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.]

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Book Review - "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu

I read the Chinese version with English translation. I was most impressed with this observation: that winning every war is not the best scenario; the most ideal scenario is where one manages to repel an enemy without fighting. The other theory I found convincing is that a shrewd fighter would choose his men wisely and would know how to ride the prevailing situation. Most of the contents would seem to be practical common sense.

The keynote of the first chapter ~ all warfare is based on deception ~ seems to tally with the last chapter, which is about the use of spies.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review - "The Peach Blossom Fan" by Kong Shangren (桃花扇 - 孔尚任)

I read the English version of this famous classical Chinese play set in the late Ming/early Qing dynasty. The translators did a superb job, considering the difficult classical Chinese language and the numerous historical allusions, which are not easy to grasp even for the average Chinese person.

The story is about a late Ming courtesan's struggles to stay loyal to her true love despite villainous attempts by self serving power mongers to tear the lovers apart. It reflects on the stark contrast between the courtesan's strong-willed patriotism and the traitorous deeds of an avaricious and corrupt clique at the Southern Ming court, whose total lack of morals and internecine feud ultimately led to the demise of the Southern Ming Pretender's reign.

I loved the historical background of the play, as well as the poetic renderings of much of the dialogues, which add to the poignancy of the story. I kept referring to the original Chinese edition to check out the beautiful poetry.

Overall, it was a 5 star read.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Book Review - "The Book and the Sword" (書劍恩仇錄) by Jin Yong (金庸)

I had read this in Chinese in my childhood, along with other Jin Yong martial arts novels. The image of the virtuous hero Chen Jialuo stuck in my mind.

Update (Sept. 14, 2016) - I'm reading the English version.

Update (October 8, 2016) - After flipping through a few pages of the English version, I became frustrated as I couldn't recognize the names of the characters due to the "pinyin" romanization (my recollection is in Cantonese). Otherwise, the translation is well done. I'm going to re-read the Chinese version.

Update (December 6, 2016) ~ I've finished rereading the Chinese version of the novel. Almost half a century after my first read, I still found this novel magical! The author skillfully weaves together three main storylines: that of the resistance movement against the Qing rulers by a powerful clique called the Red Flower Society; that of the enigmatic birth secret of Qianlong Emperor who, as it turns out, is related to the protagonist Chen Jialuo, the head of the Red Flower Society; and that of the Xinjiang Uighur tribe's loss and recovery of their sacred scriptures. A convoluted love quadrangle forms between the protagonist, Qianlong and two Uighur sisters. Apart from these key storylines, there are several sub stories about some of the Red Flower Society's members, who are all veteran martial arts experts. The central theme is about honor and integrity of the individual, and loyalty and comradeship of the brotherhood.

For me, this was unquestionably a 5 star historical fantasy read.

Friday, October 28, 2016

More Poems by Su Shi (Su Dongpo)

[This post is edited on November 2, 2016 to add one other lyric poem by Su Shi - Calming Wind and Wave (定風波).]

Original Lyric Poem Calming Wind and Wave (定風波):-

莫聽穿林打葉聲, 何妨吟嘯且徐行;
竹杖芒鞋輕勝馬, 誰怕?  一蓑煙雨任平生;
料峭春風吹酒醒, 微冷, 山頭斜照卻相迎;
回首向來蕭瑟處,歸去, 也無風雨也無晴。

My translation:-

Stop listening to the rain pattering on leaves,
Why not enjoy a stroll, and sing your heart out?
Giving up the horse for sandals and a cane – who would mind?
A straw cloak may be all I need in misty rain.
The spring breeze wakes me up from drowsiness – a bit chilly.
The setting sun warms me though with embracing rays.
Turning back, still mindful of that cold and wretched place.
Now that I have arrived – home at last,
Nothing stirs me any more, the glaring sun, the wind or the rain.

Original Lyric Poem Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs (念奴嬌: 赤壁懷古):-

大江東去, 浪淘盡, 千古風雲人物
古疊西邊, 人道是, 三國周郎赤壁;
亂石崩雲, 驚濤裂岸, 捲起千堆雪;
江山如畫, 一時多少豪傑。
遙想公瑾當年, 小喬初嫁了, 雄姿英發;
羽扇綸巾, 談笑間, 強虜灰飛煙滅。
故國神遊, 多情應笑我, 早生華髮,
人生如夢, 一樽還酹江月。

My English Rendition:-

The Great Yangtze scurries forever east,
Many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, 
Was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs;
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, 
Angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam.
Such a picturesque country, 
So full of gallant men in times of old.
Thinking of Zhou in that distant past,
He must've looked valiant, with Xiaoqiao his new bride;
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, 
His enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin,
But I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.

