Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Whitehead, Colson "Underground Railroad"


Whitehead, Colson "Underground Railroad" - 2016

I have read quite a few books about the Underground Railroad, the life of slaves and their slaveholders but never one that described the life of a fugitive as well as this one.

I have liked all the Pulitzer Prize winning books of the last years and this is no exception. A great story - Cora, a slave, who tries to run away from her abusive "master" - brilliant description of everyone involved, the slaves, their helpers, ordinary people who just think it's not right to own other human beings -  and their enemies - the slave holders, the slave catchers and just those people who think they are someone better because their skin is lighter. What can anything make you think the colour of your skin says anything about you other than that you get sunburnt so much easier the lighter your skin is.

Anyway, back to the book. The story is written from many perspectives, we even get to know the opponents well enough, not that it makes us more sympathetic towards them. None of the narratives is written in the first person. That way, we don't identify with any of them as we might have if it had been written like that but I still identified a lot more with Cora and the other slaves and victims than I did with the other side of the party. Always on the side of the underdog.

Before reading this book, I had never thought about the Underground Railroad as exactly that, a railroad underground, literally underground. But it makes a nice story background.

In any case, a brilliant book. I'd like to read more by this great author.

From the back cover:
"Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the
Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The
Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share."

Colson Whitehead received the Pulitzer Prize for "Underground Railroad" in 2017.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Vance, J.D. "Hillbilly elegy"


Vance, J.D. "Hillbilly elegy: a memoir of a family and culture in crisis" - 2016

This book was chosen as our latest book club book. After having read Arlie Russell Hochschild's "Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right", I thought, not another book that tries to explain Donald Trump. I doubt that any book can ever explain why he was elected because I believe there is no real reason for him.

However, I would not call this a book that explains why people vote for someone like that, it is a book that tries to explain how you can get out of a life that gives you no chances. Because the author was just someone like that, he had a mother who was addicted, who ran from one man to the next and would neglect her children. If things got too bad, the grandmother would step in as I am sure many grandmothers do.

Yes, J.D. Vance made me understand those people better. I don't know a community like that in Europe, where you more or less are doomed when you come from a certain area, where the school doesn't do much to help you get out of your situation. It was interesting to read and I think every politician should read this, should try to give these kids a better chance in life.

An interesting view about a society most people know nothing about. And that includes myself and the other members of my book club.

We discussed this in our book club in June 2017.

From the back cover:
"From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country."

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cao, Xueqin "Dream of the Red Chamber"


Cao, Xueqin "Dream of the Red Chamber" (Chinese: 红楼梦/Hung lou meng/aka The Story of the Stone) - ca. 1717-1763 (18th century)

Apparently, this novel is "one of the four pinnacles of classical Chinese literature. The other three are: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, and Outlaws of the Marsh."

Also known as "The Story of the Stone", it is said to be the first Chinese novel of this kind and has created an entire field of study "Redology".

I found this on the list of "101 Best Selling Books of All Time" and thought it might be interesting to read.

It was highly interesting indeed. The novel has semi-autobiographical sides, it is said that it shows not just the rise and fall of the author's family but also that of the Qing Dynasty.

I found it hard to remember all the names that were homophones with another character and therefore meant something else. It also took me going back and forth to the glossary in the back and then to the story in order to know who was talking or talked about when someone referred to Big Sister or Second Son etc. Sometimes the Chinese word for that was used, then the translation, then the real name, quite confusing. I think it might have to do with the translation and that a more modern one would have taken care of that. My library's edition is from 1957 and, with "only" 574 pages, an abridged version.

Still, the novel teaches us a lot not just about everyday Chinese life in the 18th century, but also their culture, religion, science, art and literature. Really captivating. Certainly one of the most informative books I have read about Ancient China, and I have read quite a few.

From the back cover:
"The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the 'Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature.' It is renowned for its huge scope, large cast of characters and telling observations on the life and social structures of 18th century China and is considered by many to be the pinnacle of the classical Chinese novel.
The "
Red Chamber" is an expression used for the sheltered area where the daughters of wealthy Chinese families lived. Believed to be based on the author's own life and intended as a memorial to the women that he knew in his youth, The Dream of the Red Chamber is a multilayered story that offers up key insights into Chinese culture."

Friday, 16 June 2017

Book Quotes of the Week



"I don’t think of literature as an end in itself. It’s just a way of communicating something." Isabel Allende

"If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it's probably because at some level you find 'reality' a bit of a disappointment." Joe Queenan, One for the Books

"One of the advantages of reading books is that you get to play with someone else’s imaginary friends, at all hours of the night." Dr. SunWolf


"Choose an author as you choose a friend." Sir Christopher Wren

"In a good book the best is between the lines." Swedish Proverb

Find more book quotes here.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace of Desire"



Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace of Desire" (Arabic: قصر الشوق/Qasr el-Shōq) - 1957

"Palace of Desire", Part 2 of the Cairo Trilogy,  starts in 1924, five years after "Palace Walk" ends. The children have grown up, even the youngest son and the family moves on after several backdrops. al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, the Patriarch, still tries to control his children but he is less successful than in the first book.

