The Blood of Flowers

by Anita Amirrezvani

In 17th century Iran, a girl and her mother leave their village to live with their half uncle after the death of her father. In the big city of Isfahan, they are treated more like servants then family. However, the girl’s talent in carpet making is soon recognized by her uncle, who teaches her the craft like she were his son. Nonetheless, she is a girl, and without a father and a dowry, her future looks bleak.

This is a beautifully crafted book. The author’s description makes everything comes to life: the bustling bazaar, the exquisite carpets; and every character, with flaws and strengths, love and hate, stands out as real, life-like person that develops and changes, not caricature of kindness or evil. Even a beggar has his moments of kindness and cruelty.

In the afternote, the author mentioned that she spent nine years researching and writing the book, and the effort shows: little details of life that makes the story real, folktales that cast a magical air, and trivia about carpet making that entices the reader.

I also like how the author portrays an array of Persian women. There is woman locked in unhappy marriage arranged by parents, (which Western readers fully come to expect) but there is also woman with loving husband who refused to take a second wife even if her first is barren. Sigheh is a temporary marriage contract that can in some way be viewed as legalized prostitution. For many women it is a disgrace, but for one woman, it is thanks to it that she can carry on a relationship with her childhood sweetheart.

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Peony in Love

by Lisa See

I really loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (and I’m looking forward to the movie though I was surprised to hear that Hugh Jackman will appear in the movie… huh? I love Wolverine but… Apparently they have included a modern timeline to the story… maybe two women trying to find out the link between their grandmothers?) so I started reading this with high expectations.

Peony in Love begins with a young girl who loves books and is totally enchanted by the opera Peony Pavilion, about a cloistered girl who met her lover in dream and after dying of lovesickness, her body was found by the man in her dream and she returned to life. Peony’s father stages a performance of her favorite opera in their house for her birthday, and Peony chances upon a young man with whom she promptly falls in love. Knowing that marriage matters are arranged by parents and each has a betrothal, Peony is sick with longing for love.

In all honesty, I did not like the story in the beginning. It is way too obvious where the plot is heading. Star-crossed lovers is one thing, but tragic romance bore out of stupidity doesn’t quite get my sympathy. After the story reaches the predictable point, there is a while where little happens, as Peony mills around doing nothing much. Fornutately I persevere and the second half of the story becomes interesting. So, my word of advice is, skip or skim through the first part if you like, but it’s worth the effort to continue on!

After reading the novel and the author’s notes, I have to say that I like it even more than Snow Flower, and also that this is a more accomplished work. Wu Wushan’s Three Wives’ Commentary 吳吳山三婦合評〈牡丹亭還魂記〉is an actual book that was published in 1694, and still in print after over 400 years (you can buy a copy at So are Xiaoqing’s poems. Lisa See has closely woven the known historical facts into her fiction, and create a superb story. With Snow Flower there is more creative liberty, but with Peony, she is more limited by the facts, and thus I am more impressed with her success. Originally I had thought that Peony will reincarnate to finish her work, but I have to say See’s way of linking the three wives works better in a novel, and gives Peony more opportunity to grow as a character.

I really like how the author chances upon a little known cultural work/fact, things that even the average Chinese may not know about, makes it an obsession, and spins out a lovely tale, like nu shu in Snow Flower, and the Three Wives’ Commentary in Peony. She has reached across time, to give voices to the women lost in history. A strong, powerful amd memorable voice.

I have to give another warning for readers: keep an open mind. Lisa See has created in detail an afterworld according to Chinese beliefs. A place with its own rules and likely very foreign to most readers. Just suspend your belief. Afterall, come to think of it, doesn’t the vampire world has equally bizzare taboos and beliefs? That said, I do find the idea of single entry visa from the afterworld, and other concepts quite interesting. And the idea of a ghost who goes around binding little girl’s feet — the most horrifying ghost of all!

