Monday, February 11, 2019
To celebrate Valentine's Day, both my novel The Green Phoenix and my friend Harry Miller's novel Southern Rain are on sale now. Check out the Kobo site before the sale is over!
Thursday, February 7, 2019
This was a slow read. I had a hard time following the jumbled timelines and trying to connect with the main characters. I know many of my Goodreads friends loved the poetic writing. But it didn’t work for me. I picked this up expecting to read a war novel with an engaging plot and well developed and relatable characters, and found myself reading an epic, meandering and prolix narrative poem instead.
Four people of different nationalities are thrown together by chance at a Tuscan villa towards the end of World War II. The Englishman is badly burned from a plane crash and is dying. The Canadian nurse Hana, who could have gone with other hospital nurses to the safer north, decides to stay to nurse him. A Sikh sapper Kip does his life-threatening job of defusing mined bombs around the villa. An Italian-Canadian thief and spy Caravaggio, who is a buddy of Hana’s father’s, comes to persuade Hana to leave the dangerous place. Kip falls in love with Hana despite his suspicion of white Europeans. Caravaggio identifies the English patient as the pro-German Hungarian desert explorer.
Each character has a poignant backstory which, when revealed, sheds light on his/her present state of mind. The English patient once had a steamy love affair with a British intelligence agent’s wife, which resulted in the husband’s suicide-murder attempt that killed the wife; Hana had an aborted child and was devastated by her father’s death from serious burns; Kip lost a dear British friend and coach who was killed while defusing a bomb; Caravaggio had his thumbs severed as punishment for stealing photo shots of German officers.
The plot was not a bad one, but the way it was executed, the suspense was much diluted, and the characters, with the exception of the Sikh (Kip), failed to strike a chord.
Interspersed throughout the novel is technical information about cartography and desert oases and bomb defusing, which I didn’t find interesting.
I’m giving this novel 3 stars.
Sunday, January 20, 2019
Reading this 5-star review of The Green Phoenix warmed my heart.
If you like the review, kindly click the "Like" button on the Goodreads review page.
Link to the Review
Full text of the Review:
"I went into Alice Poon's wonderful historical novel The Green Phoenix with a middling knowledge of Chinese history. I vaguely knew the years of the Qing (Manchu) dynasty, that the Qing had supplanted the Ming, and also that the Qing were not ethnically Han Chinese. But beyond that, I didn't really know much, and before I started this novel I wasn't clear on exactly the time frame that the story covered.
Early on we are introduced to the protagonist, Bumbutai, who is a young Mongol woman of respectable social rank. Although she is in love with another, she is betrothed to the powerful Jurchen nobleman and warlord Hong Taiji. As the story unfolds, we learn that Hong Taiji is in the process of consolidating power and has the aim of essentially conquering China. When the story revealed that Hong Taiji changed the name of his people from Jurchen to Manchu, it suddenly dawned on me that this was the story of the founding of the Qing dynasty, one of the most significant events in world history!
What Alice Poon has done is to take the broad historical sweep of these events and bring them down to the individual human scale, and let us view these dramatic and historically significant happenings through the eyes of one woman, over the course of her whole life. We first see Bumbutai as a wistful and dreamy teenager feeling the first pangs of love, then as a young bride suddenly thrust into the world of serious responsibility, then as a wife, mother, and finally grandmother. She seeks to balance the desires of her own heart, her official responsibility, and the pursuit of her own intellectual and ethical values, all through the various channels available to her.
The author doesn't shy away from the harsh historical reality of the events; we see palace intrigue in the fledgling Qing court, personal jealousies and ambition, betrayal and loyalty. We see the military and political machinations, cruel death sentences, assassination attempts, powerful generals changing sides during wartime, and vicious reprisals on civilian populations. And through it all, we're shown the ability of one individual—one woman—to influence all these events. Bumbutai is well-educated and a lover of traditional literature, poetry, philosophy, and ethics, and she seeks to impart these values onto the powerful men that she is so close to—and she is often successful. In a very positive form of multiculturalism, Bumbutai uses her keen judgment to emphasize the best elements of Chinese, Mongol, and even some Western ideas, values and outlooks.
One of the fun things about literature (and film) in general is when you're introduced to a world that you were previously completely ignorant of—and that was the case here with me. Alice Poon's writing is clear and concise, and it's emotive without being excessively flowery; I was able to follow the story and keep track of the characters without much difficulty. Very enjoyable."
Friday, January 18, 2019
This was a riveting read. Baldwin’s honest and emotion-laden writing grabs you from the start. He tells you a simple story of gross injustices inflicted on people of color in New York City in the 60s and 70s. Weaving into this narrative family love, passionate love between two young people, hope and despair, dogmatic prejudices and forgiveness, he transports you to a world that makes you throw your hands up in disbelief at the injustices and at the same time marvel at humanity.
