2019: The Books I’ve Been Most Thankful For

24 Festive Tasks: Door 11 – Thanksgiving: Task 2

With another full month to go in the year, it may be a bit early to do this task, but a substantial number of the books I’m going to be reading in December will be Christmas rereads, so here we go.

The books / authors I am most thankful for having (re)discovered are, working backwards in the order in which I’ve read them (and with links to my reviews or status updates, if any, in the titles):

 

Margaret Atwood, The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale:
Atwood’s Gilead novels were my final reads of this year’s Halloween Bingo, and the game couldn’t have ended on a bigger exclamation point (though The Handmaid’s Tale was a reread).  The Testaments not only takes us back to Gilead and provides answers to some of the questions remaining open at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, more importantly it is also a timely reminder of what exactly is at stake once a democracy’s foundations are allowed to weaken — as we’re seeing in more than one country around the world at the moment.  One of the hardest reading double bills I ever imposed on myself, but I’m very glad that I did.

As a side note and for something very different, I also truly enjoyed Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a novelization of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I read earlier this year.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved:
Another soul-drenching and profoundly devastating reading experience, and yet another one that I’m truly thankful for.  Morrison deserved the Literature Nobel Prize for this book alone, and while her literary legacy has hopefully made her voice immortal, among the many great authors we have lost this year, she stands head and shoulders above all the rest.  Her contributions to the literary and social discourse will well and truly be missed.

 

Guards! Guards! - Terry PratchettTerry Pratchett, Guards, Guards:
One of the Discworld series’s stand-out books and in many ways a perfect companion book for those by Atwood and Morrison as it, too, deals with the undermining of democracy by the forces of evil.  Trust me, this is one dragon you don’t want to encounter … (unless, of course, you happen to be able to bring the perfect antidote).

Reminder for the Discworld group: This is our bimonthly group read for this coming December.  And it’s highly recommended!

 

Danger! - Arthur Conan DoyleArthur Conan Doyle: Danger:
Speaking of timely reads, this was yet another one: Much more than “merely” the author of the Sherlock Holmes books, Conan Doyle was an astute observer of the politics of his time, and he did not shy away from speaking his mind, even if that meant offending the highest in the land.  Danger is a short story that he wrote shortly before WWI to warn the leadership of the Admiralty of the dangers of a submarine war, for which he considered Britain woefully unprepared.  And if Conan Doyle’s words struck a cautionary note a century ago (turns out the Admiralty took his warning seriously, and it was a good thing for Britain that they did), they should do so even more in the context of Brexit, which carries its very own significant risks of cutting off or curtailing Britain’s trade routes.  Alas, I very much doubt that’s the case.

 

Thomas Cromwell: A Life - Diarmaid MacCullochDiarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cromwell
Simply put, the Cromwell biography to end all Cromwell biographies.  In his research for this book, MacCulloch took a fresh look at virtually every single document on which Cromwell’s vast legacy is based, and the resulting biography is a masterpiece of historical analysis which does away with many an often-repeated myth (beginning right at the beginning of Cromwell’s life, with the role of his father), and which shines a light on Cromwell’s many innovations and achievements and on the inner workings of his meteoric rise from humble tradesman’s son to Henry VIII’s chief minister.  In the process, MacCulloch reevaluates everything from the foreign merchant experience that Cromwell gained early in life, to his work as Cardinal Wolsey’s assistant and, finally, his growing preeminence and his seminal policy as the power behind Henry VIII’s throne.  What emerges from MacCulloch’s analysis is the picture of a highly complex and intelligent man, difficult to deal with even for friends, fierce and ruthless as an enemy — but always with England’s well-being and advancement (as well as the advancement of its institutions) at his heart; the one man who, in the space of a single short decade, emerged as the single most important politician of the entire Tudor Age (short of, just possibly, Elizabeth I), whose legacy (and the legacy of his innovations and reforms, far above and beyond the well-known Acts of Parliament which he initiated) reaches down the centuries all the way to the present date.  If you’re even the slightest bit interested in the Tudor Age or in constitutional history, run, don’t walk to acquire this book.

 

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo - Tom ReissTom Reiss, The Black Count:
Another highly fascinating biography: We’ve come to think of Alexandre Dumas père and fils as the two writers, but did you know that Dumas père’s father (also called Alexandre) — the son of a black Haitian slave and a French count — was a general in the French revolutionary army and, in his own time, much more important than his son and grandson ever were in theirs?  Reiss’s book not only tells the story of his life; it also places General Dumas’s life into the wider context of his era and examines, inter alia, how equal the budding colonial power’s black sons and daughters actually were in the motherland of “Liberté – Egalité – Fraternité” (spoiler: they weren’t).  The picture emerging from Reiss’s research is that of a man of great personal courage, intelligence and ambition, as well as sheer enormous physical presence, whose life was cut tragically short as a result of the side effects of being caught up in the European and French power struggle of his time — and in case you ever had any doubts, yes, General Dumas was the model for one of his son’s greatest heroes, the Count of Monte Cristo … and D’Artagnan’s famous friendship-building duel with all three Musqueteers at the beginning of their acquaintance does have a basis in reality as well.

