Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Herbert, Xavier "Capricornia"


Herbert, Xavier "Capricornia"  - 1938

This book was suggested to me by my Australian friends as a classic from their country. It was a tough read of sorts but not disappointing. In this novel, the author tells us of life in Australia's north at the beginning of the 20th century. The life of the white settlers as well as the Aborigines who had lived on this continent for whoever knows how long, the new life created by the two, the "half-breeds" called "yeller fellers", the "quadroons" and the problems that arise by them mixing together. I have never understood how you can believe one race to be better than another but to divide those that have both races in them into different kind of people again ... if you have an Asian parent in between your "white" and "black" ones, you are better than those that have more "black" but still worse than those with more "white" etc. Seems unbelievable and I don't even want to understand it.

A great view of a continent that I don't even know today, even less so a hundred years ago. I have a few friends in Australia and my son just spent six months there, but that doesn't teach me much about their history. However, this did. An informative story, a captivating story, a touching story.

It must have been quite a shocking book when it was published in 1938, so close still to the events, I guess a lot of people still thought that way. The author was even declared "Protect of Aborigines", I think that says it all.

A lot of the books I read about Australia covered more the convicts that were forced to immigrate to Australia, this is later and therefore tells the continuation of that tale.

Oh, and I also loved the names of the characters, almost like Charles Dickens, a lot of them are named after their occupation or some flaw in their character. The undertaker is called Joe Crowe, Mr. Bigtit is an important lawyer, O'Crimnell and O'Theef are police troopers etc. Quite funny. Which shows that the novel is also full of humour.

Good read. If you are interested in Australia, you should definitely try it. Apparently, it inspired Baz Luhrman to make his film "Australia" which I also highly recommend, although the background to the story is completely different. And placed a little later in history.

From the back cover:
"A saga of life in the Northern Territories and the clash of white and Aborigine cultures – one of Australia’s all-time best-selling novels and an inspiration for Baz Luhrmann’s lavish film 'AUSTRALIA'.
Capricornia has been described as one of Australia's 'great novels', a sharply observed chronicle about life in the Northern Territory of Australia and the inhumane treatment suffered by Aborigines at the hands of white men. The story is immense and rambling, laced with humour that is often as bitter and as harsh as the terrain in which it is set, and follows with irony the fortunes (and otherwise) of a range of Outback characters over a span of generations. Through their story is reflected the story of Australia, the clash of personalities and cultures that provide the substance on which today's society is founded. Above all, however, this is a novel of protest and of compassion - for the Aborigines and half-bloods of Australia's 'last frontier'.
Sprawling, explosive, thronged with characters, plots and sub-plots, Capricornia is without doubt one of the best known and widely read Australian novels of the last 70 years. When it was first published it was acclaimed as 'a turning point', an 'outstanding work of social protest'. Its message is as penetrating today as it was in the 1930s when Herbert himself was official 'Protector of Aborigines' at Darwin."

Friday, 23 June 2017

Book Quotes of the Week



"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." May Ellen Chase

"Read to escape reality ... Write to embrace it." Stephanie Connolly

"The newest books are those that never grow old." George Holbrook Jackson

"A book worth reading is worth buying." John Ruskin

"I love to read. That doesn't mean I don't have a life. It doesn't mean I'm a nerd. I only love the feeling that.. even when you're back in reality you still feel like you're in a different world." S.A. 

[If anyone can tell me the originator of this quote, I'd be very thankful and would happily include the name.]

Find more book quotes here.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Whitehead, Colson "Underground Railroad"


Whitehead, Colson "Underground Railroad" - 2016

I have read quite a few books about the Underground Railroad, the life of slaves and their slaveholders but never one that described the life of a fugitive as well as this one.

I have liked all the Pulitzer Prize winning books of the last years and this is no exception. A great story - Cora, a slave, who tries to run away from her abusive "master" - brilliant description of everyone involved, the slaves, their helpers, ordinary people who just think it's not right to own other human beings -  and their enemies - the slave holders, the slave catchers and just those people who think they are someone better because their skin is lighter. What can anything make you think the colour of your skin says anything about you other than that you get sunburnt so much easier the lighter your skin is.

Anyway, back to the book. The story is written from many perspectives, we even get to know the opponents well enough, not that it makes us more sympathetic towards them. None of the narratives is written in the first person. That way, we don't identify with any of them as we might have if it had been written like that but I still identified a lot more with Cora and the other slaves and victims than I did with the other side of the party. Always on the side of the underdog.

Before reading this book, I had never thought about the Underground Railroad as exactly that, a railroad underground, literally underground. But it makes a nice story background.

In any case, a brilliant book. I'd like to read more by this great author.

From the back cover:
"Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the
Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The
Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share."

