Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: "Watership Down" by Richard Adams

An entertaining summer read! If you've read and enjoyed Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, you'd enjoy this one too.

It's hard not to admire the rabbits described in the book. With only a few exceptions, they are all loyal to and caring about their community; they are compassionate, cooperative, considerate, tenacious in face of hardships and creative in their struggles to survive. Living under constant stress and circumstantial perils, these vulnerable creatures never give up hope for a better tomorrow.

"Rabbits (says Mr. Lockley) are like human beings in many ways. One of these is certainly their staunch ability to withstand disaster and to let the stream of their life carry them along, past reaches of terror and loss. They have a certain quality which it would not be accurate to describe as callousness or indifference. It is, rather, a blessedly circumscribed imagination and an intuitive feeling that Life is Now. A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass."

Richard Adams declares that he drew much information about rabbits from R. M. Lockley's The Private Life of the Rabbit.

Being one born in the Year of the Rabbit, I have a natural liking for rabbits.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

My Historical Epic, Jin Yong's Novels & Chinese History

As an eleven-year-old kid, I found the world a depressing place. Always wearing blue-rimmed glasses and a less-than-bright expression, I was never a teacher’s favorite. Nor was I ever the apple of any adult’s eye, being the glum mute I was among children. Awkward might have been an apt description of my disposition. The thing is, in my juvenile mind, the adults were equally boring and dull. They all seemed to wear masks and never spoke from their hearts. Or else they spent their time bickering over trivialities. At home, my only defense was to play deaf and dumb. That summer though, to my absolute delight, I finally found my way of escape.

Like in previous years, my mother took me and my siblings to my maternal uncle’s home to spend our month-long summer vacation. It was something that I always eagerly looked forward to, as I loved spending time with my five cousins, especially Fatty and Big Eyes, who were about my age. Fatty is a natural sketcher and Big Eyes is a great storyteller. Before we arrived, they had discovered a second-hand book hawker just across the street, who had a large collection of Jin Yong’s martial arts and chivalry novels that he would lend to kids for a pittance.

For the rest of my summer holidays and the following summer, characters like Chen Jialuo (陳家洛), Fragrant Princess (香香公主), Guo Jing (郭靖), Huang Rong (黄蓉), Yang Guo (楊過), Xiaolongnu (小龍女) etc., together with their heartrending romances, thrilling ventures and moral values, found their way to my heart and were imprinted on my memory. Fatty, Big Eyes, my sister and I would often turn ourselves into those characters when we engaged in our favorite game: role-playing. Strangely, life became more bearable after those two summers, as I let the fantasyland in the novels become my soothing sanctum. Even as of this day, it still lurks in my literary consciousness and stands ready to stoke the fire of my imagination in my own creative writing.

To digress, I find it a pity that presently only two of Jin Yong’s novels are available in quality English translation on Amazon, and they are: “The Book and the Sword” (書劍恩仇錄) and “The Deer and the Cauldron” (鹿鼎記). Unfortunately no digital versions are listed; otherwise the books could’ve reached a wider audience.

Through reading novels like “The Legend of the Condor Heroes” (射雕英雄傳)+ “Return of the Condor Heroes” (神雕俠侶)+ “The Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber” (倚天屠龍劍) (this trilogy is set in the Southern Song and Jin Dynasty - 12th & 13th century), “The Book and the Sword” (書劍恩仇錄) (set in Qianlong Emperor’s era - 18th century) and “The Deer and the Cauldron” (鹿鼎記) (set in Kangxi Emperor’s era - 17th century), I was accidentally initiated into Chinese dynastic history in my primary school days. In my high school years, Chinese History continued to fascinate me and became one of my favorite subjects.

In the last couple of years, while writing my first historical epic, which is set in the epoch straddling end-of-Ming and start-of-Qing (17th century), research work has rekindled my passion in Chinese History. This period is interesting in that it is branded by some of the most critical and vicious battles fought near the Great Wall of China and inside China proper, and defined by some of the most riveting love stories in and around the Qing Imperial Court.

Now that the last round of rewriting and editing is finally finished and the script is awaiting its publishing fate, I am thinking that re-reading Jin Yong’s novels may be a good way to let ideas spawn for my next historical novel.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review - "The Trial" by Franz Kafka

This novel is a bleak parody of the legal system, or bureaucracy in general, or even life itself, depending on the reader's interpretation. The shadow of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment does hover above this novel with its philosophical metaphors.

It is said that the description of the protagonist's bizarre experiences with the law was inspired by an actual legal case in which Kafka was involved in. I don't doubt that absurdities of the strangest kind did and still do exist even in democratic countries, let alone authoritarian regimes.

