When a woman dared to tread.
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2012
Please note that whilst the title of the book may suggest another woman had ruled in China before Ci Xi, Laidler himself makes no mention – thus it should be noted that there had been another Empress to rule China, Wu Ze Tian (also called Wu Zhao), between the years 690-705. Please also note that due to the different methods of transliterating Chinese into English, I have included the two most, in my opinion, used. (Any discrepancies are my own as I used my own knowledge to transliterate the method not used in the book.)
Laidler presents a biography of the Empress Ci Xi (Xu Xi/Tzu Hsi) from teenager to death, looking at how she managed to defy tradition to become the ruler of China and the ways in which she kept that power in the face of opposition.
The Last Empress is a difficult book to define. At once very detailed politically, it misses out a lot of information that would have been of use, yet what it does include is incredibly interesting and Laidler’s style makes for an easy read.
Ci Xi is surely a fascinating character to learn about (though it should be noted that for reasons unknown Laider has called her by her clan name – don’t let that fool you into thinking she was the only Yehonala at court). The way she came to power, her confidence and intelligence, the punishments she meted out to her enemies, and her lack of emotion for many of those in her care – Laidler makes sure that he provides a balance and includes discussions of why she became such a despot. Whilst admitting that her lust for power was unquenchable, Laidler questions her background and how being a woman, and at that a woman forced to become an emperor’s concubine instead of marrying the man she loved, would have given rise to a vengeful spirit, a woman with no love for the dynasty she had been brought to serve.
And this is key to what makes Laidler both accessible and hard to dispute – he may have his own views, but seldom are these included subjectively. Laidler’s work is incredibly unbiased, he damns and glorifies both sides, always presenting the various arguments and possibilities, and succeeds so well in his goal that the reader will have a tough time working out where his loyalties lie beyond his loyalty to introduce Ci Xi to his reader. Indeed all evidence points to him being completely objective. Such a method of writing is a relief when you consider that many books err more on one side than another, creating discomfort when the reader does not agree with the author’s views.
Unfortunately, however, Laidler’s writing is marred by a lack of referencing. Sometimes this is literal – he doesn’t reference any source at all, leading it to seem as though he wrote all the facts when he of course did not – and otherwise there is just a simple lack of footnotes. Both issues are a major drawback as they bar further study into the sources and limit the knowledge the reader can gain into what Laidler has researched, what is common knowledge, and what he took from elsewhere – is what you’re reading true or made up, and how much is speculation? (From the way it’s written all speculation appears to be what is obvious speculation – the rumours recounted by Laidler.) It also means that on many occasions where quotations are included, there is no way of finding out the original source of the work, beyond the name of the speaker. The only upside of this marring is that the work is largely chronological and there is no major aim to convince the reader of a certain idea, meaning, at least, that one will not be able to cite Laidler as the source for reasons of debate. It does mean that Laidler’s work has little value for the student, which given the overall lack of importance given to Chinese history in western academic institutions is disheartening.
Poor editing and some bad writing join the source work. Sentences sometimes make no sense or are unfinished. Despite, or maybe due to, the easy style, phrases such as “had been begun” seem to have slipped through the net, and there are far too many errors. In fact it is as though no proofreader were employed at all. The extent to which grammatical and spelling errors flourish means that any actively engaged reader, wanting to make notes and copy sections, will likely have to edit the text themselves, and the writing on occasion reads as though written by a person with scant knowledge of the English language.
Laidler writes a great deal about the naval warfare between the Europeans who wished to trade according to their own customs, and the Chinese who wanted to keep their traditions. In the main this means that the reader not only develops knowledge of the Empress herself, but of the context surrounding her reign and the reasons she was the last empress. However sometimes Laidler does go off on a tangent in ways that don’t apply to his main subject, resulting in pages that suggest the author was perhaps more interested in military history than the woman who took charge. This is not a huge issue, but it does mean that there are gaps left in Ci Xi’s life where it would have been sensible to either concentrate more on the ruler or, if such is the case, simply let the reader know that there is little known about the empress at that particular point in time.
Because for all his fair treatment of Ci Xi, and the approach that suggests a writer unbiased about gender, Laidler also leaves out aspects of Ci Xi’s power that would have added much to his work. Whilst explaining that Ci Xi’s rise in power over her husband was due to her sexual prowess, and including an explanation for how a woman confined to a world devoid of intact men might improve certain muscles – emphasis here on ‘might’, for there is no evidence that she did – Laidler neglects to discuss the issue any further. And considering it is apparent that Ci Xi retained her place as favourite for reasons other than abilities in the bedroom, there is a seeming lack of information in general. It is not detrimental, but it does suggest that Ci Xi’s rise was predictable, which given her time was not the case. And although there was a prophecy that a woman of Ci Xi’s clan would conclude the dynasty, speculation is of course no good basis for argument. What does seem to be reality is that no one really knows how Ci Xi came to power; that really ought to have been highlighted.
Hearing one lady holding forth on the evils of foot-binding, she pointedly asked if the European practice of binding women’s waists in whalebone corsets was not similarly barbaric.
