Gripping account of Churchill’s prison escape, but even more fascinating insights into history

Review:

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill - Candice Millard

As she’s already proved in The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard really knows how to tell a gripping story, and this account of young Winston Churchill’s incredible prison escape during the Boer War made me postpone all other activities as I stayed glued to its pages, but–as with her other titles–the event that inspired the book isn’t the only thing that makes Millard’s telling so interesting. For me it’s maybe not even the primary thing, though it’s true that episodes like Churchill desperately leaping onto a moving train and hiding out for days in a pitch-black, rat-infested coal mine were the parts that kept my heart racing.

But the insights into the history and cultural norms of the peoples involved in the story were even more fascinating for me than Churchill’s harrowing escapades. Millard gives concise but detailed backstories of the too complacent British and their empire in the waning days of Victoria’s rule, the fiercely independent and resourceful Boers who after a hundred years felt bound and entitled to the lands they’d settled in southern Africa, and the native African tribes of the area, including the Zulu and the Xhosa, some of whom had inhabited the space for thousands and thousands of years.

The book also gave me a deeper understanding of Churchill’s character, in all its admirable and infuriating glory. The roles of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela (who lived years after the Boer War) and a number of officers in the  British and Boer military are also well described, and the influences or thoughts of Catherine the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Theodore Roosevelt, and the American President William McKinley are noted. All three of Millard’s books cover the late nineteenth century and/or early twentieth century, an era that to the benefit of her readers she seems to know well and is certainly able to bring to life.

I read an advanced review copy of this book supplied to me at no cost or obligation by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.

 

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Ancient local religions in modern India

Reblogged from: Reflections

Review:

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India - William Dalrymple

I just finished re-reading this amazing book–here’s my original review from 2011:

 

The religions most of us are familiar with have been largely standardized and homogenized, but obviously this wasn’t always so. Like languages before the advent of writing, earlier versions of even the same religion had local accents, traditions and emphases that varied substantially from place to place. That early world of indigenous religions still exists in parts of India, and in Nine Lives author William Dalrymple sensitively chronicles the poignant, eye-opening personal stories of nine religious devotees whose practices are outside–sometimes far outside–of the mainstream.

 

The regional outlook of many of his subjects is summed up by one of the last hereditary singers of an ancient, locally-based epic poem that is so long it takes five eight-hour nights, dusk to dawn, to perform. He explained to Dalrymple that of course they were careful to propitiate the “national” gods like Shiva and Vishnu, who control the cosmos, but for their daily needs it made more sense to pray to the local god-kings and heroes who understand their farming life in a way the great gods could not. It’s like going to your county council representative rather than the president of the country to have a new stop sign put in your neighborhood.

 

Dalrymple must have a gift for getting people to open up, and he writes beautifully and with great respect for his subjects. Those subjects include a Dalit or untouchable who becomes a god sought out by Brahmins for several months each year, a Jain nun who is chaperoned by a naked monk part of the time Dalrymple speaks with her, a devotee of the fearsome goddess Tara who lives by the funeral pyres of a cremation ground, a blind wandering Baul who sings songs of worldly liberation, and a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is atoning for being forced to fight for his religious beliefs.

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What I read (and listened to)

Myths, Lies and Half-Truths of Language Usage - John W. McWhorter Dragon Day (An Ellie McEnroe Novel) - Lisa Brackmann Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations - Mary Beard The Raj Quartet, Volume 2: The Day of the Scorpion - Paul Scott Bring the Monkey - Miles Franklin Plato's Republic - Professor David Roochnik, The Great Courses, The Great Courses The Republic of Plato - Allan Bloom, Plato A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird) - Claudia Gray Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues - Professor Michael Sugrue, The Great Courses, The Great Courses

Inspired by the upcoming summer release of the last book in Jo Walton’s Thessaly Trilogy, which tells the story of the goddesses Athena’s attempt to create Plato’s Republic, I spent much of this month happily ensconced in the classical world of Greece (mainly) and Rome (a little).  I re-read The Republic for the first time since I was 18, which is a little more than 4 decades ago…  And  I also listened to two audio courses on Plato and read a book of essays by Mary Beard about classical Greece and Rome.

