Multiplicity is what makes environmental historian Jessica J. Lee’s writing so unique. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, to a mother who had immigrated from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has since moved back and forth between England and Germany. Her biracial roots and her experience living in different countries have informed her nature writing, a voice that exudes a unique poignancy of a personal quest for identity and home.
In a previous post, I reviewed Lee’s debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she describes how she swam in fifty-two lakes in the Brandenburg vicinity outside Berlin while completing her doctoral dissertation there, an exceptional and original endeavour to overcome personal issues.
In her new book, Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee writes about another quest that’s more complex and adventurous. In 2013, she visited Taiwan with her mother after the death of her grandfather, Gong 公. In 2017, she went back on her own to spend a few months to explore the island’s natural environs and immerse in her ancestral language, Mandarin. At the same time, she wanted to get close to a family history that she had just begun to unearth. Upon her grandmother’s death in Niagara Falls, Lee’s mother discovered a sealed envelope containing letters that her Gong had written but never sent, maybe to record his own life before Alzheimer’s snatched his memory away.
Gong was a pilot with the famous Flying Tigers during WWII, at that time under the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, defending the country against Japanese invasion. After WWII, the country was torn by a civil war. As the Communists took control, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. That was when Gong moved to Taiwan and continued his pilot career and became a trainer as well.
Gong met Lee’s grandmother, Po 婆, in Taiwan and made a home there for decades until they immigrated to Canada in the 1980’s. Being rejected his flying credentials and too old to start all over again to be a pilot in a new country, Gong conceded with a job as a factory janitor. A sad but typical immigrant story.
Lee’s grandmother, Po, was born in Nanjing, China, and was there at the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (Lugou Bridge 蘆溝橋事變), which sparked the Sino-Japanese war in July, 1937, often noted as the beginning of the Pacific front of WWII, two years before Hitler invaded Poland. As a young teenager, Po had to escape the subsequent Nanjing massacre in the hands of the Japanese. Lee’s short few pages of Po’s experience succinctly describe the horrors of the atrocity which she read about only in her twenties in the British Library. Po’s war experience had remained bitterly hidden. To some, grandparents sitting by the fire telling grandchildren their life story is a romantic myth.
As they settled in Taiwan, Gong and Po never returned to mainland China even after the travel ban between China and Taiwan was lifted in 1987. The home that each of them had known when they were young had long disappeared.
Lee’s book is a remarkable narrative of a granddaughter trying to piece together a family history while weaving in her own interests and specialization as an environmental historian and nature lover. The storytelling is a beautiful tapestry of multiple yarns. Lee’s use of metaphors from the natural world are exquisite and eloquent; the juxtapositions of natural history with family history alongside the author’s personal quest make Two Trees a multi-layered and intriguing read.
Taiwan is an island just eighty-nine miles wide, but with a central mountain range that rises close to thirteen thousand feet, resulting in a huge variety of habitats rich in endemic biodiversity. The Portuguese first gave it the name Ilha Formosa: ‘Beautiful Island.’ But they later abandoned it, same with the Spaniards and the Dutch. Then it was colonized by the Japanese, and after WWII, occupied by the Nationalist Chinese. Records and management of the natural environs of the island fall in with the history of colonization.
The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: 島 Island, 山 Mountain, 水 Water, and 林 Forest. The title “Two Trees Make A Forest” actually is a simple tip to write the Chinese word for forest, which is made up of two ideographic symbol for wood 木 .
It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, 島, doesn’t involve water, but an ideogram of a bird hovering over a mountain. One doesn’t need to be surrounded by water to be insular. The natural environs point to that notion. When describing the biodiversity on Taiwan’s mountain peaks, Lee writes:
… for many species there is little place to migrate but skyward. Tree lines creep ever higher, and the realm of the cold-loving species shrinks. Bound to the summits, these species can live a lonely life. And in this way, mountains become islands of their own. (p.52)
The accounts of Lee’s hiking and the rare sightings are not all as idyllic as one would expect, like the frightening moment when confronting a territorial macaque (rock monkey) alone on a mountain trail, or the storm and rain that pounded her hiking group as they climbed the legendary, ‘haunted’ Qilai Mountain range. The feeling of being an outsider is particularly acute in situations like these.
