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The extraordinary romance of an American clipper ship officer – inspired by true events.
In a China torn apart by rebellion and war, a lone American adventurer – Fletcher Thorson Wood – becomes mired in a maelstrom of battle and intrigue, and swept into a tempest of love and betrayal…
Yang Shen tells of the encounter, sometimes the clash, of Americans and Chinese, evoking times long past and recalling long-silent voices of people in America, China, England, and the Philippines who lived through cataclysmic times and whose anguished cries echo still.
This blogspace is set aside for author James Lande as a personal journal of subjects pertaining to his novels, historical writing, Chinese history, ongoing discussions with other lights of the blogosphere, and anything else of interest.
James has another blog where reports are posted for the survey of central California intertidal ecology he conducted during the Spring of 2014. The primary objective was to record detail of environmental conditions and catalogue invertebrate species and marine plants at selected survey sites. All are invited to review the results.
Rising to the exalted status of Old China Hand is not easy – ask any of our latter-day China expats who aspire to that station. Most people today, let alone China expats, are not familiar with one of the earliest and most accomplished Old China Hands, the Englishman William Mesny. The tale of this swashbuckler, who started out in 1862 running guns up the Yangtze River to the rebels at Nanking and over the next 50 years became a general in the imperial Chinese army, an advisor to Chinese statesmen, and the author of an indispensable and near inexhaustible compendium of information about China and the Chinese of late imperial China, is told with flair and fidelity in David Leffman’s The Mercenary Mandarin. Continue reading
When a reader is swept up in a genre he rarely reads, you can bet he’s reading a damn good book! That’s The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M. H. Boroson. Normally I would pass on kungfu fantasy, but this novel is set in 1898 San Francisco Chinatown – that’ll catch the attention of historical fiction readers – and moves swiftly through a phantasmagoria of spirits, ghosts and monsters that recalls images from Tolkien’s goblin wars to Alice in Wonderland. To wit, a three-tailed tiger in the shape of an orange-robed monk, soothsaying spirit seagulls, a spirit eyeball with arms and legs that loves soaking in cups of tea, a two-tailed shapeshifting warrior cat (think Cheshire Cat on acid), and hordes more all visible to a young woman born with eyes that can see all the supernatural denizens of the spirit world invisible to us.
She is Xian Li-lin, ghost hunter, spirit medium, exorcist, kungfu adept, destroyer of devils and monsters. However, Li-lin’s yin eyes make her something of a monster herself, and perhaps a little more inclined to empathize with monsters that do no harm. Still, as her father is a Taoist patriarch whose magic protects communities of ordinary Chinese from the dreaded spirit world, Li-lin is bound to defend Chinatown against all comers. When a vicious enemy injures her father, Li-lin must face unknown terrors using her own fledgling powers, calling up spirits and ghosts to assist her in her fight. And fight she does, taking down one after another adversary until, bleeding and broken, she confronts something too terrible even to contemplate
The extraordinary detail in this book suggests deep insight into the arcana of Chinese superstitions and sorcery, based on reading and research that included interviews with hundreds of informants on details of Chinese life and folklore, which must add something to the veracity of the narrative, assuming the informants were completely candid; many older Chinese are often reticent about revealing anything about themselves or their community. All that makes The Girl with Ghost Eyes an exceptional debut novel well worth the reading. Its shortcomings are quite few and only natural in a first effort. One may expect that the author’s style of telling this kind of story will develop in the books yet to come.
The author’s uninhibited use of Romanized Chinese words without apology is admirable; most such words are easily conned from context. Kungfu jargon obscures descriptions of fight scenes, as does Taoist argot muddle some underlying motivations. A glossary would be a welcome enhancement, helping readers recall meanings later in the narrative, although perhaps an impediment in the view of today’s readers.
Some key relationships are treated in a cursory manner. We learn little about the important character of Li-lin’s husband, and much about her father comes from backlloaded exposition, so the narrative seems driven more by plot and action than by character. One reader in conversation felt Li-lin’s character was not sufficiently engaging and recommended Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, who battled monsters in a different medium and became an “archetype of the gothic heroine” as well as the galactic super-mom. However, in a genre that has always let action overwhelm character, it may be too much to expect very many exceptions; still, Ripley developed a great deal between her first appearance and her second tussle with monsters, and perhaps Xian Li-lin will also.
