Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Historical Epic

Since finishing the first draft of my second novel last September, I spent the rest of 2015 and the first two months of 2016 in rewriting and polishing it, which work process is by now more or less complete. This second novel is a historical epic set in 17th century China and is about the legendary life story of Qing Dynasty's first Empress Dowager - Xiaozhuang - who was a Mongolian Princess of the Borjigit clan (the clan of Genghis Khan's) by birth and the grandmother of the great Kangxi Emperor. While doing research for the novel, I had become totally bewitched by this free-spirited Mongolian woman, without whose wits and efforts the Qing Empire wouldn't have been able to survive its fledgling years and history would've been rewritten. Needless to say, her contributions were vastly underrated as Chinese historians have the entrenched tradition of ignoring or sidelining the weaker sex's positive influence on politics, on society and most importantly, on humanity.

I feel honored and thrilled by the latest 5-star review of Fated and Fateless by my Goodreads friend Ace! Her heartfelt words have made the hard work that I put into writing all the more worthwhile. Any aspiring writer would know the scourging process of trying to build up a readership. For an amateurish marketer like me, good reviews mean that much more and I am grateful for them. It is also heartening to see that Goodreads as a readers' social media platform has been helpful and instrumental in the build-up of a following for me as an author.

Ace's 5-Star Review of Fated and Fateless

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review - "The Fall" by Albert Camus

This is a short book (only 147 pages) but one that’s hard to read because of its gloomy tone, but thought-provoking nonetheless – 3 stars.

In The Stranger, Camus tells us that life only has meaning if one takes responsibility for one’s actions and confers a meaning on it. By not taking the positive step to plead defense to the murder charge, the protagonist chooses to face up to the consequence of his action and thereby confers a meaning, though not a positive one. The focus of the novel is on the individual, on his feelings and thoughts, in isolation from society.

In The Fall, Camus seems to want to try and define the moral meaning of the individual’s existence through his relations with others. This novel is in monologue form and the narrator is the protagonist. The narrator/protagonist, who is a lawyer, takes the reader on a soul-searching journey. He admits to initially always taking the moral high ground where others are concerned, always aware though that he is a hypocrite at heart. Then when praises begin heaping on him, he feels so burdened with guilt that he suffers a breakdown. At last he comes up with a solution to his problem, which is to deliberately judge himself harshly in front of his acquaintances, with the aim of affording the right in turn to judge them.

“The more I accuse myself, the more I have a right to judge you. Even better, I provoke you into judging yourself, and this relieves me of that much of the burden.”

The question is: is that a real solution or just a devious way around accepting responsibility?

It would appear to me that the key message that Camus wants to send is that it behooves us to accept with humility the hard fact that we mortals are an imperfect and sinful lot and that we all tend to wear masks and at the same time point our fingers at others. It’s only with this humble acceptance can we begin to confer any meaning on life.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review - "The French Revolution: A History" by Thomas Carlyle

At last I've come to the end of this lengthy book! I won't deny that there were times when I wanted to abandon it, because the style of writing is quirky and polemic and the tone unabashedly self-righteous. I just wish there were other more readable historical works out there about this cataclysmic phase of French history.

Having said that, I’m glad that I persevered to the end. With all its shortcomings, it is still a marvelously researched, all-round account of historical events and characters, beginning with the last days of Louis XV's reign and ending with the emergence of young Napoleon Bonaparte as a shrewd artillery officer. As much as the book offers copious factual details, off-putting was the author's obvious bias towards monarchy and his almost belligerent prejudice against "the seagreen" reformer, Maximilien Robespierre, and his Republican principles, which were based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract. The French people didn’t get murderously incensed with the monarchy, the nobility and the clergy for no reason. Social grievances had been allowed to fester for far too long and the privileged class had been too callous towards the oppressed. All that was needed was a spark to set off the conflagration.

It would seem to me that in the latter stage Robespierre and his Jacobins were literally backed into a corner, pressured both on the inside (with an empty state coffer and a hungry populace hankering for bread) and the outside (with France being attacked on all sides by its predatory neighbors). Sadly the extremely complex and dire circumstances drove him to paranoia and jittery suspicion which made him succumb to his allies' ill advice of resorting to the guillotine to eliminate opponents.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the French Revolution, though dearly paid for with 4,000 civilian lives, did have a crucial part in blazing a trail in the quest for more accountable and fairer governance in the following decades, leading ultimately to a democratic Third Republic in 1870.

