Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor by N. Harry Rothschild


     It is notable that while women in China have managed to rule in the aspect of an Empress with great influence, or a widow awaiting a minor son to grow up and become emperor, there has been one woman that decided this was a ridiculous way of doing things and named herself emperor. Wu Zhao was that woman, and it is even more notable that she did so after rising from very humble origins.
     Rothschild details Wu Zhao’s early life and rise to power very well, while navigating the tricky waters that are Confucian historians. Confucians generally tried to keep very accurate records and histories; but they hated Wu Zhao so absolutely that they couldn’t keep quite a few…embellishments from their records.
     We begin by understanding Wu Zhao’s family. Her father was a merchant, that hated class that “produced nothing” (again, according to the Confucians-I’m not particularly set against Confucianism but some of the notions are rather narrow-minded). After her father died, and she and her mother were more or less driven from their home by male family members, Wu Zhao caught the eye of a court official, who recommended she enter the harem. She entered as a Talent, one of the lower rungs, and lived more or less in obscurity (barring a snide comment about how to train a horse, which amused the emperor). It wasn’t until the emperor was dying, and his son tending to him beside Wu Zhao, that her fortunes rose. That son, Gaozong, fell in love, despite the taboo against a son taking his father’s concubine. Even though Wu Zhao was sent off to a Buddhist nunnery after the old emperor died, Gaozong spotted her again and promptly brought her back to the palace, where she quickly gained influence in the court. Rothschild at this point explains what the harem was really like-the backbiting, the fight for notice, the mistreatment by the Empress and the Pure Consort (the highest rank in the harem). Wu Zhao used these politics to her advantage, gaining the friendship of the lower ranks in the harem and using the girls as her ears and eyes to eventually take down the two women and be elevated to Empress herself.
     Another point Rothschild focuses on is the fact that even as Empress, Wu Zhao and Gaozong ruled as equals rather than a man of absolute power and his devotee. Again, Confucian historians grumble about her influence, and even their contemporaries complained. Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall, for when Gaozong died Wu Zhao did not pass power over to their eldest son, but continued to rule alone, although with a concession to the Confucian ideal of a widow taking care of her late husband’s affairs.
     This is another aspect that made Wu Zhao successful as a politician. She skirted the line, but always managed to appeal to the three philosophies of the time-Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. While she was a fairly devoted Buddhist herself (even concocting some “signs” that led to her being proclaimed a bodhisattva), she made friendly with all three, appearing to each as their proper idea of a ruler (though, as said before, she often concerned the Confucians). Rothschild details the sorts of rituals that went on to cement her steady ascent to power.
     I could go on, but I would rather everyone read it for themselves. Wu Zhao is a fascinating, if questionable, personage in history. Perhaps one could argue that many of the steps she took to gain power were necessary in a very patriarchal, conservative society. But, love her or hate her, Wu Zhao left her mark on history and on China.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: The Narrows by Ronald Malfi


     Take two parts Lovecraft, one part Stephen King, and one part vampire novel. You now have The Narrows.
     This book was…I wouldn’t say truly frightening, because it didn’t make me want to leave all the lights on for a week *coughrelicmarblehornetscough*, but it was certainly tense and extremely creepy.
     Stillwater, Maryland, is a tiny town, slowly but surely fading away. It is the stormy season, and a week after a boy’s body is found after a flood, bloated, pale, and hairless, strange things begin happening. Bats show up in droves. People begin disappearing. Cattle are mutilated, left with strange chemical goo on them. The local children are starting to whisper the word “vampire”…
     But it is worse than a vampire. Oh, so much worse.
     It’s hard to tell much more, as to do so will give away much of the novel. But I have to say this-Ronald Malfi CAN WRITE.
     His descriptions are just detailed enough to give a clear, intense picture of the scene. As he described Stillwater, I could imagine my own hometown, made even worse when he mentioned it was in Allegheny County. Wait, is this really in Maryland? Sure you’re not down in Virginia after all? But I digress. He uses an isolated setting. I loved how one chapter began simply with all the older generation waking up-feeling a watchfulness over the town. Little things like this build up the suspense so well. We don’t even really know what’s happening till the very last quarter of the novel; yet this works very well. It’s the not knowing that makes it creepy. You know this isn’t your average vampire tale. But what is it?
     And the best part? You never do quite figure it out. Malfi gives us a horror that Lovecraft would be proud of; yet in the end, we don’t really know what it is, or why it is. It simply is.
     Another thing I like about Malfi’s writing is that he can switch between viewpoints without making it seem clunky or confusing. It helps that his characters, even minor ones, have such unique voices that you can’t mix them up. He can get into their heads like few authors can.
     I plan on reading more of his work. I’m that impressed. Read this. Read this, and be creeped out.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?

