The Secret Piano – A Guest Review

 Posted by on July 22, 2014  Non-Fiction
Jul 222014
The Secret Piano – A Guest ReviewThe Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei
Published by AmazonCrossing, 2012
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 256
Synopsis: “Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China, and her musical proficiency became clear at an early age. Taught to play the piano by her mother, she developed quickly into a prodigy, immersing herself in the work of classical masters like Bach and Brahms. She was just ten years old when she began a rigorous course of study at the Beijing Conservatory, laying the groundwork for what was sure to be an extraordinary career. But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei was on her way to a work camp in Mongolia, where she would spend the next five years. Life in the camp was nearly unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing campaigns. Yet through it all Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music and her sense of humor. And when the Revolution ended, it was the piano that helped her to heal. Heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Secret Piano is the incredible true story of one woman’s survival in the face of unbelievable odds—and in pursuit of a powerful dream.” (adapted from Amazon)

The following review is written by my brother, William Hume, a classical pianist.  Check out his website,

As a classical pianist, I am especially intrigued by the power of music to unite others.  Zhu Xiao-Mei’s story of hardship and destruction during China’s Cultural Revolution highlights the endearing capability of music and the arts.  Despite the brainwashing, propaganda, and discrimination that divided friends and family, Zhu Xiao-Mei was always able to draw inspiration and comfort from the piano.

As Zhu Xiao-Mei explains, art is rich with human emotion and thought, and this is precisely why the Communist regime sought to eliminate Western music and literature.  The freedom of expression and knowledge was dangerous to the regime, and as the Cultural Revolution struck down on students, teachers, and the education system, creativity and individuality suffered.  Many of Zhu Xiao Mei’s peers abandoned the idea of pursuing careers in the arts after having been robbed of time and education and having faced constant denunciation and criticism.  However, Zhu Xiao-Mei was more motivated than ever to discover her voice in the music world.

Through intensive study and reflection, Zhu Xiao-Mei would come to understand the power and responsibility of the artist – to express the composer’s intentions with truthfulness to the score, to inspire individuals and promote humanity, and to believe in oneself.

I find it fascinating that Zhu Xiao-Mei has turned her life’s challenges into extraordinary resolve.  Even having endured such hardship and a repressive upbringing, she has sought to spread benevolence through music.  As she explains,

“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”

Here, Zhu Xiao-Mei underlines the crime of the Cultural Revolution in robbing individuals of their very souls by denying education and art, and emphasizes the need to speak out against such atrocities.  In Zhu Xiao-Mei’s case, she finds her voice through her music and strives to inspire others in each performance.

As Zhu Xiao-Mei believes, “Each person possesses a part of the truth, for those who can glimpse it.” However, she urges, “Success in itself is nothing.  Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead – mastering yourself.” Ultimately, Zhu Xiao-Mei remains humble and in search of truth in music.  Such an honest approach truly is indication of profound responsibility and confidence.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and music in general.  I was so intrigued by the author that I searched for more information including recordings and videos of live performances.  I immediately felt a connection to her playing and artistry.  I am confident you will share similar thoughts after reading Zhu Xiao-Mei’s incredible story and memoir, The Secret Piano.


The Lies of Locke Lamora

 Posted by on July 7, 2014  Fantasy
Jul 072014
The Lies of Locke LamoraThe Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Series: Gentleman Bastard #1
Published by Bantam Spectra, 2006
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 499
Buy this book through Amazon.
Synopsis: An orphan’s life is harsh—and often short—in the mysterious island city of Camorr. But young Locke Lamora dodges death and slavery, becoming a thief under the tutelage of a gifted con artist. As leader of the band of light-fingered brothers known as the Gentleman Bastards, Locke is soon infamous, fooling even the underworld’s most feared ruler. But in the shadows lurks someone still more ambitious and deadly. Faced with a bloody coup that threatens to destroy everyone and everything that holds meaning in his mercenary life, Locke vows to beat the enemy at his own brutal game—or die trying. (Adapted from

There is little that I love more than a scheme: the plotting, the deception, and the high-stakes execution.  Even better is a scheme that comes unhinged – one that threatens to peel itself apart in mid-flight, threatening lives and even world stability.  Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch’s protagonist in his debut novel, is a schemer.  And he’s a damn good one.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first chapter in a planned series of seven that will tell of Locke’s tumultuous life – his ascension from a childhood spent in poverty as an orphan as he becomes a leader among criminals, envied by his every peer and reviled as the elusive “The Thorn of Camorr” by those he targets.  Lies is a wild, vulgar, pithy romp through a city reminiscent of Renaissance Italy.  Locke and his gang of criminal brethren engage in successively larger heists, ever-confident and even arrogant in their abilities – until Locke’s plans begin to fail.

