Posted by: biblioglobal | October 30, 2014

Hungary: The Door (Book-from-every-country #59)

Great cover.

Great cover.

The Door by Magda Szabo is one of those books that will stay with me a long time. I certainly have thought back to it often in the time since I finished reading it.

And that’s actually been quite a while! I read this back in August, intending it to be part of Women in Translation month. But then life got busy and here it is almost November

The Door was a recommendation from CottonWoolen who lives in Hungary and is doing a project of reading books from 20 countries in Europe. Thanks for the suggestion!

I think this book resonated with me because I’m one of those people who, when I feel like I’ve done something wrong, tend to hash the whole thing through again and again in my mind. The Door is basically that mental hashing and mashing turned into a book.

The Door is tightly focused on a single relationship, between the narrator (a writer) and her housekeeper, Emerence. Everything outside of this relationship happens in the background- a husband’s illness, history and politics, other people. Emerence is quite a character. She interviews her potential employers rather than the other way around. In some ways she seems like the ideal noble proletarian for a book originally published in Communist Hungary, but she also pushes some boundaries. Szabo, the author/narrator (the book seems to be largely autobiographical) also had a mixed relationship with the Communist government, sometimes in favor and sometimes out.

The way the book was structured, with the narrator retelling the story of her relationship with Emerence, meant that while the story was basically chronological, there were  some pieces of information that weren’t fully explained until later and other pieces of information which were foretold. As a result, I realized in the middle of the book that there were simultaneously things that I knew that the narrator didn’t yet know and also things that I didn’t know that the narrator did. That might sound annoying, but I found it an interesting reading experience.

I hope to read more of Magda Szabo’s books. Many of them aren’t translated into English, including the one that was voted in the top ten of the Hungarian version of The Big Read (coming in ahead of Harry Potter). But for some reason The Door has been translated twice.  It looks like more of her books are being translated since another of her books, Iza’s Ballad, was just published in English in August.

Posted by: biblioglobal | October 14, 2014

Dayton Literary Peace Prize 2014

With the Nobel Peace Prize being announced last week, this seems like a good time to talk about this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize. The Dayton Literary Peace Prize, in honor of the Dayton Accords which ended the Bonsian War, recognizes books which give readers “a better understanding of other cultures, peoples, religions, and political points of view”.

Like last year, I decided to focus primarily on the finalists for the non-fiction prize. (The list of fiction finalists can be found here.)


Here on the Edge by Steve McQuiddy- I checked this out of the library and read a few chapters. It’s about work camps for conscientious objectors during WWII. I actually hadn’t realized that these work camps existed, so it was interesting to learn a bit about them. This book focuses on one particular camp and specifically on art and culture developed withing that camp. I decided to focus more on reading some of the other finalists because it just seemed more narrowly focused than I was interested in. On the other hand, last year’s non-fiction runner-up, The Devil in the Grove, focused on a single case of Thurgood Marshall’s and that was a truly amazing book. So maybe I’m missing out by not reading more of this one.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler- I had expected this to be a more general book about problems and improvements in how we deal with death in the modern world. So I was a bit disappointed at first to realize that it’s much more of a memoir of Katy Butler’s experiences with the process of her parents aging and dying. But it really was a powerful work that made me think a lot (and made me feel rather depressed). She really highlights how hard it is to avoid medical interventions that will extend someone’s life even when their quality of life is extremely low. I sometimes felt that her experiences have swung her too far into the non-interventionist camp, but I could always understand where she was coming from and reading her experiences really opened my eyes. Ever since finishing it, I feel like I’m seeing articles on this topic everywhere. And it turns out that Atul Gawande has just published a book called “Being Mortal”, that looks like it is more or less the book I was expecting to read when I picked up this one. I really like Gawande’s writing, so I’m looking forward to reading it.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward- I feel guilty about it, but I just didn’t like this book. Jesmyn Ward writes about five young men in her life, including her brother, who died within a few years of each other. The story of her life growing up as an African-American in rural Mississippi is intertwined with the stories of their deaths. The book highlights a really important reality that all too often is ignored. But more than a third of the book consists of the author and her friends and family going out partying one night after another, getting drunk and using drugs. I have a pretty low threshold of irritation for drug and alcohol stories, so other people might not be bothered by this as much as me, but I found it tiresome pretty quickly, even though I was trying to be more empathetic.

Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel- I didn’t read this one. It’s about Iraq veterans trying to reintegrate into American society.





Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of
by Jo Roberts- I didn’t read this one either. Seems like I missed out!





Your Fatwa Does not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim
by Karima Bennoune- I was glad to see this book win. It was the one I was rooting for! Karima Bennoune is a human rights lawyer who grew up in Algeria. To write this book, she traveled the world and met with people of Muslim origin who fight fundamentalism. Of course, Malala Yousafzai, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, is probably the most famous example of this in the world right now. She’s hardly the only one though and this book tells many more people’s stories.

Actually, I think the book’s main flaw is that it tries to tell too many stories. No one gets more than a few pages. I think the would have been more engaging if Bennoune had picked a few examples to focus more on. I think she wanted all of these people to be heard and couldn’t bear to leave anyone out. I think she also wanted to convey a sense of abundance. That it isn’t just a few people who stand up to fundamentalism, there are many. And it is these people who bear the brunt of fundamentalist violence- from the reporters who insist on telling the story to artists who keep performing to women who refuse to be kept at home.

Bennoune is opinionated and provocative, but at the same time, a very careful writer. I’ve used the words Muslim and fundamentalism without specifying what I mean, but she defines her terms very carefully. She herself is non-religious, but she includes the perspective of both the religious and the non-religious. She strongly rejects the argument that women’s veiling themselves is a choice or simply a matter of cultural differences and criticizes international human rights organizations (she used to work for Amnesty International) for being focused on government abuses of human rights more than . Also, I now feel embarrassed for my naivety and ignorance when I wrote about women in Algeria.


Other posts on the Dayton Literary Peace Prize:

2013 Finalists

2013 Winners

2014 Distinguished Achievement award

Posted by: biblioglobal | September 15, 2014

Will I have a new country to add to my list?

It’s been a busy few weeks in the Biblioglobal household and I haven’t managed to post for a while. But in the meantime, I’ve been accumulating all sorts of things to write about. I’ve got books from Hungary and Timor Leste to discuss. Plus the Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist list has come out. Hopefully I’ll get to those posts soon, but in the mean time, there’s an event this week that could have direct impact on my project to read a book from every country.

This week could mark the creation of the first new country since I started my book-from-every-country project! I anticipated from the beginning that there would probably be a new country or two added during the course of the project. I was guessing Palestine though. Scotland was not on my radar screen.

This week, however, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. I haven’t followed all the details, but it seems like there’s about a 50/50 chance that the referendum will pass, based on current polling. I don’t have an opinion as to which way the vote should go, but I do think it would be fun to add Scotland to my reading list!

Even though it isn’t a country (yet), the internet is awash with Scottish book recommendations. There’s “The 20 Scottish books everyone should read“, “Your 100 best Scottish novels“, “Ten significant modern Scottish novels“,  as well as  “50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years“. I wish the literature of all the countries currently on my list was so well documented!

I find myself intrigued by Buddha Da by Anne Donovan, about a Glasgow man who suddenly decides to take up Buddhism. I also learned that Ali Smith, who I have been wanting to read, is Scottish, so this could be a good excuse.

Any Scottish book recommendations to help me choose from so many?

Posted by: biblioglobal | August 19, 2014

Dayton Literary Peace Prize distinguished achievement award 2014

The Round House by Louise ErdrichI’m thrilled to see that Louise Erdrich won this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Richard Holbrooke Award! The award is for an author’s whole body of work, rather than for a single book like the regular prize. Her novel Round House was on the fiction shortlist for last year’s prize and I was sad that she didn’t win.

First of all, it was a wonderful book that drew attention to the problem of violence against women on Native American reservations. I thought it was particularly deserving of the peace prize though because the book and Louise Erdrich’s activism, helped to change the law. The new version of the Violence Against Women Act includes changes to the law that close loopholes that made it difficult to prosecute offenders from off-reservation for crimes that occurred on reservation land. So definitely a well-deserved award. (Though I haven’t read any of Erdrich’s earlier books. I need to work on that.)

