Monday 30 January 2012

Rhys, Jean "Wide Sargasso Sea"

Rhys, Jean "Wide Sargasso Sea" - 1966

Same as "Becoming Jane Eyre", I read this when our book club decided to read "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Brontë this year, just as I had reread it a couple of months ago.

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is considered a "prequel" to "Jane Eyre" , what happened to Mr. Rochester in his first marriage in the Caribbean, how did the marriage come about and how did it end up in such a dreadful way.

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, so she knows quite something about life in the "West Indies". I really enjoyed learning about the people there at that time. Even though you know where it all leads (if you have read "Jane Eyre"), it still is a very exciting tale of love and love lost, different cultures clashing, highly recommendable.

From the back cover:

 "Her grand attempt to tell what she felt was the story of Jane Eyre's 'madwoman in the attic', Bertha Rochester, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is edited with an introduction and notes by Angela Smith in Penguin Classics.

Born into the oppressive, colonialist society of 1930s Jamaica, white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent beauty and sensuality. After their marriage, however, disturbing rumours begin to circulate which poison her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is inexorably driven towards madness, and her husband into the arms of another novel's heroine. This classic study of betrayal, a seminal work of postcolonial literature, is Jean Rhys's brief, beautiful masterpiece.
Jean Rhys (1894-1979) was born in Dominica. Coming to England aged 16, she drifted into various jobs before moving to Paris, where she began writing and was 'discovered' by Ford Madox Ford. Her novels, often portraying women as underdogs out to exploit their sexualities, were ahead of their time and only modestly successful. From 1939 (when Good Morning, Midnight was written) onwards she lived reclusively, and was largely forgotten when she made a sensational comeback with her account of Jane Eyre's Bertha Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966."  

Friday 27 January 2012

Alphabet Book Challenge

Alphabet Book Challenge - 26 Books

A book for each letter, a book that has a main character or key supporting character (not some random minor character mentioned twice!) whose name starts with that letter. It doesn't have to be the title of the book, just the name. Ex: Alice (in Wonderland), Bella (Twilight), Cathy (Wuthering Heights), Dracula (Dracula) Estella (Great Expectations), etc.
Only one letter per book, any book, any length - short stories, books of the Bible, etc. they all count for this one.

A: Anne Elliot - "Persuasion" by Jane Austen
B: Blanca Trueba - "The House of the Spirits" by Isabel Allende
C: Christabel LaMotte - "Possession" by A.S. Byatt
D: Dorothea Brooks - "Middlemarch" by George Eliot 
E: Elizabeth Bennett - "Pride & Prejudice" by Jane Austen
F: Fanny Price - "Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen
G: Gwendolyn Fairfax - "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde
H: Helen Graham - "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Brontë
J: Jo March - "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
K: Kiki Belsey from "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith
M: Mirah Lapidoth - "Daniel Deronda" by George Eliot 
N: Natasha Rostova - "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy
O: Orleanna Price - "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver 
P: Pelagia Iannis "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" by Louis de Bernières
Q: Queen Elizabeth - "The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett
R: Rachel Verinder - "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins
S: Scarlett O'Hara - "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell
T: Tess Durbeyfield - "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" by Thomas Hardy
V: Vianne Rocher - "Chocolat" by Joanne Harris
W: Wilma - "Where's Wally/Waldo?" by Martin Handford
X: Xayide - "The Neverending Story" by Michael Ende (not really THE main character but I couldn't find anyone else)
Y: (There certainly must be characters starting with Y, only, I haven't read those books. If I come across them one day, I'll add them to my list.)
Z: Zosia Król - "The Children's War" by J.N. Stroyar

Wednesday 25 January 2012

International Book Club Top 10 Books

International Book Club Top 10 Books
Since 2001, we've had our international book club, since 2002 we have been rating the books we read at the end of our reading year. Here are the top 10 lists of those years:

Top 10 * 2010/2011
1. November: Lee, Harper "To Kill a Mockingbird" --- 4.13
3. May: Hirsi Ali, Ayaan "Nomad" --- 4.00
5. January: Zusak, Markus "The Book Thief" --- 3.85
6. April: Mortenson, Greg "Stones into Schools" --- 3.75
7. March: Hamsun, Knut "Pan" --- 3.73
8. October: Shaffer, Mary Ann & Barrows, Annie "The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society" --- 3.70
9. September: Abdolah, Kader "The House of the Mosque" --- 3.44
10. December: Müller, Herta "The appointment" --- 2.91
11. February: Tekin, Latife "Swords of Ice" --- 2.81

Top 10 * 2009/2010
2. Dallaire, Roméo "Shake Hands With The Devil" --- 3.67
4. Griffin, John Howard "Black like me" --- 3.36
5. Gruen, Sara "Water for Elephants" --- 3.24
7. Moore, Christopher "Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff" --- 3.00
8. Woolf, Virginia "To the Lighthouse" --- 2.75
9. Troyanov, Ilija "The Collector of Worlds" --- 2.50
10. Wisner, Franz "How the World Makes Love" --- 2.47

