Reading the Season is an annual post on Ripple Effects in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas festivities. An interlude to find rest and to ponder on the reason for the season. Lately, I reread the popular fiction All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; my mind is haunted by the horrors of a world war raged by a madman. And then I came across this book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections of Advent and Christmas. What a timely discovery!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in WWII Germany. A brilliant intellectual who received his doctorate from the University of Berlin at age 21, Bonhoeffer bravely stood against Hitler, involved in the Resistance, captured, imprisoned, and paid the ultimate price. He was hanged at the Flossenbürg prison on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched in, and three weeks before Hitler took his own life.
Here are a few excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger:
The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty… Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world… It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.
Replace the word mystery with miracle…
Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous… God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.
For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep in their souls from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.
And you think he’s intense and serious, well, yes he is, brilliant in insights and brave to speak truth to power. But from his other writings, there’s also humour, equally enlightening. Here’s a quote taken from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. (Click on the link to my read-along post)
If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.
Like to read the book first before watching the movie adaptation in the theatre or streaming? Here’s a new list.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is being developed into a Netflix mini-series. To seek authentic representation, the filmmakers embarked on a global search for a blind actor to play Marie-Laure, one of the two main characters in the historical novel set in WWII. Penn State doctoral student Aria Mia Loberti won the casting call. An outstanding academic achiever, this will be Loberti’s acting debut.
A Man Called Otto (Ove) by FredrikBackman
The English version of the heartwarming Swedish novel-turned-movie A Man Called Ove, about a grumpy old man’s suicide attempt being disrupted by his boisterous new neighbours. The title character’s name is changed to a relatively more common name and will be played by an even more familiar name, Tom, Tom Hanks.
A Haunting in Venice (Hallowe’en Party) by Agatha Christie
The adaptation of Hercule Poirot’s 32nd mystery will be directed by once again, Kenneth Branagh, his third Poirot role, after Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. Set in post WWII Venice where the renowned detective finds himself again as an accidental sleuth in a murder mystery. An eclectic cast with Kelly Reilly (abrasive Yellowstone schemer), James Dornan (no shade), Tina Fey (no kidding), and Michelle Yeoh (for kicks?)
A Time for Mercy by John Grisham
A sequel to Grisham’s debut novel A Time to Kill (1989). Matthew McConaughey will reprise his role as lawyer Jake Brigance, from the 1996 movie adaptation. A Time for Mercy (2020) is Grisham’s third Brigance novel after Sycamore Row (2013). It will be adapted into an HBO series.
The Ambassadors by Henry James
In pre-production and to be directed by Mike Newell whose filmography include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Great Expectations, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, among 78 titles, which means, he can do rom coms and literary adaptations. The heavy and serious Henry James just might get a makeover under the helm of Newell. I have this book on my shelf, now’s a good time to dust it off.
The Critic (Curtain Call) by Anthony Quinn
A crime thriller in a theatre setting. According to IMDb, it’s a story of ambition, blackmail and desire… a whodunnit wrapped in a Faustian pact. And the cast just makes it hard to resist: Leslie Manville, Gemma Arterton, Romola Garai, Mark Strong, Ian McKellen, Ben Barnes. Directed by Anand Tucker (Girl with a Pearl Earring)
The Maid by Nita Prose
The popular novel would make one entertaining movie. Molly Gray, a maid in a luxury hotel, is caught in a web of a murder mystery, her innocence and pure heart is no defence from the accusations and schemes of the real world. Many readers and reviewers place her in an autistic spectrum but I just see her as the female version of Sheldon Cooper (of The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon). Florence Pugh (Oscar nom for her role as Amy in Little Women, 2019) is on board to play Molly, a good choice.
Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou
Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai’s own production company, Extracurricular, is in talks to adapt Chou’s debut novel for an Apple TV+ series. That’s a most interesting combination of talents. Book is a satire, yes, LOL humour at times, about a Taiwanese American doctoral student playing literary sleuth and trying to stay afloat in the turbulent academic sea. Reminds me of Sandra Oh in The Chair.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Kristin Hannah’s worldwide bestseller about two estranged sisters during the German occupation of France in WWII will be played by real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, each a star in their own right. Its release had been delayed, but might not need to wait till 2023. The latest info is late December, 2022.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carr´é
A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us, for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage… would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.
