Tag Archives: book reviews

Weekly reading meme: w/c 8 April 2013

About half a week ago I was happily outlining revisions to my novel when I realised that I had failed to make any reference to the European medieval witch trials … in a book where restrictions on women’s practice of magic is a major strand. (It lets me write about earnest educational reformer characters. You know how much I like earnest reformers!) So off I rushed to the library to find some books about the witch trials.

Unsurprisingly there is a vast amount of writing on the topic, and I had to be quite strict about how many books I took out. Anyway, this explains why my reading has suddenly gone off in another direction.

What are you reading now?

Wizards: A History by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. This is not relevant to the subject of witch trials; it was just on the same shelf at the library, and seemed interesting. (Deceptively so! >:( ) It’s a fairly short historical account of “ritual magicians” in the European tradition – particularly the kind that attempted to communicate with spirits – and given its subject matter it is surprisingly boring. I think the author and I are just interested in different things? I also think it is a little odd how he doesn’t quite make it clear whether he believes in magic or not, but perhaps I am just being narrow-minded here. (I am mostly a skeptic, but my attitude towards magic and ghosts and that sort of thing is that I don’t believe in them but am a little worried that they believe in me. I am also like my mom’s Malay ex-coworker who was really superstitious but went to UK and happily visited a graveyard there, and when questioned about this said, “Oh, the Mat Salleh ghosts won’t be interested in me.”)

What did you just finish reading?

Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose by Robert Thurston. A compact academic review of the European and American witch trials. Again, it wasn’t quite what I wanted, as the author and I have different concerns — basically this guy is making an argument in response to all the other academic writing about the witch trials. (He argues that the trials weren’t primarily motivated by misogyny, but resulted from the circumstances of the specific locations where the trials arose and, in particular, the pressures and fears to which these communities were subject — though I don’t think he denies that the deeply embedded misogyny of the culture affected who got persecuted as witches.) But it was useful to give an idea of what went on.

Interesting factoids:

Both this book and the boring wizards book distinguish between sorcerers or magicians or cunning folk and witches. The former might not be wholly approved of, but they weren’t straight-out evil, and in any case their practices were viewed as being distinct from witchcraft.

Witches were people (mostly but not exclusively female) who made a pact with the Devil, but as Thurston points out, the pact kind of sucked for the witch. You had to have sex with the Devil and his demons, and the sex was not enjoyable; he might pay you, but the gold usually turned out to be leaves or poop; the rewards were usually something like the ability to kill and eat babies. Also to show your allegiance you had to kiss the Devil’s butt. Altogether kind of a crappy job lor!

What do you expect to read next?

Another of the witch trial books I got out of the library, I guess, though I might just skim and return. I don’t think I’ll make more than a passing reference to them, after all.

Ooh, I should also read The Complete Servant by Samuel and Sarah Adams – oyceter kindly pointed out a rec for this to me, and it is a handbook for servants by a servant that also looks like a useful guide to Regency period details. It’s free on Google Books, but as my main options for reading it on Google Books are a) my phone and b) my computer screen, I’m trying to decide whether it’s worth paying 82p to call the hard copy up from the public library reserves. Banyaknya buku, singkatnya masa.

Weekly reading meme: w/c 1 April 2013

I must start to have some system for titling these posts — they can’t all be “Weekly reading meme! :D” or “Books books books”.

What are you reading now?

Jane Austen’s letters (the set edited by Deirdre Le Faye – she ought to write romance novels with such a name). I was meant to finish these a couple of posts ago, but … I didn’t …. To be fair, the book and I were in different countries for about ten days since I last mentioned it! It’s a wee bit of a slog despite Jane’s delightful style, because it is, of course, all about people you don’t know and incidents you haven’t been told about. (And the juiciest letters have been destroyed! Cassandra >:( ) There are footnotes, but sometimes you flip to the back of the book and it obligingly tells you about how the reference to Capt H and Mrs S is about a scandalous elopement gossiped about in the papers, but sometimes you flip back and it’s just like “Mrs D D probably stands for Mrs Dean Dundas”. Yeah. Thanks, footnotes.

I am also rereading Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. My ostensible reason is that it’s prep for my space minuet, but my real reason is that I love it. Lucy Snowe is so creepy and judgmental! (She has good reasons for the former, but not really for the latter.) I can’t work out what her feelings for Dr John are. I dislike Dr John but am impressed by how Bronte pulls out a romantic dark horse from apparently nowhere. But he’s been lurking in the background all along.

The problem of M Paul is that one struggles to envision a retelling of him that doesn’t have creepy racist overtones. Because his portrayal is so racialised!

