Saturday, September 29, 2012


American cover
Book: Inhkeart by Cornelia Funke

Published: 2003

Description: Meggie lives a quiet life alone with her father, a book-binder. But her father has a deep secret-- he posseses an extraordinary magical power. One day a mysterious stranger arrives who seems linked to her father's past. Who is this sinister character and what does he want? Suddenly Meggie is involved in a breathless game of escape and intrigue as her father's life is put in danger. Will she be able to save him in time? (from

Original German cover

This was my second reading of this book, and both times I've really enjoyed it. It's absolutely wonderfully written--the descriptions are wonderful, and the characters feel amazingly real. Especially the main characters felt like real people, in that their reactions to the often dangerous situations they were thrown into wasn't, "OK, I'm going to be brave and face death to do the right thing." It was, "I'm afraid, because my life is in danger. I don't know what to do!" Many of the characters also develop throughout the book, becoming more able/willing to deal with those situations and conquer their fear of death/pain. A lot of the characters were also a lot of fun, especially Elinor. 

My absolute favorite aspect of Inkheart is the love of books that completely permeates it. Each chapter begins with a quote from a book, and books are constantly being referenced. As someone who loves books so much, I love books that portray characters with the same love. It also plays with the border between stories and reality in a lot of ways. But I will say that I also appreciated the fact that books were not shown as the ultimate solution to all problems. Books were good, perhaps even to the point of a certain amount of obsession, but characters who tried to gain strength from books failed. Books did not just solve all problems.

An extremely enjoyable, absorbing tale--well-written and well worth the time put into it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Book: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Country: China

Description: A language kept a secret for a thousand years forms the backdrop for an unforgettable novel of two Chinese women whose friendship and love sustains them through their lives.

This absorbing novel – with a storyline unlike anything Lisa See has written before – takes place in 19th century China when girls had their feet bound, then spent the rest of their lives in seclusion with only a single window from which to see.  Illiterate and isolated, they were not expected to think, be creative, or have emotions. But in one remote county, women developed their own secret code, nu shu – "women's writing" – the only gender-based written language to have been found in the world.  Some girls were paired as "old-sames" in emotional matches that lasted throughout their lives.  They painted letters on fans, embroidered messages on handkerchiefs, and composed stories, thereby reaching out of their windows to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments.
An old woman tells of her relationship with her "old-same," their arranged marriages, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood—until a terrible misunderstanding written on their secret fan threatens to tear them apart. With the detail and emotional resonance of Memoirs of a Geisha ,Snow Flower and the Secret Fan delves into one of the most mysterious and treasured relationships of all time—female friendship. (from
My first descriptive word for this book would be sad or poignant. It was about the lives of women in China--with their feet bound and in a strictly traditional, patriarchal society, they had very little freedom. Marriages were arranged, girls were thought of as practically worthless. The narrator, Lily, describes her life, from her girlhood and foot-binding, her marriage, and finally her old age. The novel certainly revealed a dark side of Chinese society that I'd never thought about before. I suppose every society has its dark side, but I still found it horrible. Perhaps it was because it was occurring in another culture, and I fell more free to criticize it, or because I haven't grown accustomed to its evils.

One of the major themes in the novel was food-binding. It was something that all the women in the novel accepted despite the pain--not only to themselves as girls, but also of having to do that to their daughters when they were 6 or 7. But what about the things we do today for beauty--anorexia, bulimia, plastic surgery. 

More than anything, the major focus of the novel, and certainly Lily's retelling of her life, was her friendship with Snow Flower. Typically in China, or at least in the area being described in the novel, a woman would have a group of friends (a group of sworn sisters) that would change with the different stages of her life--one for girlhood, one for old age, and so on. But Lily and Snow Flower are laotongs, which means that they will be friends for life, able to send each other letters and gifts at all ages, and meet every year at the same place.  

An emotional roller coaster, but very good. The emotions of this book were very strong, but ultimately too pessimistic for me. Perhaps I've just lived a lucky life, but life isn't all sadness. Or maybe it's because I have a wonderful God who gives me joy all the time!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Travels in West Africa

Book: Travels in West Africa by Mary H. Kingsley

Country: Guinea

Description: Unique perspective: Until 1893, Mary Kingsley led a secluded life in Victorian England. At age 30 however, Kingsley defied convention and arranged a trip to west Africa to collect botanical samples for a book left unfinished by her father. Such a daring adventure was unheard of for women at the time. Kingsley traveled through western and equatorial Africa and became the first European to enter parts of Gabon. Her story--as an explorer and as a woman--offers an enduring tale of adventure. Adventure writer and historian Tony Brandt sets Kingsley's Africa against the history of other European explorations of the continent and details her contributions not only to literature, but science as she collected more than 400 samples--some now extinct--of plants and insects. Handsome editions, competitively priced: Gathered together for the first time in inexpensive, accessible editions, Adventure Press Classics offer readers the opportunity to build a comprehensive library of the most adrenaline-packed tales of adventure ever written. She was the first Englishwoman and the "third Englishman," as she put it, to climb the great peak of the Cameroons. She traveled with native guides but otherwise without a man along into some of West Africa's most dangerous jungles, up its most dangerous rivers. She fought off crocodiles with a paddle, hit a leopard over the head with a pot, fell into an animal trap lined at the bottom with sharpened sticks, waded through swamps in water chin deep. Then she wrote this book, which describes her adventures in detail, as well as her discoveries as a naturalist and her observations of the Africans and their customs. She writes a brisk engaging prose and she is clearly dauntless. The book was no. 18 on the Adventure list of the 100 best adventure books. It's a wonderful read. (from

