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20604350I was a fan of Alan Cumming even before he become a household name with The Good Wife, but this memoir make me respect him even more a person and an artist.

If it was a physical book, it’d be a page turner, but I’m almost sure it’s even better in audio. He narrates this himself and just how good he was didn’t surprise me – I’d already listed him as a favorite narrator after listening to the Leviathan series.

Don’t expect Not My Father’s Son to be lighthearted. It does have its hilarious moments (his ode to Eurovision was perfection), but mostly it’s about growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive father. Half of the book is about his childhood and the other half about him dealing with his past as an adult. This last part of the story is divided between an episode portraying his father’s ability to still disrupt his family and the other follows Cumming’s cathartic participation in the Who Do You Think You Are show. I don’t usually watching it, but by chance caught his episode when it first aired on the BBC and clearly remember how emotional it was (see it here, have the Kleenexes handy).

Some scenes were really hard to hear and made me hug my son extra hard. They weren’t overly dramatized, but the child’s voice was clearly there, all frightened and confused. Not My Father’s Son was really a roller-coaster ride of emotions we take along with Cumming. It’s impossible not to share his joy, amazement, pain, hope. This not only testifies to his writing and narration skills, but also his willingness to be open and genuine.

If Not My Father’s Son was a piece of fiction it would probably end with redemption or vindication. But it’s real life and I must be satisfied with admiration for human courage and our capacity to overcome adversity and make it a strength.

***

Other thoughts: Books in the City, That’s What She Read, Boston Bibliophile, A Musing Reviews, Bookfolery, bookchickdiScuffed Slippers and wormy books (yours?)

Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).

I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?

Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.

Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.

Chroniques de  Jérusalem by Guy Delisle

All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.

The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner

I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?

The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett

I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.

The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian

Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.

Mayombe by Pepetela

For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.

She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.

Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808’s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.


June is Daphne du Maurier Season over at Historical Tapestry, and today I’m guest-posting there about possibly du Maurier’s least famous book, and the one that sold less copies: The Infernal Life of Branwell Brontë.

She was fascinated by the Brontës (there’s no escaping the similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca), in particular by Branwell, the golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of the tragic family. It’s a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills and she saw it as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.

Please drop by and share you thoughts!

(credits: Edmund de Waal)

I finished this book the same way I finished In Cold Blood: thinking I had never read another non-fiction quite like it. You can read it as a family saga or an insightful look at the European history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. It can also be seen as a personal journey into the world of family heritage and how that influences who you are.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke and decides to discover more about how they came down the Ephrussi family line. (He’s now writing a history of the color white – looking forward to it!)

The book is mainly divided into three sections that mark the different stages of the netsuke’s life: the first is set at fin de siècle Paris where a Japanism-obsessed Charles Ephrussi first buys them from an art dealer. The second takes us to early 20th-century Vienna, at the time of its annexation by Hitler, and finally to post-WW2 and bombed-out Tokyo, a place I knew almost nothing about.

I was afraid that amidst all the family history the netsuke would become irrelevant, but they’re cleverly woven into the story. They become a sort of vessel that embodies the zeitgeist of the different times. In Paris they’re a collectors item and objects of art, in Vienna they’re on display in an intimate recess of a golden house, where a Lady dressed to go to parties and meet lovers, but they also become toys to the children allowed to witness that ritual. In Tokyo they are once again in the world they were build for and become a symbol of family history and resilience. I wonder what the future will bring to these intriguing objects.

(favorite Paris anecdote: Monet’s asparagus)

I found de Wall a remarkable writer, one that’s able to bring an artist’s awareness to another format, paying careful attention to the language, its pace and its evocative potential. He often tackles abstract topics, but always in a very accessible way:

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous (a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t.