 

The Raven Tower - Ann LeckieAnn Leckie, The Raven Tower:
Truly original worldbuilding, a powerful story, evocative writing and a knockout, totally unique narrative perspective: In a literary scene that seems to be dominated more and more by sameness and formula (both in adult and YA fantasy), with barely skin-deep layers of seeming originality, this book was my reading year’s one saving grace that singlehandedly restored my faith in the idea that there are at least a few fantasy writers out there who are still capable of compelling creations that are entirely their own and unlike anything else already out there.

 

The Memory of Love - Aminatta FornaAminatta Forna, The Memory of Love:
Last year, it was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun that provided insight and a new perspective on the history of one particular African country (Nigeria); this year, Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love did the same and then some for Sierra Leone.  A devastating tale of love, loss, and the many ways in which a person can be broken, in a country variously slipping into and emerging out of decades of a devastating civil war.

 

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace - Kofi AnnanKofi Annan, Interventions: A Life in War and Peace:
Mr. Annan was far and away the most influential and important Secretary General of the United Nations in its more recent history; his memoirs set forth with great passion and understanding how the experience of a lifetime, from growing up in post-WWII Ghana all the way to serving as Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping under Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and his first-hand insight into conflicts like those in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Israel / Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia, shaped his conviction about the necessity of an “interventionist” United Nations policy; one that does not stay on the sidelines of genocide and war crimes but takes seriously its mandate to act on behalf of the peoples of the world.  A simply riveting read.

 

The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo - Clea KoffClea Koff, The Bone Woman:
This one hit home, because it touched more or less directly on some of my own past work — but even if you don’t have any personal inroads into the investigation of human rights violations, it’s a great introduction to the subject and, more importantly, does great legwork in conveying both the psychological trauma and the physical wounds suffered by the victims of such abuses … as well as the toll that the field work of the subsequent investigation takes from the investigators.  A truly memorable read.

 

An Accidental Death: A DC Smith Investigation Series, Book 1 - Peter Grainger, Gildart JacksonPeter Grainger, An Accidental Death:
One of the year’s early and totally unexpected, great discoveries.  A great location (the Norfolk coast), pithy and insightful writing, an unusual, profoundly contemplative detective — a formerly high-ranking officer who has chosen to be knocked back to the rank of sergeant so as to be able to keep doing hands-on police work instead of being mired in administration and pushing paper … and thanks to the main character’s hobby, there is even a bluesy background note.  Who could ask for more?

 

Becoming - Michelle ObamaMichelle Obama, Becoming:
Mrs. Obama may have chosen to focus on her charity work and on political education instead of seeking a career in party politics now that she and her husband have left the White House (and who could possibly blame her?), but I am very glad she also decided to give us her deeply personal perspective on her own and Barack Obama’s path all the way to the end of 2016.  It’s a spirited narrative that manages to build an immediate connection with the reader, and which made me regret the end of the Obama presidency even more than I had done before.  I can only hope the Obamas are going to continue to seek and find ways to make their mark on the political discourse, in America and beyond — not only Barack but also Michelle Obama, who in her own right is clearly at least as important a voice as her husband.

 

The Girl with Seven Names - Hyeonseo Lee, John David MannHyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names:
A riveting read and proof positive of the old adage that truth is vastly stranger than fiction: the true story of a young woman who defected from North Korea to China “by accident” right before her 18th birthday and, after ten years of trials and tribulations, eventually ended up in South Korea and, later, in the U.S., where she testified about her experience, and more generally on the topic of dictatorial regimes and human rights abuses, before various bodies of the U.S. government and the United Nations.  At times her story is so heartstoppingly riveting that you want to doubt whether all this truly happened, but apparently it did — and the book is worth a read for her unquestionably personal and in-depth inside perspective on Norh Korea and China alone.

 

The Good Women of China - XinranXinran, The Good Women of China:
My first read of 2019, and with it, the year started well and truly with a bang: the true stories of a number of Chinese women whom Xinran — then a radio presenter in Nanking — encountered as a journalist, but whose stories she was not able to tell while still subject to state censorship.  In equal parts eye-opening and heartbreaking; by no means easy to digest but an absolute must-read, and my reading year couldn’t have begun in a better way.

