Blog Archives

Six Degrees of Separation: From China to South Africa

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. As always the books I’ve chosen for my  chain are ones I’ve read though not necessarily reviewed.

Wild SwansThis month we begin with a book that made a huge impression on me Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the history of that country during the twentieth century.  If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.

Wild Swans is banned in China so I could go down that path for my first link but I’m going to stick with China and the Mao regime.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer is the autobiography of Li Cunxin, a boy who was plucked from a peasant family in rural China to become a trainee ballet dancer in Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy.  He and another student got a a chance to study abroad in America as an exchange student – there he discovered that everything he had been told about America was a lie. The book recounts his desire for freedom and determination to perfect his talent under a regime that did not value individual talent and freedom of experession.

The effects of an oppressive regime on the artistic spirit give me my next link.

madeleinethein

Do Not Say We have Nothing by Madeleine Thein (my review is here) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and (in my humble opinion) should have been the winner.  The Booker judges thought otherwise but the novel was critically acclaimed and did pick up a number of other prizes including the Canadian Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards for Fiction.  It’s an astonishingly ambitious novel that covers the Cultural Revolution in China but brings us up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.  Thein is Canadian yet her fiction predominantly deals with the Asia. Which gives me my next link: authors who write convincingly about other cultures and settings. 

tenderness_of_wolves.jpg

Stef Penny hails from Scotland but she chose the unforgiving landscape of Canada’s Northern Territory for her debut novel The Tenderness of Wolves. It’s a historical adventure of murder and abduction set in the 1860s that went on to win the 2006 Costa Book Award. Reviewers and judges remarked on the authentic atmosphere of her novel yet Penney had never set foot in Canada – she was suffering from agoraphobia at the time of writing this novel so did all the research in the libraries of London. The snowy landscape of this novel gives me an obvious next link….

Miss Smilla

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a 1992 novel by the Danish author Peter Høeg. It’s typically described as a murder mystery and it does indeed feature the murder of a young boy and a quest by Miss Smilla Jaspersen to find the culprit. But it’s also about the legacy of Denmark and its  relationship with its near neighbour Sweden, its native Inuit people and about the different kinds of snow. Smilla’s father is a famous Danish doctor, but her mother was a Greenlander; hence her feeling for snow.  During the course of the novel we are introduced to many native terms used to distinguish big flakes from frozen drifts and experience the beauty of the landscape.

The concluding chapters of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow sees  Smilla travel through the Arctic ice in search of the truth, a journey which links me to a novel written by an author born 220 years ago this week.

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale Frankenstein is a novel I dislike intensely. I find most of it so highly improbable as to be unreadable. It does have two really stand-out episodes however. One is the scene where the Creature manufactured by the scientist Victor Frankenstein is first revealed – it’s a hideous figure with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels underneath. The second is when Frankenstein tracks his creation to the North Pole and pursues him with a dogsled with the intent of revenging the murder of his bride.

Revenge and experimentation give me my sixth and final link.
The-Monsters-Daughter

The Monster’s Daughter is a debut novel by Michelle Pretorius set in South Africa. (my review is here). It begins during the time of the Boer War when a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature. The novel then follows their lives through the period of apartheid rule and into the new South Africa.

And now I’ve realised that unintentionally my chain began and ended with books that feature oppressive regimes yet we’ve travelled many thousands of miles from China, to Canada, the Arctic and South Africa.

Update September 5 : I corrected the text based on Marit’s comment.

Go from Nordic noir to Chinese crime

It’s 9ºC this morning in my little corner of the world but I’m turning the thermostat down a few pegs for the first #6Degrees of 2017!  Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best has chosen a mega blockbuster as the trigger for this month: The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo by the Swedish author Stieg Larsson.

