Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Empire by Niall Ferguson


After finishing Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, I was left with an urge to find out more about the British Empire.  As a Brit, it's one of those topics that has always made me uneasy; I almost feel ashamed whenever it's bought up in conversation, so it's not something I have ever made a point to study.  Niall Ferguson's Empire covers the whole history of the Empire, from its earliest foundations to its eventual demise.  Although the history is largely told in chronological order, the text is organised thematically, with chapters on pirates (the founding of the Empire), colonisers, missionaries, mandarins, bankers and finally bankrupts (the end of the Empire).  This organisation really appealed to me, so I was excited to delve into this book.

Unfortunately, I closed the final pages with mixed feelings.  To start with the positive - the writing in Empire is engaging, and Ferguson has a talent for spotting the little details that make history more human, such as accounts of what it was really like to arrive in a new country.  Ferguson makes good use of primary source material, quoting from journals, and this helped me get a feel of what the colonisers were like as people, rather than just appreciating the facts.  I certainly learned a lot from this book, and I would say that I now have a good overview of the Empire and the reasons why it first prospered, and then fell apart.

At the beginning of Empire, I had high hopes that it would be a balanced history.  In the introduction, Ferguson writes about how he grew up thinking the Empire was brilliant, as his family members had been involved in various capacities, but that he had eventually began to research and reassess his views.  This was a promising start.  Ferguson does include the darker episodes of the Empire, such as the response to the Indian mutiny, and the concentration camps during the Boer war, but he is very quick to make excuses.  When discussing the systematic murder of all natives in Tasmania, he argues that it wasn't that bad, as it was restricted to a small area, whereas the independent colonists in the USA would have done much worse!  

As the book wore on, these excuses started to grate on me, and it became clear that although Ferguson was willing to admit that the Empire wasn't perfect, he still felt that it was overall a good thing.  His final argument is that everything wrong can be excused because the British Empire beat Germany in WW2.  I can't even get my head around logic like that!    In the conclusion, he writes that there are still 'backward regions' and that the US should probably colonise them.  Had these views been apparent earlier in the book, I wouldn't have made it to the end.

Still, there can be enjoyment in reading a book you disagree with.  Undoubtedly I learned a lot of history, and mentally arguing with Ferguson made me examine my own feelings about the Empire. Empire is well written and engaging, but only one to try if you can overcome the views of the author.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2003
Edition Read: Penguin Celebrations, 2007.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

A Wintry Walk


This morning, we bundled up and took a walk through a forest/park near to us.  I've decided to take a leaf out of Jade's book and share some photos, as it was such a gorgeous, wintry morning.


Of course, Giles slept through most of the walk!





Someone was very happy when we got home :)

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Kindle Books I'm Excited to Read

As can sometimes happen in our house, I put my kindle down somewhere a few months ago and then couldn't find it anywhere.  I didn't really look very hard, as I've been in the mood for reading off my actual shelves lately, but I was still happy to come across it whilst de-cluttering this morning.  And I had forgotten how many great books I still have yet to read on there.  Here are some I am particularly excited for at the moment:

  

  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson - I've had this ever since it started getting lots of hype, and I know I'm going to adore it.  I love the premise of getting to relive parts of your life.  I also have Atkinson's Case Histories, so hopefully this one will trigger an Atkinson reading binge.
  • The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making by Catherynne M. Valente - I have seen lots of positive reviews of this one, and I'm excited to delve into the atmosphere of the novel.
  • Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland - Part travelogue and part history/development of fairytales? Yes please!

  

  • Under the Skin by Michel Faber - I love Faber, and if I can't justify buying his new book yet, I can at least read from his back-list.  This is a creepy story of a female driver who likes to pick up male hitch-hikers with big muscles.
  • Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman - Historical fiction about black boys accused of raping a white girl in 1930s Alabama.  It was short-listed for the Orange prize too, which makes me more keen to read it.
  • Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody 1) - I'm generally not into mysteries, but this one is set in Egypt and features an ahead-of-her-time main character.

