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Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

A captivating biography about boxing’s underdog-turned-hero, Rocky Marciano: Anna Stroud reviews Unbeaten

Published in the Sunday Times 

Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World *****
Mike Stanton
Pan Macmillan, R330

He was too old by boxing standards when he started, his arms were too short, his stance too wide, his feet too flat.

And yet, when he retired from boxing in 1956, Rocky Marciano became the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history with a record of 49-0. His title fight with Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 was marred by controversy, but was also testament to his indefatigable will and endurance. The guy could pack – and take – a punch.

Rocky was always an unlikely hero; the son of an Italian shoemaker growing up during the Depression in Brockton, Massachusetts. His mother never once watched him fight, opting to pray for him instead.

At first, the press and boxing critics ridiculed his lack of technique and called him a brawler, not a boxer. But time after time his thunderous right – dubbed Suzie Q by his manager Charlie Goldman – punched its way into the history books and the hearts of Americans.

When he died in an aircraft accident on August 31 1969 – the day before his 46th birthday – sportswriter Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Start the count, he’ll get up. A lot of us today are wishing there were an honest referee in a cornfield in Iowa.”

These small details make Unbeaten a captivating read. Mike Stanton not only paints a compelling portrait of an underdog-turned-hero, he captures the spirit of the time – from the shady characters who pulled the strings behind the scenes of boxing to the exquisite art of sports writing.

Throughout his career, Rocky had to contend with corrupt boxing officials, Mafia bosses and his own demons at ringside.

Stanton lays bare Rocky’s triumphs as well as his tragedies with crisp writing and rigorous research. Mohammed Ali’s biographer Jonathan Eig calls it “an irresistible story”.

Agreed. @annawriter_

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Louis Botha is depicted warts-and-all in this biography, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis Botha: A Man Apart *****
Richard Steyn
Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260

It’s a cliché that we must take lessons from the past. There are at least two problems with this.

The first is hubris. Each generation feels that is unnecessary, since it is clearly wiser and more competent than the previous one. Until, of course, the passage of time proves it wrong.

The second is a growing, priggish moralism that demands right-thinking and right-speaking. Swathes of history are ignored, especially in SA, simply because the protagonists don’t fit into contemporary mores.

Richard Steyn seems to have a particular contrarian interest in the political giants who have fallen foul of such dismissive revisionism. This is his third biography, following upon his well-received works on Jan Smuts, then the friendship between Smuts and Churchill.

But Steyn is no hagiographer.

In enviably clear and unadorned prose his is a warts-and-all depiction, especially as regards the casual racism and assumed superiority of the white man.

While always sensitive to historical context, he examines in detail the failures and blind spots of Botha, including his “mixture of respectful paternalism towards any individual with whom he came into contact … and a disbelief that blacks as a group should enjoy the same political rights as whites”. It was an attitude that culminated, under his premiership, in the pernicious Native Land Act of 1913.

Following the Anglo-Boer War, it was Botha’s first priority to heal the deep divisions between Afrikaans- and English-speaking whites, as well as between the vanquished Boers and the victorious British.

His determination to achieve this took him along a remarkable, painful path: taking the former Boer republics into a union with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal; taking the Union into World War 1 on the side of the British, against the Germans who had nominally supported Boer independence; suppressing with force of arms the resulting Afrikaner rebellion; and conquering German South-West Africa.

Steyn makes the point a number of times that during the Anglo-Boer War those who called most stridently for war were those who most rapidly melted away when they got their wish. Whereas men like Botha, who had opposed the war, were the ones who were left to prosecute it.

Botha, the most brilliant of the Boer generals, paid a high personal cost for a war he never wanted. His health was shattered by the privations of those gruelling years. The family lost their farm and his brother was killed.

But what perhaps wounded him most grievously was the long, slow process of estrangement from fellow Afrikaners, who felt he betrayed them by allying SA to the Empire.

Reconciliation is never universally popular and there are always those who flourish in exacerbating divisions, rather than minimising them. As we are beginning to see with the increasingly strident repudiation of Nelson Mandela as “sell-out”. @TheJaundicedEye

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“Fame went to my balls.” Eric Idle’s ‘sortabiography’ is funny, clever and moving – but watch out for earworms, writes Michele Magwood

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life ****
Eric Idle, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R330

“I honestly think there are more hours of documentary about Python than there are hours of Python,” writes Eric Idle. “So, to the mass of mangled memories do I now add my own muddled, prejudiced, and deeply cynical account of what I think might have happened? Of course.”