I previously read Alexis de Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and the French Revolution", which was helpful towards understanding the underlying causes that led to the pivotal events and era.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book Review: "The Garden of Evening Mists" by Tan Twan Eng

This novel won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

As Oscar Wilde once said, there’s nothing sane about the worship of beauty. For me, the saying certainly rings true for this ethereally beautiful novel. My passion may be irrational and even skewed, given that I am an ethnic Chinese with a penchant for oriental art, including Japanese gardens, but that doesn’t make it any less of a passion.

In this poetic drama, two seemingly unrelated elements – brutal sufferings in war and the Japanese ancient art of gardening and tattooing – are masterfully juxtaposed and coalesced into a seamless narrative with themes of hatred, loss, redemption, friendship, love and war-born stigmas. Set in the misty and unfathomable depths of the Cameron Highlands during and after World War II, the novel explores the philosophical blending of polar extremes in life, like in the Taoist symbol of Yin and Yang, while galloping along twists and turns of the storyline. This blending is vividly present throughout the novel. Deep hatred is eventually turned into undying love; tranquil calmness exists alongside the terror of war cruelty; the mind oscillates between memory and oblivion; physical pain becomes an addictive pleasure; real garden scenery is designed to create an illusion for the viewer.

Having visited many temple and private gardens while on a visit to Kyoto in the mid-80s (I was lucky to have been invited to visit the Nomura Villa there, which was breath-taking), I’ve always been bewitched with how the Japanese garden design can evoke a soulful mood in viewers. Now that I’ve read this novel, I understand a little more about the concept behind the design.

The plotline glides along in velvety prose, often stoking picturesque imagination in the reader. This is a passage that I particularly like:-

“Think of the seasons as pieces of the finest, most translucent silk of different colors. Individually, they are beautiful, but lay one on top of another, even if just along their edges, and something special is created. That narrow strip of time when the start of one season overlaps the end of another is like that.”

In the back matter under “Author’s Commentary”, the author likens the art of Japanese gardening to that of creative writing. He thinks that both arts require artifice and lies, and that for a novel, or a garden, to succeed, the lie has to convince, to beguile. I must say that the novel has deluded and charmed me.


Friday, January 1, 2016

Book Review - "Marie Antoinette: The Journey" by Antonia Fraser

This was my second Antonia Fraser book, the first being The Wives of Henry VIII. Thorough research and minute attention to details is the clear mark of both. Personally I found the writing of Marie Antoinette: The Journey to be more lucid and less confusing.

Perhaps this passage in the Epilogue best sums up the book:-

“A scapegoat was in fact what Marie Antoinette became. Among other things, she would be blamed for the whole French Revolution, by those who optimistically looked to one “guilty” individual as a way of explaining the complex horrors of the past.”

I am inclined to think that Marie Antoinette probably had a lethal fault in her stars that put her in the wrong place at the wrong time. Be that as it might, she, and for that matter, the French aristocrats, could have used more common sense and curbed her/their appetite for pleasure-seeking and extravagance at a time when most French commoners were seen to be poverty-stricken. These vested interests were simply blind to the public’s seething disgust for their hereditary privileges (like exemption from taxes, among other things). Added to this apparent obtuseness on the part of the royalty was the rapaciousness of France’s monarchic neighbors (including Austria, the Queen’s homeland), who had been prowling on her borders and waiting for her domestic troubles to explode in her face. It would not be surprising, under these circumstances, to see the “Austrian woman” (as Marie Antoinette came to be called) becoming the receptacle of the French people’s full wrath, through the vicious manipulation of public opinion by power-hungry demagogues.   

This biographical work on whom one might term as “the most slandered French Queen in the history of France” also reminds one of how deadly calumnious propaganda can turn out to be. Wicked lies, if repeated often enough, can very easily become verity in the minds of the less enlightened. It also brings to mind how little we’ve advanced in terms of achieving social equality and fairness since those revolutionary days.