Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

cover92853-mediumEverybody knows the story of Anna and the King of Siam – or at least they think they do. Way back in 1956 20th Century Fox released their musical based on this book and the world fell in love with Anna Leonowens and her almost love affair with the King of Siam – a man that seemed to respect her intelligence but remained would still happily have bedded the beautiful teache if she hadn’t been pining still for the memory of her husband.

I loved “The King and I”, and still do. I also loved the 1999 dramatisation of it “Anna and the King” which starred Jodie Foster and was more focussed on the social and political aspects rather than just the beautiful woman wearing beautiful dresses against a beautiful backdrop.

But neither come close to the book. First released in 1944, Margaret Landon used a memoir written by Anna Leonowens and fashioned them into a compelling narrative of her time in Siam. Anna Leonowens was used to life abroad, but in 1862  travelling into a country that was not part of the British Empire was incredibly risky. Still, as a widow she needed to earn money to support her children, young Lois who stays with her, and her daughter Avis, sent back home to a boarding school.

Leonowens considered herself a modern woman, a woman of science. As such she often found herself in opposition to the traditions of Imperial rule and Court life. She found slavery particularly abhorrent and wasn’t overly keen on how women were treated either. Throughout her career there she fought oppression at every turn, even when her household was attacked and her life and that of her young son endangered.

Throughout all of this though there is also a tremendous appeciation of Siam and a love for her friends there, including the King and many of his wives. A wisdom seeps through the pages and a resilience. She always knew she could never win every battle but she fights on anyway without getting too depressed or angered by those she loses. This grace is a trait which helped her and her causes enormously.

There are some moments when the narrative’s dramatic tension dips, and I have to admit I there are times when the constant attitude of the East learning from the West got on my nerves a little, I’d love to read Prince Chulalongkorn’s version of events. Was it Anna Leonowenss’ influence on the young prince that led him to abolish slavery in Siam and introduce democratic reform, or was it influence from somewhere else? Although having said that, even if he wasn’t as influenced by her and the West as is implied, Anna Leonowens is still a legendary feminist figure and I would encourage everyone to read it.

4 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

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Mata Hari arrived in Paris penniless and leaving behind a baby daughter. Before long she was famous for her shocking dance recitals, reputation as a courtesan and her fashions.  But with the war came fear. Approached to become a spy she tries to use her position and fame to become a double agent. Then, in 1917 she is arrested.

From her cell she writes a letter to her daughter, telling her the true story of her life. A life lived as fully and sometimes as foolishly as possible.

Mata Hari has long been a person that others find deeply fascinating, who can resist the mix of sex and spying? Combine that with a well known author like Paulo Coelho and that’s best-seller material right there.

But is it worth the money?

Well, I found this a quick and fairly enjoyable read. Coelho has a knack of simplifying even the most complex topics so that this book could be read by someone who had never heard of Mata Hari and who knew nothing about World War One.

The book paints a vivid and colourful picture, it is full of warmth and all the flaws and follies of humanity.

However when I finished it I felt just a little dissatisfied. Maybe it was a little over simplified, maybe it was just the length, it just felt like a dimension was missing.

Worth it for paperback prices, but I couldn’t in all honesty suggest you pay hardback price for it.

3.5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

negrolandThis award-winning memoir published earlier in the year documents a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist’s early family life and later personal history. She shows how her inner conflicts were generated by the pressures she was placed under (and placed herself under) as a young talented black woman growing up in 50s and 60s Chicago within a wealthy family.

The book begins with an insightful analysis of the careers and written works of historical middle and upper class black figures, in order to anchor her book in that tradition. In the next part of the book she tells us about her family and their privileged social milieu, which she calls ‘Negroland’. She offers a clear-sighted analysis of the way her parent’s generation acted on their desire to assimilate in order to progress and win acceptance on merit regardless of the racism that was still widespread. They were part of a long line of African Americans throughout history who wanted to shrug off the low expectations that whites have always had of blacks.

She shows how conflicted her parents’ generation were, and how judgemental they were of themselves and their children, in order to maintain their foothold above less able or socially mobile blacks. She uses short passages to show us snapshots of her life, and analyses in detail the meaning to her of different interactions with peers of different ethnicities to help us understand the difficulties in real terms of going to a private school where she was one of a tiny minority of African Americans. She movingly demonstrates the personal cost in later life of growing up saddled with an almost crushing burden to fit into both black and white society.

Jefferson, her family and the other people in ‘Negroland’ were at the front line of a fight for equivalent ‘respectability’ to whites. They sometimes achieved it but paid the psychological price of eternal self-vigilance. They also bore the emotional scars of the subtly cruel forms of discrimination used by middle and upper class whites.

Jefferson shows throughout that race is not a ‘given’, especially when she talks about how light-skinned members of her family spent lonely portions of their life ‘passing’ as white – race is not in your blood, she argues, it is constructed in your own mind and the minds of others by daily awareness of unequal treatment and the reasons for it. Like many others, she felt liberated by the Black Power and feminist movements in the 1970s because they articulated a desire by a younger black generation to claim their right to be different. They finally became exhausted of living up to the impossible standards their parents felt they had to set them.

