ONCE IN LOVE WITH AMY…

 

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If, like me, you are an Amy Winehouse fan, you will simply adore Charles Moriarty’s new book about her, Back to Amy.

Amy Winehouse died in July 2011 with her cause of death labelled “alcohol poisoning”, but drugs and mental illness had also taken their toll. She was just 27and had been described as “the pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation” and “the last real individualist around.

Tony Bennet said in tribute: “Amy Winehouse was an artist of immense proportions and I am deeply saddened to learn of her tragic passing. She was an extraordinary musician with a rare intuition as a vocalist and I am truly devastated that her exceptional talent has come to such an early end.”

Today Charles Moriarty is a fine art photographer, working in fashion, portraiture and documentary.

In Back to Amy, he presents an intimate portrait of the real Amy Winehouse. The book contains over 100 photographs he took of her when both were at the start of their respective careers as well as his recollections and those from Amy’s mother, band members and others close to her.

Moriarty’s pictures are of Amy at her stunningly beautiful and unspoiled best. Many have never been seen before. They are a remarkable visual tribute. They are the lasting visual memory I will hold of Amy. Back to Amy is a touching and loving visual and reading treasure trove.

“I felt the world needed to see the Amy I knew, that it was time to stop holding onto these personal memories of when we first met, so tightly. Life’s too f***ing short.”

Maybe this verse from a song from Frank Loesser’s 1948 musical “Where’s Charley” expresses my and many fans sentiments:
Once in love with Amy
Always in love with Amy
Ever and ever fascinated by her
Sets your heart on fire to stay

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AN EXTRAORDINARY MODERN CZECH HISTORY

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The United States ambassadorial residence in Prague is an extraordinary building, 148-roomed mansion built in the late 1920’s, during the brief flowering of the first republic of Czechoslovakia, by Otto Petschek, the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in the country. The Petscheks were a German-speaking Jewish family, and their wealth was in large part from coal mine holdings and banking.

In January 2011, Norman Eisen took up the post of US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. This was a posting that resonated with the Eisen family as the Ambassador’s mother Freida had fled Prague after the Holocaust.

Eisen was startled to discover swastikas beneath the furniture in the palace. Later, “I decided to have another look at that swastika…there was another older mark …and there was another newer number too: the US government property number. There before my very eyes, the story of the past century in the palace. I was determined to learn more about every aspect of those who had come before me in the palace. “

In his book, The Last Palace, he relates an engrossing account of the people who lived in Petschek’s Villa before him. Otto Petschek who built the palace; Rudolf Toussaint, the conflicted Nazi general who put his life at risk for the house during the Second World War; Laurence Steinhardt, the first post-war US ambassador struggling to save both the palace and Prague from communist hands; the Hollywood child star-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple Black who fought to end totalitarianism; and Eisen’s own mother, whose life demonstrates how those without power and privilege move through history.

The story of each of these five and their part in Czech and European history make for fascinating reading. Eisen has done a masterful job not only in the depths of his research, but in the way he brings the histories in the book into vivid life.

Highlights for me were the extraordinary creative vision and dogged persistence of Petschek to deliver his ‘dream’ residence as reading about Czechoslovakia life in the early 20th Century – a weighty ‘opening act’ to a superbly detailed journey through a century. Also to discover the bravery with which Shirley Temple Black used her celebrity to advance the cause of democracy.

And the broad sweep of the period of history covered in The Last Palace, turbulent at times, peaceful at other times and an ongoing quest for democracy that threads through it is remarkable.

Norman Eisen’s family story adds a resonant and heart-warming human touch to this remarkable book. His treatment of his material and writing style make the sometimes heady subject matter always approachable.

The Last Palace is a history book that is both engrossing and ultimately entertaining. History books are not often page turners, this one resoundingly is.

 

TREAT YOURSELF TO SOME MIND PHYSIO

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Yuval Harari’s first two books, Sapiens and Homo Deus were internationally acclaimed, deservedly so.

In Sapiens, he surveyed the human past, examining how an insignificant ape became ruler of the planet Earth. While in Homo Deus, Harari explored the long-term future of life, contemplating how humans might eventually become gods, and what might be the ultimate destiny of intelligence and consciousness.

In my review of Homo Deus I asked:” It is astonishing that Harari, at a little over 40, has had time to produce two such profound major works. One wonders what next he will share with us?”

The answer is his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. In it he asks how can we protect ourselves from nuclear war, ecological cataclysms and technological disruptions? What can we do about the epidemic of fake news or the threat of terrorism? What should we teach our children?

Harari takes us on a thrilling and thought-provoking journey through today’s most urgent issues. The golden thread running through the book is the challenge of maintaining our collective and individual focus in the face of constant and disorienting change.

“Of course 7 billion people have 7 billion agendas, and thinking about the big picture is a relatively rare luxury. My agenda here is global. I look at the major forces that shape societies all over the world, and that are likely to influence the future of our planet as a whole. Reality is composed of many threads, and this book tries to cover different aspect of our global predicament, without claiming to be exhaustive.’