I bought this book in Detroit airport (back when the airport still had a bookshop and not the few measly news outlets that exist today). I was en route to Brazil for a business meeting, a trip that was both exciting and daunting. Exciting because I’d never been to South America before but daunting because it was my first week in a new assignment and I felt very wet behind the ears. I didn’t have much time to browse so just scanned the ‘hot titles’ shelf and recognised the book from a recent lunch conversation. Although rather unbelievable at times, it kept me amused on what proved to be a very long journey over two days.

crime-and-punishmentIt’s a tricky business choosing books for long journeys – make the wrong choice and you could end up with little to occupy you beyond the in flight magazine (assuming of course that you don’t have a fully loaded e-reader at your disposal). I’ve fortunately not had a disaster (yet) but I’ve had a few really good experiences, most memorably Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky -it was my first encounter with this author and it was so gripping I almost wanted the queue for immigration to go a bit slower (OK, that’s a joke but you get the point).  As I stood there a guy in the parallel line to mine caught my eye and started one of those conversations that always start with  ‘that’s a great book’ and meander into a list of recommendations. Unfortunately it was too much to juggle  a big fat novel, my documentation, laptop bag, handbag and pen/notebook so I couldn’t jot down his recommendations. Who knows what delights I’ve missed out on as a result?

narcopolisI fared rather better last summer while waiting for a medical appointment. A young Indian girl sat alongside me, noticed I was using a Kindle and started asking for my thoughts on it because she was thinking of buying one. As we chatted, talk invariably drifted into what kinds of books we both enjoyed reading – when I mentioned I’d enjoyed a few authors from her country she started rattling off a whole list of names I’d never heard of before. One of them I’m reading right now – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. It’s set in 1970s Bombay (before the city was rebranded as Mumbai) and takes us into the darker depths of the city, into a world of opium dens and brothels. It’s rather a hallucinatory tale of prostitutes, opium ‘cookers’, pimps, alcoholic bad boy artists and addicts. Compelling if rather baffling at the moment.

maximum-cityI’ve never seen any of these characters on my trips to Mumbai though I recognised descriptions of how the city attracts the desperately poor who leave their barren villages in the hope of a new life only to end up sleeping on the pavements or under a road bridge. It’s a fascinating city brought superbly to life in one of my favourite non fiction books – Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. It’s a series of essays written when Mehta returned to the city of his youth after an absence of 21 years and finds a place of contradictions. Bombay, ‘the biggest, fastest, richest city in India’, is the country’s commercial, financial and entertainment hub attracting those with vast wealth and those without even enough to buy a meal a day.  Mehta interviews a cross section of the population from murderous gangsters and the police who hunt them down, film stars who are feted for their roles in Bollywood productions, dancers who dream of escaping from their work in seedy bars to people who live on the streets. At times it makes very sobering reading but Mehta can also laugh at the ridiculous side of the city – he nicknames it ‘the city of no’ because no matter what you want, the first answer will always be a no. 

wild-swansI wish there were similar books written about some other megacities , particularly those in Japan and China, both countries which fascinate me. Historical China I’ve got a glimpse of through Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang which traces three generations through some of the most momentous decades in the country’s history during the twentieth century.  If you’ve ever wanted to understand the human impact of Mao’s cultural revolution, this is an excellent starting point.

qiu-xialongFor more up to date insights I’ve relied on the detective series written by Qiu Xiaolong which I came across by accident while browsing my local library a few years ago. The books are set in Shanghai in the 1990s – the decade when the country began its momentous change into  a world class economic powerhouse.  All nine titles feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poetry-quoting cop who has high levels of integrity which often bring him into conflict with the Party machinery and his bosses. Well worth reading for the insights these novels give into Chinese cuisine, architecture, history and politics.


As remarkable as Wild Swans undoubtedly is, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the Chen Cao crime series, they don’t satisfy an itch I have to read something equally engaging about China in the twenty-first century. I can find lots of learned tomes but a well written, accessible non- fiction book about modern day China has so far eluded me. If anyone has some suggestions please do send them my way….

#12Days of Christmas book game: day 10

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Ten Lords-a-Leaping

Day 10 of the 12 Days of Christmas game and giveaway.

I thought when I saw this “Oh blimey this is going to be tough” but somehow I managed it. We need to find titles or images or author names reflecting the tenth day in which lords went leaping about.

Booker Talk Titles for Day 

Very little came to mind for this – I can’t think of a single book containing the words Lord or Lords except for Lord of the Rings which I already used up on day 5. So I feel guilty about using it again.

