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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff

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This book is set in the 1870’s USA as well as present day-two stories about Latter Day Saints.  The historic is about Ann Eliza Young, who divorces her powerful husband Brigham Young (leader and Prophet of the Saints) and sets herself on the path to end polygamy.  The present day is set around Jordan Scott, a young man who has been thrown out of the modern-day Latter Day Saints and who is trying desperately to find out the truth behind his father’s murder.  This book intrigued me from the onset.  The resilience of Ann Eliza Young in facing the challenges and struggles of women under such testing conditions was inspiring.  The same inspiration came from reading Jordan’s story of his mother and her relationship with his father.  I was interested to read about polygamy in the Western world and this book confirmed for me my personal understanding of how patriarchs in all societies use their positions of power to abuse the rights of women and children for their own personal gains. Murder, power, abuse, control, mystery and survival all come together in this well-written and immensely thought-provoking book.

A History of the World in Six Glasses – Tom Standage

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This is light, though not an easy read.  It is literally the history of the world through the six beverages, beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and coca cola.  Like the other members of our book club, I found the concept of charting history through these drinks unique and plausible.  I did find it difficult to read in the beginning and must confess, if not for the book club, I would have given up half way through the first chapter on beer.  I persevered, and was glad I did as it did ‘pick up’ although not greatly.  I found the stories of great thinkers such as Plato coming together in Symposiums, which developed all around the world as a result of new beverages, very interesting.  For me, the chapter on Tea was the most captivating.  This is probably because, 1) I am a devoted tea drinker 2) The beginning of Twinnings Tea to fulfil the gap in providing women ‘access’ to the equivalent of coffee houses, was just remarakable.  The different civilisations, the ‘great powers’, the (British) East India Trading Company as well as the Opium Wars, were interesting to read about through this different approach to history.  It is a book that made me feel pleased that I had read it, once I had finished it.

Written by Um Yousef

17 January 2009 at 5:35 pm

The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney

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I usually stay away from suspense of murder-mystery books but had to read this for our book club.  And once again, how pleasantly surprised I was at the way I received it.  The story, set in 1867 Canada tells of the murder of a French man called Laurent, after which, a local boy called Francis disappears.  The narrator is Francis’ mother, (Mrs. Ross)who in a quest to prove her son’s innocence, sets out to find him, travelling on foot through the vast forests and landscapes of Canada.  What is interesting is that as a young woman, she breaks all traditional rules by travelling with a Native Indian tracker called Parker, and throughout the book there is a feeling that some romantic relationship will emerge between the two.  The book highlights the racist beliefs of the time that White people were inherently more intelligent than the native Indian’s, something that is presented as an indisputable fact by characters such as Storrock, who at one point in the book states that Kahon’wes, a native Indian was an intelligent writer and journalist, gifted and educated and must therefore have white blood in him.  Such views, along with beliefs about women’s roles and the rules that governed their behaviour, reflect the time in which this novel was set.  The significance of the book’s title emerges when we hear of the disappearance of a couple of local girls and it is widely believed that they must have been eaten by wolves.  It is Parker who tells us that wolves do not attack people, that they are curious of people but do not attack without provocation, hence their tenderness.  He also points out that wolves would not eat an entire corpse so their would be traces of a corpse if this did happen. In the end, we realise that the real tragedy is that in this story, the men are actually more dangerous than the wolves (particularly Stewart, Line’s lover).

The best part of this book is the description given by the author of the landscape and the bitter cold weather, with snow making travel difficult and dangerous.  The first comments at our book club were about how we all could actually ‘feel’ the cold while reading the book.  I  know as I stayed fixated to the book I was every once in a while checking the temperature of the room, convinced that it was getting colder and colder (and I read this book in November in Kuwait when it was still warm). This is perhaps the best asset of the book, especially given that Penney has never travelled to Canada.  Her descriptions are powerful and compelling.  The book also had some very scary moments, one scene in particular when Line and her children are stranded in the middle of nowhere and have no sense of direction.  There is a cold realisation that this could be a reality from which they never survive.  Such images challenged our otherwise romantic notions of the snow (I felt happy reading this nearing Christmas time when I have beautiful images of snow and crispy fires burning to keep us warm).

The book had some interesting sidelines, though the end was incomplete which some book club members were disappointed about.  We were not sure about what had actually happened to the missing girls, though we were given a few inconclusive leads.  Other questions that remained unanswered were ‘Why had Mrs Ross been in an Asylum and what was the link with that and the story?’, ‘What happened in the end to the Tablet, and had it ever been significant?’ and ‘What was Mrs. Ross’ first name?’.  This is a book I would recommend to other readers.

Written by Um Yousef

4 December 2008 at 12:19 pm

Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky (2006)

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We read this book for our November book club read and had mixed reactions to it. The book is written as two stories, which most of us felt were almost as two unconnected ones. This I found disappointing, as did others in the group as it left a sense of incompleteness. The first part is set around the German invasion of France during the Second World War and details the occupation, and importantly, the responses and reactions by the people of the time, whereas the second novel includes more romance and a much more fictional feel.