One of the great strengths of The Hare with the Amber Eyes is that it doesn’t ignore the excesses of the nouveaux-riches. It doesn’t downplay the extent of their wealth and privilege, nor the self-indulgence of their way of life. I couldn’t help but make parallels to the current social movements against the 1% and the financial sector in general. The 99% of that time were angry and laid open the way for Hitler and his comforting blame game. But although I believe most readers thought  “this is too much” at some point in the book (a jeweled turtle – are you kidding me?!), we were never allowed to share the “they got it coming” philosophy.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them “Israel” for the men, “Sara” for the women.

I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.

*goose-bumps* It reminded me of the time I crumbled watching Alan Cumming’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

For a book that goes so deeply into family history, I learned a lot about history in general. The gradual infiltration of Nazi ideals in Austrian society was especially interesting. It coincided with some of the book’s most moving scenes: de Waal’s grandfather isolated in his country estate, penniless and without a nationality, the courage of his grandmother in entering the country to rescue him, and the story of Anna, the faithful servant. Her part in the netsuke’s history is the stuff of legend.

Anna gave me lots of food for thought. What made her stay and rescue the netsuke? Loyalty? Her own personal form of rebellion? And then, shockingly, the family didn’t even remembered her last name. There is no excuse for this, although I also saw her as someone self-effacing and easily over-looked. How else could she have lived all those years in the occupied house?

There is such pedigree in the Ephrussi family, they were all so amazing and influential (Charles has a cameo in Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and was the inspiration for one of main characters in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) that I can’t help but keenly feel just how utterly obscure my ancestors are. More than that, I feel sorry there’s almost no family history or objects that have trickled down to my brother and me.

By the end of the book de Waal is in possession of the netsuke. Apart from frail letters and documents, they’re all that’s left of a great family that once had everything. The netsuke are once again ready to begin yet another chapter in their amazing history.

***

Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, Reading Matters, things mean a lot, Tales from the Reading Room, chasing bawa, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Boston Bibliophile, Winstonsdad’s Blog, My Book Year, Vulpis Libris, Novel Insights, Canadian Bookworm, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Page 247, Desperate Reader, MarysLibrary, Cornflower Books, Eve’s Alexandria (yours?)

I’ve never done more than one post about a single book (except read-alongs), but I’ll open an exception for this one. It’s not just because it’s probably the biggest book I’ve ever picked up, but I’m half-way through it and it’s fascinating enough to make me want to put some thoughts down. This is compulsory reading for anyone with an interest in the Brontës and don’t be intimidated by its size: it’s one of those books that just floooows.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s works. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

It was especially enlightening to read this after Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. While Gaskell’s clear agenda was to give a sympathetic view of Charlotte and ease the shock the family’s books generated at the time, she did it by making certain sacrifices. Patrick and Branwell for instance, were not portrayed in the best of lights and it was clear Gaskell bent the truth to carry this argument.

The Life is responsible for many Brontë legends, namely “poor Charlotte” (the martyr daughter and saintly sister) and Emily as the romantic and wild free spirit. With The Brontës, Barker set out to defy these and other dogmas by diligently re-visiting all direct and indirect sources and re-accessing every established assumption.

My perception of Charlotte in particular changed from the “picture of perfection” image I had of her. I was spellbound by her struggle between her duty towards her family (a job she didn’t like and was bad) and the ever-present temptation of her imaginary worlds.

I discussed this book with other Brontë fans and some thought Barker was sometimes too set on thoroughness at the expensed of compelling story telling (the opposite of Mrs. Gaskell?). I didn’t feel that way, even though I admit to a few skims here and there. Baker’s very keen on describing several juvenilia characters and after a while it became too difficult to keep up with who killed, (de)crowned or married whom. Certain parts on the religious and political activism that took so much of Patrick’s time could also have used a little trimming, but the fact remains these were central events in the family’s lives.

Other myths Barker busted included the image of Haworth as an isolate, stagnated village, Branwell being an alcoholic from a very early age and Patrick as a severe and distant father. And we’re only talking about the first half of the book!