 

 The Murderer's Son - Richard Armitage, Joy Ellis Their Lost Daughters - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Fourth Friend - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Guilty Ones: A Jackman and Evans Thriller - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage The Stolen Boys - Joy Ellis, Richard Armitage
Beware the Past - Joy Ellis, Antony Ferguson Five Bloody Hearts - Joy Ellis, Matthew Lloyd Davies

Joy Ellis, Jackman & Evans series and Beware the Past:
As a new discovery, this is actually a carry-over from 2018, when Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters completely knocked me sideways during Halloween Bingo.  I’ve since read her entire Jackman & Evans series — my favorite entries still being Their Lost Daughters as well as, coming very close, book 4 of the series, The Guilty Ones — and I have continued my adventures in Ellis’s Fenlands world of detection with an encounter with DCI Matt Ballard in Beware the Past, the conclusion of which managed to knock me sideways yet again (though warning: this is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart).  And the good news is that the second book of the Matt Ballard series (Five Bloody Hearts) is already available as well, so I’m not done with the Fenlands by a long shot …

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(Task: Tell us: Of the books that you read this year, which are you most thankful for, OR was there one that turned out to be full of “stuffing”? Alternatively, which (one) book that you read anytime at all changed your life for the better?”)

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2002275/24-festive-tasks-door-11-thanksgiving-task-2

Books With a Difference

Responding to Moonlight Reader’s “call for papers (= titles / authors)” — there are quite a number of excellent lists out there already; anyway, here’s my contribution … or a first draft, at least.  Links go to my reviews (or status updates / summary blog posts / author pages) to the extent I’ve posted any.

Not necessarily in this (or any particular) order:

Dorothy L. Sayers: Are Women Human?
Sayers didn’t like to be called a feminist, because she was adverse to ideology for ideology’s sake, but nobody makes the case for equality and for the notion that a person’s qualification for a job depends not (at all) on their sex but solely — gasp — on their qualifications and experience more eloquently than she did in these two speeches.  (I gave up on the attempt to review this little book when I realized that I was basically fawn-quoting half its contents, but the BL book page lists two very good reviews by others.)  Sayers’s crime fiction is legendary, of course, but she’d totally be short-changed if she were ever reduced to that … even to a brilliant book like Gaudy Night (which transforms into fiction much of what she addresses here).  This should be taught and listed right alongside Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Moderata Fonte: The Worth of Women
If you thought women in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance didn’t know how to speak up for themselves, think again.  There’s Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Christine de Pizan … and then, there is 16th century Venetian Moderata Fonte.  The Worth of Women is, essentially, a witty, pithy conversation among several women preparing one of them (the daughter of another one of their number) for her wedding, and it covers everything from women’s daily life and struggle (as such, but in particular vis-à-vis the stupidity and inferiority of the other sex, which without any justification whatsoever has been declared “superior”), their wishes, desires, etc.  The young bride, who actually doesn’t much feel like marrying to begin with, is consoled over the fact that she really has to (the only alternative being the cloister) by the assurance that every effort has gone into finding her a good husband (i.e., the best specimen from an inherently inferior selection), and receives manifold advice on how to get around him.  The whole text reads refreshingly contemporary, very much to the point — and in part, it is just laugh-out-loud funny.  (“Moderata Fonte” was, incidentally, the pen name of a lady actually named Modesta Pozzo, which means … exactly the same thing: Modest Fountain.  [Or Fountain of Modesty.]  And yes, I probably should review this book at some point, too — God knows, I added enough quotes from it on Goodreads back in the day …)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
One of my highlights of 2018 and the book that (in large parts) inspired my personal “Around the World in 80 Books” challenge; an insightful, heartbreaking, unflinching, and just all around amazingly written look at the 1960s’ Biafra war, post-independence Nigerian society and the human condition as such, by one of today’s most brilliant writers, period.  Eye-opening in so many ways.  (And yes, admittedly this one is on several of those published “must read” lists, too, but in this one instance I don’t care.  This really is a book that everybody should read.)

Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love
My Half of a Yellow Sun of 2019; the book which alone would have made that “Around the World” challenge a winner even if I’d hate every other book I’ve so far read for it (which I don’t).  Trauma, fractured lives and society, love, betrayal, war and peace in post-independence Sierra Leone (1960s-70s and present day).  Forna is Adichie’s equal in every respect and then some.  For a bonus experience, get the audio version narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith: He transforms a book that is extraordinary already in its own right from a deeply atmospheric and emotional experience into visceral goosebumps material.

Xinran: The Good Women of China
Before she emigrated to the UK, Xinran was a radio presenter in Nanjing: Inspired by the letters she received by women listeners, she started a broadcast series dedicated to their stories, some of which she tells in this book.  Her broadcasts gave Chinese women — firmly under the big collective male thumb for centuries and still considered beings of a lower order today — a voice that they hadn’t had until then; now her books give non-Chinese readers a pespective on an aspect of Chinese society that most definitely doesn’t figure in the pretty picture of a modern high-tech society that China would love to present to the world.

Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking and Lindgren’s Wartime Diaries (“A World Gone Mad”)
Pippi Longstocking taught me, when I had barely learned to read, that girls can go anywhere and do anything they set their minds to. — Lindgren’s wartime diaries are tinged with the same sense of humor and profound humanity as her children’s books, in addition to containing a spot-on analysis of the political situation in the years between 1939 and 1945 and many insights into her daily life.

Lion Feuchtwanger: Die Jüdin von Toledo (Raquel, the Jewess of Toledo, aka A Spanish Ballad)
A bit hard to come by in translation, but absolutely worthwhile checking out (and an indisputable evergreen classic in the original German): Set during the medieval Spanish Reconquista (the era when Christian princes and armies were wresting the Spanish peninsula back from the Muslims), in Toledo, during a phase when Christians, Jews and Muslims were living together peacefully in Castile; the true-life story of — married — (Christian) King Alfonso of Castile and his love for a young woman of Jewish faith.  Lots of food for thought on multicultural societies, tolerance, broadmindedness and responsible choices that applies today just as much as it did then.  I first read this decades ago and it has stayed with me ever since.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio
More on multicultural societies, tolerance, conscience and choices; set in the Avignon area of Provence during three distinct historical periods: the end / breakdown of the Roman empire, the medieval schism of the Catholic church (when the popes were residing in Avignon), and the Nazi occupation of France.  All three periods are linked by a mysterious manuscript, and in all three periods the (male) protagonists are guided by a woman who is their superior in wisdom and who becomes their inspiration.  Another one of those books that have stayed with me for years and years.

Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter
MR mentioned Angle of Repose, and I’d agree that is Stegner’s best novel (it’s also far and away my favorite book by him); but I do also have a soft spot for his very first novella, written as his (winning) entry in a writing competition, in which all of the hallmarks of his fiction are already present, most importantly the backdrop of his beloved Western Plains and the topic of people’s isolation from each other (even when they’re ostensibly in company).

Gabriel García Márquez: Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)
100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera may be the books by García Márquez that the creators of those “must read” lists tell you to read (and I don’t exactly disagree), but this brief novella set in a small Columbian seaside town is every bit as worthwhile of notice: A deconstruction, in a mere 100 pages and in reverse chronology, of an honor killing and the society that has allowed it to happen.  Completely and utterly spine-chilling.

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton
Actually, any nonfiction by Rushdie (for my money, most of his fiction writing as well, but part of that is on “those lists” anyway, and I know Rushdie’s style of fiction writing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea).  I’ve read some of his essays, but not enough of them yet to make for a full collection, so I’ll go with the one nonfiction book of his that I actually have read cover to cover: His memoir of the fatwā years.  Unapologetically personal and subjective, even if oddly — and to me, jarringly — written in the third instead of the first person; but definitely one of my must-read books of the recent years and one that I have every expectation will stand the test of time.

For completion’s sake: His essays are collected in two volumes entitled Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 and  Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I’m hoping to complete both of them, too, some day soon.

Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana and John Le Carré: The Tailor of Panama
Two takes on essentially the same topic — corruption, Western espionage and military shenanigans in Central America –, both redolent with satire and featuring a bumbling spy against his own will as their MC.  I’m not a fan of either author’s entire body of work, but I find both of their takes on this particular topic equally irresistible … and unfortunately, they seem to have regained consiiderable topicality in recent years.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens
By which I do not mean the recent TV adaptation but the actual book, as well as (by way of a companion piece) the full cast BBC audio adaptation.  Armageddon will never again be as much fun — but Pratchett and Gaiman wouldn’t be Pratchett and Gaiman if there weren’t a sharp-edged undercurrent, too: Unlike the TV adaptation with its squeaky-clean looks, the book does not shy away from taking an uncomfortably close look at religion and society.  And then, of course, there’s Crowley and Aziraphale …

(Honorary entry from Pratchett’s Discworld series: Hogfather.  Just because.)

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch Series
One of the two ongoing crime fiction series that I’m still following religiously and have been, from very early on.  Connelly nails L.A., to the point that it becomes a character in its own right in his novels rather than merely a backdrop.  Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, your quintessential curmudgeonly loner with a big heart, fiercely loyal (motto: “Everybody counts or nobody counts”) and hates corruption, grift and nepotism in the LAPD more than anything else.  One of my all-time early favorite entries in the series is book no. 6, Angels Flight (which deals with the Rodney King riots and their fallout), but really, Connelly just keeps getting better and better.  The TV series starring Titus Welliver as Harry makes for great companion material, but to me the books will always come first.  (Even more so now that some of them are actually narrated by Mr. Welliver in the audio versions.)