At a push I can come up with the poet Lord Byron whom Lady Caroline Lamb allegedly described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. She would have known since she was his lover in 1812 until he tired of her. She wasnt happy about being spurned and kept pursuing him, leading to a number of scandalous encounters. Byron of course was one of the big names in the Romantic movement along with Wordsworth and Coleridge though he was less precious about the craft of writing than those two guys.

For other associations I’m going to have to go down the path of leaping which is of course one element of dance. I give you two links:

Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin – this is a true life story of how a boy rose from poverty in a small village in China to become a world class ballet dancer as a result of a whim by Chairman Mao’s wife. Having been exposed to the realities of life in America (a far cry from what the China political regime tells him to expect) Li Cunxin found he couldn’t return to his native land and sought political refuge in the United States. This is a really moving account of a young man’s determination to achieve success and the freedom to live his life the way he desired. Highly recommended.

How can I talk about male ballet dancers who abandon their home country and not mention the greatest dancer of his generation – Rudolph Nureyev?. From the moment I started taking ballet lessons as a small girl, he was this magical figure that I saw only in glimpses on a rather small screen black and white tv set. How I would loved to have seen him in a live performance but alas I had to make do with the tv version. It didn’t stop me reading everything I could get my hands on – a love affair which lasted well into my early thirties. One of the best biographies I read was Nureyev by Diane Solway which came out in 1998. She interviewed more than 200 people to put together a detailed account of his life including his defection, hedonistic life style and his fight against AIDS. His supporters were so protective of Nuryev that on his last public performance  in 1992,  they made sure he saw only the reviews that didn’t mention AIDS. It’s a fascinating read about a fascinating man

Now over to you – here’s How to Play:

Come up with book titles or book images or anything book related (could be the name of a location mentioned in the book or a character) that matches with lords or leaping. Let’s see how creative you can be. I’m looking ideally for 3 titles/images etc . You can mix and match your nominations.

Put your titles into the comments field of that day’s post. Don’t just give me the name since you could easily get that from a Google search – tell us something about the book itself. Why did you choose these titles – are they from your TBR or ones you’ve seen mentioned on a blog. Please try not to just use lists from Goodreads etc.

Feel free to blog about this on your own site or via Twitter using the #12days hashtag

The Giveaway

There’s an incentive to play along with this which is a giveaway of a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository

To participate, your list of books must be in the comments field by 10pm GMT/5pm Eastern Standard Time on Thursday Dec 15.

Day by Day Prompts

Day 1:   Partridge in a Pear Tree
Day 2:   Turtle Doves
Day 3:    French Hens
Day 4:   Calling Birds
Day 5:    Gold Rings
Day 6:   Geese a-Laying
Day 7:   Swans a-Swimming
Day 8:   Maids a-Milking
Day 9:   Ladies Dancing
Day 10:  Lords a-Leaping
Day 11:   Pipers Piping
Day 12:   Drummers Drumming

Rules of the Game

1.Each day a post will go live on booker talk.com matched to the task for that day. All you to do is post a comment with your list of books on the page

2. Each day try to come up with 3 titles. No need to think of 11 books featuring pipers or eight with maids in them. This is meant to be fun not mission impossible…..

3. Participants are encouraged to be creative with the names of titles matching each day. But the books do need to be in existence – no scope here for making up your own titles.

4. The number of contributions per person will be totalled and the one with the highest number will win the prize. So if you post three titles for day 6 and 5 on day 11, that gives a total of 8 points.

5. Contributions should be entered on the page within the time limit stated each day – typically I will give 48 hours between the time I post the day’s challenge and when comments will be closed.

6. You don’t need to play every day in order to be entered for the prize. Some days will be easier than others – and anyway you have all that shopping and packing still to do

7. There is only one prize – available internationally. The Prize winner will be announced on the blog around about the 15th of December.

6. The prize is that you get to choose a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository that I will arrange to ship to you. This will probably not arrive until next year given the last postage dates for international mail.

 

#12Days of Christmas book game: day 7

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Seven Swans-a-Swimming

swans

Day 7 of the 12 Days of Christmas game and giveaway.

