Friday, 19 April 2013

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort

This is a fascinating book about a fascinating woman. I knew of Nancy Astor of course, she was the
first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, but I didn't know anything of her life beyond this. I had assumed that she had always been rich, but in fact her childhood had periods where her parents struggled for money. She was born into the Langhorne family of Virginia, who had been wealthy, but the Civil War wrecked their fortunes. Nancy's father, Chillie Langhorne, had to virtually start from scratch. He was eventually very successful, but there were some hard times along the way.

There were also times of struggle in Nancy's adult life. There was an early, unhappy marriage to a man who turned out to be a drinker. She also suffered from periods of ill health which no doctor seemed to be able to effectively diagnose or treat.

There were consolations however. In order to recover from the aftermath of her first marriage she came to England where she met and married Waldorf Astor. Waldorf's father gave them Cliveden as a wedding gift. These were good years;

For this was the Edwardian Age, and the surroundings in which Waldorf and Nancy lived contained the quintessence of that era: opulence; hedonism; sunlit summers; long days and nights of fashion and society. Peace reigned at home and in the Empire, trade was good and life inexpensive, as Britain, at the apex of her military and financial power, benignly ruled a quarter of the world. Underlying all was an almost palpable sense of satisfaction that the state of the country was, if not perfect, then as near to that as God could make it.

Waldorf became MP for Plymouth, but he was forced to give this up when his father (who had been raised to the peerage) died, and Waldorf inherited his title. Nancy put herself forward and was duly elected to the same Plymouth seat.

She was a very tough character, but some of the opposition she faced as the only woman MP in the House of Commons daunted even her. She was ignored, talked over, physically barred from reaching her place on the benches. The male MPs would loudly discuss subjects designed to embarrass her. She found it distressing, but soldiered on.

There is a lot more in this book than I can cover here. Nancy Astor was such a complex character and lived in such interesting times. I can thoroughly recommend this book.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Stardust by Neil Gaiman - Part 1

I'm taking part in the Stardust readalong hosted by Carl from Stainless Steel Droppings. Carl has posted
some questions about the first five chapters of the book.

1. We have spent a little time with Tristan and even less time with the star. What are your initial thoughts/impressions of our two protagonists?

Tristan seems to be a nice boy, a typical teenager. He's naive and he mistakes infatuation for real love, which is a common teenage error. He is ready for adventure and when the opportunity arises he jumps into it wholeheartedly. I like him. The star is harder to describe. She's frosty and bad tempered but we can hardly blame her for that, given that she's been knocked out of the sky and is now chained to a boy who only wants to impress another girl. She's feisty, and I like that.

2. There are some very interesting potential villains introduced in the first half of the book. Do any of them particularly stand out to you? If so, why or why not?

I like the portrayal of Ditchwater Sal. She's a little villain compared to the Lilim, or the Stormhold brothers, but she's so mean. There isn't really a good thing to say about her.

3. In Chapter Three, just after the section with the brothers in Stormhold, Neil Gaiman gives us a description of Faerie that includes "each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn't there......" What imaginary lands do you then hope are part of Faerie?

I don't so much hope for imaginary lands as I wish for a layer of magic in our own world. I love stories where the magical exists in the world as we know it, such as Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, or an alternate history such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

4. We do not get to spend a great deal of time in the market but while there we are given a number of interesting descriptions of the wares being bartered and sold. Which, if any, of them caught your eye, either as items you would like to possess or ones you would most like to avoid?

I think I'd like a coat of twilight.

5. If you have read much of Gaiman's work, particularly his short fiction, then you have come across some rather graphic and disturbing portrayals of sex. Gaiman offers up something very different in the way of a sex scene early on in Stardust. What are your feelings of the scene either in general or as a contrast to other Gaiman-penned scenes involving sex?

This is only the second Neil Gaiman book I have read so I can't really compare. When reading Stardust I was thinking it would be a good book to read to my 9 year old son - until I reached that scene. Then I thought it probably wasn't.

6. I suspect Neil Gaiman is influenced by a number of fairy and folk tales in Stardust. Are there any elements of the story that made a particular impression and/or reminded you of other fairy stories you have read or are familiar with?

Stormhold made me think of Gormenghast. It's so long since I read Gormenghast trilogy that I'm afraid I can't come up with any specific reasons why it made me think of it.

7. And finally, which of the many side characters introduced have caught your eye and why? Or what else about the story thus far is of interest to you?

The little hairy man who helps Tristan is my favourite. He seems to be an entirely good and kind character.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

This is a book which has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time. I read and enjoyed The Joy Luck Club many years ago, so I don't really know why it's taken me so long to get to this one.

Bibi Chen is a San Francisco socialite who dies in mysterious circumstances. Her spirit lingers on however, hovering around her friends, not only able to listen in on conversations but also sometimes to hear their innermost thoughts. This makes her a very useful, if judgmental, narrator.

Bibi had been going to act as a tour guide for a group of her friends on a trip to Burma. The friends decide to go anyway (not least because there is no insurance to cover cancelling the trip), with one of them saying, "May Bibi join us in spirit". Which of course she does.

Without Bibi's strict itinerary the trip begins to fall apart. The tourists' preconceived ideas hit up against the reality. They are not happy with their hotel;

The Glorious View Villa was, in fact, the best hotel in the whole of the Naxi Autonomous Region, but for a group used to staying at a chain no worse that the Four Seasons, "best" should have been thought of as a restricted comparative term, not a fixed standard of excellence.

The trip is one cultural misunderstanding after another, a situation not helped by inept tour guides. The political unrest in Burma simmers underneath events, but the tourists are largely unaware of it. It culminates in their being kidnapped by a group of ethnic Karen people who think they recognise one of the tourists as the 'Younger White Brother' come to rescue them from the persecution they suffer from the government.

I thought this was a really good story. It taught me more about Burma (this is the name Tan chooses to use, rather than Myanmar) which is a country I know very little about. It is a difficult book to classify, some of it is lighthearted and even comic, while other parts dealing with persecution and the political situation are quite dark. I like Bibi as a narrator - becoming exasperated at what her friends are doing, but being powerless to intervene.