Monday, 28 June 2010

Currently Reading

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 African Queen by C.S. Forester - I confess I've only ever seen snippets of the film featuring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn - for some reason I've just never fancied it that much.   I saw the boat, The African Queen, used in the film as it is moored in Key Largo, several years ago on a holiday - and I could not imagine how a film could be based around something so tatty and unpropessing.   Having read the book, I can both appreciate the story and the little boat, and that means I will definitely make an effort to watch the film.
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).
Josephine: A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson; I confess to having listened to this as an audio book rather than having gone for the hard slog and read it. Not that it was a hard slog, it was readably wonderful though the central character is presented in an unfailingly positive light when in fact she appears to have been a venal spendthrift; it is evident that the author had done a great deal of research. I had not known much at all about Empress Josephine other than she was Napoléon's wife and wore some pretty darn cool tiaras before this book, but I learned a whole lot more here.
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."

1 comment:

  1. loved Josephine and the Pillars of the earth. just finished 'cutting for stone' and loved it.


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