Thursday, February 12, 2015

One Summer: America 1927

Writer: Bill Bryson
Paperback edition, 672 pages
Published by Black Swan, 2014
(first published 2013)

This is the latest book from my beloved writer, Bill Bryson. He mixes two of my favourite theme: travel and history, in a comical way. His travel books always full of histories, while his history books contain stories from faraway places.

Before reading this book, I never thought that a particular year could make an interesting book. I thought the chances are that book would be too thick, too boring, and too kaleidoscope-like if there were too many interesting things happened during the year. Or, the book would be too trivial and too insignificant because there was no stand-alone affair in one year; every happening is a string of events which could take years to occur.

And yet, Bryson wrote this unbelievable book.

The year is 1927. The main setting is in the USA. The supposedly protagonists are Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. All events written in this book were evolving around both of them. And all figures somehow related to at least one of them.

The Kid
Charles Lindbergh was a 25 years-old aviator with a face and manner of an innocent kid. This is the same Charles Lindbergh who later would lose a son in a cruel kidnapping. But that was a different story.

In this book, Bryson told the story of aviation, including the role of airplanes in The First World War. Since then, the European airline industry has moved far forward, while America was still struggling in building plane that could really fly. Then, here came Raymond Orteig with his Orteig Prize challenging Allied Countries aviators to cross Atlantic Ocean in one flight. Lindbergh was a dark horse in this competition. However, with Spirit of St. Louis, a single engine, single-seat plane without forward visibility, he would change the face of American and international aviation.

The Babe
Meanwhile, in “another world”, there was a baseball player whose name is George Herman Ruth or simply Babe Ruth. In 1927, baseball was already a famous sport in the USA. Babe Ruth played for the New York Yankees. This likeable giant babe was on his peak performance, hitting more home runs than any other players. Even until today, Ruth was still the best baseball player ever with at least 1,031 total home runs during his career and a statistic that put his performance almost 10% higher than the second best player. Meaning, he’s really really the best.

Beside Lindbergh and Ruth, there are other important figures and events happened in 1927 that Bryson wrote in this book. For example: the Great Mississippi Flood, the bombings by Italian “anarchist”, the first talking movie and thus the birth of Hollywoodization, Calvin Coolidge the most silent president the US ever have, and Henry Ford with his Model T and Model A cars.

Another thing I love about Bill Bryson is his description of people which is so thorough and moving. I can portray someone just from his depiction. He made me fell in love head over heels with Charles Lindberghs and Babe Ruth despite their antics. He made me hate Herbert Hoover for his ambition. And he made me pity Henry Ford for his bad decisions.

Bryson could also describe an occurrence in 1927 without losing connection with its strings of events in the preceding year. The stories flow smoothly. Of course because it is a thick book, sometimes I stopped reading and said, “Wait, who is this guy?”.  But from time to time, Bryson reminds his readers of who is who or who is doing what in the previous chapters.

One thing I always found in Bryson’s books: he seemed to be exhausted towards the end of his writing. So, his last chapter usually a bit superficial. It is reflective, though. And he always gives his readers a sense of closure. 

Reading this book just make me want to read more of Bill Bryson’s book. If someday I read the news that he passed away, I would curl up on the corner of my bed, holding his books and sobbing.

The Dead in Their Faulted Arches: A Flavia de Luce Novel

Flavia de Luce Novels

Writer: Alan Bradley
Paperback edition, 315 pages
Published by Bantam Books, 2014

It was the summer of 1950. From the very start, Flavia de Luce was not just an ordinary 11 years old girl. She lives in Buckshaw, a 300 years old once-grand Gregorian mansion built by the de Luces family, in an English bucolic village of Bishop’s Lacey. Her mother, Harriet, had been lost in a mountaineering accident in Tibet when Flavia was just one year old. Together with her older sisters, she was sort of home-schooled by her father.

Apart from the conventional education his father gives her, she has grown fond of chemistry. And maybe it’s not a coincidence. She inherited her great-uncle marvellous laboratory on the top floor of the mansion. Her daily life consists of running away from her sisters who couldn’t stop teasing her and hiding in the laboratory, working on chemical experiments creating poisons.

But things changed when she witnessed a man dying in their garden. Her curiosity brought her deeper into the investigation. This amateur sleuth uses her wit and her innocent appearance to fish for information. Her vast knowledge especially in chemistry helps her to put two and two together. Since then she has assisted Inspector Hewitt solving murders in the village.

It is now the spring of 1951. This is the sixth Flavia de Luce adventure.

