June 2024
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Review: Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, Ping Fu

bend not breakPing Fu is the incredibly successful founder and CEO of Geomagic, Inc. She’s been Entrepreneur of the Year in Time Magazine and met President Barack Obama. But she also spent her childhood living in a furniture-less dorm with her little sister during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. She’s been beaten and raped simply because her family was well-to-do and educated. She was thrust into a role of responsibility at a very young age, punished constantly, and finally deported from her native country with no ability to speak English and no idea what to do with her life. Her story is one of contrasts and success against all the odds.

A couple of years ago I read quite a few books featuring the Cultural Revolution. China is a fascinating country that is completely outside my own experience. Ping Fu’s book Bend, Not Break promised to combine this history with the story of a woman living the American dream.

Ping’s story is a true testament to the power of her own will and ability to seize opportunities as they come. She is beaten down regularly from a very young age, but she’s also determined to make something of herself. She never lets her experiences truly box her in, and as soon as she’s given the opportunity at a Chinese university, she straight away starts trying to make a difference. It’s no surprise that when she lands in the United States speaking little more than “hello” and “thank you” that she immediately begins to make something of herself. She learns English quickly, enrolls in a good university, and begins waitressing to pay the bills.

This was a surprisingly inspiring book which shows how far you can go simply on the basis of trying very hard. The author is very clear that things were challenging for her; she loved software development, which she eventually made her career, but she only loved parts of it, and it’s those parts that she focused on to become a success. She struggles with being a CEO in particular; in a world dominated by tall white men, she feels out of place, and for a time believes that she needs a handsome, charming tall white guy to make her business successful (this is one case where she’s wrong). She’s not afraid to admit when she’s wrong or where she has a disadvantage and she always does her best to surmount it.

Since finishing this book, I’ve read some very critical articles online which state that many of the events in the book aren’t quite true. Like most memoirs, parts of the book simply have to be imagined. I doubt anyone can remember an exact quote from their mother from the age of eight (I certainly can’t). There are claims that she was as thoroughly a Red Guard as the other children, and that deportation was a crime reserved for more severe offenses, mostly by other Chinese people. This has made it difficult for me to recommend the book, but having read previously about how difficult the Cultural Revolution was, I choose to believe the author’s story. I think that’s a decision every reader will have to make.

I received this book for free for review. All external book links are affiliate links.


Review: Along the Enchanted Way, William Blacker

along the enchanted wayWilliam Blacker spent years of his life in Romania from the early 90’s onwards. Longing for a simpler life, like that he’d experienced during his idyllic rural English childhood, he found the perfect match in rural Romania. People there still seldom watched TV and spent most of their lives at work in the countryside, harvesting and living off the land as their ancestors had done for generation after generation. It’s an image of not only the Romanians themselves, but the gypsies that live with them, and the disappearing other segments of the population as the steady march of modernisation takes yet another corner of the unspoiled world.

I bought this book on a whim over a year ago and finally got around to reading it – I’ve recently become interested in the little pockets of Europe outside of my own knowledge, generally sticking to eastern Europe, and so this seemed like a perfect match. I found it even more interesting than I’d suspected, not only for Blacker’s experience, but for the comparisons he makes with medieval Europe, a topic with which I am very well acquainted.

First of all, the Romania he portrays is very much a rural idyll, so much so that I couldn’t help but feel some of the rougher areas were a little bit glossed over. It calls to the ideal of the rural peasant, happy to work, happy with life in general, free of superficial trappings of modern life like telephones, televisions, possessions, and so on. He also quotes from Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, which is an old piece of scholarship that has been discredited in many ways by current medieval historians, a lot of which I read, and which put me on edge. I couldn’t help but feel that some of the problems of rural life, like bad harvests and lack of leisure time, were glossed over. Maybe the people did seem happier and more welcoming to him, and maybe they were, but he focused on other problems instead. It made for a very engaging read, and certainly I’d love to visit Romania now, but I questioned a lot of this as I read.

Blacker also spends a considerable amount of time with the gypsies, as the “love” in the subtitle alludes to, somewhat flabbergasted by their complete lack of preparation for life. The women, for instance, exist to do seemingly nothing but dance and charm foreign men, as Blacker discovers, and the gypsies almost always found themselves begging over the course of the winter as they failed to preserve enough food to last the whole season. Contrasted with the rural farmers, their lives seem confusing. He also meets some Germans, who even speak German, but return to the motherland over the course of the novel and find city life a difficult adjustment.

