Friday, October 18, 2019

Book Review - "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexandre Dumas, pere

Whew, I finally finished reading this much acclaimed French classic. While satisfied that I can now count myself among its readers, I do have mixed feelings about this epic story of one man embarking on a revenge trajectory after being dealt a harsh blow of egregious frame-up which entails fourteen years of imprisonment and the loss of his betrothed.

The novel is one large web of intricate and inter-linking plots, apparently woven with much care and passion and sprinkled with suspenseful and emotional moments. My investment in the convoluted plots did not wane throughout the novel, although some major twists lean a bit towards fantasy and some of the minor turns appear unnecessary. Still, I loved the author’s beautiful descriptions of scenery in various parts of France, and his occasional insights on human nature spelled out in the narrator’s witty observations. I especially like the moral message that a person who exacts retribution and hurts the innocent in the process will end up with more pain than satisfaction.

As much as the portrayal of the key characters enabled me to have a good grasp of the motives and reasons behind their actions and reactions, I found that they still neatly fall into either one of two distinct categories - good and bad – with very little nuance. The good stay good, the bad stay bad, throughout. But I guess that's one way of  looking at human nature.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read and I am giving it 3.4 stars, rounded down.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Plums in Blue Moon 梅林邀月: 暴烈與溫柔——《孝莊與多爾袞》的另類解讀

Plums in Blue Moon 梅林邀月: 暴烈與溫柔——《孝莊與多爾袞》的另類解讀: 日子愈是艱難,生活愈要如常,至少要保持自己的步伐,不被牽著鼻子走。若能保持自己的節奏,就容易保持信心,熬過艱難的日子。 因此,在這多事之夏,懷著忐忑不安的心情走進劇院——哪怕自己浮躁的心、疲憊的眼,可能會辜負臺前幕後的努力。 猶幸帷幕開處,一陣激昂澎湃的鼓聲響起,倏地把目光和心思...

I was so glad to read this excellent review of the jingju 京劇, "Xiaozhuang and Dorgon" 孝莊與多爾袞, and to find that the main themes and plots manifested in this theatrical production closely match those in my historical novel The Green Phoenix! I wish I had learned to acquire a taste for 京劇. Regardless, the crux of the story is clear: Xiaozhuang and Dorgon represent two diametrically opposite political choices: compassion vs repression.

Dorgon's violent regime some 400 years ago is certainly good food for thought for Hong Kong's incumbent rulers who seem to think that brutish repression is the only way to end the protests. Dorgon's tyrannical rule was deeply detested in the Qing's fledgling days. The Han society then was lucky to have Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang on their side, whose wisdom and compassion was pivotal in bringing about peace, thus laying the foundation for the Kangxi-Qianlong golden age.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Book Birthday Giveaway Entry Ends August 31!

Oct. 1, 2019 Update: The winners were notified and signed copies of the book were put in the mail to them on Sept. 26, 2019.

Please use the contact form (on the right) to enter your name and address for a lucky draw on September 1, 2019.

Deadline for entries is 5:00 pm Pacific Time on Saturday, August 31, 2019. Good Luck!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Li Xiangjun and "The Peach Blossom Fan"

As I previously mentioned, Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624 – 1653) is one of the three leading characters of my upcoming novel. She was among the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai 秦淮八艷 and the subject of Ming scholar Hou Fangyu’s 侯方域’s literary essay titled Biography of Lady Li 姬傳.

The premises where Li used to reside and ply her trade as a courtesan (she was a celebrated kunqu opera singer) were called Villa of Alluring Fragrance 媚香樓, which was located along the banks of the Qinhuai River, a glitzy pleasure district of Nanjing in the late-Ming dynasty. The above photographs show the reconstructed building at No. 38, Bank Note Vault Street, Qinhuai, Nanjing 南京秦淮區鈔庫街三十八.

If you have read Kong Shangren’s 孔尚任’s iconic historical play The Peach Blossom Fan 桃花扇, you would already be familiar with the real-life heroine Li Xiangjun. This classical play is a dramatized narrative based on Hou’s essay Biography of Lady Li and is a poetic weaving of the tragic love affair between Hou and Li with the collapse of the Ming dynasty.

I’ve recently stumbled across a poem written by renowned writer and philosopher Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895 – 1976), which gives a reflective and laudatory description of Li Xiangjun’s character, with gibes targeting men in general. He inscribed this poem on a scroll portrait of Li Xiangjun that he had privately commissioned.



