Witness to Revolution

Title: Red Fire: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution

Author: Wei Yang Chao

Setting: Beijing, China 1960s

Ever wondered what it would be like to be a witness to history, to watch these watershed moments take place in front of your eyes? From what I’ve read, the answer is – terrifying. Wei Yang Chao was a witness to one of the biggest revolutions in history, especially if you go by the sheer number of people involved. He attended one rally that included over a million people, and the prospect of violence at every turn. He was lucky to survive.

This book  is a first-hand account of the Cultural Revolution in China. Chao was there after the Summer Palace was destroyed. He was a witness to the rise of the Red Guard. He saw teachers and other “enemies of the state” tortured, sometimes to death. His own parents were victims of a “struggle session” as soldiers his own age smashed through the house and beat his parents.

This was an incredible but grim read. To me it was nothing but terror and abuse, as the country fell into chaos. But Chao was more caught up in the struggle. At times, he wanted to fight against the class enemies, but when people he respected became targets, he would question why this revolution had to be so violent.

I would definitely recommend this book. I knew little about this time, so I found it darkly fascinating. It’s not for everyone. It is violent. But it’s an important record of real life.

I received this book free in exchange for an honest review.


Life by the Sea

This is an encore review. Enjoy!

Title: The Sea for Breakfast

Author: Lilian Beckwith

Setting: Scottish highlands, about 1950s

Lillian Beckwith goes to live in tiny Bruach, a village in the Scottish highlands. This is her second book about her adventures there, but I hadn’t read the first and figured everything out just fine.

It’s just a string of stories, relating to her life in the village, one day cutting peat, one day taking her cow to the bull, one day trying her hand at lobstering. Underneath all her adventures are a sense that this is the life. It’s hard, it’s dirty, it’s different from everything she expected – but it is real.

Some of the stories are fictionalized a bit. She uses dialect to try to convey the accents of the villagers, which can be a little confusing to read. There is a very brief glossary at the back, but I was still a little stumped as to some of the words. But it made for very relaxing, funny, lighthearted reading. Most of her books are out of print, but if you happen to find one, they really are lovely books.


Book Review: French Fried

10478123Title: French Fried: One Man’s Move to France with Too Many Animals and an Identity Thief

Author: Chris Dolley

Setting: Rural France about 10 years ago

Found it: Read other things by this author

Format: Ebook

Author Chris Dolley and his wife decided they’d had enough of the rat race (for reasons I never quite grasped, but which ultimately don’t matter) and packed up the whole household for a sojourn in rural France. Despite not reliably speaking French, not having transport when there, and only seeing the house once. Yeah, if it sounds like an adventure and not like a crazy idea, then you’d like this book. If it sounds like an adventure when someone ELSE does it, you still might enjoy this book. I tried it because I am a BIG fan of his steampunk series, Reeves and Worcester. (Think a steam powered version of PG Wodehouse). This one was completely different, but the sense of humor that had me in giggles with his steampunk series is definitely at work here. Their move and the attendant chaos was hilarious.

I loved their friendships they made with the locals, but when he got to explaining the identity theft, I got caught in all the details and lost interest. I skipped around some there, so I’d only rate it a 3.25. But I completely recommend his R&W series. Wodehouse would approve.

Book Club: Life With Father

father_sonMy book club’s pick for April was the old book, Life With Father by Clarence Day, Jr. We had our meeting last night and we all had a great time.

The book is written as a memoir by the oldest son, who recalls growing up with an autocratic serious father in New York City in the 1880s. At first, I couldn’t stand Clare, as the dad was called. He was strict, grouchy, authoritarian and humorless. But as I got into the book, I began to pick up on the humor of a man who despite knowing exactly how the world ought to be run, finds that people around him never quite go along with his plans. The humor of the situation began to grow on me and I wound up enjoying the book.

One of the best parts of the book was the setting. I loved reading about the ice delivery, about dining at Delmonico’s, about installing the newfangled telephone. Eventually I decided that dads haven’t changed much in the last 120 years after all.

Book Review: Cat Daddy

20150602_154823Title: Cat Daddy: What the World’s Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean

Author: Jackson Galaxy, the guy on My Cat From Hell

Genre: Memoir, animal behavior

This is not Jackson Galaxy’s cat pictured above. It’s my cat, Tina, who adopted us one Valentine’s Day. I stick to my story that I thought she was a present from my husband who knew how much I wanted a cat. By the time he came home from work, we had cat food, a little box, and three little kids who were in love with the pretty kitty.

As you can tell, I am definitely a cat person. So I was prejudiced in favor of his show and his book. He’s got an amazing rapport with animals, especially cats. He just connects with them. I really admire the guy.

But I had no idea what a mess the dude was before he got clean. Back in the day, the only part of his life that made sense and did not revolve around substances of various kinds was the part he spend with animals. They worked magic. But it wasn’t until he adopted Buddy, an abandoned cat with a broken pelvis, that he began to feel the need to get clean.

It wasn’t easy. It was amazing that he survived. After his first bout of getting clean from drugs, he still had drinking, prescription abuse, and finally food to detox from. I could totally related to his abuse of Klonopin, as I have a close friend who does the same thing. She’s realized how deeply it has affected her, but she can’t seem to give it up entirely. Jackson was much more lucky that he should have been. He didn’t even wind up in the psych ward for any length of time (Although at one point, he wanted to be. He knew he needed help. But his doctor wouldn’t admit him.) After lots of serious work and a move he finally got clean.

This one is recommended reading, especially for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold and is having trouble visualizing a way to achieve their dreams. Jackson didn’t fit in, but he still created his own success. 4 stars

Call the Midwife

Reading Decathlon, book 4

Title: Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times

Author: Jennifer Worth

Genre: memoir

Setting: East End London, 1950s

Source: PBS/Goodreads


Themes: class, birth, religion, family, women’s rights, medicine

Story: Middle class girl Jennifer decides she wants to be a midwife. After studying nursing, she goes to the East End (working class) of London to live and work with the midwife nuns. The nuns are more compassionate and less strict that the hospitals where she has worked, but she is unprepared for the realities of working class poverty.

Pros: There were so many great characters in here. I loved reading about Conchita Warren, who winds up with 25 children! And I loved reading about the other students and how they got into midwifery. Despite the culture shock, the students try hard to be respectful of their patients.

Setting is also really key. The book is a stark reminder of how much some things have changed for the better, and yet, not everything. The book is set just as the National Health program provides free universal health care, but the plagues of prostitution and drugs are even more of a problem now.

Cons: The author doesn’t seem to know what tone she wants for her book. Is it a feel good but honest sort of James Herriot approach to midwives? Or is it gritty and socially aware? I’m not sure what it was supposed to be. I think most readers who picked it up for the medical memoir aspect are going to be very unhappy with the prostitution chapters. She tells the story of Mary, a young girl fleeing an abusive stepfather, and her seduction into working at a brothel. She ends up pregnant and terrified, and only 15 years old. That is enough to break your heart, but then Worth describes in detail many of the sex acts offered at the brothel. That’s a little too much for me.

I would cautiously recommend this one, but from what I hear, the PBS series is better. I wish I had just watched it instead. 3.25 stars