I think this review has already made it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, which just isn’t true; I loved the descriptions of Romanian culture and people and Blacker’s experiences integrating into their society and trying to understand how things might have been. The book also has pictures in the middle, which helped, and I was outright fascinated by the idea that these people have been living the same way for centuries. They might have paved roads now, but the “good old days” such as they were do make for an excellent book.

I’d recommend Along the Enchanted Way if you, too, are interested in how life might be in the corners of forgotten Europe, but I’d take it with a little pinch of salt.


Even More Mini Reviews: Urban Fantasy, YA, and Memoir

the name of the starI’m atrocious at keeping up with reviews these days, so I thought more mini reviews could only be a good idea! For this purpose, I am completely skipping plot summaries and just sharing with you my own thoughts on the books below. Some of the reason I blog is to keep books straight in my mind later on, after all, so I wanted to share at least a few thoughts.

The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson

I had no idea that this was about Jack the Ripper, which led to an eerie night as I discovered that while reading in bed! This is my first read by Maureen Johnson and I definitely enjoyed it, though; I loved the edge of creepiness the whole book had, the boarding school rivalries, the London atmosphere, and the engaging plot. Really looking forward to more of these.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

This book deserves way more than it’s going to get in these few sentences, but suffice it to say that I found it an insightful glimpse into Hemingway’s early life as a writer. Excellent paired with The Paris Wife, which is why I read it in the first place. Anyone struggling with Hemingway will be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is to read, as well.

storm frontStorm Front, Jim Butcher

Ah, urban fantasy. I perpetually love it and find myself going back to it, so I’m always finding new series to read. This was my latest choice, and the first installment was enough to keep me reading.  Harry Dresden is your average urban fantasy main character, always kicking butt and getting severely injured for good. If you like the genre, give this a go.

Fool Moon, Jim Butcher

In the same vein as the last, but just that extra touch deeper with the backstory from the first book. Things get more exciting and more dangerous, a villainous character reveals another side, and Harry gets himself nearly killed. All good. I have books 3 and 4 of this series and will probably be reading them very soon – hopefully at least for one of those I’ll manage a full review.

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord, Sarah MacLean

I myself adored MacLean’s first book in this series, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, so it was kind of inevitable that I’d be disappointed by this one. I actually liked both main characters, but the spark struggled to appear and I couldn’t really get into their relationship. I am definitely going to continue reading MacLean, though, as I already have her next book lined up on my TBR shelf!


Review: The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

the glitter and the goldI mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was my hypothetical first historical fiction subject, and before I went anywhere I thought I’d best read what she herself wrote about her life. After all, there are only gaps to fill if the actual woman herself didn’t write about every last detail, and the best source for someone’s life is themselves. Luckily, I found lots of gaps to fill, but I also was pleased to discover that Consuelo is as fascinating as I’d hoped.

Married off at just eighteen to the duke of Marlborough, Consuelo left everything she knew behind to join the British aristocracy – her American money funding the upkeep of Blenheim Palace and the lifestyle of the wealthy. In exchange, however, Consuelo was desperately unhappy, as her mother had forced her to leave behind the man she loved in order to make her daughter a duchess. A fascinating account of turn-of-the-century life, Consuelo’s struggle to find the happiness she deserved is inspiring and well-worth reading.

While there are certainly emotional gaps here – the author shares very very little about either of her marriages, surely topics she didn’t really want to share, nor does she discuss her children – this is a full picture of a life. Consuelo makes reference to the many famous people she met and hosted, some which are recognizable and others which are not, and gives us a really full account of life that people of her social class lived at the time. The first part of the book, when she is forced to leave New York even though she has an agreement with a certain Mr. X, is by far the most moving and interesting – afterwards she gets swept up in a social swirl and there is much less drama mentioned. I suspect she didn’t want to dwell on an unhappy marriage, so instead moves smoothly past to a world in which she has more control, even if it’s a bit less interesting.

One of my favorite aspects of this book, as with many others set around this time, is the fact that it’s set in an essentially dying world. After World War I, English aristocracy starts to crumble apart, and World War II changed Europe forever. Consuelo lived through both of these and it’s just fascinating to read about the divide in time. Cultures are eternally in flux, but those moments which we can later pick out as defining – a before and an after – are always those which make for the best reading. That is certainly the case here; the book ends just at the start of World War II, so we’re witnessing many changes.

As I expected, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was a fascinating woman, and her story – so aptly titled The Glitter and the Gold – is one which should certainly be read more widely. Highly recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I bought this book.