The 2014 shortlist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize should also be announced soon, and I’m looking forward to that too. Last year’s shortlist led me to read some amazing books. I mostly read from the non-fiction side. I had already read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Catherine Boo as my India book. But I don’t think I would otherwise have come across Far From the Tree, an eye-opening and thoughtful book about the lives of families with children who differ from their parents in substantial ways, covering topics ranging from deafness to child prodigies to transgendered children.

I also read The Devil in the Grove, about a case where Thurgood Marshall defended a group of black men accused of raping a white woman in Florida because it was on last year’s shortlist. All of the men were beaten, three were shot, and two killed by the police. I’ve found myself reflecting a lot this week about the police brutality depicted in the book and the ways in which we have and haven’t made progress since the 1940s.


Posted by: biblioglobal | August 12, 2014

Finland: The Summer Book (Book-from-every-country #58)

I'm probably being way too nit-picky, but the island in this picture has too many trees and not enough moss.

I’m probably being way too nit-picky, but I think the island in this picture has too many trees and not enough moss.

It took me some time to settle into The Summer Book and accept that it isn’t a children’s book. At first I thought that was just because I knew that the author, Tove Jansson, was also the author of the famous Moomins children’s series. But as I read, I realized that I was also reacting to the way the book was written. The writing uses simple words and sentence structures and the whole book is very episodic, with each chapter being its own story and not much of an over-arching plot, both of which are features consistent with children’s books. Furthermore, it is a story about a child and her grandmother and other than possibly a few swear words, there’s nothing in the content that wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone. But it isn’t a children’s book. Or maybe it is a children’s book written for adults.

I think that ought to be a genre.

Once I got used to the style, I very much enjoyed the book. Sophia and Grandmother (whose own name is never mentioned) spend summers on a remote island off the coast of Finland. Other than the occasional visitor and Sophia’s father (who always remains in the background), they have the island to themselves. They explore, always taking care not to destroy the moss by stepping on it, and visit nearby islands. The Summer Book could easily have been simply cozy nostalgia for childhood summers and I probably would have still very much enjoyed it if it had been. Instead it has much more bite to it, which is what unsettled me at first, but probably ultimately makes it a better book.

Sophia was a bit annoying sometimes, but Grandmother definitely goes on my  list of favorite characters (not that I have an actual list). I love the fact that she knows how to play. She doesn’t just play along to entertain Sophia, she plays for herself too. And she’s just just a wonderful mix of stubborn and loving, full of both wisdom and inconsistency. In one chapter she may be staying up all night to remake a piece of the miniature version of Venice they built, so that Sophia won’t be saddened by realizing that the original was swept away in a storm, but in the previous chapter she was arguing fervently with Sophia that there is no such thing as hell or the devil, refusing to cede her point no matter how much it upsets Sophia:

“[God] would never do anything so dumb as make a Hell”

Of course He did!”

“No He didn’t!”

“Yes He did! A big enormous Hell!” …Sophia shouted. “And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell!”

For a moment Grandmother considered saying that there was no Devil either, but she didn’t want to be mean.

Unsurprisingly, the natural world forms an important  part of The Summer Book and is probably the aspect which is most distinctively Finnish. One chapter is essentially a painfully well-done description of why it’s better to plant native plants. Then there’s the moss everywhere and sedges and bogs and migrating birds.  And the beautiful but treacherous ocean. Being Finland, it is sleeting in May when they arrive at the island. When the summer is coming to an end, it’s not so much that the nights are getting longer, but that they are getting darker. You can see the stars again and if you get up in the middle of the night you’ll need a flashlight.

Another theme in The Summer Book was the importance of not over-protecting children and letting them go have adventures even if there is some risk involved. That was definitely my own parents’ philosophy and one that I endorse, at least in theory. In practice as a grown-up now, I find that it’s hard and scary to do that. (Particularly perhaps since they aren’t my kids.) I’ve come to appreciate and be impressed by how my parents are able to do it. So I found I really related to a scene where Grandmother was terrified by something that Sophia was climbing. But she knew that she had to trust Sophia to be able to get herself down.