I had forgotten how everyone in the novel is connected to everyone in some way. It’s like there’s only three families in total in England and fake-Belgium combined. I mean, I know in expat communities you do tend to know everyone, and that guy you see at karaoke sessions always does turn out to be dating your colleague’s roommate, but still, Villette takes it a bit far.

What did you just finish reading?

The Third Miss Symons by F. M. Mayor, because I read this list in the Guardian of best books set in East Anglia and the description of Mayor’s book The Rector’s Daughter (“heartbreaking and acute 1924 tale of Mary Jocelyn, high-minded daughter of the rector of Dedmayne”) made me think it would be right up my alley, but I couldn’t find that novel on Gutenberg. But I was right, because The Third Miss Symons totally is right up my alley. It’s about the problem of being unhappy and not really having anything in your life that makes it worth living – the problem of not being significant to yourself. (Spoiler: it’s kind of depressing.) It made me think of this recent letter to Captain Awkward, Help me stop being mean, where the letter-writer talks about being mean because of their jerkbrain.

The opposite of The Third Miss Symons is Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. There is no such escape for Miss Symons as is granted to Miss Pettigrew. I’m glad Miss S gets a kind of happy ending, and it works in the context of the book and the characters’ and author’s likely beliefs. But because it’s not really a happy ending unless you are Christian and/or believe in that sort of thing, I don’t feel it is copping out, and respect Mayor for taking the story to its logical conclusion and not giving Miss S some unexpected windfall of love and happiness.

Oh, and I finished Tales of Ogonshoto (the English translation of Naratif Ogonshoto) by Anwar Ridhwan before I left Malaysia. It was OK, not bad — some it very clever. I think the translation would have benefited from some copyediting — the translation was on the whole serviceable, and I think gave a flavour of what the original text must be like, but there was a lot of tense confusion which unfortunately detracted from the polish of the prose.

What do you expect to read next?

Hmm, dunno wor! Oh, I guess I will read Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, which I’ve had out from the library for a good while. I’ve already read a bit of the beginning, and it is both funny and really sad. (Harriette Wilson was a well-known Regency courtesan – and she was kind of sold to her first dude at age 15.)

It is no good that my reading is so white at the moment, but it is a side-effect of the fact that I am trying to read things that will be helpful for my current and future writing projects. Though ooh ooh ooh – I got Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds for £1.19 on the Kindle (alas, the sale is now over). So I will get to reward myself with that at some point! \o/

Weekly reading meme

Nowadays whenever I am in Malaysia I make a beeline to the local bookshops to stock up — MPH, Popular and Times are not bad for local books, though annoyingly the MPH nearest to me is in the thick of renovations right now, which means that their Malaysian Interest sections are all huru hara. (Incidentally the bookshops here put things like KL Noir: Red in the Malaysian Authors or Malaysian Interest section — you’d think they’d know better. I mean, of course it makes sense to have copies in the Malaysian Authors section, but they should also be under Crime or wherever it is the other English-language noir books go, IMO. If we insist on ghettoising ourselves how can we expect other people to avoid doing the same?)

Anyway — reading meme!

What are you reading now?

Josephine Ross’s Jane Austen: A Companion, which is what it says on the tin. Her primary source is Jane Austen’s letters, which I have just been reading, and it is very interesting to be reading along and tripping over lines I remember from the letters. I feel pretty full up on Regency research now — I have one more book on the Regency from the library (Our Tempestuous Day), but I think after I’ve finished this and JA’s letters I’m going to call it a day and move on to other things. I need to bulk up my Asian historical knowledge — sadly, but unsurprisingly, it has been harder to get ahold of Asian history titles than books telling you what a kerseymere spencer is, and what the dancers would have eaten at a Regency ball. And once I start revising Prunella I will want to be reading more primary sources, to get into the right mind-set.

What did you just finish reading?

Sybil Kathigasu’s No Dram of Mercy, her account of her experiences during the Japanese WW2 occupation of Malaya. It was INTENSE. I’m trying to be a bit strategic about getting through my haul because my bag is already gonna be very heavy, so my initial plan was to read a few of the books so I wouldn’t have to take them back to England. Once I was a few pages in I realised this was a book I needed to take with me, but I couldn’t put it down because it was so interesting. So much for my strategy!

