Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review - "The Lover" by Marguerite Duras

3.5 stars rounded up to 4. The emotions portrayed are not only related to the poignant forbidden love between two unlikely lovers because of their differences in age, race and class, but also connected to tense family relationships, especially the bitter-sweet mother-daughter relationship.

My nit-pick was that sometimes I got confused about the timeline as the story flips back and forth.

I had seen the movie many years ago and now think that I enjoyed the film more than the novel.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Book Review - "The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand"

This is a compelling fictional biography of one of France’s most talented but often misunderstood female writers. Berg takes readers on an exploratory journey into the depths of George Sand’s heart and soul in recreating her controversial life. The author presents the narrative with much authenticity, understanding and admiration.

The novel is written in the first-person, with the protagonist doubling as narrator. I’m aware that this is a popular style of writing, but for me, the weakness in such a style is that it becomes easy to indulge in the protagonist and to make him/her seem larger-than-life, and this renders the narrator a little untrustworthy.

The story runs on two parallel timelines, one starting from Sand’s childhood and the other from the point when she is divorced from her husband, with the two parts alternating in sequence. As the reader learns of the protagonist’s engagement in amorous relationships after the divorce, he/she understands her reasons better because of the doses of information on her childhood/adolescence that are being simultaneously fed through.

In general, this is a touching story of Sand’s life. We see her as a romantic feminist, a literary genius juggling fame, love and family, a doting and sensual lover (for both sexes), a loving and dedicated parent, a loyal and compassionate friend and an innate music lover all rolled into one.

But this is also a lucent study of the perceived notion and reality of romantic love, of the hardships and dilemmas of motherhood, of an artist’s struggles against melancholia, and of an idealistic way for a woman to balance work and emotional needs.

In my view, it fully deserves 4 stars.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Few Historical Tidbits about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang

On this day (January 27) in 1688, a pivotal historical figure from the Qing Dynasty passed away. This person was a Mongolian princess named Borjigit Bumbutai, better known as Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang.

Her existence was critical to Chinese history in that she was the one who pulled the fledgling Qing Empire from the brinks of disintegration in its early days. It can be said that without her sharp wit and charismatic leadership, Qing history, and for that matter Chinese history, would’ve been re-written. The reason is that at the time when her son Shunzhi and grandson Kangxi came to the throne in tandem, they were only young children, and those times were steeped in social and political chaos and unending wars while the ruling Aisin Gioro clan was split by vehement discord and self-interested strife.

As fate would have it, Shunzhi lived a short life of 23 years, his time on the throne even shorter – only 18 years. During much of his reign, although his mother tried to steer him on the right track, he was coerced by self-seeking and corrupt ministers like Oboi and his venal clique. When Kangxi was enthroned, he was only a seven-year old child, but he smartly looked to his self-taught grandmother for advice, guidance and support, which she graciously bestowed. Her greatest contribution was perhaps teaching Shunzhi and Kangxi to appreciate the importance of soft power and humanity.

History would witness Kangxi eventually becoming the most culturally-minded, tolerant and benevolent of emperors. Under his auspices, the Kangxi Dictionary was compiled. Poetry lovers would no doubt know that the world-renowned Three Hundred Tang Poems emanated from the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems), which compilation Kangxi had personally championed.

In 1691, in honor and memory of his beloved grandmother and mentor, Kangxi built a temple called “In Eternal Veneration” (永慕寺) in South Park (南苑), the imperial hunting park located south of Beijing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Jason Pym's Commemorative Scarf Design

2016 was the 400th anniversary of the passing of two equally iconic playwrights: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu (of the Ming dynasty). In commemoration, art designer Jason Pym created this stunning silk scarf portrait which blends scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream with those from The Peony Pavilion, as Mr. Pym believes these two plays, one English and one Chinese, share the same themes. I would have to agree with Mr. Pym. Both plays sing the praises of freedom to pursue true love and courage to resist unreasonable conventions.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review - "The Peony Pavilion: Mudang Ting" (牡丹亭) by Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖)

I remember vividly a time in my childhood when my grandmother used to take me to watch Cantonese operas. A scene from one such opera etched an indelible mark on my young mind: the scene of reincarnation of a beauty who was the subject of a portrait. It just felt shockingly unbelievable to me then! The opera was The Peony Pavilion Dream (牡丹亭驚夢) directed by the iconic Tang Ti-sheng (唐滌生). It was only much later in life that I found out that the opera was based on Ming playwright giant Tang Xianzu's (湯顯祖) famous drama entitled The Peony Pavilion.

