Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review - "Jin Ping Mei" 金瓶梅 by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng 蘭陵笑笑生

It took me over three months to finish reading this 1,332-page Chinese classic novel. There are apparently several popular versions that are based on abridged imprints published under the Chongzhen reign (1627 – 1644). The version I read is one based on the 1617 unabridged imprint published during the Wanli reign (1573 – 1620). This version has a preface written by 欣欣子, who claimed to be a friend of the author’s, and who stated therein the author’s motive for writing the novel. He also confirmed that the author was from the Lanling County of Shandong Province, which explains why the novel was written in the Lanling vernacular. (The direct translation of the author’s pen name is “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”.)

The story is a spin-off of one of the sub-stories in Water Margin (one of the four great Chinese classic novels) about Pan Jinlian who murders her husband when her adultery with wealthy merchant Ximen Qing is discovered, and who is subsequently killed by her husband’s brother, the tiger-slayer Wu Song. Outside of this particular episode, Jin Ping Mei has an entirely different plot and cast of characters. It is about the libertine life of middle-class merchant Ximen Qing and his concubine Pan Jinlian, and how their vices lead to self-destruction.

As for the title name, each character represents the given name of one of the three female protagonists: “Jin” is “Pan Jinlian” (a concubine of Ximen Qing’s); Ping is “Li Ping’er” (another of his concubines); Mei is “Pang Chunmei” (a housemaid who rises in status).

On a deeper level, the character “Jin” is a symbol for money, “Ping” is a symbol for alcohol and “Mei” symbolizes sex.

The major difficulty in reading this classic is the vernacular. It takes a little getting used to. The story is set in Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127), but the contents reflect the decadent and corrupt gentry lifestyle of the Ming Dynasty.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the detailed description of day-to-day living of people in the middle-class as well as those in lower classes, from food, to clothes, to etiquette, to traditional customs. It is true there are also graphic descriptions of sex, which was the reason why the novel was officially banned most of the time. It is also true that the novel is much more than about sex. The whole novel is premised on a “karma” theme: that retribution will be exacted on those who embrace lust, greed and doing harm to others.

In my view, this novel should be categorized as realism fiction. A society that tries to ban such a novel is a hypocritical society.

I’m giving this classic 3.5 stars, rounded up. 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Review - The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I have Homer’s The Iliad (Robert Fagle’s translation) on my TBR list and, having now read Miller’s novel, I have my interest piqued enough to want to push the Greek classic up my list.

Four years ago I read The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fagle) and loved it. I had watched and loved the 2004 movie “Troy” with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris. So, going into this novel, I have some idea of who the gods and goddesses and heroes are.

The first third of the novel moved at a rather slow pace, focusing on the development of friendship and love between the boys Achilles and Patroclus. From the mid-point, the story began to pick up speed and was a page-turner till the end.

I won’t go into details about the plot, as most readers are familiar with it. What I liked most about the novel was the description of the whims of the gods as they meddled at will in the mortals’ affairs entirely according to whom they favored at the time. I thought this to some degree reflected the sense of fatalism in the real human world – humans in the end are incapable of controlling their destinies.

I especially liked the description of Thetis the sea nymph goddess – her imposing appearance, her blazing emotions and intelligent thoughts.

The central theme of this novel is the reimagining of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, giving it the homosexual twist. I was neutral to the idea. My only nit-picking was Patroclus’ fierce bravery in the final scenes (when he leads the Myrmidons in Achilles’ place in beating back the Trojans), which does not tally with his meek character as portrayed earlier.

I am aware that Miller’s writing has drawn a lot of high acclaim. But for me, in some places, the similes stretched the imagination a bit, and I blamed that for my inability to strike rapport with the main characters. Also, she tended to flip back and forth in the usage of past and present tenses. I didn’t see why that was necessary, as the narrative was fairly linear throughout.

All in all, it was an enjoyable read, and I’m giving it 3.3 stars, rounded down.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Book Review - "The Family" by Mario Puzo

A few years ago I read Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, which I found to be an engaging read with atmospheric settings. So, going into The Family, I was already familiar with the Borgia family and other historical characters and the Italian Renaissance background.

This novel was the author’s last piece of fictional work and he died before the manuscript was finished. The book was released posthumously. The manuscript was completed by Carol Gino, the author’s companion.

The style of writing is down to earth and lucid from start to finish. I could not tell at which point the change of authorship takes place.

In some parts it seems the author is so zealous in trying to present the fatherly side of Rodrigo Borgia that it comes across as forced, especially when his cruel and calculating plans using his children as pawns speak much louder. It seems to me that this character often tries to rationalize his ambitions, greed and lust by pretending that these are not contradictory to his religious faith. But understandably, under the immense political pressures that come from sovereign states and papal states alike, above all, from his archrival Cardinal della Rovere who constantly breathes down his neck, he has his reasons to scheme and plot.

Cesare Borgia is portrayed to be vengeful, ultra ambitious and wicked, but then his sexual obsession with his sister Lucrezia is made out to be his only redeeming trait, which is no redeeming trait at all.

Lucrezia is perhaps the least deranged of the Borgias. Her character is also the most credible.

All in all, it was a good read. I’m giving it 3.5 stars, rounded up.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Qing Empresses Exhibition at the Freer/Sackler Museum in Washington DC

The Qing Empresses Exhibition at the Freer/Sackler Museum in Washington DC starts today and will last until June 23, 2019.

Empress Xiaozhuang, the protagonist of my novel The Green Phoenix, is one of the featured Empresses.

Book Review - "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

Prompted by the BBC TV series, I had previously read Wolf Hall (to which I gave 3.5 stars). While that first novel impressed me as leaning on whitewashing Thomas Cromwell (especially when contrasted with Thomas More), I found Bring Up the Bodies to be somewhat more balanced in the portrayal of his character.

The main storyline in this novel is about Anne Boleyn’s downfall and Cromwell’s hand in the elaborate scheme that brought about the indictment and execution of Anne herself, her brother, and four other men in various ranks, all for high treason. Here, Cromwell is the chief schemer, who would admittedly benefit politically from the erasure of his ally-turned-rival. But in his role as King Henry’s trusted adviser, he has little choice but to anticipate his wishes and act at his behest. When the belligerent and self-important Anne threatens his life, he understandably needs to move first. Granted, the underlying powder keg of the whole meltdown is the King’s burgeoning whims for another woman, Jane Seymour, which means that Anne, whose cardinal sin is her inability to produce a male heir, is doomed in the first place. The play of chance and design is fully fleshed out.

In portraying Cromwell’s internal thoughts when he seeks to justify his ruthless cunning in culling his enemies, Mantel often invokes his obsession with avenging his mentor and master, the deceased Wolsey. But the fact that he never lets himself be brought down with him does suggest that his loyalties may be less steadfast than perceived. Still, given his humble background and the horde of predatory noblemen constantly hounding him, self-preservation at the cost of rivals seems to be a more believable excuse.

As for his reformation effort that is supposed to be beneficial to British society, especially where it concerns shutting down papist monasteries and confiscating their estates and channeling the proceeds to education and feeding the poor, perhaps his contribution cannot be denied, although in the process, while stuffing the King’s coffers, he also conveniently empowers and enriches himself.

This passage reveals at a glance the essence of both Anne’s and Cromwell’s characters:

He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does.

This paragraph gives a clear gist of the novel:

Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law.

Overall, the novel is full of immersive intrigue and drama while seemingly adhering to historical facts. I’m giving this novel 4 stars.