This is not a place I could simply learn, and it is not mine anyway. I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves. (p.111)
Back to the liminal concept that pervades her previous book Turning about her experience in Germany. Again, Lee finds parallels of her personal situation in the natural world. Like the mangroves growing by the shore in between land and sea, she sees herself existing in such a liminal, in-between space. Having only a child’s level of Mandarin growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself unequipped to communicate in Taiwan. Here’s one encounter:
A taxi driver asked me why my Mandarin was so good for a foreigner. “My mother is from Taiwan,” I explained, and he turned on me in reprimand. “Then why is your Mandarin so poor?” (p. 106)
Wherever she goes, language grants her the potential for more meaningful engagement with the people in Taiwan, or in Germany. Instead of a geographical location, language could well represent home. “And where I couldn’t find words, I fell to other languages: to plants, to history, to landscape.” (p. 17) Indeed, Nature is a language unto its own.
The Taiwan sojourn is her attempt to be in touch with a family’s past. It is Gong’s death that elicits a deep lament in her. When he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s, Po took Gong back to Taiwan, found a care home for him and came back to Canada on her own. Gong died a lonely death, with which Lee strives to come to terms.
Edward Said wrote that the pathos of exile is the impossibility of return… Whatever the circumstances, there exists tragedy in being forced from home… Alzheimer’s brings another exile: from the imagined world of past and memory.
In Turning, Lee takes to swimming in lakes to confront her fears and personal loss. In Two Trees, dealing with regrets and longings for a grandfather who had died all alone, she has turned to the trees and deep woods in Gong’s homeland:
I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us. (p. 253)
Like her experience in Turning, Nature once again embraces and absorbs her joy and grief; it too is home.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts by Jessica J. Lee, Catapult, New York, August, 2020, 282 pages.
Jessica J. Lee is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She received a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics in 2016. Two Trees Make a Forest was noted in Best Books of the Year by New Statesman and The Observer. She is founding editor of the Willowherb Review, publishing nature writing by writers from diverse cultures.
My thanks to Catapult, New York, for providing the reviewer’s copy and photos.
Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.
Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.
What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.
Episode 1 – Mark Rylance
From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.
Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.
Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.
Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter
While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.
Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:
This is a mixed bag, but with one thing in common. These are all unexpected encounters.
First off, there are lots of deer in our neck of the woods, white-tailed deer, albeit I usually come across adults or at least teenagers. Seldom do I see a young fawn, pure and fresh, like Bambi. He was scared to see me, of course, he was all alone.
For this little guy in the following pic, at first I thought it was a gopher but the shape was long and slender. When I uploaded the photo on my laptop did I realize it was a weasel. So, this is my first time seeing a summer weasel. Taking this snap shot is easy and fast, serendipitous. My winter weasel was totally different. I hid behind a tree in -20C temp. for over an hour. But well worth it. Here are the two seasonal coats:
And I caught sight of this tiny inch-long critter crossing the road. Yes, I give my neck full exercise when I walk, look up for birds and down for bugs. But what is this?
Here’s the head. The white spikes are like bristles of a bottle brush. Later I find its name to be Lophocampa maculata, a caterpillar that will turn into the Spotted Tussock Moth or Yellow-Spotted Tiger Moth. It was first described by American entomologist and botanist Thaddeus William Harris in 1841. I’ll just call it bristle head. No offence. Love the colours.
And finally, on a crazy, windy afternoon. I was walking by the river and it felt like a storm looming. Suddenly I was the spectator of a Merganser Race, the mood exhilarating. I can see what Wordsworth mean, ‘My heart leaps up.’
And sure enough, the gulls followed. All of a sudden, hundreds of them took to the sky, maybe a premonition of an imminent change in weather:
Serendipity. That’s one of my favourite words.
Whenever I go out birding, I’ve this expectant mindset: ‘Surprise me,’ or, ‘Make my day.’
Here’s one serendipitous find a few weeks ago. The Osprey family. I’ve since gone back to visit them many times and see their baby grow.
Papa watching over the family home:
Mama and baby in the nest. I’ve since learned that other than just the size or the plumage, I can tell the difference between an adult and a juvenile Osprey by the colour of their eyes. Mom’s are yellow, baby’s orange. You can’t see here in this small pic, but on my laptop they’re dramatic.
A nice spot to build a home, by the river:
Just a couple weeks later, baby has come out of the nest. Sunbathing with Mom. Baby’s the one closer to the nest. Yes, almost as tall as Mom.
And a few days later, trying his wings. Who taught Baby to fly? I never saw any training wheels. You might ask, how do you know it’s Baby and not Mom? The secret’s in the eyes.
Even blew a raspberry at me:
Kids these days, sure grow up fast.