Top 10 * 2008/2009
1. Mortenson, Greg "Three Cups of Tea” --- 4.07
2. Cather, Willa "My Ántonia”"--- 4.00
5. Picoult, Jodi "My Sister's Keeper" --- 3.44
6. Albom, Mitch "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" --- 3.438
7. Arnold, Gaynor "Girl in a Blue Dress" --- 3.42
8. Boyne, John "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" --- 3.20
9. Stone, Irving "The Agony and the Ecstasy" --- 3.00
11. Lessing, Doris "The Golden Notebook" --- 1.33

Top 10 * 2007/2008
2. Hirsi Ali, Ayaan "Infidel: My Life" --- 3.75
5. Urquhart, Jane "The Stone Carvers" --- 3.64
7. Edwards, Kim "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" --- 3.47
8. Pollock, David C., & Van Reken, Ruth "Third Culture Kids" --- 3.09
9. Moggach, Deborah "Tulip Fever" --- 3.00
10. Buruma, Ian "Murder in Amsterdam" --- 2.80

Top 10 * 2006/2007
2. Mosse, Kate "Labyrinth” --- 4.00
3. Noor Al-Hussein, Queen of Jordan "A Leap of Faith" --- 3.92
4. Waltari, Mika "The Dark Angel” --- 3.73
5. Wiesel, Elie "Night” --- 3.35
6. Eliot, George "Middlemarch” --- 3.30
7. Sobel, Dava "Galileo's Daughter” --- 3.25
8. Mason, Daniel "The Piano Tuner" --- 3.08
8. Bender, Sue "Plain and Simple" --- 3.08
9. Gavalda, Anna "Hunting and Gathering” --- 3.07
11. Lewycka, Marina "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" --- 3.00

Top 10 * 2005/06
2. Golden, Arthur "Memoirs of a Geisha" --- 3.93
6. Austen, Jane "Persuasion" --- 3.39
7. Niffenegger, Audrey "The Time Traveler's Wife" --- 3.00
9. Noble, Elizabeth "The Reading Group" --- 2.60
11. White, Colin & Boucke, Laurie "The UnDutchables" --- 2.25

Top 10 * 2004/05
2. Kidd, Sue Monk "The Secret Life of Bees" --- 3.90
4. de Loo, Tessa "The Twins" --- 3.79
5. Nichols, Peter "A Voyage for Madmen" --- 3.33
7. Cullen, Bill "It's a long way from Penny Apples" --- 2.80
9. MacDonald, Ann-Marie "The Way the Crow Flies" --- 2.30
11. Glover, Douglas "Elle" --- 2.00

Top 10 * 2003/04
1. Lawson, Mary "Crow Lake" --- 4.31
3. Sawyer, Anh Vu “Song of Saigon” --- 3.81
4. Landvik, Lorna "Welcome to The Great Mysterious" --- 3.70
6. Wharton, Edith "The House of Mirth" --- 2.93
7. Mulisch, Harry "The Discovery of Heaven" --- 2.89
8. Chabon, Michael "Summerland" --- 2.75
9. Syal, Meera "Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee" --- 2.42
10. Leapman, Michael "The Ingenious Mr. Fairchild" --- 2.00

Top 10 * 2002/03
3. Tademy, Lalita "Cane River" --- 4.00
5. Fuller, Alexandra "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight" --- 3.29
6. van Loon, Karel "A Father's Affair" --- 3.00
7. Soueif, Ahdaf "The Map of Love" --- 2.75
8. McEwan, Ian "Atonement" --- 2.67
9. Lanchester, John "The Debt to Pleasure" --- 1.40

Top 10 * 2001/02
This was our first year and we did not vote on these books (which we read in the following order).
Milton, Giles "Nathaniel's Nutmeg"
Letts, Billie "Where the Heart is"
Vreeland, Susan "Girl in Hyacinth Blue"
MacDonald, Ann-Marie "Fall on Your Knees"
Wells, Rebecca "Little Altars Everywhere"
Tan, Amy "The Joy Luck Club"
Woolfolk Cross, Donna "Pope Joan"
Ishiguro, Kazuo "When we were orphans"
Mistry, Rohinton "A Fine Balance"

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Kohler, Sheila "Becoming Jane Eyre"

Kohler, Sheila "Becoming Jane Eyre" - 2009

An interesting novel based on the life of  Charlotte Brontë, especially while writing "Jane Eyre". The author transports us back into the time the book was written and shows how it grows with  Charlotte Brontë's experiences. But Sheila Kohler also addresses the problems of her sisters and the whole family.

