Friday 30 March 2012

Chang, Jung "Wild Swans"

Chang, Jung "Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China" - 1991

Jung Chang's grandmother was born at the beginning of the last century, when girls in China still had their feet bound. Her father gave her to a warlord as a concubine and she had Jung's mother. The mother was an active Communist and fell in love with a very important one with whom she had five children, Jung was the second. They go through all kinds of troubles in the China of Mao, from being high officials to being denounced, from being praised by everyone to being in prison. Nobody is allowed to chose any place in their lives, neither where they want to live nor what profession they want to do. So, when Jung gets the chance to study abroad, she takes it. In England, she writes this memoir of her youth, her parents' and grandparents life.

Apparently, this is the biggest grossing non-fiction paperback in publishing history. I am not surprised. Even more than a decade after it has been written and half a century after most of the events took place, this is still as actual today as it was back then.

Even though this looks like the story, the real story of a grandmother, mother and daughter, it really is a story of her family, the story of her people. Jung Chang manages to show what a lot of other fiction and non-fiction writers have not achieved, a true story of how people lived in Communist China, under Mao and his henchmen. "He was as evil as Hitler or Stalin, and did as much damage to mankind as they did," says the author. "And yet the world knows astonishingly little about him."

Yes, why do we know so little. At least 70 million people were killed, that is more than the population of most European countries. That is why this book is so important. To show us and future generations what people are able to do, atrocities you cannot even imagine, how did they come up with it? But not just the physical abusiveness was bad, the other aspects were even worse. I have read a lot about China but I knew nothing before. As so many others, I thought that intellectuals were sent to work in the countryside, next to the people who always lived and worked there. I had no idea that the impact was so bad, that you could go from being in the right position to being in the wrong position in no time whatsoever.

I was very sad about the family life people had - or better, didn't have. How they still managed to be so devoted to each other makes me admire them even more.

I admire the author's father who clung to his principles, there are few people like him on this earth, if we all were like that, we could live in peace. Everywhere.

This truly is an extraordinary book everybody should read.

Would love to read: "Mao: The Unknown Story" by the same author

Just a few of her quotes that spoke to me:
"The upshot of this horrible reality was that we were all obsessed with who came from what family, and often people would ask the question outright in their first conversation with you. But meeting people in London, I sensed none of this pressure. Everyone seemed to be extraordinarily equal, and could not care less about one's background." Unbelievable in our world nowadays.

"Louisa May Alcott's Little Women was the first novel I read in English. I found women writers like her, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters much easier to read than mal authors like Dickens, and I also felt more empathy with their characters." This was the same for me, it was one of the first novels I read in English, I do prefer women writers, most probably for the same reason.

And, about her father: "There was no place for him in Mao's China, because he had tried to be an honest man. He Had been betrayed by something to which he had given his whole life, and the betrayal had destroyed him."

There isn't really more to add.

From the back cover:

"The story of three generations in twentieth-century China that blends the intimacy of memoir and the panoramic sweep of eyewitness history - a bestselling classic in thirty languages with more than ten million copies sold around the world, now with a new introduction from the author.

An engrossing record of Mao’s impact on China, an unusual window on the female experience in the modern world, and an inspiring tale of courage and love, Jung Chang describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of her family members: her grandmother, a warlord’s concubine; her mother’s struggles as a young idealistic Communist; and her parents’ experience as members of the Communist elite and their ordeal during the Cultural Revolution. Chang was a Red Guard briefly at the age of fourteen, then worked as a peasant, a 'barefoot doctor,' a steelworker, and an electrician. As the story of each generation unfolds, Chang captures in gripping, moving - and ultimately uplifting - detail the cycles of violent drama visited on her own family and millions of others caught in the whirlwind of history.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Kladstrup, Donald & Petie "Wine and War"

Kladstrup, Donald & Petie "Wine and War" - 2001

A book about World War II. Not unknown to me, I have read a lot of accounts of this terrible time in our history and usually am impressed by the way people can report about their lives or that of others during this period. Not this time, I'm afraid. It was chosen in our book club after having been suggested the second time in a row. I didn't vote for it last year, I didn't vote for it this year. I must have known why. I didn't care for it at all. I don't drink wine or any alcohol and compared to all the other atrocities that happened in that war, I couldn't care less about the disappearance of a couple of bottles of grape juice gone sour.

