Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years

Queen Elizabeth I is one of the most fascinating emperors to have ever ruled the United Kingdom. She is a vision in portraiture, literature and history for centuries now but much of her term in power is shrouded in some of the most catastrophic decisions ever made by an English ruler: from being an avid Protestant to granting lifetime imprisonment to the Queen of Scots, Mary. A new book by John Guy speaks in a similar tone of disagreement over Queen Elizabeth’s rule in England, although for quite a different set of reasons.

A captivating new look inside the life of one of the greatest English monarchs of all time
A captivating new look inside the life of one of the greatest English monarchs of all time

The book talks about the Spanish Armada episode and how the Queen successfully defended her kingdom from it. Moments such as these demonstrate what a great Queen she was despite Elizabeth’s many faults. It’s tough to imagine every ruler so wicked and steely, that the country manages to protect itself from a Spanish invasion for as long as Elizabeth I ruled the United Kingdom. John uncovers new historical documents which showcase negotiations the Queen was always ever busy in, with the Spanish to keep her kingdom very safe and secure. A subject of many foiled attempts to take Elizabeth’s life, the Queen always exudes a sense of calm and poised-strength that is hard to gather from other monarchs.

But Elizabeth I’s faults far outshadow her commitment to coming off as a great Queen. She must have given her secretary Sir Francis Drake numerous headaches despite his entrenched loyalty to his duty, Elizabeth was filled with lies and also liked to divide and rule her kingdom, which was unfair to say the least. And to top all that off she also had an affair with the Earl of Leicester, who she never married because her throne depended on it. The book is a good counterargument against picturing Elizabeth I as a stuffy (and powerful) woman-in-control, and for that alone it is a remarkable historical narrative about a Queen and her glorious rule in the United Kingdom as a monarch, which should really always be taken at face value.

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing 

A memorable take on China
A memorable take on China
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a captivating book about the ordeals experienced by two Chinese families, under the shadow of an oppressive regime in China, led by Mao Zedong. The story begins in Vancouver, Canada, but in the early nineties, when Marie (also known as Li-ling) meets Ai-Ming, who has run away from the Chinese heartland following a horrific protests-based episode at Tiananmen Square. Eventually Marie comes to learn about her relative’s family, from this new guest, welcomed by her mother inside their house, and those stories from Ai-Ming magnificently traverse through Chinese revolutions and early-day protests in Beijing.

The ordeals experienced by ordinary people during some of China’s most formative years, in the book reflect in tone of the extreme kinds: shame, browbeat, savagery, public beatings, but the narrative remarkably manages to rise wonderfully like a phoenix, resonating hope, bravery and resilience. Classical music, such as a piece by German composer Johann Christian Bach, plays an extraordinary role here in connecting people’s lives with each other despite the intensely emotional nature of the story, which actually makes the tale bearable, to be engrossed by, and heartwarming.

Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, left his mother, at first and then in 1989, committed suicide (before he even reached his forties) in Hong Kong – Marie was only ten at the time. Even though Marie isn’t fluent in Chinese, she begins to know more about her father from Ai-Ming’s lengthy family stories (it stretches more than seventy years), and she discovers that he had an abject (and sometimes upset) bond with particular people from her relative’s family.

It is not tough to relate these small matters, with secret notebooks that help Marie learn more about her father: they document history but it seems to risky to do it out in the open. Kai, a mysterious but talented concert pianist, had committed suicide, Marie comes to know after singularly surviving starvation, when Mao was still in power, and that he was friends with a bashful composer called Sparrow (Ai-Ming’s father), and his teacher. Swirl and Big Mother, Ai-Ming’s great aunt, and grandmother complete the family picture, except it’s an incomplete story without mentioning that revolutions in China shattered peace for many, in the two separate families.

To elaborate: simply loving a particular kind of music could mean abuse and it’s naturally hard to stop reminiscing about them, so it’s always an atmosphere of fear everywhere. The families began with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as their lives’ centrepiece but then Swirl and Big Mother, who during their teenage years earned a living as travelling tea house singers, experience labour camps – Swirl is sent off there, and Big Mother is left with the responsibility of bringing up her daughter Zhuli, who is now a prodigal (and committed) violinist. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, the novel is an extraordinary blend of Chinese history, and family stories influenced by national political atrocities.