As always when I read novels about this period, I am made aware of the chances women had it that society. None. And that must have been especially hard for intelligent women. This still is one of my favourite period and place of literature, England in the 19th century, there is something to it, despite all the negative sides it has.

Anyway, the novel was well written, obviously well researched. I hadn't come across the name of the author before, only found it because of the title, especially when I was sure it is NOT one of those dreadful "sequels" that people write hundreds of years later.

From the back cover:

"The year is 1846. In a cold parsonage on the gloomy Yorkshire moors, a family seems cursed with disaster. A mother and two children dead. A father sick, without fortune, and hardened by the loss of his two most beloved family members. A son destroyed by alcohol and opiates. And three strong, intelligent young women, reduced to poverty and spinsterhood, with nothing to save them from their fate. Nothing, that is, except their remarkable literary talent. So unfolds the story of the Brontë sisters. At its centre are Charlotte and the writing of Jane Eyre. Delicately unraveling the connections between one of fiction's most indelible heroines and the remarkable woman who created her, Sheila Kohler's Becoming Jane Eyre will appeal to fans of historical fiction and, of course, the millions of readers who adore Jane Eyre."

There is a very good "prequel" to "Jane Eyre", though: Rhys, Jean “Wide Sargasso Sea”

Monday 23 January 2012

Levine, James A. "Move a Little, Lose a Lot"

Levine, James A. "Move a Little, Lose a Lot: New N.E.A.T. Science Reveals How to Be Thinner, Happier, and Smarter " - 2009

An interesting book about how to lose weight and live healthier simply by moving more. I knew that before and I doubt that so many people will follow the advice because I think they knew that before, too.

From the back cover:
"Dr. James Levine, one of the country’s top specialists in obesity, says America suffers from 'sitting disease.' We spend nearly ten to fifteen hours of our day sitting–in cars, at our desks, and in front of the television. The age of electronics and the Internet has robbed us of the chance to burn up to 1,500 to 2,000 calories per day, leaving Americans less active (and much heavier) than we were thirty years ago. We are facing a human energy crisis.

What you need, according to this doctor’s orders, is to get moving, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is as simple as standing, turning, and bending. Research proves that daily NEAT activity burns more calories than a half hour running on the treadmill. Just by the very act of standing and moving, you can boost your metabolism, lower your blood pressure, and increase your mental clarity. It’s about using your body as it was meant to be used.
Move a Little, Lose a Lot gives you literal step-by-step instructions for small changes that equal radical results:

• Give at the office - burn 2,100 calories a week just by changing your daily work routine.
• Hey, Einstein - just like the scientist who thought up his most famous theory while riding his bike, you can increase production of new brain neurons in as little as three hours.
• Tired of being tired - reduce fatigue by 65 percent with low-intensity NEAT workouts.
• Don’t forget - an Italian study showed active men and women were 30 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Sunday 22 January 2012

MacLachlan, Patricia - Sarah, Plain & Tall

MacLachlan, Patricia - Sarah, Plain & Tall Series

"Sarah, Plain & Tall" - 1986
"Skylark" - 1997
"Caleb's Story" - 2001
"More Perfect Than the Moon" - 2004

Patricia MacLachlan has written a nice story about a family during the late 19th century. They have to deal with all the troubles that come along living in the US prairie at the time. After Anna's mother dies in childbirth, she and her brother Caleb grow up with their father in Kansas. He writes for a mail-order bride and Sarah from Maine answers it. She comes to stay with them - for a trial period.

I liked all four of those books and I think they are nice reads, supposed to be for any children aged 8-10 but I think they are especially suited for little girls.

The story has also been turned into some nice movies, starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, a very good cast.

From the back covers:
"Their mother died the day after Caleb was born. Their house on the prairie is quiet now, and Papa doesn't sing anymore. Then Papa puts an ad in the paper, asking for a wife, and he receives a letter from one Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton, of Maine. Papa, Anna, and Caleb write back. Caleb asks if she sings. Sarah decides to come for a month. She writes Papa: I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall, and Tell them I sing. Anna and Caleb wait and wonder. Will Sarah be nice? Will she like them? Will she stay?"
(Sarah Plain & Tall)

"This tale of a family trying to survive on their farm in the mid-west charts the lives of Anna, Caleb, Papa and their new stepmother, Sarah one long, hot summer when the lack of rain finally drives Sarah and the children to Maine."

