the Fox sisters.

Talking to the Dead by Barbara Weisberg (2004)
Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

Kate was 14 and Maggie 11 in 1848, when they started hearing strange rapping in their bedroom. After a while, they realized they could communicate with the dead through the rapping. Through the communication they learnt that the spirit they were talking with had been murdered in the house they lived. Bewildered neighbours came to watch the seances. Rumour about the sisters’ abilities spread, and they are today known as the symbols of modern spiritualism.

The rapping evolved into playing of instruments, pulling of hair and slaps in the face and the spirits becoming visible. And one of the spirits that often visited them was Benjamin Franklin. Many famous people met the sisters throughout the years, even the Presidents’ wives. All through this, the girls were put to many tests, often scandalously only in their undergarments.  Their much older sister, Leah, was the one who arranged the seances and probably took most of the money as well. But it was the spirits that demanded that they should hold the meetings.

Although the girls were famous, their lives were sad. Both had broken hearts after love affairs gone wrong, and they both got addicted to alcohol and drugs. A few years before her death, Maggie confessed that it all had been a hoax and she travelled around showing how they made the raps.

It was an interesting read, and I learnt a lot about life in the late 1800s. But somehow I still felt like I couldn’t quite get under the skin of the Fox sister. I’m also glad that the book wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, and I definitely believe that it was all hoax. I would never have read this book if it weren’t for Ingalill’s biography reading circle which was about alternative lifestyles this round. I chose the Fox sisters after listening to a radio programme about spiritualism, and I was curious about how it all started. And now I know.

the birth of a nation through a child’s eyes.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (2002)
“When my father was a young man in Vilna, every wall in Europe said, ‘Jews go home to Palestine.’ Fifty years later, when he went back to Europe on a visit, the walls all screamed, ‘Jews get out of Palestine.'”

  Amos was 9 when Israel became a nation. And 12 when his mother committed suicide. In his memoir, he tells the story of his family and how they suddenly found themselves in the Holy Land. He also gives an insight about what it was like being a child in Jerusalem under the making of Israel. But most importantly, it’s about the joys and sorrows of a family.

 Beautifully written, it’s both tragic and funny at the same time. I have had a hard time coming up with something clever to say about it, and that usually means that the book is great.

What I liked best about the book, is that it doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. I think it’s because the story isn’t chronological, but jumps back and forth in time. I also learnt a lot from the book. The most eye-opening information, at least for me, was the British involvement when Israel was created. It also reminded me how much I need to read Jerusalem. Needless to say that I have definitely added more books by Amos Oz to my reading list. I’m also excited that Natalie Portman is making this book into a film. 

I read this as a part of Bjørg and Hedda‘s off-the-shelf challenge, this time the theme was Asia. And A Tale of Love and Darkness has been on my shelf since 2011, so about time.

the German Enlightenment

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (2005)
“That was the moment when he grasped that nobody wanted to use their minds. People wanted peace. They wanted to eat and sleep and have other people be nice to them. What they didn’t want to do was think.”
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a German scientist and adventurer who mapped Latin-America. He also collaborated and corresponded with another great German scientist, Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855). Gauss was nicknamed the Prince of Mathematics and he also did great things for physics. 
Kehlmann has written an exciting and accessible account of their friendship and Humboldt’s travels. Yet I felt that it should be something more to this book, because it felt too light and easy. I think it is because I never got mesmerised and involved with the story as I usually do, but this time I never really connected with the story. And three days later I don’t remember much of the book. Which is weird, because it should be right up my alley.

And now it sounds like the book is awful, but it’s definitely not! I enjoyed it there and then and I definitely learnt a lot about Germany at that time in history. I just wish it was more to it.

I picked this up after reading Rose-Marie‘s glowing review, and I read it for Ingalill’s biography reading circle where this round’s theme was crossovers.

seven.

Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang (2013)
The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Empress Dowager Cixi, born in 1835, ruled China until her death in 1908. She was the one who modernised China, and fought wars against Japan and the great European powers. But as Cixi was just the Empress Dowager she had to rule behind the curtain and make sure that the Emperor was under her thumb.
Because she was just a concubine, and not married to the Emperor, she was not entitled to any power. But the Empress had not given birth to any sons, something which Cixi managed to do. When the Emperor died, her son, Tongzhi, was made the Emperor and Cixi, along with the Empress, were upgraded to Empress Dowagers. As Tongzhi was only 5, the Empress Dowgers were in charge. They also staged a coup which resulted in the removal of the Emperor’s advisors and the insertion of Cixi’s trusted men.

