Book Review: “Empress Dowager Cixi” by Jung Chang.

The other reason why I didn’t write a book review everyday for the last couple of weeks, is because I really wanted to write my next review on this book. I only finished reading it last night.

Before I get to the book review, I must first tell you when my fascination with this extraordinary woman started.

Turn back the clock to when I was still in school I used to receive “The Horrible Histories Collection” through the mail. It is a collection of comic books by Terry Deary that chronicles everything that happened in history – well mostly just the horrible, gory and daft things and people. Check out the website: http://www.horrible-histories.co.uk to learn more about that.

In Issue 54 “The Cheeky Chinese” on page 9 I first laid eyes on Cixi ( say tsoo-shee) for the first time. “Dirtiest deed no.1: She grew her fingernails especially long and sharp so she could scratch the cheeks of servant girls if they displeased her.” This instantly grabbed my fascination of her.

Cixi nails

Actually, there is no mention of that in Chang’s book but I have learned a lot about her. Imagine my delight when I found this book in an Exclusive Books store. I just knew I had to have it. And what an interesting read:

1) She was never supposed to be the ruler of China – she first started out as a concubine in the Emperor’s harem. It is only after befriending the current Empress Dowager then (Empress Zhen) that she was able to get a higher rank in the harem.

2) She was the first woman to produce a male heir for the Emperor, which also counted in her favour.

3) When Emperor Xianfeng grew ill and died, she and Empress Zhen made a political coup so that she could rule through her son – Emperor Tongzhi. After he died she adopted her four year old nephew (Emperor Guangxu) and ruled through him.

4) She ruled until her dying deathbed: her last acts were to poison her nephew because she was afraid that after she was gone – the Japanese would use him to take control of China. She then left all the decisions to his wife (Empress Longyu) – a pitiable creature – because she knew that his wife would rather surrender than go to war against Japan. And that was the end of the Qing dynasty.

5) She abolished foot-binding (awful tradition of the Han Chinese that broke their daughter’s feet at a very young age) and “death by a thousand cuts”.

Back cover:

In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi – the most important woman in Chinese history – brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like “death by a thousand cuts” and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing’s Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs – with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.

Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world’s population, and as a unique stateswoman.

Cixi book cover

To summarize:

Cixi was responsible for the following things in her country:

railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, Western medicine, modern-style army and navy and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. Western-style schools and universities, freedom of press, political participation: for the first time in China’s long history people were to become “citizens”. Women liberation: no more foot-binding and education.

Published: 2013

Rating: 5/5

News!

I know, I know. I haven’t forgotten about my challenge to write a book review every day of all the books that I’ve read so far. I actually do have news though of what kept me from writing it.

Last year December I wrote and submitted two stories for an Afrikaans book “Skrik op die lyf” (thriller short stories) and a few weeks back I actually heard back from them saying that one of my stories is on the short list.

One of my lecturers is also retiring this year and some of the students thought it would be a great gesture to compile a book with some of our stories as a tribute to her.

So I was busy rewriting my stories for possible publication and fighting with the editors with what needs changing.

My one story did not make the final cut for the thriller short stories book, but the other one for the tribute did.

I’ve learned something valuable through my experiences: publishing is not for sissies! (Afrikaans word meaning a sensitive person that doesn’t take criticism very well). It also made me wonder and start doubting myself. Am I really a good writer? I do have good ideas, but I’m still struggling to articulate myself in the best way. It also made me wonder how much of a final product (let’s say for instance a book) is the original work of the writer?

*****

In other news: today is the second anniversary of starting this blog!

My Favourite Book of All Time (2)

Whenever I get the question, what is your favourite book of all time and they actually give me a time to ponder over it, this book will also come to mind:

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN

If you’re thinking “Oh yes! I saw the movie with Steve Martin and Hilary Duff” then I want to kill you. Literally. That’s what I wanted to do with Steve Martin. He took this beautiful story and made it into a complete farce! So no, the films and the book have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in common. The films are cheap rip-offs of the book! Here’s what it’s really about:

The book is based on a real family and was written by two family members: the oldest boy, Frank. B Gilbreth, and Ernestine Gilbreth. It tells of their family: their parents – both scientists in time and motion study and efficiency, Frank and Lillian, and twelve noisy, healthy, hungry, red-headed children. The children’s upbringing may have seemed odd at the time but it all makes uproarious reading now for the outsiders.

cheaperbythedozen1

I liked everything about this book, but especially:

The Dedication: “To Dad, who only reared twelve children And To Mother who reared twelve only children.

