My output this month isn’t as prolific as last month’s. For one, I’m back at work full-time and for another, the first book I chose for March was a massive biography. No quick read there. So for your Read Women 2014 pleasure, here are my March reads:
Have you heard of Gertrude Bell? I had not, at least not that I could remember. She was a scary smart badass. She took a first at Oxford (first women in her subject to do so), she learned Persian Farsi and Arabic along with several other languages like French and German, she was such an accomplished mountain climber there is a peak named after her, after journeying several times to that amorphous region known as “Arabia” (pre-World War I) she decided to become an archeologist as well. Maybe she was bored.
A contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia, she spoke better Arabic than him and helped map uncharted lands throughout greater Mesopotamia (yeah, she learned cartography as well). And she worked for the Red Cross and was a spy and was involved in the creation of the nation of Iraq. Ho hum.
Howell’s biography is very thorough and I enjoyed learning about Bell, warts and all. Her accomplishments were made easier (or possible) by independent wealth and the freedom that comes with it but she also lived at a time where women in England did not have the vote or many other rights we take for granted today. Her enlightened father encouraged her at every step of her various journeys and was the biggest influence in her life.
For all that I loved reading about Bell, the structure of the book was odd and made the story disjointed at times and repetitive. Instead of Bell’s life unfolding chronologically, after the early chapters of her life it was sorted into categories. I am not a fan. One chapter was “Desert Travel” and another dealt with her love affair with a British officer. These times in her life overlapped but the chapters had them in their own separate niches and this theme was followed throughout the book. It was disconcerting to read all about a certain part of her life only to get to the next chapter when the same bit was examined through a whole new perspective. A book just about her travels through the Arabian deserts would be amazing all on its own and I wish this part of her life would have received more attention.
Overall I enjoyed learning about this amazing woman and can only imagine what would have happened if she had a publicist as good as Lawrence’s. I wonder who would play her in the movie…
Book #13: Night in Shanghai- Nicole Mones
I want to go back in time and go to Shanghai and I am sad that the place evoked in Mones’s story no longer exists. The descriptions of the international city are so evocative I almost tapped my toes to the scenes of American jazz playing in the hot clubs around town and scrunched up my nose at some of the Chinese delicacies offered at the best restaurants.
Mones’s vivid accounts of Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s are reason enough to read this book. Otherwise, the plot is uneven and jumps around without rhythm. Music is a major theme in the story that follows the life of African-American musician Thomas Greene who escapes the prejudice of his home country and finds freedom in the international jazz scene of Shanghai. The musical references can be heavy handed and a bit precious- Greene’s love is a woman named Song. I have a working knowledge of music theory and composition but I wonder how many scenes in the story would play for someone without that background. A fascinating subplot of the novel revolves around Jewish refugees from Europe resettling in China and I would love to read more about this subject.
Mones spent a lot time getting the Shanghai of this era just right, I would have liked the plot within the setting to be as tight and interesting.