"Caleb′s Story continues the saga begun by the Newbery Medal-winning Sarah, Plain And Tall and its sequel, Skylark, spinning a tale of love, forgiveness, and the ties that bind a family together."
(Caleb's Story)

"Cassie spends her days watching Grandfather and Caleb in the barn, looking out at Papa working the fields, spying on her mother, Sarah, feeding the goslings. She's an observer, a writer, a storyteller. Everything is as it should be. But change is inevitable, even on the prairie. Something new is expected, and Sarah says it will be the perfect gift. Cassie isn't so sure. But just as life changes, people change too. And Cassie learns that unexpected surprises can bring great joy."
(More Perfect Than the Moon)

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Raittila, Hannu "Canal Grande"

Raittila, Hannu "Canal Grande" (Finnish: Canal Grande) - 2001

I don't think I would have ever found this book if it wasn't for Bookcrossing. You know, the site that "encourages readers to read, register, and release books for others to enjoy." Great idea because I would have missed a good laugh.

A group of Finnish scientists is going to Venice in order to prevent it from sinking. The Finnish and Italian mentality and … uhm … work ethic clash, to say the least.

A funny, totally absurd novel, partly chaotic, partly incredibly hilarious. I loved it. If you want to find out more about the people from that small Scandinavian country, read this book.

From the back cover:
"What happens when a group of five Finnish experts travel to Venice as part of a UNESCO project to try to save the the town from sinking?
Well, a lot of nonsense is happening. And yet everything is also quite profound.
Hilarious, intelligent, full of allusions to literature, art and culture, 'Canal Grande' is an extraordinarily unusual novel, an entertaining engagement not only with Venice, but also with Western culture.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Lindbergh, Anne Morrow "Gift from the Sea"

Lindbergh, Anne Morrow "Gift from the Sea" - 1955

This book has been described as "a meditation on the meaning of a woman's life or a woman's reflections on life, its stages, and its states, comparing them with the natural treasures of life in the sea."

It's a nice little book to meditate and think about where your life is going.

From the back cover:
"A modern-day classic: here are Anne Morrow Lindbergh's elegant and wise meditations on youth and age, love and marriage, solitude, peace, and contentment, as she set them down during a brief vacation by the ocean.

She helps us to see ways to reconcile our most deeply personal needs with obligations to family, friends, lovers, and work, ways to separate loneliness from replenishing solitude, and ways to find solace in the simplest of daily tasks.

Gift from the Sea is marked by a greatest and simple wisdom, lifting listeners out of the rush and worry of daily life and opening a path to inner peace and self-realization."

Monday 16 January 2012

Levi, Primo "If Not Now, When?"

Levi, Primo "If Not Now, When?" (Italian: Se non ora, quando?) - 1982

Primo Levi lived during the most part of the 20th century. He was Italian, he was Jewish, he was a chemist, and he wrote a couple of books. This one is about two Russian Jews who join a band of partisans behind enemy lines.

The books is based on a true story. I must say I loved it. The language was great, the story interesting, the people well described. An action-filled story that also brings up a lot of questions about war. Good read, a good basis for interesting discussions.

From the back cover:
"Primo Levi was among the greatest witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In this gripping novel, based on a true story, he reveals the extraordinary lives of the Russian, Polish and Jewish partisans trapped behind enemy lines during the Second World War. Wracked by fear, hunger and fierce rivalries, they link up, fall apart, struggle to stay alive and to sabotage the efforts of the all-powerful German army. A compelling tale of action, resistance and epic adventure, it also reveals Levi's characteristic compassion and deep insight into the moral dilemmas of total war. It ranks alongside 'The Period Table' and 'If this is a man' as one of the rare authentic masterpieces of our times."

Friday 13 January 2012

Sackville, Amy "The Still Point"

Sackville, Amy "The Still Point - 2010

In 1899, Edward Mackley sets out to be the first person to reach the North Pole. His wife Emily stays behind in England to wait for him. A hundred years later, their great-great grandniece Julia starts sifting through the papers, journals, letters, anything left behind by the two while going through a rough patch in her own marriage.

The Financial Times called this "An Excellent Debut". I couldn't agree more. She was also compared to Virginia Woolf. Not a bad comparison. Amy Sackville has a wonderful way of describing feelings and actions at the same time. Her plot is original and interesting, her thoughts somewhat philosophical. Great novel. Looking forward to her next one.

From the back cover:
"At the turn of the twentieth century, Arctic explorer Edward Mackley sets out to reach the North Pole and vanishes into the icy landscape without a trace. He leaves behind a young wife, Emily, who awaits his return for decades, her dreams and devotion gradually freezing into rigid widowhood. A hundred years later, on a sweltering mid-summer's day, Edward's great-grand-niece Julia moves through the old family house, attempting to impose some order on the clutter of inherited belongings and memories from that ill-fated expedition, and taking care to ignore the deepening cracks within her own marriage. But as afternoon turns into evening, Julia makes a discovery that splinters her long-held image of Edward and Emily's romance, and her husband Simon faces a precipitous choice that will decide the future of their relationship. Sharply observed and deeply engaging, The Still Point is a powerful literary debut, and a moving meditation on the distances - geographical and emotional - that can exist between two people."