  

  • Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin - I like non-fiction like this, that blends travel with literature, history and politics.  I'm planning on reading this once I get to Orwell's Burmese Days.
  • Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal - I've done quite a bit of reading into African history and the creation of different empires, and Stanley is fascinating, but for all the wrong reasons.  This is the man who helped King Leopold plunder the Congo and commit horrific deeds there.  I'm interested in reading more about his motivations and frankly, how he lived with himself.
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami - I heard about this one when it was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier in the year.  It's about a relationship between a 30 year old woman and one of her high school teachers, and something about it really appeals to me. 
It goes without saying that there are of course more unread books than this on my kindle - I am a hoarder in all mediums, but these are the ones that really strike my fancy at the moment.  If you've read any of them, I'd love to know your opinions.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

I picked up The Lieutenant because I thoroughly enjoyed Grenville's The Secret River, also about the colonisation of Australia.  Whereas The Secret River focused on a family deported after the father is convicted of theft, The Lieutenant takes as its subject Daniel Rooke, an outsider with a fascination for numbers and the stars.  He travels to New South Wales as a naval astronomer charged with charting a comet through the Southern Hemisphere.  On arrival, Daniel becomes fascinated by the language of the Aborigines and this leads to an unexpected friendship with a girl named Tagaran.  But he can not escape the fact that he is a representative of the British, and that he is compelled to follow orders or face trial.  The closer he becomes to Tagaran, the more the starts to view the Aborigines as equals, and the more he is conflicted by their treatment.  Eventually, Daniel will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

The Lieutenant was a quick read that dealt with some interesting issues.  Although I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as The Secret River, I appreciated Grenville's writing and how she approached big topics with a light touch.  The awakening of Daniel's conscience is gradual, and Grenville avoids any preaching.  The complexity of the Aboriginal characters establishes them as equals from the moment they are introduced, and Daniel, with his social awkwardness, is the only British character able to take them at face value.  He hasn't got the social skills to absorb stereotypes or prejudices, and his academic fascination with their language soon leads to a respect for the people.  Daniel is able to appreciate that their language and lifestyle is as complex as the British one, and therefore can not morally treat them as savages.  Sometimes it does take someone who is an outsider, who doesn't fit in, to see what should have been staring everybody in the face.

Although I liked the way Grenville wrote the Aboriginal characters, I would have liked to have seen more of them.  Their society was left largely as a mystery, and I would have liked it if Daniel had been able to interact with Tagaran more before being forced to make a big decision at the end of the novel.  I understand that Daniel is based on a real British astronomer, William Dawes, but I still think Grenville could have done more to really show that the British were disturbing a whole society.

On paper, The Lieutenant ticks all of the boxes of what I love reading about, but the reading experience somehow fell a little flat.  Daniel wasn't as compelling as the Thornhill family were in The Secret River, and I never felt any dramatic tension, as it was always clear what Daniel was going to end up doing.  Overall, I would recommend it, but you should start with The Secret River first.

Source: Personal copy
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Sam Sunday #61: A Tiring Week


All of my best blogging intentions have gone out of the window recently, as I've had the most exhausting week.  On Monday, I spent the morning in work for some training, and when I got home with Giles I noticed that he had a really bad cough.  He had been suffering with a cold the previous week, but this seemed to be worse than just the sniffles.  By Wednesday, he was wheezing and refusing feeds, so we took him to the out of hours GP, who examined him and told us to take him straight to A&E, where he was diagnosed with bronchiolitis.

Bronchiolitis is a viral infection in which the bronchioles in the lungs swell, become full of mucus and can be very painful.  As it's a virus, there is no treatment for it.  It's something that lots of babies develop and it usually only causes mild symptoms.  However, Giles has got a particularly bad case of it, meaning he needed nebulizer treatment to clear his lungs, as he was having to work hard to breathe.  We had to return to the hospital for more treatment on Thursday, and he was almost admitted.  Thankfully he is doing a bit better now - he still sounds like a chain smoker when he breathes, but he is drinking his milk again and I'm not checking his breathing every five seconds.