Vikram Seth’s epic novel (1993) of over 1,300 pages is turned into a 6-episode TV mini-series. The setting is India during the 1950’s. The story is the all-consuming duty of a mother finding a suitable boy for her daughter. The story might be culturally specific, but the mission definitely surpasses ethnic boundaries. The BBC production is helmed by the acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, 2016; The Namesake, 2006). Screenplay by Andrew Davies, who scripted Pride and Prejudice (1995). He’s done plenty since, more Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo… now Seth. This did stir up some dissatisfied ripples questioning whether he’s a suitable scribe for this series.
Frank Herbert’s 1965 acclaimed sci-fi series is one of the highly anticipated movies to come out in 2020. Helmed by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a notable name with works such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Arrival (2016). Screenplay by Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008). Appealing cast with Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, 2014, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) and Timothée Chalamet (Little Women, 2019) as father and son travelling to the planet Arrakis. Top supporting cast with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (Skyfall, 2012), Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! 2008), Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go, 2010).
Another book by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt after his Sisters Brothers was adapted for the big screen in 2018. French Exit is a good one for those looking for short and quirky reads. A New York socialite, using up most of her fortunes and years is moving to Paris with her adult son and their cat to escape financial woes. The book isn’t much of a story I feel, so hopefully the movie will work better. Considering the cast, I remain hopeful: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots, and Tracy Letts (the cat).
Paulette Jiles’s National Book Award nominated novel is a Civil War era story about an aging itinerant news reader who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people. Goodreads says: “exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel … that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.” Tom Hanks is tasked to portray this character, reuniting with his Captain Philips (2013) director Paul Greengrass. Adapted screenplay by Luke Davies (Lion, 2016).
Directed and screenplay written by Joel Coen, I’m curious to see if this is a deadpan version of the Bard’s play. But then again, when I think of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens or just Joel here, could make it double toil and trouble, plain bloody too. Denzel Washington is Lord Macbeth, Frances McDormand is his Lady. Think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), this lady can wreak some havoc.
And then there are the remakes. West Side Story and Rebecca are two of the more anticipated ones.
West Side Story (2020)
A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998, and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony, and Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.
Directed by Ben Wheatley, Armie Hammer is Maxim de Winter, Lily James, Mrs. de Winter, and Kristin Scott Thomas is Mrs. Danvers. What I’m most interested in, however, is the production design, which will be all burned down or undergo some tricky CGI effects is to be seen. Six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood heads up that department. Her works include Darkest Hour (2017), Anna Karenina (2012), and Atonement (2007) among many other titles. So, I think Manderley the set is in good hands. But will the whole production beat the classic 1940 Alfred Hitchcock noir with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine?
Release Info. (as of today) of the adaptations are listed in the following. As this has been a strange year with lots of uncertainties, the dates and where to see them could change in the coming days or months:
A Suitable Boy – on BBC One TV now. E1 started on Sunday July 26 at 9 pm, and the rest on five consecutive Sundays after that. It’s not available in North America yet. It’s a selection at TIFF2020 in Sept. Hopefully I can bring you all a first-hand review.
Dune – in theatres December, 2020
French Exit – Premiere at New York Film Festival, October, 2020. After that not sure about distribution.
News of the World – in theatres December, 2020
Macbeth – to be released in USA 2021, details unknown.
West Side Story – in theatres December, 2020
Rebecca – Online in October
Click on the links embedded in this post to read my Ripple reviews.
Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.
Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.
As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.
The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.
Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.
At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.
Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.
Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”
Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.
Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.
Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.
A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.
An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.
Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.
Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.
A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
As an homage to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, as well as a nod to the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation (1985), Asian American author Kevin Kwan has crafted another satire seven years after his Crazy Rich Asians started a surprise breakout trilogy.
If Forster were to read Kwan’s latest work, the stand-alone novel Sex and Vanity, would he be baffled by 21st century opulence, or shocked to see the social issues he wrote about in A Room with a View such as class and gender inequality still exist more than a century later? Kwan also throws in racism, of which Forster was keenly critical in his writing; A Passage to India comes to mind.
While the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was met with resounding applause from the Asian community, not everyone who shared the ethnicity felt represented, for they might not have been Asian born, or have never set foot in Singapore, Hong Kong, or China. This just speaks to the fact that there’s a myriad of cultural and geographical lineages when one uses the umbrella term ‘Asian’ or, ‘Chinese’.
This time, the net is cast out to those who are American born, second and third generations of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the hapas, Hawaiian for ‘half’, people of mixed Asian and white heritage. The net reaches to others too, in particular New Yorkers, and fans of the Big Apple. Indeed, Kwan’s book reads like a love letter to New York City, to which the author pays tribute as: “The City that took me in, nurtured me, and changed me forever.”