Thursday 12 January 2012

Mayes, Frances "Under the Tuscan Sun"

Mayes, Frances "Under the Tuscan Sun" - 1996

I have read and enjoyed similar books written by people who left their (mostly European) home to settle in the South. Seldom have a I had the feeling that the person looked down on the people of their new home. This is the feeling I had here, I didn't like it at all and therefore didn't even finish it - and that happens very rarely.

I did enjoy the author's novel "Swan", though.

From the back cover:
"In this memoir of her buying, renovating and living in an abandoned villa in Tuscany, Frances Mayes reveals the sensual pleasure she found living in rural Italy and the generous spirit she brought with her. She revels in the sunlight and the colour, the long view of her valley, the warm homey architecture, the languor of the slow paced days, the vigor of working her garden and the intimacy of her dealings with the locals. Cooking, gardening, tiling and painting are never chores, but skills to be learned, arts to be practiced and above all to be enjoyed. At the same time Mayes brings a literary and intellectual mind to bear on the experience, adding depth to this account of her enticing rural idyll."

Mayes, Frances "Swan"

Mayes, Frances "Swan" - 2002

After Frances Mayes wrote a couple of autobiographical novels about her life in Tuscany, this is her first fiction novel.

The story is set in her native Georgia and stretches over just a couple of days. The Mason family is one of the richest families in Swan but has had a lot of problems and secrets to hide. When one of them seems to have been "unearthed", the daughter has to come home from Italy and both she and her brother have to come to terms with a lot of questions buried in the past.

This book describes small town life as well as family life, interesting characters and lots of good southern food.

I didn't like the first book of her Tuscany autobiographies ("Under the Tuscan Sun"), it is one of the few books I didn't finish, but I really liked this one. Even though it deals with a lot of problem areas, I thought the feeling of this novel was quite warm and comforting.

From the back cover:
"In her celebrated memoirs of life in Tuscany, Frances Mayes writes masterfully about people in a powerful and shaping place. In Swan, her first novel, she has created an equally intimate world, rich with striking characters and intriguing twists of fate, that hearkens back to her southern roots.

The Masons are a prominent but now fragmented family who have lived for generations in Swan, an edenic, hidebound small town in Georgia. As Swan opens, a bizarre crime pulls Ginger Mason home from her life as an archeologist in Italy: The body of her mother, Catherine, a suicide nineteen years before, has been mysteriously exhumed. Reunited on new terms with her troubled, isolated brother J.J., who has never ventured far from Swan, the Mason children grapple with the profound effects of their mother's life and death on their own lives. When a new explanation for Catherine’s death emerges, and other closely guarded family secrets rise to the surface as well, Ginger and J.J. are confronted with startling truths about their family, a particular ordeal in a family and a town that wants to keep the past buried.

Beautifully evoking the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the deep South while telling an utterly compelling story of the complexity of family ties, Swan marks the remarkable fiction debut of one of America’s best-loved writers."

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Forest, Jim "Praying with Icons"

Forest, Jim "Praying with Icons" - 1997/2008

An extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer. I have read a couple of books by Jim Forest ("The Road to Emmaus. Pilgrimage as a Way of Life" and "Confession. Doorway to Forgiveness") and they have all been wonderful. Jim Forest manages to describe his religious life and that of many others in a way nobody else achieves. Even more important, he makes us aware of how close the Catholic and the Orthodox church are to each other.

I loved learning about all the different icons the Orthodox church has created, the way they pray with the icons, the meaning it has for all of us. My copy of the book has not just the description but also the pictures of the icons he is talking about. This way, I found out the icon I have is about the Holy Trinity. But the reason I treasure this book even more, it has a signature of the author.

From the back cover:
"First published ten years ago, this volume has been widely recognized as a modern spiritual classic. Forest describes the history and theology behind icons, tells how they are made, and discusses how they are used as a guide to prayer. Finally, he offers a moving series of reflections on a range of classic icons."

I also read in the meantime: "The Ladder of the Beatitudes".

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Mistry, Rohinton "A Fine Balance"

Mistry, Rohinton "A Fine Balance" - 1995

"A novel set in India during the Emergency. In the tiny flat of the widowed Dina Dalal, two tailors and a young student struggle to put together a new life of sorts amid the crisis, and in the course of doing so encounter a vivid cast of characters."

This book is absolutely wonderful. The ending is shocking but not entirely unexpected and any other ending would have been too fictional, too much trying to find paradise on earth. Like you find so often in books, the endings seem to be "out of this world".

The description of the people and their actions is so vivid, you actually have the feeling you know these people, you live there with them. You are afraid for them, what's going to happen next. Beautiful writing. 