Colson Whitehead received the Pulitzer Prize for "Underground Railroad" in 2017.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Vance, J.D. "Hillbilly elegy"


Vance, J.D. "Hillbilly elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis" - 2016

This book was chosen as our latest book club book. After having read Arlie Russell Hochschild's "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right", I thought, not another book that tries to explain Donald Trump. I doubt that any book can ever explain why he was elected because I believe there is no real reason for him.

However, I would not call this a book that explains why people vote for someone like that, it is a book that tries to explain how you can get out of a life that gives you no chances. Because the author was just someone like that, he had a mother who was addicted, who ran from one man to the next and would neglect her children. If things got too bad, the grandmother would step in as I am sure many grandmothers do.

Yes, J.D. Vance made me understand those people better. I don't know a community like that in Europe, where you more or less are doomed when you come from a certain area, where the school doesn't do much to help you get out of your situation. It was interesting to read and I think every politician should read this, should try to give these kids a better chance in life.

An interesting view about a society most people know nothing about. And that includes myself and the other members of my book club.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2017.

From the back cover:
"From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country."

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cao, Xueqin "Dream of the Red Chamber"


Cao, Xueqin "Dream of the Red Chamber" (Chinese: 红楼梦/Hung lou meng/aka The Story of the Stone) - ca. 1717-1763 (18th century)

Apparently, this novel is "one of the four pinnacles of classical Chinese literature. The other three are: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Outlaws of the Marsh."

Also known as "The Story of the Stone", it is said to be the first Chinese novel of this kind and has created an entire field of study "Redology".

I found this on the list of "101 Best Selling Books of All Time" and thought it might be interesting to read.

It was highly interesting indeed. The novel has semi-autobiographical sides, it is said that it shows not just the rise and fall of the author's family but also that of the Qing Dynasty.

I found it hard to remember all the names that were homophones with another character and therefore meant something else. It also took me going back and forth to the glossary in the back and then to the story in order to know who was talking or talked about when someone referred to Big Sister or Second Son etc. Sometimes the Chinese word for that was used, then the translation, then the real name, quite confusing. I think it might have to do with the translation and that a more modern one would have taken care of that. My library's edition is from 1957 and, with "only" 574 pages, an abridged version.

Still, the novel teaches us a lot not just about everyday Chinese life in the 18th century, but also their culture, religion, science, art and literature. Really captivating. Certainly one of the most informative books I have read about Ancient China, and I have read quite a few.

From the back cover:
"The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the 'Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature.' It is renowned for its huge scope, large cast of characters and telling observations on the life and social structures of 18th century China and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the classical Chinese novel.
The "
Red Chamber" is an expression used for the sheltered area where the daughters of wealthy Chinese families lived. Believed to be based on the author's own life and intended as a memorial to the women that he knew in his youth, The Dream of the Red Chamber is a multilayered story that offers up key insights into Chinese culture."

Friday, 16 June 2017

Book Quotes of the Week



"I don’t think of literature as an end in itself. It’s just a way of communicating something." Isabel Allende

"If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it's probably because at some level you find 'reality' a bit of a disappointment." Joe Queenan, One for the Books

"One of the advantages of reading books is that you get to play with someone else’s imaginary friends, at all hours of the night." Dr. SunWolf


"Choose an author as you choose a friend." Sir Christopher Wren

"In a good book the best is between the lines." Swedish Proverb

Find more book quotes here.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace of Desire"



Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace of Desire" (Arabic: قصر الشوق/Qasr el-Shōq) - 1957

"Palace of Desire", Part 2 of the Cairo Trilogy, starts in 1924, five years after "Palace Walk" ends. The children have grown up, even the youngest son and the family moves on after several backdrops. al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the Patriarch, still tries to control his children but he is less successful than in the first book.

Again, we meet all the friends and neighbours of the family, the sons-in-law, the girls pursued by the sons - and the father. A story that really deserves the title "saga".

We also learn again about the Egyptians' view of the British occupation and can totally understand them. Why should one country rule over another?

I know I mentioned I love big books but what I love even more is a continuation of a big book that makes it even bigger. This is one of those cases. I'm looking forward to the third part, "Sugar Street".

From the back cover:
"The sensual and provocative second volume in the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Of Desire follows the Al Jawad family into the awakening world of the 1920's and the sometimes violent clash between Islamic ideals, personal dreams and modern realities.

Having given up his vices after his son's death, ageing patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad pursues an arousing lute-player - only to find she has married his eldest son. His rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination as they test the loosening reins of societal and parental control. And Ahmad's youngest son, in an unforgettable portrayal of unrequited love, ardently courts the sophisticated daughter of a rich Europeanised family.
"

Naguib Mahfouz "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.