I was pleasantly surprised about how I was kept interested in the lives of the people who were packing their worldly possessions to move out of Paris for fear of the Germans coming. The stories of the rich and wealthy and how they manage to survive despite a world war in full progress illustrated the realities of social stratification. I found it interesting and insightful that the German soldiers were presented as ‘ordinary young men’ who simply had a job to do. People they encountered carried on their daily business and the irony of the end of the different characters kept me amused (characters died under normal circumstances rather than the result of war). In our group, some of us felt lost with the different characters and had to stay focused to keep up, perhaps because there was a lack of continuity and many characters that dropped in and out of the story. All in all, I was glad to have read this book although in truth it is not one I would have chosen on my own, so its just as well it was a book club must for us!

Written by Um Yousef

4 November 2008 at 11:47 am

The Red Tent – Anita Diamant

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What can I say about this book, except that it is perhaps one of the best books I have ever read. It reads in some ways as an alternative to the bible with the main focus being the role of women in biblical times. The voice of Dinah is finally heard in this version of events, as are the voices of other women, a first for biblical readings – an alternative version of events.

I found the concept of ‘the red tent’ very appealing indeed-a place of sanctuary for women to recouperate and simply share experiences, gossip and stories. The bond between women of the time is expressed with great emotion and conviction by the author, even though many of these relationships would be ‘unacceptable’ or intolerable in today’s world. Take for example the fact that Jacob takes many wives, (who are sisters). Here we see Patriarchy in its fullest form with Jacob controlling the lives of the women and benefitting from them. What is significant though is that these women are not presented as weak victims of patriarchy, but instead are determined, headstrong and resiliant. The cental character, Dinah (daughter of Jacob and Leah) is apparently raped by a prince of Shechem in the biblical story, but in the Red Tent he is genuinely in love with her and she readily agrees to marry him. However, her brothers in the book, Simon and Levi, insist that the prince be circumcised as a form of punishment for the rape of their sister. While the prince agrees and undergoes the painful circumcision, the brothers still seek revenge and go ahead and kill him. The grief-sticken Dinah then leaves her brothers and father Jacob and goes to Egypt where she gives birth to a son. She later reunites with her brother Joseph. The characters, with their biblical affiliations were interesting and perhaps less romanticised than the biblical images we may have had growing up. The stories of Jacob and Joseph were significant as they told that which is part of history, yet with more reality and ‘heart’ than has been previously been demonstrated.

On a personal level, I found the story intriguing and experienced a real connection, perhaps because I have always been fascinated by biblical stories and ‘stories of old’. Growing up with a mix of stories of Jacob and Yacub, Joseph and Yousef etc. this story was able to overcome cultural and religious boundaries. Having named my son Yousef, this story once more made me think about the meaning behind his name and the strong character of the man he was named after. The book is significant also in terms of women’s position and role in different societies and cultures, over different times, presenting them as active participants in their lives, rather than passive victims, which I found to be truly inspirational.

Written by Um Yousef

1 April 2006 at 10:00 pm

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks

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My overall impression of this book was that it was well written, the language being distinct with an array of interesting words such as ‘Stowes’ and ‘Barmester’ which led to a lively discussion at our book club session. It is based on a true story set in 1666, and one that I found to be historically powerful (given that I am a history teacher that is only to be expected I guess). It is the story of the Plague. One main theme of the book revolves around God/religion vs. nature and science, with questions around herbal remedies offering a cure for this terrible illness vs. repenting to God for sins in order to be cured. There are many different characters in the story, most notably perhaps the Rector Mompellion who is a strong, charismatic man who tries to help those in suffering and is generally the ‘saviour’ of the town. The most vivid scene for me in this book was the disturbing death of the children of the narrator, Anna, who die from the Plague. Any death is terrible, but the death of these young children, deeply touched my heart. The story also discusses the Bradford family who are the aristocrats of the town and who, upon hearing about the illness that is quickly spreading, leave the town with great urgency, much to the disappointment of the Rector. While this was portrayed as somewhat cowardly, I felt that they had the means to run, and so they did. Surely this is human nature? Would we all not run from the Plague, if we could? In the real story, the Rector in fact does send away his own children when the Plague spreads. The voluntary sacrifice by the village in deciding to stay during the plague, rather than try to run away, was pretty unique, demonstrating once again the power of religion. In London, Samuel Pepys writes in his journal of the terrible treatment meted out to plague victims “we are becoming as cruel as dogs one to another”. At the time, houses of plague victims were sealed and guarded, locking in the well with the ill, with none to bring food, water, comfort of any kind. Pepy’s writes that you could hear the cries of the afflicted coming from houses which were marked with large red crosses and the words ‘God have mercy’. Another interesting historical link in the book, is to the Witchcraze of the time, when women were often (and of course mistakenly) branded as witches and drowned or lynched as a consequence. Here, the trial and brutal murders of Gowdie women are all to descriptively included, reminding us of a time that is better left in the past. I did enjoy reading this first book for our book club and would recommend it to others.

Written by Um Yousef

5 February 2006 at 10:00 pm

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