Gaslighted by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

One's a FBI agent who doesn't follow the rules.

The other's an evil dummy from a not-really-that-scary horror series!

Together

THEY FIGHT CRIME.

Or, more likely, each other.



WHAT HAS LITERATURE DONE?

Book Review: Wicked Jealous by Robin Palmer


     Simone, with her pasty skin, dark hair, and addiction to snack cakes, is the “Weird Fat Girl” in her high school. But when her father’s girlfriend, pushing hard to become “Step Mother”, starts taking over the house, Simone winds up taking Zumba classes with some older women just to escape, and winds up losing weight and discovering her love of vintage clothes. Not even this seems to help, as Future StepMother seems to be trying to fatten her back up, and keeps accidentally giving her apple-related foods, which Simone happens to be allergic to. Fed up, Simone moves in with her brother and his six college roommates. But life is complicated in a house full of college boys, and Future StepMother is still around…
     Wicked Jealous was a pretty entertaining update on the Snow White story. We have a Snow White who doesn’t feel like the fairest in the land, a Prince Charming who’s rather clueless (and with horrible taste in music-he listens to Justin Bieber), some lovely shout outs to the Disney film and some bizarre side characters (including Lady GaGantuan, the local cross dresser). Simone, far from being the sweet and gentle character we expect, is rather snarky (actually, let’s face it, she’s a hipster), occasionally depressed, and far from helpless. It also gives a decent “moral”, if you want to call it that (it’s well-hidden, I think): even after Simone loses weight and starts taking care of her appearance, she still struggles with self-esteem. Her confidence has to come from within. It was fun, light reading all around.
    Also, the updates for the dwarves are hilarious.
    Especially that Grumpy is an angsty artist called "Thor".

Thursday, March 21, 2013

ALL OF MY HAPPY

Today was a horrible day but then I saw this and all my happiness and squishy emotions happened and SQUEEEEEE
 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: Silence by Endo


     I was supposed to write an essay on this for History of Asia, but then we kind of got to the end of class and the professor let us off the hook. In a way, I’m annoyed that I had to read it for no reason; but on the other hand, I’m glad I did read it, even if it didn’t exactly leave me with any good feelings.
     Silence is the tale of a priest who goes to Japan in the midst of the great persecution in the 1600’s. Fr. Rodrigues arrives at a tiny fishing village to minister to the Hidden Christians there, along with his fellow priest Garrpe. After a peaceful, if tense, time of performing those rites that the Christians there have missed since the beginning of the persecution, they are betrayed by one of their own, a Gollum-esque man well versed in the ways of the persecutors. The shogun demands that Rodrigues demonstrate his loyalty to their laws, rather than to the faith, by trampling upon an icon of Christ. He refuses, but that is not the end of his trials, nor the trials of those around him.
     This book was a very affecting one. The big question revolves around why Rodrigues’ mentor, Ferreira (a real-life priest who committed apostasy during the persecution and who eventually wrote a treatise against Christianity) turned his back on the Church, and why the Japanese, hitherto tolerant of other religions, have suddenly begun this horrible treatment of Christians. It is painful to see what Rodrigues goes through; even more painful when we reach the inevitable, horrible conclusion. The persecution in Japan happened just when the Japanese were trying to extricate themselves from Chinese culture, and to more firmly establish their own national identity. By this time Buddhism had become mixed up with Shintoism and was acceptable as a Japanese religion; but all others were scorned. In other words, the persecution was mainly political. In one of the many verbal showdowns with the shogun, the shogun insists that Japanese cannot really understand Christianity, as it is a Western religion. This is an interesting viewpoint, given that Endo was a Catholic as well as Japanese and writes from a very unique perspective. However, the reader, like Rodrigues, cannot deny some truth to it. In the end, it is not so much a criticism of either viewpoint, but a consideration of each, and the consequences when two very different worldviews collide.
     Initially, I left the book feeling depressed, and annoyed; but after considering it and thinking it over, I’ve found that view has soften. Certainly it still is somewhat saddening, but in a different way. The problem isn’t that no one can understand the other; the problem is that no one wishes to understand the other, because to understand the other may lead to a painful understand of oneself. This is what Rodrigues experiences. This is not a tale about one view being superior to the other. It is a tale of what one man will do to save others.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review: The Helen Trilogy by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: A Three-In-One Special!