From the back cover:
"'A Fine Balance', Rohinton Mistry’s stunning internationally acclaimed bestseller, is set in mid-1970s India. It tells the story of four unlikely people whose lives come together during a time of political turmoil soon after the government declares a 'State of Internal Emergency.' Through days of bleakness and hope, their circumstances – and their fates – become inextricably linked in ways no one could have foreseen. Mistry’s prose is alive with enduring images and a cast of unforgettable characters. Written with compassion, humour, and insight, A Fine Balance is a vivid, richly textured, and powerful novel written by one of the most gifted writers of our time. "

Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for "A Fine Balance" in 1996.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2002.

Orwell, George "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

Orwell, George "Nineteen Eighty-Four" - 1949

I am pretty sure I read this book in my youth. But that was so long go, certainly before 1984. So, I thought it was about time to re-read it.

Has Orwell's negative Utopia arrived, did he predict well? Yes and no. "Big Brother" IS watching us. Even as I type this, I know that anybody who would like to, will be able to read this. But is “Big Brother” really interested in my musings about the books I read. I doubt it. A few of my friends read it and that is no different to me making a couple of photocopies and distributing it.

However, I think "Big Brother" are all of us. We have seen how useful the internet was last year when all those people protested against the regime in their countries. Without the internet, without mobile phones, facebook, etc., there would not have been this massive change as there was.

So, for better or worse, Orwell's phantasies have come true but it is used in a completely different way. The telescreen could be compared to facebook, only, we can decide what we put in there and what not and we can also decide who we let in to read what we are writing and who not. Huge difference.

My favourite quote of the book: "We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness."

From the back cover:

"Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life - the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language - and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written."

I love maps and I love to know where the people I'm reading about are, so I was looking for a map of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and found one here.

Another great Orwell book "Animal Farm".

Monday 9 January 2012

Chang, Leslie T. "Factory Girls"

Chang, Leslie T. "Factory Girls" - 2008

Leslie T. Chang is a Chinese-American journalist who travelled to and lived in China for a couple of years to get to know the country of her ancestors. She interviewed several female migrant workers and portrayed their lives between the old and the new world, the poor families they were born into and the life in the modern Chinese towns. Quite different from what we in Western Europe expect from someone leaving their home to work in the city.

This was one of our book club reads. For various reasons, we were only a few people but, nevertheless, had a wonderful talk about this book. Some of us had already read other books about China, unfortunately the one that gives the most information ("Risse in der großen Mauer" by Jan-Philipp Sendker) has not been translated into English. But maybe one day, you never know.

Anyway, we really liked the way the author portrayed the different cultures. It was quite shocking at times how these girls moved on in this world,  how they changed from their rural life into city life between factories and other jobs.

Most of us didn't like that the author incorporated her family history into this work. It could have been a book on its own. The title of this one is "Factory Girls" and there is nothing about factories in her family history.

I am always amazed to learn about other lives, especially if they are completely different from ours. Often you have to go back in time for that - but not always, as this book proves.

From the back cover:
"An eye-opening and previously untold story, Factory Girls is the first look into the everyday lives of the migrant factory population in China.

China has 130 million migrant workers - the largest migration in human history. In
Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Beijing, tells the story of these workers primarily through the lives of two young women, whom she follows over the course of three years as they attempt to rise from the assembly lines of Dongguan, an industrial city in China's Pearl River Delta.

As she tracks their lives, Chang paints a never-before-seen picture of migrant life - a world where nearly everyone is under thirty; where you can lose your boyfriend and your friends with the loss of a mobile phone; where a few computer or English lessons can catapult you into a completely different social class. Chang takes us inside a sneaker factory so large that it has its own hospital, movie theater, and fire department; to posh karaoke bars that are fronts for prostitution; to makeshift English classes where students shave their heads in monklike devotion and sit day after day in front of machines watching English words flash by; and back to a farming village for the Chinese New Year, revealing the poverty and idleness of rural life that drive young girls to leave home in the first place. Throughout this riveting portrait, Chang also interweaves the story of her own family's migrations, within China and to the West, providing historical and personal frames of reference for her investigation.

A book of global significance that provides new insight into China,
Factory Girls demonstrates how the mass movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and transforming Chinese society, much as immigration to America's shores remade our own country a century ago."

We discussed this in our book club in December 2012.

Saturday 7 January 2012

O'Farrell, John "Things can only get better"

O'Farrell, John "Things can only get better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter, 1979-1997" - 1998

Interesting story, the ups and downs of a politician. John O'Farrell has a pretty humorous and sarcastic side when he describes his fights for a better country and his agony of having to serve during the reign of a conservative prime minister. Great read. I loved it.

From the back cover:

"Like bubonic plague and stone cladding, no-one took Margaret Thatcher seriously until it was too late. Her first act as leader was to appear before the cameras and do a V for Victory sign the wrong way round. She was smiling and telling the British people to f*** off at the same time. It was something we would have to get used to.'

