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Book review: 1808 Flight of the Emperor

1808_di_Laurentino_Gomes

1808: Flight of the Emperor Image by Laurentino Gomes on Wikipedia’s Creative Commons

I’m a sucker for a well-researched history book, especially one where it feels and “sounds” like the author is sharing all of his own passion and excitement for the topic with me. This is exactly how Laurentino Gomes’ 1808: Flight of the Emperor comes across and flies with his subject matter.

This was an incredibly interesting book to read – not only as a reflection of colonial Brazil (some of which is still so recognizable there today), but also as a reflection of European aristocracy and how very short the Portuguese model fell compared to the Golden Age of Europe’s French, Spanish and German royals, just to name a few. Of course in the early 19th century you couldn’t do everything right by our standards today, but some of their outrageous ways made me cringe and laugh just as much as I imagine the author did on finding these nuggets of not-so-appropriate-for-the-dinner-table information. For example, Gomes tells of how Portugal’s sewage system was so far inferior to the rest of European civilization, they actually still emptied their “night soil” and chamber pots from their windows (yes) directly into the street. Jeez. Another one that has stuck by me is how the Emperor (Dom) Joao not only refused to bathe, his tailors had to wait for him to go to sleep in order to repair the clothes he would likewise refuse to take off. Laurentino Gomes mentioned that there are a myriad more such stories that he didn’t have space to fit into this book… I don’t even dare to imagine.

Besides the Portuguese-Brazilian royal family, Gomes had a lot to say about the politics between England and France at the time, the state of labour and slavery in colonial Brazil as well as some trickle through effects that have shaped contemporary Brazilian culture and politics. Wow, all that in a non-fiction, conversational super-book. I loved every second of it.

Apparently others agreed – the book won 3 awards; one from the Academia das Letras and two Prêmio Jabuti awards.

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Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth

the-pillars-of-the-earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I have finally gotten around to read the first of two books in the Kingsbridge series by Ken Follet; they were super popular and got great reviews at one stage. The two books themselves are quite extensive and from first glance they look like they have the potential for that “epic story” that many fantasy writers seem to manage. I’m still reading the second book, but they both focus on a town called Kingsbridge, in England, the site of a cathedral of some repute and revolving around the people who live there – from monks to merchants and from gentry to peasantry. Since I’m still busy reading the second book, this review only concerns the first book The Pillars of the Earth.

The story-line follows the building of the Kingsbridge cathedral, but first the book starts out in a very intriguing way – the hanging of a foreigner, the curse of a wronged woman and three powerful men fearful of what they had done. The significance of this opening impacts the story both on a superficial level (in that the woman becomes an important character) and on a layered level (in that secrets related to these events are revealed later on). However, the bulk of the story is a bit more down-to-earth: young romance, cruel nobility and sly clergy. In fact, the plot relied so heavily on these pop-culture tropes that I felt like I could guess at most new characters’ personalities even before they were introduced, just by their class description – the rich girl with curly brown hair is, of course, the sweetheart; the tall, handsome landowner is, wait for it, cruel and chauvinistic; and the poor, shy boy with red hair is, yep, an unappreciated genius. What’s more, the characters never changed, there was no development – they were born into the book a certain way and stayed that way for decades of plot. Nobody can boast that they are the same person, believe the same things or even talk the same all through their lives… but okay, maybe that’s difficult to write into a book without seeming too inconsistent… the characters just felt flat and unimaginative.

Honestly the story-line itself had the same feeling. Sure, all characters, good and bad, got a good dose of fortune and misfortune throughout, but the way it was administered was extremely predictable. Halfway into the book the recipe is terribly, consistently clear – the “good guys” win something, then lose something, the “bad guys” lose, then gain. It was like a rhyme you could recite “one for me, one for you, one for me…” and on and on, really, all the way to the end. Well, I finished the book not quite satisfied, but that’s life.