We’re over the halfway mark!. Today is our final bird related lyric (hooray) So we need book titles or author names or cover images featuring swans and/or swimming.

Booker Talk Titles for Day 

Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang: this was the title that came immediately to mind for me. It’s one of my favourite books. For those of you who haven’t read it, this is the story of three generations of women in Jung Chang‘s family but its also the story of China and the upheavals its people  endured through the Mao regime. Some parts are painful to read but as a way of getting an insight into this country, it’s superb. It’s still banned in China however.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B Yeats:  this is a lyric poem by the Irish poet which was  written between 1916 and early 1917 when Yeats was in his fifties. It’s a melancholy poem because it reflects Yeats recognition of the passage of time and his inability to change that.

Here a link to the poem if you are not familiar with it.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. This is a lovely novella which I enjoyed reading when I was in my early twenties. It’s about the healing power of love and friendship.  It documents the growth of a friendship between an artist living a solitary life in an abandoned lighthouse because of his disabilities and a young local girl who finds the goose wounded by gunshot. As the friendship between the girl and the artist develop, the bird is nursed back to flight and returns to the lighthouse on its annual migration.
For my third choice I did consider something with the word Swansea (pronounced Swans-y /ˈswɒnzi/, not Swan-sea) in the title – that being one of the major city’s in Wales. But that would be cheating really because the origin of this name has nothing to do with swans. The theory is that it derives from the time when it was a Viking trading post so it’s could be Sveinn’s island(in Old Norse this wold be Sveinsey) comes from the Norse name ‘Sweyn’ and ‘ey’, which can mean inlet.
So I’ve to change tack because I couldn’t think of another book containing the word swan. My third choice is therefore:
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch: I put this on my wishlist after reading The Dinner by the same author. This one is a psychological thriller in which a  doctor to the rich and famous takes his family on holiday with disastrous results.

Now over to you – here’s How to Play:

Come up with book titles or book images or anything book related (could be the name of a location mentioned in the book or a character) that matches with swans or swimming.  Let’s see how creative you can be. I’m looking ideally for 3 titles/images etc . You can mix and match your nominations.

Put your titles into the comments field of that day’s post. Don’t just give me the name since you could easily get that from a Google search – tell us something about the book itself. Why did you choose these titles – are they from your TBR or ones you’ve seen mentioned on a blog. Please try not to just use lists from Goodreads etc.

Feel free to blog about this on your own site or via Twitter using the #12days hashtag

The Giveaway

There’s an incentive to play along with this which is a giveaway of a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository

To participate, your list of books must be in the comments field by 10pm GMT/5pm Eastern Standard Time on Saturday Dec 10.

Day by Day Prompts

Day 1:   Partridge in a Pear Tree
Day 2:   Turtle Doves
Day 3:    French Hens
Day 4:   Calling Birds
Day 5:    Gold Rings
Day 6:   Geese a-Laying
Day 7:   Swans a-Swimming
Day 8:   Maids a-Milking
Day 9:   Ladies Dancing
Day 10:  Lords a-Leaping
Day 11:   Pipers Piping
Day 12:   Drummers Drumming

Rules of the Game

1.Each day a post will go live on booker talk.com matched to the task for that day. All you to do is post a comment with your list of books on the page

2. Each day try to come up with 3 titles. No need to think of 11 books featuring pipers or eight with maids in them. This is meant to be fun not mission impossible…..

3. Participants are encouraged to be creative with the names of titles matching each day. But the books do need to be in existence – no scope here for making up your own titles.

4. The number of contributions per person will be totalled and the one with the highest number will win the prize. So if you post three titles for day 6 and 5 on day 11, that gives a total of 8 points.

5. Contributions should be entered on the page within the time limit stated each day – typically I will give 48 hours between the time I post the day’s challenge and when comments will be closed.

6. You don’t need to play every day in order to be entered for the prize. Some days will be easier than others – and anyway you have all that shopping and packing still to do

7. There is only one prize – available internationally. The Prize winner will be announced on the blog around about the 15th of December.

6. The prize is that you get to choose a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository that I will arrange to ship to you. This will probably not arrive until next year given the last postage dates for international mail.

 

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