Fever Dream

     Twelve years prior to the novel, Pendergast and his wife Helen were on a safari in Africa when they were called to deal with a man-eating lion. They go, but when they confront the lion, Helen’s gun misfires and she is killed by the lion.
     Present day, Pendergast has briefly returned to his family’s estate in Louisiana, and upon taking a look at Helen’s gun, discovers that it had been tampered with-it misfired on purpose, meaning somewhat arranged Helen’s death. Pendergast starts off on a desperate search to find the person responsible for his wife’s death, dragging Lieutenant D’Agosta along, from Africa to Maine to Louisiana. Along the way, however, Pendergast begins to discover that Helen was keeping secrets from him. Who wanted her dead? And why was she so obsessed with Audobon’s work? As Pendergast begins to unravel a conspiracy, he also begins to unravel everything he knew about his wife.
     Fever Dream is the first in the Helen trilogy of the Pendergast novels. Most of it was rather low-key tension, little action but plenty of mystery and suspense. We also get a more personal look into Pendergast’s mind, and find out a little more about the enigmatic FBI agent. Quite a few scenes are rather creepy; especially the eerie small town and it’s “ghost house”, as well as the trip into the swamplands. Preston and Child have a knack for atmosphere, and it shows up well in this novel. It was definitely a good start to the trilogy.

Cold Vengeance

     We open Cold Vengeance, appropriately, with another hunt, this time Pendergast with his brother-in-law. However, we know what his brother-in-law is planning; and when he betrays Pendergast, he reveals something shocking: Helen’s death was faked. Pendergast manages to escape, and now he has another goal-find out where Helen is, and why she faked her death, though no one else believes that Helen is truly alive.
     This was another very low-key book, at least up until the climax. Much of it was investigating-Pendergast investigates his wife’s family, Corrie investigates the Covenant, the organization after Pendergast, and a psychiatrist investigates Constance, who supposedly threw her child overboard on the boat trip back to New York. Nothing is at it seems, and the end leaves us on a cliff hanger and a set up for a fantastic finale.

Two Graves

     That finale.

ZOMGWTFBBQJREIWO5#$%^#$twertweJE%^^#$*spaz*

*ahem*

     I do apologize. I tend to get excited over the latest Pendergast novel. It's a bad habit, but one I find very hard to break.

     Fantastic Pendergast quotes aside, the Helen trilogy goes out with a bang. Quite literally.

     The latest installment of the Pendergast series finds Pendergast hellbent on rescuing his wife and stopping Those Wacky Nazis in their Nefarious SchemesTM. Meanwhile, a killer is striking at hotels in New York City, John Felder goes on a search to discover who Constance Greene really is, and Corrie Swanson struggles to clear her Dad's name of a false accusation.

     This novel was different, yet at the same time wonderful. The beginning lets you know right away that this is going to be a long, grueling journey, not because the writing is bad, but because the authors have decided to torture the hero even more. It was an incredibly emotional book as well; we see the generally cool, collected Pendergast at his low point, and it's honestly painful to read about. At the same time, we get introduced to so many new, colorful characters, and the novel ends on a wonderfully hopeful note.

     Read these books. Or listen to them, if you prefer. Playaways are a Thing now, where you just plug in your earphones and hit play. Handy little things. (Unless you stick them in your pocket and it keeps hitting stop every time you move. That's a problem.) We've got another book coming this November, "White Fire", which presumably is going to be Sherlock Holmes related. (The fandom rejoiced.)

     Also...thanks to the collective shouting of fans, Paramount is seriously considering making at least one movie. Since, you know, they made Relic then decided that nonsensical Pendergast fellow wasn't necessary to the plot. Things are happening in the World of Pendergast. Prepare for it.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Irony

I was watching the Cardinal conclave while at the gym, because nothing says "motivation" like a bunch of old guys in nice red uniforms, when something occurred to me.

2005:

2013:

I'll just leave this here for everyone to ponder. I swear I'll have a real blog post up soon.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

BRACE YOURSELVES

Thank you, Grumpy Orthodox Cat Facebook Page.
The Orthodox got a head start on everyone else, and now we're late to every party.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dear World

SNOPES.

Take two seconds to check it. For the love of all that is good and sane. I don't care how many heartstrings are getting tugged, just look it up. Enough with the guilt-tripping photos and overly-contrived scenarios.

No, that boy has not been dying of cancer for the last fifteen years.

