Ten Thousand Things, By John Spurling: Book Review

Wang Meng_Forest_Grotto_Part2
Forest Grotto, Part 2.  The painting is by Wang Meng.  It was painted in the fourteenth century.

Many hundreds of years ago, Genghis Khan swept across Asia and conquered northern China. He laid the foundation for Mongol rule of the empire. His grandson, Kublai Khan, cemented this victory by crushing Song Dynasty forces in the South and uniting the vast empire. Kublai Khan’s success marked the beginning of almost a hundred years of Mongol domination of China. It is during this period that the events described in John Spurling’s book, “Ten Thousand Things” take place.

Spurling’s book is historical fiction. The narrative follows the life of an artist, Wang Meng, whose work is on display today in museums across the world. By using Wang’s life as a focus, Spurling gives readers insight into the zeitgeist of Mongol China, which is known as the Yuan Dynasty. Art is as much a character in this book as any person. And art, as described by Spurling, is indistinguishable from the philosophical and religious traditions that inspired it in Yuan China. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism–each is discussed as living templates for artists, common folk and rulers.

Wang Meng is one of four artists who came to be known as the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. These artists shared not only a philosophy but also an aesthetic that was manifest particularly in landscape painting.

The life story of each Master is woven into a narrative that follows Wang through his marriage, love affairs, tragedies and, finally, imprisonment. The story also describes the disintegration of Mongol rule in China, as bandit leaders vie for control of the empire. Eventually, one of these bandits, Zhu Yuanzhang, prevails and establishes the Ming Dynasty.

It is difficult to sort the fictional elements of this story from the true record. Skillful blending of story with history is a reflection of Mr. Spurling’s ability as a writer and researcher.

“Ten Thousand Things” is an engaging book and also highly informative. Upon finishing it, I immediately turned to the Internet to learn about the Yuan Dynasty and the Four Masters. After perusing the Internet, I searched the public library catalog for books on Mongol China. I wanted to know more about this distant and exotic time in China’s history. A less well-written book would not have prompted me to do this.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy historic fiction, to lovers of art, and to those who appreciate a well-told story.

 

By A. G. Moore

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Art Alone Enduring, By Mary Steenson: Book Review

 

 

Park Bridge by Zora Steenson

“Park Bridge” by Zora Steenson, used with permission of Mary Steenson.  Copyright protected.

 

 

Art Alone Enduring is a poignant story of two sisters, Hughberta and Zora Steenson, who were social pioneers and artists. Zora established herself as a freelance artist when most women did not work outside of the home. Hughberta joined the Marine Corp during WWII and became one of the first women ever admitted into that branch of the service. Both women created brilliant art that is just today beginning to gain well-deserved recognition. Art Alone Enduring offers vivid color reproductions of this work. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.

Mary H. Steenson, author of Art Alone Enduring, is related to the Steenson sisters by marriage. Her husband, Robert, was their nephew and helped to oversee their care near the end of their lives. The journey traveled by these sisters is one that takes readers through Depression-era hardship, WWII and the post-war boom in the United States.

This book is loosely based on the lives of Zora and Hughberta, but it is also a work of imagination. It is impossible to separate the known details from the fictional embellishments. No matter. Ms. Steenson has created a viable vehicle for introducing two remarkable artists to the public. These sisters began their lives in the Midwest and ended, many years later, in a Tacoma, Washington nursing home.

Hughberta was the younger sister, filled with sibling rivalry. Zora was the protective older sister. After drifting apart and finding their separate destinies, the sisters reunited in midlife and stayed together until Zora was removed to nursing care. They did not remain apart for long.  A determined and resourceful Hughberta found her way into the nursing home and stayed with Zora for the rest of her days.

In 1998, Hughberta died after a bout with the flu. Zora lived on for another three years. Today, the sisters are buried together near their parents’ graves, in Minnesota.

I recommend strongly that readers seek out the art of Hughberta and Zora. Their work is arresting and unforgettable. A website maintained by Mary Steenson, maryhsteenson.com, displays some of their pieces.

Art Alone Enduring is a lovely book, a delight to hold and peruse. It is the sort of book that reminds us why sometimes reading the physical copy of a book is an experience that cannot be matched by consuming the material through an electronic device.

 

A. G. Moore  August 2017

 

Bismark: A Life Book Review


BismarckPferd
Otto von Bismark  July 1890

 

In Bismark: A Life, Jonathan Steinberg suggests that the modern German state had its origins in the imagination of Prince Otto von Bismark. However, Steinberg builds his case with such apparent animus toward the subject that the value of this book is somewhat undermined.  Steinberg implicitly lays at Bismark’s door responsibility for WWI (by creating the German Empire and buttressing autocracy), WWII (by reinforcing the Junker class and doubling down on militarism), and genocide of the Jewish people (by fueling antisemitism).

Steinberg’s approach is comprehensive. He traces Bismark’s rise to power and attempts to lay bare the state-builder’s multiple motivations. In support of his analysis, Steinberg provides extended excerpts from Bismark’s correspondence and from other first-person accounts. The portrait of Bismark that emerges is more demonic than Machiavellian.

Bismark, by Steinberg’s account, was a hypochondriacal, reactionary, anti-Semite, an ingrate with an unbridled thirst for power. Despite Steinberg’s compilation of evidence, the reader is left with doubts about the integrity of this author’s presentation. His loathing for Bismark is so manifest that we feel bias must inevitably influence judgment.

However, because Steinberg’s book is well resourced, it has much to offer. I was interested, for example, to learn how Germany reacted to the revolutions of 1848. Also interesting was the tension between the papacy and secular heads of Europe. Most fascinating was Bismark’s effort to weaken a rival, France, by aligning himself with Russia. I wondered, as I read, if there was a corollary with present times–with Donald Trump’s expressed criticism of NATO and his avowed admiration for Russia.

I recommend this book, but with reservations.  For a complete view of Bismark, it would be a good idea to read a second biography.  Many questions, in my mind, remained at the book’s end.  Chief among these was, what was Bismark really like?

A. G. Moore     June 2017