Then why am I reading the second book (World Without End), you may ask? The blurb promised more outside influence – plague, famine, war, prosperity. I’m almost halfway and there seems to be much more of a variety of characters, motivations and journeys. I’m hopeful. 🙂 Luckily you don’t need to read the first book in order to “get” the second. It plays out in the same town, around the same cathedral, but enough years have passed that the initial characters have very little influence on the plot and the context is completely new. Well, I wouldn’t say the first book was necessarily bad, but it was painfully average. Let’s see how the second one turns out 😉

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Critica do livro “The Book of Night Women” pelo Marlon James

[Spoilers]

 

As prateleiras já estão cheias de livros sobre a vida dos escravos e os que eu já li comtêm peços de verdade chocantes, horríveis e monstruosas. Ainda que muitas pessoas e gerações proximas contem essa historia, será cada vez mais difícil não contar em uma maneira usada.

Recentamente o filme 12 years a slave (12 anos de escravidão no Brasil) capturou a atenção de multidões – um bom exemplo de narrativa cativante entre tantas outras não ouvidas. The Book of Night Women é mais um em essa tendencia – uma historia bem-feita, bem-contada que tornou real para mim a realidade pavorosa de vida sob um “mestre” (de fato sob toda a família do mestre).

Acontece na Jamaica no século 18, na propriedade de uma família britanica; o ponto da vista é das mulheres escravizadas que cuidam da família Wilson mesmo. A influência mais forte é de Lilith, uma moça que nasceu e foi criada na propriedade. Logo que eu começei a ler, o jeito de escrever me impressionou – o autor (Marlon James) usa a maneira de falar da Jamaica contar a historia, camada “patoá”. Inicialmente foi difícil ler, mas quando me acostomei, isso aumentou a riqueza do enredo. O autor não compartilha só a vida dos escravos, mas também mostra a vulnerabilidade cruel de ser uma mulher nessa situação. O perigo do senhor branco e dos homens negros (que viveram sob as mesmas condições das mulheres) às mulheres era nojento. Elas eram tão ameaçadas porque eram mulheres: o, assim chamado, sexo fragil… que unjusto! Eu não consigo imaginar que eu sobreviveria se eu vivesse assim.

Bom, o livro começa com vida e termina em morte e sangue. O livro não é vazio de luz, nem de amizade ou de amor… e isso me prendeu atenção.

Um livro maravilhoso!

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Book review: The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl Image by Moshe Reuveni licensed under Creative Commons

This was a book that came highly recommended by a trusted source and no wonder! It feels like top-of-the-shelf steampunk and reads like some of the best fantasy fiction I know. The characters all have strong individual voices, and in the book’s 350-odd pages, a couple of characters go through intense internal conflict or develop and change subtly.

At first the title made me think of gears and clockwork and even the girl’s described movements seem almost steam-powered, but about a third way in I realized she’s simply a genetically engineered organism. Well, “simply” doesn’t really do it justice, because it is implied that her human genes were spliced with a number of other animal genes. One character jokes that she must have some Labrador in her to be so automatically and helplessly obedient. Through the course of the book you realize how far-reaching the bio-engineering was – in many ways (some of them quite dangerous) she is the “improved human organism”, though she is not aware of this and her manufacturer certainly tries to train and punish out even the inkling of such a thought from all young windups. In fact, to further create a gap between windups and regular people, they are made more identifiable (and therefore isolated and excluded from “normal society”) by their so-called heechy-keechy movements: a stutter-stop motion.  Continue reading

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Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

By Claire North

[Warning: some spoilers]

Wow… It took me three days to open this book on the first page and close it on the last. Even halfway through the story I didn’t know exactly where it was headed or what the end was gearing up to be. Even though the introduction starts with the same phrases as the last chapter (and of course makes much more sense by then) and Chapter 1 already sets out the main plot focus, it is not a strictly linear narrative (heehee – inside joke to those who’ve already read it).

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August really only has two main characters, one of which is the narrator, and a handful minor characters who provide delicious context and support the plot. Naturally Harry is the sane, rational protagonist with whom we can relate and through whom we can live various exciting, well-meaning lives. (Spoiler) Vincent is the “other”, the antagonist, perpetually and consistently who we come to suspect halfway through and who we come to hate at about two thirds. I’ll say no more about them.

Time travel and multiple universes are approached very differently in this book than I’ve seen in other places. There is much more order and cohesion here. It is immortality through an infinite looping of the same reel, albeit through a forward progression of loops. Of course people who spend centuries experiencing the same looping of time over and over again get bored or go insane (imagine living from birth to your deathbed, aging like all people to, dying like all people do, but doing it twice, ten times, a hundred times). Others… try to change the world in ways that not only affect themselves, but the future, in irrevocable, catastrophic ways. This is where our protagonist faces his enemy, his nemesis, with suitably complex relationships and motivations thrown into the diabolical mix.