Scott Lynch, much like George R. R. Martin, has no qualms about killing off significant characters.  Locke must overcome that grief as he fails again and again – the reader’s cringing surely growing more pained with each loss.  I could advise, as I sometimes do with viewers of Game of Thrones, not to get too attached to any of the characters.  But that would be an insult to the enthralling story penned by Mr. Lynch.  So get attached, dear reader.  Invest yourself in the lives of these characters.  You, too, will come to know Locke’s rage when schemes do not go according to plan.



May 122014

Earlier this year, my critical thinking class had the pleasure of hosting Professor Elizabeth Samet as a guest lecturer. Professor Samet’s lecture targeted the “personal statement,” a key component of post-graduate scholarship applications, often the most difficult component to complete. The personal statement helps a selection committee see an individual as more than a GPA, a list of extracurricular activities, or a major. As such, it requires careful thought and numerous drafts before its completion.

Professor Samet’s lecture helped us frame our attempts at writing a personal statement as lessons in self-discovery. The personal statement, she argued, was not a declaration of what we had already figured out, but what we wanted to figure out. There were various literary components we could included to aid in our efforts – participant observation, exact detail, and an element of surprise – but the journey was our own to undergo.

Rather than giving us concrete advice, Professor Samet left us with several carefully-selected examples of “good” writing. Some stood alone, and others she appended with a few thoughts to help us distill meaning from the various works:

  • Writing as Performance, by Stephen Greenblatt
    “Writing is a performance, but it can and must be revised.”
  • Memoirs, by Ulysses S. Grant
    “Grant is my hero. Learn from him when he says, ‘put your meaning so plainly that there can be no mistaking it.’”
  • Essays, by Michel de Montaigne
    “You have to work to gain peoples’ attention – they don’t care about our lives.”
  • The Patch, by John McPhee (published in The New Yorker)
    “The element of surprise is crucial in captivating the audience.”
  • Draft No. 4, by John McPhee (published in The New Yorker)
    “Good writing is rewriting.”

If you’re interested in more from Professor Samet, consider beginning by reading Our Troops Abroad: What Does a Soldier Need to Read?  It’s a short article outlining her reasons for selecting the pieces of literature she teaches to cadets. She includes a short reading list – her “House-on-Fire” list – that I’ve copied below:

Rules of Writing

 Posted by on November 24, 2013  Book Talk
Nov 242013

It begins in English class.  The teacher tacks posters to the walls: “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” “Use the active voice,” “Don’t split infinitives.”  These are the simple rules.

Every so often, I see a newspaper article or an interview with an author, talking about “rules of writing.”  These rules are more complex.  They usually refer to tips for authorship – methods for developing characters, polishing a story for publication, or simply maintaining the willpower to write despite difficulty.

A 2010 article by The Guardian collected rules for writing fiction from assorted authors.   My favorite list of dos and don’t – written by fantasy author Neil Gaiman – are duplicated here:

1. Write.

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7. Laugh at your own jokes.

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

On Poetry, and the Irony of Abandonment

 Posted by on November 11, 2013  Book Talk
Nov 112013

While most of my reading time is spent on novels, I always enjoy finding and reading good poetry.  Poetry is a unique form of art; it distills emotions and experiences into a compact form.  Poems are the most musical collections of words in our language – an amalgam of letters that fiddle with rhyme, rhythm, and meter in search of the perfect balance of sound and meaning.

I recently leafed through a black leather Moleskine journal on my shelf.  I haven’t written in the journal in almost a year.  I tend to get easily distracted from one project, going off in search of another.  This journal is one such case of my wandering mind.  About twenty pages are filled: my scattered and random thoughts and a few interspersed lecture notes.

The first entry was a poem.  According to the date, I read and recorded the poem on September 17, 2012.  The text makes my yearlong abandonment of the journal all the more ironic:

The Men Who Don’t Fit In, (1903), Robert W. Service (1874-1958)

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.