My Translation:

Lin Yutang’s Ode to Xiangjun:-

Xiangjun is a woman, her blood spilt on the peach blossom fan.
Her moral virtue lights up history, and shames the macho men.
Xiangjun is a woman, and she has grit aplenty.
I have her painting hung on the wall, to teach me humility.
Take a look at all the men, is there any with intrepidity?
They’re all wishy-washy; what have become of them!
The world these days, is filled with crooks and shams.
I can’t go wrong admiring, beauties in a distant time-span.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Book Review - "The Family Romanov" by Candace Fleming

A breezy and concise historical account of Russia’s last imperial reign of Tsar Nicholas II, this non-fiction history book reads a lot like a novel.

Like with many other similar stretches of history, when viewed in retrospect, the course of events would seem to be so natural and predictable that it makes one wonder, had things been handled with more compassion and less hubris by those in power, if the odds of averting tragedies and disasters could’ve increased.

The Family Romanov gives an intimate account of the lives of the Romanov family members, namely, Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, and their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia and one son-and-heir Alexei. The account starts with the 1884 courtship between teenagers Nicholas and Alix of Hesse (who was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter), and carries us through to the tragic end of the whole family in July 1918.

Juxtaposing narratives of the opulent, hedonistic lifestyle of the Imperial family side by side with anecdotes of the peasant class’s everyday scourge of abject poverty, oppression and despair, the author presents a poignant picture of two diametrically opposite worlds, worlds inhabited by two classes that are distinguished by birth and destiny. Exaggerated sense of entitlement and obtuseness of the privileged ruling class becomes the cause of its own ultimate undoing.

I’m just puzzled as to why the French-educated Romanovs had not learned from the downfall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

It is interesting to note that it was not until July 2007 that the remains of Alexei and of one of his sisters were finally found. (The remains of the other five family members had been uncovered in 1991.)

I’m giving this well-researched book 4 full stars.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Book Review - "The Iron King" by Maurice Druon

This is the first book in The Accursed Kings series which inspired George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

I have always wanted to learn more about the Capetian dynasty of France. In this novel, the leading character is Philip IV, also known as Philip the Fair owing to the king’s handsome looks. But his rigid and icy personality also earned him another nickname, which is “the Iron King”.

On the whole, the novel is episodic but doesn’t lack suspenseful moments. Some descriptions of the cruel methods of execution and torture are quite graphic. Apart from being entertained on the royals jockeying for power and the royal women’s love affairs, one also gets a peek into the period’s morals, superstitions, politics and religious and territorial conflicts. One of Philips IV’s more notorious deeds is his brutal annihilation of the Order of the Knights Templar and confiscation of its wealth. He also directs much of his effort towards wrestling power from the Holy Empire. Generally, character development is not very well executed.

It is interesting to note that the demise of the Order of the Templars gave rise to construction guilds and secret institutions that eventually became the origins of Freemasonry, a fraternal organization known for its secretive initiation rites.

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars, rounding up to 4. I’m undecided as to whether I will read the sequels (including this one, there are seven books in the whole series). 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Book Review - "Acre's Bastard" by Wayne Turmel

Going into this novel I was ignorant of the historiography of the Crusades, except for a cursory peek of it from romanticized movies like “Ivanhoe” and “El Cid” that I watched in my school days. A quick search on the internet indicates that the history stretched from the First Crusade (1095 – 1099) – a military expedition to rescue the weakening Byzantine Empire, to the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 17th century. Essentially, the military conflicts were religion-based (Christianity versus Muslim) and about territorial control.

This novel is set prior to and during the Battle of Hattin which took place on July 4, 1187 (roughly between the Second and Third Crusade), near the city of Tiberias (of present-day Israel) on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Opposing forces were the Crusader states of present-day Syria and the Muslim army led by Salah-adin, the Arabic sultan.

The story follows a ten-year-old orphan of mixed parentage through his adventures when he accidentally gets caught up in an espionage conspiracy on the eve of a decisive battle between Christian and Muslim states. Through his adolescent eyes, we get to sense, smell and listen to the everyday life in Acre, the melting pot of different cultures, in particular the life of the destitute underclass. The author’s sense of humor keeps the dark tone from getting too dark.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, but for my taste, the historical background could’ve used a little more rigorous treatment. I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars, rounding up to 4.