Saturday, July 31, 2010

Empress Orchid

by Anchee Min


The story is told from a person view of the last Empress in the Chinese history. The language is a bit simple for a fictional autobiography. Caution in recommendation is suggested for young readers though.

The premise of the story is how a woman who came from a very unlikely background reached high status in life after overcoming difficulties after difficulties. Sounds familiar? I thought so after reading the blurb on the back, which reminds me of the Memoirs of a Geisha. I was at the Borders when I read a few pages and thought the book is interesting enough. To my disappointment the book prove to fall a bit short of my expectation.

The story starts by telling how Orchid's father died and how the family was thrown into hardship. The beginning was told realistically with stark details such as "our family was not poor but I knew that my neighbour ate worms for breakfast". The story continues but after a while I sensed something amiss. I was expecting to read a book that is similar to Memoirs of a Geisha but that is where the difference is. Although the book has similar storyline, this story lacks the metaphors that is widely used in the Memoirs of a Geisha. It is told in somewhat a direct way. The writer did try at parts of the story but it doesn't seem so smooth.

Much part of the story is about how Orchid longs for the Emperor affection and how the whole kingdom bows to the Sun of the Son, another name for the ruler of China. These depiction of Orchid and how the people behave quite puzzled me as they seem to think that the Emperor was no mere mortal being. I agree and respect that is their culture and certain scene in the book reminds me of what used to be told about our own monarchy in the past. However the part where Orchid tells her pain of being ignored by her husband icks me, but perhaps that is the nature of a woman.

The story then picks up itself at the last quarter where Hsien Feng, the Emperor, died hence leaving Orchid to fend herself and her son from the greedy advisers and danger. This part of the story tells the cunningness of Orchid and her will to protect themselves. However just as the action and conspiracy began to thicken, the book deviate into telling the feeling of the widowed Orchid for a general. The book suddenly ends there, with a conclusion that the general loves her too, and a hint that they somehow continue their affair secretly.

So the book language is a bit lacking in its beauty but I guess the writer did try her best to reconstruct history into a novel without adding too much. It is said at the end that the characters are all real but if you have any intention of learning the history of China seriously, I don't think a novel would be a good place to start. All in all I am a bit disappointed with this book and hard to recommend this to anyone. If you want a suggestion, you should already know what my answer would be. It's plastered all over this post. ;)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mandela's Way; Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage

by Richard Stengel

7-27 July, 2010. 245 pages.
What took so long for me was because I kept postponing and only reading it between waiting time for KTM and LRT etc. Though if read continuously I assume it would take around 4-5 hours.
Language is easy to understand with a few difficult words aptly used, without actually interfering with the flow of reading. Fonts are big and easy to read, which is a good thing for a semi-biography.

Like what is written on the title, the book is about "lessons" that the writer, Richard Stengel, understood after spending three years in the company of the ex-leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. This book is not a biography of him, rather insights into his characteristic and way of thinking.

If to put it bluntly, the "lessons" are all mostly known to us or even regularly preached by parents, teachers and others. However I personally feel that the book really managed to convey its message solely because the person that the book is modeled upon really practices it. Lesson no 13 for example, "Quitting is leading too", where Nelson Mandela resign from the office after around 5 years of service. This is not something easily done for let us imagine if we were to be elected as the prime minister, would we really relinquish the title when the time comes. Well, he did. And that makes all the sense for the book.

Truthfully before reading the book I only have a vague knowledge(now only slightly better) of the history and situation of South Africa. I did watch "Invictus", a film about how Nelson Mandela used rugby to unite the country, but other than that what I knew about apartheid was that it is abolished and the system abused the natives. This book fortunately fills the gap, as the writer narrates a "lesson" by referring to Mandela's action in some part of his life, which thankfully helps readers like me(or you) to understand his background and also the history of the country.

All in all, it's a good book despite quite short but the messages came across quite clearly I think due to the subject of the book. Thank you to person who gave me this book, for I wouldn't read if I were to choose it myself. Thank you!