In an interview, Alan Bradley said that that his plan was to make six books, before he extended it into ten. However, being the original last book, Bradley put different kind of story in this sixth novel. He wrote different kind of murders, different kind of bad guys and different kind of chemical experiments. There is more drama than the previous novels. All of those are closer to home and more personal to Flavia.

I love Bradley’s narration. He’s able to make a strong characterization. Every single person in Flavia de Luce novels is distinctive. He shows that even though Flavia is annoying, she’s a genius and just simply adorable. Although sometimes, I feel that Flavia is too genius and mature for her age.

Flavia novels are like oasis in the current world of fiction. This book is very reader-friendly. The language is very soft and there’s no inappropriate scene. Maybe that’s why although the intended audience is adult, Bradley found out that his readers are ranged from 8 years old to 95 years old.

Bradley’s description of events is a mixture of beautiful, comical and heartfelt. Until now I can still picture Flavia wearing a skirt, flying in her mother’s bike. Or when the whole family tries to avoid eating Mrs. Mullet’s dreadful cooking. Or when Dogger, their butler, suffers from nervous breakdown. He can also describe the stiff yet heartwarming relationship, the I love you/I love you not feeling between the characters, probably typical Englishmen in the era.

Reading this book after the five previous novels, I am convinced that Bradley’s writing is incredible. It seems like he wrote all his six novels in one go because Bradley seems to explain all confusions he created and every character showed up in the previous books. He gives closure to his readers. After reading this book, I feel that all figures, events and conversations in the prior books matters and make me want to re-read the previous books.

The problem is, if someone read this book before any other Flavia’s novel he/she will not be able to feel the intended nuances and surprises of this book. It’s a fantastic novel, though. I am sure reading this book will make readers want to read more about Flavia.

In his next Flavia novel, Bradley promised a new adventure, far from Buckshaw and her family. I can’t wait to read it. I do hope, this time Bradley will change his mind again and extend Flavia’s story to more than just ten books. 

Princesses Behaving Badly

Writer: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
Hardcover, 303 pages
Published by Quirk Books, 2013

It’s like a love at first sight. I saw this book at Periplus Soekarno-Hatta airport and fell in love. Its classic hardcover jacket promises me an eternity. But it is the first word of the title that caught my eyes: Princesses. I’m a big fan of history, especially those of princesses. I love “princess dresses” and I spent my childhood imagining myself as a princess.

So, although the subtitle is “real stories from history WITHOUT the fairy-tale endings”, I still bought this book.

My love at first sight turned out to be the stories of at least 30 princesses that were supposedly behaving badly and wreck havocs into their own lives. The time period spans widely, from Hatsepsut in Egypt (CA. 1508-1458 BCE) to Princess Margaret of Britain (1930-2002).

The bad behaviours are divided into seven categories:
  • ·         Princesses who fought their own battles,
  • ·         Princesses who grabbed power in a man’s world,
  • ·         Princesses who plotted and planned,
  • ·         Princesses who made controversial and questionable choices,
  • ·         Princesses who loved to live it up
  • ·         Princesses notorious for their sexy exploits
  • ·         Princesses who were likely mad, or close to it

McRobbie tried her best to be objective while writing their interesting stories, tragedies, unhappiness, and achievements. She wrote a brief biography for each of the princesses. Sometimes she added some narratives about the parents and extended families, and also political situation in the region. She gives background and tries to explain why those princesses did what they did.

Sometimes after a tale of a particular princess, McRobbie inserted short stories of other princesses who experience the same fate. These give readers another point of view that actually the behaviour of the princess is something common, at least in court lives at certain times.

Besides “blue blood” princesses, McRobbie also wrote about fake princesses. I haven’t heard any news about a fake princess nowadays, but I think these famous fake royals appeared in the right time. One of them is Mary Baker from Devonshire who dubbed herself Princess Caraboo from the Malaysian country of Javasu. This kind of lie was possible because UK in the early 19th century was crazy about anything oriental; besides, the technology wasn’t advance enough to detect any forgery.  

Another notable case is that of Anne Anderson/Franziska Schanzkowska who until in her deathbed in 1984 still believed that she's Anastasia of Russia. The missing Russian royal family, and Anne’s correct age make it easier to convince people of her false identity. Sometimes I wonder if these kinds of princesses are just like me who dream of becoming a princess, on my craziest day, in an extreme version.

Despite of the great contents, I disagree with the title because not all of those princesses were behaving badly.