Country: Guinea

Time: Set in 1893

My Review: 

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the humor--very dry and British, and exactly how I like it. Here are a few examples: 
When you spend the day on shore and when, having exhausted the charms of the town, - a thing that usually takes from between ten minutes to a quarter of an hour, - you apply to an inhabitant for advice as to the disposal of the rest of your shore leave, you are told to “go and see the coals.”  You say you have not come to tropical islands to see a coal heap, and applying elsewhere for advice you probably get the same.  So, as you were told to “go and see the coals” when you left your ship, you do as you are bid.  These coals, the remnant of the store that was kept here for the English men-of-war, were left here when the naval station was removed.  The Spaniards at first thought of using them, and ran a tram-way from Clarence to them.  But when the tramway was finished, their activity had run out too, and to this day there the coals remain.  Now and again some one has the idea that they are quite good, and can be used for a steamer, and some people who have tried them say they are all right, and others say they are all wrong.  And so the end of it will be that some few thousand years hence there will be a serious quarrel among geologists on the strange pocket of coal on Fernando Po, and they will run up continents, and raise and lower oceans to explain them, and they will doubtless get more excitement and pleasure out of them than you can nowadays. (chapter II) 
All West African steamers have a mania for bush, and the delusion that they are required to climb trees.  The Fallaba had the complaint severely, because of her defective steering powers, and the temptation the magnificent forest, and the rapid currents, and the sharp turns of the creek district, offered her; she failed, of course - they all fail - but it is not for want of practice.  I have seen many West Coast vessels up trees, but never more than fifteen feet or so. (Chapter IV)
The one problem I had with the humor was that sometimes it was aimed at the Africans and often (but not always) came off as critical and snobbish.

The other aspect of this book that I really enjoyed were the descriptions of Africa--the various tribes and their cultures, the white society there, the traveling, and most especially the African landscape: 
The beauty of the night on Kondo Kondo was superb; the sun went down and the afterglow flashed across the sky in crimson, purple, and gold, leaving it a deep violet-purple, with the great stars hanging in it like moons, until the moon herself arose, lighting the sky long before she sent her beams down on us in this valley.  As she rose, the mountains hiding her face grew harder and harder in outline, and deeper and deeper black, while those opposite were just enough illumined to let one see the wefts and floating veils of blue-white mist upon them, and when at last, and for a short time only, she shone full down on the savage foam of the Alemba, she turned it into a soft silver mist.  Around, on all sides, flickered the fire-flies, who had come to see if our fire was not a big relation of their own, and they were the sole representatives, with ourselves, of animal life.  When the moon had gone, the sky, still lit by the stars, seeming indeed to be in itself lambent, was very lovely, but it shared none of its light with us, and we sat round our fire surrounded by an utter darkness.  Cold, clammy drifts of almost tangible mist encircled (Chapter V).  

I decided to read this book because heard that Kingsley one of the few travelers of the time who respectived African culture, and I largely found this to be true. She respected not only African culture, but also Africans themselves: "I confess I like the African on the whole, a thing I never expected to do when I went to the Coast with the idea that he was a degraded, savage, cruel brute; but that is a trifling error you soon get rid of when you know him" (Chapter XXI). Kingsley acknowledged that African culture was different than European culture, and that customs that worked in Europe might or would not work in the competeley different culture (and climate) of Africa (not even beginning to think about each unique tribe). She therefore blamed the missionary schools for a lot of the problems in West Africa (present-day Guinea) because they unsuccessfully tried to tranplant Africans into a European way of thinking and really just confused/ruiend them (morally, I mean--they were often very successful traders). At the same time, though, Kingsley out and out says that she thinks African culture is inferior to European culture and that Africans are incapable of reaching the "heights" of European culture. I don't agree (although it's not true that European culture is "best"--we have plenty of our own problems--and so there's no reason for Africans to be forced to Europeanize), but I think it shows how illogical we can all be at times. In many ways this book was extremely honestly written, and it reveals a lot about Kingsley's thought processes and biases. 

Kingsley's ideas on gender also complex. Kingsley was a white woman, alone, journeying through dangerous country, searching for scientific specimens--not exactly traditional. She makes several comments about the cluelessness of men, she seems to almost relish her freedom from a husband: "as for the husband, neither the Royal Geographical Society’s list, in their ‘Hints to Travellers,’ nor Messrs. Silver, in their elaborate lists of articles necessary for a traveller in tropical climates, make mention of husbands" (Chapter V). At the same time, though, she could be very traditional: she wore a skirt for the whole journey, and even says once that men are superior to women.

Be warned, however, that parts of the book could be boring, such as Kingsley's recommendations on creating a trade empire in British Africa.