I started the month with Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage, an audio course by my favorite linguist, John McWhorter. The Day of the Scorpion is the second book in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, set in India during WWII, Dragon Day is a thriller set in modern day China, Bring the Monkey is a spoofy English country house mystery, and A Thousand Pieces of You is a YA novel that explores the multiverse–it was a reread for me. I was about to start its sequel and just planned to skim the last chapter to remind myself of where it ended, but then couldn’t resist diving back into the whole book. My original review is here: A Thousand Peices of You–Racing through a Multiverse of Alternate Lives.

 

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Favorite books of January, part 3

Review:

A Room with a View - Radhika Jones, E.M. Forster The Demon in the House - Angela Thirkell Summer Half: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) - Angela Thirkell Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart - Claire Harman

When Lucy Honeychurch arrives in Florence she’s feeling  peevish and disappointed. After travelling abroad for the first time Lucy finds their little hotel filled with fellow Britons, and even the woman in charge speaks English with a Cockney accent. What’s the point of leaving England if you’re still surrounded by the same people? Plus, Lucy and her chaperoning cousin were promised rooms with a view of the Arno river, and instead their accommodations look over a courtyard. But when a rough around the edges man and his enigmatic son offer to switch rooms, Lucy’s horrified, uptight, passive-aggressive cousin (played by Maggie Smith in the 1985 movie) is sure that would NOT be proper. Lucy (portrayed in the film by Helena Bonham Carter) wavers, confused. Where is the balance between embracing experience and living within the rules of propriety? If I could give A Room with a View more than 5 stars I would. E. M. Forster writes beautifully, and he tells Lucy’s story with both sympathy and insight.

The Demon in the House and Summer Half are two of the 30(!) books in Angela Thirkell’s witty and wonderful Barsetshire series, set in Britain during the 1930’s and 40’s. Thirkell borrowed her imaginary English countryside setting from Anthony Trollope, and descendants of a few of his characters make appearances in her stories. Highly entertaining.

Moving, hard-to-put-down, sometimes heartbreaking, and utterly fascinating, Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart is less massive than Juliet Barker’s The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors, but it’s a good choice for someone not ready to dive into the delights of Barker’s thorough, 1,000+ page tome. In spite of the title, Charlotte is the main but not only focus this new biography, because it also covers the lives of Emily, Anne, Branwell and their father–they were such a close family it would be impossible to leave any of them out. All four of the siblings were imaginative and obsessive writers so that from a very  young age they were creating their own shared literary worlds. I especially enjoyed the way Harman related the novels the sisters published to their life experiences. Anyone who loves Jane Eyre, or who is interested in life outside of London during the middle of Victoria’s reign, will find this biography fascinating. I read an advanced review copy given to me by the publisher; review opinions are mine.

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Favorite books of January, part 2, three more books I loved

Review:

Speak - Louisa Hall Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind - Anne Charnock Between Mountain and Sea: Paradisi Chronicles (Caelestis Series Book 1) - M. Louisa Locke

1) Powerful, poignant, and deep, Speak has an unusual structure, weaving together six narrative voices that together illuminate a link between the creation of artificial intelligence and the fundamental human yearning for connection. When I started the book its nonlinear format put me off, but it took just a few chapters for me to become totally hooked. The narrators include a Pilgrim or Puritan girl as she leaves her former life behind to journey to America, AI pioneer and WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, and a now illegal, slowly “dying” babybot–a doll of the future so lifelike and compelling that children who had one couldn’t bond with people–as it slowly loses power and memory. 

I don’t normally pay much attention to epigraphs, but I love Speak‘s. One is from Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky, while the other comes from what I think is Disney’s Snow White: 

“Slave in the magic mirror, come from farthest outer space, through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak!”