[Note: This lyric poem was written during the time when Su Shi was serving as a junior official in Wang Zhou () (in Hubei Province), to which he was banished after his release from prison. His imprisonment had been brought about by his writing a politically-incorrect poem called Crow Terrace Poem (烏臺詩). Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs reflects his dramatic change of outlook on life after experiencing the near-death trauma (as imprisonment could well turn into a death sentence on a momentary whim of the emperor). The “Crow Terrace Case” was an incident in which Su Shi’s Crow Terrace Poem was deliberately taken out of context by his adversaries to make it sound like an offending accusation against the emperor. The whole incident made him feel not only wronged, but also helpless within the then prevalent officialdom where knavery and chicanery thrived. His cherished ideal of serving his country was wrecked by the incident.

Thus, the tone of the lyric poem is one of unfulfilled mission and ruefulness. In recalling Zhou Yu’s (a handsome and gallant general of the Three Kingdoms period) once heroic and romantic deeds, which had nevertheless evaporated into the time river of no return, the poet was trying to express his own helplessness and the heartbreak of unrequited love for his country and his emperor. By implication, the poet wanted to say that as admirable and noble as Zhou, he had only lived a short life of 36 years. So, what right did he have, being a much less accomplished person than Zhou, to complain about petty failures? The undertone is sad (about the vicissitudes of life) though redemptive (because of his unchanging love for his picturesque country).]

Original Poem Plum Blossoms Poem (“梅花詩”):-

春來幽谷水潺潺 ,的皪梅花草棘間
一夜東風吹石裂 ,半隨飛雪渡關山。

My English Rendition:-

Chanting spring creek through the hushed valley fares;
Among thorn bushes, plum blossoms shimmer in a glare.
One night an east gale surges, with stone-shattering force;
Half the petals, with blowing snow, o’er the border they dare.

Original Poem Impromptu Writing on a Xilin Wall (“題西林壁”):-

橫看成嶺側成峰 遠近高低各不同
不識廬山真面目, 祗緣身在此山中。

My English Rendition:-

These Lushan mountains often fool our eyes,
Rolling range one minute, towering crest the next.
Their true portrait from all people hides,
‘Cos they happen to be on the inside.

Why I Like Su Shi (Su Dongpo)

I've just come across the latest episode of the China History Podcast, which is about the famous Northern Song poet Su Shi (Su Dongpo). It reminded me of a blogpost that I wrote about this favorite poet of mine in October 2010 on my Asia Sentinel blog. I thought I should share that post here alongside the link to the CHP episode.

My 2010 Blogpost:

If I were to pick my idol Chinese poet, it would have to be Su Shi (蘇軾) of the Song dynasty (宋朝).

I’ve lately been reading “Chinese History Revisited” (“中國文明的反思”) by Xiao Jiansheng (蕭建生), in which the author, among other things, gives high praises to the Song dynasty for its diverse, liberal and eclectic collection of literature and works of art. The relatively stable and prosperous Northern Song era (北宋時代) under the rule of several benevolent emperors, during which intellectuals and scholars were able to enjoy a great deal of respect and creative freedom, provided a nurturing background for great literary talents like Su Shi and others. Six of the eight great scholars of classical literature of the Song and Tang dynasty (唐宋八大家) were from the Song dynasty. Su Shi, his father 蘇洵 and his brother 蘇徹 were among the six.

From a cursory study of Su Shi’s life history, it is hard not to be moved by his intoxicating love for his first wife (his emotions were nakedly displayed in his commemorative and elegiac song lyrics 江城子, which was written on the tenth anniversary of her death). Some contemporary critics are quick to point out that when he wrote the elegy, he had already been living with his concubine 朝雲 for a few years, thus it showed that he was not that loyal to his wife 王弗. To me, such criticism seems to be applying present-day mores to the ancient times, during which it was the social norm for a widower (even for a man whose wife was alive and well) to take on a concubine. Besides, why should the fact that he had a concubine be a cause for people to doubt his true and lingering emotions for the woman he had once loved with all his heart? On the other hand, neither does writing the elegy mean that he did not love his concubine. To the contrary, as we can see from another equally heart-breaking poem that he wrote after he subsequently lost his concubine to sickness: 悼朝雲詩. Indeed, I would say that Su Shi was an honest man who had no qualms about expressing his true emotions, including the great pains that he suffered from the loss of loved ones. It takes a man of great courage to lay bare his own vulnerability and his inner soul, even if on paper.

Apart from his literary writing skills, the poet was known for his free-mindedness, straight talking ways, patriotic and principled behavior as a court official, although his officialdom career was marked by quite a number of set-backs as a result of his audacity in speaking his own mind. In the early part of his career, he was opposed to the aggressive reform agenda of the prime minister Wang Anshi (王安石), which he considered as too rash, as he thought that gradual reform would have a better chance of success. In the latter part, when Wang’s reform proposals were all struck down by his successor Sima Guang (司馬光), Su Shi was not reticent either about his disapproval of the latter’s radical negation.

The following poem best sums up the tribulations of his career life. The poem, though self-mocking, has no bitterness in tone. He talked of his heart being numb like a log, and that he was feeling aimless like an unanchored boat. Then he named the three places where he was demoted to at different times of his life and said those places painted his entire career.