There was one debunking where I felt Barker went too far. The Brontë’s two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – died of TB contracted in the boarding school Charlotte also attended. Charlotte was so traumatized by her time there as seen in Jane Eyre’s first chapters. Barker puts these experiences into perspective: Roe Head was bad, but not that bad compared to other schools and their mortality rates, malnutrition and aggressive daily routines were better than average. Somehow, perspective just doesn’t stick as a compelling argument in these cases. Better unhuman conditions are still unhuman conditions. The nightmare at Roe Head is one Brontë legend I can live with.

I’m just at the point in their lives where Charlotte and Emily arrive in Brussels. The voyeur in me is looking forward to Charlotte’s relationship with Mr. Heger, Branwell’s downfall and future literary disappointments 🙂

If you want to know about Mehmet the conqueror, the warrior, the military genius, this is the book for you, however, if like me you’d like some insight into Mehmet the man, father, son, husband and scholar, then it’s likely you’ll also be a bit disappointed.

At 21 years old, Mehmet II put a definite end to the Byzantine Empire by conquering Constantinople. He also took over part of Asia and in Europe went as far as Belgrade. He started the Ottoman “tradition” of fratricide, built the Topkapi Palace and had three Popes organizing Crusades against him. He must have been an interesting and charismatic man (after all, he had a reputation for ruthlessness, but chose to pose for one of his few portraits holding a flower to his nose) but Freely never gives us any insight into his thoughts.

There are endless descriptions of battles, conquests and treaties. A whole chapter describes the Topkapi Palace almost room by room, another lists the buildings built during Mehmet’s reign which are still standing in Istanbul today. The last third of the book is actually the story of Mehmet’s descendants up to modern Turkey (which might have been more interesting, had my main interest not been Mehmet himself).

What drove him? What were his motivations and influences? We get little in that respect, except for isolated pieces of information, like the books in his library, his personal take on religion and his bland poetry.

Mehmet the father is only lightly touched and Mehmet the husband is all but absent. He had several wives but was buried next to only one – an interesting detail which I’d have loved Freely to touch. His death was described in a matter-of-fact way, which also took me a bit aback:

Mehmet had called a halt here because he had been stricken by sever abdominal pains. His Persian physician had administrated medicine that only made matters worst and so Mehmet’s old Jewish doctor, master Ya’qub, was called in. Ya’qub concluded that the pain was caused by blockage of the intestines, but despite his frantic efforts he was unable to do anything more than aliviate the Sultan’s agony with powerful doses of opium.

Mehmet lingered on until late in the evening of 3 May 1481, when he passed away at the 22nd hour, according to Giovanni Maria Angiolello. The Sultan was 49 when he died having reign for more than 30 years, most of which he had spent in war. [he then goes on about how the Viziers tried to keep the death a secret and what his sons did next.]

You can feel Freely’s love for Istanbul (which actually made me buy his other book “Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City”), and it’s clear this is a well-researched, solid book about Ottoman history, but it’s too much a list of events to become an engaging biography of Sultan Mehmet. Maybe Freely was weary of making assumptions or going into speculation? That must be the eternal struggle of the biographer, especially when dealing with a subject which died so long ago.

Also, this must hold the record for most paragraphs starting with “Meanwhile”…

Book read for One, Two, Theme Challenge
Theme 6: Byzantium/Constantinople/Ottoman Empire/Istanbul


Happy 235th, Jane Austen! Have you seen Google.co.uk today?

Isn’t it cute?

These are the lists for my last three themes of the One, Two, Theme! Challenge. Not everything is set in stone, so let me know if you have any suggestions, I especially need ideas for fiction involving the Medici family.

Theme 4: Bees/Honey
Bees and honey are popular metaphors for politics, sex, the benefits of hard work, the pits of consumerism and ultimately, life itself. Recently they’ve also been on the media because of their alarming mass deaths and what that might mean for us. How could I not be curious about something that might lead to Human extinction?

