1356, and Taipei- book reviews

These two novels may have single-word titles but that is the only similarity. One is a historical novel about a war that took place hundreds of years ago between England and France, while the other is a contemporary semi-autobiographical novel about a New York writer and his aimless, drug-taking life.

During the 14th century, England and France fought a series of battles and campaigns which went on so long they were known as the Hundred Years War. The majority of these battles were fought on French soil, though at that time, much of France was actually semi-independent duchies or English possessions like Poitiers and Normandy. One of the most famous battles was Poitiers and 1356 is a novel by historical fiction master Bernard Cornwell about events leading up to it. But instead of being a retelling of real events, 1356 is about a fictitious quest for the lost sword of St Peter led by The Bastard, Thomas of Hookton, a knighted archer from England.

While European military history in the Middle Ages is best known for armored knights, it is a time of great violence and brutality, which the book sometimes casually describes such as in the beginning, when the losing count of a skirmish is castrated and tortured to death. On a greater scale, the English were trying to force the French king to fight a battle by launching campaigns across France, destroying countryside, ransacking cities and raping, killing and pillaging. The English longbow was especially feared during this time, being a weapon that could destroy knights from great distances and launched dozens of times per minute in the hands of a skilled bowman.  The Catholic church also played a large role in the novel, with the Papacy based in Avignon, France, during that time and very much on the side of the French. As with the circumstances of that time, the church held a lot of power and wealth (it still does). Among the key church characters are a stern bishop and his enforcer, a callous priest who uses a hawk to terrorise and blind prisoners.

With a name like Taipei, you’d think the novel would be about Taiwan and perhaps take place mostly in Taipei. But nope, the only association with Taipei is that writer Tao Lin’s parents are Taiwanese, and in the book, the main character, Paul, is also from Taiwan. But other than brief trips to Taiwan and to Canada, the book takes place wholly in the US. Paul is a writer in New York who basically just hangs out, goes to parties where he hardly knows anyone, and takes a lot of drugs. Paul is allegedly Tao Lin.

Here’s the thing about Taipei. It’s a unique novel that charts Paul’s life through every interaction, feeling, and conversation he has. Unfortunately, the end result is probably the least interesting novel I’ve ever read. I think that it’s a useful indicator of how empty modern urban life can be, but surely, readers did not need this point to be figuratively beaten into them repeatedly.
Once I realized midway there was no plot, it was a chore to struggle and finish the book. Paul is not interesting to me, and neither are his drug habit or casual relationships. Near the end, he gets married to someone almost on a whim, then he takes her to Taipei to meet his parents, and within weeks, he is already thinking the marriage was a mistake.

It’s a pity that the title Taipei was wasted on such an insipid book, because the city certainly deserves better.

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

Art of Thinking Clearly, and Lionheart- book reviews

Earlier last year, I went to Singapore for a brief trip and what I came away with were a bunch of photos that I took and these two books.

From its title, The Art of Thinking Clearly makes an impressive, bold claim. People, like you and me, often have  cognitive biases that influence how we approach problems and make decisions. But these biases are often misleading, inaccurate or dead wrong. Summarizing various cognitive errors people often make, Rolf Dobelli presents 99 clear and brief lessons on how to identify and overcome these errors and make better decisions.

For instance, when should you overthink and when should you rely on your intuition? The answer: take your time to think things through for complex situations whereas for regular, repetitive tasks you should heed your gut. Other interesting lessons include the base-rate neglect and false causality. The former is about how easy it is to ignore the frequency with which something major happens and so exaggerate the possibility of that event, while the latter tackles how people often mistake the cause of something for the effect and vice versa (for example: a study shows smarter kids have more books at home. But that doesn’t mean the books cause them to be smart, since maybe smarter kids enjoy reading more or have parents who are more educated). Another interesting lesson is to use different mental models when facing problems, inspired by a saying attributed to Mark Twain: “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails.” If you use the same approach or mindset to solving every issue you encounter, your solutions will always be the same and not necessarily effective.

There are many more lessons covering common scenarios such as loss aversion (fear of losses), groupthink, confirmation bias (interpret things that happened to fit preconceived notions), and sunk cost fallacy (reluctance to give up in hopes of recovering losses). There are also lessons for the corporate world such as why teams and meetings don’t often work. This is because social loafing happens, as the more people there are involved, the less the individual participation, and hence the less useful (something most of us who have to attend long work meetings would probably agree).