Things Can Only Get Better is the personal account of a Labour supporter who survived eighteen miserable years of Conservative government. It is the heartbreaking and hilarious confessions of someone who has been actively involved in helping the Labour party lose elections at every level: school candidate: door-to-door canvasser: working for a Labour MP in the House of Commons; standing as a council candidate; and eventually writing jokes for a shadow cabinet minister.

Along the way he slowly came to realise that Michael Foot would never be Prime Minister, that vegetable quiche was not as tasty as chicken tikki masala and that the nuclear arms race was never going to be stopped by face painting alone."

I also read "An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2,000 Years of Upper Calls Idiots in Charge" which was certainly just as great, if not better.

O'Farrell, John "An Utterly Impartial History of Britain"

O'Farrell, John "An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2,000 Years of Upper Calls Idiots in Charge" - 2007

I haven't laughed and learned as much in one book as with this one. I read "Things can only get better" by the same author and really liked it. But this is a completely different matter. John O'Farrell makes history hilarious. I learned so much about British history, more than any of my history teachers would have ever imagined for me. From the Romans to World War II, the British Isles have been the place of many upheavals. To learn about all this in such a funny way, pure bliss.

A quote I especially liked: "… history is an infinite flow chart and at every junction only one of a number of possible routes was taken. The exact point at which Britain and Europe and the world have ended up today is only one of a billion, billion possibilities; the incredibly unlikely result of every decision, struggle and accident to have involved all the people who were born before we were. …" Probably the reason why I like alternate history books so much.

Another one I cannot agree with: "Germany was allied to Austria (They still always give each other maximum points in the Eurovision Song Contest) …" Uhm, …. not really, there is a standing joke that Austria gives Germany "zero points" (imagine French accent) every year. Probably sarcasm. ;-)

Definitely want to read the follow-up to this great book: "An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always"

From the back cover:
"Many of us were put off history by the dry and dreary way it was taught at school. Back then 'The Origins of the Industrial Revolution' somehow seemed less compelling than the chance to test the bold claim on Timothy Johnson's 'Shatterproof' ruler. But here at last is a chance to have a good laugh and learn all that stuff you feel you really ought to know by now...

In this 'Horrible History for Grown Ups', you can read how Anglo-Saxon liberals struggled to be positive about immigration; 'Look I think we have to try and respect the religious customs of our new Viking friends - oi, he's nicked my bloody ox!' Discover how England's peculiar class system was established by some snobby French nobles whose posh descendants still have wine cellars and second homes in the Dordogne today. And explore the complex socio-economic reasons why Britain's kings were the first in Europe to be brought to heel; (because the Stuarts were such a useless bunch of untalented, incompetent, arrogant, upper-class thickoes that Parliament didn't have much choice.)

A book about then that is also incisive and illuminating about now, '
2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge' is a hilarious, informative and cantankerous journey through Britain' fascinating and bizarre history. It is as entertaining as a witch burning, and a lot more laughs."

Thursday 5 January 2012

Löwenstein, Anna "The Stone City"

Löwenstein, Anna "The Stone City" (Esperanto: La Ŝtona Urbo) - 1999

I love historical novels, this book appeared in Esperanto, I even know the author, so, of course, I had to read this book. Granted, I usually prefer to read books in the original but since this one has been translated by the author herself and I know how perfect her Esperanto is, I gave it a try. And have not been disappointed.

A gripping story that exists in three parts and every single one is just as exciting as the other ones. A young girl, Bivana, grows up in Britain in the first century. We learn a lot about the lifestyle of this Celtic people. The Romans arrive and capture her. She is transported to a place outside of Rome and has to work as a slave. Again, a great description of life in a Roman villa and the fate of Barbara, how the Romans call our heroine, and various other slaves. The last part is in Rome itself where we see the first steps of Europe into Christianity. Incredible how much the author managed to put into one book, there is so much material, it certainly could have been three books. But I am glad this was all united in one.

If you can get a hold of this book, it is definitely worth reading.

From the back cover:
"Snatched from her peaceful homestead in Celtic Britain, Bivana is transported to the legendary city of Rome. Struggling to come to terms with the loss of everyone and everything she has ever known, but determined to survive, she slowly adapts to a life of slavery and to the alien culture which surrounds her. Her relationship with the slave Philon seems to promise a fresh start, but it also brings her into contact with the Nazarenes, activists in a fanatical new religious movement. When her own family is drawn into a clash with the authorities, she is forced to draw on all her resources to save them. --- Since its first publication in 1999, 'The Stone City' has become well known and loved in its Esperanto translation, and has been translated by fans into French and Hungarian. This revised edition of the original English version includes several additional scenes."

Visit the author's website here.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Fitch, Janet "White Oleander"

Fitch, Janet "White Oleander" - 1999

The story of young Astrid is the story of millions of young children who don't grow up in a loving family. Very sad.

However, the book didn't leave such a great impression on me. I read it with my Dutch book club about a decade ago and remember that we were not really overwhelmed by it. It was alright but that's about it.

