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                          Old China Books Book Blog

This blog introduces titles offered by Old China Books and provides a place for discussions about our books.

             Page background: Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義
             Page headers: The Shanghai Bund, 1857 (Morse, International Relations…)
                                          The Battle of Woosung, 1842 (Wikimedia Commons)
                                          Canton factories, 1842 (Wikimedia Commons)
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Welcome to Old China Books Writer’s Corner

Front_cover_2nd_Edition_225x332Yang Shen, Book I, 2nd Edition
Now Available!

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.

                                                                   Writer’s Corner
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.

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Ebook of TOUJOURS GAI memoir available now for purchase

back-from-paris-2016-06-gimp-text-for-canvas-2-80Old 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

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More Q&A with James Lande about the novel Yang Shen

Here are a few additional Q&A topics that didn’t make it into Living the Taiping, David Cahill’s interview with James Lande at the Isham Cook web blog.

Why did you begin with a long novel before ever having any other writing success?Front_cover_2nd_Edition_225x332
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.

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New review of Yang Shen at Amazon, and Q&A at Isham Cook

Weblog header 625x342We 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

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They’re back! Chinese Women’s Epee Champions Arrive in Rio

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.

China at the medal ceremony of the women's team épée event of the 2015 World Fencing Championships on 18 July 2014 at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow

China at the medal ceremony of the women’s team épée event of the 2015 World Fencing Championships on 18 July 2014 at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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

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Work in Progress: Yang Shen Book II, excerpt from Flowery Flag Devils

Sungkiang East Gate

Sungkiang East Gate

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

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Navigating the Stream of Thought

(The following is a brief review posted today at Amazon of RobertHumphrey Stream 2 Humphrey’s Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel.)

We begin with Joyce, move on to Woolf, and culminate with Faulkner noting along the way other practitioners and experimenters. We then hitch up our rudimentary understanding and attempt a little of this obscure revelation of the inner life, and maybe are able to carpenter together a few words, “picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen.” Continue reading

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James Lande invites readers to Goodreads Ask the Author

We are pleased to announce our participation in the Goodreads Ask the Author forum, a place where “readers can ask questions and receive answers from their favorite authors.” We have for some time been following several writers at Ask the Author, in particular Lisa See, so when dunned recently by email from Goodreads to join up we were already familiar with the feature and had only to activate it in our Goodreads profile. Continue reading

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Chinese History After the Opium War: a video perspective

Here’s an interesting video that provides additional perspective for our YouTube video China in 1860 (describing the state of affairs in China at the beginning of Yang Shen) and continues on into the early years and beyond of China ruled by the Empress Dowager. Continue reading

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Work in Progress: Yang Shen Book II, Reconnaissance of Tsingpoo

We see we’ve posted nothing since March, as we have been busy scribbling in Yang Shen, so perhaps it’s time to set forth some of what we have been working on in draft, or as Joyce called his work on Finnegan’s Wake, Work in Progress. What follows is a draft excerpt from Book II, Chapter 32 Holding the Line, Section 5, describing the reconnaissance Fletcher makes on Ah-shan’s junk of the water route from Kuangfulin to “Tsingpoo” (i.e. Qingpu, or Ch’ing-p’u). An earlier related post, Researching Locations in Virtual Earth and Sky, describes the mapping in Google Earth of the route between KFL and Tsingpoo that guided the fictional recon.

This post will be followed in coming months by a posting of a draft of Chapter 33 Assault on Tsingpoo, which makes frequent reference to narrative and imagery that appears in this segment about the recon.

Yang Shen, Book II, Chapter 32, Section 5

Up the creek to Tsingpoo’s easy, he thought, but just how to get back humihingapa? Let’s not retire on foot through miles of cotton fields chased by rebel hordes. Poke their nest tho’ and they’ll swarm out damn mad flicking nasty little stingers. Engage. Exterminate. Extricate. Continue reading

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Changes in Chinese Censorship of Western Books about China

Peter Hessler, writing in The New Yorker magazine, notes a change in the publishing climate for books about China by Westerners, after traveling on a book tour with his Chinese censor!

“My Chinese censor is Zhang Jiren,” Hessler writes, “an editor at the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, and last September he accompanied me on a publicity tour. It was the first time I’d gone on a book tour with my censor.” Continue reading

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