Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Rice Sprout Song" by Eileen Chang

This novel is the first novel that Eileen Chang wrote originally in English with a later version in Chinese (秧歌). I chose to read the Chinese edition as I wanted to feel closer to the characters in the novel as well as to the author. Before this novel, I had never read any of her works, because as an adolescent I had preferred to read novels by the Taiwanese novelist Chiung Yao (瓊瑤).

The title of the novel refers to a festive folk song that used to be sung by villagers in rural villages to celebrate abundant harvests. It is oxymoronic when placed alongside the theme of the novel, which is about starvation and hunger. The novel is set against a backdrop where the land reform introduced by the Communist Party promised the rural populace great hope but soon led to the absurd collectivization scheme, starvation and death on a horrifying scale.

The author notes in the Epilogue that her story is based on an essay in the publication called People’s Literature, written by a young Communist cadre to record his eyewitness account of what had happened in the spring famine of 1950 in a North China rural village. He had been sent there to live exactly like the peasants and learn from them. While experiencing hunger himself, he noted that everyone was forbidden to utter the truth, i.e., the unbearable sufferings during a famine. Anyone who dared whisper the truth would be deemed a nationalist spy and arrested.

In the novel, hunger is described as “having for every meal a bowl of watery rice gruel with a few inch-long strips of grass floating on top”. Gold Root with his wife Moon Scent and daughter are just a typical family in the Tam Village silently bearing with crushing poverty and slow starvation until one day his deep-seated rage explodes. He fulminates against the village leader Comrade Wong for stubbornly denying that the peasants are starving to death. The climax comes when a hungry and furious crowd starts storming the government granary….

My heart remained tightly knotted for a long while after reading the novel. How I wish that the novel were purely fiction, but the mere thought would be sacrilegious to those who have had the misfortune to have a taste of what constant hunger is like.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review - "Blood & Beauty: The Borgias" by Sarah Dunant

This was the first historical novel about the Italian Renaissance period that I’ve read and, for me, it was undoubtedly one of the most thrillingly dramatic of such genre. Like icing on the cake, I also thoroughly enjoyed Sarah Dunant’s imagery-rich but non-cumbersome style of writing. I’m giving it 4 full stars.

For most European historical fiction lovers, the name “Borgia” is probably quite familiar. For me though, it is a historical name that I first came across while watching a few episodes of the Showtime TV series “The Borgias” several years ago. But the story didn’t even stick with me. While reading the novel, I couldn’t resist jumping over to Wikipedia from time to time to dig out facts relating to certain characters or events. Even so, and always bearing in mind that history is written by the winners (i.e. the enemies of the Borgias after the latter's fall from grace), I find it impossible to make up my mind over what to believe to be the true faces of the two principal characters: Rodrigo Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia. My mind boggles and oscillates between what historians claim to be facts, what the author portrays in the novel, and what has become over the years popular belief. The question that keeps reeling in my brain is: was Rodrigo Borgia a kind and loving father and suave politician on an even keel, whose hand was sometimes forced by circumstances, or was he a power-lusting, lascivious and materialistic glutton, or was he an innately duplicitous being? Another lingering doubt is about his daughter Lucrezia. Was she an innocent and malleable pawn in his father’s and brother’s elaborate political schemes, or was she a hypocritical, materialistic and licentious hedonist, or a bit of both? Perhaps of the principal characters, the painting of the blood-thirsting, vengeful and merciless Cesare Borgia seemed to be most consistent in all the three areas of history, fiction and popular belief.

The author does declare in the Historical Epilogue:

“While Blood & Beauty is unapologetically an act of the imagination, the novel draws heavily on the work of modern historians whose judgment on the Borgias is more scrupulous and discriminating than many in the past.”

“….I have taken the liberty of writing what feels to me to be the psychological truth of the personalities as they have emerged from the research. In this I am no more right – or possibly no more wrong – than anyone else.”