Laidler does succeed in demonstrating how familial and social tensions created problems for China when it was faced with the invasive forces of the Europeans. Setting the backdrop of the stereotypical dynastic court that believed itself invincible, the author shows how tradition which was otherwise sustainable fell flat when confronted by the opposing beliefs of other countries. He gives a lot of time to Kuang Hsu (Guang Xu), the impotent boy Ci Xi chose (for the very fact he could not sire children) as heir to her dead son, and the ways in which, upon reaching majority, the now emperor tried to balance what he knew to be the iron will of his aunt with his own views of cultural and political reform. This not only means that Kuang Hsu is given a prominent place in the biography, but also that Laidler can adeptly reveal how Ci Xi changed her opinions on tradition and foreign powers – which is particularly interesting when placed alongside the way she manipulated tradition for her own ends.
And what is endlessly interesting is how this most powerful ruler of the wrong gender, of little status, and hated by so many, was able to take over a dynasty, a people, and keep that power for so long that her actions gave her reformist enemies exactly what they wanted.
Laidler’s book may not be in anyway polished but it provides a basis for further reading. Yet a basis it is, due to the speculation and content choices.
This photograph was taken by Clarence.
Something I’ve been concentrating on recently is blog post word count. There are a few reasons for this; I’m glad to say that none of them pertain to the advice of ‘experts’, who have search engines in mind. No, my reasons are that I appear to have evolved away from my hatred of editing university essays and now see the value in being concise, and that I want to improve my writing. Yet it was when researching the advice of experts, to see if they matched my thoughts, that I got the idea for this post. (If you want to know what their advice is, it varies wildly.)
What is the optimal word count for blog posts? It really depends on what you’re writing. In my case I know that my reviews can be long and it is sometimes difficult to shorten them without losing a point I wish to make, or having the resulting post be incomprehensible. I know that I am by nature a conversational rambler, but when it comes to reviews that is not as noticeable by default.
When writing discussion posts I keep it shorter; a big part of the reason being so that I don’t exhaust the points of discussion – I want you all to be able to join in. And I’d venture that this is the same of most book bloggers – that our reviews invite longer articles and otherwise we’re more concise. Short posts tend to receive more comments; I’ve written about this previously so won’t elaborate here except to say that this is across the board rather than for types of posts.
As a reader I find longer posts more ‘acceptable’ if they are broken up by images. It took me a while to implement it here but there is definitely a huge benefit to it.
I would like to comment further on the advice some experts give, because inevitably some of it can be good. Experts cite the fact that readers like all lengths of posts, dependent on topic and writer, that long posts are fine as long as they are detailed and don’t ramble. These same experts are the ones who advise writing for readers rather than search engines. I’d a rather a handful of interactive readers than two-second visits, anyway. Accordingly, Google values content. It might like short posts in general, but a thesis is always going to be more valuable than a quick bullet-pointed list.
For now I’m tending to focus on 600 words. It forces me to stop repeating myself and get my point across. I don’t think it’s an idea to keep lowering the count, but setting a rough limit definitely improves my writing and hopefully makes my posts better. Whether I’ll continue to use it after this practise I don’t know, but the exercise is definitely helping me become a better blogger.
What do you think about word counts? Do you write with them in mind?
No longer on the shelf.
Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2013
At fifty-four years old, Clover feels invisible as a woman. One day she wakes up and it’s no longer a feeling – she is literally invisible. Going unnoticed by her family, she discovers a group of women like her and starts attending meetings. The other women have worked out what’s gone wrong, but is there a way to fix it?
Calling Invisible Women is a book that starts brilliantly and has a fantastic premise, but rapidly falls to what’s most comfortable in a way that provides a negative impact. The premise, or at least the supposed premise, of a middle-aged woman feeling invisible, is fresh. The possible metaphor of literal invisibility standing in for the invisibility of middle-aged women in a society that values youth and beauty, is promising and had a lot of potential, but sadly Ray does not take the opportunity presented.
What is good in Calling Invisible Women is the laugh-out-loud humour of the first half, the fine writing, and of course the social issues referred to. But that is where it stops. In Clover there is a character who feels invisible but has done everything that will insure she’ll remain so; a woman who simply does not fit her time period. If this book had been released in the mid-twentieth century, understanding Clover would be easier.
A typical example is Clover’s relationship with her daughter. Ray’s descriptions and the dialogue show Evie to be a self-absorbed person who cares not a jot for others unless she needs something. When Evie needs clothes, Clover describes how she’ll be giving her daughter, who is 20 and hasn’t realised her mother is invisible, the money for these clothes. If Clover spoke of how she should stop and how she lets her family walk all over her, it would be okay, but she doesn’t. There is also a situation where Clover and Gilda stop their grown-up sons making their own life choices, and when Clover tells her women’s group what happened “The group let out a moan, the collective heartbreak of all suburban mothers.” Given the subject at hand, Ray affectively wipes out a great number of potential readers from her audience as well as providing an out-dated social commentary on something that is widely considered an individual’s choice.
