Sometimes I wish I couldn’t hear my own thoughts.

The Concubine’s Daughter – Pai Kit Fai

Ahh, this book. It was longer than I realised – downside of my Kindle, but the title was not misleading. Briefly, it is the story of, surprise, the Concubine’s daughter and then her granddaughter, set in China in the early part of the 20th century up until shortly prior to WW2.

The book was quite dark immediately, within the first few pages there was rape and infanticide, so, not a cheery opening. However, there are some really interesting descriptions and explanations of how the society in China worked at this time, particularly the hierarchical structures. As to whether the descriptions were accurate or not, I couldn’t really answer, mostly because I can’t be bothered to do any research, but I suspect there are some. This is because at the end there was a quick Q & A with the author. Firstly, he comes across as a complete arse, and secondly, when they ask him about the historical accuracy he gives a very vague, wishy washy answer. So probably best not to reference it in a dissertation. He does mention that one of the reasons he wrote this book was his interest on woman’s rights at this time, or more specifically, the lack of.

It discusses the lotus feet of the Concubine, and that they want her daughter to have the same – even though by this point I believe, historically, it had been outlawed, but this isn’t adhered to much in the rural area where the book is set. This then led me to do research on lotus feet – read Wikipedia – and that was a disturbing read, including the upsetting pictures. I then did some research using Bing, my suggestion is don’t make the same mistake I did. My feet were tingling in sympathy, and while I do have a thing about how tiny the bones are in my hands and feet and have a genuine concern about damage to them, this did absolutely nothing to help me deal with that. In fact I think it made it worse…anyway, onwards!

The daughter – Li-Xia, managed to escape the bindings and the fate of Lotus feet and then proceeds to show us just how determined she is to escape her fate and become a scholar. This is one of those books that teaches us that much is down to chance, and in a way gives you false hope, in that, while yes, sometimes good things just happen to people, there are the exception rather than the rule, and make me think that maybe one day something will happen to me that will change my life completely. However, if the book was about someone that ordinary things happened to, rather than one that extraordinary things happened to, it wouldn’t really be worth reading, would it? The author does, however, also focus on the fact that the much of the things that happen to the characters are down to choice and quick thinking. So I may be being a bit unfair – but not really. Much of it does just seem to be down to chance.

The characters are also inconsistent, much of their actions do not lead on from what happened before and there seem to be big information gaps, sometimes things are mentioned and you don’t know what they are referring to, or suddenly things just appear with no time of background to allow for it, for example when the Mung Cha Cha girls that Lia-Xia worked with gave her intricate gifts they had made by hand. At that point Li-Xia hadn’t seen them in years, they didn’t know that they were going to see her again, so why did they have gifts to give her when she returned and paid their Sung-Tips? How did they know? When did they get the time to make them. It was ridiculous. These were incredibly annoying and in addition to this sometimes the time line in the book just seemed to be implausible, which wasn’t aided by holes in the plot, usually linked to the information gaps referred to above. Despite these flaws though, you really start to admire Li-Xia in particular, if I had been her, I would have been raging all the time.

She goes through so much, is abused so much that you wonder how she is even still standing. Oddly enough though, she still seems very innocent and ignorant, which to me seems at odds with all she has gone through prior to this. Surely she would have a hard edge at least, or struggle to come to terms with all she has gone through, but no, it just disappears when her perfect life is given to her, along with her too perfect husband Ben. You don’t resent this though, because every time something else bad happens to her, you just think, How? How could more bad shit happen to her? Oh wait, and then it does and in comes her daughter. Which we will come back to.

The description in the book is very flowery, but it seems to suit it well. The author really sells the beauty of China to you, makes it the kind of place you want to go and explore, to see for yourself, and it isn’t somewhere I have ever really fancied visiting, now I am desperate to go. Don’t see it ever happening though, le sigh.

In addition, I have this bad habit of starting to talk like the characters in books I am reading. So for example, when I read Pride and Prejudice I go all proper spoken English on you, when I read this I become racist. So for example, I was drinking Desperados with Boyf and we were waxing lyrical about how it is one of our favourite beers when I just announce “Maybe we should send letter of many, many thanks to them?” Yup well done, excellent racism there. Sometimes I wish I couldn’t hear my own thoughts.

Ok, that was a nice detour that allows everyone to judge me harshly, we shall move rapidly back towards the second half of the book. The second half deals with Li-Xia’s daughter. The difference here is that at least she has a nice childhood which is then rather abruptly brought to an end and we go through more tragedy and misuse and female exploitation and you just wonder, will this ever fucking end? The good news is, it does end and it is the usual cliché happy ending you would expect, by this point though, you totally deserve it after all of the misery.

Overall, and I know I slagged it quite heavily above, I actually really enjoyed this book, it was a long engrossing read which I love and can be very difficult to find. Yes there are inconsistencies and problems, and yes, the authors questions at the end make him seem a bit of a dick, e.g. “Well I married into a rich family in China and when you move to China they give you a Chinese name so you can have both on your business card, so I use this name all the time now”, that may be slightly paraphrased, but is the basic gist of it. This doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a really enjoyable read and I would thoroughly recommend.

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I think everyone hates me.

No, really I do, and not just cause I always feel like that, but because now I fancy myself as a bit of an expert in body language. That is right, I am soon to be judging near you, probably you and convincing myself that you hate me. The reason why? I have been reading “What Every Body is Saying: An ex-FBI’s agent’s guide to speed-reading people”

There are a number of reasons for this, firstly, it would be a good skill to have, especially when going into an unfamiliar situation, as it would help me gauge what was happening. Secondly, if I can manipulate my own body language to exude confidence, maybe I will be more successful both on a personal and professional level. Thirdly, I can tell what everybody is thinking about me all the. Fourthly – is that even a word? – an obsession with the X-Files made me really want to be an FBI agent. Although, in retrospect, there were a number of reasons that was never going to happen:

1. I am not American

2. I am just so clearly unsuitable

3. I would be utterly fucking terrible at it

4. There is no such thing as the X-files

Those are the main reasons, but I suspect there are any number of things that could be added to that list – no, that is not an invitation for you, yes you, to add to it.