Sex and Vanity follows the same structure and plot development as A Room with a View, even keeping the first names of the main characters. Kwan only needs to plug in the modern-day parallels splashed with his over-the-top descriptions of opulence and extravaganzas.
For those who’re apprehensive to pick up the book because of the two words in its title, maybe this would bring some relief: the former wouldn’t even make half a page of note in Normal People (by Sally Rooney) and the latter is wrapped in mirth. The book is pure escapism for summer reading fun.
To his credit, Kwan has a keen eye for social prestige other than materialism. When first mentioned, character names are followed by a list of schools they have attended. Surely, in America and many parts of the world, one is defined by one’s alma mater. Naming even the kindergarten is exactly the case in point. Prestige starts early.
Part One takes place in Capri. Nineteen-year-old, Upper East Side born and raised hapa Lucie Churchill (92nd Street Y Nursery School / Brearley / Brown, Class of ’16) is on the Italian island with her cousin, forty-something Charlotte (Rippowam / Miss Porter’s / Smith) as chaperone. The fun doesn’t end with these bracketed school names. For further reading pleasure, Google them if not familiar.
The cousins are there to attend the week-long celebrations of Lucie’s childhood friend, Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu’s marriage to the son of an Italian mogul. The Hotel Bertolucci fails to give them a room with an ocean view which Charlotte had requested.
Overhearing Charlotte’s complaint, fellow wedding guest Rosemary Zao offers to exchange with them their view rooms she and her son George occupy. Why, she’s inundated with ocean views. Her home overlooks the Hong Kong harbour and she has beach front properties in Sydney and Lanikai, Hawaii. But Charlotte doesn’t take this easily. The Churchills have their pride, and prejudice.
Unlike his mother, George (Diocesan Boys’ School / Geelong Grammar / UC Berkeley, Class of ’15) is a man of few words. Actually, he is the perfect son-in-law for any Tiger Mom: on top of his “surfer, pretty boy physique,” he’s a high achiever. He can keep his cool and administer CPR to save a stranger and play “Goldberg Variations” in spontaneity in front of an admiring crowd (not at the same time). What more, George is honest with his feelings and passion.
The week-long wedding celebration is screen-ready with Capri’s natural and architectural beauty as backdrops.
Throughout the book, Kwan has dropped a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search for famous names, real-life or fictional, like the Crawleys of Downton, Darcy of Pemberley, “The World of Suzie Wong” (The actress Nancy Kwan being the author’s distant cousin), Monsieur de Givenchy, who comes out of retirement to design the wedding dress, and sightings of one Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory.
What more, the renown diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs in the wedding celebration, singing several operatic numbers and culminating with “O mio babbino caro”, the aria with which she’d swept the film with such a romantic overtone. For Lucie, however, the short yearning in her heart for George is soon suppressed as the week-long Capri escapade draws to a close.
Part Two sees Lucie in her niche, NYC, five years later. An up-and-coming art consultant, Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike, a billennial (billionaire millennials) raised with new money from oil-rich Texas. A Venetian canal flows through his New York West Village town house with full-time gondoliers in service. His marriage proposal to Lucie outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art involves the NYC Ballet, a marching band, the Mayor’s office, and the Big Apple Circus. Exactly.
Lucie has always been torn about her bicultural heritage, especially when she and her brother Freddie were left on their own with their mother after father Reggie Churchill died of a heart attack when she was just a child. The Churchills always boast about their pedigree being Mayflower descendants, rising in financial prowess through banking and inheriting Gilded Age fortune. In the building that matriarch Granny Churchill lives, even the doormen are snobbish.
Not that Luci’s Chinese lineage has nothing to be proud of. Her mother Marian Tang (Seattle Country Day / Lakeside / Harvard / Columbia PhD) is a well-established academic endowed with skin so young to look like a twenty-something. Despite being born in America, to the Churchills, Marian is a foreigner.
Lucie sees her situation clearly: “To Granny, no matter how graciously she behaved, no matter what she accomplished, she would always only ever be the poor little china doll.” So, marrying her WASP, crazy rich fiancé Cecil Pike should end all spite. But what she lacks is the view that she’s just a thing to boost Cecil’s ego and his brand.
Then George reappears. Kwan keeps his cues interesting to lead Lucie to see a clearer view of her situation, an obvious parallel with Forster’s story. Further, Kwan pinpoints racism even within families, as Lucie notes “it’s possible to love someone without realizing you’re being racist toward them.” Without getting serious and didactic, he handles these issues with bold, comical strokes.