Ian Rankin: Inspector Rebus Series
The other long-lasting crime fiction series that I’ve been following since pretty much forever; for similar reasons as Connelly’s Harry Bosh series: Edinburgh is a character of its own rather than mere backdrop; John Rebus (ex-S.A.S.) is Harry Bosch’s brother in spirit in virtually every respect — except that Bosch has a daughter, whereas Rebus has (or had, until recently) his booze — and like Connelly, Rankin does not shy away from addressing the social and political topics of the day in his novels.  For me, Rankin had found his Rebus legs, oddly enough, also in book 6 of the series, Mortal Causes (which deals with the “white supremacy” /  neofascist brand of Scottish nationalism), but he, too, just keeps getting better and better.

P.D. James: Inspector Dalgliesh Series
From the waning years of the Silver Age of detective fiction (post-WWII through the 1960s) all the way to the New Millennium, James was the reigning queen of British mystery writers, and for a reason.  Her friend (and rival for those honors) Ruth Rendell may have been more prolific, but every so often gave in to populism and cliché — not so James.  She was unequaled at setting a scene and creating a suspenseful atmosphere, and in the best tradition of the Golden Age masters, her mysteries always turned on psychology first and foremost.  Means and opportunity were important, but it was humans and their relationshp that she was chiefly interested in.   I have no doubt that her books will stand the test of time just as well as those of Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers and their generation of mystery writers.

Joy Ellis: Their Lost Daughters
The second book in Ellis’s Jackman and Evans series; an absolute stunner in every single way.  Mike Finn and Jennifer(‘s Books) weren’t that enchanted with Ellis’s other series (Nikki Galena), and I have only read one other book by her so far (Jackman & Evans no. 1), but be that as it may, this one is completely worth it and then some.  Set in the Fen Country, dripping with dark atmosphere, with a likeable and fully rounded pair of detectives as MCs — and a veritable jaw-dropper of a finale.  Oh, and the audio version (of the entire series) is narrated by Richard Armitage.

Peter Grainger: An Accidental Death
New Fen Country crime fiction series no. 2, and every bit as atmospheric and well-written as Ellis’s Their Lost Daughters.  This is the first book in the DC Smith series, which centers on a formerly higher-ranking policeman who has chosen to stay on the job as a detective sergeant (rather than go into retirement), so as to be able to actually do hands-on crime solving work instead of being shackled to his desk dealing with police administration.  Again, highly recommended, and I am very much looking forward to continue reading the series. — With this series and those by Ellis, I’m also really, really happy to have found not one but several new series set in a part of Britain that has not yet been written to death.

Donna Andrews: Meg Langslow Series
I am not anywhere near a reader of modern cozies (and though Golden Age mysteries are often lumped into that category, to my mind few of them really belong there) — I quickly get bored by trademark kinks and similar forms of repetitive humor, and I often find their plotlines, characters and settings unconvincing, shallow and overly sugarcoated.  Donna Andrews is the exception to the rule: I probably still wouldn’t read too many of her books back to back, but visits to the crazy but comfortable world of her small-town Virginia have become a Christmas reading tradition in the last couple of years that I’ve really come to look forward to.  Favorite entries to date: Duck the Halls, The Nightingale Before Christmas, and Six Geese A’Slayin’.

Jennifer Worth: Call the Midwife
Midwifery in London’s East End, in the mid-20th century.  I’m not even a mother myself, but man, I’ve never been more grateful for the advances in modern medicine than after reading this book.  Well, and other social advances obviously.  Gotta love the Sisters, though …

 

Jared Diamond: Collapse and The World Until Yesterday
Diamond won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs and Steel, but these two books (particularly: Collapse) are, to my mind, much more relevant to the world in which we’re living today; in analyzing both the state of our modern, globalized world (and its chances for a sustainable future) and the lessons to be learned from past societies: those whose choices led them to failure as much as those whose choices led to success and long-term survival.  Diamond is anything but a prophet of disaster, but being a scientist, he cannot and of course does not shrink from simple, indisputable facts and realities.  At no time have voices like his needed to be listened to and taken seriously as much as today.

  Full disclosure: I know Jared Diamond personally; he’s a longtime friend of my mother’s.  That doesn’t however impact my belief that his voice, and those of scientists like him, need to be heard now more than ever.

Stanley Wells, James Shapiro, Tarnya Cooper and Marcia Pointon: Searching for Shakespeare
Hard to believe this started life as a National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue, but it did: A lavishly, gorgeously illustrated, supersized, book-length (240 p.) showcasing of Shakespeare’s life and times; companion to the 2006 exhibition on the NPG’s examination of the authenticity of six portraits then believed to be of the Bard (of which only one, the Chandos Portrait, in addition to the famous First Folio cover of Shakespeare’s works and the statue in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church survived that scrutiny).  More informative in both text and images than many a Shakesperean biography or a book on the history of the 16th / 17th century.

