Miss Chopsticks by Xinran - the story of three sisters born into a poor family in a small northern Chinese village. The book cuts to the heart of the way women are perceived - because of the shame of by their mother's inability to 'lay eggs' (bear sons), the girls are given numbers instead of names. Women are like chopsticks, their father tells them; fragile and expendable. Sons, however, are the roof beams which hold up a house. After the eldest sister drowns herself in a well when she is sent to marry a man she does not love, sister Three leaves to find her fortune in Nanjing, followed by Five and Six, one of whom is presumed (wrongly) to be stupid.
The girls make their way, finding jobs, friends and a life, but each story ends differently, ultimately proving that girls can also be 'roof beams'.
The book is gentle, enchanting and beautifully written - I always enjoy Xinran's writing, and the translator has done a great job, making sure the reader has a grasp of the subtleties of the original language. The author wrote the book based on the stories of three women she had met, and because the culture is so different from my own, I love to read literature about China and Japan - highly recommended.
The writing is so descriptive, so evocative and so wonderful that it is almost as if the reader is right there, with the story, and the story itself is quite wonderful.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
So many people had told me that this was such a great book and that I had to read it. Certainly, it is ambitous and considering the author was only 25 when he wrote it, its a considerable achievement. Almost a thousand pages long, its subject is medieval life and the trials and tribulations of a group of characters, a monastery and the machinations of royalty, peasants and any one else in between. As you might expect, because of its length, it rambles some and I felt some tight editing would have improved the experience - towards the last third of the book you start to lose your way and the characters start to merge a bit, so you end up racking your brains as to whether this is someone new or someone from seven chapters back - or maybe that's because I'm dim or something. Anyhow.
The author has obviously done a lot of research, but probably not enough for a book of this breadth and ambition. This is not a book for the faint of heart - it features two graphic rapes which I hadn't been prepared for and whilst I wouldn't describe these as gratuitous, perhaps we didn't need quite as much detail. Follett wrote a follow up book which I will read, but again, here is a book which does not stand up to comparison with the CJ Sansom 'Shardlake' books (Dark Fire, Dissolution, Sovereign etc).
Born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie in Martinique (known as Rose), she had quite a life before ever setting eyes on Buonaparte who was six years her junior. Married to an alternately indifferent and cruel aristocratic husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais who, despite being a leading light in the French Revolution was himself guillotined, she survived him in the French prisons awaiting execution herself by being too ill to be guillotined.
Having risen alongside Napoléon to the apex of Society, Josephine ruled with him as Empress; during her life with him she endured many cruelties inflicted by his family; however it was her inability to produce an heir - perhaps due to her tribulations in prison during the Terror, that brought about their divorce in 1810 in order than Napoléon could marry Marie-Louise of Austria by proxy; Napoléon remarked after marrying Marie-Louise that "he had married a womb."
Josephine and Napoléon remained on good terms, he said the only thing to come between them was her debts.
Joséphine died of pneumonia in May 1814; despite his numerous affairs, their divorce and his remarriage, Napoléon's last words on St. Helena were; "France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine."