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To make it even more of a challenge, I’m writing it in English even though the book is in Portuguese. As far as I know there are no editions in other languages, so any translations in this post are my humble ones.
Back in January I joined Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge with the intent of reading one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. I’ve already covered Cape Verde and this one ticks the box of São Tomé and Príncipe. A country unknown to most people, today it had the honor of featuring in BBC’s “Forgotten Countries in the World”. They describe ST&P as “a slice of the Caribbean just off the African coast”, adding that “the two sleepy islands that make up Africa’s smallest nation are the antithesis of all things African”. Intriguing!
O País de Akendengué (Akendengué’s Country) by Conceição Lima is a short book, with a little over 100 pages, one poem per page, sometimes only 2 lines-long. It was a quick read and an enjoyable one. I like this kind of short, crisp poetry, almost haiku-style, where there’s even more emphasis on creating immediate and powerful images.
The book’s preface by Helder Macedo, Lima’s Professor at King’s College in London, was incredibly important because it offered a context to the poems and the way they work together. Macedo writes a short history of ST&P and then puts it within a wider pan-African perspective, pointing out how those two viewpoints are a part of the poems, from references to a ST&P popular saying (Laughing we tell of our sorrows), to homages to African heroes and myths:
If I understand it correctly, the title indicates an universally-shared African perspective and, in this way, defines an attitude opposite to that of a colonialist culture (…) Conceição Lima’s country is an island. But in the end, all continents are islands, or parts of islands, the world is made of island.
The Akendengué in the title refers to Peirre-Claver Akendengué, a famous musician, philosopher and poet from Gabon. Akendengué is generally considered a pan-African voice and it’s this universal “Africanness” that Lima wants to honor in her poetry.
The idea of a “universally-shared African perspective” of the world is especially clear in Lima’s poems when she makes references to historical figures such as Kwame Nkrumah (first president of Ghana and an influential 20th-century advocate of Pan-Africanism), Amílcar Cabral or Patrice Lumumba.
I enjoyed O País de Akendengué, but I suspect it had a lot to do with what I learned about São Tomé and Príncipe’s in particular and African history in general. To understand Lima’s references I spent some happy hours on Wikipedia, jumping from article to article.
I think my favorite poem is this one, with only two lines:
State of Siege
From the top of his tower the guardian aligns the world.
The strength of his wall isolates his fear.
Book read for the Africa Reading Challenge
A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering – a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.
Microhistories are probably my favorite sub-genre of non-fiction (after biographies), and of all the ones I’ve read so far, none was as epic and all-encompassing as The Emperor of All Maladies. I’m now convinced the history of cancer reflects (and sometimes even leads) global movements. I’m still in awe of the task that Dr. Mukherjee set out to accomplish and of the amazing result.
This book’s philosophy is that the history of cancer is not only a story of scientific activity, but also of the doctors, researchers and lobbyists that fought it, and, most especially, that of the patients:
Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship – qualities often ascribed to great physicians – are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.
Together with the stories of individuals struggling with cancer, Dr. Mukherjee tackles an impressive number of topics, from cell theory to the cultural movements of millions of people, from scientific achievements to political will, and he’s able to summarize this in close to 600 pages (or 21 audio hours) of clear and compelling story-telling.
Even the parts I found less interesting – genetics, methodology of medical trials – were still surprisingly accessible, and the most interesting ones like the fight with Big Tobacco, the story of palliative care and the rise of patient’s right, were downright gripping.
About 90% of The Emperor of All Maladies focuses of the USA, but on the other hand, most of the book is set in the 20th century, a time when the US led cancer research. Still, I missed a bit of a geographical range. which is my only little quibble with an otherwise fantastic book.
At the beginning of the book we’re told the story of Atossa, a Persion Queen born in 550 BC, who was the first registered case of breast cancer. At the end of the book Dr. Mukherjee imagines Atossa being diagnosed and receiving treatment over the centuries: in the Middle Ages her problem would become a blackbile unbalance (or trapped melancholia), to be cure with goat dung or holy water; the radical mastectomy favored in the 19th century would probably have cost her not only her breasts, but also muscles, lymph nodes and bones in her chest cavity; the 20st century’s passion for aggressive drugs, radiation and chemotherapy might have almost killed her without any results; and 90s/2000s’ doctors would be able to identify the mutation in her genes and better adjust her treatment to her cancer type.
This imaginary birds-eye view of Atossa’s life was my favorite scene because it illustrates perfectly the way Dr. Mukherjee associated cancer’s history to our history as humans.
Today, Atossa would live decades longer than she would have in the past, but, if instead of breast cancer she’d had metastatic pancreatic cancer, her prognosis wouldn’t change more than a few months over the last 2,500 years.
I appreciated the book’s balanced tone that avoided the cheerful optimist about developments and cures that always sound too cheerful, too optimistic, when compared to reality. We still have a long way to go. There’s hope, there’s life extension, but still no universal cure.
A little aside to say that as A Reader I loved all the literary metaphors and references used throughout the book: Alice in Wonderland, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Anna Karenina (“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.“), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, etc. I was also strangely excited by getting his reference to HeLa cells, which I got to know through the wonderful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
About the narration: Stephen Hoye was the only narrator in the Audies History category that was nominated for two books: this one and In the Garden of Beasts. This distinction is well justified. The Emperor is full of technical explanations and complicated drug names that are accessible in part because of Hoye.
There’s a cadence to his reading that’s very particular to him. I usually get a bit annoyed by this in other narrators, but surprisingly not with Hoye. I also appreciated how you could really notice the emotion in his voice during the last “pages” of the book, when he’s describing the brave, fearless but ultimately vain struggle of a cancer patient.
Other thoughts: Avid Reader’s Musings, The Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Book Addiction, My Books. My Life., let’s eat grandpa, Life… with books, Devourer of Books, Bibliophile by the Sea, Scuffed slippers and wormy books, Maple Gazed Kiwi (yours?)
For the Africa Reading Challenge I’ve decided to read one book from each of the five Portuguese-speaking African countries. The Last Will is the Cape Verde choice. I’ve read it in the original but I’m happy to report that there is an easily-found English translation, as well as a great movie adaptation.
Scribacchina from Paroles/Words was also planning to read it for a while, so we’ve decided to have a little chat about it, which I’ve included below. I’m always surprised at how much more you take out of a book by discussing it with other book lovers.
In the island of São Vicente, Senhor Napumoceno Silva Araújo led the life of a respectable self-made business man. He was famous for owning the island’s first car, but also for being a man of habits and routine. There was nothing extraordinary about his life, or so everyone though until the opening of his last will and testament…
Alex: Did you think there was an “African feeling” to the book? It somehow reminded me more strongly of South American story-telling. I often thought of the Brazilian Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the way one describes Salvador da Bahia and the other the fictional village of Macondo. There’s no magic realism in The Last Will, but a the sort of other-worldly feeling about life in São Vicente, that had the same effect. It also reminded me why I love books set in islands, there is something about the feeling of isolation that’s perfect for growing eccentric characters and habits
I found the funeral (sorry to say it) delightful to read and couldn’t help but smile at all the loops the heir had to jump to be able to fulfill Napomunceno’s last wish to be buried to the sound of Beethoven’s Funeral March. Any favorite moment?
Scribacchina: It is interesting that you cite Marquez, because from the start I kept comparingThe Last Will to his Chronicle of a Death Foretold, if just for the structure: the death (or the last will) of a man is the excuse to tell different histories about several people in a close society. But I feel the parallelism (if there is one) ends there. To me, it did feel more like another African novel I read, Mia Couto’s A River Called Time, which was my first experience with African magical realism — and while there is no magical realism in The Last Will, the society feels very much alike. But I do see what you mean, and I do agree that in a way all of them talk about closely-knit societies and how they influence the type of characters that live in them.
At the same time, I feel The Last Will is much more focused on identity than society. Little by little we are told how Napumoceno’s saw himself. How he tried to be more European than he was — the Beethoven March is part of that effort, I think. But because the book is so much focused on real and perceived identity, I was completely baffled by the last chapter, which basically contradicts everything that we have been told previously: we are told that no one knew about his affair, but then Carlos says that everyone knew Maria da Graça was Napumoceno’s daughter; we are told that he was one of the most influential men in town, but then it looks like everyone still considered him the small-village poor he was when he was young… How did you react to the ending? Did it come out of the blue, or do you think it was expectable?
One of the things that made me LOL was Napumocenos’ reaction to green: basically, he’s so passionate about the Sporting football club that when he sees his cleaning lady dressed in the team’s green, he takes her on as his lover. (Of course that is not exactly what happens. It is a rape, but nobody seems to perceive it that way. What do you make of that?)
City of Mindelo, São Vicente Island – credits
Alex: I was reading the green parts to my boyfriend who’s a hard-core Benfica fan First about the ending, I wasn’t surprised because I assumed that over time the “affair” slowly came to light, it’s just that Carlos expected the money to go only to him. We’re told even her husband knew, and Napumoceno’s regular rent must have become suspicious. About the way the village saw him, I spend long months of my childhood and early teens in a small village in Serra da Estrela and I recognize those “mood swings” as typical of a close community. It’s very hard to forget that a stranger is a stranger, especially if the person is envied.
Interesting that you saw identity over society, because I did the other way around. I think the humor and witty language is used expose the public and private morality of village life. I wouldn’t be surprised it some stabs were private Cape Verdean-jokes, that we just don’t get.
I’ve read in another site an interesting quote that might shed some light into why the novel reminded us of South America, Europe and Africa:
Discovered in 1462 and settled before Columbus’ arrival in America, the arid Cape Verde archipelago is arguably home to the oldest, most thoroughly Creolized culture in the world. Indeed, the Portuguese used the islands as an advertisement for their missao civilizadora or assimilationist colonialism. (…) Cape Verdeans, scattered around the Atlantic Rim by geography and economics for centuries, intuitively understood the idea of “transnational identity” long before it became a buzzword in cultural studies journals.
It must be a very interesting society and I look forward to visiting it at some point (maybe in my honey-moon). (Did you know there’s going to be an Observatory of the Portuguese Language there?) I felt Almeida captured that peculiarity of the country well and subtly.
What do you think about Napumoceno the man as a metaphor for Cape Verde: isolated, with an apparently controlled and repetitive life, but full of secrets and adventures. He’s a serious business-man, with a good dose of the comical about him (he became rich by selling umbrellas in a country where it doesn’t rain!). He’s the poor foreigner, who cannot be part of the exclusive club, no matter how rich and philanthropist he becomes (Cape Verde vs. Portugal after independence?).
Scribacchina: I love your interpretation of Napumoceno as a metaphor for the country, it fits perfectly! At the same time, I know too little about Cape Verde to judge (I had to go and check out history and geography on the Internet), but I think that parallel to that metaphor there may be another, less subtle one: Napumoceno as a symbol (or even as a satire) of part of the local society, struggling to identify themselves less and less as African and more as Westernized. Or am I just mis-constructing Cape Verdean identity here? I would love to know how the locals reacted to the novel — I’m sure there are inside jokes as you mentioned, but also because they have the first-hand knowledge of the place that we lack.
Moving back from society (thanks for the links!) to plot, what do you think about Adélia, the lifelong love/lover that no one seems to know about? I wonder if it was some kind of wishful thinking on Napumoceno’s part, a fantasy that he created to redeem his bleak life and give it some color?
The late and very missed Cape Verdian singer Cesária Évora, singing one of her most famous songs, a love-song to São Nicolau Island, where Senhor Napumoceno was born (she makes an appearance in the movie).
Alex: That is also a great point! And I guess it can be applied to every country that was under some sort of restriction and then became infatuated by the wonders of the west and all its status symbols (Napumoceno’s car, the office gadgets). Regarding Adélia, I’m still convinced she’s the toothless old woman. We only see her described by Napumoceno and who’s to say he didn’t embellished her here and there? If the old woman is really Adélia, I can’t but to admire her pride and stubbornness.
Regarding the whole individual vs. societal focus we discussed above, I was thinking: there is a strong sense of place, but surprisingly little about history or politics in the book (unless we count our guessed metaphors). In the end, it’s really a story about a man trying not to be the poor child who arrive in São Vicente penniless. He wanted to exit this social limbo, so he divided his live between the boring bachelor business man that everyone esteemed (but maybe didn’t really respect?), and the man to whom the color green was so irresistible that he basically raped his cleaning lady when she wore a green skirt.
I really liked Germano Almeida’s style of writing: the ironic and witty way he gradually built this extraordinary character and I’m looking forward to reading more by him.
Scribacchina: You really think that woman is Adélia?! She doesn’t fit Napumoceno’s description at all, nor the character I had imagined! I’d rather set for the interpretation that Adélia was some kind of fantasy. But then again, nothing in the will completely mirrored his life, so…
In the end, I think I was less impressed by this book than you were, but the best thing about it (apart from the witticism you mentioned) is that it can be read on so many level. It is just the story of a man who tries to overcome his poor origins. It isjust the story of a man who basically missed each and every chance at happiness he had. And at the same time it is the social satire, and the reflection on identity, and probably many more things that we don’t see yet.
Look at me, expertly avoiding the dreaded post about The Marriage Plot (“I shall conquer this, I shall!”) and jumping ahead to the lovely The Peach Keeper. It’s probably my least favorite of Addison Allen’s novels, but it’s still kinda great. She’s that kind of author: a Deliverer. You want a bit of Southern comfort? You got it.
If you’ve read any of her books, you’ll recognize some of the elements: a couple of families in a Southern village, a strong sense of place and “roots”, a mysterious past, magic realism elements that are never enough to classify her books as fantasy, strangers who walk into town and heroines who are at odds with their lives.
The setting this time is Walls of Water, North Carolina. Although both descending from rich families, Willa Jackson and Paxton Osgood are now on difference wavelengths of society’s spectrum. Willa’s family lost their money and she now owns a hiking shop, while Paxton, still part of the élite, is the President of the local Women’s Group and the coordinator of their most ambitious project to date: restoring the mansion where both hers and Willa’s grandmothers used to live and where a mysterious event changed their lives forever.
Once again Addison Allen writes satisfying romances for both her heroines, but more than in any of her earlier books, this is a story about female friendship.
Paxton was particularly interesting because she had everything to be another Hilly Holbrook (The Help), or Lemon Breeland (The Heart of Dixie), or any other stuck-up rich Southern woman, but she breaks the stereotype and turns into an incredibly realistic character. With money and the pedigree comes an obligation to family and community, and while Paxton’s twin brother escaped by leaving Walls of Water, Paxton is trapped in her golden cage, her own dreams and aspirations becoming secondary. It’s a very fresh take on the Southern Belle.
Although food is less central in The Peach Keeper than in the other Addison Allen books, it’s still present (it’s Southern lit after all!), most noticeably though a funny cameo appearance of Claire Waverly from Garden Spells.
I’m now officially in count-down mode to her next novel – I hope she feels well enough soon to continue delighting us!
Read for the Southern Literature Challenge 2012.
Other thoughts: Tiny Library, An Armchair by the Sea, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Estante de Livros (PT), Literature and a Lens, The Written Word, The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, Coffee and a Book Chick, Angieville, Boston Book Bums, St. Krishna’s Books, Alison’s Book Marks, Books Distilled, Always with a Book, Good Books & Good Wine, Literate Housewife, Book Addiction, Fizzy Thoughts, Page After Page, write meg!, Jenn’s Bookshelves, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Confessions of a Book Hoarder, Amy’s Book Obsession, Reflections of a Bookaholic, Book Maven’s Blog, Beth’s Book-Nook, A Few More Pages, Crazy for Books, Redlady’s Reading Room, Chachic’s Book Nook, Beyond Books (yours?)
According to my 2011 end-year statistics, 40% of the books I’ve read are audiobooks, but I only remember reviewing them as such twice. This happens because I haven’t figured out the best way to do it. Saying things like “She has good diction” or “Hearing his sharp intakes of breath really distracted me from the story” sounds too personal, like commenting on a person’s hairstyle. Would love some advice from experienced audiobook reviewers. Is there a “Reviewing Audiobooks for Dummies” post somewhere?
Yesterday I discovered an event that looks perfect to get me out of the closet as a huge audiobook fan: The Armchair Audies. It’s organized by Jennifer (The Literate Housewife) and Bob (The Guilded Earlobe) and invites bloggers to celebrate the Audies, the audiobook industry’s Awards. The nomination list is daunting, comprising 28 categories, each with 5 nominates, so Jennifer and Bob suggest that participants chose one or more categories and just listen to all the books in it.
The winners will be announced in June and Armchair Audies participants should be able to publish their closing post (maybe with some predictions?) shortly before. Jennifer is reviewing Literary Fiction and Bob will ambitiously tackle three categories: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal.
I’ll go for History. Although all the books in this category sound interesting, and some were already under my radar, the topics seems a bit limited: two about WW2 events, three on American History (or from an American perspective) and two of these about the 19th century. Only one written by a woman and only that one narrated by one. Four written by American writers, but even Mukherjee, although Indian, lives and works in NY. As a reader I’d prefer more variety.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Tantor Media)
Read by Stephen Hoye
Already had it in the TBL, so I’m happy it’s nominated. It’s a history of cancer, from the first documented cases thousands of years ago to the 20th century attempts at better understand it and finding a cure. Heard great things about it.x
1812: The Navy’s War
by George C. Daughan (Audible, Inc.)
Read by Marc Vietor
It’s about the American Navy but it’ll still be a nice compliment to my recently Navy interest, brought about by the Aubrey/Maturin series. The blurb says it “is the first complete account in more than a century of how the U.S. Navy rescued the fledgling nation and secured America’s future.“
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt (Tantor Media)
Read by Wanda McCaddon
This is the one I’m more curious about, but Audible doesn’t let me buy it because of my Belgian credit card! Hopefully, the copy-right issue is solved before June. Arendt (a Jew who fled Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power), reported on Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker. While covering the technical aspects of the trial, she also explored the nature of justice, the behavior of the Jewish leadership during the Nazi Regime, and, most controversially, the nature of Evil itself.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson (Random House Audio)
Read by Stephen Hoye
Really liked The Devil in the White City, so this one was already on the wish-list. It’s the story of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his attempts to report to the outside world the rising horrors happening there.
1861: The Civil War Awakening
by Adam Goodheart (Audible, Inc./ Brilliance Audio)
Read by Jonathan Davis
Most books about the Civil War are about the fighting years, so this account of the years that led up to it should be interesting.
This is what comfort Southern-lit is all about: eccentric characters, sense of community, and food. It’s no wonder that half-way through this book I finally ordered the Screen Doors and Sweet Tea cookbook, which had been on my wish-list for ages. Unfortunately, it didn’t include the cinnamon buns of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. I swear I could smell them…
CeeCee is twelve and has always lived in Ohio with her absent father and mentally-ill mother. CeeCee has leaned to cope alone with her mother’s extreme mood-swings and delusions (it’s 1967, but she believes it’s still 1951, when she was crowned the Vidalia Onion Queen of Georgia). When tragedy strikes, CeeCee is taken in by her mother’s Aunt, who whisks her off to Savannah, Georgia.
This is the promise of a new life: the care of Aunt Tootie, the comfort food of black housekeeper Oletta and the incredible stories of an array of unusual neighbors. But most of all, it’s the attention and love of them all that make CeeCee feel safe for the first time in her young life.
Not a lot happens, but the story manages to often be hilarious or touching. It follows in the tradition of The Secret Life of Bees, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Help, so although it’s set in 60s in the American South, and there are some hints of social unrest, the story doesn’t tackle head-on any of the ugliness of that period.
Instead, the story centers on female friendships (always a popular topic in Southern lit) and CeeCee’s coming of age through the support of her new community. Since the focus is on piecing together this girl’s confidence, and because CeeCee has reasons to be naïve about racism, the smoothing over of the not-so-nice issues doesn’t feel like a cop-out.
The only part of the story that didn’t feel just at it should be was Savannah’s role. The sense of place is there, but not as strongly as I’d wish – it’s such a wonderful city that it deserves to be a character in its own right. I don’t say this very often, but I wish there were more descriptions in Saving CeeCee Hioneycutt (disclaimer: I read Southern-lit mostly to get back a bit of the memories of my time living below the Maxon-Dixie line).
Still, it’s a very sweet book, the end ties up nicely and there’s a satisfying “Southern” feel to it.
(Springtime in Savannah, Georgia – photo credit)
Read for the Southern Literature Challenge 2012.
Other thoughts: She is too fond of books, Books and Movies, Redlady’s Reading Room, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Devourer of Books, S. Krishna’s Books, SmallWorld Reads, Books in the City, write meg!, Word Bird, Rundpinne, Beth Fish Reads, The Literate Mother, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell, Steph Su Reads, Literate Housewife, Reading on a Rainy Day, Book Line and Sinker, Geeky Bloggers Book Blog, Life in the Thumb, Stacy’s Books, Reviews by Lola, Chocolate & Croissants, Prairie Horizons, Maggie Reads, Just Books, Novels Now, Purple Sage and Scorpions (yours?)
Happy experiences lay ahead, fellow audacious readers! Yesterday Kinna announced the kick-off of the much-anticipated Africa Reading Challenge.
The simple rule is that all participants must read at least five books. My plan is to focus on Portuguese-speaking countries, and since there’s five of them, I’ll read a book from each. I’ve read loads of Brazilian authors, but Lusophone Africa is still a shameless desert in my literary landscape.
I’ve compiled a draft list to share with you, but I’m aware it’ll all depend very much on the books’ availability. Kinna already warned participants that classic African literature in particular can be hard to find. Let me know if you have any other recommendations.