I read The Summer Book as part of Women in Translation month . It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal. Although Jansson was Finnish, her mother tongue was Swedish and that was the language she wrote in. In addition, this year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth (in fact the actual anniversary was last weekend) and I’ve been reading reviews of The Summer Book all summer. I think the first review I read, and the one that inspired me to read it was by Claire at Word by Word. Thanks Claire!

I’ve just discovered that Jansson drew illustrations for The Summer Book, but for some reason the edition I read (Random House, 1974) left out the illustrations! What a terrible decision on the part of the publisher! BiblioBoyfriend suggested that maybe they thought thought that having illustrations made the book seem too childish. I would say that if that is the case, they missed the point. I may have to track down another copy of the book, so that I can see the pictures. And maybe reread some of it at the same time.

Posted by: biblioglobal | August 5, 2014

Women in Translation: The hidden forces shaping my reading

I’ve been looking forward to Women in Translation month hosted by Biblibio, but I had mostly been thinking of it as an opportunity to read what I’m already reading anyway. After all, I like to seek out women writers and my book-from-every-country project encourages me to read a good number of translations.

It was interesting, then, to look at the numbers for the books I’ve read for the book-from-every-country project.

Out of 57 books I’ve read so far, 29 are written by one or more women, 27 by one or more men and one by both a woman and man. I’m happy with that ratio, though I’m always surprised both with these books and my reading more broadly that I read about 50% women and 50% men. I always feel like I’m reading more books by women. Interesting how perception works.

Looking specifically at works in translation though, 8 were by women, 15 were by men, and one by both a man and a woman. The numbers are small, so it could just be due to chance, but I find it interesting that I read fewer women in translation.

Biblibio put together a great post showing that of 442  translated novels published in English in the first part of 2014 only 28% were by women.* The numbers for 2013 were were similar. I knew that women were under-represented in translation, but I hadn’t realized how much that was shaping my own reading. Those systemic biases have been affecting my reading patterns without me even noticing.

Now that I know, however, I can push back some against that pattern. Women in Translation month is a great opportunity, both because I’ll be reading some books for it myself and because I’ll learn more about great women authors who have been translated.

Some of my favorite women in translation I’ve read so far for the book-from-every-country project are (links are to my posts):

  • The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli- Gioconda Belli now lives a suburban life in Los Angeles, but in an earlier life she was a member of the Sandinista guerrilla movement in Nicaragua.
  • A False Dawn by Ilona Lackova- The version I read of this book (ie English) was actually translated twice. Ilona Lackova’s oral stories, originally tape recorded in Romani, were then translated and transcribed in Czech. It was fascinating for its insights into life as a Roma woman in Slovakia.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi- This well-known graphic novel telling Marjane Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran made a good movie as well.

Hmm, interesting that these are all memoirs of various sorts. I didn’t realize that until I wrote them down. (Edit: Somehow I forgot to include The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke!)

And here are the books I picked up at the library this weekend for reading this month:

  • The Summer Book by Tove Jansson- I’ve been reading lots of rave reviews for this book as part of the celebration of  the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth. She was a Finnish author who wrote in Swedish, most famous for the Moomintroll children’s books. I’m looking forward to trying out her writing for adults.
  • The Door by Magda Szabo- This book was recently recommended to me as a Hungarian book to read. It looks like it is about the relationship between a woman employer and her housekeeper. (Seems like it might be interesting to read paired with The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar about the same topic.)
  • So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba- This is a classic novel in the form of a letter by a Senegalese woman, translated from French. It has been on my to-read list for a long time.

These books all turn out to be quite short, so I might get to all three of them this month, but it’s a busy month for me, so I’m hoping to finish at least two.

* For fun, I did a quick chi-square statistical test to determine the probability that such a result would occur from a process that was random with respect to gender. The answer: 0.0000000000000000028%

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 30, 2014

What countries publish the most books (relative to GDP)?

In the process of putting together the numbers for my post on reading the world logarithmically, I noticed that some countries with similar population sizes vary widely in how easy they are to find books for. Sometimes that is true even for countries that speak the same language and are in similar parts of the globe.

I started wondering about the variation in publication rates between countries. Having had so much fun with data-crunching posts recently, I thought I would do some exploring. The results turned out to be quite interesting!

