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The autobiography of a missionary nun in Thailand. I was expecting this to be terrible in all sorts of ways, based on the cover art and the choice of 'Siam' over 'Thailand' in the title - not to mention the tagline 'She faced the cruelty and squalor of a backward land with courage and devotion torn between obedience to her vows and the convictions of her heart' - but actually found myself drawn in by an honest and sympathetic account of vocation and charity. This makes sense, I suppose: the author had actually been there, and the copywriter hadn't.

In actual fact, Lightwood describes the challenges she faced with humanity and humour, be they poisonous frogs in the bathroom or learning the language. She rarely generalises about the people she works with, and I certainly came away with the impression that the overarching problem is not culture but poverty. She treats other religions with respect.

Teresa Lightwood gives a whistle-stop tour of her life, touching lightly on the parts that are less relevant to the story of her work in the Far East, but giving just enough background context. Particularly in the early chapters, where the realities of convent life were explored, I could not help remembering Karen Armstrong's 'Through The Narrow Gate' - though Lightwood seems to have found the experience less oppressive than Armstrong.

All in all, I'm glad I didn't pass this one on without reading it. It's good to be surprised sometimes.
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The most recent book club choice - and goodness knows it's taken long enough to get round to actually getting a meeting together and talking about it (over Dark and Stormys, Espresso Martinis, and Mojitos, and all on a Tuesday night). The choice was announced in May. How, then, did I find myself having to order it off Amazon the preceding Thursday and read it in three days? Sheer incompetence, and other people taking the communal copies on holiday with them.

I wish I'd had longer, because it was very heavy-going in every sense of the word. Three hundred pages, counting the contextual notes at the end, very small print, and harrowing content. It was a frustrating book and, if I'm honest, stylistically a bit of a let-down. In the introduction Janice Boddy, one of Aman's co-authors, enthuses about the Somali tradition of poetry and story-telling, which wasn't borne out in the narrative itself. The style was very same-y all the way through, no matter what was going on. Opinions at book club were divided as to how effective this was - whether it highlighted the horrors of colonialism and misogyny even as it presented them as part of everyday life, or whether it blended everything into a vaguely depressing mush.

Like I said, I read it too quickly.
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A much easier read than I was expecting, though at the same time much harder to categorise than I'd first thought. Autobiography, certainly, but along with the personal narrative comes a courteous exposition of the historical background and religious and cultural traditions, for context, and a fair bit of politics, the whole being suffused with the awareness of faith. But the whole makes for a balanced, respectful and deeply personal story. It conveys a lot of baggage gracefully and efficiently. A tale well-told - the story of the Dalai Lama's escape with his family and entourage was like something out of John Buchan. The whole book is a moving appeal for Tibet; it is as much a portrait of the background as it is a self-portrait.
stapsreads: 'The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them' (Default)
A book about being a geisha written by a geisha - the reality is, it seems a lot more interesting and a lot less titillating than one would imagine from having read the blurbs on books about being a geisha written by people who aren't geishas. For a start, the word 'geisha' (artist) itself isn't used much; Iwasaki prfers 'geiko' (woman of art) or 'maiko' (woman of dance), according to age.

And actually, this is as much about dance as it is about anything, dance and the dancer's passion for her work, her frustration with a rigid system, and a detailed (but not heavy-handed) description of the industry in general. (Because it is an industry, supporting probably thousands of people.) I found it absolutely fascinating. I couldn't help comparing it to Shanghai Tango, which I read a while back; both deal honestly with the tension between innovation and tradition, not to mention the sheer hard work.

Iwasaki addresses with commendable restraint the (erroneous) assumption that geisha are sex workers, highlighting the areas where confusion may arise, but firmly rebuffing the notion that a necessarily equals b. I would likely have been much more vehement about it.

Oh yes, and I was much amused by which member of the British Royal Family evoked the most authorial approval. You wouldn't have thought it, would you?

One minor niggle: I really could have done with a glossary. Iwasaki is very good at defining her terms when they first come up, but I tend to find that once isn't enough for me, and I kept having to flip back to where I thought the term had been introduced, only to find that I'd misremembered.
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I bought this entirely because of its size (less than 50 pages) - it is a sample of Marianne Faithfull's autobiography and is going in my Short and Sweet bookbox. Having now read it, I know more about the Rolling Stones than I did before, but since I knew practically nothing about them before that's not saying much, and of course one can only fit so much into 46 pages. This is not to say that these 46 pages are not worth reading. This sample at least is very witty, and if I ever feel that I need to know more about the swinging sixties I know where to start.

'There were lots of things I could have done at the age of nineteen that would have been more healthy than becoming Mick Jagger's inamorata.'
stapsreads: 'The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them' (Default)
Part autobiography, part introduction to Buddhism, and actually a very useful little book, I found. I began reading it a while back, found the deconstruction of the 'faith=belief' assumption very convincing (not that it was new to me, you understand, but it's nice to see other people thinking the same way in print), put it down for several months, and finished it off the other night. Salzberg is very honest about her own failings, open about what has brought her to where she is, and actually very helpful in illustrating what she means. A lot of this book is anecdotal, but I found it worked very nicely. I still don't know much detail about Buddhism, but I feel that I've now got a better grasp of the fundamental ideas. It also describes a model of spirituality that is relevant to my own experience, and she's not at all One True Way-ist about it. Maybe a little bit American and touchy-feely, but I don't know - it seems to work here.
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I used to be very into ballet stories, not so much because I was keen on ballet, but because they tended to be about people knowing what they wanted, and getting it. Though this is a true story, it's no exception. Firstly, it's about Jin Xing's ambition to be China's greatest dancer. Secondly, it's about her identity as, and journey to become, a woman. Two interlinked destinations, and a route that takes in the People's Liberation Army, Korea, America, Rome, and Belgium, an array of lovers, and a (mostly) supportive family.

I enjoyed this one a lot; one gets a real sense of the force of Jin Xing's personality, and it's interesting from the dance perspective, too. My only complaint is that some all but insurmountable challenges get passed over in a couple of sentences, and I would really like to know more about some of them.


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June 2013

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