Here’s the plan – all links go to sites in English:
- Lueji (O Nascimento de um Império) by Pepetela
- Quantas Madrugadas tem a Noite or Os da Minha Rua by Ondjaki
- Flores e espinhos by Óscar Ribas
- João Vêncio: os seus amores by José Luandino Vieira
- As Mulheres do Meu Pai (My Father’s Wives) by José Eduardo Agualusa
- O Testamento do Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo (The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo) by Germano Almeida
- A Casa dos Mastros: Contos Caboverdianos by Orlanda Amarílis
- Chiquinho by Baltasar Lopes
- Vidas Vividas by Ivone Ramos
- As Orações de Mansat by Abdulai Silá (play inspired by Macbeth)
- Mistida by Abdulai Silá
- Corte Geral by Carlos Lopes
- Tiara by Filomena Embaló
- Os Olhos da Cobra Verde by Lília Momplé (short-stories)
- Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land) or O último vôo do flamingo by Mia Couto
- Nos motamos o cao tinhoso (We Killed Mangy-Dog and Other Mozambican Stories) by Bernardo Honwana
- Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia by Paulina Chiziane
São Tomé and Príncipe
- Versos by Caetano da Costa Alegre (poetry)
This is the first day of Advent with Austen, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility.
Hope to see you later today for AwA Twitter Movie Night’s viewing of Pride and Prejudice (2005).
This is the third time I’ve read Persuasion, the first two were very close together, about 10 years ago. Just as I suspected even back then, this time around it became official: Persuasion has overthrown Pride and Prejudice as my favorite Austen novel.
New things caught my attention this time around. I realized for instance, how innovative Persuasion must have been at the time, with its focus on a woman’s intimate point of view. Her earlier novels use an objective narrator, but Persuasion goes further and we get an “interior” perspective of Anne’s thoughts. At times I think it even comes close to stream of consciousness.
She now felt a great inclination to go to the outer door; she wanted to see if it rained. Why was she to suspect herself of another motive? Captain Wentworth must be out of sight. She left her seat, she would go, one half of her should not be always so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was. She would see if it rained.
Notice the subtle self-awareness and even mockery. It must have been a writing style completely new at the time and we can only wonder where Austen would do if she lived longer. Charlotte Brontë does something very similar with Jane Eyre, but that’s 27 years later! JE was also considered radical because it put a plain woman in the lead, but Anne is not far from it, with her “lost bloom”. Claire Tomalin in Jane Austen: a Life said something very interesting about this:
[Persuasion is Austen’s] present to herself, to Miss Sharp, to Cassandra, to Martha Lloyd.., to all women who had lost their chance in life and would never enjoy a second spring.
On a different note, Austen is not the revolutionary type and is far from wanting to challenge the social status quo (Mrs Clay, shame on you for wanting to step out of place!). Yet, Captain Wentworth is an ode to the self-made men if there ever was one. How heroic, how strong and dignified he is, compared to the Elliot family and their pedigree.
On yet another note, this time around I couldn’t help comparing Anne Elliot with Fanny Price. Their families undervalue them, both have strong moral compasses and a discreet presence. Fanny would probably be the only other Austen heroine who could support Persuasion’s plot. I think Elizabeth, Emma, Elinor and Marianne wouldn’t be persuaded and Catherine wouldn’t wait eight years. What do you think?
I’ve often seen Anne and Fanny compared, so it was interesting to try to figure out what makes Anne loved and admired by some many, while Fanny is often the least popular of Austen’s heroines.
First, as a friend of mine said, Anna has “eaten her own dust”. She’s suffered a big disappointment of her own making and that makes her less naïve than Fanny. Age, of course, also helps, as well as the fact that Anne has a “place” in her family (even if undervalued), while Fanny is almost a non-person at Mansfield.
But what makes Anne so great are the moments when we see her sharp mind in action. She’s ironic and often we see her mentally roll her eyes at the silly people around her. In one scene she’s even positively scheming, when she expertly maneuvers herself to a chair close to Captain Wentworth at the concert in Bath. One of my favorite moments in the book is when she’s returning to Uppercross after Louisas’s fall:
Don’t talk of it, don’t talk of it,” he [Captain Wentworth} cried. “Oh God! That I had not given way to her at the fatal moment! Had I done as I ought! But so eager and so resolute! Dear, sweet Louisa!”
Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is proof of Anne Elliot’s subtle mental subversion. I love all the little indicators about Anne’s “level-headness”, intelligence and her own value of these traits. She is the perfect mix of passion and practicality. Fanny on the other hand, is more of an early version of the future Victorian feminine ideal: suffering in silence, docile, erased, stoic.