A contrived resolution has Li-lin learn in a few moments from her enemy a new fighting technique to save the day when she has been struggling over a couple hundred pages to improve her skills. This example, together with the sudden revelations from her father at the very end, unbalances the narrative.
The historical setting is more sparse than it might be. San Francisco’s Chinatown is described often, but the period in which the story is set fades – I was surprised when Li-lin comes upon horse-drawn carriages, which re-established the period in my mind, and I really should not have lost that dimension.
The narrative frequently is repetitious. If necessary at all, restatement needs to be different, varied. Often it just may not be necessary – instead of repeating a thought, bring it back later in a different guise to get the effect. And trust that the reader will remember the information from one chapter to the next, and certainly over several pages.
Told in 1st person, the writing is circumscribed by the sensibility of the protagonist Li-lin, and opportunities for enhanced figurative language and contrasting POV are limited to her experience. If nothing else, a 1st person narrator can incorporate what others have been heard to say, or imagined to say, and thereby enliven the writing.
The Historical Novel Society has said that the “book is difficult to follow, given the various unfamiliar worlds the reader must enter…” This is ingenuous coming from a “society” of historical novelists writing about unfamiliar worlds. Setting that aside, I am impressed by the author’s bravery just leaping right into the mysteries of Li-lin’s world with so little exposition. In the end, I think it works for many people happy to suspend credibility in return for admittance to the author’s fantasy, as well as for other readers who absorb the strange notions and make of them imagery of their own.
(Reposted after lost in system failure)
“Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both.”
(Santiago, The Old Man and the Sea)
A reader recently asked…
“Loved Yang Shen, have both editions. When will James Lande’s next book be published? Hope it will be soon – he’s a great writer” (Brian).
This deftly fashioned retrospective of the island sixty or so years ago, Memories of Taiwan by Luther Deese, begins with the poem by Meng Hao-ran 春曉, Spring Dawn: 春眠不覺曉, 處處聞啼鳥, 夜來風雨聲, 花落知多少. Waking sleepily on a spring morning, everywhere there is the song of birds; in the night came the sound of wind and rain, and I wonder how many flowers have fallen. This, I suppose, to set an elegiac tone for how much has been lost. The images following start up accompanied by the maudlin Mandarin standard Wang-bu-liao, Unforgettable, which is likely how many of us who lived there back then regard that experience. For us these images are more than just Auntie and Uncle’s boring old slideshow – in some ways, our lives began there and, in other ways, they ended when we left.
Vincente Macanaya we met in my post Manilamen and Mandarins – Filipinos in 1860s China, Part 1: Vincente Macanaya. Now we find Vincente with the Foreign Riflles in the dark of night aboard Chinese junks sculling over a narrow canal toward the walled town of Tsingpoo. The Koronel, Fletcher Thorson Wood, has ordered his small army to climb the city walls and capture the town. The chapter has no narration – only the thought of four men, one of whom is Vincente. His musing begins with Fletcher, then Vincente hears a fish jump, and a rooster crow, and an owl screech – each small disruption briefly takes his thoughts away from the impending battle. Continue reading
Old China Books is pleased to announce that an ebook of the memoir TOUJOURS GAI by Luise Shannon Landers is now available for purchase from Amazon.*
In this unique memoir, a lady 95 years old recollects her long and tumultuous life growing up in Southern California, reflecting on how the times changed and how she changed (or did not) with them. Toujours gai, “always merry” as often quoted by Don Marquis’ Mehitabel the Cat, was her motto, and “there’s a dance in the old dame yet” is as good a motif as any for her life. Continue reading
Why did you begin with a long novel before ever having any other writing success?
The author of Yang Shen is like the fellow who decided that without ever having constructed a building or a bungalow he could go directly to the erection of a 100-story skyscraper simply because he once built a tolerable doghouse. College bestowed upon me the bubbling assurance that any graduate could write a novel, and the computer has been my codependent enabler of this fallacy. Before computers someone like me could never have written this novel – given the countless mistakes I make, writing a book with paper and a typewriter would take more than one lifetime. An experienced writer can invent characters for a story – Robert Jordan, Pilar, and Pablo, or Atticus, Jem and Scout – and manage them for the length of a novel. But an inexperienced writer might just as well ask for water from the moon as to hazard the creation of dozens, even hundreds, of interesting characters in a single novel. Richard McKenna did that with his first novel The Sand Pebbles, but such exceptions turn up about as often as a Cubs World Series win and themselves contribute to the pathology that says “he could do it, so why can’t I?”