Dobelli did not do original research, which he openly admits, but put together his lessons from extensive reading of different sources, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow up on additional sources to get more details. Nevertheless, the book is a very useful tool for re-evaluating your thinking and decision bias.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and have read a lot of novels in this genre, but Lionheart is the first one I’ve read about the Crusades from the Christian side, specifically Richard I the Lionheart and his quest to retake Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. Starting in 1189, the novel follows the English king as he stops at Sicily, then captures Cyprus, and eventually lands in the Holy Land to retake Jerusalem. The book is full of characters and details, though at times there is a bit too much exposition and not enough action. The author Sharon Penman does well to explain the turbulent backdrop of that time, which followed from after Richard I had actually fought a civil war with his father, Henry II, after he imprisoned his own wife and Richard I’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and prevailed. Richard I must contend with not just the Muslim Saracens, but enemies from within in the form of the French King, Philip II, who is supposed to be the co-leader of the crusade but also a rival. The two are actually related, given the ties between European royalty which the book also does well to describe (Richard’s sister was married to the Sicilian king and thus the queen of that island kingdom, for example). Richard I manages to retake Acre and Jaffa from the Saracens before going on to Jerusalem. The novel is followed by a sequel, so I won’t give away the ending of Lionheart (history buffs will know how everything ends though).

England travel- Cambridge


Besides London, the only other place in England I’ve been to is Cambridge. Done as a daytrip from London, visiting Cambridge (as opposed to say, Oxford) was actually my mother’s decision, since a famous 20th-century Chinese poet had gone to Cambridge and written a memorable poem, which has since attracted many Chinese and Taiwanese to visit there. Anyways, we took the train to Cambridge, passing through some beautiful English countryside. At the town, we headed to the university, took a boat (punt) ride on the river Cam, toured King’s College Chapel, a neat and exquisite church, and strolled through an open-air market. The university is large, open, with university buildings spread among the town, and boasts a lot of impressive stone buildings, as expected from such a great university founded in 1209. We spent several hours there but still weren’t able to see all the main buildings.

The punt (flat bottom boat steered with a pole in front) ride was quite pleasant. During the ride, we passed a lot of attractive buildings on the riverside while treated to commentary by the boatman about the university college buildings, and self-deprecating anecdotes about his personal life. At the end as he drew up to the pier, he warned us not to get up yet, but he correctly predicted that the father of a mainland Chinese family on our boat would do exactly that.

  

London travel- British Museum and Parliament


Two grand British institutions are the British Museum and Parliament at Westminster. The former has been home to artifacts and works of arts since the mid-18th century, the latter has been the site of parliamentary governance since the 13th century.

Whenever I visit major cities, whether it be Cape Town or Hanoi or Xian or Tokyo, history museums are always near the top of my list of places to visit. Obviously in London, the British Museum was a must-visit and it didn’t disappoint. The only thing I regret was not being able to spend more time. There are splendid displays of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Greek artifacts, as well as sub-Saharan African collection. The huge, central atrium or Great Court features a circular reading room (closed to the public) in the middle, several statues including a giant lion from the 2nd century BC, and a nice, overhead ceiling with an interlacing or tessellated design. The exterior of the museum is a grand but somewhat dowdy gray facade with multiple columns.

Besides the sheer quantity of the collections, it was impressive to be able to view giant pieces such as ancient Egyptian pharaonic statues and tombs and Assyrian lion statues up close. The Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, were in an entire hall. In the African section, there were entire walls of weapons, colorful cloths and the fascinating Benin Bronzes. These were produced by the kingdom of Benin which was situated in Nigeria (the country of Benin is named after this kingdom but was not where it was located).

I managed to see some of the most famous pieces like the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, as well as Benin bronzes, from Nigeria. Incidentally all of these are claimed by their country of origin, which raises the point that many of the items in the museum, such as many Greek and Egyptian artifacts, were taken or bought from other countries, sometimes through surreptitious means. The Louvre in Paris is similar, with many of its famous exhibits hailing from other places.
Meanwhile, the British exhibits were alright, but not particularly memorable other than some Roman-era artifacts. I had hoped there might have been exhibits from the British Empire from the Commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan, but then that is probably unrealistic because it would be like glorifying the empire.

