Harriet the Bookaholic: August 2015

I tackled a couple of enormous books this month, and their heft kind of slowed me down. Middlemarch is 900+ pages, and one about Joan of Arc is 600 pages of tiny text, if printed like a regular novel instead of a tiny-text-encyclopedia book it probably would have exceeded 1,000 pages. I’m glad I liked Middlemarch as much as I did, because some of my other selections weren’t that great. (Sad panda.)


The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened The World and Changed History, by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman (2 stars). Meh. This book is not really about volcanoes, it is about the climate change caused by a massive explosion in Indonesia in 1815 and the subsequent world-wide cooling in 1816. There are reasons the only books written about weather minutiae for a single year are almanacs…it’s just not that engaging. Only the first two chapters actually talk about the volcano, everything else is day-by-day temperatures, rainfall, and drought/famine, but very poorly written. There are a few tidbits about paintings or literature or social movements that were inspired by the unusual weather (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was, for me, the most interesting), but not enough to redeem the book.

Additional Recommended Reading: Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, by Simon Winchester (a far better book about volcanoes); One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson (a better-written book about a single year of history).

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, by Jeanne d’Arc (4 stars) Without the English mis-trial (and it’s volumes of documents) this book could not exist, the bulk of her words and statements were taken from her trial records, either being stated by her, or from the deposition of witnesses at her trial testifying to her character. This is a quick read, a few hours max, but it was so delightfully simple and clean. Joan was not an overly complicated person, she was devout and determined and patriotic. I’m not saying her character is one-sided, I’m saying that it is easy to grasp the fullness of her mission and her chutzpah in a hundred and fifty pages of her words. Recommended. (Also, if you aren’t overly familiar with Joan of Arc, there is a really great synopsis of her life and campaigns at the end which can help fill in some of the gaps.)

An Army of Angels: A Novel of Joan of Arc, by Pamela Marcantel (2 stars). Holy Tediousness!! This book should have been hundreds of pages shorter and would have been far superior for the edits; get this lady an editor, stat! Additionally, hundreds of pages of hero-worship for Joan of Arc (who I admire in many, many ways) gets pretty old when she is constantly waging war and calling for massive violence in the name of God. Catholic French fighting Catholic English because both claim their divine king should be the supreme ruler of the French provinces is not all that inspiring, and the trial of heresy and blasphemy because the English cardinal didn’t believe Joan was even worse. Does Joan herself do some freaking amazing things in the face of the historical times in which she lived, her being a woman in a man’s world (both medieval world and world of war), and her actions and accomplishments for anyone so young and uneducated? Yes. She does. Add to that her claims of divine leadership, visions, and voices and you have a legend. It’s not every day a 19-year old village girl leads a decrepit army to victory against the largest occupying force on the continent and actually crowns her king during the coronation ceremony. Pretty awesome stuff, really. But the chapter after chapter of justification (by the author, it seemed) for Holy War was soul-sucking. With ISIS and the Westboro Baptists and all the other violence in the name of religion going on right now it is disheartening to realize that this kind of battle has been fought for thousands of years, and will probably continue for another thousand years. But does fighting really please god? Any god? Is murder and violence and cold-blooded killing truly pleasing to a father of humanity? I think no, and that was the point that–for me–was really driven home throughout this book. Not that Joan, or the English, or author Marcantel ever come to that conclusion. (They don’t. It’s all glorious, blessed holy war for them; pages of violence and torture and battles as evidence of honor and faith in God…you know, with a few token Hail Mary’s, or forgive the sinners, or repent and be saved, ye godless, heathen English soldiers/French witch. Blech!)

Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain (one of my favorites); Henry VI, Part 1, by William Shakespeare (reading Henry V to set up why the English are in France in the first place wouldn’t hurt either).

Classic Literature

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4 stars). I love, love, love Garcia Marquez’s writing! I want him to write the narrative of his life. So, the book itself is primarily about love/lust deferred, and what happens when you suddenly have the opportunity to pursue a relationship you’ve been dreaming about for decades. This book has been described as a novel-length response to the question “What is love?” I think there is a lot of truth to that, actually. Florentino and Fermina both have to re-evaluate themselves, their individual history, their relationship history, and the rest of their lives before they can truly be together. This is a love story, but it’s not all butterflies and roses. It’s a lot like, you know, real life. Cholera and death and arguments and floating away on a quarantined boat to spend the remainder of your lives together.