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Luncheon of the Boating Party

by Susan Vreeland

I knew little about this Renoir painting. Well, to be honest, I knew little about Renoir or fine arts… I guess whatever I learned in school had been forgotten. However, the story is nicely written to draw me in, and I enjoyed feeling that I was there to witness the birth of a masterpiece, from its conception to difficult pregnancy to birth. This is a fictionalized account of August Pierre Renoir’s creation of one of his most famous works depicting a gathering of his friends enjoying a summer Sunday on a café terrace along the Seine.

I don’t believe I have read a book where I flipped the book to see the cover as much as this one. In the beginning I kept wondering which character is who in the painting, and towards the end, they are seem so real to me I can imagine them move from their poses, stretch, and continue on with their lives. As I write this now, I am looking at the cover, and each character comes alive to me again.

The book also gives me a better understanding of impressionism. The challenges Renoir face while painting provides a suspense to the plot, almost like a mystery that makes me eager to see how it gets resolved in the end. The story also piques my interest in other works mentioned. Kind of wish it includes an appendix showing all the paintings referred.

I really enjoy the creativity of this type of historical fiction, spinning a story from a painting. Now Renoir’s painting is going to hold a special place in my heart!


Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran


The Green Zone, Baghdad, 2003: in this walled-off compound of swimming pools and luxurious amenities, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority set out to fashion a new, democratic Iraq. Staffed by idealistic aides chosen primarily for their views on issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the CPA spent the crucial first year of occupation pursuing goals that had little to do with the immediate needs of a postwar nation: revamping the Iraqi tax code and mounting an anti-smoking campaign.

As the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran has probably spent more time in U.S.-occupied Iraq than any other American journalist. In this acclaimed firsthand account, the former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post gives us an intimate portrait of life inside this Oz-like bubble, which continued unaffected by the growing mayhem outside. Chandrasekaran unstintingly depicts the stubborn cluelessness of many Americans in the Green Zone—like the army general who says children terrified by nighttime helicopters should appreciate “the sound of freedom.” But he sympathetically portrays others trying their best to cut through the red tape and institute genuine reforms. He also has a sharp eye for details, from casual sex in abandoned offices to stray cats adopted by staffers, which enable both advocates and critics of the occupation to understand the emotional toll of its circuslike atmosphere. Thanks to these personal touches, the account of the CPA’s failures never feels heavy-handed.

This is a quietly devastating tale of imperial folly, and the definitive history of those early days when things went irrevocably wrong in Iraq.

When I opened the pages, I suddenly felt very proud to be Chinese. For right there, in the first pages, smack right in the middle of the map of Green Zone, is the marker “Chinese Restaurants”. Not pizza parlor, not hamburger joint, no, it’s Chinese restaurants. Mind you too, it’s not just one, but two of them. As some travelers commented, you will always be amazed that no matter how far you travel, there’s always a Chinese restaurant where you least expect it.

A really interesting and engaging book. We’ve all read about how inept the US govt’s handle of the Iraqi occuption is, but condensing the interviews and anecdotes into one volume really opened my eyes. A lot of it seems to be variations on the same theme: big, lofty idea thought up by someone unqualified for the position. Like the idea of using a food ration debit card, when neither electrity nor telephone was working; or Operation Smiles when the hospitals had been looted clean of the most basic supplies and beds, and patients are dying from the most curable sicknesses and injuries. Too bad when, filling positions, what matters is not what certificates or diplomas you hang on your wall, but whether there is a photo of you with Bush and Cheney.

While there are a few people who went there with the intention to make some quick bucks (the ludicracy of the contractor’s story is really something), in all honesty most of the people who went out to Iraq brought with them good intentions.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  

The Teahouse Fire

by Ellis Avery

“When I was nine, in the city now called Kyoto, I changed my fate. I walked into the shrine through the red arch and struck he bell. I bowed twice. I clapped twice. I whispered to the foreign goddess and bowed again. And then I heard the shouts and the fire. What I asked for? Any life but this one.”