After the initial set-up, wherein one could suppose the women have become invisible because of society and the way they themselves feel, Ray places the actual reason outside of the women’s jurisdiction in order to conduct a commentary of another subject. It means that the strength of the premise is destroyed, even if the commentary itself is an interesting one. This happens later also, in a minor way, by Clover’s changing thoughts about her family. This is a family who fails to notice that their mother and wife has become invisible, despite the fact that Clover continues a sexual relationship with her husband and affectively flies around in clothes, headless. There is also the fact that Clover’s issues really needed to be at the forefront.
For its premise this book needed strength and empowerment. The ending is little more than a summary and the action happens too late in the day. Calling Invisible Women could have been incredible, a friend to women entering middle-age and a lesson for those who are younger or who simply forget such women. Unfortunately, it is not and whilst it may be one thing to have an un-likeable character, it is another to have one who is nonsensical for no given reason.
I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.
Screen shot from Midnight In Paris, copyright © 2011 Warner Brothers.
This won’t be a review because I’m not good at reviewing films, but I wanted to discuss Midnight In Paris because it got me thinking. Due to the style of this post there will be spoilers.
Woody Allen’s film has a premise to appeal to readers – the wannabe novelist, fond of what he knows of 1920s Paris, finds himself time travelling at night. Allen never goes overboard with the references, he includes a couple of very famous artists from different mediums but also lesser-known ones, too. Yes, it’s exciting to wonder who Gil will meet next, but it’s evident Allen’s focus is on Gil’s discovery of who he wants to be.
I must be honest and say that if the opening sequence had been just that bit longer I would’ve stopped watching. The sentiment was obvious, showing both the glory and averageness of Paris, an intimation of what will later present itself to be Gil’s preference (Paris in the rain) but the length was unnecessary. It didn’t represent the time Gil had spent in Paris, and it just didn’t strike me as an inviting way to begin a film.
I loved the way time-travel was used, as well as Gil’s reaction to it. In a way, it was more magical realism than fantasy because although it was far-fetched, it was never glamorised. (This links in with the focus being on Gil.) Gil’s fanboy excitement worked because there wasn’t too much of it – it was in ‘spits and spots’ – and it gelled with Owen Wilson’s general acting style. It never tried to be too much. I also love that a person went to their preferred period and that the periods weren’t far in the past (excepting the detective who I’ll talk about at the end).
I think it was a miss to have Adriana’s diary and her interest in Gil, and then have her choose to remain in 1800s Paris, assuming that, like Gil, she could go back again. It was just so sudden and suggested she didn’t care much about him. The conversation about golden ages was poignant, however, and I like that after all the spotlight on his romance, Gil chose his own passion over Adriana’s.
I do wonder if Gil would’ve pondered publishing his book alongside his heroes. Maybe he went back again, though surely the suggestion is that he didn’t and didn’t ‘need’ to. It’s not that I think he had to go back, but I think he would have wondered. And I loved that it can be assumed Gil’s manuscript was written in such a way that one needn’t worry that his heroes couldn’t understand it. In another film that could have been a big flaw, but here it was obvious what sort of books he liked and wrote.
My last point, then, and this is something I’ve thought about since reading a discussion on IMDB: what about the detective? He’s not a villain, so one can’t say the guards chasing him was justice. It’s more that the scene was a good intimation of what might have happened during the French Revolution. Obviously the Revolution was the detective’s favourite period. We don’t know why, but assuming time-travel works the same for everyone, that would be the case. We can assume the man got back to the 2000s, and I couldn’t help but think that this scene was purely for entertainment.
I really liked this film, it was a literary and time-travel treat. And the lack of plot detail, evidently part of the idea, made me think.
Have you seen Midnight In Paris? What did you think of it?
Questions and answers in a straight forward format.
Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 29th April 2013
Coelho presents one of the ‘lost manuscripts’ – a fictional take on a real situation – and divulges its contents. As a town prepares to be attacked, a philosopher answers questions from the worried residents.
Coelho’s books are based in spiritual, philosophical content. In Manuscript Found In Accra he takes this a step further, styling the book as a question and answer session, keeping the text concise and devoid of superfluous detail, and borrowing from scripture. Indeed enough here is borrowed from scripture to make you wonder whether this book was produced too quickly, yet it fits the theme to have it included as Coelho writes the manuscript as one akin to the books of the Bible.
It is a very short book with little plot, but this means, as said, that there is nothing more than what needs to be said. Coelho’s never suggests he isn’t out to change minds, and the teachings are a good mix of common sense and thoughts that people tend to reach after a lot of thinking. The book is akin to Plato in style, and reads just like the ancient philosopher himself.
As there isn’t a plot besides the general setting of a town on the brink of extinction, it is possible to describe the questions without ruining the book. The prospective reader will find the following themes, amongst others: defeat being a bad thing, solitude, how to live happily, and love. The themes are more detailed than this list can suggest, though they work as general answers.
It could be said that this is a lazy offering from Coelho: short, sparse, lots of empty space on the page. It could be said that in essence it is more of the same from him. But those looking for a book of wisdom to be dipped into will likely appreciate this. And that is the take-away here – it is similar to the rest of Coelho’s work, but it still has its place on shelves.
I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.