Additional Recommended Reading: 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Middlemarch, by George Eliot (5 stars). I have tried and tried to like Jane Austen, but I just cannot get into her writing and assumed I just disliked all Regency romance books. That being said, I absolutely loved Portrait of a Lady and so decided to try George Eliot. People, I’ve found my new spirit animal. Eliot’s characters are delightfully sarcastic and her narration above and around them gives them self-awareness and depth that I have personally not found in Austen’s writing. I don’t know if I can say enough good things about Middlemarch, Eliot is brilliant, her story line is complex and detailed and the characters are involved in everyone’s lives and family (like in any proper English manor town), it was like watching three seasons of Downton Abbey without having quite so much dRAmAz! with the servants and Lady Mary (oh, Lady Mary). Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

Harriet sig


Harriet the Bookaholic: July 2015

Over the last few weeks I have continued my obsession with Russian Literature and the history of the Romanov family. I still have a fat biography of Catherine the Great that I need to tackle, but after that I think I’ll have exhausted my current stash of books about Mother Russia. For a little while, at least. I also got a bit on a classic literature kick and had a serious jonesing for the legend/history of Pope Joan, a brilliant woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest rank in the Catholic Church.

Non-Fiction / Personal Development

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, by Laura Vanderkam (3 stars). I both really loved and appreciated and really rolled my eyes a lot at this book. Vanderkam has pages of fantastic suggestions for better time management, better prioritization, and better efficiency at work. She is less helpful (in my opinion) for improvement at home. It seems her solutions for work-related time issues are solid and thought out and take into account possible cramps like office style, manager style, and industry. However, he solutions for better efficiency at home seem to all skew toward “just outsource it.” If this book was confined only to work-related efficiency I would have given it 5 stars. If it was confined only to home-related efficiency I would have given it 1 star. So, there’s that.

Additional Recommended Reading: The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande; The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin; Strengths Finder, by Tom Rath.

The Legend of Pope Joan

Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross (4 stars). There was so much of this book that I love, love, loved. The basic premise is that during the 9th century young Joan, who loved to study and learn, eventually landed herself in a Schola where she was taught Latin and relished in reason (vs the more conventional study of uber-Catholic texts). Eventually she disguised herself as a man named John, joined a monastery, made her way to Rome and eventually rose to the office of Pope within the Holy Roman Empire (Pope John VIII). I loved the mystery and the fragmented pieces of stories that make up this half-myth / half-history. I loved the details that the author filled in out about life and the status of women in the Dark Ages of Europe. Minus one big, fat star for the gratingly irritating “love story” that the author felt just must be included. Blergh. WHY MUST THERE ALWAYS BE A LOVE STORY WHEN A BRILLIANT WOMAN IS CONCERNED!!? CAN’T SHE JUST STAND ON HER OWN!? Ahem.

Pope Joan: A Historical Study (1886), by Emmanuel Rhoides, translated by Charles Hastings Collette (4 stars). This translation of Rhoides research from the 1800’s on the authenticity of Pope Joan/Pope John VIII was full of documentation both for and against the actuality of Joan having existed. Many historians and scholars in the Catholic hierarchy claim Joan was invented by the Protestants to discredit the Throne of St. Peter. Rhoides argues that there are enough independent accounts of her that have been uncontested by the Catholic church to prove that she existed. Now, the details surrounding her life, her papacy, and her death have all sorts of inconsistencies, but in my opinion, and in Rhoides’, she absolutely existed and was elected Pope. Fascinating little book.

The She-Pope: A quest for the truth behind the mystery of Pope Joan, by Peter Stanford (5 stars) Stanford takes a much more scholarly approach than the novel “Pope Joan” by Donna Woolfolk Cross, and I appreciate the more journalistic searching/interviewing than was present in Emmanuel Rhoides book. Stanford explores ancient libraries and talks to Catholic historians and priests in the Vatican. He searches for documents and stories and plays in German and French and Latin that mention a female Pope and compares the similarities and differences to the Pope Joan story. He makes an argument for Joan as a truth and also for her story as legend (created (or not?) by Protestant Reformers trying to discredit the Catholic Church). I loved his cross-referencing of historical documents from around Europe and I also loved that in his writing he also inserted some of his own personal search, as a Catholic journalist and religious writer his grappling with facts and myth and legend was interesting and did not take away from the story. Excellent read.

Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain. (Not the same Joan; different Joan.)