In addition to that, a lot of the subjects were only barely touched and very superficial, I didn't have the impression the authors had researched this topic very well. I also really disliked misspellings of French or German words, sorry, but that is just unacceptable in any book but especially a non-fiction one. As to the rest of the book, I learned more about this subject in my history lessons at school. One more thing, the authors don't even have a page on Wikipedia, not good news nowadays.

As to the book club, only one other person disliked the book. She thought it was a confusing, disjointed read, even though there were some interesting parts.

Most of the others really liked it. They said they learned that not all Germans were bad (true, that did come through). The whole idea about collaboration raised new questions with De Gaulle sitting in England in safety whilst Petain who did not want to be in the situation like in WWI had to make decisions in France. Of course, it's always easier to judge after the fact anyway. What would we have done?

One member mentioned that although it was not a fine piece of writing, it was interesting to read about different families throughout France and their situations. The description of the way of life and the importance of wine in the culture, how the production of wine has changed since the war, the Vichy, the restoration of the vineyards, which years were good/bad wine years and why, and the relationships between the Germans and the French (particularly the wine growers) were some of the more interesting bits.

So, most of our non-European members, especially when they were new to Europe, thought they learned a little from it. I guess, maybe the book should stay in North America. ;-)

Two quotes that caught my attention, one I like, the other one I didn't.

The letter Maurice wrote to his wife: "In my meditations, I find that nothing in life counts more than the happiness we can give others, the good that we can do. This is what we must teach our children, to think of others more than they think of themselves, for it is in this way they will find the most noble satisfaction of all.”"

"Although the war was awful for the world, it was the most beautiful moment of my life. I felt so full of patriotism." (That's why I don't like patriotism.)

From the back cover:

"The remarkable untold story of France's courageous, clever vinters who protected and rescued the country's most treasured commodity from German plunder during World War II.

'To be a Frenchman means to fight for your country and its wine.' Claude Terrail, owner, Restaurant La Tour d'Argent

In 1940, France fell to the Nazis and almost immediately the German army began a campaign of pillaging one of the assets the French hold most dear: their wine. Like others in the French Resistance, winemakers mobilized to oppose their occupiers, but the tale of their extraordinary efforts has remained largely unknown-until now. This is the thrilling and harrowing story of the French wine producers who undertook ingenious, daring measures to save their cherished crops and bottles as the Germans closed in on them. Wine and War illuminates a compelling, little-known chapter of history, and stands as a tribute to extraordinary individuals who waged a battle that, in a very real way, saved the spirit of France.

We discussed this in our book club in March 2012.

Monday 26 March 2012

Winchester, Simon "The Map that Changed the World"

Winchester, Simon "The Map that Changed the World: A Tale of Rocks, Ruin and Redemption" - 2001

This was one of the most interesting scientific books I ever read. William Smith, an ordinary boy in the 18th century, discovers the history of our planet. He was the first to find that the earth is arranged in layers, he found fossils that were different from those in other areas, he detects that England has to have been under water once, he discovers the ice age. He made a geological map of England that looks very much like the one they still use today. Amazing. I loved to read the story of this ordinary guy who changed mapmaking forever, who discovered so much without ever having been educated that way. He laid the groundwork for so many other scientific discoveries that would change the world forever. This is a book everybody should read.

From the back cover:

"The fascinating story of William Smith, the orphaned son of an English country blacksmith, who became obsessed with creating the world's first geological map and ultimately became the father of modern geology."

Friday 23 March 2012

Durlacher, Jessica "The Conscience"

Durlacher, Jessica "The Conscience" [Dutch: Het Geweten] - 1998

A university story. Edna meets Samuel. She likes him but he appears condescending. They become friends, meet wherever students meet, go to parties, go sailing. However, there is more to them, a common past. They are both Jews and both their fathers were deported to Auschwitz. A theme much liked by Dutch writers. A theme I usually like a lot but most Dutch writers usually overdo it. However, this takes the subject to the next generation, also very realistic, that's a big topic in the Netherlands. A lot of times, I don't like this kind of writing but Jessica Durlacher has a great way of putting it, talking about feelings rather than lingering too much on the history. I quite liked it. Certainly due to the fine penmanship of this author.