This book is written beautifully and quite experimentally (with footnotes, subheadings and lengthy pieces of text that are italicised). Jefferson often assumes the role of her own critic, commenting on her own writing throughout. I quite enjoyed this when I started to read the book, because it mirrors the painful self-consciousness she felt for years, but the device wears thin through overuse. She also writes with an almost relentless level of self-scrutiny and meta-self-scrutiny of her own and others’ motives. This turns her prose in on itself – in the end the analysis paralysis she writes herself into becomes tiring.

Despite these minor downsides, Negroland is an excellent book, which captures how historical moments in the evolution of black consciousness were experienced by individuals and their families, and it brings the struggles of blacks born in the twentieth century to centre stage in an original way. Jefferson writes like a details person, and being one myself, I appreciate how effective that approach can be.

Four bites.

Charlotte Kearsley
My love of reading began when I was very young, and quickly took over my life. On trips to Brighton, my family would see me start walking faster at the sight of the major bookshop in the centre.
I’ve lived in many places since, including London and Rio, and still insist on visiting bookshops as soon as possible! I normally head for literary and historical fiction first, then pick out the quality thrillers. If I’ve time to spare I’ll browse the biography and travel writing shelves. When I’m not spending time with books or books-in-progress in one way or another, I works in the public sector and crafts.

Roots by Alex Haley

haley_rootsWhen I was a child Roots was a cultural phenomenon. It spent 22 weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List and was made into a TV series that EVERYBODY watched. It changed people.

But as I was only little I only got to hear about it and see snatches when I’d sneak downstairs for a drink, which would be a lot when it was on!

But it was published 40 years ago this year. Has it stood the test of time and does it still have something important to say?

It follows the story of Kunte Kinte from his birth in a small village in The Gambia through to his kidnapping and being taken as a slave to America. We stay right with him as he tries to understand the land he’s been taken to and as he attempts to escape. We continue to follow him as he slowly, begrudgingly settles into slave row and eventually finds love and even has a child of his own.  The book continues to trace the lives of his descendents for the next six generations.

Now this makes it sound like it’s a HUMUNGOUS book, I mean it’s got to be longer and more confusing than war and peace right? Wrong. It is long, coming in at just over 800 pages, admittedly with very tiny writing, but the story is very clear and totally absorbing. We stay with Kunte Kinte (and his family) for around half the book then spend a good couple of hundred pages with his grandson Chicken George (and family), before continuing down the family line.

This book is both incredbibly harrowing and very uplifting. It’s definitely still worth the time to read, I felt I’d learned quite a lot of truths about the facts and horrors of slavery after reading it. It reminded me that the slave trade and indeed racism in America today isn’t just an American problem, us Brits might have abolished slavery more than 30 years before they did but the people that bought the majority of the slaves to America and set up the practice were the English.  That being so it is encumbent on us to do more to help eradicate it, both in the U.S and here. If all you do to help is get a better understanding that’s still something and I would strongly recommend this book for that.

It also reminded me that the African’s that were stolen were not the savages that they were beclaimed to be then, in fact their civilisation was just as valid as our own, a large amount of them were muslim and although the society Kunte Kinte came from had a version of slavery it was nothing like the brutal slavery that was inflicted on them. There ‘slaves’ were better off and more respected than most English peasants in fact. Their society also held women and men in very different roles and would definitely be considered sexist by todays standards, however, when compared to the staatus of women in western society at the same time they certainly weren’t worse off.

Which brings me neatly to my only criticism of the book, which is that although the author clearly respects women immensely, they didn’t get much of the spotlight in this book. Kunte Kinte had female as well as male descendents but the men get a lot more ‘column inches’ than the women.

Overall though, not to be missed!

4 Bites

 

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

imageJulia Pastrana sometimes even wonders herself if she is actually human.  She speaks, thinks, sings and dances like a human, but the thick hair all over her body and the posters and news stories that proclaim her to be a ‘bear-woman’ or hybrid Orang-Utang take their toll.

Her unusual looks combined with a pleasant singing voice and a talant for dance do provide a career in the circuses and theatre’s of America. Soon she is the toast of the elite, but can her heart ever find similar adoration and acceptance?

The story mainly focuses on Julia and her parts are told in close third person from her point of view. As such we develop tremendous empathy for ‘The Ugliest Woman In The World’ as we hear her thoughts, fears, triumphs and hopes throughout.

However hers is not the only voice herad, later in the book when we meet the manager that will make her famous, his perspective is often shown too and the tale as a whole is shot through with small vignettes from the life of a modern young woman called  Rose. Quite the opposite of Julia – much desired but little travelled preffering to surround herself with lost treasures in her attic room in South London. Her stuff means more to her than her relationships with those around her.

This was an easy read, it’s skillfully written and although many of the characters are ‘freaks’ or ‘curiosities’ we get to see their humanity over and above anything else. In fact it wasn’t too long before I started hoping that Julia Pastrana had been a real person and decided to Google her – just not till I got to the end of the book as I didn’t want to spoil it!