What do you think you should have done differently?
Start by writing stories and poems and submitting them to magazines. When after a few years and many stories written and critiqued by editors and teachers you begin to publish with increasing regularity and chance a short novel. Then several more, until they began to find their way into print. You’re a journeyman writer for a decade or more before you attempt a novel of three or four hundred pages, because only by this time you invent characters and write narrative, description and dialogue without undue difficulty or delay. Your modest readership earns you a following of editors and publishers. Encouraged by the modest success of your first mid-size novel, you write several more, with each one practicing your craft and accumulating more experience. Finally, looking back over your long list of published titles, you decide it’s time for a tour de force of twelve hundred pages, You are ready to take three or four years to write a long novel, supported by your longtime editor and publisher, and confident that your growing audience of readers will want to read your book. By then you may even have learned how to live more comfortably in the company of others so that writing does not need complete isolation from anyone who might still love you.
Would you say that historical fiction is more difficult to write the contemporary fiction?
Not always, from the viewpoint of research. A great deal of contemporary fiction also involves extensive research, but the information is closer at hand. At the same time, writers of historical fiction are challenged less to find plot – history more or less is the plot. Yang Shen’s stringent approach to historical subject, the bias to capture the full scope of events, the obligation to never stray very far from historical fact when imagining characters and events, and the writer’s effort to incorporate historical fact into the narrative seamlessly, add to the complexity.
So, the scope of Yang Shen is larger than just China?
One reviewer noted the story “is painted on a large canvas,” which is a particular object of the novel. Rather than confine the action to a hermetic little corner of the world, which could hardly be a reality for most stories, the novel observes that minor skirmishes along the lower reaches of the Yangtze delta in 1860 were buffeted by influences coming from far away and originating with people and policy quite ignorant of the lighter drama in the delta. So the tale ranges ’round the world, from Shanghai to Peking, and thence to Paris, London, Moscow and Washington, even to Manila.
Doesn’t keeping close to the facts impose a greater burden?
Not on some historical novelists, to wit Frasers Flashman series, where in one book he has Flashman in bed with the Dowager Empress of China. Such books are entertainment and not believable historical fiction. Other writers will keep their interventions within the boundaries of facts when they are known and keep any extrapolations consistent with the known history. In Yang Shen we note that the columns supporting the House of History are so far apart that a novelist could drive wagonloads of fictional detail between them, so we believe it is not necessary for our narrative to drift into historical fantasy. And we are pleased that a historian like Pam Crossley, who wrote about the Manchu in The Orphan Warriors and ought to know, agrees and praises the book as “historically convincing, and very, very lively!”
What do you mean by “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
Poorly done incongruent facts call attention to themselves and distract the reader. Often writers are content to employ random facts as little more than window-dressing for setting a scene. “More and more men poured into the street putting on coats and hats, many already armed with pistols and muskets, a few with the latest American breech-loading rifles” is an example from Clavell’s Gaijin. The unfortunate image of “streets putting on coats” is only a distraction when “latest American breech-loading rifles” stands out as a fact clumsily calling attention to itself. An alternative like “the crowd grew with men struggling into coats and hats, nervously fingering pistols and muskets or breech-loading rifles” assimilates the historical fact quietly but without losing the import of the fact; the gaffe really is the word “latest” and, once removed, the fact becomes more demure. Clavell also mentions Yedo, “which one day would be called Tokyo.”
How do you “seamlessly” get historical facts into narrative?