Foreword: Mother and dad, Lillian Moller Gilbreth and Frank Bunker Gilbreth, were industrial engineers. They were among the first in the scientific management field and the very first in motion study. From 1910 to 1924, their firm of Gilbreth Inc. , was employed as “efficiency expert” by many of the major industrial plants in the United States, Britian, and Germany…. It goes on, but I won’t include it otherwise I will spoilt it for you.

Excerpt from the book:

“Someone once asked Dad: “But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?”

“For work, if you love that best,” said Dad. “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.” He looked over the top of his pince-nez. For mumblety-peg, if that’s what where your heart lies.”

First published: 1949

Trust me, you won’t waste any of your precious time reading this book.

Rating: 5/5

My Favourite book of All Time

I have read lots of brilliant books in my lifetime so far, but whenever someone asks me what my favourite book all time is, usually the first thing that pops into my head is:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

mockingbird 1

That’s usually my go-to answer. I always go back to this one. Here’s the scenario:

My first time reading this book was in my Grade 11 English class and this book was our prescribed book. My English teacher that year was Mrs R. Potgieter –  a very short, very feisty, funny woman with crooked fingers. Unlike the other classes which got turns to read out a part of the book, she read it out loud to the whole class. And we were hooked from the start! Well, at least I was.

And now for the good news! f you were living under a rock this past week you might have missed this: A possible sequel to this brilliant story. Harper Lee did actually write a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but never wanted to publish it until some people came to the rescue and actually got her to change her mind.

Review

Do you ever get that dreadful feeling that when you finish a book you don’t want it to be the end. You just want it to go on and on and on? This was one of the books for me.

But now I’m thinking: there are so much expectations riding on this. I think I can understand why Harper Lee never really pressed continue on the story.

Even though I haven’t read this book in quite some time (some people actually read their favourite books every year – how do they do that?!) I remember the first time I “read” this book I kept picturing Scout, Jem and Atticus as black people. They never felt white to me (if you know what I mean).

Also who is the real mockingbird in the story? Or is there more than one? I could never really figure that out.

First published: 1960

Rating: 5/5 10/10 100% Seriously, if you haven’t read this book yet, you’re dead to me

My Favourite books from childhood: “Go Well. Stay Well.” by Toeckey Jones

go well stay well cover

I read this book in 2005 when I was 14 or 15 years old. “Go well Stay Well” is translated from Zulu “Sala kahle. Hamba kahle” and is meant as a greeting.

Back cover:

Candy felt guilty – guilty for being white. But what could she do? Suddenly it just didn’t seem possible that she and Becky would be able to continue relating as equals when everything between them was so unequal.

Becky lives in Soweto and Candy in Johannesburg – just a few miles apart. Yet their homes are in different worlds. In another country they would have an easy friendship, but one girl is black and one is white – and this is South Africa.

Review: 

I liked this book, because it gives the reader the chance to see what life was like during the Apartheid-era for children. Children aren’t bothered by colour of their skin – until their society make it an issue. I also liked the play on words: when Becky jokingly refers to her home town in the book to “So-where-to?”

Slang: (some of these words are also known in South African English and Afrikaans).

thugs = tsotsis

goggas = insects

Sala Kahle (means “stay well” in Zulu.)

kaffirsussie = someone considered to be too friendly towards Africans

madala = old

shongololo = millipede

maningi = many

Amakgathas = Arseholes

lobolo = bride prize

Sakubona = Hallo

muthi = medicine

Hamba Kahle = Go well.

Yebo = Yes.

About the Author:

Toeckey Jones was born in Johannesburg in 1945. After school she worked for two years as a records clerk in a mining before studying in University of Witwatersrand. She then went on to become a reporter and sub-editor on a radio news station. She moved to London in 1971. She has worked in a variety of places, including the Institute of Race Relations and for the Welfare of Evacuees from Uganda, whilst trying to pursue a career in writing. This is her first novel. First published in 1979.