Fonny and Tish from their respective black families fall in love and are about to get married. Fonny loves the art of sculpting, but for this passion he has to tolerate his mother’s and sisters’ scorn. Just as Tish discovers that she’s with child, Fonny is thrown into prison on a false charge of rape, because a white policeman is set on ruining him out of spite. Tish’s parents and elder sister rally to help Fonny get exonerated. Meanwhile, Tish and Fonny are sustained by their love for each other and the baby in Tish’s womb.
The beauty of the novel lies in the true-to-life characters that jump off the page. Each character is drawn vividly with his/her flaws and strengths and beliefs and idiosyncracies. Their dialogues and interaction makes it easy to believe they were the folks who walked the streets of New York in that time period.
I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.
Monday, December 17, 2018
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has recently blogged about how an amazing gem of a Chinese painting came to land on the museum’s doorsteps. It is a moving story, and the serendipitous find in question is a lovely painting of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頣和園. In the 1880s Empress Cixi ordered this imperial garden restored, which was located near the site of the Old Summer Palace 圓明園.
One paragraph in the middle of the blog post reads:
“At the time, Wang was in the very early stages of planning for the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibition. The donated painting, now on view in the last gallery, helps tell the story of the influence wielded by Empress Dowager Cixi within the Qing dynasty. In the 1880s Cixi personally oversaw the restoration of the property, which had been pillaged by Anglo-French troops some 20 years earlier.”
But the unvarnished official history behind these imperial gardens is far less palatable than that indicated in the above paragraph. Around 1860, the Old Summer Palace 圓明園 had been vindictively burned to the ground by Anglo-French troops under orders of British Commander Lord Elgin, in what came to be known as the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860). All this violence was in retaliation for the Chinese people trying to resist opium trade and the British invasion of Guangdong in the 1850s.
Willfully oblivious to her subjects' long sufferings during the two Opium Wars and foreign countries' relentless military offensives on Chinese soil, and the crippling penalties they imposed, Cixi took the funds earmarked for the modernizing of the Qing naval fleet and lavished it on the restoration of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頤和園 for her own private pleasure.
Perhaps this infamous act paled in comparison to her later wicked persecution of patriotic reformists in 1898, it was nonetheless a direct cause of the Qing court’s defeat in various naval battles with France and Japan between 1884 and 1894, which effectively turned China into a sitting duck vis a vis foreign aggressors and set the stage for the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of Beijing by the Alliance of Eight Nations (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, U.S., Italy and Austria), and then the 1911 Revolution.
It makes me think that world history is a super complex chain of causes and effects. Without going deep into our history, we would never be able to understand the conflicts that plague international relations, much less our present human condition.
Sunday, December 16, 2018
Trying to pique Westerners' interest in Chinese history through historical fiction is hard, as the genre is just way too Eurocentric. It's a good thing that this exhibition of Qing Empresses has caught some eyeballs. I hope this will help spread the word about early Qing history, and about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang as a key (but probably forgotten) female leader, whose influence was inexorably tied to the successful rise of the Qing Dynasty.
The Boston Globe named the Qing Empresses Exhibition at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts as "Best Thematic/Historical Show of 2018".— Alice Poon (@alicepoon1) December 16, 2018
https://t.co/E5hQ2RUb65 #china #salem #art #ChineseHistory #QingEmpresses #museums https://t.co/ImkfkMzhGW
Sunday, December 9, 2018
I've finished Volume One (of two Volumes) of A Short History of Modern China by Kuo Ting-yee (it's written in Chinese and published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong 近代中國史綱（上）). This volume covers the time period from the 1830s up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, and it coincides with the period covered in Stephen R. Platt's new book Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age. Volume Two covers the timeframe between 1912 and 1949, which I will read at a later date. I thought it sensible to read a history book about Modern China written by an ethnic Chinese historian.
It was a difficult (painful) read for me (probably the same for any ethnic Chinese) because it was a blatant case of Western countries (Britain, France, Germany & to a lesser extent, the U.S.) plus Japan and Russia scheming to bully and split up China in the name of fostering trade. Of course a feckless, self-serving and rotten Qing court (with Empress Cixi and Yuan Shikai as the main culprits) not only didn't help matters but actually emboldened foreign countries’ covetous ambitions. Honestly speaking, the causes leading to the debacle of the Qing Dynasty were not spectacularly different from those that helped to wipe out Ming, or Yuan, or Song, or Tang or Han. It was always a matter of internal rot, corruption and internecine fights at the ruling classes’ level and their gross neglect of subjects’ grievances that initiated the process of rapid decay at the core. Unfortunately, it is also true that the lessons of history have never been well learned even with endless repetitions.