(I read this book in the original Dutch.)

Description (translated):

"The debut novel of Dutch author Jessica Durlacher, born in 1961, on a subject that is not unknown in literature: love and its difficulties. But she manages to add a new variant to the familiar.

Edna made the acquaintance of Samuel when she started university at the age of eighteen. She is immediately taken with him and knows: this one or no one. Samuel is extravagant, condescending and extremely serene. The two approach each other gropingly, meet at parties for freshmen or go sailing together. Just talking is not a common thing in their relationship. About what? 'The present is already complicated enough. And we don't talk so much because we feel so exactly what is going on in the other, actually.' It is precisely on this 'actually' that all difficulties depend.

Their friendship is underpinned, Edna calls it her 'Underlife' or 'the life beneath our everyday life', with the story of her fathers, who knew each other from the time of the war. Both are Jews and were deported from Germany to Auschwitz.

Edna and Samuel hang like marionettes by silk threads that their fathers with their fears of persecution have still not cut.

Edna finally separates from Samuel, has other men, and yet returns to him. It takes a long time before she finds herself and realizes what she wants for herself. Whereby the sad end of the story is clear from the start - Samuel dies. But why does their love have to end fatally?

Saturday 17 March 2012

Schwarz, Christina "Drowning Ruth"

Schwarz, Christina "Drowning Ruth" - 2001

This book was on my TBR pile for a while. It's an Oprah book, described as a "gripping psychological thriller". I do agree, the book is very interesting, it starts with "Ruth remembered drowning", the story develops from there, little details are added and you get more and more into the characters and their relations. Although toward the end you can imagine what is going to happen (or what has happened), it's still fascinating, you want to know how it goes on. The characters are well described, you find you could know them in real life and you imagine whom you would like and whom you wouldn't. They have both positive and negative sides which makes them more alive.

I am an Oprah book fan, haven't found one so far that I didn't like (didn't read them all, though). I know some of my friends find them too American, maybe they are but I don't mind that, I read different stories about people in different parts of the world all the time.

From the back cover:
"Deftly written and emotionally powerful, Drowning Ruth is a stunning portrait of the ties that bind sisters together and the forces that tear them apart, of the dangers of keeping secrets and the explosive repercussions when they are exposed. A mesmerizing and achingly beautiful debut.

Winter, 1919. Amanda Starkey spends her days nursing soldiers wounded in the Great War. Finding herself suddenly overwhelmed, she flees Milwaukee and retreats to her family's farm on Nagawaukee Lake, seeking comfort with her younger sister, Mathilda, and three-year-old niece, Ruth. But very soon, Amanda comes to see that her old home is no refuge - she has carried her troubles with her. On one terrible night almost a year later, Amanda loses nearly everything that is dearest to her when her sister mysteriously disappears and is later found drowned beneath the ice that covers the lake. When Mathilda's husband comes home from the war, wounded and troubled himself, he finds that Amanda has taken charge of Ruth and the farm, assuming her responsibility with a frightening intensity. Wry and guarded, Amanda tells the story of her family in careful doses, as anxious to hide from herself as from us the secrets of her own past and of that night.

Ruth, haunted by her own memory of that fateful night, grows up under the watchful eye of her prickly and possessive aunt and gradually becomes aware of the odd events of her childhood. As she tells her own story with increasing clarity, she reveals the mounting toll that her aunt's secrets exact from her family and everyone around her, until the heartrending truth is uncovered.
Guiding us through the lives of the Starkey women, Christina Schwarz's first novel shows her compassion and a unique understanding of the American landscape and the people who live on it.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Moore, Peter "No Shitting in the Toilet"

Moore, Peter "No Shitting in the Toilet - The travel guide for when you've really lost it" - 1997

When you travel around the world, you come upon all sorts of funny signs. Mostly, these are not intended to be funny, just a translation error, sometimes different cultures play a role, often it is just bad knowledge of the foreign language.

The title of this book stems from one of those signs, the Australian author found it in China. It must have been suggested to me by one of my Australian friends when I mentioned how much I loved Bill Bryson. Well, Peter Moore is just as funny and I don't know why I haven't read more of him (although, I do, I have a huge TBR pile I have to "work on" before I can buy more books).