This could be taken as dialogues from Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, or, Everything Everywhere All At Once, both 2022 movies flying high on the trending theme of multiple universes. But of course, the excerpt is Proust’s, and the universes he refers to are internal ones.
The above quote is taken from In Search of Lost Time Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive (343), as the narrator Marcel acknowledges the infinite views that can arise from personal experiences of different individuals filtered through their own subjective lens. There are as many viewpoints as there are people, therefore, every object or event can evoke a variety of perspectives and responses. Subjectivity is Proust’s master stroke. Take this other excerpt from the same volume. As Marcel awakens in the morning:
… from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another! Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning. (V:250)
Today, November 18th, is the centenary of Proust’s death at the age of 51 (1871-1922). A look at his contemporaries could help us place him in a historical context and probably source the influence of his introspective sensitivity and his ultra-reflexive writing. Again, the disclaimer here is that, I’m no Proust scholar… mere ripples out of my own tiny universe. I can think of the following iconic figures as I consider the historical context of Proust’s writing.
It was the era of psychoanalysis. I’m sure Freud (1856-1939) would have been eager to apply his own theory to explain the case of Marcel’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss as he lies in bed waiting for her to come up to his room every night. And then there was Carl Jung, (1875 – 1961), whose theory on personality and the unconscious could have sparked some light into Marcel’s epiphany of the involuntary memories: ephemeral flashbacks that fuel his imaginative mind with creative thoughts. It’s such kind of subliminal emergence of Time past that fills him with joy and meaning.
And of course, there are the other writers whom Marcel has mentioned in the book, Henry James (1843-1916) whose brother is also a prominent psychologist of the time, William James (1842-1910), across the Atlantic. Another notable, Marcel’s enthusiasm is heightened when talking about Dostoevsky (1821-1881), the master of characterizing the human psyche.
And what’s with all the space travel idea, flying from star to star, while the Wright brothers had just successfully flown the very first aeroplane only in 1903? Huge imagination and insight for one to think of multiverses at that time. I’m not sure what the original French word is. Those who read In Search of Lost Time in French, is the word the same as its English translation, ‘universe’? (V: 250, 343)
Reading this sparked a personal flashback as I remember my experience of visiting “The Infinity Mirrored Room” created by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto a few years ago. Infinite reflections from these tiny silver balls:
Having said all the above about Proust’s sensitivity to subjective universes, here’s the rub. It is utterly ironic that these insights are taken from Volume V: The Captive and The Fugitive. Why, here in this volume, Marcel has taken Albertine captive in his parents’ home where he stays while in Paris. He first met Albertine in Balbec; she has now become his lover/mistress. No, she isn’t in chains, but the restraints Marcel puts on her is psychological rather than physical. He tracks her every move, “whenever the door opened I gave a start.” (494) In reality, there just might be two captives in that house, Albertine and Marcel himself, both caught in a psychological tug of war, maintaining a fragile relationship based on lies and evasiveness.
As much as he knows about his own thoughts and feelings, or even that of his housekeeper Francoise’s, Marcel’s empathy does not extend to Albertine’s universe. He might think his keeping her in his house is for her own good, “to save her from her orgiastic life which Albertine had led before she met me.” (474). Yet his ‘love’ for her is built upon his own possessiveness and jealousy; his displeasure with her intensifies when he learns it’s with other women that she seeks intimacy. Eventually, fleeing a stifling life, gasping for the air of freedom, Albertine leaves the house abruptly one morning. The captive now becomes the fugitive.
The events that follow are like a test of Marcel’s love for Albertine, showing if it is genuine or merely self-indulgence, egotism, or even just lust. Spoiler Alert from here on.
Marcel has never gone out to look for the fugitive. Until one day, he gets the news that Albertine has died in a horse-riding accident. Surely there is grief and pain in the immediate aftermath, but what does he miss most? “I needed her presence, her kisses.” (642) While he goes on to reminisce the good and the bad sides of Albertine, not long after that he has given her up for another:
The memory of Albertine had become so fragmentary that it no longer caused me any sadness and was no more now than a transition to fresh desires, like a chord which announces a change of key. And indeed, any idea of a passing sensual whim being ruled out, in so far as I was still faithful to Albertine’s memory, I was happier at having Andrée in my company than I would have been at having an Albertine miraculously restored… my tenderness for her, both physically and emotionally, had already vanished. (809-810)
“like a chord which announces a change of key…” O the fickleness of desire! The deceits of hidden motives and the capricious emotion one calls love. Marcel might be insightful in acknowledging multiple universes within individuals, pure love remains elusive. Dr. Strange crushes his enemies from the multiverse spectacularly, but the beast that lurks within oneself might be more formidable a foe to conquer.