Ideally many of the items should be returned to their countries if they had been illegally bought or taken. On the other hand, there is no certainty that they would be displayed and maintained in such secure and pristine environments in their home countries as those at the British Museum. Also, the best archaeological techniques and knowledge of the day, when these artifacts were obtained, belonged Western explorers and archaeologists, though of course, they honed this from roaming around the world and obtaining other cultures’ artifacts. While a bit self-serving, the availability of these pieces all in one place in the British Museum allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the history and past civilizations of almost the whole world.

Short of returning all their exhibits, which would be unrealistic, institutions like the British Museum and their governments should provide more funding to countries from where they got the exhibits from, to help them with their local museums, historical research and archaeological efforts and so on.



Lying on the north bank of the Thames River, the British Parliamentary building or Palace Of Westminster houses both the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It is easily recognized, with its gray Gothic features, multitude of windows and spires and the Big Ben clock atop Elizabeth Tower on its flank, though its tallest point is Victoria Tower at its southwestern corner. Alongside the building is an impressive black statue of Richard I, the Lionheart, atop a horse with sword in the air. There is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who helped defeat royalist forces in the 17th century and then ruled England as Lord Protector. There were armed policemen on the grounds, befitting the site of the nation’s parliament, though unfortunately this didn’t prevent a terrorist from running over dozens and killing several people, including a policeman, there earlier this year.

But Westminster Palace isn’t the only attraction in the area. Around it are several impressive old buildings such as Westminster Abbey, where the coronations of British monarchs have been held since 1066, St Margaret’s church, the Sanctuary, and Methodist Central Hall. Meanwhile, to get a good view of the Westminster Palace from the river, we walked down along the riverbank to a park and then onto Lambeth Bridge. For some reason, there was even a small rally opposite the parliament building on Myanmar’s upcoming election urging people to vote NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi and which ended up winning over 80% of contested seats in that election.



Westminster Abbey

The Sanctuary, located next to Westminster Abbey
  

More British Museum photos
  
The Rosetta Stone, from Egypt
     
Close-up of the Benin Bronzes

NW- book review

A woman in apparent distress desperately knocks on the doors of homes in a northwestern London neighborhood. Leah Cooper opens the door, then thinks nothing of helping the wretched woman by letting her in, hearing her out, and then giving her 30 pounds so she can take a cab to the hospital to see her sick mother. Afterwards, it turns out the woman is a liar and Leah has been scammed. And with this dramatic and bewildering episode, NW begins, taking us into the lives of several northwest Londoners.

Leah is an NGO staffer with an outspoken Irish mother and a African-French husband; her best friend Natalie, formerly Keisha, is an ambitious lawyer; and then Felix is a former addict who has been through some tough times but is trying to put that behind him. Connecting them all is their origin from the same working-class NW London neighborhood in a rough part of London, where public housing estates of blocks have walkways and “lifts that were to be avoided almost as soon as they were built.” Not surprisingly, they have all tried to escape their working-class roots with Natalie/Keisha being the most successful at first glance. Married to a charming but vain Trinidadian-Italian banker with two children with a nice house and a successful career, she has it all or at least it seems so.

NW is divided into several sections, each written in a different style and focusing on a different character. It is confusing and I wasn’t too comfortable with the obvious inconsistencies and disjointed effect when you go from one part to another. One entire section consists of 185 (not a typo) numbered segments, each one a bit of Natalie/Keisha’s past and which lead up to a surprising finale. Meanwhile, the most interesting section has a tragic conclusion that is linked to another section in something that, to me, is not very clear.

The book’s complexity and inconsistent tone mirrors real life, while providing a stirring reminder that even supposedly ordinary lives are interesting if one dives into the details and background. Things do not always work out as you would hope, the past is not always easily put behind oneself, and sometimes life is unfair. These aren’t exactly mysteries but NW puts a human face on them. Race, class and where one grows up all matter, and Smith portrays these in an intimate and pained manner through the characters’ struggles and clashes. But, I don’t think I can agree with the underlying notion that people cannot escape their past regardless of how hard they try. If that is indeed true, then society is even more bleak than what we . At the same time, the book is entirely set in London so some of the circumstances are inevitably unique to London and English society and not applicable to everywhere.

It may not be to everyone’s liking but NW is certainly a memorable novel.