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Books About the British Empire

Ever since I first learnt about it in junior school, I have been fascinated by the British Empire, and the effects of colonialism on different populations around the world.  Whilst reading as an adult, I have always been drawn to books which explore these themes, but in order to try and expand my reading on the topic, I thought it might be a nice idea to make a list of ten books about the British Empire which I’d like to read.  (For an explanation of the British Empire, and a list of further reading, this Goodreads list is wonderful.)

 

1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham 99664
‘Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful, but love-starved Kitty Fane.  When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.  The Painted Veil is a beautifully written affirmation of the human capacity to grow, to change, and to forgive.

 

2. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

305573. Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
Shooting an Elephant is Orwell’s searing and painfully honest account of his experience as a police officer in imperial Burma; killing an escaped elephant in front of a crowd ‘solely to avoid looking a fool’. The other masterly essays in this collection include classics such as “My Country Right or Left”, “How the Poor Die” and “Such, Such were the Joys”, his memoir of the horrors of public school, as well as discussions of Shakespeare, sleeping rough, boys’ weeklies and a spirited defence of English cooking. Opinionated, uncompromising, provocative and hugely entertaining, all show Orwell’s unique ability to get to the heart of any subject.’

 

4. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
‘Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan – one of the many young children sent ‘Home’ from the East to be fostered and educated in England. Jane Gardam’s novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age. In so doing, she not only encapsulates a whole period from the glory days of British Empire, through the Second World War, to the present and beyond, but also illuminates the complexities of the character known variously as Eddie, the Judge, Fevvers, Filth, Master of the Inner Temple, Teddy and Sir Edward Feathers.’

 

5. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes 188458
‘A classic adventure novel and one of the most startling, highly praised stories in English literature – a brilliant chronicle of two sensitive children’s violent voyage from innocence to experience.  After a terrible hurricane levels their Jamaican estate, the Bas-Thorntons decide to send their children back to the safety and comfort of England. On the way their ship is set upon by pirates, and the children are accidentally transferred to the pirate vessel. Jonsen, the well-meaning pirate captain, doesn’t know how to dispose of his new cargo, while the children adjust with surprising ease to their new life. As this strange company drifts around the Caribbean, events turn more frightening and the pirates find themselves increasingly incriminated by the children’s fates. The most shocking betrayal, however, will take place only after the return to civilisation.  The swift, almost hallucinatory action of Hughes’s novel, together with its provocative insight into the psychology of children, made it a best seller when it was first published in 1929 and has since established it as a classic of twentieth-century literature – an unequaled exploration of the nature, and limits, of innocence.’

 

6. Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge
‘A misadventure in a brothel links the destiny of the enigmatic George Hardy, a surgeon and amateur photographer, to a foundling who becomes his obsessively devoted maid, a wily street boy who takes advantage of his sexual ambiguity, and his alternately philosophical and libidinous brother-in-law in this terse, searing novel that takes them from the comfortable parlors of Victorian Liverpool to the horrific battlefields of the Crimean War.’

 

47025657. The King’s Rifle by Biyi Bandele-Thomas
‘It’s winter 1944 and the Second World War is entering its most crucial state. A few months ago fourteen-year-old Ali Banana was a blacksmith’s apprentice in his rural hometown in West Africa; now he’s trekking through the Burmese jungle. Led by the unforgettably charismatic Sergeant Damisa, the unit has been given orders to go behind enemy lines and wreak havoc. But Japanese snipers lurk behind every tree—and even if the unit manages to escape, infection and disease lie in wait. Homesick and weary, the men of D-Section Thunder Brigade refuse to give up.  Taut and immediate, The King’s Rifle is the first novel to depict the experiences of black African soldiers in the Second World War. This is a story of real life battles, of the men who made the legend of the Chindits, the unconventional, quick-strike division of the British Army in India. Brilliantly executed, this vividly realized account details the madness, sacrifice, and dark humor of that war’s most vicious battleground. It is also the moving story of a boy trying to live long enough to become a man.’

 

8. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
‘Exotic Hong Kong takes center stage in this sumptuous novel, set in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s a city teeming with people, sights, sounds, and smells, and it’s home to a group of foreign nationals who enjoy the good life among the local moneyed set, in a tight-knit social enclave distanced from the culture at large. Comfortable, clever, and even a bit dazzling, they revel in their fancy dinners and fun parties. But their sheltered lives take an abrupt turn after the Japanese occupation, and though their reactions are varied — denial, resistance, submission — the toll it takes on all is soon laid bare.   Enter Claire Pendleton from London. Months after her husband is transferred to Hong Kong in 1951, she accepts a position as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy couple, the Chens. Claire begins to see the appeal of the sweltering city and is soon taken in by the Chen’s driver, the curiously underutilized Will Truesdale. A handsome charmer with a mysterious limp, Will appears to be the perfect companion for Claire, who’s often left to her own devices. But a further examination leaves her with more questions than answers.  An intricately woven tale of lives changed by historical events, Lee’s debut brings this hothouse flower of a city alive with passion, and imagines characters both unforgettable and tragic.’