Things Fall Apart

What is rural life really like in Africa?

This is a book  that was published in 1958 but with it’s help brought Africa global recognition. Steeped in colonial history, Ghana eventually gained independence and both France and Belgium began to understand that colonialism has finally come to an end in the African continent, but unknown to those European imperial powers that had colonised the place, independence began to torment Africans. Several European powers grew deeply interested in the “local power source” they could sense was abound in the African continent then and Achebe’s novel begins at this point in time, where you meet a young man, in a fictional Nigerian town, who suddenly goes from being a farmer to a wrestling champion of his African province.

The young man went by the name of Okonkwo and he was born to a father who, in his eyes, was lazy and he died ten years before fame found Okonkwo. Unoka, Okonkwo’s father, was in heavy debt, and all of his neighbours in some or the other way, was in want of important money from him. Okonkwo had limited forbearance for the tall, sorrow-filled, savage-like, flute-playing and stooped Unoka: whenever his father rarely had money, he would splurge it on palm-wine, drunk from gourds, invite the neighbours and indulge in merrymaking but his happiest days were when two or three moons following the harvest his entourage would bring down the instruments from their fireplace and play it with friends, make music, feast, go from one town market to the other as the sun would shine ever brightly.

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How is Africa’s colonial past in the flesh?

It is pretty clear that Okonkwo never got along with his father or had the desire to reserve kind words about him but the story isn’t about any of that: it is about how Okonkwo threw a fellow dominating wrestler, Amalinze the Cat, from his high horse and won. Amalinze was known as the cat because his back never touched brown earth and it was the most hotly contested battle since the founder of the town conversed with a wild spirit for seven days and seven nights. Amalinze, a smart professional, met his opponent Okonkwo, a slippery fish in water, and in the protagonist’s words, lost to him, in wrestling in a patriarchal and rural democratic town. Although that particular thought sounds so hard to believe when Amalinze seems to be a gifted wrestler, Okonkwo did defeat him in the end in his village surroundings, that magically remains preserved throughout time.

The book is interesting for bringing a correct picture of Africa to the West. Reading the book will enrich your idea of the kind of villages that build up the continent, overwhelmingly, and what life is like for the people who inhabit them. Okonkwo gets famous after he wins against Amalinze, an event that you understand, was more than twenty years ago. A mammoth man, Okonkwo is tall like his father, with bushy eyebrows and a wide nose. Severe and lacking zero tolerance for unsuccessful men, when Okonkwo naps his huge family can sense that he is breathing even though they live in separate village houses.

Stammering slightly, Okonkwo spent his whole childhood looking for a blue kite floating around a clear sky and if he met it, he would ask it if he had brought back any yards of cloth with him. Okonkwo, having grown up in absolute poverty because of his father, had to live a life where he barely ate, with people constantly making fun of him, and growing up exhibiting the same debt-ridden habits of Unoka, except that people trusted him much less than his father, when the question of borrowing even more money was raised. There is a lot of market environment in Things Fall Apart and it is worthy of a read to understand Africa during the 1800s so much better, from the inside.

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Howard Marks

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories: From Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Howard Marks

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A delicious read on British courtroom dramas.

Jeremy Hutchinson is one of those British lawyers, whose moral compass always points in the correct direction (or you would think). Jeremy has worked on cases such as, in defence of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial (1960), that dragged Penguin Books into it. That case was unique: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a book by D.H. Lawrence, that increasingly used slangs in proper linguistic structures, and this had alarmed many people in Great Britain, at the time. The controversies heightened when the book was published in an affordable and readily available format and the case went on to become a career defining one for Hutchinson.

The book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even by today’s standards remains controversial for too much of the words “fuck” and “cunt” in them, even though the case was won on the grounds that it demonstrated British society’s evolution. It’s hard not to agree with the public there, when you open a book and read frequent use of those words whilst you are trying to understand Chatterley’s frustrations at having to live with only love, and no sex. But given the theme of the book, wouldn’t it be quite inappropriate to skip words that make it easier to translate the frustration a woman feels, for fear of seeming obscene? In that retrospect, the book was ahead of its times and pretty clairvoyant about social change in a British landscape.

