Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: "The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia" by C. W. Gortner

This was an intensely enthralling read that transported me into the psyche of the protagonist. The novel is written from the perspective of Lucrezia Borgia in the first person. I’m usually not a fan of first-person narration, but it works surprisingly well in this novel, not to mention that the narrator is a male speaking in a female voice. There are a few graphic violent scenes that might not appeal to some readers.

The author successfully spins a possible theory and gripping plot about the much-maligned Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, focusing on her first two political marriages and the enigmatic childbirth in between. In the narration, she morphs from an innocent adolescent who adores her family, especially her father and her older brother Cesare, to a victimized mature young woman who realizes that all her sufferings emanate from her family’s cruel and shadowy machinations. The transformation is fraught with unspeakable shame and pain, both physical and emotional. Her personal vicissitudes are set against a backdrop of political power strife between the Borgias’ papal monarchy and other Italian city-states and two European superpowers: Spain and France.

While the novel gives imaginary answers to the two burning questions that have been the subject of debate for centuries (did Lucrezia commit incest re: the enigmatic childbirth, and who murdered Juan Borgia?), in the end, there is no way of knowing what the “truth” really is.

The author says this in the Afterword, “This novel presents one possible theory (about Lucrezia’s incest), but I must emphasize that it is fictional, as is my theory about Juan Borgia’s murder. The frustrating truth is that we have no reliable documentation about what went on behind the Borgias’ closed doors.”

I find that many of the historical background details are similar to those found in Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, which suggests that the novel is well-researched. While Dunant employs a subtle and even keel approach in her writing, Gortner’s style in The Vatican Princess is more pungent and action-oriented. In Blood & Beauty, the characterization of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia are given more or less equal weighting, and the battle scenes and political intrigues are given a relatively detailed rendering. In The Vatican Princess, the spotlight rivets on the person of Lucrezia and her emotional trajectory.

Gortner’s vivid writing style and the tight plot structure appeal to me and I’m giving the novel 4 stars.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review - "The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great" by Eva Stachniak

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars.

This was an entertaining novel that read like a melodrama. The plot is believable and fastidiously executed. The writing is melodious and sentimental. The novel is immensely rich in descriptive details, especially about court etiquette, palatial decor, clothes and jewelry. Having recently read Robert Massie’s factual non-fiction title Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, I can avow that this novel is based on meticulous research.

The novel is written from the perspective of Varvara, a bookbinder’s daughter turned spy in the Russian court during Empress Elizabeth’s reign. The first two-thirds of the novel dwell on Elizabeth’s vagaries, her extravagance and her suspicious and jealous nature, all seen through Varvara’s critical eyes. By comparison, the character of Catherine the Great is given a much less detailed treatment, although it can be said that Catherine is shown in a much less flattering light here, compared to Massie’s biography.

Often, the narrative is bogged down with Varvara’s personal maturing pains and many unnecessary details about places and things that are unrelated to the royalties. As much as Varvara functions as an effective narrator, it seems that she occupies the center stage for too much of the novel to leave enough room for the leading character – who should be Catherine, as the novel subtitle suggests.

On balance, it is a remarkable historical novel about 18th century Russian court life. I’m giving it 3.7 stars.

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.