 

9. There Is Room for You by Charlotte Bacon 358848
‘Anna Singer, a charmingly independent young New Yorker, feels derailed after losing her father to a car accident and her husband to a younger woman. She books a trip to India, hoping that there she will be able to put her grief into perspective. Though this is her first visit, India has always tantalized her: her English mother, Rose, was raised in Calcutta during the twilight of the British Raj, but seldom spoke of her childhood. Then, as Anna departs, Rose gives her a manuscript in which she has recorded her Indian memories, torn between two cultures and belonging completely to neither.’

 

10. Staying On by Paul Scott
‘Tusker and Lily Smalley stayed on in India. Given the chance to return ‘home’ when Tusker, once a Colonel in the British Army, retired, they chose instead to remain in the small hill town of Pangkot, with its eccentric inhabitants and archaic rituals left over from the days of the Empire. Only the tyranny of their landlady, the imposing Mrs Bhoolabhoy, threatens to upset the quiet rhythm of their days.  Both funny and deeply moving, Staying On is a unique, engrossing portrait of the end of an empire and of a forty-year love affair.’

 

Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite books which deal with the British Empire and colonialism?

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Penguin Moderns: George Orwell and Gertrude Stein

Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell **** (#7) 9780241339565
George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is the seventh book in the Penguin Moderns series. I have read a few of his non-fiction works to date, and always find his tone engaging and his content incredibly well informed. Here, in this series of essays first published in 1945, Orwell offers ‘biting and timeless reflections on patriotism, prejudice and power, from the man who wrote about his nation better than anyone.’

Collected here are ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, and ‘The Sporting Spirit’. As ever with Orwell’s work, his essays feel so relevant to twenty-first century Britain – and, indeed, to many other countries. Orwell writes with such wonderful turns of phrase, and his arguments are set out logically and intelligently. Of course, it must be noted that given the year in which these essays were written, some parts of Orwell’s narrative feel very of their time, particularly with regard to some of the vocabulary which he uses to describe groups of people. Regardless, Notes on Nationalism is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection.
9780241339688Food by Gertrude Stein * (#8)
‘From apples to artichokes, these glittering, fragmented, painterly portraits of food by the avant-garde pioneer Gertrude Stein are redolent of sex, laughter and the joy of everyday life’, proclaims the book’s blurb.

I shall begin this rather negative review by pointing out that I have not read much Stein before, save for a few fragmented pieces. Despite loving modernism as a genre, I have found those extracts of Stein’s which I have come across quite hard work to read, and a couple of them have been almost impenetrable. Food was therefore one of the books which I was looking forward to least in the Penguin Moderns collection, despite loving food and food writing.

Food was first published in Tender Buttons in 1914 and, I imagine, was just as unintelligible then as it proves to be now. Clearly Stein was pioneering in her use of language, but I do not enjoy repetitive sentences like those which fill this book, some of which appear say nothing whatsoever, and others which go on and on far longer than is necessary. From the essay on ‘Roast Beef’, for instance, Stein writes: ‘There is no use there is no use at all in smell, in taste, in teeth, in toast, in anything, there is no use at all and the respect is mutual’.

Collected here are a series of highly meandering essays, some of which are more like lists, and others which seem to evade their titular subject entirely. If this book had not been so short, I definitely would have stopped reading it quite early on, and it was definitely a source of irritation to me as it reached its end; it has been the first Penguin Modern which I have not enjoyed in the slightest. Food has, however, done one very positive thing; it has confirmed entirely that Stein is not for me.

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The Book Trail: Caitlin Doughty to Walter Benjamin

I am always on the lookout for ‘different’ posts which I can schedule here at The Literary Sisters, and inspiration struck in this instance when I was browsing reviews on Goodreads.  Why don’t I create a post where I begin with a book on my TBR, and then click on one of the recommended reads on that particular page?, I thought.  On the next page I will do the same, and so on, until I have created what I am terming a book trail.  I hoped to pick up some interesting choices along the way, which would then be written into my book journal.

To begin with, I have decided to go with a book on my library TBR – Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium.  I will be copying the blurb for each book as we go along.  Without further ado, let us begin!

