Lord of Formosa- book review

Lord of Formosa is another book about Taiwan I recently read. The lord is Zheng Chenggong or Koxinga, a Chinese nobleman-warlord who seized Taiwan from the Dutch in the early 17th century. Often overlooked, this was a period of time covering several decades when the VOC (Dutch East India Company, a Dutch trading organization which owned its own navy and conquered places for its country such as Indonesia) ruled southern Taiwan. In China’s Fujian Province, Koxinga was a loyalist to the Ming Dynasty which was in its death throes after being defeated by the Manchus (who would go on to found the Qing Dynasty). As Koxinga was the son of a wealthy noble who had a strong naval fleet that often preyed on Dutch trading ships, it was natural that Koxinga would, after failing to withstand the Manchus, eventually set his sights on Taiwan. The Dutch didn’t give up without a fight despite being heavily outnumbered by over 15 to 1, and it took Koxinga a lot of men, time and subterfuge to eventually defeat them.

Koxinga was actually born and raised in Japan, as his mother was a local lady who met and fell in love with Koxinga’s father. After he turned seven, his father called on him to come to China where Koxinga was trained in military matters and business, specifically in managing his father’s trading affairs and fleet. He would grow up to become a very capable general but troubled by sudden fits of anger and serious illness. Koxinga is still remembered in Southern China and Taiwan, where a university in Tainan, the capital during the Dutch colonial period and Koxinga’s reign, are named after him.

Readers get a good sense of Taiwan as a frontier settlement, as the Dutch only really controlled the south of the island, while trading and trying to control local aboriginal tribes; settlers from China lived in villages clustered around the Dutch forts in Tainan. It is important to note that this is when the ancestors of the majority of non-aboriginal Taiwanese first came to Taiwan to live, most coming across from Fujian.

The book flows very well, and the political and historical details and military battles are described in rich detail. However, the narrative lacks depth at some points, as Taiwanese characters are one-dimensional and hardly feature. The Dutch characters and Koxinga are the main focus, which is not surprising since the author is from Holland.

Lord of Formosa is a historical novel that is entertaining while also highlighting a turbulent and formative period of Taiwan’s past and a fascinating personality.

I reviewed it for the Asian Review of Books, so you can check my full review there as well.

The Lives of Others, and Thrawn-book reviews

I initially thought The Lives of Others would be one of those multi-decade epics. Instead, this hefty Booker Prize shortlisted novel is about a wealthy Calcutta family that is rocked by a tragedy during a Marxist strife in the late 1960s.

Three generations of the Ghoshes live in a multi-level house, built from a fortune amassed from paper-making. From the outside, the family, like its house, seems opulent and secure, their wealth and prestige as lofty as the height of the house. But the family is divided by jealousies, hierarchies, and domestic politics, as well as hidden secrets that include drug addiction, a nasty sex habit, and even childhood incest. The biggest problem is the most disastrous, financial trouble in the form of the family’s paper mills failing. There is also an intriguing subplot with the oldest grandson joining a Marxist Naxalite movement and taking part in armed struggle against the state.

The book starts off slow but gradually gets better, especially as the rebel grandson’s tale unfolds, mainly in the form of journal entries that detail his time in the forest and villages taking on landlords and police. While his rebel experience becomes more precarious, with murders and police chases, his family also becomes more torn as tensions erupt and the financial problem worsens. To make it worse, the family patriarch is battling the effect of a serious stroke, leaving him a shell of the man he was.

The Lives of Others is a decent read once you can make it past the first couple of hundred of pages. Besides the family drama and the Naxalite rebellion, author Neel Mukherjee provides lots of interesting snippets of Bengali culture and society in Calcutta (now called Kolkatta), such as socio-economic and religious differences and the value placed on literature. West Bengal has a strong literary tradition, which still manifests in the present with novelists such as Jhumpa Lahiri (born in the US to Bengali parents) and Amitav Ghosh, my favorite writer, and Mukherjee himself. The famous Indian poet Rabindranth Tagore, who was also a Nobel laureate, was also Bengali.

[Warning: the below review contains some material that may be a bit too nerdy for some readers]

I know the world has become inundated with Star Wars movies in recent years, but the movies actually represent a small portion of the Star Wars world. This world also exists in dozens of novels spanning the movies, the time long before the prequels, and after the end of Return of the Jedi. As a result, there are tons of characters and worlds that aren’t even in the movies. Admiral Thrawn is one of these characters and as a blue-skinned alien from a mysterious world who becomes an Imperial Grand Admiral, perhaps one of the most intriguing. Having been absent from the disastrous Empire defeat in The Return of the Jedi due to being assigned elsewhere, Thrawn attempted to lead the remnants of the Empire against the new government in a trilogy of novels known as the Heir to the Empire.

Thrawn the novel tells of how he came to the Empire in the first place, presumably before the time depicted in The Empire Strikes Back movie, and started his rise up the ranks after convincing Emperor Palpatine that he had special knowledge of a distant but large alien threat. In the meantime, Thrawn’s tactical genius and gift at reading people sees him trying to take down a smuggler (not Han Solo) who seems to be forming a resistance. As Thrawn’s star rises as an officer, there is a parallel plot with a cunning human who works her way up from an administrative assistant to the governorship of her world through deceitful ways.

It would help to be an ardent Star Wars fan, but even if you don’t know much of Star Wars, you might still enjoy this book.

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.

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.