Thus begin the story of Aurelie, a French American girl of nine in last 19th century. She was taken from her mother, against her will, to accompany her missionary uncle to Kyoto to “convert the barbarians”. When a fire broke out in the house she and her uncle stayed in, she ran away, and ended up in the garden of a Japanese tea master. She was taken in by Yukako, the tea master’s daughter, as partly a maid, partly a younger sister. They did not consider her a foreigner, as she did not have blue eyes and golden hair, but thought that she was just born a bit defected and retarded (as her language skills seeed seriously limited). (I guess if a child with Down’s syndrome can be called Mongol, such perception can go both ways…) As the two girls grew up, they witnessed the political changes in Japan: the birth of Tokyo as the new capital, the demise of power of the samurai clan, the influence of Western culture, the resulting nationalism… and with it, the realization that the art of tea had to adapt to the new world or die.

The beginning of the story strongly reminds me of Memoirs of a Geisha. Both are about a young girl being plucked from her normal childhood, to enter into a highly codified community of a Japanese traditional art as an outsider. For Aurelie, she was doubly an outsider, barely speaking the language and totally ignorant of the social rules and etiquettes. Thus, a perfect protagonist was created. As things were explained to her, they were explained to the readers, without feeling contrived.

Reading the book gives me the pleasure of understanding more about chado and recent history of Japan. I had attended a tea ceremony once and couldn’t say I enjoyed it, just found the whole thing too artificially formal, sitting painfully on my legs in a constrictive kimino, and a big show for just a cup of hardly palatable tea (the tea was made with grounded tea leaves froth to a foamy, bitter, dark green broth, served with a sweet that supposedly balances the bitterness but for me had the effect of making it more bitter.) I won’t rush for another cup of tea but at least I can see the reason why someone would love it, and appreciate better the thoughts and care that go into the art. Really a lot of thoughts and care. In one ceremony, the windows were closed off except for one, fitted with glass. The ceremony was timed such that the moon would sail into view at the moment the tea was prepared. When the guest arrived in a kimino that doesn’t go well with their decoration, the master had to rearrange the furniture, change the tea box, move the flowers… if they could repaint the room and change the carpet… they probably would too…

As a fiction, Memoirs is without doubt more accompanished. As Aurelie is more an observer in the background, she is often a reporter of events rather than the actress in the center stage. At times the pace feels too slow, the characters walking around the stage without much action and purpose, and some scenes and events are simply uninteresting. Definitely a bit of editing could make the read more pleasurable.

However, I was glad that I stay with the book, because the ending was worth it. In the last fifty pages or so, everything picks up speed, like a train leaving a station, building up, building up, and then with a blast and a loud horn, it runs at you with full force. I closed the book with tears in my eyes, and realize that if not for all the little clues and information the author painstakingly paved along the road, it would be impossible to fully understand Nao’s revenge, and to fully understand Yukako’s gift. All of a sudden I feel like asking Aurelie, don’t stop, don’t stop, tell me more…

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 3:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min

I like reading historical fictions on royalties, and especially found this one interesting as I visited Beijing last year. It was fun to visualize the places mentioned in the book.  I didn’t go to Prince Kung’s Residence though, and would definitely make the trip should I have a chance to visit again, as the novel protrayed him to be such a likeable character.  Moreover, it was intriguing to try re-translate the poems and songs back to Chinese, to realize they are familiar verses I had studied and loved in high school.

At times though, it seems like the author had a hard time parting with all research data on hand, and the story ended up blogged down with trivial detail. Also, the narration seems to suggest that the “memoir” is written at a much later date than when the book ends, so the ending feels a bit abrupt and rushed, not to mention almost teetering on what makes a bad historical romance.  There are a few good scenes in the book and overall I did enjoy it.

The empress protrayed in the book is quite different from the historical figure though.  Through her son and nephew (her sister Rong’s son, as the former died before leaving an heir) she had practically ruled China for half a century, and had used the desperataly needed navy’s fund to build extravagant a summer garden (after the original one was damaged).  At her death, she had stashed away some eight and a half million pounds sterling in London banks under her name. She survived the two emperors and only died after installing Puyi as the (destined to be the last) emperor of China.


This is about the only one photo I can find of the young Cixi, though there are plenty of her as a sour-faced old lady who looks like mother-in-law from hell. 