Our starting point…
9781782111054Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty
‘From her first day at Westwind Cremation & Burial, twenty-three-year-old Caitlin Doughty threw herself into her curious new profession. Coming face-to-face with the very thing we go to great lengths to avoid thinking about she started to wonder about the lives of those she cremated and the mourning families they left behind, and found herself confounded by people’s erratic reactions to death. Exploring our death rituals – and those of other cultures – she pleads the case for healthier attitudes around death and dying. Full of bizarre encounters, gallows humour and vivid characters (both living and very dead), this illuminating account makes this otherwise terrifying subject inviting and fascinating.’

 

This leads to book number two…
Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner 9781925355369
‘Spanning fifteen years of work, Everywhere I Look is a book full of unexpected moments, sudden shafts of light, piercing intuition, flashes of anger and incidental humour. It takes us from backstage at the ballet to the trial of a woman for the murder of her newborn baby. It moves effortlessly from the significance of moving house to the pleasure of re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Everywhere I Look includes Garner’s famous and controversial essay on the insults of age, her deeply moving tribute to her mother and extracts from her diaries, which have been part of her working life for as long as she has been a writer. Everywhere I Look glows with insight. It is filled with the wisdom of life.’

 

And three is not far behind…
9781922147165Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm
‘In Forty-one False Starts one of the world’s great writers of literary non-fiction brings together for the first time essays published over several decades. The pieces, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, reflect Malcolm’s preoccupation with artists and their work. Her subjects are painters, photographers, writers, and critics. She delves beneath the ‘onyx surface’ of Edith Wharton’s fiction, appreciates the black comedy of the Gossip Girl novels, and confronts the false starts of her own autobiography.’

 

And the fourth…
The Myth of Sisyphus 
by Albert Camus 9780141023991
‘Inspired by the myth of a man condemned to ceaselessly push a rock up a mountain and watch it roll back to the valley below, The Myth of Sisyphus transformed twentieth-century philosophy with its impassioned argument for the value of life in a world without religious meaning.’

 

Onto the fifth…
9780241970065The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Art of Travel is Alain de Botton’s travel guide with a difference. Few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as going travelling: taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes. But although we are inundated with advice on where to travel to, we seldom ask why we go and how we might become more fulfilled by doing so. With the help of a selection of writers, artists and thinkers – including Flaubert, Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh – Alain de Botton’s bestselling The Art of Travel provides invaluable insights into everything from holiday romance to hotel mini-bars, airports to sight-seeing. The perfect antidote to those guides that tell us what to do when we get there, The Art of Travel tries to explain why we really went in the first place – and helpfully suggests how we might be happier on our journeys.’

 

The sixth is a book which I have read several times and heartily admire…
Nineteen Eighty Four
 by George Orwell 9780141187761
‘Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal. George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most pervasively influential book of the twentieth century.’

 

Our penultimate choice…
9780141035796Ways of Seeing
 by John Berger
‘”Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” “But, there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” is one of the most stimulating and influential books on art in any language. ‘

 

And the final book!…
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
 by Walter Benjamin 9780141036199
‘One of the most important works of cultural theory ever written, Walter Benjamin’s groundbreaking essay explores how the age of mass media means audiences can listen to or see a work of art repeatedly – and what the troubling social and political implications of this are. Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization and helped make us who we are.’

 

I had great fun making this post; it has added books I had not encountered before to the (ever-growing) TBR list, and has made me rather eager to find some new essay collections to boot!  This is my first foray into such a post, so I hope it has an enjoyment level for you too!  Please let me know what you think of it.  Do you have another starting point which you think would be good for me to use?

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One From the Archive: ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ by George Orwell ****

I really enjoy reading essays, and when I saw this on The Book Depository whilst placing my post-Christmas order, I just had to purchase it.  It is more of a pamphlet than a book, really, with visible staples in its spine and standing at just 56 pages long.  It makes a nice little gift, and is sure to be a welcome addition to every bookshelf.

Such, Such Were the Joys was first published in 1947, and has just been reissued by Penguin.  It encompasses some of Orwell’s early memories from his childhood and schooldays.  It begins with a pivotal event in his childhood: ‘Soon after I arrived at St Cyprian’s (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed.  I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion to a habit which I must have grown out of at least four years earlier’.  He goes on to describe such things as his schoolmasters persecuting him for his family’s lack of wealth, and for the fact that he was merely a ‘scholarship boy’.