Stanley Wells: Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Johnson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story
The world of Elizabethan theatre, by the grand master of British Shakespearean scholars and long-time chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Equally engaging, informative and entertaining — and I’m pretty sure the Bard would have appreciated Wells’s not just occasionally pithy turn of phrase.

Antony Sher and Gregory Doran: Woza Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus in South Africa
The future artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of Britain’s greatest contemporary Shakespearean actors (himself born in South Africa) — off stage, a couple — take the Bard’s most controversial and violent play to Sher’s home country … in the middle of Apartheid.  Judging by their tour diaries (in essence, this book), it must have been quite a trip.

Final note, for those who are wondering: Golden Age mysteries have been covered by several other list creators here on BL already, so I decided not to replicate that (obviously, otherwise the better part of the entire canons of Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and others would have shown up on my list, too).  Similarly, while Jane Austen, the Brontës, and several other 19th century writers are unquestionably part of my personal canon, they’re also on just about every published “must read” list out there, so there hardly seemed any point in including them here.  Ditto Greek mythology.  Ditto William Shakespeare (the plays themselves, that is).  Ditto Oscar Wilde.  Ditto John Steinbeck.  Etc. …

And now that I’m finally about to hit “post”, I’m probably going to think of a whole other list of books that I really ought to have included here!

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1903597/for-moonlight-reader-books-with-a-difference

Xinran: The Good Women of China


Written with the Pen Grown in Her Heart

Wow.

Raw, sad, lyrical and candid — my first book of 2019, and already a huge winner; I’m pretty sure this will be one of my overall top reads of the year.  I can see few ways how this reading experience can possibly be topped.

Xinran tells the stories of some of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women whose stories she listened to (and, if allowed by both the women themselves and by the Party censors, broadcast) for eight years as a Nanjing radio presenter on a nightly program called Words on the Night Breeze; a combination of recorded interviews and live talk radio with musical interludes.  As a young reporter she had come to realize that, conditioned by centuries of physical and emotional suppression (far from being abolished, made even worse by the Cultural Revolution), complete and unbridled male dominance in society, and the associated deep-set mysogyny which Chinese women had even swallowed themselves, hide and hair, her countrywomen had practically no sense of self — nor any sense how to talk about their feelings, experience, traumas, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and injuries.  Indeed, as the Chinese characters explained on the book’s back cover (see below) make clear, even the words “female” and “woman”, “mother” or “girl” are not anywhere near synonymous in writing: All female substantives are “female” with a specific function: a “woman” is “a female whose job is to do the housework”, a “mother” is “a kind female” (or “a female with kindness”), a “girl” is “a female with kindness and [a sense of] tradition (or, since the second part of the sequence is identical with “mother”, “a female with a sense of tradition who is attached to her mother”) — and lastly, if a “female” has a son attached to her, the result is “good”.

In this book, which she wrote after having moved to England in 1997, Xinran takes her readers on her voyage of discovery of the lives of some of the women she met during those eight years of reporting; as well as her discovery of herself and her role as a reporter.  We meet, inter alia:

* The girl who kept a fly as a pet (and if you think that’s a euphemism for poverty and hunger, think again: the title of the chapter hints at the fact that a baby fly’s feet were the sole soft touches this girl ever felt after having “become a woman” at age 11, from which time she was brutally raped daily by her own father — so much so that she took to making herself dangerously ill, in order to be able to spend time at the hospital, where she was better (though not perfectly) protected … until she died of septicemia at age 17);

* The scavenger woman who, though well-educated, lived off scraps and in a ramshackle hut near Xinran’s radio station just so she could be near her son — an important man whose threshold she had not even crossed a single time;

* The mothers who endured an earthquake and saw their loved ones perish before their eyes, painfully and in one instance, over a period of two weeks (a young teenage girl, her lower body squashed high up in the ruins of a broken wall, with rescue coming too late to reach her and rescue equipment falling woefully short of what would have been needed); in another instance, as a double suicide of husband and daughter, after the daughter had been gang-raped by strangers in a tent near the rescue facility where she had been taken — and yet, these mothers had built a new community with the children made orphans by the earthquake and were giving all their love to these orphaned children;

* Xinran’s mother and several other women, all left emotionally and often also economically destitute as a result of their lives having been broken to pieces by the Cultural Revolution (no matter whether for reasons of their education, foreign contacts and financial independence, or similar reasons for being considered “counter-revolutionaries”, or because their youthful idealism for the new system was brutally abused and ground to shreds, and they were tossed, literally within a single day and by the Party itself, into loveless and abusive marriages with high officials);

* The childhood Xinran herself cannot leave behind and which, likewise, was replete with physical and emotional abuse for being the daughter and granddaughter of suspected “counter-revolutionaries”; as well as several other women of Xinran’s generation with similarly devastating experiences;

* The Guomindang general’s daughter, who grew up with a Chinese family after her parents had had to flee to Taiwan without being able to take her (then five years old) with them, and who was driven into insanity by a combination of seeing her foster family being tortured on her account and the torture and abuse that she herself suffered after having been “outed”; and

* The women of Shouting Hill (a remote, barren hillside area to the West of Xian), the encounter with whom was the last straw for Xinran to leave China and life as she knew it behind and seek a different life for herself and her son in London.

