Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: My Reading Year

So, it's the 31st December and time to for me to add up all the books I've read this year (courtesy of Librarything).  The number seems to be eighty-one, which I consider to be a worthy number for someone who reads at the pace of a snail. Scrolling through the list I notice that most of what I've read is non-fiction, and  a lot of the fiction has been 'read' through audiobooks.

It was a year I made some happy discoveries: notably the work of Simon Mawer (The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and Mendel's Dwarf) and T.C. Boyle (The Women, Wild Child, The Tortilla Curtain and When The Killing's Done).   Both of these authors have backlists which I am greedily anticipating.  

I also learnt a lot more about China through books on its history, literature and a couple of memoirs (Peter Hessler's River Town and Fuschia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper), and started to learn about the remarkable Indus Empire of five thousand years ago (Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahari, The Indus Civilisation by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and The Ancient Indus by Rita P Wright).  Another period and subject that interested me was Berlin during the second world war, and apart from reading Roger Moorhouses's excellent text on the subject, Berlin at War, learnt a lot through some more engrossing memoirs, including The Past is Myself by Cristabel Bielenberg.

Apart from China, the West coast of the United States, ancient Pakistan, wartime Germany and Czechoslovakia, I also 'visited' Greece: both ancient in guides to ancient Athens and Debra Hamel's fascinating books  The Mutilation of the Herms, and Reading Herodotus, and modern in Jason Manolopoulos's  also very interesting Greece's 'Odious' Debt.  Throughout my reading I kept noticing recurring themes: the way men attain power and how they keep it, and how we are so often like sheep: keeping our heads down, concentrating on following the rest for our own piece of the pasture - and if we can, try our hardest to snatch a mouthful of that claimed by the sheep next to us.

So somehow, after setting out to read more comedy or at least light-hearted in 2012, I have ended the year reading about capitalism and how to solve crimes.  It was lucky for me then that through 'Kindle delivers' (which I signed up for after my own book was included in the deal) that  I also discovered a little ebook by Robert McCrum called On Reading: Notes on the Literary landscape, 1995-2012.  Apart from being highly entertaining on the subject of book reviewing, his recommendations in another article led me to order Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos - which looks just the sort of thing to start the new reading year.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Factory Girls by Leslie T Chang

Towards the beginning of Factory Girls Leslie T Chang makes a startling statement.  China has 130 million migrant workers - this represents the largest ever migration of a people in human history  They go to the cities not only to find better paid work, but because there is little to do in the countryside.  In this way their migration is like most other migrations in history: a shortage of land and a surplus of people.

Factory Girls concentrates on two individual girls in the middle of an urban megalopolis in China.  We read about how and why they came and their attempts to establish themselves in their new surroundings.  In this new urban environment they can shed the expectations of old China and are free to take charge of their own lives.  They are empowered by the money they earn which gives them a higher status - both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their families.  Some are encouraged to return home to marry someone their parents have arranged for them, but most of them seem to prefer to stay where they are.  They find suitable mates using their own resources.

Self-reliance is a recurring theme in the book.  Girls prosper by making their own opportunities: taking evening classes, learning new skills (notably English and computing) and challenging the boss and thereby getting noticed i.e. 'Keep from getting lost'.

Jobs are found through contacts, advertisements and Talent Fairs.   It is common to jump from job to job.  Sometimes a month's notice is sacrificed in order to jump immediately to another, better job.  It is easy to lose track of friends and relatives in this overwhelmingly large mass of people, and so the mobile phone, primed with everyone's number, becomes important.  Losing, or having a mobile phone stolen, is a disaster.

Modern China, with its billions of people, seems an inhuman place.  Leslie T Chang uses her own family history to make an interesting comparison with the past.  The pre-twentieth century Chinese world seemed kinder and more human-sized, but as numbers have grown, as the cities have swollen, the individual has come to matter more.  Family, history and nation have been cast aside - and to delve too deeply into the recent past uncovers such inhumanity that it has driven one of Leslie Chang's relatives mad.  The biggest migration in human history has resulted in a loss humanity.   People become more corrupt and self-centred.  They lie and cheat: false qualifications seem the norm.  As we are all pushed into smaller and smaller areas of land I see this desperation being repeated in other places.  Factory Girls is a fascinating study but ultimately a profoundly depressing one.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Maxine Clarke

I thought last night of the stars.
So many of them,
how they all glow so brightly in their own space,
always there,
even when I don't actively look for them.
Are they the souls of people,
constantly with us,
waiting for the darkness to bring them alive?
Or can I believe what I know they are:
intense, fiery, lights of something close to eternity?
Last night they seemed to be my thoughts,
one after the other twinkling into consciousness:
your kind words,
your encouragement,
your fairness
the times I met you
and we talked.
Thank you Maxine.
Your stars will continue
- each one a bright beacon.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Moment of Glory

I've been away for a few days in Bruges, and so haven't been looking at the internet. On my return, I checked out the Amazon ratings for the Kindle version of 'A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees', and to my complete astonishment found its rating was sandwiched between '50 Shades of Grey' and its sequel (a situation so unprecedented I grabbed  a screenshot for posterity):

Mystified at why this should happen, I found this tweet on twitter:

#4: A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees: A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees Clare Dudman (Author) 106,752% Sales Rank...

with the reason for this surge revealed in another tweet:

On the blog: Amazon UK Kindle Daily Deal! A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees by Clare Dudman for £1.09! ... 

So, for some reason, my book was on offer for the day, with very gratifying results.  

My thanks to whoever was responsible!