Friday, May 1, 2020

Histories and Mysteries

Hard to believe it's May already! It's been a strange year from the start for us, since we spent January moving, February settling in and doing what we needed to do as a result of the move, March saw our daughter visit and things began closing the day after she left, with lockdown commencing by the end of the month and continuing until now. I did hear the Minister for Health yesterday saying that our actions have saved the lives of 3500 people. I have no idea how they come up with that number, but even if that number is one, we can be reminded of why we are doing this self-isolating. I heard someone refer to it as 'compassionate containment' the other day. What a beautiful way to put it. So for all of you engaging in compassionate containment and saving lives, thank you.

In the lockdown, my usual reading habits continue as always. In this first post about the books I read in April, I will focus on histories and mysteries.
A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders
When I came across this title in the ‘new releases’ collection in the e-book section of the library website, I had to borrow it. I was curious. Alphabetical order is just something we take for granted now and don’t even really notice, so finding an entire book on the history of the idea was unexpected. This was a fascinating book. We may simply accept this way of organising things as obvious, but it was not always so and before humans could get to the point where it was an accepted  thing, a lot of other things had to happen first.

First of all, there has to be writing. In the case of alphabetical order, there has to be writing with an alphabet, rather than some other form of writing like syllabaries or ideographs. Once you have an alphabet, you have to have something to write on and that material has to be portable and cheap enough to allow for widespread use. Certain kinds of societies are required as well—nomadic people, for example, are not going to carry around a bunch of written material. In order to make writing a bunch of stuff down and keeping it useful, you need a society with institutions—religion, business, government, libraries.

In addition to the writing itself, once paper and printing lead to more written material being available, tools and furniture with which to organise all of these books and documents is required, so that evolves with the organisational systems.

I would not have thought to look for a book such as this, but I’m glad I came across it!

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China by Jung Chang (audiobook read by Joanna David
I cam across this book in the list of new books in the e-audiobook section of the library website. Here is the description:
They were the most famous sisters in China. As the country battled through a hundred years of wars, revolutions and seismic transformations, the three Soong sisters from Shanghai were at the centre of power, and each of them left an indelible mark on history.

Red Sister, Ching-ling, married the ‘Father of China’, Sun Yat-sen, and rose to be Mao’s vice-chair.

Little Sister, May-ling, became Madame Chiang Kai-shek, first lady of pre-Communist Nationalist China and a major political figure in her own right.

Big Sister, Ei-ling, became Chiang’s unofficial main adviser – and made herself one of China’s richest women.

All three sisters enjoyed tremendous privilege and glory, but also endured constant mortal danger. They showed great courage and experienced passionate love, as well as despair and heartbreak. They remained close emotionally, even when they embraced opposing political camps and Ching-ling dedicated herself to destroying her two sisters’ worlds.

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister is a gripping story of love, war, intrigue, bravery, glamour and betrayal in which Jung Chang reveals the lives of three extraordinary women who helped shape twentieth-century China.

I borrowed it because I've read a couple of the author's previous books, including on about Empress Dowager Cixi, who was also a part of this history. This book was just as excellent as the other two I've read by her. It was fascinating. She is an author that I will keep an eye out for in future.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
Like the one other Atkinson book I've read, this one was a little strange, with lots of characters and plot twists. One subplot was introduced around page 300, if I remember correctly, and it came out of left field. Still, I enjoyed it.

Great Crime Stories by various authors
I picked up this book 5 years ago in a charity shop and figured it was time I actually read it. It was originally published in 1936 and has also been published under the title Great Detective Stories. Both names are a bit inaccurate as there is a mix here of detective fiction and supernatural/ghost stories. No stories have been added since the original publication date, so they’re all classics, some by well-known authors and some by those who are not as well known. It’s a great book. While I pass on most of the books I pick up in charity shops, sometimes I find books I want to keep. This is a keeper.

The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza translated from Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana
I came cross this magical-realist fable/novella in the e-book section of the library website and borrowed it. I’m not sure why exactly—maybe it was the detective story aspect of it. I think I probably also did not get a sense from the description that it was a work of magical realism, which I don’t care for—this was no exception. It was short enough for me to keep going to see if there would be some wrapping up of the story, but had it been much longer, I suspect I would not have continued. The author is apparently considered one of the best contemporary Mexican writers, so it’s not her writing, just my own personal taste. I don’t think I’ll be reading anything else by her, but if you like magical realism, fairy tales, and stuff like that, this might be something you’d enjoy.

The narrator is a detective—never named—who is hired by a guy to find his second wife. She has left him and run off to the forest with some guy. The detective goes off to the forest to track them down, hiring a translator who travels with her. They meet weird people who recount stories of strange happenings. There’s a wolf throughout, of course. Fairy tales are referred to often throughout.

I hope there are some good books on your reading pile, too. 😃


Vicki said...

All of these books are new to me. They all sound good, especially the Flanders book.

Shari Burke said...

It was unexpectedly fascinating! It reminded me of that old show The Day the Universe Changed, when the host would lay out how one small change would lead to another thing, which would experience one small change leading to something else, and so on, until we end up in a completely different and unforeseen situation.

Lowcarb team member said...

This is a good selection, the one by Judith Flanders caught my eye.

All the best Jan

JFM/Jan said...

Great readings here Shari. I
I love getting lost among books when I need some "me time."
I will definitely be looking into a few of these... especially the Chinese Sisters

Stay Safe ☕