Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review - "Katherine" by Anya Seton

I’m giving this novel 3.5 stars. It is overall a meticulously researched and well-written historical romance set in 14th century England about Katherine Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

The first half of the book is dedicated to describing the romantic love that develops in a tortuous way between the two protagonists. Katherine is initially married off against her wish to a brutish husband, whose faults include poverty that results from mismanagement of his estates. Then Prince Charming, who is happily married to a charming and kind princess, comes along and delivers the poor girl from despair. Then the lovers find ways to carry on with their illicit love affair, always plagued by guilt towards their respective spouses. I find this portion too drawn out with too many happy coincidences, that is, too much of a Cinderella type of story. The bits about John’s childhood bête noire and his squire’s murder of Katherine’s husband are contrived.

The second half is much better and more realistic and the pace is quicker. I like the back stories about the Plantagenet family, the political intrigue surrounding religious reform and the lead-up to and the actual June 1381 peasants’ revolt in London. But the part about Katherine’s self-imposed penitence drags too much.

By the time I was near the ending, I could pretty much predict what was going to happen.

I’m glad though to have learned where Henry V and Henry VI of England came from, and the origins of the Beaufort/Tudor line and of the Yorkists.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Dali's History and Culture under a British Painter's Brush

I've recently stumbled on an amazing video documentary about a British painter's life in Dali, Yunnan, from which I learned a bit about Dali's ancient history and culture as well as its modern day outline. Its inhabitants, the Bai tribe 白族, have a  history that goes back all the way to the Nanzhao (8th & 9th century) and Kingdom of Dali era (10th, 11th & 12th century). Dali's famous landscapes include the Erhai Lake 洱海 and Cang Mountains 蒼山.

[P.S. Thanks to Jason Pym's (the British painter in the video) reminder, I now recall that Jin Yong's 天龍八部 is set in Dali. When I read the novel in my childhood, I was smitten with one of the protagonists 段譽 (a prince of the Kingdom of Dali) and his magical martial arts skill 凌波微步, but I've now forgotten most of the story.]

Here's the video:-

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review - "Embers" by Sandor Marai

This was a powerful read that pulled my heart along with the narrator Henrik’s soul-searching dialogue (perhaps monologue is more appropriate) with his best friend and enemy Konrad whom he has not seen for forty-one years. The story is set in the 1900s in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The speech evokes a past love triangle between the two and Henrik’s wife, long dead, and a murder attempt. Henrik chose to stay silent about the double betrayal and to live on stoically. Konrad chose to escape to the tropics. Henrik’s wife chose to die.

Henrik’s mordant observations about fidelity and betrayal between intimate man-friends, passionate and possessive man-and-woman relationship, dark human nature like arrogance and cowardice, and the solitude and sorrow of aging are beautifully woven into a web of silky smooth words that has the power of swallowing one’s heart and mind whole with no reprieve.

I find these passages especially striking:

It’s the moment when something happens not just deep among the trees but also in the dark interior of the human heart, for the heart, too, has its night and its wild surges, as strong an instinct for the hunt as a wolf or a stag. The human night is filled with the crouching forms of dreams, desires, vanities, self-interest, mad love, envy, and the thirst for revenge, as the desert night conceals the puma, the hawk and the jackal.

Every exercise of power incorporates a faint, almost imperceptible, element of contempt for those over whom the power is exercised. One can only dominate another human soul if one knows, understands, and with the utmost tact despises the person one is subjugating.

There is this question of otherness….So just as it is blood alone that binds people to defend one another in the face of danger, on the spiritual plane one person will struggle to help another only if this person is not ‘different’, and if, quite aside from opinions and convictions, they share similar natures at the deepest level.

Is the idea of fidelity not an appalling egoism and also as vain as most other human concerns? When we demand fidelity, are we wishing for the other person’s happiness? And if that person connot be happy in the subtle prison of fidelity, do we really prove our love by demanding fidelity nonetheless? And if we do not love that person in a way that makes her happy, do we have the right to expect fidelity or any other sacrifice?

Do you also believe that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades our heart, soul and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives?.... Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself? Or perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual’s qualities or behavior?

This novel forces one to ponder on one’s own intimate relationships.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Review - "Eugenie Grandet" by Honore de Balzac

[Note: I read this novel in March/April 2013 and posted a review on my Asia Sentinel blog on April 12, 2013. I’ve just dug out the review from my files and am posting it here with some minor changes.]

What is a miser? The dictionary says it means either one of two types of persons: (1) one who lives very meagerly in order to hoard money; or (2) a greedy or avaricious person. I’ve lately read Honore de Balzac’s famous novel Eugenie Grandet and am impressed with the author’s perspicacious insight into the traits of misers.