Classic Literature

Daisy Miller, by Henry James (4 stars). My first Henry James and I love his writing style, voice, and descriptions. Miss Daisy is a feisty young girl vacationing with her family in Europe and completely indifferent to the customs and social mores that should surround a young woman her age and in her position. I like her independence and her character, I’m less enthused by the narrator, another American man who has fallen for Daisy but whom she emotionally tortures and  then ignores.

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (5 stars). Oh my goodness, this book is a new favorite!! James has nailed psychological profiling for characters in ways that I doubt anyone else of his time has been able to do successfully. The intrigue and sense of propriety that surrounds the decisions of his major and minor roles is wonderfully executed. I love the introspection he gives his characters after a major scene or interaction. I LOVE Isabel and identify with her so much. In many ways she reminds me of Jo March with a little bit of Amy mixed in. She is perfection. Read this! I know you’ll love it!

Additional Recommended Reading: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain; A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.

To A God Unknown, by John Steinbeck (4 stars). One of his earliest novels, this story is populated by the mystic, mythic, larger-than-life characters and events. There are pagan beliefs and Catholic vs Protestant struggles and, overall, a deep emotional and physical tie to the land. Joseph Wayne moves to California to homestead and is joined by his brothers, a wife, and a child. Joseph’s ties to his property and the protection of his crops and animals is fierce and reflects a lot of Native American sensibilities (rocks and trees and rain as humanistic, with needs and desires and avenging actions). Steinbeck’s writing is not as sweeping as in East of Eden (an obvious expanded theme of To A God Unknown), but his weaving of biblical imagery and earth worshiping was just wonderful. Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

Russian Literature & History

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, by Robert K. Massie (4 stars). What happened to the Romanovs after they were shot, firing squad style, in 1918? The short story is that their bodies were covered in acid, burned, and tossed into an unmarked mass grave and left. In the 1970’s a small handful of individuals took it upon themselves to try and locate the final resting place of the last Tsar of Russia, and by piecing together tiny fragments of information over 50 years old, and spending a LOT of time in the forests around Ekaterinburg, they finally found 9 of the 11 Romanov skeletons. (Spoiler, several years after this book  was published the other 2 were located, which included the Tsarevich Alexie.) Massie details the murder, the cover up, the exhumation, and the ensuing political and legal battle(s) over what to do with the remains of the last Tsar of Russia and his family. 

Additional Recommended Reading: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie; The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg, by Helen Rappaport; The Invisible History of the Human Race, by Christine Kenneally.

Chekhov’s Major Plays: Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov (4 stars). I have seen bits and pieces of The Seagull, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard, but this was the first time I read them all. Written during Imperial Russia’s decline there is a sense of a fading aristocracy learning to deal with reality (losing estates, running out of money), family decline, and the rise of modern society. I think Ivanov was my favorite of the five, certainly the most humorous.

The Duel, by Anton Chekhov (3 stars). The basic premise is that Ivan and his mistress are living together in sin and a busy-body is so offended by this fact that he challenges Ivan to a duel that no one else really wants to see happen and is foiled at the last minute by a priest crashing out of the bushes. A few good lines, but not super intriguing.

Lectures on Russian Literature, by Vladimir Nabokov (3 stars). Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I was so excited to follow up some serious reading of Russian literature with this collection of his lectures and writings about various authors and books. The gist is that Anna Karenina is Nabokov’s favorite and he spends more than half of this book discussing it’s plot, characters, and Tolstoy’s writing style and philosophical platform(s). I really wish I’d read this when A. K. was fresher in my mind. Nabokov hates Dostoyevsky and finds him hardly passable as an author (I personally disagree) and appreciates Chekhov. The other Russian writers (Gogol, Turgenev, Gorki) I am unfamiliar with, but I still loved reading Nabokov’s direct, academic, often sarcastic, and sometimes hilarious reviews of their writing.

Additional Recommended Reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; The Proposal, by Anton Chekhov; Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov; Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

Young Adult

Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (4 stars). Not sure why I never read this before (or saw the movie, I know, I live under a rock or something), but I loved the heroine and her thought processes, I loved the idea that being brave isn’t being unafraid, it is being scared to death and doing the right thing anyway. Such a wonderful book and message. Everyone read this! Recommended by Jactionary.

Additional Recommended Reading: Star Girl, by Jerry Spinelli; Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.

Harriet sig

Harriet the Bookaholic: March 2015

I really love these monthly book posts, I love keeping tabs on my own reading habits and writing a little paragraph about each book I finish. I have really enjoyed coming up with recommendations of similar or complimentary books for each of these titles/subjects and combing through past literary experiences. I am also the type of person who loved getting stickers on her chart and checking off all the boxes in a to-do list. Shocker, I know.