From the back cover:

"Janet Fitch's debut novel, White Oleander, is a stirring, poetic work of great imagination. Young Astrid is an only child with strong attachments to her brilliant if unstable mother, Ingrid, and their idyllic life together. Astrid's world is shattered, however, when Ingrid murders her lover after a devastating rejection. Her life becomes a constantly changing whirlwind of strange new faces and foster homes."

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Ende, Michael "The Neverending Story"

Ende, Michael "The Neverending Story" (German: Die unendliche Geschichte) - 1979

I think this is the only fantasy story I ever liked. Mind you, I think it is more a fairy tale and those remind me of my childhood.

I read this book when it just came out - in the original German version, of course, quite a while before I read English books for pleasure.

Bastian Balthasar Bux, a lonely boy,  we would probably call him a nerd nowadays, reads a book about Phantásien (Fantastica in the translation, what a weird word) and the problems they have there because the children stopped believing in fairy tales.

This book was written way before Harry Potter but I think at the time it was quite true, children didn't read fairy tales any more, and adults certainly didn't either. So, Michael Ende can be seen a little bit as a pioneer for fantasy books.

I especially loved about the book that it was written in two different colours, red for Phantásien, blue-green for the human world. The writing is so beautiful, it would be worth reading the book just because of that if the story wasn't so gripping and interesting. Wonderful book.

They also made a film but it was so horrible that the author retracted his name from that project.

From the back cover:

"Bastian Balthazar Bux is shy, awkward, and certainly not heroic. His only escape is reading books. When Bastian happens upon an old book called The Neverending Story, he's swept into the magical world of Fantastica - so much that he finds he has actually become a character in the story! And when he realizes that this mysteriously enchanted world is in great danger, he also discovers that he has been the one chosen to save it. Can Bastian overcome the barrier between reality and his imagination in order to save Fantastica?"

We discussed this in our international online book club in October 2019.

Monday 2 January 2012

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos "The Watcher in the Shadows"

Ruiz Zafón, Carlos "The Watcher in the Shadows" (Spanish: Las Luces de Septiembre) - 1995

A family in France in 1937. After the death of her father, Irene's mother moves with her children from Paris to a remote place in Normandy, a mysterious mansion inhabited by a toymaker who lives there with his sick wife. Shadows, Ruiz Zafón loves shadows, it's amazing what he can do with shadows …

I don't really like ghost stories but nobody tells them so beautifully as Carlos Ruiz Zafón. All he needs is a remote island, a mysterious castle, an old library, whatever, he makes it into a voyage into the unknown.

I have loved every single one of this brilliant author's works, any one of them a masterpiece. Can't wait to get a hold of the next one.

See more comments on my ThrowbackThursday post in 2023.

Find more books about this great author here.

From the back cover:

"A mysterious toymaker who lives as a recluse in an old mansion, surrounded by the magical beings he has created...

A sickly wife locked away in a hidden room...

An enigma involving strange lights that shine out from the small island on which an old, disused lighthouse stands...

A shadowy creature that hides deep in the woods...

These are the elements of a mystery will bind 14-year-old Irene to Ismael during one magical summer spent in Blue Bay when her mother takes a job as a housekeeper for the enigmatic toymaker, Lazarus Jann.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Frazier, Charles "Nightwoods"

Frazier, Charles "Nightwoods" - 2011

After reading "Cold Mountain", I couldn't wait for the next book of this author. Nine years later, "Thirteen Moons" appeared and I was back at the beginning, couldn't wait for the next one. I am grateful that I didn't have to wait as long this time, though four years is quite a long time, as well.

"Nightwoods", a young woman has to look after her murdered sister's twins. Not a new plot. But - there is so much more to this story, and not just the beautiful description of Charles Frazier's beloved Appalachians. He manages to describe ordinary people's lives like nobody else. All his novels have been about completely different topics, at completely different times, and, yet, he makes you feel like you are "there" all the time. Brilliant.

From the back cover:

"The extraordinary author of Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons returns with a dazzling new novel of suspense and love set in small-town North Carolina in the early 1960s.

Charles Frazier puts his remarkable gifts in the service of a lean, taut narrative while losing none of the transcendent prose, virtuosic storytelling, and insight into human nature that have made him one of the most beloved and celebrated authors in the world. Now, with his brilliant portrait of Luce, a young woman who inherits her murdered sister's troubled twins, Frazier has created his most memorable heroine.

Before the children, Luce was content with the reimbursements of the rich Appalachian landscape, choosing to live apart from the small community around her. But the coming of the children changes everything, cracking open her solitary life in difficult, hopeful, dangerous ways.

Charles Frazier is known for his historical literary odysseys, and for making figures in the past come vividly to life. Set in the twentieth century,
Nightwoods resonates with the timelessness of a great work of art."