I used data from,  a neat website which displays world maps in which the area of each country is scaled based on a particular statistic, whether it be population size or the number of nurses in a country. Here is their map for book publication: They very helpfully make the data they use available for download which made it easy for me to play around with it. Unfortunately, they have actual data for only 100 countries, so my results are somewhat limited. More detailed comments about the data are at the bottom of this post.

At first, I just looked at books published per capita.

Here’s the top 10:

Books published per million people:
1 Vatican City 228000
2 Iceland 5987
3 Denmark 2677
4 Switzerland 2538
5 Finland 2533
6 Estonia 2512
7 Andorra 2507
8 Monaco 2195
9 United Kingdom 2135
10 Slovenia 2118


And here’s the bottom 10 (keep in mind that data is missing for nearly half of the world’s countries and that countries with few books published are probably more likely to be missing data):

Books published per million people:
90 Myanmar 4.64
91 Oman 4.29
92 Algeria 4.25
93 Mali 2.62
94 Democratic Republic of Congo 2.19
95 Angola 1.67
96 Benin 1.36
97 Togo 1.04
98 Indonesia 0.56
99 Burkina Faso 0.40
100 Ghana 0.34


Surprise! Wealthier countries publish more books than poorer countries! You can see this quite clearly by graphing per capita GDP versus books published per capita. (I had to leave out Vatican City because at about 40 times more books per capita than any other country, it completely dwarfed all the others. Plus, Vatican City is a special case and I don’t think it’s reasonable to compare it to other countries.)


Iceland really does stand out with more than twice as many books published per person than any other country. I wasn’t surprised by this because Google is full of articles about how 1 in 10 Icelanders is an author. But it is also a pretty wealthy country which gives it a bit of an advantage.

I wanted to identify the countries that aren’t necessarily publishing the most books, but that are outperforming their economic situation. To do that, I needed some equation to calculate the expected number of books published for a given GDP. I tried a linear regression first, but that wasn’t a great fit for the data. A power law gave a better fit and seemed to be less biased for/against countries at the upper and lower end of the GDP scale. Then I calculated the percentage by which each country’s actual publication rate differed from the prediction.

I’m not going to list the bottom 10 countries, because I think that list is misleading for several reasons. I can say however that countries with high oil production tend to under-perform. It seems that oil wealth does not translate into literary wealth.

Here are the 10 countries which published the most books relative to their economic status:

Books published per million people:
Predicted: Actual:
1 Republic of Moldova 10 271
2 Estonia 311 2512
3 Belarus 87 613
4 Kyrgyzstan 12 82
5 Malawi 2 15
6 Georgia 21 134
7 Sri Lanka 43 246
8 Lithuania 236 1171
9 Latvia 197 947
10 Armenia 35 166


I find this result fascinating! (Iceland, by the way, just missed inclusion at #12) First of all, 8 of the top 10 are former members of the U.S.S.R, with the Baltic region being particularly well represented.  I particularly enjoy the fact that Moldova comes out on top, given that they so often get attention for more negative statistics. Sri Lanka, it turns out, makes some sense as it has a quite high literacy rate for a developing country- 91%.

Malawi’s presence on this list startled me. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa and in the world. In an absolute sense, the number of books published there is small. But it is huge compared to comparably poor countries. When I did web searches for books in Malawi, I found several commentaries complaining about the dearth of books in Malawi, but it seems like they may be doing better than they think.


More details:

  • The countries used by Worldmapper.prg are not entirely the same as my book-from-every-country list. For example, their list includes Vatican City, which I don’t include.
  • Amongst the many countries for which data is missing are both U.S. and China. There are other numbers for publication rates in the U.S. but I didn’t include it in my calculations since the source is different. If I had included it, the U.S. would have come out somewhere in the vicinity of Norway, which is the right-most point on the graph.
  • The data that used are from UNESCO. I can’t figure out how to look at the original data for UNESCO, so I don’t know how they collected the data. It also seems like UNESCO may no longer be collecting data on book publication rates, which is unfortunate.
  • Book publishing data are for year closest to 1999 for which there is data. To make their map, Worldmapper used estimates based on other countries in the region for countries which lacked data. 
  • GDP data are for 2002 because that’s the closest year to 1999 that was in the Worldmapper dataset. GDP data is in terms of $US, corrected for purchasing power parity.
  • There are a lot of problems with the use of GDP as a measure (some of which are described very well in this post). I strongly oppose using GDP as a measure of progress or development. I use it here as a rough measure of a country’s economic status because it is widely measured and easily available.
  • The specific list of countries which publish most relative to their GDP depends on the choice of what type equation is used to calculate prediction publication rate. My choice of equation type was somewhat arbitrary, and definitely not scientific. That being said, the countries listed are clearly ones that are publishing a lot relative to their economic status.
Posted by: biblioglobal | July 22, 2014