I feel it important to mention here that in March I took myself on two road trips, one about 1500 miles round trip, the other about 700 miles, and during those drives I listened to audio books, specifically, to Anna Karenina and Moby-Dick, both hundreds and hundreds of pages on their own (and hours and hours of listening), but with over 40 hours of drive time, it was totally manageable to get through both those behemoth classics as well as a half-dozen other books.

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (5 stars). What a tremendous story! I knew the basic plot of this sweeping novel, but I had no idea how expansive and involved the characters are, their relationships, their duties, their sense (or lack of) moral judgements and behavior. I love how Tolstoy uses various points of view to tell the story–one of my favorites was a brief chapter told from the perspective of Konstantin Levin’s hunting dog–and I love how full these characters are painted. While Anna, her husband Karenin, and Count Vronsky all fell fairly flat for me, uninteresting, and perhaps a little more one-dimensional as they were three cast as “villains” or “un-Christian”, I really loved the relationship between Konstantin Levin and Kitty; I love Konstantin the most, I think, as Tolstoy intended. I realize that as Tolstoy’s hero Kostya receives more positive attributes overall and a more sympathetic story arc, but I still loved him, even in his stumbles and faults as he makes his way as an agricultural baron, husband, and father. I know many people stumble with all the Russian names, but I really loved them and how specific people refer to others by specific nicknames or not, depending on their relationships. This reminded me of some the the great, sweeping epic pieces of literature with dozens of characters and stories and side-stories and rambling plots that overlay each other again and again.

Additional Recommended Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez; East of Eden, by John Steinbeck; Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

Moby-Dick; or the Whale, by Herman Melville (5 stars). I went into this book with very little expectation, and I absolutely loved it. I loved Ishmael, I loved his perspective and voice and I love how Melville gave him these hilarious sarcastic moments. I actually laughed out loud on several occasions. Yes, this is a book about a whale, not necessarily about catching said whale, or even chasing said whale, although there are parts of that, for sure. But really, this is a giant, 700-page manifesto on a white spermaceti whale, and other whales, and other giant fishes, and the history and biology of all of those. I loved it. Spoiler: if you’re looking for a 700-page chase you will be disappointed. Moby-Dick himself doesn’t really show up for Captain Ahab until chapter 132 of 135. So, change your expectations on that, if necessary. Honestly, this had as much natural science in it as some of the Darwin books I’ve read; it was fascinating to me, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you know, be advised. My favorite quote (which has nothing to do with whales or whaling or sailors or ships or the sea, but still hit me in the gut): “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Additional Recommended Reading: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway; Ahab’s Wife, or The Star Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund;
Charles Darwin: Voyaging, by E. Janet Browne

20th Century China

Fun fact: I minored in Mandarin Chinese at University and while I don’t speak it well I can still read it with some level of proficiency…not like literary critiques or political treatises, but simple stuff. I have taken a number of college-level Chinese history and literature classes, but I kind of forgot how much I loved this topic until I selected The Good Earth on a whim for book club. And then, per usual, I had to read a million more books on 20th century China.

Harriet Reads 20th Century China_feistyharriet_March 2015

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). I have so many thoughts about this book, and so many reactions and notes written in the margins. Firstly, it both angered and baffled me the attitudes and behaviors of the characters towards the women in their lives. Women are slaves, prostitutes, concubines, and bearers of children, but not equals in any way shape or form. And all the problems that come with this premise are in almost every page of this book. I realize that Wang Lung is a product of his own environment, culture, and attitudes of his country, but it still pissed me off at almost every turn. Wang Lung’s views of his own place in society are nearly completely based on what others think of him, and his opinions on his wife, concubine, and the child sex slave are all completely based on what others will think of these respective women. O-lan, the dear, loyal O-lan, works herself to the bone for her husband and their land and family, and Wang Lung is disgusted by her because she isn’t pretty and her feet are large, and this disgust continues and grows throughout his life, and it just…not okay. Other than the feminist rage, this is a sweeping epic of a family trying to adjust to the tricky cycle of poverty turning to wealth and prosperity, and the changes in the family that comes from not needing to work the land for your bread, and needing to keep up appearances. The rise and eventual implied fall of the House of Wang is so similar to that of the family who owned this land prior to Wang Lung, and we can only assume that this family will suffer a similar fate. This is a beautiful book, but it also made me very angry, but I loved it…I have so many thoughts and feelings!

