Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review - "Hypatia of Alexandria" by Maria Dzielska

Several years ago I saw on TV the movie “Agora”, and ever since, the image of Hypatia, the legendary 4th century female scholar and philosopher of Alexandria, has left an indelible mark on my memory. I’m glad that I’ve finally got round to reading Maria Dzielska’s myth-dispelling account of Hypatia’s intellectual life and the times she lived in.

Relying on two ancient historical tomes (Historia Ecclesiastica by Socrates Scholasticus and Suda), plus a collection of correspondence kept by Synesius of Cyrene, who was a well-known disciple of Hypatia’s, the author goes about reconstructing the life and achievements of this influential intellectual, who died a most gruesome death during Lent in 415 after taking a stand behind Prefect Orestes in his political duel with power-hungry Bishop Cyril.

The author also dispels a widespread myth that Hypatia was a youthful woman at the time of her death, and contends that she was around 60 years old at her life’s violent end.

These passages sum up Hypatia’s social and political situation in Alexandria before Cyril became Bishop:

“Esteemed by the ruling elite, sympathetic toward Christians, indifferent to pagan cults, neutral in the religious fights and altercations, she lived in Alexandria for many years enjoying the city’s rulers’ respect and her disciples’ love…… Besides teaching ontology and ethics, Hypatia lectured on mathematics and astronomy.”

“Hypatia herself, not needing to conceal her non-Christian religiosity, enjoyed full intellectual independence and the tolerance of the ecclesiastical authorities.”

In conclusion, Dzielska states:

“Relying on the most important sources and their analysis, we may thus state unequivocally that the conflict between Orestes and Cyril was concluded in a manner and for a reason known and used for ages: murder for a political purpose….. They killed a person who was the mainstay of the opposition against him.”

“Cyril undoubtedly presented the affair as a struggle against paganism (with such of its manifestation as magic and sorcery), as official church propaganda proclaimed after all.”

“A cover-up campaign was orchestrated to protect the perpetrators, affiliated with the church, who murdered a person well disposed toward Christians. We contend against this silence when from the extant fragments we undertake to reconstruct the life and achievements of Hypatia.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Book Review - "The Confessions of Catherine de Medici" by C. W. Gortner

After watching in 2014 the first season of the TV historical fantasy romance series “Reign” on CW channel, I was hooked. I didn’t miss the second and third season. It was this TV series that spurred my interest in the historical character Catherine de Medici.

This engaging novel is the third one I’ve read so far by the author C. W. Gortner, and he didn’t disappoint. With his mesmerizing prose I was quickly transported to tumultuous 16th century France, rife with bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and treacherous court machinations in the royal families’ wrangling for power.

As a foreign teenage bride of undistinguished lineage arriving from Italy to marry a sophisticated French prince Henri II, whom she had never met before, Catherine de Medici was doomed to have rough beginnings in her adopted country. Soon she discovered that her new husband’s beloved mistress was the true mistress of Henri’s household and his only true love. When her childless state started to threaten her marital bond, she resorted to using the black arts to help with her fertility.

After becoming the Dauphine, Catherine was able to sire a number of children consecutively, three of whom would become King of France in tandem. During her second son’s reign (Charles IX), she got mired in a noxious scheme to kill several Protestant (or Huguenot) leaders, one of whom had once been her lover and who she believed had betrayed her. The scheme eventually got out of control and led to what is historically known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, during which several thousands of Huguenots were murdered in Paris and beyond. The Catholic nobles led by the usurping Guise family put the whole blame on Catherine, who always showed tolerance towards the Huguenots and preferred peace to strife. From then on, she and her reigning sons would be caught up in the never-ending feud between the Catholics and the Huguenots, until the time when she had the Guises killed and subdued.

As much as some of her actions might be deemed ruthless, it would appear they were occasioned by untenable situations brought about by the opposing religious factions’ hostile stances. Were her choices motivated by her thirst for power, or just her zeal to protect her cubs and the royal lineage at all costs?

In the reported words of Henri IV: “What could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown – our own (the Bourbons) and the Guises? I’m surprised she didn’t do worse.”