(Edit to add: thanks for all the kind readers who pointed out that this is not a picture of Cixi, but rather of Zhen Fei, whom I believed was tortured to death by Cixi. ~Please correct me again should I make another error. ~ And let me know too should you indeed know of a picture of Cixi as a young sweet girl!)

Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 8:29 pm  Comments (5)  

When My Name was Keoko

by Linda Sue Park

I ocassionally read children’s book to take a break from more serious reading, but this book is much more than a diversion.  It is likely among my top ten of the year.

The story, partly based on the experience of the author’s grandparents and with historically accurate facts woven in, centers on a Korean girl, Sun-hee and her old brother, Tae-yul, who grew up in a Japanese-occupied Korea.  Like many war stories viewed through the eyes of children, the simple and sometimes innocent episodes they described is all the more powerful in suggesting a cruelty and hardship that goes beyond their understanding.

I knew very little about the lives of Korean under Japanese occupation, and this little book is an excellent introduction to that slice of history, and to Korean culture in general.  It was intriguing how Sun-hee learned to write kanji, got popcorn from the popcorn man,  and was taunted at school as a Japanese Lover for excelling in class.  As Sun-hee grew up learning only Japanese, she did not have a “before” picture to compare against.  It took her a while to “notice” the fact that her best friends were Japanese and daughter of a “traitor”.  The  increasing hardship of the war did not escape her though, from the food her mother served to the change in the color of the mountains as they were stripped of their resources. 

On the other hand, her older brother started with a better understanding of the reality.  Thus he could not play with the rubber ball the school distributed in celebration of Japanese occupation of Malaya, he cared not to stay in the classes to be brain-washed, and he wanted to help destroy the enemy.   Inside Tae-yul, there was the conflict of a teenaged boy fascinated with airplanes, yet keenly influenced by his uncle to resist the enemy; burdened by the tradition to respect his parents, yet despising his father for allowing the soldiers to take his bicycle without a fight.

This is one excellent fiction of WW2.


Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 2:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is a fictional work based on the real events of the 17th-century plague that was carried from London to a small Derbyshire village by a tainted piece of clothe.  As villagers begin, one by one, to die, the rest face a choice: do they flee the village in hope of outrunning the plague or do they stay?

I read this for The Reading Lounge’s  August bookclub.  In retrospect, my taste is rather morbid to have picked this book up in the library sale in the first place.  Who else would see “A Novel of the Plague” and say “interesting”?

Naturally, the book contains gruesome scenes of plague infection, render more gory by the author’s skill to create vivid imagery.   Some of the best scenes, however, are in the emotional landscapes of the various characters.   

The plague breaks out in the village, leaving 18 year old Anna not only a widow, but childless as well.  She works with Mr. Mompellion, the rector, and his wife Elinor, almost around the clock to tend to the sick , to comfort the dying, to help those living as sole survivor of a big family.   After the deaths of several families, I began to wonder where would the tale lead us, to carry the story on for many pages to come.  Several events transpire, showing us the best and worst of human nature.  The bacteria is not the only killer, as hatred, fear, greed and superstition kicks in.   After the death of Elinor (not a spoiler as this fact was made clear on page 2, the first part of the book written to date after the plague), events unfold that make me think, aha, I know that this is what will happen, I can smell that coming all along the way… when the crafty story takes a turn.  What would be the ending of a conventional historical novel spins off in a surprising new direction, making for an unexpected finale.   I am glad Brooks didn’t stop where most would have stopped, although the ending feels rather improbable.  An unreal conclusion to a hitherto very realistic historical tale.  

The decision for the village to remain quarantined is heroic; though on the other hand, as one of the characters points out, they really don’t an alternative to up and move.  The rich are the only one who can, and are they really evil for wanting to escape when they can?  It is ironic how the author wrote that, as they leave town, the villagers, instead of pelting them with rotten eggs and hissing, curtsy and take off their caps as signs of respect, just because they have been trained, since birth, to do so. 