NON-FICTION

  • A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin, Brian McCallum
  • Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey – The Sweet Liquid Gold that Seduced the World by Holley Bishop

FICTION

  • Generation A by Douglas Coupland
  • The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Mary Russell #1) by Laurie R. King

Theme 3: Olive oil
I luuurve me some good olive oil, and a bottle of my favorite has become one of my “small” luxuries (hey, it could be shoes, or bags, instead all by lavishness goes into food stuff :)). Whenever we have friends over for dinner the appetizer is always good bread to dip in olive oil. My favorite producer is the “Marques de Grinon” (jeezzz I sound so bourgeois!), which according to a reviewer, is “a gleaming golden hue backed by exceptionally vivid and intense aromas with reminiscences of green tomatoes, freshly mowed grass, artichoke and green almonds.  In the palate, concentrated green vegetables and nutty aromas.  The finish is pleasantly spicy.” O yeahhh!

NON-FICTION

  • Astonishing Facts About Olive Oil: A Cultural History from Around the World by Ed S. Milton
  • Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum

FICTION

  • The Olive Readers by Christine Aziz

 

Theme 2: The Medici Family
They must have been extraordinary people, these absolute rulers in everything but title.

NON-FICTION

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert

FICTION

To be decided – any ideas?

 

Theme 1: Eleanor of Aquitaine
I know close to nothing about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but I’m always interested in women that shaped the Middle Ages. I’ll compliment the book by watching Kathryn Hepburn playing Eleanor in “The Lion in Winter”.

FICTION:

When Christ And His Saints Slept (Eleanor of Aquitaine Series #1) by Sharon Kay Penman


 

I wish I could say I’ve been an Austen fan forever, that I started at 12 and never looked back, but I’m sort of embarrassed to admit I’m part of the 1995 BBC adaptation wave. I can image how those who were Janeites before felt: that mix of pride and resented ownership that happens when all of a sudden that obscure band you’ve been a fan of for years is suddenly TOP 1 and everyone’s favorite.

I didn’t read Austen in school and only picked up Sense and Sensibility when I was about 17. It was such an awful translation that I completely forgot about it 2 minutes after turning the last page. It had no impact what so ever.

I don’t know if P&P 1995 ran in Portugal before, but I only saw it in 2002 (o the wasted time!) and like half of the world, immediately got hooked. After watching it several times I got the book in English (by that time I had done the ERASMUS programme in Glasgow so was comfortable reading it in the original) and surprise, surprise: it was even better than the series! Then I got the rest of her novels, juvenilia and letters. Then I entered into biographies and afterwards found the fun world of sequels, prequels and inspirations.

So that’s why I have a dedicate Austen shelf, which for the moment shares its space with our assortment of travel-books.

I felt quite isolated in my obsession until I decided to see what the internet could offer. You can never feel alone online, can you? There I discovered the wonderful world of The Republic of Pemberley, which became my online home for many years, and the world-wide Janeite community.

As people around me got used to my wacky obsession with a long-dead lady author, they started to indulge me by giving me JA-related gifts – nice or very old editions of her books, mugs, postcards, etc. Those who travelled started getting me editions of Pride and Prejudice in different languages and I got into it myself. These lovely friends usually bring back great stories of them trying to hunt down Jane Austen in e.g. Seoul or Bucharest.

At the moment, I have Pride & Prejudice in 25 languages: Danish, Greek, Czech, Italian, Turkish, Romanian, Korean, German, Norwegian, Japanese, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, Portuguese (Brazil), English, Chinese, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Russian, Catalan, Croatian, Dutch, Farsi, Spanish and Swedish.

Am I crazy or am I crazy? 🙂

I never buy these books online, I either get them on location, through friends or (as it happened with the Farsi edition) through fellow Bookcrossers. I might try Bookmooch soon and see what I can find there.

If you can get me an edition in a language I still don’t have, I’d be more than happy to trade it for a book in your wishlist!

Do you also have dedicated shelves for anything (authors, themes)?

(click the photos to enhance – sorry, some are not as high-quality as I hoped for, I’ll replace them with better ones later)

Multilingual P&P

Other cubes
(the little bottle you see below is a sample of the Waters of Bath)

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