“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” – Anatole France, French writer and poet
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.
My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.
I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.
So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.
There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.
At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.
In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.
So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.
A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:
The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)
The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.
Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.
As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.
Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.
In 2008, Ann Mah, food writer and Francophile wife of an American diplomat, had her deepest desire realized when her husband Calvin was appointed a post in Paris. Having moved to three different cities in the previous five years: New York, Beijing, Washington, D.C., a three-year sojourn in Paris was beyond her wildest dream.
Then came the rub. Soon after they arrived in the City of Light, Calvin was called away to another diplomatic mission: in Baghdad, Iraq, by himself for one year. Just months arriving in Paris, Ann had a taste of fate in the most ironic form: to live in her dream City, alone. She knew that would probably be the hardest year of her life.
To fight off the loneliness and isolation she was experiencing, Mah began to look to another diplomat’s wife in Paris sixty years earlier for inspiration and channel her pioneering gusto: Julia Child.
The title is a giveaway. Mastering the Art of French Eating––instead of ‘Cooking’ as Child’s book––is a humble homage to the food journalist’s heroine. While she didn’t follow Child to the prestigious culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, in her year of living in France all by herself, Mah charted her own culinary journey to various regions in the country to taste and research on the cuisine of the land. The subtitle is also enticingly delicious: Lessons in food and love from a year in Paris.
In ten chapters, Mah presents the ten places she had visited, from Paris bistros to farmhouse kitchen, haute cuisine to communal cooking, she records her experience in the specific locales and their signature dish along with historical perspective. And at the end of each chapter, the recipe:
From her last name, you might also be curious about her own background. Yes, within this little food memoir are sprinkled with stories of Mah growing up Chinese American in California. While her love of France brewed very early in her life following her family tour there as a child, she wasn’t given the chance to learn the language that she loved, French, but had to go to Chinese school on Saturdays as stipulated by some sort of a ‘tiger mom’. Within these chapters, then, embeds the quest for identity and personhood. Here’s a quote that more or less sums it up:
“Diplomacy has been called the world’s second-oldest profession, and ever since the sixteenth century––and maybe even before––other wives of diplomats have endured similar existential crises, fading into obscurity while their husbands’ achievements were recorded in history. Perhaps, then, that is why I turned to Julia [Child] for inspiration… not just because she loved food, and had also lived in China, and was also a trailing spouse, just like me––but because I was looking for proof that professional success and marriage to a diplomat were not mutually exclusive.” –– P. 218
A delightful read for Paris in July and actually, anytime.
I listened to the audiobook first then read the hardcopy: Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love by Ann Mah, Viking Penguin Books, 2013. 273 pages. The audiobook is narrated bythe actress Mozhan Marnò (The Blacklist, House of Cards), ideal for learning the pronunciation of the French words. Hardcopy is good for getting the recipes, and makes the narratives and anecdotes more memorable.
December 2021 was a hectic month, thus the delay of this year-end wrap up. 2021 was another unusual year. No in-person at a theatre to watch movies, but there were several excellent titles. Glad I could watch them online. As for books, I surprised myself as I counted over 50 books from my list on Goodreads, albeit I admit, many of them are audiobooks.
Here are the Top Ripples of my 2021. Links are to my reviews.
The Dig – I’d left this one out on my last list by (a huge) mistake, now corrected. This is one of the best movies I’ve watched during the pandemic. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes in their unusual roles based on a true, historic event. Beautifully shot.
Passing – Both book and movie adaptation are very well done.
Nomadland – Oscar 2021 Best Picture, Director and Actress. Both book and film are inspiring.
Minari – Autobiographical pic of Korean American director Lee Isaac Chung. Yuh-Jung Youn won the Oscar Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing the eccentric grandma.