Published in: on August 21, 2007 at 1:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Coffee Trader

by David Liss

I read this for my bookclub.  I would admit that if this were just a contemprary “financial fiction” I would have aborted the reading long time ago. However, with the historical background of Portuguese Jews in the 17th century, this becomes a much more interesting read; and while some of us felt that the business maneuvour is above our heads, the historical backdrop keeps us going.  The plot itself is quite brilliant, one layer of deception upon another, and until the last page, you don’t quite know who has the upper hand.

According to the author notes, this book was originally about chocolate.  While I can image Miguel’s sister-in-law becomes more lustful after munching some cacao beans, I don’t suppose Miguel can claim his energy and clear-mindedness from something other than a cup of joe.

A big part of our discussion centers on whether Miguel is a good or bad guy.  In that aspect, the author excels in portraying all characters in a very three dimensional manner.  Each is full of life and stands out with his/her own personality.  The book is rich in all the senses: the smell of the city, the colorful clothes of the merchants, the buzzing of the exchange, and together with the characters, recreates a very solid world of 17th century Amsterdam.

Published in: on August 17, 2007 at 4:08 pm  Comments (1)  

Passing Under Heaven

by Justin Hill

I started reading this while I was on The Tale of Murasaki, and it soon dawned on me the interesting parallels of the two stories.  Well, it was more than interesting parallel – the similarities are uncanny, so much so that I have to put aside Murasaki least I get the two mixed up.

Both tales are historical fiction about a female writer, heavily interlaced with original works written by the protagonists themselves. Murasaki is the creator of The Tale of Genji, one of the, if not the, best known classics from medieval Japan.  Yu Xuanji is among the most well-known female classical poets in China.

While the upbringing of the two girls are rather different – Murasaki grew up in a noble family, Lily was of humble birth – they share a strong streak of stubbornness and independence, not the meek and obedient ideal figure as expected of their tradition.  They both become concubines to prominent officials and at one point of their lives, lived in a monastery.

Interestingly, in Murasaki, Fuji mentioned the visit of a Chinese ambassador, while in Passing Under Heaven Lily went on the street of the Capital to view the passing by of a Japanese convey.   Both girls are also very much intrigued with the poem The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, about Yang Guifei and the King.

I did not realize, till well pass half the book, that Passing Under Heaven is a fictional biography of Yu Xuanji (she did not acquire the name Xuanji till rather late in her life). I could not say I know much of her, though I remember there was a porn movie about her – The Slut of the Tang Dynasty (: P).  She is also, more flatteringly, given the title as the Most Talented Woman of Tang.  And the Tang Dynasty is, mind you, the most liberal period in Chinese history, even counting modern times.

I was glad to read this book which prompted me to look deeper into Yu’s life and work.  Part of the plot does not fit in with what little was known of the historical figure, though that is the license of fictional creation.  I do wish that the quotations are translated in a more poetic style – they do not quit convey the beautiful nature of the original work, though I understand that poetry translation is probably the hardest of all.  I also do not quite understand how the author created Lily with an almost monstrous streak of meanness.  While she was a child she would kill insects, an act that likely many kids may have done, but in fictional work, such acts are usually reserved for characters to brand them as evil to the core.    While he may want to use this to explain her ultimate crime, it is unnecessary.

I do not remember reading her works during my Chinese Literature classes back in high school.  Maybe her unconventional lifestyle has banned her work from making it to classrooms?  I remember that Li Qingzhao’s work was thoroughly discussed, and she was a upperclass housewife with a doting husband. However, reading Passing Under Heaven, I was reminded of a saying by my Ch. Lit teacher, Miss Wong: there are two types tragedies: one made by tragedic events (being at the wrong place at the wrong time), and tragedic personalities (personalities that make other people hate or misunderstand a person.)  Yu is definitely a poster child of the latter.  She could have been so happy, so loved, and lived a comfortable life to death.  Her wilfulness ruined it all, she had nobody to blame but herself.

And, for those who are interested, here’s the “official” biography of Yu’s short and sad life.  A life that, in fact, is more unfortunate than the fictional one.