In what he calls a “sortabiography”, Idle looks back over his 75 years, beginning with his dreadful childhood and ending with his comfortable life in California now, with a great many mad antics in between.

The book should come with a warning sticker: beware earworms.

If one of the best ways to appreciate life is to have had an unhappy childhood, he says, then he was very fortunate.

He was just three when his father was killed. Having survived the war as a rear gunner on a bomber, Ernest Idle was killed in a road accident hitching home for Christmas after being demobbed.

Idle’s mother sank into a depression and he was looked after by his grandparents. Then, when he was seven, he was sent away to a Dickensian school for orphans.

Beaten and bullied for 12 years, he developed a sharp tongue and an ever sharper sense of the ridiculous.

“Humour is a good defence against bullying. It’s hard to hit a smaller boy when you are laughing.”

It was a scholarship to Cambridge that saved Idle’s life. It was there he started writing comedy sketches and joined the famed Footlights Club. It was a springboard to what would eventually become Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“George Harrison once said to me, ‘If we’d known we were going to be the Beatles we would have tried harder.’ I think the same could be said of Monty Python. How on Earth could we possibly know we would become them?”

There is much about the early days of Python that will delight fans, such as the genesis of some of their best-loved sketches. Idle wrote the “Nudge nudge” routine when he was barely out of university and it is said that Elvis loved it so much he called everyone “squire”.

The character of Brian from The Life of Brian was originally going to be the 13th disciple.

“He was given the job of trying to book a table for the Last Supper: ‘No we can’t do a table for thirteen. I can give you one of six, and then another for seven over by the window.’”

The film would never have been made were it not for ex-Beatle Harrison footing the bill. Asked why he had mortgaged his baronial home to finance the film, he said: “Because I wanted to see the movie.”

Idle name-drops with a front-end loader in this memoir: partying with Paul Simon, Andy Warhol, Billy Connolly, Prince Charles, Keith Moon, but you forgive him for it because it’s always such a hoot. He had very close friendships with Harrison and Robin Williams, and his notes on their passing are deeply moving.

Idle might have scores to settle – he hints at a few of them – but he’s not doing it here. Instead this is an account of a life very well lived.

He fesses up to some pretty bad behaviour in the early years – “In my case, fame went to my balls” – and his chronic infidelity led to the collapse of his first marriage. He’s been married to his second wife, Tania, for 41 years now and is a devoted father.

What strikes the reader is how hard he has worked, and still does. Even now he is busy writing the film version of his hit musical Spamalot.

He comes across as a genial, still mischievous old cove, and this book is nothing like the “muddled, prejudiced, and deeply cynical account of what I think might have happened” he promises.

He may have written the immortal lines “Life’s a piece of shit/when you look at it”, but Eric Idle’s life has been anything but. @michelemagwood

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Book Bites: 4 November

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wife’s Tale ****
Aida Edemariam, HarperCollins, R285

Aida Edemariam retells the story of her grandmother’s life in Ethiopia in a gentle portrait that starts off in a feudal monarchy and ends in a Marxist dictatorship. We learn that her gran, Yetemegnu, was married before she was 10 years old. Surrounded by priests and soldiers, Yetemegnu’s life was filled with challenges that many could not even begin to fathom. Her fight for justice after her husband’s arrest and her inherent ability to help people in desperate need gives Yetemegnu a voice that is stronger than the change her country faces. Edemariam does a magnificent job of translating her grandmother’s strength and legacy. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Circus ****
Irma Venter Human & Rousseau, R280

Adriana van der Hoon is a teenager growing up in ’80s Johannesburg. Unbeknown to her, her father, the Dutchman, has been bringing donor money into the country for the ANC. He’s shot dead in a fake robbery and she’s forced by a security police handler to take over her father’s “job” at the Education Trust, and track down where the money was coming from. The headstrong 18-year-old goes to Berlin on her first covert mission, where she works at a club as a knife-thrower. She starts a relationship with the club owner who supplies the money she is to take back to SA. But Adriana soon finds out he is a pimp, a money launderer and a murderer. Clean and simply written, this is a refreshing and thrilling read. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix ****
Christy Chilimigras, MF Books Joburg, R225

In this fast-paced, debut memoir about growing up in Joburg’s northern suburbs as the child of two addicts, Christy Chilimigras has crafted a book that explores the impact on her life of a flawed family. If you think that sounds depressing, it’s not, particularly as the writer and her sister emerge from the chaos of their childhood as powerful young women who take a stand. The book is full of humour and vivid descriptions, and would appeal to both older teens, young adults and older folk. I look forward to her second book. Samantha Enslin

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“Just stick to cricket, Shane.” Good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more in this tedious biography, writes Archie Henderson

Published in the Sunday Times

No Spin: My Autobiography **
Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas, Penguin Random House, R320

Shane Warne deserves a good biography.