The case is covered in the book in infinitely tantalizing ways, and I think it will without a doubt, remain my most favourite out of all the numerous ones Jeremy has worked on in his distinguished career. To get a more diverse flavour of Jeremy’s law career: think about cases involving espionage and “unwanted sexual provocation”. Jeremy defended two spies (George Blake and John Vassall) in the sixties for spying in favour of the Soviet Union, and what was special about that case was actually Blake’s survival story. Blake, a former MI6 officer, was a prisoner in North Korea (1950 – 1953) and lived through a death march, partially converted to communism and spent his time spying on Russians in Berlin, and sometimes in Beirut, Lebanon.

The case history of this particular case in the book, is conflicted and less secretive than previous espionage accounts, that are more often than not, cloaked with too much of infuriating mystery, to handle. Jeremy was born in 1915, and in today’s times is regarded as a legendary criminal barrister circa ‘60s, ‘70s and ’80s. Some of his most magnificent cases are studied in the book, such as those mentioned above + Hutchinson fighting in defence of the train robber Charlie Wilson, Kempton Bunton (a thief, who had stolen a picture from the National Gallery), art faker Tom Keating and a huge cannabis importer, Howard Marks. Jeremy was never about powerfully doing what is right, he was always for liberty and freedom, for all, no matter the case or its backstory. A very riveting read for lovers of exciting courtroom dramas, with or without a moral compass, in sight!

The Arabs: A History

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How is diplomacy faring in the Arab world today, supervised by British foreign policy and foreign intervention?

The Arabs: A History

Arabic countries have long suffered from disappointments: since the fall of Ottoman rule in the region, there has been a lot of talk about how imperial rule breeds suffering. In those days, a spectacular course of friendship was charted with the fellow French Empire to rule but I believe this would never have been the right choice for the British Empire (or in the Middle East, the Roman Empire). Our history suggests that we prefer to be rare, we like to dominate independently and we like to be hostile towards all competition, no matter how small; the British and Roman Empires have been good Imperial forces in the world, so snobbery is a natural characteristic to our brand of Imperialism.

Disappointments for the Arabs began when in the early 16th Century, the Ottomans conquered the region at large: this book, to an extent, focuses on the modern consequences of tyrannical Ottoman rule in the Gulf and the following few centuries are given a brief introduction and nothing else, so that as readers, we can focus on the brutal stories from an Imperial rule more. The tyranny was so profound, the only way the Ottomans could rule was through taking away of rights, rather than exercising law to settle local disputes, like in the Roman Empire. People lived in fear of their government, who would as the story goes sometimes threatened royal subjects with brutish behaviour, as one ruler after another exhibited their mannerism of governance, never doing too much.

Soliman the Magnificent, was one such ruler who was selfishly magical in portions of the Arab world, as an Ottoman ruler but most of his days were coloured with hostility coming from the Portuguese and French Empires. In the book, you also meet the heroic Ahmad al-Jazzer, the former governor of Damascus (then inclusive of Israel and Palestine), a defender of Beirut, and a soother to Mount Lebanon. Meanwhile, local rulers such as Daher al-Umar and the Mamlukes of Cairo grew into singular (and thoughtless) rulers, who captivated the Arab world. Decades of corrupted rulers, who used national wealth to feed their greed, many of which so badly lost their trading posts in Israel they permanently retreated, saw the Middle East shape up to be a region greatly distrustful of the United States of America. After emerging through bloody and very tough battles (Algeria), learning to put their faith in local Islamists (such as, the Muslim Brotherhood) instead of isolated nationalism in governance, for it in the past breeded repression, the Arab world emerged stronger in places and freer in others.

Arabs soon began to learn of the ways of their European rulers, their connections to technology, and how they materialised trading posts with Europe for the Arab world. Railways and telegraphy enshrined Ottoman rule in the early 1900s in the Gulf, further strengthened by the arrival of the British after the Ottomans lost to them in the First World War. There was great hope and exuberant democracy put on display by the former President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson and Arab nationalists, and mysterious words were spoken by British politicians but then it all came to a bitter end in the fifties/sixties as the Arab world lay in the dust with their dreams. Pan Arab-nationalism was replaced by local nationalism in countries such as Egypt and in 1948 Arab rule was defeated in Palestine in the absence of realization of that colonial dream. The Arab world was treated as a profitable source of national wealth for the British and it still holds true today. It is a lucrative source of trading power and the modern Arab world is incomplete without talks of foreign (policy) involvement, without talks of intervention in conflict zones. The book helps you realise that in the Middle East responsible power and politics, demonstrating leadership is a necessity, both for the Arabs and for Arabic countries.