Sybil Kathigasu was a midwife married to a doctor in Ipoh who secretly treated the anti-Japanese Communist guerrillas and was imprisoned, tortured and interrogated by the Japanese for this. She survived the occupation but died a couple of years later from complications due to the injuries she suffered. She was well-educated, English-speaking, passionately Catholic, and a loyal British subject. Her account is incredibly gripping — and it was funny reading it, having recently read Linda Colley’s book on British captives in the Empire, because Colley has a section about how the captivity narrative became a thing, and British men and women captured in Afghanistan in the 19th century started scribbling away in prison with one eye on publication. And Kathigasu is totally thinking about writing a book about her experiences perhaps the whole time she is in prison, and talks about how it sucks that there was no pen and paper.

She must have been a real character — for one thing she was obviously very brave to have treated the guerrillas and hoarded a series of radios (forbidden by the Japanese) so she could listen to the BBC. But she was also obviously super bossy! You can hardly tell what any of the other people who feature in her book are like, because her personality dominates it so strongly. I can just imagine what she was like — a genial, tough, intelligent, scary auntie, fully aware of her innate superiority. She was great at being a war heroine but might have been difficult to live with in peacetime. (Amusingly Richard Winstedt’s preface to the narrative notes that she was “proud and dominant”, though he hastily adds that she was also humble, loving and devout.)

One interesting dystopian feature of the Japanese occupation, mentioned in passing — Eurasians were made to wear numbered armbands, as the Japanese wanted to be able to distinguish them from Westerners (Eurasians being allowed to mingle with the locals and go about their lives, but not the Europeans, Australians, Canadians, etc.).

What do you expect to read next?

I’m on Tales of Ogonshoto, an English translation of Anwar Ridhwan’s Naratif Ogonshoto. This is a series of short stories about the fictional Pacific state of Ogonshoto, so far largely preoccupied with corrupt politicians. Literary rather than popular fiction. Let us hope I shall have finished it before I fly off on Saturday!

What I read this week

What are you reading now?

Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East, 1750-1850. Another applegnat rec! It’s all right. I mean, it’s interesting and well-written, and should be super useful (weird to be reading it right after Linda Colley’s Captives and being like, oh hey, I know all this stuff about Seringapatam/Srirangapatna already). But Jasanoff wants to talk about cultural intermixings and the lesser-known aspects of Empire and whatnot; she does not want to focus on what jerks all these European collectors are. Whereas the fact that they are huge jerks keeps irresistibly intruding itself upon my attention!

What did you just finish reading?

A Short History of Malaysia by Virginia Matheson Hooker. There’s a bit in the beginning where she discusses how Malaysians are taught their history and how the history is constructed and why, which is quite interesting for somebody who went through that education. Our Sejarah textbooks suck in a lot of ways but one of the ways I am quite indignant about is that they almost completely fail to convey the romance of the history of maritime Southeast Asia. It’s been a site of cultural convergence and intermixing since pretty much forever, and historical maritime SEAsia has everything. (To plagiarise myself, enthusing in an email to colorblue — ) Pirates! Pilgrims! Princesses! Court intrigue! People who live on boats and are ~expert navigators~, and people who live uncompromisingly independent lives in the forest and the highlands, and people who live in palaces trying to figure out how to backstab their brothers.

I also finished Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang, which I was really pretty unimpressed by. It’s supposedly a reconstruction of what life was like in 17th century/Ming/Qing dynasty rural China, but it’s just kind of a bunch of anecdotes by some Chinese people translated and strung together loosely. I don’t even know what Pu Songling is doing in there given he doesn’t even live in Tancheng (the area Spence is focusing on). I mean — they are interesting, illuminating anecdotes! I was just expecting something a bit more cohesive, and with more of an overall narrative.

What do you expect to read next?

After Edge of Empire I will finish the book of Jane Austen’s letters I got out of the library. And then some of my other library books, I guess? It depends on whether I decide to take them back to Malaysia with me, or whether I decide to just renew them and read them when I get back.

Books I read this week

I’m so terrible at keeping up with this meme!

What are you reading now?

I just finished Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, recommended by applegnat, today. Very interesting! It does feel like the sort of book I should’ve read before now. /o\ Colley’s basic thesis is that Britain built its identity on distinguishing itself from various Others — most of all Catholic France. Reading this shed a lot of light on e.g. why Lucy Snowe is such a jerk about Catholics in Villette.

What did you just finish reading?

High Society by Venetia Murray. It’s basically a book about the kind of historical detail you’d want to know if you were writing a Regency romance. Most interesting for its mention of the book from which Georgette Heyer most probably drew all her bizarre Regency slang, contemporary bestseller Real Life in London by Pierce Egan.

What do you expect to read next?

I’ve got five more library books to work my way through, so I’ll probably read one of them. Probably Captives by Linda Colley, because I enjoyed Britons so much.