心似已灰之木, 身如不繫之舟。
問汝平生功業, 黃州、惠州、儋州。
 (My heart is like ashes, my body an untethered boat.
If you ask me about my career, places of exile say it all.)

The following lines from two different poems show that Su Shi was an inward-looking person and was always aware of his own uncompromising character and unconventional leanings:-

我本麋鹿性, 諒非服轅姿    (I'm by nature a wild deer; Forgive me for my untamed acts.)

嗟我本狂直, 早為世所捐  (Alas I'm  over the edge with candor; The world has long given up on me.)

As for Su Shi’s style of writing, the following excerpt from a letter written by him to his brother gives a description of how he viewed his own writing:-

吾文如萬斛泉源, 不擇地皆可出, 在平地滔滔汨汨, 雖一日十里無難。及其與山石曲折, 隨物賦形, 而不可自知也。所可知者, 常行於所當行, 止於所不可不止, 如是而已矣。其他雖吾亦不能知也。

A translation found on the internet:-

My style is like a spring of inexhaustible water which bubbles and overflows where it lists, no matter where. Running its course through the plains, it may glide along at the speed of a thousand li a day. When it threads its way through cliffs and mountains, one never knows beforehand what size it would assume to conform with these obstacles – it flows where it must flow and stops where it must stop.

The following is one of my favorite poems 東欄梨花 by Su Shi and my own English rendition:-

The Original  Pear Blossoms by the East Fence (東欄梨花):-


My Translation:-

Pallid pear blossoms afloat, in a deep green sea of willows.
Petals waltzing with catkins in mid-air, all over blown.
By the east fence stands this one sad tree white as snow.
Of life, how clearly can we see, in reality?


Friday, October 21, 2016

Book Review - "L'Oeuvre" ("The Masterpiece") by Emile Zola

Including L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece), I’ve so far read five of the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series by Emile Zola (the other four being: La Curee (The Kill), L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), Nana (Nana) and Le Ventre (The Belly of Paris)). All five are set in kaleidoscopic Paris. The period is some time during the semi-aristocratic and semi-bourgeois Second Empire epoch. I love that each of the five portrays a different and unique social and cultural aspect of the times.

In the Preface, Ernest Alfred Vizetelly tells us that Zola draws from the real life experiences of the famous French painters Paul Cezanne (Zola’s childhood friend) and Edouard Manet (whose art Zola tirelessly championed) to develop the characterization of the protagonist Claude Lantier. Sadly, this would subsequently cause Cezanne to break up his friendship with Zola.

Claude Lantier is a descendant by blood from the Macquart line and presumably suffers from hereditary mental illness.

The story follows Lantier through his initial ambitions as a young rebellious painter and his subsequent self-perceived failures, which lead to a gradual tragic descent into abject poverty and ultimate despair about life.

Cheered on by a circle of fellow artists, including his best friend and budding writer Pierre Sandoz (Zola himself), Lantier at first nurtures a megalomaniac dream of conquering the art scene of Paris one day with his new concept of “open air” painting. He even balks with audacity at the jeers of the public on his first creative piece “In the Open Air” which he submits to the newly opened and supposedly more liberal Salon of the Rejected.

He then falls in love with a modest young woman from Clermont who adores him. The couple lives happily in the countryside for a few years before returning to Paris. As time wears on, each of his once loyal supporters has found success in varying degrees, some by unscrupulous means, and he feels left behind in face of consecutive rejections of his works by the conservative but still authoritative Old Salon. In the end, neither his beloved wife nor his most loyal friend Sandoz is able to lift him from the psychological dumps.

Zola paints the Paris art scene with equal doses of realism and romanticism, of derision and compassion, of insight and scorn. But all in all, I can feel his consuming love of the city of Paris, which is also my favorite city. In this novel as well as in L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop), he takes us on a leisurely stroll through all the boulevards and avenues in the center of Paris. In this novel, he dwells amorously on the scenery surrounding L’Ile de la Cite and makes it the subject of the protagonist’s last masterpiece.

“People see it every day, pass before it without stopping; but it takes hold of one all the same; one’s admiration accumulates, and one fine afternoon it bursts forth. Nothing in the world can be grander; it is Paris herself, glorious in the sunlight.”

Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review - "Genghis: Lords of the Bow (Conqueror, #2)" by Conn Iggulden

This was a gripping page-turner. 3.7 stars. The author paints a credible picture of Genghis Khan's temperament and psychological tendencies in his decision-making processes and in his dealings with his family, his tribesmen and his enemies.

The story is about how Genghis Khan, having united all the various Mongol tribes, led his army to invade the Xi Xia Kingdom (of Tanguts) and then the Chin (Jin) Empire (of Jurchens). It tells how he developed and improved his assault tactics.

Historical information about the various battles is generally accurate and the battle scenes are vividly drawn. An entertaining read overall.