I tried to look for evidence whether or not Austen knew she was dying while writing Persuasion. She started it in 1715 and finished it in mid 1816, by which time she and her family probably knew she was seriously ill. She died late 1817, still revising the novel. Wikipedia says that “Austen wrote Persuasion in a hurry, during the onset of the illness from which she eventually died.”
If she did know she was sick and feared for her life, did that somehow influence Persuasion‘s plot and characters? It’s interesting to think about the book in this light. It’s a novel about second chances and the right to personal pursuit of happiness. On purpose or not, it is a lovely message to leave behind in a last novel. As Mrs. Croft said, “We none of us want to be in calm waters all our life.”
Other thoughts: Fyrefly’s Book Blog, The Blue Stocking Society, Dot Scribbles, The Literate Mother, Jayne’s Books, The Literary Stew, Open Mind, Insert Book., A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, Just Books, Rebecca Reads, All Consuming Books, Fashion Piranha, Presenting Lenore, Alita Reads, Worthwhile Books, LesleyW’s Book Nook, The Book Pirate, Fingers and Prose, Desperate Reader, You’ve GOTTA read this, Adventures in Reading, MariReads, Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Stella Matutina, Deliciously Clean Reads, Lost in Books, Reading Reflections, My Random Acts of Reading, Stacy’s Books, The Literary Omnivore, Books. Lists. Life., Tony’s Reading List, A Striped Armchair, Lit Endeavors, Aneca’s World, Bookworm Nation, Shelf Love
This book was particularly welcomed because so far I’ve focused on Ottoman Constantinople and know very little about what happened before, especially the Crusades that weakened the Byzantine Empire and opened the way to the 1453 Fall. So even if the plot of The Sheen… didn’t completely work for me, the historical setting alone was worth the 19 hours of audiobook.
The story opens in 1273, almost seventy years after the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantine Empire stands, but is still suffering the consequences of the loot. The Crusaders took almost all religious icons to Rome and depleted Constantinople is no longer a place of pilgrimage.
In trying to prevent another (and likely permanent) invasion, Emperor Michael Palaeologus is trying to unite the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Many old families, however, see this agreement as the beginning of the end for Byzantium, and vow to prevent it.
It’s this nest of intrigue and conspiracy that welcomes Anna Zarides. She traveled to Constantinople to clear the name of her twin brother Justinian, exiled to Jerusalem for murdering a prominent political figure. In order to move freely in the city and among its noble houses, Anna disguises herself as Anastasius, a eunuch who sells his services as a skilled physician.
The promise of a murder mystery never really delivers and the pace is surprisingly slow for a novel so filled with schemes and political manoeuvring. I got left with the feeling that Anne Perry tried to go all Byzantine (pun intended) with the story, making it too complex, devious and all-encompassing. What remained were way too many subplots, including the heritage of Anna’s romantic interest, the machinations of the two Papal ambassadors, the doubts of the Emperor, and the evil doings of Anna’s most powerful patron, the villain-you-love-to-hate Zoe Chrysaphes.
So while each chapter (and even sections within them) alternates between the different characters, the plot that started as a murder investigation suddenly zooms out and becomes focused on the fight for Constantinople’s soul. All this complimented by long descriptions of Anna’s medical cases. Couldn’t help thinking that Anne Perry could have made three or four more successful novels out of this one.
I did find myself thinking all too often “Wait, who are you and how do you related to the plot?” or “Enough with the ointments!”, but one of my main goals was to learn more about this period, and Anne Perry clearly did her homework. She was also very successful in recreating the feeling of nostalgia for a time of beauty and culture that was disappearing along with the Byzantine Empire.
It seems Anne Perry is famous for her Victorian novels, but I’d never heard of her before. Have you? Any recommendations?
Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone! This is the day to celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and I decided to do it by reading Patricia Fara’s wonderful Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment.
At the core of the Age of Enlightenment (18th century) is the belief that only through the power of reason could man advance knowledge. Its defenders promoted the use of intelligence and logic on a wider scale and generally challenged any religious or political established beliefs.
