pretty’ routine did he believe. He answered precisely and without hesitation: ’Seventy five percent.’ It must have been refreshing for the public to know that there were limits to his self- love. Was it possible he possessed a trace of humility?”

“Born in the age of Jim Crow, Ali lived to see a black man elected president. Just as remarkable was the arc of his own life: the son of a poorly educated sign painter became the most famous man in the world; the greatest professional fighter of his time became his country’s most important draft resister. Although he had always been ambitious and always yearned for wealth, he had somehow remained warm and genuine, a man of sincere feeling and wit. Bitterness and cynicism never touched him-perhaps because he recognised this lesson of his own life: that American society, for all its flaws, produced remarkable men from unremarkable origins. He himself, indubitably was one.”

In one of his final interviews, he assessed his own accomplishments: “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show that to the world.”

After reading the book, one’s take-away impression of Muhammad Ali is likely to be affected. Ali – A Life doesn’t pull any punches, there is much sadness and maybe even some disappointment. His stature as a great boxer and his positive legacy to the sport remains unblemished. Ali, the person comes across as a courageous, enormously kind, caring and generous man. Add to this, more than a dab of naivety, too little self- care and maybe too much unbridled giving of himself.

Ali – A Life is a tremendous work of biography. Astonishing both in its detail and its breadth, it goes far beyond just being a boxing biography, it is an evocative chronicle of an era and of the life of an iconic, extraordinary man.

MANDELA& BIZOS -A CELEBRATION OF A FRIENDSHIP

9781415207581-65YearsofFriendship[2]

Born in Greece, George Bizos is a revered Human Rights Lawyer. His legal career is largely associated with all the major human rights trails in the decades of apartheid. Subsequently, he acted for the ANC at the post-1994 constitutional hearings, and is on the staff of the Legal Resources Centre.

His new book, 65 Years of Friendship is the heartwarming and often heartrending story of his remarkable friendship with Nelson Mandela.

Bizos and Mandela met as law students at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1940s. A strong relationship developed – they remained friends, colleagues, professional and personal until President Mandela passed away in 2013.

Any friendship that endured for 65 years would be rich in anecdotes. But the friendship between two extraordinary men, whose life work affected the lives of all South Africans, delivers so much more.

65 Years of Friendship delivers a magnificent personal account of this relationship. But at the same time, Bizos offers historical background to give context it.

Mandela became Bizos’ most famous client, forming part of his legal defence during the Treason Trial and again during the Rivonia Trial.

After seeing his friend sentenced to life imprisonment, Bizos became Mandela’s aide, often navigating complicated networks of the “Struggle” on his behalf. Working persistently, be it by secretly meeting Oliver Tambo in exile or arguing for the abolishment of the death penalty in the Constitutional Court years later, Bizos offered his unwavering support to Mandela and his fight for a democratic South Africa.

In George Bizos’ own words: “This is my story of our friendship as I remember it. My friend and colleague, Arthur Chaskalson, the former chief justice, one said of me: ’George has such a good memory that he even remembers things that did not happen.” I will not take it as far as that, but recognise that there are things that I have forgotten, perhaps even some that I have muddled, and for that I apologise in advance. This is a short book about a long friendship.”

Bizos pains at having lost four close friends over a short space of time: Nelson Mandela, Arthur Chaskalson, Nadine Gordimer and Jules Browde. He shared his feelings while chatting to Graca Machel and shared with her that he dreamt that the bell may soon toll for him.

Her reply: “Stop thinking about the bell tolling for you and think what your dear friends would want you to continue doing. “Bizos told her that he was trying.

Long live, George Bizos. May he continue the long walk for many years to come.

65 Years of Friendship may indeed be ‘a short book’ (too short!), but it is an absolutely delightful, witty, insightful, revealing and informative read. I savoured every page of it.