 

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Book review: Bodies, Pleasures and Passions

A book by Richard G Parkerbodies pleasures passions

I’ve been living in São Paulo, Brazil for about 18 months now and decided it was as good a time as any to read something with an anthropological bent and what could be more interesting and exciting than reading about something that plays a big part in shaping Brazilian identity: sex. That is not exactly what I was combing the Internet for, but when I saw a mention of this book it was immediately on my list. I have finally finished reading it, so here’s what I think…

It’s a great mix between academic paper and historical narrative; it doesn’t really feel like a linear narrative, even though it follows the evolution of Brazilian culture (especially with regards to sexual life and sexuality) in a chronological way. However, it’s not as dense (read “impenetrable”) as an academic paper. It’s like I’m talking to the author about his research results, which to me is incredibly interesting. Richard Parker weaves a coherent and consolidated picture with both qualitative research and anecdotal inserts. The anecdotes don’t necessarily give a scientific basis, but they give colorful illustrations and explanations for what he found in his studies.

Of course Parker starts from the era where the first written records can be found – the explorers who initially arrived in Brazil. They wrote reports and diary entries about meeting the local people, about their shameless promiscuity in dress and behaviour. What they don’t mention in their reports, but what the author makes clear, is how that influenced the explorers’ behaviour and how the sexual expression of the native Brazilians not only impressed the explorers themselves but also the repressed European society they came from and shared information with.

Then he jumps to the colonization period, with land owners and their slaves (involuntary concubines?) and of course this had a profound and lasting impact on modern sexual attitudes. There is an interesting mix between European and Brazilian sexual attitudes, however the European model being the “correct” one at that time, dominated sex and society for a very long time. I would argue it is still very much present in contemporary Brazil.

Besides the historical side of sexuality, the book explores eroticism and present day socialization / initiation into sexual life, along with specific Portuguese terms and expressions full of sexual ambivalence. Though he mentions specific cases of erotic socialization to illustrate a segment of Brazilian culture, I’m not sure how representative that is of all Brazilians from all walks of life. The religious, medical and hedonistic perspectives which all helped shape sexuality and how people talk about sexuality are very interesting beyond the Brazilian model. I think many of those conclusions are valid for my own culture as well.

Last but not least, Parker scrutinizes the spirit and debauchery of carnaval and where that fits into the sexual identity of the modern Brazilian. This is an interesting chapter, because to me it seems like carnaval is a big contradiction… People say they are very conservative Catholic (even though they rarely put that into practice); however, during carnaval there are near-naked bodies not only plastered on every television, advertisement or poster, but it’s celebrated by young and old alike. As he says: “[Carnival] has become a metaphor for Brazil itself – or at the very least, for those qualities that are taken as most essentially Brazilian, as the truest expression of Brazilianness”

A book worth reading!

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Book review: Basque History of the World

Basque-History-of-the-World-The-Mark-Kurlansky

The first and (for now) only in-depth text I’ve read about the Basque people, but it will certainly not be the last! I had heard about a mysterious people somewhere in northern Spain who maintain their solidarity, their culture and their strange language. Now Mark Kurlansky has introduced me to unusual and exciting dishes, traditions and a history both extensive and incredibly active. It sounds wonderful and magical – even the original roots of the Basque people are contested… some theories put them in Basqueland even before the Indo-Europeans. For a culture as young as post-colonial South Africa this seems like a depth and richness of history that we have not yet reached.

Probably Kurlansky writes with some bias, even if he tries to be absolutely objective, because from his tone it seems that he admires the Basques, even their quarrelsome , ethnocentric nature. Even so, Basqueland (and on reflection, Catalonia) have moved way up my ever expanding list of “places to visit asap”. Since food features very heavily in how I experience other countries & cultures, Kurlansky’s recipe inserts and their context in history left my mouth watering and with more than a little curiosity – baby eels or fish cooked in only oil, garlic and peppers… Oh my gosh… and the creamy gateau de basco. What on earth could go wrong?