The Father – Anthony Hopkins nails it as the father afflicted with dementia and deservedly won his second Oscar at 84, the oldest Acting Oscar winner.
Promising Young Woman – Excellent Oscar winning screenplay by debut director Emerald Fennell. But it’s Carey Mulligan’s performance that speaks most poignantly for promising young women.
Drive My Car – Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has created a play within a play while adapting a short story by Haruki Murakami. How ingenious is that? Japan’s official entry to the coming 94th Academy Awards. (Link to my review on Asian American Press)
What to read and watch in this new year? Here’s a list of movie adaptations, some just announced, some in development and some filming. If Omicron doesn’t have its way and productions can continue, we’ll likely see them come out this year. Of course, things are as fluid as ever, but the books are always there for us to explore.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
To be directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) with a star-studded cast including Andrew Garfield, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Joe Alwyn and Rooney Mara. Although the 2008 rendition is a fine one, I welcome a fresh take. Andrew Garfield has proven to be highly versatile, would make an effective Charles Ryder. I’m eager to see Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain, and Ralph Fiennes would likely deliver lots of drama, especially under the helm of Guadagnino.
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
Published in Jan 2018, selected as Reese’s Book Club pick in June 2019, the adaptation will likely star Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist Susan Green, who is unexpectedly pregnant at 45. Currently a feature film in development by Netflix. The short phrases on the cover make an effective blurb: ‘It’s never too late to bloom,’ and this one: ‘Even the prickliest cactus has its flower.’
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
With every book she published, Irish author Rooney is shot to a higher plane. Conversations with Friends is her debut novel, followed by the acclaimed Normal People, which already has an impressive screen adaptation. Beautiful World, Where Are You is her notable latest whose film rights will likely be snatched up soon I presume. Conversations with Friends is a simpler and more quiet novel, not less entangled with human relationships, with two young people grappling with love and life. Coming out this year as a series on Hulu.
Crying in H Martby Michelle Zauner
The film rights of this wildly popular, food-rich memoir of Zauner growing up Korean American has been sold to MGM’s Orion Pictures. Zauner will be adapting her book to the screen, chronicling her growing up as a mixed race gal in Oregon, and how her relationship with her cancer stricken mother has led her to discover her Asian root. Zauner will also provide the soundtrack for the feature with her own indie music band Japanese Breakfast.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Several of Paul Gallico’s stories had been adapted onto screen, on top of his own screenwriting work. This one sounds cheery, just right for an uncertain new year. Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, discovers Dior when tidying the fancy wardrobe of one of her clients, Lady Dant. Paris becomes her dream and goal. When finally she has saved enough to head over to the House of Dior in Paris, she finds a new world and adventure awaits her. Delightful, isn’t it? What’s more enticing is the cast, two ladies, Leslie Manville and Isabel Huppert.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
This will be the second adaptation of Ferrante’s works, after The Lost Daughter (my Ripple review coming soon.) Another Netflix development, The Lying Life will be a series to be shot in Naples. Giovanna is a young woman growing up in Neapolitan society struggling to navigate the adult world and seeking for what’s real. The series will be in Italian, but just like Ferrante’s books, the appeal and relevance will be international.
She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
Subtitled: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. NYT journalists Kantor and Twohey were winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their work in exposing the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s longtime sexual misconduct, incendiary journalism that led to the #MeToo Movement. Screen adaptation directed by Maria Schrader; Carey Mulligan plays Twohey, Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Patricia Clarkson, editor Rebecca Corbett. Mulligan is an ideal cast on the heels of her impressive Oscar nominated role in Promising Young Woman.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A. J. Fikry is a bookseller whose personal life is just as disappointing as the sales of his books. While there are people around him who are steadfast in their support for him, it’s an unexpected package, a baby, outside his door one fateful day that turns his life around and gives him a new view of things. A booklovers’ story. Screenplay written by the author Zevin, directed by Hans Canosa.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Reviewed on the NYT as a Mennonite #MeToo novel, this time the Mennonite community Canadian author Toews writes about is fictional, and the horrors the girls and women experience therein make this a crime thriller. But Toews apparently intends more than just to shock. Deeper issues such as collective guilt, the existence of evil, and forgiveness are explored. Movie adaptation directed by the acclaimed Sarah Polley (Oscar nom Adapted Screenplay for Away From Her), great cast with Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie
This Christie mystery without Hercule Poirot but featuring two amateur sleuths was a beloved novel of British actor Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) back in his youth. He’ll write and direct the 3-part adaptation. Christie’s book, published in 1934, tells the story of two friends while looking for a golf ball discover a dying man whose last words––the eponymous title of the book––lead them to the investigation of the mystery. Laurie fans would be glad to actually see him in a role as Dr. Nicholson.