On this last group, Xinran writes:

“Women there [in Shouting Hill] are valued solely for their utility: as reproductive tools, they are the most precious items of trade in the villagers’ lives.  The men do not hesitate to barter two or three girl children for a wife from another village. […] After they become mothers, they in turn are forced to give up their own daughters.  Women in Shouting Hill have no rights of property or inheritance.

The unusual social practice of one wife being shared by several husbands also occurs in Shouting Hill.  In the majority of those cases, brothers from extremely poor families with no females to barter buy a common wife to continue the family line.  By day they benefit from the food the woman makes and the household chores she does, by night they enjoy the woman’s body in turn. […]

They [the women] lead an extremely hard life.  In their one-roomed cave houses, of which half the space is occupied by a kang [earthen bed heated from below], their domestic tools consist of a few stone slabs, grass mats and crude clay bowls; an earthenware pitcher is regarded as a luxury item for the ‘wealthy families’.  Children’s toys or any household items specifically for the use of women are unthinkable in their society.  […]

It is the women who greet the dawn in Shouting Hill: they have to feed the livestock, sweep the yard and polish and repair the blunt, rusty tools of their husbands.  After seeing their men off to work on the land, they have to collect water from an unreliable stream on the far side of a mountain two hours’ walk away, carrying a pair of heavy buckets on their shoulders.  When cogon grass is in season, the women also have to climb the hill to dig up the roots for use as cooking fuel.  In the afternoon, they take food to their menfolk; when they come back they spin thread, weave cloth, and make clothes, shoes and hats for the family.  All through the day, they carry small children almost everywhere with them on their arms or on their backs.

In Shouting Hill, ‘use’ is the term employed for men wanting to sleep with a woman.  […]  After being ‘used’, the women tidy up and attend to the children while the men lie snoring.  Only with nightfall can the women rest, because there is no light to work in.  When I tried to experience a very small part of these women’s lives through joining in their daily household tasks for a short while, I found my faith in the value of life severely shaken. […]

I noticed a bizarre phenomenon among the female villagers of Shouting Hill: when they reached their teens or thereabouts their gait suddenly became very strange.  They began walking with their legs spread wide apart, swaying in an arc with each step.  There was no trace of this tendency in the little girls, though.  For the first few days I puzzled over this riddle, but did not like to enquire too deeply into it.  I hoped to find the answer in my own way.

It was my habit to make sketches of the scenery I thought typified each place I was reporting on.  No colour was necessary to depict Shouting Hill, a few lines were enough to bring out its essential qualities.  While I was sketching, I noticed some small piles of stones that I could not recall having seen before.  Most of them were in out-of-the-way spots.  On closer inspection, I found blackish-red leaves under the stones.  Only cogon grass grew in Shouting Hill; where had those leaves come from?

I examined the leaves carefully: they were mostly about ten centimetres long and five centimetres wide.  They had clearly been cut to size, and seemed to have been beaten and rubbed by hand.  Some of the leaves were slightly thicker than the others, and were moist to the touch, with a fishy odour.  Other leaves were extremely dry from the pressure of the rocks and the burning heat of the sun; they were not brittle but very tough, and they too had the same strong salty smell.  I had never seen leaves like this before.  I wondered what they were used for and decided to ask the villagers.

The men said, ‘Those are women’s things!’ and refused to say any more.

The children shook their heads in bewilderment, saying: ‘I don’t know what they are, Mama and Papa say we’re not to touch them.’

The women simply lowered their heads silently.

When Niu’er [the girl with whom Xinran was staying] noticed that I was puzzled about the question of these leaves, she said: ‘You’d best ask my granny, she’ll tell you.’  Niu’er’s grandmother was not so very old, but early marriage and childbearing had made her part of the village’s senior generation.

Her grandmother slowly explained that the leaves were used by women during their periods.  When a girl in Shouting Hill had her first period, or a woman had just married into the village, she would be presented with ten of these leaves by her mother or another woman of the older generation.  These leaves were gathered from trees very far away.  The older women would teach the girls what to do with the leaves.  First, each leaf had to be cut to the right size, so that it could be worn inside trousers.  Then small holes had to be pricked into the leaves with an awl, to make them more absorbent.  The leaves were relatively elastic and their fibres very thick, so they would thicken and swell as they absorbed the blood.  In a region where water was so precious, there was no alternative but to press and dry the leaves after each use.  A woman would use her ten leaves for her period month after month, even after childbirth.  Her leaves would be her only burial goods.