My Favourite Books from Childhood: “Thunderwith” by Libby Hathorn

thunderwith cover

“He came with thunder: Withthunder. Thunderwith. With thunder you’ll come and with thunder you will go. The dog had come in the thunder of the storm and had left in the thunder of a single gunshot.”

I read this book in 2005 when I was 14 or 15 years old – actually a teenager by then. Years ago when my grandmother was still alive of course she made me promise to write down all the books I’ve read. I found these books again after her death and instead of it being forgotten in a book, I want to share it on my blog.

I rated the books and wrote down excerpts from the books that I didn’t want to forget. I also wrote down the back cover stories (summaries) so I would remember what the stories were about and the year it was first published.

Backcover:

Lara feels completely alone after the death of her mother. She is an intruder in her father’s new family, living far away from all that has been familiar. How can she find acceptance and love in this harsh place? Will the hostile Gladwyn and her kids ever really allow Lara to be part of the family she so longs for?

In the summer of raging storms, Lara Ritchie must fight the storm within herself. It is through an unexpected friendship with a kindred spirit that Lara discovers the strength to face up her ordeals. But where did he came from? Has he been sent to her for a reason? Who will explain his mystery to her?

What I liked/learned about this book:

I learned that you have to face your fears. Look it full in the face. It’s painful. But it’s always better in the long run. And the book was first published in the year I was born – 1989. Also the poem in front of the book:

“With thunder with thunder you’ll come

undreamed of battles to be won!

She’ll know at once your spirit strong.

Discover, sing, the earth’s wild song.

And when your taught her all you know

with thunder, with thunder

You’ll go.”

Dedication from the author:

“This story was begun one night in a farm in the Wallingat, a spectacular rainforest on the coast of New South Wales. Around midnight I was wakened by thunder and lightning and looking out the window of the simple corrugated homestead where I was staying, I saw the shadow of a dog pass across a clearing. That holiday was memorable for the experience of the beauty of the surrounding bush and nearby wild beaches, for the strength and intensity of the storm and for the story. But it was the return home from that holiday I was to learn a friend of mine was gravely ill.

I dedicate this story to her, a blithe spirit, Cheryl Bliss”

Rating: 5/5 A definite must-read!

Dada poems with song lyrics

I wanted to do this for quite some time. So last week I went through all my playlists and wrote down my favourtie songs. While I was doing this I listened to some of these songs that I listen to most – I circled these. Whenever I finished listening to a song I chose the song with the most plays in the playlist I was busy with then. This is what I came up with:

Not like me

Naked

House of wolves

“Klein Tambotieboom”

I’m going under

A soft place to fall. – (29 Jan 2015)

The funny thing is – I noticed that some of the songs’ lyrics actually work well together:

“It’s not like me to let it show, but I think I’m in love with you”

“I’m naked around you. Does it show?”

I’m going under. falling in you. I’m falling forever. I got to break through”

“You’re the one that taught me after all. How to find a soft place to fall.

Here’s another one:

Title: Loose Lips

Numb

Here comes the next contestant

After all this time

I love the way you lie

All I do is dream of you

The best day. – (30 Jan 2015)

Same one, just revised:

Loose Lips

I’ve become so numb

Here comes the next contestant

After all this time

I realized I love the way you lie

All I do is dream of you

I had the best day with you, today.

Can you guess the songs and artists? Some of them are not that hard. 

John Cleese’s Autobiography “So, Anyway…”

Book cover

Book cover

I know, how presumptuous of me to review a book about someone’s life. How dare I?

One thing I want to mention: why is it that only famous people can write and publish autobiographies? Everyone has a story to tell.

In our family we have a new tradition to get my grandparents to write their life stories, because let’s face it the world was so much more interesting than now. I spend my vacation jotting down details about my only remaining grandfather’s life.

But back to the review:

What I liked: 

And that’s why I enjoyed reading about John Cleese telling of his mother – living through almost everything and not remembering or noticing any of it.

Fav quotes:

p297: “And I learned that when you stop concentrating on avoiding mistakes, you relax a bit, and consequently… you actually make fewer.”

p300: “I never forget that the French word for rehearsal is repetition.”

p402: “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

What I didn’t like: 

I do wish there were more about “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and there was almost nothing about “Fawlty Towers”. Those are my dearest memories of John Cleese – watching those two shows. Then again, I should probably buy a book with that as the topic.