Anyhoodle, the book is a really fascinating read, but definitely not a page turner. I have been reading it off and on since December and really can’t make myself read it for any length of time. The case studies in it are genuinely interesting and I am sure if I remembered any of it once I finished reading it it would be very useful. As it stands though, I can only remember bits and pieces and it seems to be the kind of book that would to be re-read a number of times to get the full benefit of it. Also, what is explained so clearly in the book turns out to be more difficult to apply in real life, once again, probably a reason why I am not an FBI agent.

The other thing it reminded me of was part of the training I went through for my job. The trainer seemed to be a sort of amateur of body language reader (is that the technical term?) along these lines so she left you feeling kind of jumpy and paranoid. As in, she would look at you and just be able to tell what you were like by how you were sitting, or how you were feeling and it just felt like she was constantly watching, It really wasn’t cool. In fact, just today she used one of her psychological mind tricks on me, via e-mail of all things. Crap, I must be really susceptible. Please don’t try to sell me things.

Where was I? Oh yes, so it leaves you with a lingering sense of paranoia, in that, you are now concerned everyone is judging you by your body language (including me, but apparently I am doing it wrong). The skills it can teach you are definitely worthwhile, and shall be trying to integrate some of these into my everyday life, but it also points out that when you try to hide your natural reactions and inclinations there are still signs there of what you are doing. I read a really good and interesting website about reading body language is called Eyes for Lies, and it states that something like 5% of people have a natural ability to read peoples body language, but this blogger does state it can be taught and she teaches classes on it for people in careers that could find it beneficial, like police.

She also posts videos and then deconstructs part of it to show you how you can read what the person is really saying, and she has a ridiculous hit rate, over 90% at least. I am pretty sure it is higher, and I could go and check, but I am clearly not going to. Here is a link anyway in case people would like to check it out. http://blog.eyesforlies.com/

Back to the book, another interesting aspect of it is how much you pick up on your own body language afterwards, little details you never noticed, like how you sit, how you react to other people. In some ways it is quite useful if you aren’t quite sure about how you feel about a situation or person, you can read your own body to help you evaluate and you can try to learn how to give a certain impression depending on what suits any occasion.

All in all, very interesting. I would recommend as a book to have, just to dip in and out of, but not something for full on intense reading. So, at the very least, have a look at the eyes for lies website and if it is the kind of thing that interests you, you should give this book a go.

Also, I wasn’t lying before. I now read the body language of every single one of you, so you better learn how to pretend to like me or at least fake not hating me better. Thanks!

Ketchup Clouds

I recently finished reading Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher. It was recommended to me by a friend. We had been discussing our mutual love of Young Adult novels – I have a lot of friends that are in to these, no idea what that says about us – when she recommended this one, saying that it had won a number of prizes. She also mentioned that she had preferred this authors first novel, which I haven’t gotten around to reading, but if I do, I shall be sure to let you know.

This book was wonderfully hilarious immediately. It pulls you in and before you know it you are sucked in and don’t want to go anywhere else. The character is relatable to what I would assume would be most teenage girls. Although, she isn’t as cliché as some others are, which is a definite bonus. She is someone you like and want to be friends with and you want to know how it ends.

A brief synopsis: The character starts writing to a murderer on Death Row as she thinks he is the only one that could understand what she is going through, as she too, has murdered someone.

For the whole book I kept hoping there would be some misunderstanding, that she hadn’t killed someone, that perhaps she had misinterpreted the events. Surely this girl, that I liked so much, hadn’t murdered someone? Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, I won’t ruin it.

As you can imagine though, it is quite dark, and the humour is very dry. For example to makes reference to her Grandfather as having a stroke, which resulted in a stroke of good luck for her and another is “I read The Famous Five when I had to do my first book review at primary school. 4.5 out of 5 I gave it because the adventure was good and they found the treasure at the end but this character called George who was a borderline transvestite kept talking to her dog so I knocked off half a star for being unrealistic”. Hrmm, they don’t seem quite as funny taken out of context, but it was genuinely hilarious. I laughed out loud at a lot of it.

There were also lots of drawings throughout which were good and really added to the book. For example there is a picture of Hitler jumping over a wall. Jeez, this really isn’t coming out anywhere near as funny as it does in the book. Clearly it is the kind of thing that you need to read.

As I said the main character seems like a genuine character, although the best friend character is a bit cliché. However, what I do like is the dynamic between them. In most books, indeed in real life, most best friends are normally joined at the hip, that they can’t do anything without each other. In the book though they seem quite independent of each other, which was good, as it gave them both individual personalities instead of merging into one. There was, however, a suspicious lack of angst. I don’t know if perhaps I was just a particularly angsty teen, but I did way more complaining and feeling sorry for myself than either of them did.

Also, when it comes to the kissing, sexual activity outlined in the book the author approaches it really well. She never plies the character with feelings of guilt, she makes it seem natural, which is always a good thing to do when you are writing to a mostly female, teenage audience. It gives them realistic expectations and allows them not to feel guilty or wrong for wanting to do these things. The main character is a very positive role model, and I genuinely wish I could have read this book when I was a teenager.

I would very much recommend it, but opinions seems to be polarised on it. I told my friend who recommended it to me that I loved it, and she said lots of people told her they hated it. So it appears to be a bit of a marmitey book. If you enjoy dry humour, beautiful alliteration and endlessly amusing drawings though, it is definitely for you.