Peter Moore can be very sarcastic, I love that. His accounts of getting around in foreign countries, meeting the locals, coming across oddities that are not odd to the natives. I loved his style, his "Aussie" slang, his stories, he can tell them so well, you almost think you've been to these places yourself. A very funny travel book with a twist.

From the back cover:

"No Shitting In The Toilet is named after a sign Peter Moore saw on the door of the lavatory at Jack's Café in Dali, Yunnan Province, in China. It's a sign that encapsulated his travel philosophy: that things never quite turn out as you expect. You end up in situations that defy logic, rational thought and, quite often, general well-being - and yet you have a brilliant time, not in spite of these situations, but because of them.

And this is the philosophy behind this book and the reason why it isn't really a normal travel guide. OK, it might look like one in its structure and choice of topics, but in fact it's quite the opposite. Instead of practical hints, it gives you impractical ones (How to avoid jet lag - avoid jets ...) and rather than tell you the best places to stay, it tells you the worst. Instead of celebrating transcendental travel experiences, it revels in the most demeaning ones (On checking the hygiene in restaurants: there are 2 things you don't really want to see in life. The first is your parents having sex. The second is the state of the kitchen in restaurants catering for backpackers.). But in that sense
NSITT is more in touch with the way things really are. The world of NSITT is one where you're more likely to find a cockroach on your pillow than a complimentary mint, a world where you take your life in your own hands every time you get on a bus, a world where everything goes wrong, and you still end up loving every minute of it.

Based on the author's award-winning travel website,
NSITT is not only hugely entertaining but also eminently practical, with advice on everything from Backpacking and Souvenirs, to Sex and Romance and Health and Eating (and some words of advice for vegetarians: hope you like rice...)."

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Dai, Sijie "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress"

Dai, Sijie "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (Balzac et la Petite Tailleuse Chinoise) - 2002

A great story about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in its later years. Two boys from an educated family are sent to a village for re-education. Through the stories of Balzac (whose books they find and steal), they get to know and fall in love with a village girl who is known as the Little Seamstress.

For someone growing up in Western Europe, it is hard to imagine what it means to be in the boys' situation. They have done nothing wrong, they have not harmed anyone, still, they get punished for being them and for having an education, their parents get punished for educating their children.

Apparently, this is a semi-autobiographical novel, so the author knows what he is writing about. And that is very obvious in his writing.

I think it is interesting that the author wrote his story in French and it was translated into his native language only after the book had been made into a movie and translated into 25 other languages.

From the back cover:

"In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for reeducation during China's infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined."

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Rylant, Cynthia "Old Town in the Green Groves"

Rylant, Cynthia "Old Town in the Green Groves: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Lost Little House Years" - 2002

I have enjoyed the "Little House" Books, so when I found this at my sons' school's book fair, I just had to get it. I normally don't like to read books written as a "sequel" or something like that by another person. But because the author had based her story on Laura's memoirs, I thought I'd give it a try.

I wasn't disappointed. This story seemed just the same as the books written by Ms. Wilder. If you liked her stories, you might want to read this one, as well.

From the back cover:

"For the first time since they left the Big Woods of Wisconsin, the Ingalls family is halted in their westward trek when Pa is forced to find work in a hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. If they can save enough money, they'll continue searching for a new place to call home."


"Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote nine 'Little House' books about her childhood growing up on the western frontier. But there were two years she didn't write about, two missing years that take place between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Now, Newbery Award-winning author Cynthia Rylant has imagined what those lost Little House years were like, based on Laura's unpublished memoirs. The result is the first Little House novel about Laura as a young girl in almost 60 years, and a wonderful addition to the classic series.

Old Town in the Green Groves' continues the story about Laura Ingalls -- a story whose wonder and adventure have delighted millions of readers."

Sunday 11 March 2012

Walker, Alice "The Temple of My Familiar"

Walker, Alice "The Temple of My Familiar" - 1989

As anything written by Alice Walker, this novel is absolutely brilliant. A mix of magic realism, historical fiction, women's lib, just Alice Walker, I guess. ;-)

A story of a couple of people whose lives are interwoven. Several characters from "The Color Purple" appear, you could say it is a sort of sequel to it. Or - you could say it is a story of hundreds of people during the centuries. Any kind of people turn up, any colour, any state, slaves, slaveholders, rich and poor.

