I love Bill Bryson. The man can take any subject and make it interesting, simply because he has this unfailing flair for adding details which make youI love Bill Bryson. The man can take any subject and make it interesting, simply because he has this unfailing flair for adding details which make you grin. He does so to great effect in Shakespeare, his two-hundred-page biography of the man affectionately known as the Bard, which will delight Shakespeare aficionados as well as people who know virtually nothing about Stratford's most famous export product, such as myself.
Two hundred pages is not much for a biography of the world's greatest playwright, but it's enough, because, as Bryson keeps reminding us, preciously little is known about Shakespeare. Bryson himself doesn't really add to the knowledge available on Shakespeare; he has no great discoveries up his sleeve. Basically, what he does is tell us what others have written about Shakespeare, only to tear their theories a new arsehole in a few short, memorable observations that will probably stay with you better than the theories themselves. It's an entertaining approach, which is particularly successful in the final chapter, where Bryson tackles several authors' attempts to prove that the works associated with Shakespeare were not actually written by Shakespeare. On top of pointing out fatal flaws in the various authors' reasoning (often in a single sentence), Bryson observes with great relish that three of the many, many people who have come up with outlandish theories on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays were called Silliman, Battey and Looney. I love details like that, which more serious scholars would be too polite to point out. Bryson takes them and runs with them, making this not just an informative, well-researched book, but a very entertaining one.
Shakespeare could have done with some more depth -- a little more information on the plays and their possible inspirations and interpretations. It could also have done with some thorough proof-reading. There are times, especially in the first half of the book, when Bryson loses himself in tangents on Queen Elizabeth and life in sixteenth-century England, some of which are just a tad too random and general for the subject. However, just when you find yourself wondering what all this information has to do with Shakespeare, Bryson gets back on track and comes up with some more interesting observations on the Bard and his times, plus some witty asides to make you forgive his rambling. As a result, the book is a bit uneven, but there is no denying it's a pleasant read on a rainy day, which will likely whet your appetite for some more serious Shakespeare scholarship. It definitely did that for me. Anyone got any recommendations?...more
Wild Swans may well be the most depressing book I've ever read. Don't let that keep you from giving it a try, though, for by some strange mechanism, iWild Swans may well be the most depressing book I've ever read. Don't let that keep you from giving it a try, though, for by some strange mechanism, it also ranks among the most uplifting books I've read, chronicling as it does a courage, resilience and will to survive which are nothing short of riveting. I could sum the book up by saying it's the greatest ode to courage and resilience ever written, or that it's one of those rare books which make you despair of humanity and then go a long way towards restoring your faith in it, but no, I'm not going to leave it at that. I'm going to do this book justice, because damn it, it deserves it.
For those of you who missed the hype back in the early 1990s, Wild Swans is the true history of three generations of women living through the horrible nightmare that is modern Chinese history. One is the author herself, now a naturalised British citizen. The second is her mother, an earnest Communist who raised a large family at a time which was extremely bad for family life. The third is her grandmother, who was married off as a concubine to a warlord as a girl and lived to see her family suffer for this unfortunate connection again and again. Using these three extraordinary lives as her main focus, Jung Chang tells the history of China's even more extraordinary twentieth century, from the late Qing Dynasty in the first decade of the century to the relatively free 1980s, a period comprising the Republican era, the battle between the Kwomintang and the Communists, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It's gripping stuff even for those who know their Chinese history, and it blew me away when I first read it halfway through my Chinese degree, making me wonder (for the first time but not the last) whether I really wanted to devote the rest of my life to China. It took me two more years to decide that I did not, but this book, whose memory has always stayed with me, played a large part in that decision. To this day, I vividly remember the horror I experienced when I read the long section about the Cultural Revolution. It brought alive the terror of that particular episode of Chinese history better than any other book I'd read, and it shocked me to my core.
While Wild Swans is largely about the three women mentioned above, the most interesting person in the book (I hesitate to call him a character as he was obviously a very real person) is the author's father, a high-ranking cadre who genuinely believed in the Communist ideals and strove all his life to implement them in daily life. At first, he is infuriating in his refusal to grant his wife and children the privileges to which they are entitled as his relatives (on the grounds that to do so would amount to nepotism and corruption, which is precisely what the Communists are supposed to be trying to eradicate), but as the story progresses, you realise that there is something quite heroic about Mr Chang -- that he is, in his daughter's words, 'a moral man living in a land that [is] a moral void'. By the time the Cultural Revolution rolls around the corner, you feel such admiration for him that you'd personally drag him away from the humiliations and beatings he receives for sticking to his guns if you could, to prevent him having to experience that loss of faith and dreams which is bound to follow. His is a tragedy with a capital T, and it's harrowing -- one of the most painful things I've read, and then some.
Yet for all the personal struggles described in the book (and there are many of them), the main struggling character of Wild Swans is China itself. Chang does a great job chronicling what J.G. Ballard called 'the brain-death of a nation', sharing historical facts in a way non-sinologists will understand and showing the cruelty and mercilessness inherent in the Chinese -- or should that be humanity in general? She does a marvellous job describing the panic and unpredictability of the early Cultural Revolution, when absolutely everybody could be denounced at the drop of a hat, and when pettiness and lust for power reigned. Along the road, she provides fascinating insights into Mao Zedong's selfishness and megalomania, and into the hypocrisy and incongruity of the movements he set in motion, which brutalised human relationships like nothing else ever has. And all these atrocities she juxtaposes with the integrity and courage of her parents and grandmother, who get through it all with some hope and optimism left intact. It's a riveting story, and Chang tells it well.