Review: You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, Heather Sellers

you don't look like anyone i knowAs an adult, Heather Sellers discovers that she suffers from a condition called prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. She is unable to recognize people by their faces; while she can usually identify them by features such as hair, ears, and clothing, it’s never reliable and she runs into her own husband thinking he’s a stranger. With her condition as a guide, Heather can start to process her difficult childhood and her relationship with her parents, both of whom have issues of their own. More importantly, Heather’s diagnosis comes to provide more clarity for her life, giving her a better understanding of who she is and how she can deal with her condition.

I’d never heard of prosopagnosia before reading this book, but it sounds very difficult. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to recognize people I knew walking down the street, or introduce myself to someone I already knew at a party – it’s just automatic for me and, clearly, for the many people who told Heather, “Oh, I’m really bad with names too”, ignoring her very real condition. I could feel her frustration and her certainty that she genuinely had this problem and I was relieved when she finally got a diagnosis and could begin to deal with what she did have. There is currently no cure for face blindness, but letting others know about the situation seems to help.

Tied in with Heather’s modern day story is the depiction of her childhood, which was far from ordinary. Her mother appears to be a paranoid schizophrenic, while Heather’s father has issues that are never fully understood throughout the narrative. Her parents live separately and as a child Heather lives with one and then the other and back again, switching schools on a yearly basis and struggling to make many friends. Her success to PhD level and eventual professorship at a university is simply astounding coming out of that and she deserves a lot of credit for sticking to her education, even when her mother handed her job listings for secretaries and cleaning women.

I did find the stories of her childhood very hard to take, simply because her life was so difficult. I felt very bad for her but to be honest, I was also just more interested in her modern day struggles with her condition, her marriage, and the fallout from her childhood rather than the events itself. As a result the second section of the book, which moves more away from childhood, struck a deeper chord with me and had me much more eager to read to the end. I think that Heather’s childhood is essential to understand her problems as an adult, but personally, I wouldn’t have minded an entire book on face blindness.

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is a moving memoir on a condition very few people are familiar with. The author is a strong woman with a difficult past to overcome that readers will come to empathize with and even admire. Recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.


Review: Petite Anglaise, Catherine Sanderson

Catherine Sanderson decided she was destined for Paris as a young girl and followed through on her dreams as an adult, eventually establishing herself in a solid relationship with a Frenchman, called ‘Mr Frog’, and giving birth to a daughter, appropriated named Tadpole, while living and working in Paris. But as Tadpole begins to grow, Catherine realizes that she is unhappy and starts a blog to chronicle her love affair with Paris alongside her more personal musings about the difficulties of her relationship with Mr Frog. Catherine’s blog brings her into contact with an eager reader, James, opening up a whole new world of conflicts in her relationships and catharsis to a community of worldwide readers.

I’ve heard of the Petite Anglaise blog once or twice and I’m sure I saw this book reviewed elsewhere, so when I saw it at the library I decided to read it. I have no real love affair of my own with Paris but I greatly enjoyed my visit there and, oddly, I love reading about other people who feel passionately about places that aren’t their homes, I suppose because I can relate to them.

Catherine’s life as contained in this memoir read more like a soap opera than anything else. From the minute Jim from Rennes showed up in the comments of her blog, I knew something was going to happen there, and I was proven correct. She goes from staid and ordinary Parisian life with steady partner and child to feeling like a siren again, recapturing the passion lost from her relationship with Mr Frog and coming to learn more about herself as an individual in the process. While I wouldn’t agree with her actions in that she cheats on her partner, it’s a bit like a roller coaster that you have to stay on just to get to the end. I will note that the cover description is very misleading as it doesn’t really cover what happens in this book – she’s never really ‘in trouble’ in the way I’d imagined it.

What comes across in this memoir that I found fascinating was Catherine’s relationship with blogging itself. I’m not a personal blogger; there are snapshots here and there of my life and opinions and I do share big news that comes up, but I’m blogging about books, not about my life, and Catherine experiences many of the pitfalls I would expect from putting life out on the internet for anyone to read. Writing is inherently cathartic and Catherine comes to crave the opinions of her readers. She puts love letters and exchanges out there for anyone to read and she does hurt people she loves in the process. I can’t remember ever previously reading a memoir that covers what happens when your life becomes so glaringly public and you’re not already a celebrity. (Unsurprisingly, she’s almost stopped blogging now for these very reasons).