Sons, by Pearl S. Buck (4 stars). The second of The House of Earth trilogy, I liked this book more than its Pulitzer-winning predecessor. Where “The Good Earth” follows the farmer Wang Lung as he acquires more and more land and becomes a wealthy man, “Sons” follows the story of his three sons, Wang the Landlord/the eldest, Wang the Merchant/the second son, and–my favorite–Wang the Tiger, a soldier who aspires to become a war lord over the lands of the north. These three Wang’s have children of their own and struggles and triumphs and must deal with their father’s estate and the changing times as agrarian China slowly becomes a staging ground for the Maoist revolution, the way of life of the Wang family must change with this new, rising China.

A House Divided, by Pearl S. Buck (3 stars). The third and final book in The House of Earth series, this one was my least favorite. It follows the life of Wang Yuan, son of Wang the Tiger, son of Wang Lung the farmer. Yuan trains to be a soldier for his warlord father, and then to be a revolutionary soldier at a school in the South (Nanjing, I think?), but he really just wants to be a farmer, despite never having hoed a row in his life. Farming is completely unacceptable to his father, so Yuan runs away and spends some time in what I think is Hong Kong becoming a modern Chinese man (i.e. one in western dress who goes dancing with loads of good looking, fashionable friends). During one of the many revolutions in China Yuan gets tossed in prison, is bailed out by his family, and is sent to America to escape further imprisonment.  (It’s kind of hard to tell what exactly is going on in a larger framework because Buck doesn’t name any cities, or years, or really any identifying information, which in many ways makes this series kind of timeless, but also makes it hard to figure out which rebellion the characters are fighting for/against, and how that plays out in the larger realm of Chinese history and ultimately what it means for the Wang family.) Yuan spends some time studying agriculture in the United States (Boston, I think) and makes friends with some white people (Irish Catholics, perhaps, due to the accent and red hair) and becomes much more patriotic about China than he ever was living there, moves back to China and tries to figure out what he will do with the rest of his life, i.e. find a girl to marry. I dunno…I just didn’t love this final book. Yuan seems to be both soldier and farmer, but also neither of those things. He has these very strange ideas about women and dating that are this bastardized version of East vs West/old vs new that is SUPER irritating, such as: “We’ve never been alone together, have hardly spoken, and certainly have never expressed any feelings, but I know I want to marry her because I love her and young people should be able to choose our wives instead of have our parents choose….but WHY DIDN’T SHE CHOOSE ME! THAT’S NOT OKAY! SHE SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THAT ANYONE WANTS HER AND WHY DOES SHE WANT TO BE A DOCTOR AND NOT A MOTHER! HAS SHE NO RESPECT?! SHE SHOULD FEEL SO LUCKY THAT SOMEONE AS GREAT AS ME DEIGNS TO WANT HER AT ALL!”…so you know, I have some issues with his thought processes. Anyway, this seemed to drag on and on and on and I just…I was glad when it was over.

Red Azalea, by Anchee Min (4 stars). While I read this in one sitting, I wouldn’t say this is an easy read. Anchee Min was raised in Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution, was forced to denounce her teachers, became a leader in the the Red Guard (the Chinese equivalent of the Hitler Youth), and spent years working essentially as a soldier-slave on a farm, and was selected to join the film industry to work on a project for Madame Mao. Many reviews complain about choppy language and lack of introspection, and yes, both of those things exist in this book. However, you’ve got to remember that Min’s schooling was not in literature and composition and prose, or even poetry and opera. She recited by rote the teachings and writings of Mao and for 10 years the ONLY music allowed in China was 9 operas of Madame Mao which reeked of propaganda. The choppy sentences and simple language enhance the story, they are proof of the “success” of Mao’s re-education of the intellectual class to turn them to farmers and factory workers and janitors. While Min works 16 hours a day at a farm collective (which does not grow enough crops to sustain itself and has deplorable conditions) she craves human connection, emotion, something other than communist propaganda. When Min and Yan, a fellow soldier-slave, become friends and eventually lovers I wanted to cry and cheer that Min finally had some kind of human connection, that she finally could experience some kind of emotion outside of violence, control, and political propaganda which claims all emotions are unnecessary and capitalistic, and therefore punishable. I really appreciated this book, it moved me and helped me understand a lot more about Maoist China and how this man single-handedly destroyed so much of the culture and collective memory of his country.