Of course, the people are what make them Basque – their language, their expression of their culture and what makes them feel distinctly Basque; these are things touched on in a Basque History, because I am sure that this is how the author experienced their culture and their identity. However, no amount of writing or reading about this can be a suitable substitute for the original! It is in talking to people and spending time in their space that you would get to know their reality and maybe also a little bit of what shaped these people and their identity. This reminds me of an acquaintance who went to Basqueland and asked someone to “please say something in Euskera”, to which he got the angry reply “I’m not a monkey, repeating little phrases to tourists!” So… there’s a way to go about it and a way not to. 🙂

As to the language, as Kurlansky writes, it seems like Euskera is one of the vital parts of Basque identity (as Afrikaans is to descendants of Dutch colonists in contemporary SA – I just mention this again because this is my frame of reference). It seems completely out of context in the sea of romance languages (Spanish and French), but it continues to flourish through education, cultural socialization and literary production. Kurlansky writes that they even require their leaders and elected officials to be fluent in Euskera.

In conclusion, this book was engaging, interesting and so well researched, from the mysterious roots of the Basque people, through the age of the Visigoths, the Vikings and the Roman Empire. In terms of modern history, their fight against and suffering under Francisco Franco is also examined in detail. It is a failure of my historical and geographical education that I always thought Guernica is a city in Spain… Another world has opened up to me and I intend to explore it!

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Book Review: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz

Even though the title simply says “Wild Fermentation”, this book tries to be much more than a simple fermentation guide / recipe book. The recipes and techniques described in the books are very interesting! Some of them are definitely easier than I thought, and I’m quite excited to try sourdough, plus some of the trickier wine ferments.

Like I said, this book does not solely consist of recipes though. The author starts out with a history of fermentation and a description of what makes wild fermentation different than aided or chemical ferments. This is an interesting melding into the narrative of his recipes and attitudes towards fermentation. Furthermore Katz gives a little bit of his own personal history and situation, which helps to make the book feel authentic and sincere.
However, there are some digressions and almost ranting chapters that get a bit out of hand. For example, after reading the first pages, then scanning some more, on his subjective opinion on GMO’s, I decided to skip forwards to something more meaningful.

The introduction to microorganisms and its influence on fermentation is awesome and engaging, but then he gets a bit lots in the maze of homogenization of food crops and the evolutionary melding of culture in general; he loses the plot by quite a wide margin, with socio-economic consequences of agriculture through the centuries… and then he brings slavery into his fermentation book… All of these topics are worthy of being explored, discussed and written about, but perhaps a fermentation book is not the best platform. I understand that Katz believes in what he is saying (he really takes issue with global culture being oppressive in his opinion), but I didn’t expect to be getting a rally talk when I picked up a book on how to make miso, you know?

Anyway, four chapters later we’re back on track with clearly described, flexible approaches to wild fermentation. I like how Katz gives household alternatives to potentially expensive equipment as well as explaining their roles in the whole process.

I think I will experiment with easier ferments that have a faster yield (bread, cider, kombucha) and later on I’m looking forward to the more complex processes (wine, miso, etc).

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Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan

Yes, please 🙂 Morning sex is the best kind… Still kind of sleepy, a day full of potential ahead of you and you get it started in the most invigorating way. Though not exactly what you’ll find in Dr Christopher Ryan’s book, it will open up headspace for more and better liaisons 😉

Sex at Dawn describes and investigates human sexual practices, habits and sexual culture since the dawn of man. Many people don’t even consider the carnal sides of our ancestors when they imagine prehistory, or the hunter-gatherer model; insodoing they never question their own assumptions about sex, what they & their fellow humans think/feel about sex and certainly not how it could have changed to become an altogether different animal today. This is partly due to the fact that people in ‘polite society’ aren’t supposed to talk about sex, and up until a scant few decades ago people weren’t supposed to enjoy it much either…

Chris Ryan &co doesn’t start challenging you from page 1, which is kind of chivalrous, I think. Like a gentleman courting a reluctant (cliché) bride-to-be, he gradually coaxes and convinces you that there is a different possible journey in a person’s sexual life. One of more consistent satisfaction, less social confusion and stigma, and even more important: one that would enable more love and understanding in a relationship rather than betrayal and manipulation.  Continue reading

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