This is not it, even with Mark Nicholas as his amanuensis.

Nicholas, an accomplished broadcaster and writer, played a marathon innings, listening to his subject, recording him, transcribing their conversations and bringing some coherence to the garrulous Warne’s ramblings.

He fails to rein in Warne and a book of almost 400 pages (including seven of fascinating statistics) could have been half the length, enough to accommodate the best part of the book, the cricket.

Warne was a great cricketer – many aficionados believe he was one of the greatest – but he can also be a great bore.

His peccadillos with a variety of women and his affair with film star Liz Hurley are tedious.

His obsequiousness toward the rich (Kerry Packer et al) is embarrassing, especially his blatant pleading to be invited to Johann Rupert’s next golf outing at St Andrews.

And his participation during a TV reality show in the “jungle” near the Kruger Park is ludicrous and irrelevant.

Stick to cricket, a strong captain – Steve Waugh, perhaps, whom Warne loathes – might have advised.

But good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more.

When he does stick to cricket, he redeems himself and his book.

He is a deep thinker on the game, was a brilliant exponent of the difficult art of leg-spin bowling and would have made a very good Australian captain.

Sadly, part of his behaviour cost him that job. Now it’s cost him a good book.

One day, when time has created some distance for dispassion, Warne will get his deserved biography. It might even be by Gideon Haigh, the Australian who is as good a writer as Warne is a bowler and who has already compiled a series of essays on the player. In them Haigh describes Warne’s bowling action as being “both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat”.

Now that’s a book that would be worth reading.

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The shortlists for the 2017 UJ Prize have been announced!

Via the University of Johannesburg

The shortlists for the 2017 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing have been announced.

The prizes are not linked to a specific literary genre. This may make the evaluation more challenging in the sense that a volume of poetry, a novel and a biographical work must be measured against one another, but the idea is to open the prize to as many forms of creative writing as possible.

Approximately 60 works were submitted this year, from which the following books were selected for the shortlist:

Main Prize:

Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Bird-Monk Seding by Lesego Rampolokeng

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom

Debut Prize:

Grace by Barbara Boswell

Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King

The main prize is R75 000.

The debut prize is R35 000.

A formal prize-giving ceremony will be held at a function later in the year.

The adjudication panel comprised the following judges:

Sikhumbuzo Mngadi (UJ)

Ronit Frenkel (UJ)

Danyela Demir (UJ)

Rebecca Fasselt (UP)

Bridget Grogan (UJ)

Nyasha Mboti (UJ)

Thabo Tsehloane (UJ)

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A Darker Shade of Pale adds to the growing genres of books about the everyday and painful experience of apartheid and racism in SA, writes Donnay Torr

Published in the Sunday Times


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
A Darker Shade of Pale: A Memoir of Apartheid South Africa ****
Beryl Crosher-Segers, Torchflame Books, R250

In an entry on her blog, Beryl Crosher-Segers ponders: “I couldn’t get to know white or black South Africans while growing up. But our lives were intertwined in some absurd way. I think absurd is the right word here …”

“Absurd” is the perfect word for the juxtaposition of what reads like a normal childhood – but set within the abnormal strictures of apartheid SA.

At its heart, A Darker Shade of Pale is about family. Beryl was born in Cape Town in 1955, seven years after the National Party imposed the system of apartheid. As the middle child of five, she was a quiet observer. “I was the typical ‘Dear Diary’ girl,” she laughs. “I didn’t speak much until I was about 17. But I wrote things down. I’ve always written things down.”

These early recordings of her life are what make her memoir an engrossing read. It weaves clear and poignant memories together in a straightforward, unsentimental way: of a hard-working survivor of a mother, a dissatisfied revolutionary of a father, the solace of good neighbours and friends, moments of joy, pain at the tragic loss of a brother … And finally, a grown-up Beryl and her young family emigrating to Australia. The things that make up a life. There’s one difference, of course. Beryl and her family were classified as “coloured” under the laws of apartheid SA. This meant separate schools. Forced removals from beloved homes and public spaces. Genial white bakers who called you “hotnotjie”, not “child”. Benches that read “Whites Only”.

A “whites-only” beach. Picture courtesy of Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Getty Images.