Bound Feet and Western Dress, by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang (3 stars). I love the idea behind this autobiographical/memoir which mostly focuses on Yu-i, a woman born in China at the beginning of the 20th century who grows up and comes of age as her country moves away from its more traditional ways such as foot binding, arranged marriages, socially accepted concubines, filial responsibilities, and an abhorrent preference for sons. Yu-i’s story is told by her 20-something great-niece, Pang-Mei, who was born in Connecticut and is trying to understand her American and Chinese heritage. I loved the story; I loved Yu-i and watching her transform from a subservient woman to a strong independent one who tackled the responsibilities of her life with both Western sensibility and Eastern responsibilities. She truly was an incredible driving force of change and hope for so many Chinese women. That being said, minus one star because I didn’t love the writing (this is a first novel) and I didn’t love Pang-Mei’s additions of her life throughout the book, I felt they were detracting. In creating a dual-perspective story Pang-Mei and/or her editor/publisher did not figure out a way to help the reader determine which woman was being discussed at any given time.

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min (3 stars). I really wanted to love this book, a biographical novel of Pearl S. Buck. However, while the author is clearly passionate about Buck and her writings, her treatment of the Chinese in her writings and her lifelong dedication to good works for the Chinese…this book just doesn’t seem to do her justice. As historical fiction it is probably fine, but as a sort-of biography one of a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner she falls very short. Most of the story is focused on Willow, the narrator and childhood friend of Pearl. And while I appreciate a story about Buck told from a Chinese point of view, I feel like so much was missed and so much more was blatantly made up to make a good story. If this had simply been a story of Willow, a young peasant girl coming of age during the Boxer Rebellion and living through Mao’s terrible reign, I would have given this 4 stars. But I feel like I have to deduct a star for taking a life as prominent and famous as Pearl S. Buck and playing with chronology, characters, and history by turning her experience into fiction. (For example, an entire section of the book focuses on a hardly documented (in real life) love affair between Buck and Hsu Chih-mo, a famous Chinese poet and the husband of Chang Yu-i; yes, that Yu-i who is the star of Bound Feet and Western Dress (see review, above). However in Yu-i’s story Pearl S. Buck is not mentioned whatsoever…so….it just seemed a little more of a stretch than necessary and in digging around online for a minute I couldn’t find much that corroborated this affair. I have since ordered a proper biography and Pearl S. Buck’s autobiography, hopefully I’ll have a better response from those.

Additional Recommended Reading: Empress Orchid and The Last Empressby Anchee Min; The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang; Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie; Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan; 

Women in History

Heroines of History, by John S. Jenkins (3 stars). I liked this, I liked listening to stories of these women, some of whom I knew very little about. This book gives a few chapters about the following powerful women: Cleopatra, cunning and beautiful queen of the Nile who succeeded in bedding not one, but TWO Caesars of Rome; Isabella I of Castile who maintained her place as a co-ruler of Spain and eventually funded Columbus; Joan of Arc, soldier-maid who united France; Maria Theresa, Queen Regent and final monarch of the House of Habsburg, sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, and several other kingdoms, and Holy Roman Empress, she was also the mother of Marie Antoinette (and fourteen other children!!) and a powerful and important ruler in Europe for 40 years. Maria Theresa was by far my favorite of this series and I’ve added 2 more books about her to my stacks; Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon I and empress of France; Elizabeth I, Queen of England and patron of the Elizabethan era of literature and art, as well as a lot of bloody religious battles with Scotland, Spain, France, Ireland, and Russia; Mary, Queen of Scots who reigned for only a few years in Scotland before she was thrown into prison by her bitter rival, Elizabeth I, where she remained for almost 20 years until her execution; Catherine the Great of Russia, a ruthless ruler who killed those in the way of her rise to power, expanded the Russian empire to great loss of life, lived extravagantly while her people starved..yet her reign was considered the Golden Age of the Russian Empire (and it probably was, for the nobles); Marie Antoinette, the lavish young queen of France who met her ultimate demise at the guillotine, and Madame Roland, heroine of the French Revolution who was killed during the Reign of Terror.

The Story of Joan of Arc, by Andrew Lang (2 stars). This was a quick read and a good overview of Joan of Arc, however after reading Mark Twain’s lengthy and detailed account of her, this one fell pretty flat for me. It is a quick read, and gives some good biographical background of Joan, but there is hardly any spark or personality to Lang’s Maid of France, and to lead an army, crown a king, and be burned at the stake one must have personality.

Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain; Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund; Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.

Harriet sig



Whew. If you made it through to the end of this behemoth post, you get a gold star.