I love how the author, I love her ambition, her determination, her views, her style. This is just another brilliant piece of her.

I also really loved her comment "We must have a world language … before we can have world peace." I've been speaking Esperanto for 35 years and I know she is right. Only, we do have that language already.

Apparently, "Possessing the Secret of Joy" is a also a novel including characters from "The Color Purple". Certainly on my wish list.

From the back cover:

"An ambitious and multi-narrative novel containing the interleaved stories of Arveyda, a musician in search of his past; Carlotta, his Latin American wife who lives in exile from hers; Suwelo, a black professor of American History who realizes that his generation of men have failed women; Fanny, his ex-wife about to meet her father for the first time; and Lissie, a vibrant creature with a thousand pasts."

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Keyes, Marian "Rachel's Holiday"

Keyes, Marian "Rachel's Holiday" - 1998

Marian Keyes does not really represent the kind of author I would choose to read but I have read a few of those chick lits when I first started reading in English, somehow I thought they might be easier but they were so boring after the first ones … Nevertheless, I still had this book laying around and read it in some holidays a couple of years ago.

I was pleasantly surprised. A good book about rehabilitation and how an alcoholic is in constant denial. Rachel is entering rehab but she thinks she is going to have a great holiday. Well described, you can follow her "reasoning", her way of trying to deal or not deal with the situation. Interesting.

Book Description:

"'How did it end up like this? Twenty-seven, unemployed, mistaken for a drug addict, in a treatment centre in the back arse of nowhere with an empty Valium bottle in my knickers . . .'

Meet Rachel Walsh. She has a pair of size 8 feet and such a fondness for recreational drugs that her family has forked out the cash for a spell in Cloisters - Dublin's answer to the Betty Ford Clinic. She's only agreed to her incarceration because she's heard that rehab is wall-to-wall jacuzzis, gymnasiums and rock stars going tepid turkey - and it's about time she had a holiday.

But what Rachel doesn't count on are the toe-curling embarrassments heaped on her by family and group therapy, the dearth of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll - and missing Luke, her ex. What kind of a new start in life is this?

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Gates Gill, Michael "How Starbucks Saved My Life"

Gates Gill, Michael "How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else" - 2007

As a coffee lover, the title looked interesting. I really enjoyed the story of Michael Gates Gill, a highly successful entrepreneur turned looser turned Starbucks employee. Not only does he describe his unusual life, he tells a story of a company. After reading this book, I got the impression that Starbucks must be the best employer in the world. Of course, it is always easy to say anyone can find a job if you have one. And as a European I didn't think those benefits Starbucks offered were all that great, to us they are normal. But the author's life seems very interesting and he has a lot to tell.

From the back cover:

"In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a mansion in the suburbs, a wife and loving children, a six-figure salary, and an Ivy League education. But in a few short years, he lost his job, got divorced, and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With no money or health insurance, he was forced to get a job at Starbucks. Having gone from power lunches to scrubbing toilets, from being served to serving, Michael was a true fish out of water.

But fate brings an unexpected teacher into his life who opens his eyes to what living well really looks like. The two seem to have nothing in common: She is a young African American, the daughter of a drug addict; he is used to being the boss but reports to her now. For the first time in his life he experiences being a member of a minority trying hard to survive in a challenging new job. He learns the value of hard work and humility, as well as what it truly means to respect another person.

Behind the scenes at one of America's most intriguing businesses, an inspiring friendship is born, a family begins to heal, and, thanks to his unlikely mentor, Michael Gill at last experiences a sense of self-worth and happiness he has never known before.

Monday 5 March 2012

McEntire, Reba "Reba: My Story"

McEntire, Reba "Reba: My Story" - 1994

I quite like Reba McEntire. So, when I found her biography in our library, I couldn't pass but just had to borrow it.

An interesting life this famous singer has lead and still leads, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her "cowgirl" childhood, her first steps into singing, the difficult life all those in the spotlight lead. If you like Reba McEntire, you should absolutely read this.

From the back cover:

" The revealing and emotionally rich memoir of country music's reigning female superstar. Told with all the winning style, heartwrenching honesty, delightful humor and unbounded energy that have earned Reba the love of millions of fans, here is the full autobiography of one of today's most successful entertainers. Photos throughout."