If by the likely chance the book is picked up for a movie adaptation, my choice for a director would be New York born and raised Whit Stillman (Collegiate School / Millbrook School / Harvard) to balance with some soul and subtlety. Indeed, Kwan and Stillman (Love & Friendship, 2016; Metropolitan, 1990) would make a fine filmmaking hapa.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
NOTE: Reading Forster’s A Room with a View and watching the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation would enhance your reading pleasure of Sex and Vanity.
UPDATE: Sony Pictures and SK Global have acquired the film rights to Sex and Vanity.
I thank Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer copy of Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Far Eastern Kindergarten / ACS / Clear Lake High / UHCL / Parsons School of Design), 315 pages, 2020.
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Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is on Amazon Prime Video now. I watched it twice in the theatre last year, now rewatching it at home gives me another kind of pleasure: more intimate, easier to observe nuances, and replay memorable lines on demand. It remains one of the best films I’ve watched in recent years.
Reposting here my review. Hope you have a chance to watch it.
Little Women is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.
So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.
The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.
Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.
The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War.
A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.
The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.
A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.
Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:
And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.
In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:
Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.
The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
One of my favourite poems is William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud. Here’s the first stanza:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Last week, that’s what I did. I followed a trail I seldom took and let it lead me to serendipity, like sighting this bald eagle. I didn’t see any daffodils, but lots of wildflowers which I couldn’t name.
Many, many summers ago, I was pondering about which subject to major in for university. Botany came to mind, for I was fond of plants. At the end, I decided on studying humans instead, hence, remaining illiterate when it comes to flora of all kinds, especially their technical terms. I must say, though, as you may well know, humans are much harder to decipher. Knowing names is the easiest part.
Here are some of the wildflowers I saw. If you can help me name them, so much the better. But let’s start off with this one which I know, and that’s our Provincial Flower: The Wild Rose.
Are these some kind of wild daisies?
Love the colour of these delicate blue petals:
A kind of Goldenrod?
Fuchsia isn’t a favourite colour of mine, but it looks stunning for flowers. This one particularly stands out, for it’s almost 6 ft. high:
I’d to stretch my hands way up to take this closeup:
A similar kind that’s a bright bluish purple. I caught it just when an insect was heading straight to it:
That’s when I realized, surely, for me these might be objects of natural beauty, for many, they are food and sustenance. Like these bees feeding on nectar:
And of course, berries for the birds:
I’ll let Wordsworth have the last word. Just replace daffodils with any of the above…
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Try it, dancing on the couch.
For the first time in months, I set foot into a public library yesterday. To be exact, three different branches, to make up for a regular activity I’d enjoyed before the Covid lockdown. Our library system is very modern, creative, and full of resources, a pleasure to visit. The New Central Library opened two years ago had become a tourist point-of-interest even.
Yesterday I didn’t head all the way downtown to the main attraction (picture above). A visit to a branch closer to my home welcomed me with numerous brand new paperbacks. As they’ve been closed for a few months, new books kept coming in and now they have the chance to display them. Piles and piles of them, all brand new. I couldn’t resist but drove to two other branches just to check out their new offerings.
The following is a list of books I got from my library escapade yesterday. Just in time for the summer staycation. All pristine, never-opened (that’s important in this Covid time) brand new paperbacks. Which ones have you read? What books are you reading this summer, this very extraordinary summer. I welcome your two pebbles thrown into the Pond and share some ripples with us.
Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks –– I was thinking of reading this for ‘Paris in July’ all because of the title, but not sure now since it’s quite late in the month. I’ve always wanted to read a S. Faulks novel knowing his work had been turned into movies and TV series, e.g. Charlotte Gray and Birdsong.
Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand –– I haven’t read any books by Elin Hilderbrand, hailed as the ‘Queen of Beach Reads’. Two of her books are in development now for a movie. I’m far from the beach, any beach, but hope this one can offer some sunny breaks at least during my staycation.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow –– The book cover is the main attraction plus this blurb on the front cover: “Unbrearably beautiful.” And some more on the back, like this one: “A gorgeous, aching love letter to stories, storytellers, and the doors they lead us through. Absolutely enchanting.” How can I resist?
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –– I knew about this book, actually have been debating if I should read it without having read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I’d appreciated Rushdie’s writing, imaginative and original, but also not easily accessible. Will see.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell –– I’ve seen this title everywhere, and know the general story idea, and all the controversies and ripples it has generated. I’d just like to sit down quietly without having to be influenced by the cacophony from all sides, and just read it.
Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf –– Subtitle: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’ve started reading it and find it quite interesting. I missed Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid so here’s a catch-up and a welcome update. A scholar, educator and developmental researcher on reading and the brain, Wolf is an advocate for ‘deep reading.’ This is going to be a slow read.
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
––– Mary Oliver