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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_

Book details

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

Book details

Ontmoet vir Pieter-Dirk Uys! (26 November)

Pieter-Dirk Uys is poeierloos, persoonlik en op papier!

Geïnspireer deur sy onlangse suksesvolle verhoog-memoir, sal Pieter-Dirk Uys persoonlik die Tafelberg uitgawes van Weerklink van ‘n wanklank, asook die Engelse weergawe The Echo of a Noise by die Drostdyteater voorstel.

Hy sal ook hoogtepunte uit sy opvoering aanbied.

Besonderhede

"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

Book details

(Non) fiction Friday: read an excerpt from Michelle Obama's memoir, Becoming


 

An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era.

As First Lady of the United States of America – the first African-American to serve in that role – she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments.

Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her – from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address.

With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it – in her own words and on her own terms.

Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.

Read an excerpt from the chapter ‘Wife & Independence’:

IT SOUNDS A little like a bad joke, doesn’t it? What happens when a solitude-loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman who does not love solitude one bit?

The answer, I’m guessing, is probably the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising inside a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is: You find ways to adapt. If you’re in it forever, there’s really no choice.

Which is to say that at the start of 1993, Barack flew to Bali and spent about five weeks living alone with his thoughts while working on a draft of his book Dreams from My Father, filling yellow legal pads with his fastidious handwriting, distilling his ideas during languid daily walks amid the coconut palms and lapping tide.

I, meanwhile, stayed home on Euclid Avenue, living upstairs from my mother as another leaden Chicago winter descended, shellacking the trees and sidewalks with ice.

I kept myself busy, seeing friends and hitting workout classes in the evenings. In my regular interactions at work or around town, I’d find myself casually uttering this strange new term – “my husband.”

My husband and I are hoping to buy a home. My husband is a writer finishing a book.

It was foreign and delightful and conjured memories of a man who simply wasn’t there. I missed Barack terribly, but I rationalized our situation as I could, understanding that even if we were newlyweds, this interlude was probably for the best.

He had taken the chaos of his unfinished book and shipped himself out to do battle with it. Possibly this was out of kindness to me, a bid to keep the chaos out of my view. I’d married an outside- the- box thinker, I had to remind myself. He was handling his business in what struck him as the most sensible and efficient manner, even if outwardly it appeared to be a beach vacation – a honeymoon with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.

You and I, you and I, you and I. We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us. Even if we were the same two people we’d always been, the same couple we’d been for years, we now had new labels, a second set of identities to wrangle. He was my husband. I was his wife. We’d stood up at church and said it out loud, to each other and to the world. It did feel as if we owed each other new things.

For many women, including myself, “wife” can feel like a loaded word. It carries a history.

If you grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as I did, wives seemed to be a genus of white women who lived inside television sitcoms – cheery, coiffed, corseted. They stayed at home, fussed over the children, and had dinner ready on the stove. They sometimes got into the sherry or flirted with the vacuum-cleaner salesman, but the excitement seemed to end there.

The irony, of course, was that I used to watch those shows in our living room on Euclid Avenue while my own stay-at-home mom fixed dinner without complaint and my own clean-cut dad recovered from a day at work. My parents’ arrangement was as traditional as anything we saw on TV.

Barack sometimes jokes, in fact, that my upbringing was like a black version of Leave It to Beaver, with the South Shore Robinsons as steady and freshfaced as the Cleaver family of Mayfield, U.S.A., though of course we were a poorer version of the Cleavers, with my dad’s blue city worker’s uniform subbing for Mr. Cleaver’s suit.

Barack makes this comparison with a touch of envy, because his own childhood was so different, but also as a way to push back on the entrenched stereotype that African Americans primarily live in broken homes, that our families are somehow incapable of living out the same stable, middle-class dream as our white neighbors.

Personally, as a kid, I preferred The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I absorbed with fascination.

Mary had a job, a snappy wardrobe, and really great hair. She was independent and funny, and unlike those of the other ladies on TV, her problems were interesting. She had conversations that weren’t about children or homemaking. She didn’t let Lou Grant boss her around, and she wasn’t fixated on finding a husband. She was youthful and at the same time grown- up.

In the pre- pre- pre- internet landscape, when the world came packaged almost exclusively through three channels of network TV, this stuff mattered. If you were a girl with a brain and a dawning sense that you wanted to grow into something more than a wife, Mary Tyler Moore was your goddess.

And here I was now, twenty-nine years old, sitting in the very same apartment where I’d watched all that TV and consumed all those meals dished up by the patient and selfless Marian Robinson. I had so much – an education, a healthy sense of self, a deep arsenal of ambition – and I was wise enough to credit my mother, in particular, with instilling it in me.

She’d taught me how to read before I started kindergarten, helping me sound out words as I sat curled like a kitten in her lap, studying a library copy of Dick and Jane. She’d cooked for us with care, putting broccoli and Brussels sprouts on our plates and requiring that we eat them. She’d hand sewn my prom dress, for God’s sake. The point was, she’d given diligently and she’d given everything. She’d let our family define her. I was old enough now to realize that all the hours she gave to me and Craig were hours she didn’t spend on herself.

My considerable blessings in life were now causing a kind of psychic whiplash.

I’d been raised to be confident and see no limits, to believe I could go after and get absolutely anything I wanted. And I wanted everything. Because, as Suzanne would say, why not? I wanted to live with the hat-tossing, independent-career-woman zest of Mary Tyler Moore, and at the same time I gravitated toward the stabilizing, self-sacrificing, seemingly bland normalcy of being a wife and mother.

I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other. I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all. It was an odd and confounding thing to ponder.

Could I have everything? Would I have everything? I had no idea.

Book details

Launch - And Then Mama Said... by Tumi Morake (15 November)

Tumi Morake modelled her public persona on her mother, a charming and contentious woman who used her big, bold voice to say what others were afraid to utter. It’s the personality that Tumi took on stage in the mostly male space of stand-up comedy, and the one that gave her the courage to join a white, Afrikaans radio station and comment about apartheid on air.

But there’s only so much you can find out about Tumi from the stage, the screen and the internet. And Then Mama Said… is the voice of Tumi in private, as well as a behind-thescenes perspective of a pioneering South African star who has been both deeply loved and viciously hated by her audiences.

Tumi gets frank about the race row at Jacaranda FM; the Jaguar car accident that cyber bullies said she deserved; the body-shaming she endured on the set of Our Perfect Wedding; and her tumultuous relationship with her beloved husband. Throughout her story, she carries the voice of her mother, and with it the indispensable life lessons that made her who she is today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tumi Morake is an award-winning South African stand-up comedienne, television host and actress. She also wears the hats of TV producer and writer. Morake cut her teeth as a writer on SABC’s flagship sitcoms and broke into television acting through those channels. She is dubbed as one of South Africa’s queens of comedy, headlining on local and international stages. She is a mother of three and wife of one. Morake has dabbled in radio and remains one of South Africa’s most sought-after acts. She also sits on the board of directors at Summat Training Institute and St. Aquinas College.

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