Again, we meet all the friends and neighbours of the family, the sons-in-law, the girls pursued by the sons - and the father. A story that really deserves the title "saga".

We also learn again about the Egyptians' view of the British occupation and can totally understand them. Why should one country rule over another?

I know I mentioned I love big books but what I love even more is a continuation of a big book that makes it even bigger. This is one of those cases. I'm looking forward to the third part, "Sugar Street".

From the back cover:
"The sensual and provocative second volume in the Cairo Trilogy, Palace Of Desire follows the Al Jawad family into the awakening world of the 1920's and the sometimes violent clash between Islamic ideals, personal dreams and modern realities.

Having given up his vices after his son's death, ageing patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad pursues an arousing lute-player - only to find she has married his eldest son. His rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination as they test the loosening reins of societal and parental control. And Ahmad's youngest son, in an unforgettable portrayal of unrequited love, ardently courts the sophisticated daughter of a rich Europeanised family.
"

Naguib Mahfouz "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Solstad, Lexidh "Catpasity"


Solstad, Lexidh "Catpasity" - 2015

This book was written by an online friend of mine, otherwise I might not have discovered it. What a pity that would have been. I'm not a big animal lover, I love looking at cute cat pictures and/or videos like the next person and if I absolutely had to have a pet, it would have to be a cat. This book certainly hasn't encouraged me to get one, I know with my back and my migraines, I just couldn't do the work.

However,, I loved the book, it was so nice to read, almost like having cats of your own. I had to chuckle quite a few times and recommend the novel heartily to everyone who wants a nice read, whether they own cats or not.

A very entertaining book, a feel good book without the feeling this is just all too easy. The author speaks from the heart and we can laugh with her and be sad with her.

I'm sure you find it even more entertaining if you are the "crazy cat lady" in your neighbourhood.

Loved it.

From the back cover:
"Cat experts write books about cats: how cats behave, why cats behave like they do; perhaps, also, what you can do to make your cats behave differently. This is not that kind of book.

This book is a story about how it really is to live with cats - when you let them be themselves. It explores how they have chosen to behave in all kinds of situations, over a period of 15 years. It is a true story about a woman and the cats that have driven her bonkers enough to write a book about them.

I am a survivor of a life with cats. This is our story."

The author also has a blog where you can find pictures of her cats.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Lenz, Siegfried "The German Lesson"



Lenz, Siegfried "The German Lesson" (German: Deutschstunde) - 1968

I can't believe I didn't read this until now. There are so many different ways to write about World War II, this is one aspect that probably a lot of people had to face, one member of the family (the father) definitely pro-Nazi, another one (the son) against. Must have been so hard. It reminds me of something some of my friends tell me about their families in the US and their clashes between Republicans vs. Democrats.

In any case, I read somewhere that this is not about World War II but about duty. I can only slightly agree. Of course, one has to fulfill one's duty but one should not just obey blindly, always use your brain, as well. That is my opinion.

I have read other books by Siegfried Lenz before, e.g. "Landesbühne" and "Zaungast" but neither of them have been translated, so I didn't write a review. But I enjoyed them all.

A remarkable book. What does a young boy do when his broadening mind clashes with narrow-mindedness? The author certainly tries to help his generation to overcome the restrictions laid upon them by the Nazi party. He actually belonged to a group of other writers called Group 47 that was created to renew German literature after World War II as well as in giving young authors the possibility to find an audience. The group certainly was very successful if you consider that very famous German authors like Ingeborg Bachmann, Heinrich Böll, Günter Eich, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Erich Fried, Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Uwe Johnson, Erich Kästner, Hans Werner Richter and Martin Walser (to name but a few) belonged to its members. Quote a few of them received renowned awards, two of them (Böll and Grass) even received the Nobel Prize for Literature and two the Peace Prize (Siegfried Lenz and Martin Walser). I want to believe that this group also had an influence on this book.

The novel is written in a great style, I don't know how well it translates but the original German is absolutely beautiful.

From the back cover: "In writing this novel, one of the major works of German fiction to appear since the Second World War, Siegfried Lenz has written, 'I was trying to find out where the joys of duty could lead a people.' His exploration is a disturbing triumph. Siggi Jepsen, the protagonist, is embroiled in the conflict between the totalitarian Nazi government and a creative artist. As a young boy he watched his father, constable of the northernmost police station in Germany, doggedly carry out orders from Berlin to stop a well-known Expressionist, their neighbour, from painting and to seize all his 'degenerate' work. Soon Siggi is hiding the paintings to keep them safe from his father. Against the great brooding landscape of the Danish borderland, Siggi recounts the clash of father and son, of duty and personal loyalty in wartime Germany."