Some of them are just unlucky enough to be born as a baby girl, like Christina of Sweden. It’s not her fault that she was the only child of the king; moreover she became a queen in the age of 6 years old under a protection of a mentally unbalanced mother. 

While many of the princesses faced tragedy from political yet unhappy marriage plus inability to produce an heir. Let alone princesses who suffered from genetic diseases resulted from close blood relatives marriages of their parents. Even for me, those princesses who behaved badly just did what they did because they want to survive the demanding court life. These princesses deserve something better than to be judged of behaving badly.

A quote from the last page:
“And they all lived happily ever after? Not exactly.”

It hurts. But like love at first sight, there are no regrets.  Although I find flaws, I’ll always try to accept it the way it is. I will keep on re-reading this book. And when the time has come, I will read this to my children and grandchildren, the story of my love at first sight.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Romanov ConspiraciesThe Romanov Conspiracies by Michael Occleshaw
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is focusing on foreign effort, especially Germany and the UK, in rescuing the Nicholas II's family during the Russian revolution.

Germany, despite of the recent war with Russia, at least tried to save the Tsarina and her sister (who's married to Nicholas' uncle), because they are German princesses.

While the role of British intelligence was a bit controversial. The fact that the Tsar, the Tsarina and King George V are cousins should have made the UK acted more to help the Romanov family. But from the papers obtained by the writer, the British monarchy and government did almost nothing in preventing the massacre. However, from the same papers and interviews it was indicated that maybe, one or more member of the family had been rescued by the British intelligence. And one Larissa Feodorovna was thought to be Tatiana Nicolaevna, that one princess who escaped.

This book was published in 1993, just few months after the discovery of the then suspected Romanov family's burial ground. The identities of the 9 person buried and which one is who was still far from conclusion. So, at that time, the proof that Larissa is Tatiana seemed plausible.

But right now, based on the DNA testing, we've known that the 9 persons buried there are including the Tsar, the Tsarina and their 3 children. And even later on, another burial ground had been found, and the two bodies rested there are those of the Tsarevich and one of his sister. So, all members of the Romanov family are accounted for.

Really, I still want to believe Michael Occleshaw. And I still want to believe that at least one of them had escaped. But the science has proven otherwise. Although science could be challenged, and those conspiracy theories are still burning.

And right now, all I want to do is watching 1997 Anastasia movie and sobbing.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Cross Stitch: A Dollhouse

This dollhouse pattern is a treasure. Small but full of details, every single cross stitch and back stitch are meaningful. And because suddenly I only had half my time to make cross stitch, I spent 2 months to make it, rather than my one month target. Here are my day to day progress:

8 Oct 2014: first day of the project. I use erasable pen to make 10x10 grid, to ease the counting

11 Oct 2014: three days later, finished all the brownish part

13 Oct 2014: day 5, finished the yellowish stitches, and half the red part

16 Oct 2014: day 8, the progress seems fast. finished the red and the greenish part

21 Oct 2014:day 13. with the pinkish stitches, this project started to take its shape

25 Oct 2014: day 17, finished the blueish part. now I can see the curtains :)

15 Nov 2014: day 38, the progress is sooooo slow. I was getting frustrated for not having  enough time to stitch. But finally I finished all the stitches! 

26 Nov 2014: day 49, I HATE DOING BACKSTITCH!! It took me 11 days just to do it. But then it's worth it. With the backstitch, the contents of this dollhouse are more visible, for example the washbasin, the mirrors, and the lamps.

28 Nov 2014: day 51, I soaked the finished cross stitch in warm water to remove the grids. Gorgeous!

03 Dec 2014: day 56. Framed. And perfect!!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Journey Into CyprusJourney Into Cyprus by Colin Thubron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now I know why the title is Journey into Cyprus. Colin Thubron literally walk into its every cities. He climbed its hills, swam its sea, slept in ancient monasteries, made friends with Cypriots (Greek and Turkish) and found the presence of Aphrodite everywhere.

On his preface, Thubron said that this book probably the last eyewitness of Greek and Turkish cohabitation, because since 1974, the island has been divided into two separated governance.

Thubron maybe a strange Mr. Tourist who walked into foreign lands, but he also a great writer. I have read many travel books in which the writer seems to be exhausted towards the end of the journey and the writing of the books so the final chapters would be superficial. But Thubron is different and I love his energy.

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Monday, September 9, 2013

1000 Years of Annoying the French1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book on France & Britain friend/foe relationship. Too historical than my expectation, but it's really incredible. Although in the end, 1000 years of back-stabbing each other was just too much and boring. Same old, same old.

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