 
Beryl is now living in Sydney, Australia, and was named one of the country’s most influential Africans, receiving the Celebrate African-Australia’s Captain’s Award. She’s received a human rights award from the University of Technology in Sydney, participated in the organisation of the 2000 Olympics and has worked for senator Penny Wong, parliamentary leader for the opposition. Despite her success, the humiliation of apartheid still lingers and she shares a vignette that illustrates how the hurt is still there, even decades after leaving SA.

“In 2017, a filmmaker from the Australian Film and Television School made a documentary about my story. We went to visit my mother, she’s 86 now and also living in Australia. I took two of the original ‘Whites Only’ signs from the trains along. My mom would not touch them. She would not look at them. She’s been out of SA for 40 years, she hasn’t seen these signs for that long, but she just wouldn’t …”

Writing the book opened old wounds, but also purged some of the more traumatic experiences Beryl had while growing up, such as the night she and her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Chris, went to the Rhodes Memorial to make out – and witnessed a mixed-race couple being arrested by the cops. The (white) male got to sit in the front of the police van, the (non-white) woman was thrown in the back.

“Chris and I still talk about that night,” says Beryl. “I can still hear the woman’s screams. I wonder what happened to her. Where she is now, if she is still alive. And I wonder what we could have done, if we weren’t so scared and helpless to do anything back then.”

Writing the book has also opened the floodgates for more memories from her friends and family.

“My mother told me something that she’d never mentioned before … She grew up in a suburb called Retreat in Cape Town. She said that one morning, the bridge they’d always had to cross to get to the train station was suddenly off limits to them. It happened overnight. She said, ‘We were herded like cattle down to the railway crossing to walk around and go on to the other side.’ She’d never told me that before. To go from human one day, to not-quite-human the next … She told me this story, and I thought she probably has so many more she hasn’t told me …”

Engaging people with the power of story is the point of this book. “People really need to tell their stories,” says Beryl.

“We need to make it clear that all this is not forgotten. There needs to be dialogue. I think if we can engage and talk about how wrong it was … That’s all we want to hear. Because we, and I’m talking about myself, I live with that. It was an abuse of our human rights.” @SAPixi

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An African refugee finds her struggle is not over once she makes it to the US, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Sunday Times

Clemantine Wamariya says being reunited with her parents on TV, with no warning, made her feel like the subject of an experiment. Picture: Julia Zave.

 
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
****
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, Hutchinson, R320

Clemantine Wamariya’s story opens in 2006. She was an 18-year-old high-school student in the US and a finalist in an Oprah Winfrey essay competition. As one of the finalists, she set off for the filming of an episode of Oprah’s show on Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel, as her essay was about Wiesel’s book, Night. But Wamariya is also a survivor – in her case, the Rwandan genocide.

Wamariya attended the shoot with her sister, Claire, who, nine years older than the six-year-old Clemantine, had protected her through six horrific years in the refugee camps of seven African countries. By 2006, they knew their parents had also survived, although they had not seen them for 12 years. With no warning, Oprah reunited the family on screen, in front of a worldwide TV audience – and of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Oprah had done an amazing thing, reuniting a family after years of devastation, death and loss. And she had raised awareness of a terrible event. But when I read about it, I could only see it as the commodification of grief and suffering, calculated to load the disengaged watchers with warm fuzzy feelings, but shattering to those to whom it mattered.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is partly an articulation of what that evening in a television studio meant. Wamariya says she was grateful to Oprah, of course, but goes on: “But I also felt kicked in the stomach, as though my life were some psychologist’s perverse experiment.”

Claire and Clemantine Wamariya on ‘Oprah’.

 
Wamariya tells her story with almost unbearable honesty and a palpable anger as she describes the refugee years with Claire, a survivor who was always on the hustle. In that time Claire had two children who Wamariya made it her mission to keep alive, clean and attractive – because clean, attractive infants score better in the hand-to-mouth refugee existence.

Once the sisters were granted refugee status in the US, Wamariya was taken in by a family who saw to her education so successfully that eventually she was accepted to go to Yale. But her main struggles were never going to be academic: Wamariya had to deal with people who wanted, often from the best of motives, to see her as a kind of “genocide princess”, particularly after Oprah. She tried to live up to that, but boiling away beneath the surface was distrust of people’s motives, learnt in her years trailing around the eastern side of Africa.

