Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Review: The Last Empress

16. The Last Empress by Anchee Min

There was a reason the ending to Empress Orchid felt abrupt. The story wasn't over yet! I have to say, this was definitely a story that needed to be told in full, though I think the second book was a little weaker in places than the first. Towards the end though, it perks up a lot. And Min's powerful metaphors continue to adorn the text.

Empress Orchid, now Cixi, describes her relationship with her son as "trying to hold onto a kite in a capricious wind." The death of her best friend is like having "[her] heart shattered and the pieces pickled in sadness." Cixi is a woman who inspires incredible loyalty and immeasurable loathing. In this book, Min more directly addresses the many criticisms of Cixi's character and reign that proliferated in the foreign press in her later years. Some of the accusations, according to the novel, are true, but the most heinous ones are not. Cixi is painted as, above all, a patriot, a woman who sacrificed everything, including hers and her sons' happiness, her friendships and relationships, and her reputation, for China.

When her own son dies, she raises her nephew, son of her sister and brother-in-law(her sister married her husband's brother), as the next emperor. In retrospect, she says she was prepared to gamble everything on him and lose-and she did. What is most confusing about this book is that it seems to have been written from the moment of the empress' death...except that sometimes it seems to be taking place in the present, and sometimes in the past. It is almost impossible to get hold of a concrete chronological order. The empress frequently refers to her age and the age of those around her, but the ages never seem to match up. It would be much less confusing for the reader if the age-mentioning were simply dispensed with. It was very distracting because I was always having to stop and think-wait, how old she is now? Why is her servant so much younger? Aren't they only two years apart? Wait, how much younger is her son than she is, was he dead by her fortieth birthday? Didn't he get her a fortieth birthday present, what?

I know this may seem like a petty concern, but it actually really interfered with the flow of the story as well as the feeling of verite. The fourth wall was constantly being broken, and I'm fairly sure, not in an intentional way. The best parts of the book were when chronological order appeared restored, and events happened in their naturally exciting sequence. Min's relation of the Boxer rebellion and its aftermath had me on the edge of my seat.

I'm very glad I listened to both of these books centered on this fascinating historical character. After reading, I'm interested in learning more about the empress and Chinese history in general. Now I have a much better idea of how the great empire transformed into its present state. I also feel that the book was really helpful in painting the discrepancy between Western colonizers and the Eastern cultures they invaded. Through a cultural lens, China's reaction to Westerners makes much more sense, and the Western "barbarians'" behavior becomes alienating.

In any case, I would definitely recommend these books for a new perspective on China's last empress.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Feast for Crows

15. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

So, I went on a Song of Ice and Fire binge a couple years ago, but ultimately stopped reading because of my frustration with the violence and the knowledge that everyone would be killed off (or hideously maimed).

Since then, I've been watching the HBO show "Game of Thrones," which, honestly, I like better than the books (and I am the kind of person who almost never says that). But now Season 4 has started, and I don't know what's coming! So to prepare myself, I read the fourth book, and am "up" on half of the upcoming storylines. I'll have to read A Dance with Dragons soon to be fully prepared. And then, well, I'm no worse prepared than anyone else, at least.

The events of the fourth book were fairly in keeping with those of previous books. I know fans complained that there were a lot of new viewpoints and lack of older viewpoints, but honestly, it didn't bother me that much. It just meant I cared less when things took a turn for the worse. Tyrion is the only character I actually care about (though Sansa is getting cooler, as is Samwell), and I didn't have to fear for him here, at least. Actually, I'd say the fourth book was, if anything, slower than its predecessors. I personally like "slower" books, but that's not the fan base GRRM has cultivated, so I'm not surprised they were disapproving.

Anyway *SPOLIER ALERT* so excited that Joffrey is finally dead, and we can move onto, well...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: Vienna Nocturne

14. Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

While reading Vienna Nocturne, I noticed that the back cover features a quote from Eva Stachniak, one of my favorite historical fiction writers. This realization brought me to compare the two author's debuts, which though both historical fiction, are vastly different in texture. Reading Stachniak's The Winter Palace is like wrapping one's self in velvet: thick, luxurious, and rich. In contrast, reading Vivien Shotwell's Vienna Nocturne is like being immersed in watered silk: exquisite but light and delicate.

Vienna Nocture follows the career of Anna Storace, the soprano who starred in Wolfgang Mozart's most famous opera. Shotwell's writing is a sheer, unmitigated pleasure to read. Her language is flowing, her sentences are long, with clause after clause of description. One chapter begins:

"The people of Venice sang as much as they talked, sang as they worked and wooed and slept, in gondolas and barges, on market squares, lubricated by drink and company and the place itself, a city in the water that waked by night and slept by day, that prized folly over sense, and saved itself for nothing, but spent all, risked all, for beauty's flowering and pleasure's gratification."

The effect is immersive. Readers will float in an atmosphere of Shotwell's creation. Long sentences glide readers through miniaturized chapters that capture the sense of a particular moment in a character's life. The narrative primarily follows Anna, but occasionally detours to characters significant in Anna's life, including Mozart. Although this conceit could be jarring, Shotwell incorporates it skillfully into the fabric of the narrative. In fact, the journey is so smooth that readers may barely notice individual events or characters.

While this may not be a concern for some, to others it marks the book's only significant flaw. It is difficult to distinguish the personality of characters and to suss out the truth of events. Even Anna has no definable personality outside of her role as a diva (which seems intentional, as it is a tragedy that the book acknowledges). Instead, the opera and the music seem to take the place of the characters.

Not only are the book's many musical scenes sumptuously described, but the rising of her breath and breasts, and the moving of his fingers on the keyboard, come to define Shotwell's Anna and Mozart. Both are like beautiful, ingenious instruments that the author wields on the page. Ultimately, Vienna Nocturne is a work of art--if a book could be an opera, this would be it. It is the epitome of style and grace and briefly glimpsed truths. And this must be what the classically trained author set out to achieve.

But those who like their history more meaty and their characters more complex may find that this morsel vanishes too quickly, leaving a sweet but not fully satisfying taste.