The descriptions of the carnival, theatre’s and locations are terrific but they don’t take centre-stage at any time, they are always the perfect backdrop to the human action taking place.

Oddly the most bizarre character in this story is the one who appears physically to be the most ‘normal’ – a nice twist and one that drives home the point that it’s what’s on the inside that counts!

4 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

imageSylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a girl dealing with depression and attempting suicide.

I know, doesn’t sound too cheery does it?

But actually the first section of this book is all about a young woman (Esther Greenwood) coming into herself in New York just as America is starting to recognise that women should be allowed to have lives outside the domestic kitchen! It’s an exciting time to be alive, and although she has a natural caution, she’s really not having the worst time in the world at the start of the book!  In fact her slide into depression is so gradual, and her acceptance of it comes so much later than it happens, that she’s not far off recovery by the time you realise how messed up she is.

Although this was written more than 50 years ago it remains one of the most nuanced examinations of mental health issues. Her description of how she slowly stops sleeping, eating and washing is somehow ethereal. The examination of societies place in her depression is interesting and still relevant today.

I listened to this on audiobook, the reader was Maggie Gyllenhaal and her reading of it was absolutley laconic and sublime. I completely recommend that you listen to her reading of it rather than anything else.

Sylvia Plath’s suicide a month after it’s publication is still hard to relate to when you consider how much humour there is woven within these pages. It’s hard to say if this would have become a classic if she hadn’t, it was released at a time when women were begininng to examine their identities so it may have. Girl Interrupted did but although that was set at the same time it was released in the 90’s.  It’s sad to think of all the works she might have gone on to complete but at least this gem exists.

5 Bites

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher

5199g2QmCJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_It is 1889 and the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole, home to the mentally ill, has a new patient. A passionate artist with copper-red  hair but only half an ear.

The warden of the hospital has rules for his wife to keep her safe from the patients. She must never stray from their little white cottage next door into the grounds without him by her side. But tales of this man’s odd mixture of insanity and self-awareness are too intriguing for Jeanne Trabuc to resist. Especially when she has nothing else to occupy her, her children are grown and her only friend gone.

She climbs over the hospital wall, watches him while he paints in the heat of the day, and starts a relationship that will change her life.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is the perfect holiday read. It winds it way gently through the inner workings of Jeanne Trabuc’s life in Provence while letting you feel the heat on her skin, hear the buzz of the bees and taste the sweet honey that only such a verdant blanket of land can produce.

It lulls you to doze but gives you the wisest dreams. I was drawn back to this hypnotic read every spare second I had. To be completely frank this has very little action, if you like high octane thrillers or chilling ghost stories this probably wouldn’t do it for you. But if you want to really get to know what makes a character tick, and you want to feel like you are living in the country in the summer, then this is perfect!

It’s real message is how love and life can change over time, and Susan Fletcher writes this exquisitely.  5 Bites

NB I received a free copy of this book from the publishers in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews.

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

imageGeorge Orwell’s first novel is set in 1920s imperial Burma, a place he knew well. U Po Kyin, a corrupt Burmese official wants to raise his standing with the white rulers. To do so he plans to destroy the reputation of the Indian Dr. Veraswami., friend of John Flory, an embittered  35-year-old teak merchant who both loves and hates Burma and the Burmese.

Flory would like to help his friend but he knows his own standing among his fellow Europeans is shaky. He has a ragged crescent of a birthmark on his face and his politics aren’t quite the thing. When he meets Elizabeth Lackersteen, He is immediately taken with her and they spend some time getting close, Lost in romantic fantasy, Flory imagines Elizabeth to be the sensitive non-racist he so much desires, the European woman who will “understand him and give him the companionship he needed.”

I chose this book partly because I loved 1984 so much when I read it recently,  and partly because my partner was about to leave to work in Burma (Myanmar as it’s known now) for 2 months. Call me soppy but I wanted to feel close to him while he was gone and so immersing myself in a book set where he was seemed like the ideal solution.

They say the past is another country and this book is set almost a century ago, lots has changed in Burma since then but somehow Orwell’s description of the country and climate still made me feel like I had a sense of being there with him. Not surprising when this book was based on his time spent there.

But this book did make me uncomfortable in other ways. The casual, ingrained racism of the white society is thrown into sharp relief. To think that this was my grandparents generation is sickening. What is as bad if not worse is seeing how Dr Veraswami internalises this racism and believes wholeheartedly that the white people are superior. It shows how damaging racism is and how hard it is for those subjected to it to push through it. The same of course applies to people subjected to sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc.

A powerful book, and one that shouldn’t be left in 1984’s shadows as it still has much to teach us.

5 bites

 

GemBookEater
I was reading before I started school and I have no plans to stop now! I usually have at least two books on the go at once, one non-fiction and one fiction. I like reading books based in reality that flick open the doors to the mysteries of the heart or of the spirit.