Sunday Salon: 4 books
The Lure of China by Frances Wood.
This book was sent to me by Yale University Press and I have written about it in a couple of posts before. It's a beautifully presented little book - well-illustrated with small exquisite pictures and this makes it very attractive to read. Starting with Marco Polo Frances Wood works through the sequence of writers that have explored and written about China. It is a fascinating way to glimpse the way China has interacted with the west. Rumours gradually give way to facts and then various details.
Voltaire was inspired by an emperor's poems; a Dutch ambassador called Nieuhoff described how tea was drunk, the 'kowtow' (involving bowing down with head touching the floor three times, then falling on the knees and touching the ground with the head three times)and the way fishermen would use the services of a cormorant to catch fish ( a ring around the neck to prevent the bird from swallowing); Daniel Defoe made up his accounts - including the story of a house made from porcelain; various authors talked about the dustiness of northern China; and Paul Claudel, a diplomat in 1908, described how the houses of foreigners were built on the sites of cemeteries.
In the twentieth century China was used as a fictional setting by André Malreux, Somerset Maughan, Ann Bridge, and Frances Wood describes these before turning to travellers, 'Old Etonians', journalists and wartime visitors. Like JG Ballard, the last author in the book, the British and Americans in China led a life of seclusion - the only integration being between the Chinese nannies ('Amahs') and their young charges. In perhaps the most moving passage in the book Pearl Buck describes how Wang Amah told her small charge how her feet were bound, and showed them to her.
'Gravely she took off her cloth shoes, then her white cloth socks and unwound the strips of white cloth she wore underneath, and so until her feet were bare. She lifted them for my inspection. The toes were still doubled under the soles of her feet, and the flesh was a strange colour. I conceived a distaste for the sight.'It is a great taster for the history of the country...and my forthcoming visit.
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.
This book was sent to me by a publicist at Sceptre (my former publisher). It is an accessible book, very well paced - as the Financial Times says 'It would be hard not to romp through it'. The first and last chapters are the strongest ones and these are written in the voice of Little Bee. Little Bee is an illegal immigrant from Nigeria; and has been in a detention centre for two years. The only person she knows in this country is a man she met once on a beach - a journalist married to another journalist, Sarah.
Chris Cleave is a journalist too - and journalism is one of the themes of the book. Sarah is the editor of a woman's magazine, but has always wanted to do more; when she encounters Little Bee she has her chance. As she explains towards the end of the book:
'If we can show that what happened to your village happened to a hundred villages, then the power is on our side. We need to collect stories from people who have been through the same thing as you. We need to make it undeniable. Then we can send the stories to a lawyer, and we'll let the authorities know, if anything happens to you, those stories will go straight to the media.'
Journalism then, according to Sarah, can change the world - and journalists have certainly loved this book.
It is a powerful tale, and there are many dramatic happenings - which I shall not go into for fear of spoiling the story - and it is the plot that drives the book forward. I understand it is to be made into a film and I imagine that it would be the basis of a very good one.
Pale Faces: the masks of anaemia by Charles L Bardes
This is another beautifully presented little book sent to me by the publisher Bellevue Literary Press which is based in the famous hospital of the same name in New York. It is part of the 'Pathographies' series of books - each one based on a different disease or ailment. The result is a highly satisfying blend of science, medicine, philosophy, mythology and literature.
Charles L Bardes is a Professor of clinical medicine in New York and so he is well placed to examine and describe the effects of anaemia not only on the patient but also, very interestingly, from the viewpoint of the doctor. He looks at the symptoms and the diagnosis; the history of the disease and the history of its treatments, all of which is blended with stories from the Greeks and later. Anaemia, in Dr Johnson's time was called 'The Green Sicknesse' and was mainly an affliction of young women. What caused this minor epidemic of the early modern era is still up for debate. He then goes on to look at what causes anaemia; it is he says, a disease of civilisation. It was only when we became farmers that we ceased to have a copious amount of iron in our diets. Nowadays it is often a disease of the developing world caused by parasitic infestation - either from worms, snails or the bites of mosquitoes. It is fatal most often in children.
There is so much to blood; apart from the idea of blood-letting (including my big interest, leeches) Charles Bardes goes on to look at blood transfusions, and the suspicions and controversies that still surround that. After all blood carries diseases that cannot always be detected - the reason why some people ask for blood from the people they know.
The book ends with the Greeks and their viewpoint of blood. The Greeks are the father and the source of Western myths - and of course with Hippocrates came the oath and the start of medicine.
There is a surprising amount packed into these 150 small pages - a fascinating fusion of many disciplines.
The Cloverleaf Development by Keith Scales.
This short novella was sent to me as one of a selection produced by Great Little Reads. I'd read Keith Scales's 'Little Roasts' and thoroughly enjoyed it, and was pleased to see that he continued with the inhabitants Overlook City, particularly Miss Pettygrove, the somewhat frumpy but appealing teacher.
A body is uncovered under old Malarky Mansion by developers and Sheriff Wilmot is presented with a mystery. The inhabitants of Malarky Mansions left in a hurry some years ago, leaving the young son, House, in the care of relatives. House is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, rumours abound, and Sheriff Wilmot has no shortage of offers of help with the investigation. But who is buried; is there in fact one body or two; and why exactly did House's parents and Miss Pettygrove's uncle run away all those years ago?
It is a highly entertaining story with a satisfying twist, excellent characterisation and convincing dialogue. I hope Keith Scales carries on with his stories about Overlook - it seems to be a place with much potential.