This had a huge impact on science: alchemy and astrology were discredited and experimentation (empiricism), intellectual interchange and scientific rigor became the new norm. It was also an Age that embrassed the legend of the hero-scientist, who single-handed propelled science one step forward (e.g. Newton, Descartes, Liebniz). In her introduction to Pandora’s Breeches, Patricia Fara starts by busting this myth, both male and female:
Instead of focusing exclusively on great minds and great ideas, historians are now more interested in examining how science has entered everyday life. (…) In romanticized versions of the past, science progresses in uneven leaps as solitary geniuses make momentous discoveries in their disinterested search for truth. (…) When historians focus on famous individuals, they leave out many vital people who made science central to everyday life.
In seeing the history of science in this perspective, Fara defends that although women may have been excluded from the traditional historical record, it doesn’t mean they were excluded from scientific activity during that period. In this group of unsung people, Fara also includes the technicians and administrators who made the work of the “super-heros of the modern age” or “scholarly gladiators” possible from behind the curtain. If scientific development is seen as a communal effort, then women’s role becomes much more evident, both in the past and in the present. Fara’s book is her contribution to the rewriting of scientific history to include these forgotten contributors.
The nine women that Fara uses as examples are an extraordinary bunch. Not only for their fascinating lives, but they’re so different that together they destroy all conventional images of the woman scientist. Some of Fara’s women could be considered proto-feminists, but others defended that women should remain in the domestic realm; some made actual scientific discoveries, while others translated the works of their male relatives, wrote books that brought science to the masses or were patrons of scientists; some received awards and public recognition, others all but fell into oblivion; some were happily married mothers, others died single by choice; some where humble and masochistic, others vain and hot-headed.
Gender equality should not imply yet another series of female stereotypes, like the widely popular tom-boy-who-shuns-all-things-girly – what Jodie called “excepto-girls”. Instead, history (and all other narratives) should reflect the real variety of women out there:
In well-intentioned pastiches of the past, scientific women emerge as cardboard cutouts – the selfless helpmate, the source of inspiration, the dedicated assistant who sacrifices everything for the sake of her man and the cause of science. On the other hand, over-compensation – glorifying women as lone pioneers, as unrecognized geniuses – also has its drawbacks.
Although Pandora’s Breeches doesn’t ignore the injustice and discrimination these women faced, what really made me love this book was that it doesn’t pity them either. Fara sets out to unearth the untold stories of female participation in scientific developments but she makes sure we understand their true and real importance by placing them in context.
If only they had been man, one cans almost hear their biographers sigh, then their true brilliancy would have been recognized. Prominent examples include Aspasia of Miletus, Hypatia of Alexandria and Hildegard of Bingen. All exceptional women, without doubt, but it is misleading to celebrate them as suppressed scientists. Modern science bears little resemblance to intellectual pursuits of ancient Greece, fifth-century Egypt or Benedictine monasteries. Those women certainly deserve to be honored, but only within the framework of their contemporaries. There is no point in distorting women’s importance by exaggerating their activities.
Without Émilie du Châtelet (my favorite of the Pandora’s Breeches women*) books and translations, Newton’s theories wouldn’t have been so widely accepted. Caroline Herschel was the devoted assistant of her brother William, who discovered Uranus. Jane Marcet‘s Conversations on Chemistry inspired Michael Faraday’s pioneering career and he remembered her throughout his life as his first teacher. These are different contributions that shouldn’t forgotten, underestimated or seen as less important than other male achievements. They just happened not to be the subject of historians’ attention.
Fara’s final chapter on Mary Shelley and Frankenstein will be especially interesting to book-lovers. She points out the conflicts in Shelley’s own mind about the place of women in the world and more importantly, the role of science itself. Her doubts continue to resonate today, when we’re still debating about “Frankenfood” and the dangers of opening Science’s Pandora’s Box.
My only uneasiness about the book was the structure. In each chapter Fara pairs a woman with a famous man and then demonstrates how the first influenced the work of the second. If it was me (I hate this expression), I’d make an introduction underlining that indeed several male scientists were greatly impacted by the women in their lives, but then talk about these women by themselves.
Whether you’re interested in the history of science, the Enlightenment period, women’s studies or just curious about the lives of the men and women Fara use as examples, Pandora’s Breeches will have something to offer you. It aims high – “Rather than creating new female heroines, it has undermined conventional views of the past by attacking the very concept of heroism in science” – but I was both immediately attracted and sold to the idea.
She was Voltaire’s lover. Here’s what he wrote to a mutual friend when Émilie gave birth to her daughter:
“Mme du Châtelet informs you that this night, being at her desk working on Newton, she felt a little call. The little call was a daughter, who appeared in an instant. She was laid on a quarto book of geometry.”