If I have any complaints about Wild Swans, they concern the first few chapters and the romanisation of names. The early parts of the book, which deal with events the author did not witness herself, feel a bit aloof and lifeless. (It gets better once Chang starts telling about her parents, and once she reaches the part of the story to which she herself was privy (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution), the book becomes quite unputdownable.) As for the romanisation, I wish the publisher had hired an editor skilled in Pinyin, as Chang's spelling of Chinese names is all over the place (something non-sinologists won't notice, but which is an eyesore to me). These are minor flaws, though, which hardly detract from the overall quality of the book. Wild Swans is an intensely compelling read -- moving, unsettling and unforgettable. It should be compulsory reading for everyone remotely interested in China, or in history in general. ...more
Michael Asher's approach to Lawrence of Arabia is a bit different from most other biographers'. Rather than taking Lawrence's autobiography, Seven PilMichael Asher's approach to Lawrence of Arabia is a bit different from most other biographers'. Rather than taking Lawrence's autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as a starting point and finding additional material to shed light on Lawrence's own words, Asher starts from the premise that Lawrence, while unmistakeably heroic, was prone to embellishment, and sets out to detail where Lawrence's account of his life deviates from known facts and other accounts (including letters Lawrence himself wrote before writing his autobiography). But it isn't just a matter of comparing documents. An Arabist and adventurer himself, Asher set out to Arabia to retrace Lawrence's steps, visiting the places Lawrence described in his book and talking to descendants of the Bedu with whom Lawrence wrested Arab rule back from the Ottoman Turks. The resulting biography is not so much a debunking of the myth of Lawrence of Arabia (Asher clearly continues to admire his subject, warts and all) as a rewriting of it. It's pretty interesting stuff, although David Lean probably wouldn't approve.
Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia is a solid piece of research. Asher's knowledge of the facts of Lawrence's life, the Great Arab Revolt and the different Bedu tribes with whom Lawrence dealt during World War I is impressive. At times, he drops rather too many names, but since it's all in the interests of historical veracity, that's all right. His own experiences in Arabia, albeit intrusive, make for interesting reading. Lawrence himself emerges as an absolutely fascinating figure -- an aloof, mercurial and repressed masochist with a penchant for noble savages and beautiful young boys (preferably rolled into one). The fact that he felt a compulsive need to rewrite his own history (and not always to make himself seem better or more dignified) only serves to make him more interesting. Asher clearly feels so, too, and that's what makes this biography so good -- it's honest and incisive, but respectful. Lawrence himself would have approved, I think. ...more
An End to Suffering is an ambitious book -- a valiant attempt to introduce the reader to Buddhism, examine Buddhism's relevance in today's world and cAn End to Suffering is an ambitious book -- a valiant attempt to introduce the reader to Buddhism, examine Buddhism's relevance in today's world and compare it with Western philosophy, combined with a generous dose of travel writing (descriptions of places which were important in the Buddha's life and what has become of them), Indian history (comparisons between the Buddha and Gandhi) and personal memoirs. This probably sounds like an interesting combination, and it is, but as far as I'm concerned, Mishra doesn't entirely pull it off. While parts of the book are fascinating (I particularly enjoyed the memoir aspect and the insightful way in which Mishra draws a comparison between Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy, notably Nietzsche), others are not nearly as well developed (the introduction to Buddhism remains just that -- an introduction). The different genres don't always blend smoothly, either, which occasionally makes for awkward reading; more rigorous editing would have improved the book considerably. Still, it's one of the more interesting books I translated despite these shortcomings; those who like popular philosophy and well-informed travel writing with a personal touch will find much to enjoy in it. ...more
Anthony Bourdain's memoirs of his life as a New York chef are something of a legend among foodies, and it's easy to see why. A spectacular story fullAnthony Bourdain's memoirs of his life as a New York chef are something of a legend among foodies, and it's easy to see why. A spectacular story full of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, Kitchen Confidential has nothing to do with the likes of Delia Smith or Nigella Lawson; the best way to describe the book would be 'On the Road with food'. Bourdain may be vulgar and rather full of himself, but there's no doubt he's a gifted story-teller, and he's on to a good story here. The first half of the book, which charts his own rise from drug-addled rebel to celebrity chef, is a rollicking read -- you really want to find out how this irresponsible heroin-and-cocaine addict goes on to run a huge and apparently successful kitchen. Bourdain does an excellent job capturing his early life, the culinary industry in general and the many colourful people he has met in it, ranging from Italian cheap-fish enthusiasts and uber-macho South American line cooks to harsh but inspiring mentors, dodgy purveyors and, yes, the mafia. Sadly, the second half of the book isn't nearly as good. Once Bourdain has reached his present-day position, his until-then straightforward and gripping narrative turns into a weird jumble of disjointed chapters. He takes the reader through a random day in his life, explains things which should have been explained before, goes off on tangents which don't really go anywhere, and has tips for aspiring chefs which don't really need to be spelled out after the first half of the book. It's still entertaining stuff, but it doesn't go anywhere and really, really could have done with some thorough editing. Personally, I could have done without the second half, but I highly recommend the first half to those who like a good rough tale. ...more
It took me ages to finish this book, but boy, did it give me a wealth of ideas for my own book. A year-by-year account of the reigns of Tiberius, ClauIt took me ages to finish this book, but boy, did it give me a wealth of ideas for my own book. A year-by-year account of the reigns of Tiberius, Claudius and Nero (sadly, the part about Caligula got lost), this is Roman history at its near-best, presenting us with an unrivalled story of greed, envy, ambition, sycophancy, fear, blood thirst and outright madness, not to mention a fascinating insight into the mores and rituals of Rome's upper class and the strange laws that governed Roman society. While parts of the book are hard to get through (for a more accessible account of the same era, try Suetonius), even the slowest parts pack a great deal of fascinating information. I'm developing quite a taste for Roman history here... ...more