Siegfried Lenz received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 1988.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Book Quotes of the Week



"It’s hopeless! Tomorrow there will be even more books I should have read than there are today." Ashleigh Brilliant

"I love the smell of book ink in the morning." Umberto Eco

"The walls of books around him, dense with the past, formed a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters." Ross MacDonald

"True Readers Know Anything Makes a Good Bookmark." Toby Price

"We must form our minds by reading deep rather than wide." Marcus Fabius Quintilian

Find more book quotes here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Weir, Alison "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" - 1991


Weir, Alison "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" - 1991

After reading "Six Tudor Queens. Katherine of Aragon. The True Queen", I discovered that Alison Weir is not just going to write a book about every single one of Henry VIIIs wife but that she has already written a description of all their lives. In this book. I just had to go and read it.

Just as in the novel I read, we get to know the characters very well. There is so much information here about the six ladies who were married to Henry VIII as well as a lot about the king  himself and the children. You get a complete picture of the Royal Tudor family, not just the Tudors but all their contemporaries, the European Royal families, the people and families of influence a the time. At the beginning of the book, you find a chronology beginning with the Battle of Bosworth in 1458 and ending with the accession to the throne by Elizabeth I. in 1558. At the end there are several family trees of the families involved. There is so much to learn and Alison Weir makes it so easy to get into the lives of the people living at the time. I sometimes got confused with people having two different names, e.g. if someone is a Duke or an Earl he is named by his title but he also has a Christian name and you only see the relationship to his family by that name. But, the author has thought about that, as well. There is an Index at the end that gives you all the names and pages where they are mentioned.

I always found the Tudors interesting but this book taught me more than all the other books and documentations I read about them. A well written non-fiction book that reads almost like a novel and comprises everything you would look for in almost every other genre. Love and friendship, birth and death, murder, intrigues, betrayal, religion and politics and, of course, politics. What else do you need to find a fascinating book?

From the back cover:
"One of the most powerful monarchs in British history, Henry VIII ruled England in unprecedented splendour. In this remarkable composite biography, Alison Weir brings Henry's six wives vividly to life, revealing each as a distinct and compelling personality in her own right.

Drawing upon the rich fund of documentary material from the Tudor period, The Six Wives of Henry VIII shows us a court where personal needs frequently influenced public events and where a life of gorgeously ritualised pleasure was shot through with ambition, treason and violence."

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Woodruff, Elvira "Dear Austin"



Woodruff, Elvira "Dear Austin: Letters from the Underground Railroad" - 1998

I never read "Dear Levi" which seems to be the other side of the correspondence. Therefore, I don't think we get as much information about the Unterground Railroad as there might be in the other book. But I still think this story is good for children if they want to know what was giong on and how black people lived during slavery time - and even afterwards.

Nice little children's book.

From the back cover: "In this companion novel to Dear Levi, told in letters,11-year-old Levi helps a young African American in a harrowing flight for freedom along the Underground Railroad."

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace Walk"


Mahfouz, Naguib "Palace Walk" (Arabic: بين القصرين/Bayn al-qasrayn) - 1956 (Kairo Trilogie 1)

Part 1 of the Cairo Trilogy. I love big books, I love family sagas, I love historical fiction, I love books by Nobel Prize winners, so this should definitely the book for me.

And it is. The story of an Egyptian family between 1917 to 1919. We get to know al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad who rules his family like a tyrant, his wife, his daughters and his sons, they all have to obey him without question. He is by far not a perfect person himself but expects this from everyone around him. Given the time, everyone accepts this as a God-given law.

Brilliantly told, Naguib Mahfouz is a fantastic observer, he mentions so many things, describes people's feelings in a way that is unique and highly commendable. We can imagine being a fly on the wall who notices everything that is going on. I would love to read a book Mahfouz would write now about the same family, well, their progeny. The author managed to create a family that seems so real, so alive. We can well imagine meeting them somewhere. A very realistic story.

I already have the follow-up "Palace of Desire" on my table waiting to be read next and will certainly also read the last part "Sugar Street".

From the back cover:
"Palace Walk is the first novel in Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz’s magnificent Cairo Trilogy, an epic family saga of colonial Egypt that is considered his masterwork.

The novels of the Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons—the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. The family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two world wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries."

Naguib Mahfouz "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Book Quotes of the Week



"Reading gives one something to think about other than one’s self." Tom Bissell

"If you have never said 'Excuse me' to a parking meter or bashed your shins on a fireplug, you are
probably wasting too much valuable reading time." Sherri Chasin Calvo 
 
"We know that books are not a way of letting someone else think in our place: On the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thought." Umberto Eco

"Nothing is worth reading that does not require an alert mind." Charles Dudley Warner

"The food we eat feeds our body but the novels we read feed our mind." N.N.
 
[If anyone can tell me the originator of this quote, I'd be very thankful and would happily include the name.]
 

Find more book quotes here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Happy June!

Happy June to all my friends and readers

New Calendar picture with this
beautiful watercolour painting by Frank Koebsch


 "Flower Splendor of the Rhododendron" 
"Blütenpracht des Rhododendron"




June is the month of the summer stolstice. My least favourite season begins but there are also positive things, usually many flowers. And all the ice cream parlors. We must look at the bright side. ;) Enjoy this month with the beautiful watercolour painting by Frank Koebsch.

You can find a lot more wonderful pictures on their website here.