I exchanged some sanitary towels I had with me for a leaf from Niu’er’s grandmother.  My eyes filled with tears as I touched it: how could this coarse leaf, hard even to the hand’s touch, be put in a woman’s tenderest place?  It was only then that I realised why the women of Shouting Hill walked with their legs splayed: their thighs had been repeatedly rubbed raw and scarred by the leaves.

There was another reason for the strange gait of the women in Shouting Hill, which shocked me even more. […]

The doctor who had come with us told me that one of the villagers had asked him to examine his wife, as she had been pregnant many times but never managed to carry a child to full term.  With the villager’s special permission, the doctor examined the woman, and was dumbfounded that she had a prolapsed womb.  The friction and infection of many years had hardened the part of the womb that was hanging outside to cutin, tough as a callus.  The doctor simply could not imagine what had caused this.  Surprised by his reaction, the woman told him disapprovingly that all the women in Shouting Hill were like this.  The doctor asked me to help him confirm this; several days later I confirmed the truth of that woman’s words after much surreptitious observation of the village women as they relieved themselves.  Prolapsed wombs were another reason why the women walked with their legs spreadeagled.

In Shouting Hill, the course of nature is not resisted, and family planning an alien concept.  Women are treated as breeding machines, and produce one child a year or as many as three every two years.  […]

I saw many pregnant women in Shouting Hill, but there was no sense of eager anticipation of a child among them or their men.  Even while heavily pregnant, they had to labour as before and be ‘used’ by their men, who reasoned that ‘only children who resist being squashed are strong enough’.  I was appalled by all this, especially at the thought of shared wives being ‘used’ by several men throughout their pregnancy.  […]

The evening after I had established that prolapsed wombs were an everyday phenomenon in Shouting Hill, I was unable to sleep for a very long time.  I lay on the earthen kang weeping for these women, who were of my generation and of my time.  That the women of Shouting Hill had no concept of modern society, let alone any awareness of the rights of women, was a small comfort; their happiness lay in their ignorance, their customs and the satisfaction of believing that all women in the world lived as they did. […]

On the day I left Shouting Hill, I found that the sanitary towels I had given to Niu’er’s grandmother as a souvenir were stuck in her sons’ belts; they were using them as towels to wipe away sweat or protect their hands.”

Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale come alive, and then some …

Obviously Shouting Hill is an extreme example even within China, distinguished from other parts of the country, as Xinran highlights, in part by its extreme remoteness, which prevents the women living there from learning anything that might induce them to question, ever so tacitly, their own living conditions.  (Or prevented them — I have no idea whether the practices described by Xinran are still going on today; shocking though they are even for the late 1990s.)  And I’m sure that at least some of the hundreds of millions of women in China, even some of those of Xinran’s and her mother’s generations, lead less traumatic or even happy lives.  But from Xinran’s account, there is no question that the lives she describes are not rare exceptions; and given the severe reticence drummed into any Chinese woman from long before she can even walk and talk, it is anybody’s guess how many there are who simply have not and never will speak out — or who may look happy and successful but in reality are far from that (and Xinran provides examples of such women as well).

In the book’s prologue, she talks about a mugging attempt in London, with the mugger trying to take away her handbag, which contained the only manuscript copy of this book then in existence.  She fought her assailant tooth and nail, even at the risk of being killed, and comments on a policeman’s later question whether her book was more important than her life:

“Of course, life is more important than a book.  But in so many ways my book was my life.  It was my testimony to the lives of Chinese women, the result of many years’ work as a journalist. […] I wasn’t sure that I could put myself through the extremes of feeling provoked by writing the book again.  Reliving the stories of the women I had met had been painful, and it had been harder still to order my memories and find language adequate to express them.  In fighting for that bag, I was defending my feelings, and the feelings of Chinese women.  The book was the result of so many things which, once lost, could never be found again.  When you walk into your memories, you are opening a door to the past; the road within has many branches, and the route is different every time.”

And in the epilogue, she concludes:

“I recalled what Old Chen had once said to me: ‘Xinran, you should write this down.  Writing is a kind of repository and can help create a space for the accommodation of new thoughts and feelings.  If you don’t write these stories down, your heart will be filled up and broken by them’.  At that time in China, I might have gone to prison for writing a book like this.  I couldn’t risk abandoning my son, or the women who received help and encouragement through my radio programme.  In England, the book became possible.  It was as if a pen had grown in my heart.”

 

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