Then there was the difficulty of forming a relationship with the family she had been torn from at the age of six. Wamariya is honest about her problems and the loss of a sense of self that came from her horrendous childhood. She writes of her hatred of the word “genocide”, because it is an easy catch-all. Each person caught up in it has their own personal story, a private horror that can become lost in the general.

We all know the compassion fatigue that stories of refugees and their situation can engender. Wamariya lays her experience before us without asking for pity or even understanding, but simply for the time it takes to read her book. And it is well worth every minute.

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“I was surprised by how emotionally exhilarating looking at the past can be,” writes Vusi Thembekwayo of his biography-cum-business manual

Published in the Sunday Times

Vusi Thembekwayo, author of Vusi – Business & Life Lessons From a Black Dragon.
Pic: supplied.

 
There are few endeavours as daunting as writing a book; the idea that you are penning your thoughts, experiences and views for the world to critique and consume.

When the publisher first approached me to do a book on “the life and lessons of Vusi” project, I resisted the idea.

In fact, I rejected it outright, partly because of the idea that my life is just my collective set of experiences but also because I look at my life as a story in the making.

It is “being” every day. Writing about “the life of” seemed very final. But I love the idea that I get to share thoughts that stretch my perspective to colour the lenses of others.

I was inspired by the opportunity to inspire others. There can be no greater gift than the opportunity to inspire others into seeing themselves differently.

I was surprised by how emotionally exhilarating looking at the past can be. Remembering who you once were, parts of yourself that you’d forgotten, lost or minimised in the quest to grow into the person you are today.

As a group, entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at writing long books. We live in a world of instant action, ideation, collaboration and creation. Sprints, not long-winded marathons.

Every day we test, try, fail, and learn only to do it all over again, just a little smarter. Sitting down for an extended period to write or think through your thoughts is not only daunting, it is frankly foreign to our natural disposition.

Conquering this was a test of fortitude and discipline.

The book took two years and almost 100 three-hour sessions with my co-conspirator, Gus Silber, to complete. Every session we had the same set of emotions; deep introspection and reflection, anger at the state of affairs, and sometimes (admittedly seldom) an excited burst of excitement when I came upon a realisation.

I keep several pitbulls and leaving Gus on my outside patio unattended to refill our juice glasses was amusing. He would sit perfectly poised and still until I came back.

Eventually we decided that meeting at my clubhouse was a better bet. Indeed it was. From there we could enjoy the sights of the mountains pointed at Rustenburg. A wondrous and relaxing sight. Perfectly inspiring.

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RIP V.S. Naipaul (17 August 1932 – 11 August 2018)

Via Times Select

By Andrew Donaldson

There has been a flood of tributes and career appraisals following the death at the weekend of VS Naipaul, arguably the greatest and most infuriating figure in post-colonial literature. For more than five decades he gave his readers often searing and withering portraits of societies in the developing world.

That honesty earned him severe criticism – and not just for his particular point of view on the colonialism and post-colonialism so unequivocally detailed in his novels and travel writing. He was just as brutal when it came to his own failings as a man, so much so that his violent behaviour threatened to overwhelm his literary reputation.

He spared his biographer, Patrick French, nothing – so much so that the latter’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul (Vintage, 2009) is a gobsmacking page-turner.

Naipaul was fairly open about the humiliation he caused his first wife, Patricia Hale, and the 20-year affair he conducted with Margaret Gooding, a women he regularly assaulted. When the affair began, his editor Diana Athill rebuked him for his behaviour. He told her: “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?”

Pleasure meant degrading Gooding in bed. As Naipaul told French: “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

What to read, though, of the 29 books that Naipaul produced? His first collection of short stories, Miguel Street (1959), details the lives of ordinary Trinidadians in a run-down corner of Port of Spain. The novels A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967) and A Bend in the River (1978) are pretty much essential. Of his non-fiction work I recommend The Loss of El Dorado (1969), his India travelogues, An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998).

He was particularly scathing about South Africans in The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). An uncomfortable experience, you could say.

The World is What it Is

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The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul by Patrick French
EAN: 9780330455985
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Miguel Street

Miguel Street by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780435989545
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A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522892
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The Mimic Men

The Mimic Men by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522922
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A Bend in the River

A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522991
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The Loss of El Dorado

The Loss of El Dorado by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522847
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An Area of Darkness

An Area of Darkness: His Discovery of India by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522830
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India: A Wounded Civilization

India: A Wounded Civilization by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522717
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India: A Million Mutinies Now

India: A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330519861
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Among the Believers

Among the Believers by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522823
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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330517874
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The Masque of Africa

The Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330472043
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