As you can imagine, everything else has gone out of the window this week.  I'm getting about two hours sleep a night, and spending the rest of the night rocking Giles, as it's so hard for him to get comfortable enough to sleep.  Being a parent is a worrying business at the best of times, but it's worse when your child is ill.  Hopefully he has turned a corner now and will make steady progress this week.  The doctor expects it will take several weeks to clear completely, but we should be out of the worst of it soon.  His first tooth is also pushing through, which only adds to his overall discomfort levels!

One thing we have managed to do is decorate the Christmas tree.  Every year we buy a new bauble, and this year we purchased a personalised Christmas tree decoration for Giles' first Christmas.  I love the tree being up and the lights twinkling away.

How was your week?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Library Trip #1



I have been very good recently at not acquiring any books at all and just reading from my shelves, but last week the siren song of the library was just too strong.  Giles went asleep in the pushchair on the way, so I had plenty of time to have a good browse and make my selections.  I've gone for four non-fiction and four fiction.  I can't promise that I will end up reading them all, as this stack is rather over-ambitious, but I had fun choosing them.



  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua - Memoir.  I remember the controversy around this parenting book when it came out, and now I have a little one of my own, I'm keen to read it.  Being a 'tiger mother' is all about pushing your children to their limits.  Hopefully this will be thought provoking.
  • There was a Country by Chinua Achebe - History.  I first read about the Biafran War, in which part of Nigeria tried to become independent, in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun.  This promises to be a personal history of the period by a writer I admire.  I can't wait to get to this one.
  • The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe - Science.  Wolfe is a biologist specialising in viruses than can cause pandemics, and this book is all about his work tracking and trying to defeat them.  




  • The Devil Came on Horseback by Brian Steidle - Memoir. Steidle was hired by the African Union to document the genocide in Darfur, and this book is about his experiences.  I'm sure this will be a powerful but difficult read.
  • The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris - Fantasy.  I know next to nothing about Norse mythology, so this retelling by a respected writer seems like a good place to start.
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan - I've read two books by Tan and have had a somewhat mixed experience with her.  I like the sound of the plot of this one, about the daughter of an American forced to become a courtesan.  We shall see.


  • River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay - Fantasy.  I haven't got much idea of the plot of this one, I've just seen it featured on a few lists of more diverse fantasy.
  • Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie - A book I've been meaning to read for the longest time.  Set in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Nagasaki bombings, it promises to be an epic read.

Have you read any of these books?  I'd love to hear your opinions if you have, to help me prioritise which ones to get to first.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah

Chinese Cinderella is a memoir of growing up as an unwanted child.  After her mother died giving birth to her, Adeline is regarded as bad luck and a nuisance to her new stepmother.  Although she shows great academic promise and would do anything for love and acceptance, Adeline is ignored at best or treated with cruelty at worst.  Her coming of age story is told alongside the history of the Chinese civil war and the emergence of the Communists as the ruling party of China.

I had no idea that this memoir was aimed at children until I started reading it, so I had to adjust my expectations accordingly.  I really enjoyed the tone of the memoir, how Adeline's experiences are relayed without sentimentality, as this gives the book more power.  Had I picked this up as a child, I would have loved it and would have inspired me to learn as much as possible about China.  As I am an adult and I've already studied Chinese history a bit, I found some of the explanations of what was going on around Adeline too simple.

The real power of the book is in Adeline's grit.  At one point, she writes about how she read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, and resolved to be as strong as Sara.  And she is.  Although we see Adeline being damaged by a total lack of affection and abandonment, she manages to overcome her experiences.  There's no fairy godmother in this Cinderella story, instead we get Adeline working hard and finally earning her right to travel abroad to study.  This message, of inner strength and persistence is a great one for all of us, regardless of our age.

This book is definitely one I will be recommending to the children I teach, and to Giles when he is old enough.  It's a good example of a well written memoir aimed at children.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1999
Score: 3.5 out of 5