The play was written in 1598 (eleven years earlier Tang Xianzu had written the popular drama The Purple Hairpin (紫釵記)), and the setting was in Southern Song. The story is about a cloistered aristocratic young lady's listless pining for true love and freedom from social conventions, her dream of sexual romance with a young scholar in the garden pavilion, her tragic death from unfulfilled longing, the subsequent reincarnation through her own hand-drawn portrait and reunion with the scholar, her father's stubborn refusal to allow their marriage and the final happy ending brought about by the Emperor acting as the arbitrator.

It has taken me over six weeks to finish reading the play as it was written in classical Chinese text and was full of metaphors with historical allusions, which meant that I had to constantly refer to the annotations. Although I had had training in school in reading classical Chinese texts, it has been a long time since I last read anything in the antiquated language, except poetry. Yet it was such a pleasure to savor the lyrical metaphors and the choreography of imagery in the play. What struck me as most incredible was the occasional erotic description. Overall I was greatly impressed by the author's embrace of the idea of youthful optimism and relentless pursuit of freedom.

This literary gem deserves no less than 5 stars.

P.S. I've just stumbled upon a piece of beautiful artwork by Jason Pym - "The Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu Silk Scarf", the design of which combines scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Peony Pavilion.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reading - 2016 & 2015 Year End Reviews

In 2016 I read 19 novels, 2 plays and 4 non-fiction titles (including the history tome The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle). My favorite fiction of the year is War and Peace and my favorite non-fiction title of the year is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.

Monthly favorites:-

January - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
February - The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
March - Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
April - Blood & Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant
May - The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia by C.W. Gortner
June - Unless by Carol Shields
July - Watership Down by Richard Adams
August - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
September - Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska
October - The Masterpiece by Émile Zola
November - The Book and the Sword by Jin Yong
December - The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren (a Chinese classical play)

 In 2015 I read 4 non-fiction books and 18 novels - a total of 22 books, which was not bad considering I was engaged full-time on a writing project for the first half of the year!

Of the non-fiction category, my favorite would be Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, with Marie Antoinette: The Journey trailing right behind.

Of the 18 novels that I read, these found their way to my heart (not in any order):-

Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
A Woman's Life and Other Stories by Guy de Maupassant
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Odyssey by Homer
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola
Wolf Of The Plains by Conn Iggulden

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Book Review - "In the Company of the Courtesan" by Sarah Dunant

After reading Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, I always wanted to read another novel by Sarah Dunant. At some Goodreads friends’ nudge, I decided to pick this one up.

Throughout the first three-quarters of the book I was more emotionally twined with the character of the dwarf Bucino than I would care to admit. The fact that he is also the first-person narrator is supposed to give immediacy and sense of reality to the scenes and things happening to him, but I must confess that I consciously and stubbornly clung to my skepticism. However, by the time I reached the denouement, I was obviously already too invested in him to be able to detach myself from his pain and anguish, or hold back my tears. That Dunant is a brilliant writer needs no further proof.

The plot would seem simple enough but nonetheless enthralling: a famed courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf Bucino must escape the carnage of Rome’s invasion by foreign powers and are forced to find their footing again in prospering Venice, where they meet their friends and foes. With their loss of a precious jewel, we are led down a path of intrigue behind a veil of fog when Fiammetta’s healer and friend – a blind hunchback called La Draga – starts to snatch our attention. From that point on, I was loath to put the book down. The ending didn’t surprise as much as it saddened me.

Apart from being a skillful storyteller, the author is also adept at painting a vivid picture of 16th century urban Venice. In true historical fiction form, real historical characters abound in the novel to enhance the sense of place and time: painter Tiziano Vecellio (or Titian), engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, writer Pietro Aretino, painter Giulio Romano, and healer Elena Crusichi (fictionalized as La Draga).

I’m giving this novel 3.7 stars. [Warning: the language may be a bit raunchy for some readers’ taste.]