Thursday, January 5, 2012

Holiday reading

Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud, by Sun Shuyun, 2003.

Without drama, Sun Shuyun tells of her journeys to the many places that Xuan Zang, the 7th century Chinese monk made to the "West"--Central Asia (the Silk Road) and India. His story was retold with much fantasy and "paranormal" incidents in the 15th century and is regarded as one of the Four great classic novels. It could rightly be called The Monkey King, after one of the superheroes who was chosen to protect the monk on his journey. (See post on “Journey to the West below.)

"Ten thousand miles" is the sober and sensible but fascinating story of a Chinese woman who grew up with Red Guards for parents and a grandmother was a devout Buddhist (who had bound feet). Much of her travels take her to parts of the Silk Road which conjures up images of the Orient Express; it is far from being such a luxurious ride. She makes a side trip as did Xuan Zang to Peshawar. This is today said to be the epicenter of "Islamofascists": well, it is the second most important site for Buddhists.

Buddhism was born in India around 600 B.C. but was much forgotten there by the 19th century until an English translation of Xuan Zang's “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” (referred to by Sun as the "Buddhist Records of the Western World") helped British and Indian archaeologists uncover the sacred sites to which Burmese, Thai and Ceylonese Buddhists had come but failed to find. You will learn much from this book, not least about your own preconceptions about the meaning of life.

Five stars out of five.

The Uninvited, by Geling Yan, 2006.

Written by a Chinese journalist who left after the Tiananmen protest and crackdown, this is a fantastical novel, magical realism without the magic, highly imaginative. To say that it describes corruption and exploitation is like saying Moby Dick is about whaling. A good looking temporary (reserve) laborer finds a boondoggle attending banquets pretending to be a journalist. (This book is also published with the title The Banquet Bug.) He is married to the most worthy of women but finds sex and sex trade among his escapades, along with art and luxury with a neurotic artist and a corrupt developer, etc., etc. This is a fast-paced, well-written read into which one may impute lessons as one wishes.

Four stars out of five.

The Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden, 2011.

This is the second book in a series. I found the first volume, Genghis, very absorbing with the descriptions of the young Temujin's struggles to survive and regain his birth-right--the "cold face," the will to power, the harrowing escapes. The Lords of the Bow, I think, over-reaches. It is a good story and well told. But it is thin: the characters of Temuge and his brothers, of Kokchu the new shaman and the non Mongols who chose to help Genghis, the reasons for Genghis' inability to love his oldest son, the descriptions of the layers of Chin society from the tong chief and slaves to the generals and imperial court. The scope demands Wagnerian treatment (while Genghis demanded and received something more like the Carmina Burana) and it does not get it.

Three stars out of five (volume one was Five stars out of five).

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