Nepal: The Tutor of History (Book-from-every-country #57)

Personally, I think this cover is overly ominous for the tone of the book.

I love to get book recommendations from people who know a country better than I do. The Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa was the recommendation of Elen at southasiabookblog who lives in Kathmandu and said that this book helped her understand what was going on with Nepali politics.

It’s very much a book about politics, and also a book about the lives of a number of people in Khaireni Tar, a small town. All of the main characters are connected in one way or the other with a small political party trying to get just a few seats in the national parliament. Khaireni Tar is one of their best hopes because their candidate is famous film star.

The Tutor of History was published in 2001 and set in the late 1990s. Nepal had only been holding elections since 1990, so democracy was very new. The book did a good job illustrating the challenges and opportunities. Since the book was written, the monarchy dissolved parliament and then parliament/the Maoists dissolved the monarchy and I don’t really understand what happened. Trying to figure that out and parse out all the political acronyms makes me understand why The Tutor of History might be so valuable for understanding Nepali politics.

The title actually refers to a character who is a history tutor, which amuses me. How much grander of a title The Tutor of History is than The History Tutor would be. Even though he’s the title character, the history tutor doesn’t play the role of a main character. The book is more of an ensemble piece, following the lives of some half a dozen major characters and several more minor ones. The ensemble illustrates what life is like in the small town of Khaireni Tar.

Khaireni Tar is a place big enough that you don’t know everyone, but small enough that you’ll probably see someone you know anywhere you go. The latter means that social reputation plays a huge role in people’s lives, leading to a strong influence of traditional values. Some people in town are starting to push back a bit against tradition though. There are a few more opportunities here than in smaller villages, but it is by no means the big city where people go to find their fortune. The individual characters were well enough developed that I ended up caring about most of them (although I never really warmed to the history tutor himself), but it is the life of the town as a whole that I think will be most memorable to me.

Reading this book corrected some of my misconceptions about Nepal. I had somehow always lumped Nepal together in my head with Bhutan and Tibet- mountainous places where Buddhism is dominant. It turns out that Nepal is actually a predominantly Hindu country (though many people mix Hindu and Buddhist practices) and many aspects of Tutor of History reminded me of India.

Something I really enjoyed about The Tutor of History, actually, was the feeling that I had some inside knowledge, based on my (albeit limited) knowledge of India. I recognized Indian English terms like ‘cousin sister’ that completely confused me when I first hear someone use them. “Wait, wouldn’t your cousin’s sister just be your cousin?” (Turns out it just means female cousin.) I even recognized some Nepali words as cognates of another language in the Hindi language family.  These things were all small details and its not that they would create a problem understanding the book if you didn’t recognize. Just that I felt pleased when I did recognize something that I wouldn’t have a few years ago.

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 16, 2014

Recovering a lost book memory

A year or two ago, I was reminded for some reason of a set of children’s books I had read long ago. But I couldn’t remember the titles or the author or really that much about them.

I remembered that the family in them was Swedish. And that in one of the books there was a scene where two girls went to visit their cool aunt at the farm and she taught them to make paper dolls- the ones where you fold paper accordion style and then when you cut them out all the people are holding hands.

Oh, and based on where I remember the book being located on the library shelves, the author’s name was somewhere in the middle of the alphabet.

Not a lot to go on.

I tried some Googling and didn’t get anywhere. I asked my sister, since she had read many of the same library books I had. But she didn’t know what I was talking about.