 

2) Beautifully written and haunting in the sense that it leaves you with things to think about, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind completely captured me. Blending science fiction, art, and history, its three connected storylines span time–with one in the past, one in the present, and one in the future–but all revolve around the fifteenth century painter Paolo Uccello and his artistically talented daughter Antonia, two real life historical figures. A lot of research went into this novel, and I actually learned something about painting composition, art history and the possibilities of future technology.

 

3) I loved Between Mountain and Sea, and really didn’t want to leave the characters behind. Fortunately it’s the first of a sci-fi series that’s part of the Paradisi Chronicles, an intriguing multi-author project about 10 extended families who exit our devastated home world to set up colonies in New Eden, an Earth-like planet that already has native hominids. These original people are an interesting human variation, and several of them play important roles in the novel.

M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series that starts with Maids of Misfortune, is here telling the story of the Yu family, who have their roots in China. Mabel Yu was one of the original settlers and traveled from Earth as a young teenager. About 150 years later Mei Lin Yu, Mabel’s descendant, discovers Mabel’s diary, a fascinating document that tells the real history of the colony, not what Mei Lin has been taught at school. These new insights help Mei Lin question the path that’s been laid out for her, one that doesn’t suit her at all. Though Mei Lin is YA age, romance plays almost no role in the action–it’s more a coming of age book. As indicated by the title, the setting is vivid and wild, and while parts of the plot were a little predictable, I was so caught up in the world and the lives of the characters that I didn’t care.

 

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Favorite books of January, part 1

Review:

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Intense, memorable, and deeply captivating, Planetfall manages to be character-driven and idea-filled without sacrificing action and suspense. The story involves space travel, an off-Earth colony 20-some years after its establishment in the shadows of a (mostly) abandoned alien structure, the biology-linked religious beliefs that inspired the colony’s creation, a first person narrator coping with and trying to hide her anxious obsessions, and life enhanced (or maybe diminished) by advanced technology that includes 3D printers, which create everything the colony needs from homes to cups, and implanted chips, which connect every person to the web and each other–making it difficult for the main character to keep her psychological challenges off the grid and out of sight. Being inside the head of a character struggling with compulsive behaviors was unsettling and fascinating, and felt uncomfortably close to some of my own mental processes. The ending is unlike anything I’ve read, savage, visceral, cosmic and sublime.

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Witty novel on 1930’s Britain

Review:

The Demon in the House - Angela Thirkell

The Demon in the House is the third book of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a story centered on a force of nature like the cheerfully self-involved, hyper-talkative, 12 or 13 year-old Tony Morland–the “demon” of the title–but for the most part I loved it. Many of the characters from High Risings, the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, are back and it was a pleasure to catch up with old friends.

Several sections of the story evoke with breath-taking clarity the mostly unruly but sometimes sublime passions of childhood–especially chapter 5, which is titled Paradise Pool because Tony discovers a particularly lovely view of the lake where a group of grown-ups and children have gathered to picnic and swim. The youngsters are full of high spirits, playing, squabbling loudly, and running off with each other’s toys, but then Tony and his mostly silent friend Donk climb down to muck around in a stream that’s below the level of the main body of water, and from that lower angle the lake looms like a magic pool suspended in midair, a vision that awes and moves them both and temporarily silences the almost pathologically loquacious Tony–it’s a lovely piece of writing.

Thirkell apparently didn’t think much of her own books. Like Tony’s mother she wrote because she needed to earn a living and didn’t expect or want her well educated friends to read her novels, but but for “fluff” her stories are witty and socially aware. Because they were written during the time when they’re set, in this case the 1930’s, the stories also offer interesting and often unexpected (to me) insights about the daily life and attitudes of the era, including a few eyebrow-raising off-hand comments by characters that are offensive today.

Virago is re-releasing many of Thirkell’s novels, but so far not not this one, which means that most or all of the available copies are the Moyer Bell editions which do have some editing errors.

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