Fair enough. That said, the Renaissance period in Italy, or the parallel époque elsewhere in Europe for that matter, was one marked by ruthless power- and territory-grabbing and rotten-to-the-core corruption and immoral dealings both within and without the realm of Christianity. That those times were the nursery bed for players like the Borgias would render their story almost a natural course of event.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review - "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" by Robert K. Massie

This engaging and well-researched historical tome about one of Russia’s greatest rulers merits 4 full stars. Apart from painting a memorable and respectable portrait of the dramatic life of Catherine the Great, the book also accounts succinctly for the labyrinth of European/Eurasian politics at play in the 18th century, and depicts Russia’s participation in the Seven Years’ War, its carving up of Poland, its two major Wars with Turkey and its putting down the Pugachev Rebellion.

As a child German princess, Catherine II was inspired by her Huguenot Frenchwoman tutor to develop a “permanent love of the French language, with all its possibilities for logic, subtlety, wit and liveliness in writing and conversation”. As a Russian grand duchess and later Empress, she came under the influence of great French philosophers and writers like Bayle, Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu, and became the life-long friend of Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Hence her guiding rules for governance were fundamentally based on Enlightenment principles, although she always kept up the appearance of being a devout Orthodox Christian since her conversion from Lutheranism at the time of her marriage to Peter III at the age of fifteen.

Despite her sincere attempt to end centuries-old serfdom in Russia, stiff opposition from the deeply entrenched landed nobility, especially those who had a hand in putting her on the throne, meant that her hands were tied. But her summoning the Legislative Commission in 1767 to debate on social issues raised in her carefully crafted “Nakaz” (a political treatise) showed that she was truly willing to listen to opinions of her subjects about social reforms.

Her personal life was marked by frustration and misery in the first nine years of her marriage. Then after the death of Empress Elizabeth, a twist of fate catapulted her to the zenithal position. Delight, love and career pursuits, success and material opulence decorated her mid-life. After the death of the love of her life, her trusted partner and best friend – Gregory Potemkin – in 1791, she never quite recovered from her grief.

It is interesting to note that the term “Potemkin village”, with its sarcastic undertone which is meant to mock something that’s sham or fraudulent, is actually unjustly attributed to Gregory Potemkin and ungrounded in truth in its common usage. As Massie points out, when Potemkin showed Catherine his great achievements in the form of newly built ports, villages and naval bases in the Crimean peninsula, there were other eyewitnesses – the ambassadors from England and France – who were just as amazed as Catherine on seeing the spectacular new buildings and infrastructure, which couldn’t have been cardboard displays.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review - "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

After an intriguing start, this novel leads you into a tunnel of darkness, desolation and despair, where you will see no light until you reach the final Part. Once you are there, you will get your cathartic relief with the denouement of a simple but suspenseful plot. I am so glad that my Goodreads friends encouraged me to keep going when, at one point, I was on the verge of quitting, as some parts were particularly difficult for me to read. Indeed, it was definitely worth reading to the end. I’m giving the novel 3.5 stars.

It is in the main a story of an abjectly deprived, 23-year-old student’s agonizing psychological journey from the moment he commits two murders based on a wild theory that he divines, right through to the time of his confession to police. Through his internal debate, the reader is made to ponder the philosophical questions raised: do geniuses like Napoleon have the right to destroy things or people they consider as obstacles? Do such extraordinary individuals have the right to make laws for the rest of mankind, that is, ordinary folks, for the greater good? Even in the early days of imprisonment, the protagonist still obstinately believes that his theory has nothing wrong. We, as readers, can’t help but wonder too.

“Of course, many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

Throughout the novel, the reader is made aware of the fact that the protagonist is by nature a kind-hearted and compassionate man who loves his family and friends and who cares for the destitute and the weak. He is also made out to be a learned intellectual who has an acute sense of right and wrong. The reader is thus constantly put through the dilemma of whether to sympathize with him or condemn him outright for the cold-blooded crime. The author’s skill at characterization is quite beyond question, although personally I would’ve have liked the long-winded dialogues cut short a tad. But the emotional ending more than makes up for that little flaw.