Title: “So, Anyway..” Fitting, because the book is written in the form of having a conversation with someone (in this case the reader) and he keeps interrupting himself. Which kind of reminds me of someone… me!

I cannot tell someone how to write their life story. But we all have a life story to tell. And I think that is important.

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus”

First of all, why is it when we hear or see the name “Frankenstein” we think of the monster the Doctor creates in the book? Is it because many a book cover shows this hideous creature?

frankenstein

But the creature doesn’t have a name – he is simply referred in the book as “daemon” or “monster”. He is not Frankenstein. Why didn’t she call her book “Dr. Frankenstein”? Then there would have been no misunderstandings…

When I finally finished reading this book I came to the conclusion that I did not get what I expected. I expected that she would describe exactly how Dr. Frankenstein created the creature, but she does none of that. Also, “Frankenstein” is a horror novel, but it has almost none of the frightening qualities Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” had.

Also, from the very beginning you know that both Dr. Frankenstein and the creature is doomed. You know they will come to an end – it’s just a matter of fact which one will die first. I also didn’t have any pity for either of them. To me Dr. Frankenstein is the true “monster”/”murderer” of the novel. Maybe that’s what Mary Shelley was trying to suggest through her ambiguous title?

The prologue was a little confusing and dragged out. The novel starts with the correspondence between a brother, Walton,  and his sister, Margaret. I kept thinking just get to the point already! What does this have to do with the whole story?  It’s only when he finally meets Dr. Frankenstein when things fall into place.

The last few chapters the plot was absolutely riveting – my eyes were literally glued to the pages! I kept thinking the pages are running out and there is so much that can and should still happen.

A definitive must-read!

3/5

“Under the Dome” – by Stephen King

I finished reading “Under the Dome” yesterday. I was especially interested to see how the story finishes after watching the TV series two seasons.

Alternative book cover. I like this one better.

Alternative book cover. I like this one better.

tv image

Cover of the book I've read.

Cover of the book I’ve read.

Much to my surprise the book is nothing like the TV-series. Yes, there is a Dome and most of the characters are there, but they have differenct backgrounds. One main character dies on the first day (in the first few pages) of the book. Big Jim and Barbie already know (and hate) each other. Linda Everett is married to Rusty and they have two daughters.

After finishing the book I must confess that I prefer the TV-series over the book. Usually it’s the other way around. You always hear someone moaning that the movie was nothing like the book, blah blah blah… Well, maybe it depends on what  comes first for you. Most of the time it’s the book, then the movie or TV-series. For me it was the latter. Plus it’s nice to put a face to each character of the book with such a big cast of characters.

Here’s what I did like about the book *WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT*

There is no egg. I know a lot of people were let down when it featured in the series. I myself went: “Really? An egg? WTF!”

Also what happens in the book seems more real and plausible.

Another thing that I liked, is how Stephen King expresses himself. A book is as good as the writer is. Examples:

p. 236 “In the middle of the night thoughts became zombies.” Wow! That’s so powerful!

p. 502 “Close your eyes and click your heels three times”, Julia thought. “Because there’s no place like Dome”.

p 601 “far to the west, the black smudge where the missiles had struck. It hung there, a beauty mark on the cheek of the day”

p 607 “If the black spot left by the missile strikes was a beauty mark on the cheek of the day, then this new mark was a skin tumor.”

p 647 “Not quite. I also have to fix my fuck-you finger. I may need it.”

Here’s what I didn’t like about the book:

Plot. The plot in the first few episodes of the first season of “Under the Dome” were just so much more thrilling.

The Ending. It felt like it was dragged out.The book should’ve ended (p)ages ago. Arrrghh!

It’ll be interesting to see how they are going to end the series.

Here’s what the man himself had to say about the differences:

“If you loved the book when you first read it, it’s still there for your perusal. But that doesn’t mean the TV series is bad, because it’s not. In fact, it’s very good… Many of the changes wrought by Brian K. Vaughan and his team of writers have been of necessity, and I approved of them wholeheartedly.

There’s only one element of my novel that absolutely had to be the same in the novel and the show, and that’s the Dome itself… As for me, I’m enjoying the chance to watch that alternate reality play out; I still think there’s no place like Dome.”

Source: “A letter from Stephen” http://stephenking.com/promo/utd_on_tv/letter.html June 27th, 2013

Rating: 3/5

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