The method of deftly blending historical fact into narrative and dialogue I call “assimilation.” As an example take this snippet from Yang Shen that underwent assimilative surgery. “The buoys at the Lang Shan crossing, which had just recently been placed by H. M. S. Bouncer after Admiral Hope’s expedition to Nanking, were visible in the distance.” Here the sentence is both encumbered and unbalanced by historical trivia that serves no purpose; it’s also ambiguous about what was placed, the buoys or the crossing. “In the distance they could see the recently placed buoys at the Lang Shan crossing.” This sentence calls attention to itself with unexplained trivia. Why should I care they’re recently placed? “Recently” acts like “latest” in Clavell’s example and calls attention to the planting of a fact. “The pilot gave the signal to slow as the Triton approached the Lang Shan crossing. ‘Why are we slowing?’ asked a passenger. ‘Of all the shifting shoals in the Yangtze, this place is the worst, even with the new buoys in the shallows. Bouncer placed ’em after the British Admiral ran aground here. Trying to get upriver to parley with the rebels, he was. That was last April, or May, an’ I’d bet gold bars ‘gin gum drops that the channel’s already twisted around some differn’t way. If Triton’s going aground, I’ll be damned if it’s not on a risin’ tide at three knots.” The history’s been better assimilated into narrative here. First, it’s not just thrown out as a one liner to get it in. Second, it serves a narrative purpose as well as dresses up the windows: it’s part of the pilot’s justification for slowing the vessel. Third, its presence has inspired something more than would’ve been there: “on a risin’ tide at three knots” is a good line, an enhancement that came from playing with the historical allusion. Now all that’s needed is to reduce the post-surgical swelling of the text.
Why would a novel need maps for every chapter if the story is told well enough?
Few stories can convey the precise geography of a location in description so, while that’s not always important, some stories that depend on location benefit by having maps, usually one or two at the beginning of a book like Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. Yang Shen has large-scale maps of China for Chapter One and then, as the action in later chapters moves about the Yangtze River delta and narrows to specific places, has smaller scale maps with local detail.
Why the drawings and photos – shouldn’t such things be left to a reader’s imagination?
Readers do not always have the experience needed to imagine accurately, and much of 19th century life in China is simply beyond imagination, so Yang Shen has several drawings to enhance the imagery. The rigging of clipper ships is shown because such is mentioned often in the narrative. A drawing of the Shanghai Bund in 1860 details all the foreign trading firms. A unique drawing of the Shanghai native city comes from an 1873 Chinese gazetteer. The drawings of the sternwheeler Vulcan and the river steamer Confucius help the reader see these vessels as quite different from the old Mississippi steamboats. Even the battle between Essex and Fokie Tom’s pirates is diagramed to make the action clear to readers who might find that sort of thing hard to follow. Tables for rates of exchange place the different currencies in relative context, and the table of mandarin regalia illustrates the buttons and belts of the different ranks. The photos of the Astor House and the old Shanghai Custom House are the real McCoy taken from contemporary sources. Most readers would not trouble to look up such things but do appreciate finding them there in the novel.
We are pleased to announce a new review of Yang Shen called “The Taiping Up Close” just posted on the Yang Shen Amazon page by the accomplished essayist, novelist and literary critic David Cahill (author of Lust and Philosophy, The Exact Unknown). David approaches our book as a reader, but also as a writer with particularly keen ideas on how to write and what to write about. He disdains “certain formulaic constraints geared to profitability (the first page that “grabs” you, the compelling storyline, heart-wrenching sympathetic characters, and the like),” so we have been waiting on tender hooks for his discussion of Yang Shen, Continue reading
This team of Chinese women fencers, and their long-time trainer the Frenchman Daniel Levavasseur, came to our attention in the 2012 Olympics when the women won gold in team epee. They arrive now in Rio still world champs and will defend their Olympic title in the quarterfinals tomorrow August 11 at 6:30am (Rio time?). News coverage about the team’s arrival in Rio and initial training session is at Chinese Women’s Epee Team where we see many familiar faces again, including Levavasseur. Chinese women’s epee is turning into an international saga.
In 2012 we submitted the following post about Levavasseur and the Chinese women’s, epee team win that year (over 1000 views since, so somebody’s interested, but don’t expect many of the links to work now, after two years.)
Daniel Levavasseur – French Coach of Chinese Women’s Epee Team
In this excerpt from Chapter 30 of Book II the Foreign Rifles are attacking for the second time the walled city of Sungkiang (Songjiang) and are trapped like “turtles in a pot 壺中之龜” in the courtyard between the inner and outer east gates and have just set blackpowder charges against the inner gate.
“All the way out,” Hannibal shouted, “out the other gate.” This will not be just firecrackers, you fools.
The 1st Platoon ran on down the length of the passage and through the outer gate, taking shelter at the foot of the wall on either side, protected by the rifles of platoons across the moat. Only Fletcher, Hannibal, and Vincente remained, just inside the archway, anxiously watching over the sizzling fuses. The smell of the burning black powder drifted into the archway and up the walls. Continue reading