The childish anecdotes which follow are all rather endearing, and one gets the impression from the start that Orwell – or, rather, Eric Arthur Blair, as he was then known – was quite a lovely child.  The retrospective viewpoint works so well throughout.  Orwell is able to attribute more adult characteristics to explain his childhood behaviour, most of which he was quite unaware of at the time of the events.

The entirety of Such, Such Were the Joys is so well written.  It has been split into many short essays throughout to make a collection of sorts, all of which have the central theme of childhood memories and recollections.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, and small enough to be put into a pocket or the tiniest of handbags, making it ideal literature to take on train journeys and the like.  Let us hope that Penguin release more of these essay-style pamphlets in due course.  I for one will happily collect them all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ by George Orwell ****

‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ by George Orwell (Penguin)

I really enjoy reading essays, and when I saw this on The Book Depository whilst placing my post-Christmas order, I just had to purchase it.  It is more of a pamphlet than a book, really, with visible staples in its spine and standing at just 56 pages long.  It makes a nice little gift, and is sure to be a welcome addition to every bookshelf.

Such, Such Were the Joys was first published in 1947, and has just been reissued by Penguin.  It encompasses some of Orwell’s early memories from his childhood and schooldays.  It begins with a pivotal event in his childhood: ‘Soon after I arrived at St Cyprian’s (not immediately, but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed.  I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion to a habit which I must have grown out of at least four years earlier’.  He goes on to describe such things as his schoolmasters persecuting him for his family’s lack of wealth, and for the fact that he was merely a ‘scholarship boy’.

The childish anecdotes which follow are all rather endearing, and one gets the impression from the start that Orwell – or, rather, Eric Arthur Blair, as he was then known – was quite a lovely child.  The retrospective viewpoint works so well throughout.  Orwell is able to attribute more adult characteristics to explain his childhood behaviour, most of which he was quite unaware of at the time of the events.

The entirety of Such, Such Were the Joys is so well written.  It has been split into many short essays throughout to make a collection of sorts, all of which have the central theme of childhood memories and recollections.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, and small enough to be put into a pocket or the tiniest of handbags, making it ideal literature to take on train journeys and the like.  Let us hope that Penguin release more of these essay-style pamphlets in due course.  I for one will happily collect them all.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Books Set in Paris

A new feature for The Literary Sisters is entitled the ‘Sunday Snapshot’.  Each Sunday (if we remember!) we will be posting a list of five books on a common theme or genre.  The first of our Sunday Snapshots takes the beautiful city of Paris as its theme.

1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery
I’ve not seen many recommended reading lists for Paris which do not include Barbery’s wonderful novel.  It tells the intertwined stories of a quirky young girl named Paloma and the concierge of the building in which her family lives, Renee.  Whilst the protagonists on the surface of it seem to have little in common, they form rather a heartwarming friendship.  7 Rue de Grenelle provides the foundation for the relationship they build.  The social and political aspects of the story do not cloud its plot – rather, they add to it and make it a believable and fully rounded tale.  Barbery adds to this her lightness of touch, lovely writing style and deftness at crafting a memorable tale.

2. The Cat – Colette
I waxed lyrical about The Cat in an earlier review posted on The Literary Sisters.  Colette’s stunning writing and the way in which she makes Paris a character in itself makes the novella worth reading alone, whether you are a feline fan or not.

3. Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
This is not a happy novel by any means, but I believe that it is an important one.  It tells the stories of two separate protagonists from different time periods – a young girl named Sarah living in Paris during the Second World War, and a journalist of sorts who is investigating the Vel d’Hiv roundup of 1942, in which Sarah and her family were taken away.  I shan’t give any more of the plot away, but suffice to say that it is a startling and heartbreaking story about a little known event of the Second World War.

4. Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
As with Sarah’s Key, Down and Out in Paris and London is not a happy book.  Far from it, in fact.  It tells, in Orwell’s marvellous style, of his struggles as a burgeoning author in the city.  It is filled with poverty and sadness at every turn, but it somehow still manages to be a fascinating piece of non-fiction of a world which is both lost and still present.

5. The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky
It would be an obvious choice to put Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise on this list, but I have opted for one of her lesser known works. The Wine of Solitude opens with the character of eight-year-old Hélène Karol, an only child who lives with her parents, grandmother and governess in a tiny town in the Ukraine. The Wine of Solitude is extremely evocative of the places and period in which it is set, from St Petersburg to Paris, and from Finland to rural France. The different sections of the novel all encompass one or two of these settings, the descriptions of which are perfectly balanced and really build up a picture of each city or tiny town in the mind of the reader. The human psyche has been portrayed incredibly well and so poignantly by both author and translator, and we follow Hélène’s formative years to several different countries as she falls in and out of love and loses her innocence.