There were a few things I didn’t like about the memoir, namely that it doesn’t really accomplish much. It’s simply a snapshot of a sensational time in the author’s life and covers quite a few of the dramas she experiences between her relationships, parenthood, blogging, and Paris; it’s not really any one thing because it has aspects of all of these, giving it a haphazard feel at times. It focuses on one person which makes it feel very self-centered, something a lot of memoirs suffer from, and at times I felt worse for the people hurt by the author’s blog than for her, who could at least control what she put out there and what she did.

Still, if you’re looking for the perspective of a very public blogger, snapshots of life in Paris, and the difficulties of relationships, Petite Anglaise is an excellent choice.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my library.


Last Two Read-a-Thon Reviews

Yes, it is now the 26th of April, and I still have two Read-a-thon books to post about. Eek! I decided to combine them in this post with shorter reviews.

Touching the Void, Joe Simpson

Joe Simpson is a mountaineer who likes to tempt fate. He’s happiest when climbing huge mountains in ways that no one has ever managed before, putting his life literally at risk for the thrill of the climb. While in the Peruvian Andes, he learns just how risky this is and goes to the very limit in his attempt to survive the worst.

While I admired how Simpson really defied death in his attempts to find his way back to the camp after a horrific accident, I suppose my problem with mountaineering stories is that I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that anyone would choose to do this. I’m not into mountaineering and I don’t understand the challenge at all. It’s still quite inspiring, as the story of human endurance is universal, but I just couldn’t help thinking, “Why?”

Lady Isabella’s Scandalous Marriage, Jennifer Ashley

Isabella and ‘Mac’ Mackenzie have been separated for years, due to numerous difficulties in both their marriage and the way they first came together. Mac realizes that he’s missing out on so much good in his life and makes a real effort to win Isabella back, including sobering up and taming his wilder self, but Isabella isn’t sure she can bear with the hurt again.

The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was such a fantastic book that I knew I’d buy Ashley’s next book in the series right away. After all, anyone who has the guts to write a romance novel about a guy with Asperger’s syndome, who has been through the horror of a Victorian mental hospital, has my vote when it comes to romance. I didn’t expect this one to smack me in the face with an equal level of greatness, but I still found it to be a very enjoyable read.

At its core it is something like a romance novel set after the normal romance novel. Mac and Isabella already fell in love, he already swept her off her feet, and they’ve already been married. But their marriage was fraught with difficulties and they separated. This book documents the struggle they have with returning to love after a separation. Very good in its own right.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased one of these books and borrowed the other.


Review: To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron

to a mountain in tibetIn 2009, Colin Thubron journeyed to Tibet to climb the impressive Mount Kailas. Scaled by very few, usually approached and gone around by the path that Thubron takes, the mountain is sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, as well as a number of minor religions and sects that have sprung up around it. Thubron visits several of these as he journeys, as well as staying at very basic camps and experiencing life in Tibet with his two comrades, a cook and a guide. His journey isn’t just physical, as he pulls in his own mental and spiritual experiences to make a fully rounded trip for both the mind and body.

This was a travelogue unlike anything I’d read before. They are a bit of a new genre for me, so I was excited to try out another new author. I ended up getting a lot more than I expected.

The first thing that really astonished me about the book was Thubron’s writing. Not that the other books I’ve read have been written poorly, but his writing is almost poetic in its beauty. He really delves deep and describes the scenery and the people in ways that are almost transcendent. I kept getting lost in the imagery and thoughtfulness of his observations – he’s obviously one of those people who just sees and feels things more deeply, and has the ability to put all that into words. At times, I felt as though the stark loveliness of the writing kept me from really getting to know Thubron, but then he would share an insight from his life, about the loved ones he’d lost and the fact that he was the last remaining member of his family, that made me feel sympathy for him once again, and regain interest in his journey.

I’m not particularly familiar with Tibet. It’s one of those places that I know is far away but is off of my personal map, simply because I’ve never had cause to learn about it. Thubron’s book is interesting in this respect, particularly because he does delve a bit into the history of the places and the many spiritualities that worship the mountain. Considering it’s a place I’d never even heard of before picking up this book, I was quite surprised to discover just how revered it is, even more that people go on pilgrimage there and actually sometimes die because it’s hard going and tour operators don’t always monitor the people who go on their trips.

It’s a short book, but it is quite deep, and I suspect you’ll find it takes you longer to read than you expect, as it did with me. It isn’t perfect – sometimes the many names of religious sectors and gods, for example, gets overwhelming and adds up to too much. But take a little time to really appreciate the beauty of Thubron’s words and I think you’ll find that To a Mountain in Tibet is a rewarding read.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.