On the whole, I didn't enjoy this novel quite as much as I did The Metamorphosis. The writing seems to drone on and on. None of the characters moves me. Hence 3 stars. I do feel bad about giving a classic 3 stars though.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review - "Unless" by Carol Shields

A perfectly normal, healthy and congenial nineteen-year-old young woman who grew up in a closely-knit and nurturing well-to-do family suddenly quits university, her family and her boyfriend to panhandle in a street corner of downtown Toronto.

The novel is the youngster’s mother’s account of her experiences in dealing with the shocking loss of her lovely eldest daughter. She makes a desperate attempt to come up with possible reasons for her derelict daughter’s inconceivable action. Being a translator (from French to English) of memoirs written by a renowned French feminist, who has long influenced her worldview about gender inequality, she develops a bent towards the theory that her daughter’s action is an expression of her powerlessness in face of the world’s entrenched prejudices towards women; her only defense is withdrawal from life altogether. Interviewing her daughter’s boyfriend and university professor doesn’t provide any rational clues. Her desolation drives her to write imaginary letters lashing out at those writers whom she considers as sexist bigots. Meanwhile, she struggles, along with her husband and the other two daughters, to continue living life as normal as she can manage, being aware all the while though of the big hole left in the fabric of the household.

The denouement comes as quite disturbing but not too much of a surprise. In these modern times, we all know how a traumatic event could exert damaging mental stress on an otherwise perfectly normal person. But the reader is left to wonder if the immediate tangible cause (a traumatic event) is the only cause that fully explains the youngster’s abrupt self-abnegation. Could there be an ultimate cause too? Could the mother’s maternal instinct be correct – that the intangible cause is the incremental build-up in the girl’s young mind of innate fear and powerlessness evoked by what she perceives as a male-dominant universe in which she would never achieve greatness?

What’s so haunting about this novel is the realization that not even parents' sacrificial love can shield their vulnerable young girls from some of the world’s harshest realities.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book Review - "The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile" by C. W. Gortner

This was an engrossing and educational read about the reign of Isabella I of Castile, a bodacious female monarch who made her indelible mark on Spanish history. The timeline of the story stretched from 1464 (when she was 13 and an infante, 2nd in line to the throne) to 1492 (when she reached her 41st year).

Her early life before her coronation in 1474 was mostly spent as a captive in the Palace of Segovia, entrusted to the care of her half-brother King Enrique VI, whose consort gave birth to an alleged bastard daughter Joanna. King Enrique seemed to vacillate between allowing and disallowing this daughter to have a claim to the throne. Meanwhile Isabella’s full brother Alfonso decided to fight for his own right by rising up in arms against the King, but was subsequently poisoned to death. During all this tumult, Isabella met the love of her life, Fernando II of Aragon, who sowed in her the idea of a unified Spain, bringing Castile and Aragon under their joint rule. After many twists and turns, the lovers were married, and Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile in 1474 upon the death of King Enrique. She was portrayed in those budding years as cool-headed, witty, patient and above all, devoted to a fault to her Catholic faith.

Almost immediately after their wedding, Isabella, together with her husband and co-ruler, plunged into years of wars against neighboring Portugal (because Joanna sought Portugal’s help in trying to reclaim the Castilian throne) and against the Muslim Moors in Andalucia (because the Catholic monarchs vowed on unifying Spain under one single faith). All these wars ended in victory for the Spanish monarchs. It should be noted that Andalucia had become a refuge for many Jewish conversos, or New Christians, who had been coerced to convert to Catholic faith.

In 1483, on the persistent urge of the Dominican friar Tomas de Torquemada, Isabella and Fernando decided to establish a State Council for Inquisition to enforce Catholic orthodoxy and to persecute those conversos who continued to practice Judaism covertly. In 1492, the Spanish monarchs issued the Alhambra Decree ordering the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to the Catholic faith.

Whether the true underlying reason for the Inquisition and Expulsion was for financial gains from confiscating Jewish assets and property, or for quelling rising social discord between Catholics and Jews, or for the sake of political expediency, it remained a debate for historians. But it was an undeniable fact that Isabella, for all her humane and rational disposition, did put her signatures on those draconian and dogmatic edicts (whether or not under her husband’s influence), which led to massive sufferings and decimation of lives. True, though, she was not the first European monarch or the last to pursue an anti-Jewish policy.

In 1492, Isabella also agreed to finance Cristobal Colon's (Christopher Columbus') groundbreaking voyage to the New World.

In the “Afterword”, the author made this remark:

Isabella defied categorization with her heroism and contradictions; awesome in her resolve to forge a united nation, she was often misguided in her devotion to her faith, which gave rise to that infamous system of persecution known as the Spanish Inquisition.

It’s interesting to note that in Castile, a princess was allowed to succeed as the reigning monarch, whereas in Aragon, the Salic law prevailed to prohibit all royal females from inheriting the throne.

Gortner exhibits his talent in story-telling as well as his keen sense for cultural details in this riveting biographical historical novel. I’m giving it 4 full stars.