Wednesday, June 29, 2016

THE INCARNATIONS by Susan Barker (fic)

Like her previous books, Barker sets her latest novel in Asia, this time China. "The Incarnations" was chosen as a 2015 Times notable book. Barker is a talented creative writer and unique story teller. Here she presents the reader with a series of loosely connected stories, each of which could stand on its own. The stories range over 15 centuries, and cover much of China's history.

The unifying factor of these stories is a Beijing taxi driver named Wang Jun; that is to say, in his life in contemporary China he is a taxi driver. He has a lovely wife and daughter whom he loves. Wang Jun was born into a life of promise, but circumstances were unkind to him. He suffered many adversities including a stint in an asylum.  Wang is being followed by an unseen person, the Watcher, who has shared Wang's many adventures through history and seems inseparable from him. Wang doesn't see the Watcher, but receives missives from him reminding him of previous lives. The identity of the Watcher is a mystery revealed at the end of the book.  These two characters live through Empires sometimes as men, sometimes as women; sometimes as lovers and others as enemies. They saw the Mongol invasion, the rise of Mao and communism. The witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre and survived the massive Tangshan earthquake.

The Watcher tells Wang that in order to understand himself, he must understand who he was.  The past plays on the present that we all carry within ourselves. The author seems to be drawing a parallel between Wang's violent and sometimes cruel past with that of China's long history of strife.

There is much to reflect on in this unusual novel. It is not an easy read, nor a happy one. It is, however, a brilliant one. While I did not enjoy this insightful novel, I have reflected on it many times.   It explores the soul of a man and his country.

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE FIFTH QUEEN by Ford Maddox Ford (fic)

No need to review a book by Ford Maddox Ford as he is a master who never gets stale.  Having read his other work, most notably "The Good Soldier," I was curious when I came upon this reissued novel in the book store.  I had never heard of it.  There is a knowledgable introduction by A.S. Byatt and the more I read, the more I felt this was a good book to read in today's dramatic political climate.  Written between 1906 and 1908, it was originally published in three parts.  Ford fiddles with history.  The fifth queen is, of course, Katherine Howard, Henry V's fifth wife.  And we all know what that means--not long for this world!  It is pretty well accepted in today's world that Katherine Howard was a flirty, flighty, though well-educated young girl.  She had little supervision as a child and as a teen, her escapades could not stand close scrutiny.

Ford changes the character of Katherine and presents her as a devout Catholic who truly believed she could bring Henry and England back to the church and strengthen ties with Spain.  What this does is pit her against Cromwell, a master schemer and architect of Henry's England. Even a highly sophisticated and astute woman  (her cousin Anne Boleyn) would have little chance of survival in the  midst of court intrigues and jockeying for power in the Tudor court.  Poor Katherine, naive and the most beautiful of all Henry's wives, was somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18 when she was pushed forward by her Howard relatives to catch Henry's eye. (Though Ford doesn't bring this into the book). Mainly we see Katherine caught between the different court factions and men who were in love with her themselves.

There is an interesting meeting between the spy, Throckmorton, and Katherine where he advises Katherine to be mindful of the intriguing around her,  "It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world's weapons." Katherine's world was already in the past when she arrived at court.  Romanticism and chivalry were taken over by the pragmatism of Machiavellian Cromwell, ushering Henry and the country into a differ political paradigm.  In the end, both Cromwell and Katherine lose their heads, as alliances form and reform.

Ford presents Katherine as pure and unfailingly honest, a maker of her own destiny. She was open about her choices to those who betrayed her.  She insisted on taking responsibility for her beliefs and actions.  There is little mention of her Norfolk and Howard relatives using her as a pawn to destroy Cromwell.

Ford has given us a powerful study of the politics of the changing world of the late Middle Ages.  The book is written in colloquial language, much like reading Shakespeare.  As one reads, the rhythm of the language becomes natural.  Not everyone will want to read this lengthily novel which uses the language of the period.  It also requires a suspension of what we know of the historical Katherine Howard.  However, it is such a worthwhile read.  I highly recommend it to those who care to take the time and attention to give to this amazing feat of writing.