Her son became the ruler when he was married. Cixi stayed away from politics, but she didn’t agree with her son’s decisions. Tongzhi died in 1875, and because he had no sons, a boy was chosen and adopted by the Dowager Empresses to become the new Emperor. When Ci’an died in 1881, Cixi became the sole ruler until the boy, Guangxu, was old enough to rule himself.

In this period, Cixi had a lot of enemies. The most famous one was Wild Fox Kang who tried to murder Cixi several times. He didn’t succeed and Cixi found out about it. She believed that the Emperor himself was in on it, and successfully put him in house arrest so she again became the ruler, and this time she was in power until her death. This period was marked by the Boxer rebellion and the following war with the European powers. And after the war, China needed to reform in order to survive.

Although the book gives a detailed account of the life of Cixi, I never felt that I got to know her. I found her boring, and I also felt that Jung Chang spent a lot of time defending her. It also gives a detailed account of China at that time, and I definitely learnt a lot about Chinese history.  I became more fascinated by Wild Fox Kang, and I’m glad that Jung Chang wrote so much about him as well. The collection of pictures in the end was also very fascinating.

I’m going to read Wild Swans later this year, and Mao is also going to be read sooner or later, probably as a part of Ingalill’s superb biographies reading circle which this book was a part of.

forty-one.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien (2012)
 Edna O’Brien is an Irish author, born in 1930. Her first book, the Country Girls (1960), was banned in Ireland as it sparked a lot of controversy because it describes the sexual tensions between girls in Catholic schools and the sexual relationship between non-married couples. In her memoir she gives glimpses of a life which started in the poor Irish countryside to dinner parties with the rich and famous in London and New York. 
the Country Girls trilogy is based on her own experiences; a childhood in a strict religious home, crushing on the nuns in the convent she was educated in and running off with a married man. I read the trilogy last summer, and I’m glad I did before I read the memoir, and it is interesting to compare the fiction to the reality. I really enjoyed the reality; she does a marvellous job describing the scene when her family comes looking for her and the fight which followed. She eventually marries the man, Ernest Gébler, and they have two children together. But the marriage doesn’t last, and the battle between the couple, and especially over the custody of the children, is heartbreaking.
She also describes the amazing parties with famous people and drugs in the 60s and 70s. There is plenty of name-dropping and anecdotes. My favourites were when her children was sung to sleep by Paul McCartney and when she was kissed by Jude Law (I love that she describes him as an Adonis). But she is at her best when she describes her surroundings; the houses and cities she has lived it. She also gives a crash-course in the Troubles in Northern-Ireland, and I think it is the best chapter in the book. 
Although it was fascinating to read about her life, I felt that she was distant; I never really got to know Edna, but got a good look at the world through her eyes. She is good at describing other people and the books and writers which influence her. She doesn’t say much about her own work, except mention it in relation to other people. I enjoyed the memoir, and I will definitely keep reading her books. And so should you!
I bought the memoir when it was published last year, and I’ve been meaning to read it right away (as I always do, the problem is that I buy too many books). Ingalill’s biographies challenge gave me the push I needed to finally do so.     

thirty-six.

Monstermenneske by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold (2012)
Kjersti has ME and has been sick for years. So sick that she is so exhausted that she cannot even sleep. But she cannot give up, and decides to put one of the stories she has in her mind, onto the screen. Even if all she can manage is a few sentences every day.
Skomsvold debutated with the Faster I Walk, the Smaller I am in 2009 and her second book is about ME, the writing process and what happened after she finally managed to finish her first book. But it is also about heart breaks, hating yourself and your looks, fascinating people, literature and wonderful friendships. It is painful to read about Kjersti’s view of herself and her condition, but there are so many amazing and funny observations.
 I really enjoyed the book despite it being sad and hard to read at times and I’m definitely going to read her first book!