21 Lessons for the 21st Century is not an academic textbook, as fine a brain as Harari obviously possesses, he is a superb communicator as well. He has the ability to discuss sometimes lofty subjects in the most clear and understandable way.

As in his first two books, almost each and every page will offer a sentence that requires thought. An example: “Whereas the major movements of the twentieth century all had a vision for the entire human species – be it global domination, revolution or liberation – Donald Trump offers no such thing. His main message is that it’s not America’s job to formulate and promote any global vision.”

We live in a world where taking offence and umbrage at almost everything is a global phenomenon. Those who partake in this will have a field day at much of what Harari gives us in this book. Bully for them.

I found 21 Lessons for the 21st Century hugely stimulating, and it is a book that I just know I will want to read again and again.

This last word and advice from Yuval Harari to end the book: “And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us.” A sobering thought.

 

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: UNMASKED

 

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One of the most successful and distinguished artists of our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber has reigned over the musical theatre world for nearly five decades. Winning numerous awards including multiple Tonys, Oliviers and an Oscar, Lloyd Webber has enchanted millions worldwide with his music and his shows.

In Unmasked, written in his own inimitable, quirky voice, he takes stock of his achievements, the twists of fate and circumstances that brought him success and disappointment, and the passions that inspire and sustain him.

Although the musical in its original 22 minute form first took to the stage in 1968 at Colet Court School in London, the Lloyd Webber name was most likely first heard of here in South Africa in 1974 with the first production here of his and Tim Rice’s iconic Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour.

In his Prologue to Unmasked, Lloyd Webber reveals: “I have long resisted writing an autobiography. Autobiographies are by definition self-serving and mine is no exception. It is the result of my nearest and dearest, aided and abetted by the late great literary agent Ed Victor, moaning at me “to tell your story your way.” I meekly agreed, primarily to shut them up. Consequently this tome is not my fault.”

With this introduction, Andrew Lloyd Webber reveals a glorious sense of humour which he unleashes throughout this remarkable memoir.

“This medium sized doorstop judders to a halt at the first night of Phantom of the Opera. Quite how I have been able to be so verbose about the most boring person I have ever written about eludes me. So here is part one of my saga. If you are a glutton for this sort of thing, dive in, at least for a bit.”

Covering several exciting and turbulent decades of musical theatre and the transformation of music itself, the book is a chronicle of artistic creation. Lloyd Webber reflects on some of his most famous productions and his collaborations with luminaries such as Tim Rice, Robert Stigwood, Harold Prince, Cameron Mackintosh and Trevor Nunn. Taking us behind the scenes, he reveals fascinating details about each show, the rich cast of characters involved with making them, and the creative and logistical challenges and artistic political battles that ensued.

The narrative takes one to both sides of the Atlantic and the subtle differences between their audiences are most interestingly detailed.

Much like when enjoying a glass of wine, and acknowledging its grape variety, area of origin, winemaker etc., gaining an appreciation of the challenges involved in conceiving and staging a stage musical, as one does in this book, is a tremendous value add for lovers of musical theatre and audiences alike.

Having seen and thoroughly enjoyed the original London productions of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats, I found the chapters on their gestation fascinating.

Cats in particular was a production that I will never forget. Remembering the production as a whole and its unique and spectacular stage setting still sends shivers of excitement down my spine after all these years.

The last few chapters of Unmasked, as seems far too common with many autobiographies, seem a little hurried. Maybe Lloyd Webber was aboard the Starlight Express, or had a submission deadline looming from his publisher? There are other parts in the book that too suffer from an overdose of “speed”, but this is not a criticism merely a frustration.

The three big discoveries for me from this book were his oft self- deprecating wit (I find what I’ve seen of him on television ’terribly’ serious), his passion for architecture and that he is a foodie. All three subjects add further interest to an already full and rewarding “showbiz” memoir.

Andrew Lloyd Webber was knighted in 1992 and received a peerage in 1997. His work has garnered amongst others, six Tony Awards, three Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, seven Olivier Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and a 2006 Kennedy Center Award. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, is an inductee into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and is a Fellow of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

With a remarkable career like Andrew Lloyd Webber has enjoyed, Unmasked cannot but be an excellent read. Add to that his erudition and superb sense of humour and you are in for an entertaining and informative ride. Some might find too much space and detail being given to the business side of his work and to some of the technicalities of mounting a production, but they are a necessary and valuable part of the whole. Unmasked is nearly 500 pages, and I found every page of it totally absorbing.

There is so much more to the Andrew Lloyd Webber story waiting to be told. And his creative juices are not lying dormant: He deserves the highest appreciation not for his ouevre alone, but also for his herculean efforts to keep theatre and musical theatre alive and well. As at theatre lover, I for one doff my hat to him.

“I haven’t found a subject for a new show. But I’ll find it. I am having dire withdrawal symptoms. Even if I haven’t got near to writing “Some Enchanted Evening”, I hope I have given a few people some reasonably okay ones. I’d like to give them some more.”

Luckily, there is an allusion that this Phantom of the Opera-ending volume will have a second tome. Yes please Baron Lloyd-Webber, please raise the curtain soon, your reading audience is waiting.

Encore, encore.

 

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.

 

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.