I thought at first that it would come back to me at some point when I wasn’t thinking about it. But a long time passed and I still didn’t remember. I decided that I really had forgotten and that unless I happened to come across the books somewhere they were probably lost forever.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I my first thought on waking up one morning was the phrase “The Crystal Tree”. I was momentarily puzzled, but then suddenly I realized, “That’s the name of that book!”  I rushed to my computer to look it up and sure enough, The Crystal Tree was third in a series of books by Jennie Lindquist about a girl named Nancy who goes to live with her Swedish grandparents and has fun with her cousins.

The books seem to be out of print and only available for way too much money. But they’re still there at my childhood library (the one where I always ran up the stairs), though sadly packed away in storage. I think the next time I’m back in town, I’ll have to call them up from storage and give them a re-read!

Posted by: biblioglobal | July 8, 2014

China: Empress Dowager Cixi (Book-From-Every-Country #56)

Dowager Empress Cixi

Apparently the bowls of apples were kept in the court for fragrance.

Here’s another example of the parochialism of an American education.* I’d never even heard of this amazing woman who went from being a low-ranked concubine to the de facto ruler of China for the better part of 40 years at about the same time Queen Victoria was ruling England.

Cixi had a bit of luck, in that she gave birth to the emperor’s only surviving son, but from there she took things into her own hands. She somehow managed to push aside the group of regents who the late emperor had assigned to rule and take charge herself, together with the late emperor’s wife.

Then, when her son died, Cixi adopted a new young son and declared him emperor (again with herself as regent). Her choice of adoptive son shows just how clever she was at the game of court politics. She chose the son of her chief enemy, Prince Gong. Sure, that was quite an honor for him, but it also meant that due to the rules about conflict of interest in the court, as the Emperor’s biological father Prince Gong had to resign from all of his official positions, including as leader of the Forbidden City palace guards.

Without a doubt Cixi is an impressive character. Whether she is admirable, however, seems to be a matter of much debate.  Jung Chang is out to disprove all the negative portrayals of Cixi, describing her as a reformer who introduced a modern education system, banned foot-binding, and was working towards implementing representative government. (Chang doesn’t dispute though that Cixi embezzled money from the navy to build herself a palace and had her adopted son murdered while on her deathbed.) I was confused then when Chang stated that Cixi is generally seen as being anti-reform. That was diametrically opposed to everything Chang had said about Cixi through the whole book.  I’m left not really knowing what to believe. It does seem that Cixi may have been unfairly villified, but at the same time I felt like I was only getting part of the story.

Besides Cixi herself, one thing that I found very interesting about this book is that it tells the history of China (unlike so much of the rest of the world) not being colonized. The relationship between China and the West was quite complicated, with China opening up and engaging with Western countries, sending diplomats and embracing Western technology and institutions, and at the same time, being under threat by the Western countries and Japan which kept demanding control over more and more ports and other territory.

I think the book’s shortcomings are the result of Jung Chang trying to write a book that is simultaneously a popular account of Cixi’s life and a history text arguing for a new interpretation of Cixi. One one hand, although the book is very well written and enjoyable to read, there are some times where it starts to drag on a bit, I think because it is also trying to be a serious historical text. On the other hand, presumably in order to keep the book as readable as possible, there isn’t really enough documentation in the book of sources to support the claims that are being made. Rather than comparing the evidence on either side, Chang just draws conclusions and even the references in the endnotes are pretty sparse for many of her claims.

Trying to write a book that is both popular and scholarly at the same time is a challenge. There are some scientific books, such as Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, that have successfully both appealed to a general audience and been cited in scientific literature. I haven’t read that much history (in fact this is the first history I’ve read for the book-from-every-country project!), so I don’t know if there are examples of this being done well in the field of history. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has any examples.

I’m certainly glad that I read this book and I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about the fascinating Empress Dowager Cixi to read it despite its flaws. Even though I’m left not knowing quite what to to think about Cixi, I wouldn’t have known anything about her at all, but for this book.

If the flaws do deter you from reading this book though, don’t let them deter you from reading Chang’s earlier memoir/family history, Wild Swans. It’s amazing and is the reason I wanted to read Dowager Empress Cixi in the first place.

* Seriously, here’s my middle and high school social studies curriculum: 7th grade-U.S. history, 8th grade- State history and U.S. government, 9th grade- World history (all of it), 10th grade- U.S. history again, 12th grade- U.S. government again. 


Older Posts »