Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Time of the Dragons by Alice Ekert-Rotholz

(Book Review)

So there I was, in the used book section of “Barnes and Nobles.” And I was browsing the fantasy shelf, when I saw this really old looking book--like the ones that are usual in your grandmothers attic. Complete with those old style ink drawings,--like the ones you find in those old “Hardy Boys” books.

So for a moment I was really excited because I thought I had found an example of a Pre-Tolkien Fantasy book. (As a lifelong fantasy fan, lately I’ve been curious as to what extant the genre existed before “Lord of the Rings” became the standard.) But after leafing through the book, I realized this was actually a World War II story that had been misfiled under the Fantasy section, and the dragons were metaphorical. I walked away somewhat disappointed, but then eventually curiosity got the better of me and I came back and bought it anyway. Just for the hell of it and to see what this book would be like.

It’s very rare, for me at least, to read a book that I have no idea what it is about. I do buy many books on impulse, but usual there is at least a back cover or something you can read. Being an old book, this was without any cover jacket, and I went into it totally blind. If I had known what it was actually about (the romantic lives of 3 sisters set against the backdrop of World War II) I might not have ever picked it up. And yet it was not the worst book I’ve ever read.

The writing style is very pleasant and readable, although I’m not sure how much credit the author gets for that, because this book is originally by a Norwegian author and then later was translated into English.

The story begins in 1925 with Knut Wergeland, the Norwegian consul in Shanghai. The first third of the book is about his marital disasters and how he comes to end up with 3 different daughters by 3 different women. One daughter is half French, one daughter is half Chinese, and the 3rd daughter is by a Norwegian woman.

Eventually the patriarch of the family Knut Wergeland passes away, the aunt Helen takes over the raising of the household, and the daughters all grow up into women looking for love. It was at this point that I realized I had been tricked into reading the Norwegian version of “Little Women.”

As this story is set against the backdrop of World War II in Asia, there are various sub plots dealing with the underground resistance and spy rings. These are interesting as far as they go, but they exist only to further the romance stories and not the other way around. For instance, a French spy will realize how much he really loves his girl while hiding out in Cambodia, or another girl mistaken for a spy and put in a Japanese prison is rescued by a dashing American Doctor. Much of this reads like an old fashioned pulp romance, so it can be good fun if you let yourself just flow with the cheesiness of it.

There are several Japanese characters in this book who, despite being the bad guys, are portrayed in a very balanced light. And the author has clearly done her research into Japanese culture. My only complaint is that they behave too much like they’re straight out of a guide book. They always stand around reciting Haiku’s or having tea ceremonies. Anyone who has lived in Japan can tell you that Japanese people aren’t in character all the time, and often you can often catch them just acting like normal human beings a lot of the time.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Shakespeare's Play "Troilus and Cressida" has rarely been popular on stage and there is no recorded performance between 1734 and 1898. It was not staged in its original form until the early twentieth century, but since then, it has become increasingly popular due to its cynical depiction of people's immorality and disillusionment especially after the First World War. Its popularity reached a peak in the 1960s when public discontent with the Vietnam War increased exponentially. The play's main overall themes about a long period of war, the cynical breaking of one's public oaths, and the lack of morality among Cressida and the Greeks resonated strongly with a discontented public and led to numerous stagings of this play since it highlighted the gulf between one's ideals and the bleak reality

Link of the Day
Taken from Phil's Blog
I want to take a minute and recognize the impressive and increasingly rare honesty of this NPR talk by conservative Rod Dreher. The part that blew me away (the left-wing blogger Glenn Greenwald did the hard work of transcribing the speech):
"As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war."I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority."On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn't the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely?"


Anonymous said...

Alice Ekert-Rotholz was German, not Norwegian.

Anonymous said...

I found my copy at a goodwill store, and it still remains one of my favorites.
The story flows nicely, and I would compare it to The Good Earth.

Joel said...

As its been several years since I've read the good earth, I'll have to pass comment on that comparison. I'm glad you enjoyed it though. I also found the writing style very smooth and enjoyable. I had trouble really getting into the story myself, but it's good you enjoyed it.

Book Bird Dog said...

I'm half way through the book, printed in 1958 by Viking Press. REally interesting. Interesting also that the author warns about Asians in the future, especially Japanese, Chinese, and Indians and their quest for world power. Her book goes into the Japanese part of WWII, but though Germany is mentioned only briefly, as in German troops in France, she says nothing at all about the Germans and their quest for world power. Interesting this was written only 13 or so years after the war, and that the author is German.

Joel said...

I had forgotten about that, but you're right, that is interesting

Kate War said...

You have in your grasp one of the most unique books in history. Not only does Ekert-Rotholz create the chaotic world of war-torn Shanghai during World War II, here is a woman who single handedly, and yes maybe in a fantastically bias fashion, knew proverbs from different cultures, their languages, their everyday life routines, cultural flaws and culturally significant personality traits. She will never be matched in my lifetime. Writers these days google images and place names to find out typical information, where Ekert-Rotholz would have had to explore these locations in order to create such an extraordinary collection of facts and figures. I bought it in a small outback city in Australia, lost it in Vienna and found it again in the same Australian city. This is my favourite book of all time, and I can only dream to be half the writer she was.

Joel said...

Thanks for the comment. It does seem like a lot of people do really love this book.

Anonymous said...

My daughter found this book on my bookshelf. It has been there for 50years and I am sure I hadn't read it before. Since we had been to China and Shanghai in 2011 she thought I should read it. I couldn't put it down.

Bertha Beanboat said...

I read most of Alice Ekert-Rotholz's novels and really enjoyed them. About Alice E.-R.: she was born on September 5, 1900 in Hamburg and passed away on June 17, 1995 in London. Her father was British with a Swedish-Russian background and her mother was a German Jew. Alice E.-R. lived in Thailand for 20 years. She moved to London in 1959.