This is an excerpt from the novel that illustrates Balzac’s perception:-

A miser’s life is a constant exercise of every human faculty in the service of his own personality. He considers only two feelings, vanity and self-interest; but as the achievement of his interest supplies to some extent a concrete and tangible tribute to his vanity, as it is a constant attestation of his real superiority, his vanity and the study of his advantage are two aspects of one passion – egotism. That is perhaps the reason for the amazing curiosity excited by misers skillfully presented upon the stage. Everyone has some link with these persons, who revolt all human feelings and yet epitomize them. Where is the man without ambition? And what ambition can be attained in our society without money?.......

Like all misers he had a constant need to pit his wits against those of other men, to mulct them of their crowns by fair legal means. To get the better of others, was that not exercising power, giving oneself with each new victim the right to despise those weaklings of the earth who were unable to save themselves from being devoured? Oh! Has anyone properly understood the meaning of the lamb lying peacefully at God’s feet - that most touching symbol of all the victims of this world - and of their future, the symbol of which is suffering and weakness glorified? The miser lets the lamb grow fat, then he pens, kills, cooks, eats and despises it. Misers thrive on money and contempt.

In the novel, Felix Grandet is depicted as the stingy, egotistic and mean-spirited money hoarder in suburban France, against a money-grubbing social backdrop with the rise of the bourgeoisie. He rations everyday food for his weak-minded wife, his only daughter Eugenie and his loyal house servant, and purposely keeps his house in shabby disrepair, while making immense fortunes secretively. He almost seems to derive sadistic pleasure in ruling his domestic household with an iron fist.

The only two persons who have knowledge of his true worth are his lawyer and his banker. Knowing that these two are trying to get their respective nephew/son to win the hand of Eugenie, he plays one against the other to extract the greatest monetary advantage. He employs devious means to cheat and fleece his deceased brother’s creditors and insists on Eugenie breaking romantic ties with his own nephew Charles, who is left penniless by his deceased father’s bankruptcy. Charles is forced to go off to the Indies to find his fortune and Eugenie gives him all her gold coins that her father has given her over the years, to the miser’s furious dismay.

When Charles comes back to France a rich man, having made his fortune from dealing in slaves, he forsakes Eugenie for a wealthy aristocrat, mistaken that the former is now poor.

Eugenie, by nature a kind-hearted country girl, faces the music after having her heart broken by Charles and discovering her father’s base deeds. She becomes disgusted with the wealthy class as she learns about its hypocrisy and shallowness. Upon inheriting both her father’s and her husband’s fortunes (the husband being the lawyer’s nephew, who dies shortly after their loveless marriage), she chooses to live a modest and philanthropic life on her own terms.

The novel makes one ponder on whether there is an effective cure for avarice and excessive materialism in our society of today.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review - "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc" by Mark Twain

This novel was Mark Twain's last completed work which he considered to be the best of all his books. He claimed that he had spent twelve years in its research and two in writing. One of his key sources of research was Jules Quicherat's Proces de Condamnation et de Rehabilitation de Jeanne d'Arc

As a historical novel, this is one of those that let me learn a great deal about the historical background and the historical character(s) while keeping me emotionally engaged with the plot. It was not a fast read, but by the time I finished reading, I felt glad that I had picked up the book.

As already mentioned in numerous other reviews, Twain's deep fascination with and affection for Joan of Arc shines through the entire novel. It's been pointed out that in writing this book, the author made a deliberate departure from his well-known comedic style, as he wanted readers to take it seriously. Be that as it may, I find that his innate sense of humor is all too readily discernible.

Joan's story is without question a compelling and poignant one. The fact that an illiterate teenage French peasant girl was able to make such a stunning impact on late middle-ages history of France and England, more specifically on the outcome of the infamous Hundred Years' War, is reason enough for history lovers to read this important account of her humble and glorious life.

As with many historical novels set around this period in Europe, religion plays an important part in the factual details and plot twists. In the case of Joan of Arc's story, this passage can best describe how some French Catholic priests, in depraved conspiracy with the English nobility, have a hand in deciding her tragic fate:

The Church was being used as a blind, a disguise; and for a forcible reason: the Church was not only able to take the life of Joan of Arc, but to blight her influence and the valor-breeding inspiration of her name, whereas the English power could but kill her body; that would not diminish or destroy the influence of her name; it would magnify it and make it permanent. If the Church could be brought to take her life, or to proclaim her an idolater, a heretic, a witch, sent from Satan, not from Heaven, it was believed that the English supremacy could be at once reinstated."