Friday, January 19, 2018

Book Review - "Peony" by Pearl S. Buck

I must say this historical novel is quite different from anything I’ve read thus far in the genre. It is a story of impossible love between a Chinese bondmaid and a young Jewish man in the Jewish community of 19th century China. The crux of the story lies in the spiritual or ideological clash between the Chinese and the Jewish culture, and this clash is seen as a subtle force that simmers beneath the surface of differing customs and traditions, until it bubbles up and creates the ultimate barrier that keeps the lovers apart.

Peony is a Chinese bondmaid sold in childhood to the Ezra household to serve their only son David. They grow up together and develop a mutual bond. Within the Ezra household, the husband is easy going and loves the Chinese way of life and is grateful for the kindness shown to him and his by the Chinese, while the wife is a strong-willed woman whose sole aim in life is to uphold the Jewish Law and traditions. But Peony is witty enough to understand there’s no future for her love for David. In order to be able to stay near him, she devises a scheme for David to wed a beautiful Chinese woman, even knowing that her subterfuge would derail Madam Ezra’s plan to get David married to a traditional Jewish girl. From here the plot thickens until the climax is reached, when an incident forces David, now married with children but still struggling with restlessness, to reveal his true feelings for Peony, which ironically leaves her no choice but to seek refuge in a nunnery.

Buck writes with a simple and candid style, but what really stands out is the intensity and depth of emotions she succeeds in painting – it literally holds the readers’ breath! I think she writes with great sympathy about the dilemma of the diminishing Jewish community in China who tried futilely to resist assimilation into their foreign host country who showed them kindness and tolerance while the rest of the world continued to persecute them.

It was inevitable, when people were kind and just to one another, that the walls between them fell and they became one humanity.

There is an Afterword by Wendy R. Abraham, who is a scholar of the history of the Jewish descendants of Kaifeng. She attests to the authenticity of the historical background of the novel. Some interesting tidbits in the Afterword:

The actual history of the Jews’ presence in China dates back at least to the 8th century.
The first Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng dates to 1163 (the Southern Song Dynasty).

I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Green Phoenix Shortlisted for the Award of the Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster

It is truly an honor for "The Green Phoenix" to be shortlisted for the award of the Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster. I'm thrilled to be in the great company of writers whose works are Asia-themed. The literary award is a tribute to books of particular interest in, or especially relevant to, Asia.

For the full shortlist, please go to:

Asian Books Blog Book of the Year of the Rooster

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Book Review - "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I loved the way the author uses a deliberate old-style (you may even call it “stilted”) English voice in telling a bittersweet life story of an old-time English butler who is constantly struggling (but not admitting the struggle) between loyalty to his profession and his heart’s true feelings.

After closing the book, one thought has been hovering in my mind: did the author mean this to be a nuanced satire of certain old English ways and values, or is the novel simply an honest and sympathetic account of the life of one stiff-upper-lipped English butler who sacrifices his emotional life for what he regards as his ideal of being a truly professional butler, which literally means putting his master’s interests before anything else?

Perhaps it is a blending of both. One thing that grates me, though, is the seemingly blatant callousness that the protagonist exhibits, especially in the incident of his father’s dying hour.

I’m giving the book 3.7 stars.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Book Review - "Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man" by Jonathan D. Spence

The author is a China expert and it is obvious that he loves ancient Chinese culture, especially the Ming dynasty cultural and literary scene. Zhang Dai was indeed a most interesting personage - born of a wealthy family but who cultivated an independent worldview all too different from his mundane gentry peers and relatives. Charged with a self-imposed duty of writing Ming history, he was at once a critical commentator on social ills and a romantic idealist who was obsessed with a past that was marked by cultural creativity and decadent materialism. I enjoyed Jonathan D. Spence's writing and his reconstruction of the life and times of a famous Ming historian and essayist.