My final verdict: Do I think Dostoyevsky is a brilliant author? Yes, definitely. Did I enjoy reading this novel? It’s not exactly my cup of tea.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Book Review - "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

This is the second major prose work by Leo Tolstoy that I’ve read (the first being Anna Karenina, which got 5 stars from me). I would’ve given this war novel 6 stars if it weren’t for the author’s slightly repetitive ramblings in the Epilogue about how historians’ method of recording history is flawed. Not that I disagreed with him, but only that after absorbing 1,200 pages of text in a limited time span (three weeks of library loan time with no renewal), my brain was starting to feel a little sated. That said, I’m giving this novel 5 well-deserved stars.

I guess probably all the merits of this masterpiece have already been well expounded on by other reviewers. Be that as it may, I’d still like to record my own thoughts and feelings in a proper review for future reference.

The edition that I read is the 2007 Knopf translation version by the renowned husband-wife translating team – Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian). I don’t speak or read any Russian and therefore am in no position to comment on the quality of the translation as a competent Russian-English bilingual, but I find the English translation to be very fluid and lucid throughout, and that in appropriate places the translators appear to have tried to let Tolstoy’s poetic side shine through by not over-translating. Just to demonstrate by two quick examples: (1) in a description of rainy scenery - “Drops dripped.”; (2) in describing a sea change in emotion - “Love awoke, and life awoke.”). One particular feature of this edition of War and Peace is that many of the dialogues and letters are shown directly in French, the reason being that it was fashionable to speak and write French in Russian aristocratic society during that time period (Catherine the Great had made French the language of her royal court). English translation of such dialogues and letters are displayed in the footnotes. For me, it was like taking a refresher course in French.

Tolstoy is known to have said that War and Peace was not a novel, even less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. Richard Pevear thinks that Tolstoy wanted to “speak the truth as perceived by his eye and his conscience” about the period 1805 – 1812 of Russian life. For the literary world that came after the birth of this extraordinary work, it is a precious piece of Russian literary legacy. For me as a lover of historical fiction, it is a rich gem of a novel that weaves together the humanistic chronicling of various Napoleonic wars against Russia in the seven years from 1805 to 1812, their impact on civil and military Russian lives, in particular on two aristocratic households (the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys), the author’s existential doubts in face of Christian values as expressed through the thoughts of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, romantic love and betrayal, loyalty between friends and familial bliss and tragedies.

Parallel with the main narrative run Tolstoy’s own prolix but nonetheless valid arguments (in my view) against the conventional method of chronicling history. He insists that history is never determined, as experience shows, by the will or talent of any one or several key personnel in power, but rather, by the collective and haphazard movement of all those who participate in an event at a given time. In other words, he believes that history is governed by the law of predetermination.

“Indeed, each time conquerors appeared, there were wars,…..but that does not prove that the conquerors were the cause of the wars, or that it is possible to find the laws of war in the personal activity of one man.”

For the description of the battle scenes, of which there are many, Tolstoy lends much of his own experience while serving in the army from 1852 to 1856, especially his military experience in the Crimean War. Those battles that were fought prior to Napoleon’s entry into Moscow included: the battle of Schongraben, the battle of Austerlitz, the battle of Friedland, the battle of Smolensk, the battle of Shevardino and the deciding battle of Borodino in which the Russian army stood their ground despite heavy losses and which unexpectedly lifted the army spirit (Tolstoy termed it a “moral victory” for the Russians). On Napoleon’s retreat from a burned down Moscow, the battle of Tarutino and the battle of Vyazma were fought among other partisan wars. The battle of Vyazma completely broke the spirit of Napoleon’s remnant army.

Tolstoy’s leading characters, be they fictional or real, carry depth with their multi-dimensional facets, complete with believable emotions and thought processes. The dialogues faithfully mirror the social customs, etiquette and morals of the various social classes of the time and place.

Finally, Tolstoy delivers a clear ethical message through the spiritual transformation of Pierre Bezukhov, which results from his experiences in a major battle and his captivity as a prisoner of war. The message is that spiritual happiness varies in inverse proportion to material opulence.