Review: Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson

On the eve of moving his family from England to his native US, Bill Bryson decides to take one last trip around the country he’s lived in for nearly two decades. He journeys from the south of England up to John O’Groat’s in Scotland, exploring a myriad of historic and modern cities and landmarks along the way. He does so entirely on public transport, making an effort to disprove the complaints of Brits everywhere when they protest their trains and buses – which, to an American who has to drive just to get to a bus stop, are pretty exciting – and makes quite a few observations on British character along the way.

I’ve been enjoying Bryson’s memoirs for a few months now, but I think this one has been my favorite. It’s pretty easy to see why; like Bryson, I am also an American living in England. While I can laugh at the many absurdities of English people, as Bryson does, it’s pretty clear that both of us just absolutely love the country. Criticisms abound, but they are the criticisms you make of someone you love dearly – you can see faults, but that doesn’t diminish how you feel overall.

What’s really funny about this book is how accurate it is. The part about multi-storey car parks made me laugh so hard I actually cried (which amused my British husband to no end as well), because it was just so true. They do, in fact, always smell of urine in the stairwells, no matter how nice the place you’re visiting is. So many of his observations – even years on, when British Rail no longer exists – are still completely accurate. British people will unfailingly line up in neat queues without being told where to go. They do apologize to you before they complain about something that’s completely within their rights to have. They have a complete disregard for historic buildings because they have so many of them, something which has only lately begun to change. It’s all very true, in case you wonder as you read this.

Because you should read it if you are an Anglophile, and especially if you’re an American. There is much to love about the British isles and Bryson is far from immune to their charms, at least those of England, Scotland, and Wales. In addition to exploring the England of today, he looks back at older Englands, visiting towns affected by mining, commercialism, and even Milton Keynes, which was constructed after the world wars. One of the most moving passages in the book was his trip to one northern town, where the miners formed an art society. The art produced by these men wasn’t the best, but it was remarkably good and showed more the fact that they wanted to transcend life in the mine, even if it absorbed every minute of their scant leisure time. Even sadder was the fact that the club closed; not only did the mine close but modern life and the television set began to appeal more than spending time with a paintbrush and easel.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is a love letter to England; it’s a careful look at what makes the people distinctive, the sense of history pervasive, and a hilarious take on modern life. If you’re an Anglophile like me, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.


Review: Pies and Prejudice, Stuart Maconie

Despite being a son of the North of England, Stuart Maconie has found himself mostly living in the South, a very different place. When he realizes he has a cappuccino maker and keeps sundried tomatoes on hand at all times – both, apparently, very un-Northern things to do – he decides to return to the country of his childhood in search of the true North. He explores how the cities and countryside have changed over the years and whether any of the stereotypes still hold true.

I haven’t lived in England for all that long and even I know the stereotypes of Northerners – generally big, dirty men (I always think of miners, probably for good reason as there were many here) with rough exteriors but a heart of gold. For the most part, that’s what you get on TV shows, especially older ones. Of course, the mining industry is basically gone now, and Northern towns are pretty much the same as Southern towns, in my limited experience, so Maconie’s quest to discover the true North interested me very much. After all, we live in the North now, so I was looking forward to finding out more about it.

Unfortunately, I think this book didn’t really suit me personally as a reader. For one thing, I’m American. There are many, many British cultural references that I’m still unfamiliar with and I’m pretty sure Maconie uses every last one of them. He also relies heavily on many places’ musical roots, which again I’m unfamiliar with. I know the big British bands that made it over the pond, but there are quite a few – many of which are probably big names over here – that I just hadn’t heard of. There were also a few notes about football, which is again something I’m not crazy about, nor do I know the details of football history and rivalries.  So, I’d recommend other non-Brits to be a bit hesitant before picking it up.

For me that was kind of a shame, because I did quite enjoy the rest of the book. I loved learning about the different Northern cities and how they’d changed over the years, whether they’d done well this century or not. The book is slightly outdated so I’m not sure the same towns are still prosperous, but it was all very interesting and usually focused on areas I didn’t know much about. He did manage to leave out a large part of Yorkshire, including the bit that I live in, despite having a whole chapter on the country.  I think his focus was on the “happening” cities and the ones around here aren’t really what I’d call exciting. I think Maconie does a decent job breaking the North out of its stereotyping and explaining just why it’s so appealing. It’s not the dirty poor place that it’s imagined to be.

I think Pies and Prejudice would appeal to those Brits who are interested in a cultural journey through the North of England, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone who isn’t very familiar with British culture and recent history.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.