There was no mention of adoption, but Yu’s father died early and she was working as a washing maid with her mother when the famous poet Wen discovered her. He became her mentor, though there was no indication that there was anything beyond a teacher/student, father/daughter relationship or friendship.  Once when they went to view the public exam announcement, she wrote a poem on the wall, whcih drew Li Zian’s attention.  Wen gladly became the matchmaker, considering them a young, talented and handsome couple.  They had a lovely honeymoon, but Li’s wife was extremely jealous of Yu and beat the girl with a stick the moment she stepped into the house.  The beating went on till three days later, Li sent Yu off to a monastary till he straightened things out.  Yu was only 17 then.  She later found out that Li had moved away with his wife, and she was abandonned.  When the abbot of the monastery died, Yu started inviting admirers to visit, for drinks, literary discussion and more, making a notorious name for herself.  One day, she killed her maid out of suspicion that she had an affair with her sponsor.  She was beheaded for her crime, at the age of 24.

Of her poems, the most famous line was: “Easy to find a priceless treasure. Hard to find a loving man.”

Published in: on March 21, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Tale of Murasaki

The Tale of Genji is a classic in Japanese literature.  This novel is a fictional diary of its author, Fujihara (commonly known as Murasaki Shikibu, after a well loved character in her fiction and her father’s official title).

This historical ficiton is well researched, offering realistic glimpses into the life of a noble woman in 11th century Japan.  It’s interesting though hard to imagine how blackened teeth is a symbol of beauty then, and how the Chinese customs differs from the Japanese ones.   The line about the Regent’s complain that his wife bore him nothing but sons indeed sounds unreal to many cultures, then and now.

The story imagines how Fuji’s life experience enriches her writing – a discussion she overheard of his brother’s and his friends about women inspires Genji’s version, for example.  Unfortunately, towards the end, the story seems to drag on slightly too long to a fizzled ending, when details such as the color combination of the clothes is no more novel but tedious.  (But then as a lady in waiting at the Imperial Palace, life is not exactly exciting.)

I also love the small novella of Ukifune, the supposed lost final chapter to the Tale of Genji.

Some pictures from Waki Yamato’s manga version of Tale of Genji:

Published in: on March 20, 2007 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  


by Laura Esquivel

When Malinalli, a member of a tribe conquered by the Aztec warriors, first meets Cortes, she-like many-blieves that he is the reincarnated forefather god of her tribe.  Naturally, she assumes that her task is to help Cortes destroy the Aztec empire and free her people.  However, she gradually comes to realize that Cortes is all too human, although by that time, she is so swept up in the events that she could no longer turn back.

Throughout Meixcan history, Malinalli has been reviled for her betrayal of the Indian people.  Esquivel’s fiction is an attempt to create Malinche as she is, a young girl in hope of love, of belonging, of following the will of God. As events unfold, she desparately tries to reconcile her beliefs – her traditional belief and the God of the Spaniards, to figure out what her role should be, what action she should take.

 A few lines from the book I find interesting:

“She couldn’t believe that god’s emissaries would behave in such a manner, that they would be so rough, so rude, so ill spoken, even insulting their own god when they were angry… There was one thing, though, that was worse than the unpleasant manner with which the Spanish gave orders, and that was the odor that emanated from them.  She never expected thtat the emissaries of Quetzalcoatl would smell so bad… If they in fact were gods, they would be concerned with the earthm with the planting, with making sure that men were nourishedm,  but that was not the case.  Never had she seen them interested in the cornfields, only in eating.”

“Gold, known as tecocuitlatl, was considered to be the excrement of the gods, waste matter and nothing else, so she didn’t understand the desire to accumulate it.”

“(from her grandmother) Your task is to walk.  A still body limits itself to itself, a body in movement expands, becomes a part of everything.  Walking fills us with energy and changes us to allow us to lok into the secret of things.  Walking transforms us into butterflies that rise and see truly what the world is.  What life is, What our body is.  It is the eternity of consciousness.  It is the understanding of all things.  That is god iwthin us.” 

Published in: on March 20, 2007 at 2:34 pm  Leave a Comment