Gortner has successfully spun a believable yarn about one of history’s most maligned royal women. I do believe a woman's maternal instincts would overrule everything else.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some Thoughts on the "Historical Fiction" Genre

In a recent LinkedIn Historical Novel group chat, I made a casual comment that it seems in the world of historical fiction, history is almost automatically taken to mean Western History, and that such an assumption obviously ignores a large part of humankind history.

To my above casual comment, one group member, who formerly taught History of Philosophy and World History at an American university, remarked that my observation is correct and that “Western History” is still assumed by some to be “history”. Gladly though, he added, things are changing for the better, a phenomenon borne out by the fact that even the “Epic of Darkness” (a collection of Chinese tales and legends depicting primeval China in epic poetry) is being taught and studied in American classes.

Another group member explained that the assumption is due to publishers and film producers only going with what is “popular” and thus to some extent limiting Western readers’ choices. It is assumed in the publishing industry that “Western” is what readers want, and so that is what readers get.

I am not a historian and my abovementioned observation arose purely from my reading experience, through which I noticed that the bulk of historical fiction written in English is related to Western History or has a Western historical setting. There is obviously a relative paucity of fiction with an Oriental or Chinese historical context or setting. When publishers, literary agents, booksellers or writers refer to “historical fiction”, they seem to have only “Western historical fiction” in mind.

Being bilingual, I can easily satisfy my interest in Chinese history by reading fiction and non-fiction in Chinese. But I can see this would be a problem for Westerners who may share my interest but who only read English. Their only option would be to read translated works, and even these are in short supply in the historical fiction genre.

As readers, would you agree with what the two LinkedIn members said? Would you like to see the historical fiction genre diversify into the Oriental history field?

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Musical - Notre-Dame de Paris

I have not read Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (although I adored his Les Miserables and Ninety-Three), but enjoyed very much this musical on Youtube. It is a French and Quebecois production that debuted in 1998 in Paris. The music was composed by Riccardo Cocciante and the lyrics were by Luc Plamondon. According to the Guinness Book of Records, this French musical had the most successful first year of any musical ever.

I've found this link to the French lyrics of all the songs:-

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review - "Antigone" by Jean Anouilh

Very intense and affecting dialogues. The play pits idealism against realism in the form of heated arguments between Antigone and her uncle King Creon. By presenting Antigone as being almost naive and pigheadedly irrational and Creon as tenuously considerate and reasonable, Anouilh exposes the real pith of both characters. In truth, Antigone is the epitome of the perfectionist idealist, whereas King Creon represents the hypocritical and callous tyrant whose only concern is power and politics.

In the commentary, it is mentioned that some critics interpret the play as apologist for the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France by reading pragmatism and circumspection into the character of Creon. My own conclusion is that that is hardly what the author intended.

I'm giving the play 4 stars.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Book Review - "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry

This is one of those heartrending books that would be burned into my memory. The story of the four main characters is told in a calm, understated and sometimes dry-humored tone, but the characters, their poignant back stories as well as the settings just jump right off the page. The whirlpool of corrupt and brutal politics, the inhumane caste system, ethnic hatred, sexual abuses, abject poverty and social despair gives the narrative a pulsating realism that keeps the reader well-grounded in its authenticity.

Dina Dalal, a widow trying to live independently of her overbearing brother, and Maneck Kohlah, a congenial college student and her sub-tenant, are from the relatively well-off Parsi community. Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash Darji are from the lowly Chamaar caste of untouchables. A strange twist of fate brings them together under one roof and a beautiful story unfolds of the four skeptics-turned-friends, of the Darjis’ endless struggles with unspeakable tragedies, and of Dina’s and Maneck’s mutual friendship and their compassion and succor for the Darjis.

Generally, it is a novel that is unapologetic in its assail against the dark side of human nature, the absurd cruelty of those who wield power and the venom of bigoted conventions. It leaves the reader to ponder whether in the end human goodness will balance out evil.

Here are some philosophical quotes that I like:-

“A lifetime had to be crafted, just like anything else, she thought, it had to be moulded and beaten and burnished in order to get the most out of it.”

“’You see, you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’”

“Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.”

The novel was a long read (my copy has 713 pages), but worth every minute. I’m giving it 5-stars.