Pity the Nation: what is happening to Lebanon?

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As part of the Arab Empire, once upon a time, much like Syria, is plain rivalry with it causing its downfall or is there more?

Pity the Nation

Lebanon is a place of constant struggle, owing to regular negligence from so many Western voices. They fail to intervene when required and when the going gets tough they even run out of the country, with their tail between their legs as fast as they can – this is the most pathetic display of democratic urgency, I have ever seen. In this book by the London Times correspondent Robert Frisk you will meet a British man who remained in Lebanon since 1975 to report back on the local carnage as most of his contemporaries fled and his thoughts on the conflict.

There is always war in Lebanon, there is too much violence to deem acceptable, and it all seems so never-ending. Tragic personal stories weave a Lebanese tapestry of a war in the book that is emotional and relatable: colourful and ethnic, people are caught up in no man’s war. Nationally, chieftains, private armies and even sects only really care about their inner turmoils at being unable to rule, while the United States, who leads in global affairs, falls short at intervention or peacekeeping efforts spectacularly in Lebanon.

The book is a rare find and you will find yourself unable to tear yourself from it because it is such an absorbing story: what is happening to Lebanon? Lebanon’s tapestry gets darker and more dangerous by the minute – so much savage accounts of an ethnic war as a decade ends in dust because of betrayal and mirage. Political troubles in the tapestry is spelt out by excellent war reporting and as a reader you slowly learn about the importance of good diplomacy in the world: the more we bravely talk of Lebanon, the faster the salvation will be for the Lebanese and the more it’s national history will chart a path of a glorious victory over negligence (and young ruffled innocence).

The Name of God Is Mercy

The Name of God Is Mercy

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Pope Francis becomes a shepherd once more but this time he wants to spread the message of “mercy”.

The latest book by Vatican City’s foremost authority on Catholicism centres on the subject of mercy. It is a controversial subject in Christianity, so to speak, because what faith in religion teaches followers is to never show mercy towards those who have committed a grave wrong towards you, knowingly, for they have deliberately distorted themselves to cause harm to you. It is a religious teaching I follow very passionately because I believe in it; it meshes well, with my individual attitudes towards the concept of what is right and what is wrong, and how to make sure that the right always wins over the wrong, a little bit like a superhero.

I have never liked those stories about Jesus Christ going through crucifixion just so that human beings, with tainted souls could find some peace in the afterlife but at the end of the day those are really beliefs – that’s not very much Christianity in it’s entirety, or what it has forever preached. When you read the book you get confused in places about what Pope Francis is implying when he is talking about forgiveness of sinners. Is he talking about the practice of homosexuality, like his predecessor before, and how it is viewed as a grave wrong in the eyes of Vatican City? That would be rather disappointing, wouldn’t it because as the Pope preaches mercy to all, it is important to remember that all sins are tied to the possibility of eternal punishment – committing a grave wrong towards another person, or sinning, could mean that they will never have any kind of a personal connection or a relationship to God or their community, ever again. Is it wise then to preach mercy towards the weak who have sinned, keeping in mind that some people can never return from it?

No one is interested in ancient talks of hating a person’s sins, but not the person because they seem to have no idea of justice in the afterlife, or to put it plainly, Heaven and Hell, and where a person’s life-reel will place them in the end. The book touches on these subjects sporadically so if you were looking for answers to those questions, you will not find them here, for now, at least. The Pope’s first book, what it does, is certainly act as a revelation into how he wants reform the Church and it is a stark shift away from the past: Francis talks endlessly about how he learned about mercy whilst working in slums in Buenos Aires, about the need for mercy in the world as communities suffer from prevailing war, poverty, social exclusion, excessive belief in destinies, coupled up with an cold-hearted and snobbish attitude over the concept of “the good and the bad” in societies. A good insight into how Pope Francis likes to look at Vatican City; it is peppered with delicious conversations that should help many wounded, or confused and lost get on the road to peace.