No, that girl did not go through a windshield and yet survive long enough and have enough strength to give her astonishingly coherent and wordy final thoughts to a reporter who probably would not be talking to a dying girl when there are paramedics waiting to take her to the hospital.

No, you are not going to hell if you do not repost the saccharine picture of Jesus.

I DON'T CARE WHO WAS PHONE.

That is all. Have a lovely, rational day.





Besides, we all know that Slender Man was phone. Don't be ridiculous.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James


     Have you ever really wanted to like a book, then wound up realizing it wasn’t really worth your time? That’s how I felt after reading Death Comes to Pemberley.
     The book is set six years after Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage, and they are on the brink of throwing the annual autumn ball in honor of Lady Anne (Darcy’s mother). Their lives are peaceful, and it’s clear Georgiana has both matured and is quite taken with the young lawyer friend of the Bingleys, Alveston. (Although Colonel Fitzwilliam ponderously tells Lizzie that he’s interested in Georgiana and expects he’ll be more acceptable. More on this later.) Then, that windy, stormy night, Lydia arrives in a carriage, hysterical. Wickham and Denny went into the woods after an argument, there were gunshots, and neither came out. Darcy rallies the men to head into the woodland, where they find a blood stained Wickham kneeling over the body of his friend. Wickham is taken into custody, but something isn’t right about the scene, and Darcy is determined, whatever his dislike of Wickham, to save him from the noose.
     I’ve never read P.D. James before, so I can’t judge how similar this is to her other books. But I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly exciting or intriguing book. Occasionally, I would wonder what would happen, but near the end I just thought “please, end already, so I can say I read it”. (Or, rather, listened to it, as the case may be). What was wrong with this book? Quite a bit, I’d say.
     First off, James really didn’t need to recap all of Pride and Prejudice. It’s pretty obvious this book was meant more for Austen fans who have already read the original. Darcy and Lizzie also have serious conversations-on the events of six years previous and their own thoughts and behavior at that time; conversations which you would think had happened during their courtship, when they had learned more of themselves and learned to better understand one another.
     Secondly, James takes liberties with some characters that I find rather unnecessary. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie and Charlotte are still good friends, and Charlotte is happy for Lizzie’s marriage. James, however, reinterprets everything as Charlotte informing Lady Catherine of Lizzie and Darcy’s possible relationship, and feeling resentment when Lizzie marries him, thinking she is doing it for money as well after being angry at Charlotte for marrying Mr. Collins for money. There is no actual hint of this anywhere in the original novel, so I wonder that James felt the need to write it this way. Another character similarly mistreated is Colonel Fitzwilliam. In the original, Colonel Fitzwilliam is cheerful and sociable, another opposite of Darcy.  And while he gently hints to Lizzie that he would have to marry a woman with substantial money, there is no sign that he and Lizzie were particularly serious, nor that he looks down on Lizzie. In this book, Colonel Fitzwilliam’s older brother has died, making him viscount, and his sudden transition into an overly serious, dour, unpleasant person is handwaved as due to this. It also hints that he thinks ill of Darcy for marrying Lizzie, simply because she doesn’t have high connections or much fortune. He is a bit of a snob, and a bit meddling. Again, there is no reason behind why James decided to utterly change his character. A third character somewhat changed is Jane-she apparently turns into Mrs. Isabella Knightley, as she is constantly worrying over her family’s health. How Jane became this, again, is a wonder.
     The other problem is that, frankly, the book is dull. We get a recital of the events, a recital of people’s feelings, and a great deal of law and order, but that’s it. There’s even a scene where Darcy, Fitzwilliam, and their lawyer friend Alveston debate about how to change the English court system. It has no bearing on changing the outcome of the plot. It’s just…there. In the middle of a tense scene.
     I’ll admit-on occasion we do have some excitement. James did build up quite a bit of tension-feelings of foreboding, wind and storms, tales of a ghost wandering the woods, and a back story of the Darcy family involving a tragic suicide. Perfect for a murder mystery-but without follow through. If I wanted to watch court, I would get cable and watch Judge Mathis shout at people. I wanted an actual detective novel. I wanted to see someone solving a great mystery. This didn’t happen.
     I will mention another good point: I did like the shout outs to other novels. We find out Wickham was secretary for Sir Walter Elliott for a time, but Wickham’s flirting with his daughter and Lydia’s flirting with Walter drove them away. And the twist at the end mentions the Knightleys and the Martins, which makes me quite happy.
     These little surprises, however, do not make up for the book in whole. I wasn’t expecting a thriller-but I was expecting something other than a legal novel detailing the court processes in Regency England. As Lady Catherine would say,