thirty-nine.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (2011)
From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Cheryl Strayed hiked alone on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert in Southern California to the Bridge of the Gods on the Oregon / Washington border in 1995. And wrote an amazing book about it.
I really want to gush about this one, but also I want you to find out for yourself how amazing it is. So in short; after Cheryl’s mum died of cancer, she went down a self-destructing path and in order to find herself again decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. On the trail she encountered all sorts of weather, rattlesnakes and bears, lost her shoe, starved, had no money but also met all sorts of awesome people.
I cried, grinned and held my breath while reading it and it was a great fun to read about all those places I have been to in the past month. Just wish I had read it before going, but then again, I might have done something crazy like attempting to hike myself. But I have done is putting some of the books she read on her hike on wish list. I love books which inspire me to read other books!
I also must mention that I was sceptical at first – but the chief reason for that was that the book is in Oprah’s Book Club. But now I have come to believe that Oprah has a great taste in books and especially because a lot of those books I have either read and loved or they’re in my bookshelves. 

twenty-one.

We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee (2008)
Benjamin Mee and his family are living comfortably in France when his sister sends him the ad for the sale of the run-down Dartmoor Zoo. And with the help of his mother and siblings, he is able to buy it. But buying the zoo and getting the zoo to pass the inspection and to be ready for opening are two different things. Although they found the money to buy the zoo, they have hardly any money to get it ready and running. And in all this, his wife, Katherine got cancer and is getting worse.
It was a quick and easy read. And the story moved me, I kept hoping that everything would turn out okay in the end. But the writing was not the best I have read, maybe I’m starting to expect too much from the books I read. And I wish the animals could be more in focus, I didn’t really get a good description of the zoo and most of its inhabitants. The big cats are all well described, but others are just barely mentioned. And I wouldn’t mind at all a better description of the conservation part of the zoo, and it was a bit disappointing that this book only dealt with the beginning of it all.
The book has been made into a film, although it is set in the US. I’m sure that the film is going to be focusing more on the relationship between the people and animals.
Dartmoor Zoological Park and Benjamin Mee have also been made into a tv show, called Ben’s Zoo. And from the look of the website, it looks like it’s going well. If I’m ever at that part of the world, I’ll definitely pay it a visit.

thirty-six.

Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) (1937)


“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills…”

Karen Blixen lived on a farm in Africa for almost twenty years. She came out to live with her husband, but they divorced in 1925 and Karen was the owner of the farm for the remaining years. She tells about the daily life on the farm and its many squatters and their guests.

Although it is a biography, it is never personal. It rather focuses on the farm, instead of Karen’s personal life, which I think is a pity. I was lucky to find a short biography attached to the copy I bought at a market in Oslo, and she certainly lived a fascinating life, and I would love to read more about it.

I really enjoyed reading about the farm and the joys and hardships of the people who were involved. She writes with great insight and it is a joy to read about the landscape and wild life surrounding the farm. This is the way I wish an other book about an African farm was written (the Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer). But one chapter in the book annoyed me – instead of following the pattern of the other chapters, this one was full of short stories in no chronological order and many seemed written down just to be remembered and had little to do with the rest of the book. I skimmed many of them as I saw no point in them being there in the first place.

I’m looking forward to watching the film version of this once I’m united with my tv again.

twenty-eight.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009)A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon


“Now, as I examined my creased map, none of that mattered. I looked up at the tangle of trees and creepers around me, and at the biting flies and mosquitoes that left streaks of blood on my skin. I had lost my guide. I was out of food and water. Putting the map back in my pocket, I pressed forward, trying to find my way out, as branches snapped in my face. Then I saw something moving in the trees. “Who’s there” I called. There was no reply. A figure flitted among the branches, and then another. They were coming closer, and for the first time I asked myself, What the hell am I doing here?”

Percy Harrison Fawcett was a famous explorer of the Amazon, and he disappeared in the jungle with his son and his son’s friend in 1925 when he was looking for an ancient city called Z. Fawcett became even more famous after his death, many disappeared into the Amazon when trying to find him and people even established cults devoted to him.

David Grann tells the excellent tale of the explorer’s life and his disappearance, but also about his own adventures into the Amazon 80 years after Fawcett. He hopes to find more clues about the disappearance and the city Fawcett was looking for.

I loved this book. David Grann has done an excellent job researching Fawcett and the Amazon. It is a thrilling adventure and I really felt the jungle while reading. As I read it on my Kindle, I highlighted parts of the text because I really liked what I read.

“The electric lights went out in Manaus,” the historian Robin Furneaux wrote. “The opera house was silent and the jewels which had filled it were gone… Vampire bats circled the chandeliers of the broken palaces and spiders scurried across their floors.”