A lesser known novella by Edith Wharton, included in her book Xingu and Other Stories published in 1916. Two sisters operate a millinery shop, the eponymous Bunner Sisters, designing ladies hat in a run-down district of New York City.
A ladies hat shop in a shabby neighbourhood sounds incompatible and that’s the reality the Bunner sisters are dealing with, business barely sustaining their living with only a little left for a surprise birthday gift. Ann Eliza uses her savings to buy a new clock for younger sister Evelina’s birthday. Thus begins the turn in their lives.
Ann Eliza and Evelina remind me of Elinor and Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The older is almost resigned to her fate but the younger constantly suppresses a bubbling, fleeing spirit yearning for fancier and more adventurous experiences. And that’s Ann Eliza’s wish for her sister as well. As the older sibling, she’s willing to give up her own bliss for Evelina’s happiness.
Well, that’s until lately, when Ann Eliza notices Mr. Herman Ramy, the clock maker who owns a dustier shop than theirs in the neighbourhood. Here’s how Wharton describe Ann Eliza’s change:
All the small daily happenings which had once sufficed to fill the hours now appeared to her in their deadly insignificance; and for the first time in her long years of drudgery she rebelled at the dullness of her life. With Evelina such fits of discontent were habitual and openly proclaimed, and Ann Eliza still excused them as one of the prerogatives of youth.
Anne Eliza finds opportunities to go to the clock shop to meet Mr. Ramy or in other places such as the market, but often comes to disappointments. There’s humour in these circumstances, her best laid plans often go awry, crashed by Evelina unknowingly. Ann Eliza always being the patient and self-sacrificing one, sees her chances slip away. As days go by, fate does seem to smile upon Evelina and leaves Ann Eliza behind.
Any more hints I’ll be spilling out spoilers, and that will crash your enjoyment. There are twists and turns. Looks like Wharton is influenced more by Henry James than Austen in leading her readers into the stark reality of being a woman at that time, and her astute revealing of her characters’ psychological states.
I’m always interested in why a filmmaker thinks a certain literary work is good movie material. Bunner Sisters is now a TV movie in development. Edith Wharton’s most well known, both book and adaptation, is probably The Age of Innocence. Bunner Sisters will be a much smaller project for sure, but still piques my curiosity. The Custom of the Country is also on the drawing board. Hope it will take off soon.
Here’s a piece of fond memory from my road trip to New England a few years ago when I visited Edith Wharton’s home The Mount. Relating to #NovNov event, I’m sharing a photo I took, Wharton’s home library:
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.
Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.
Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)
That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.
The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”
Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)
To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.
The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.
Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.
Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.
The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.
What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.
Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.
I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.
The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.
Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.
What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.
Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.
Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)
Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.
Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.
Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.
Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.
The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:
She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.
In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.
Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:
Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.
Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.
But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:
‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’
‘How do you know?’ she asked.
‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’
So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.
First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.
Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.
The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.
Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.
Thanks to Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting this event for a few years now, albeit this is the first time I join in. Looking at the stacks of book suggestions and reading their lists prompted me to jump on the bandwagon.
Keeping with Ripple Effects’ focus, I’ve selected four novellas for each week of November, books that have a movie adaptation or one in development. I’ll discuss both versions when I post. Here’s my list.
English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career as a biographer. Then in 1977, at the age of 60, she published her first novel. Over the next five years, she published four more. The Bookshop (1978) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in the following year, she won the prize with Offshore (1979).
The Bookshop is adapted into a movie in 2017 by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Cast includes Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson. Filming location is Northern Ireland. Now streaming on Kanopy.com
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929) about blacks passed as white in an acutely discriminatory society.
The movie adaptation is the directorial debut of English actress Rebecca Hall. Now, why would she be interested, or ‘qualified’ to appropriate this topic, write the screenplay and direct the film?
During interviews, Hall had revealed her own mixed race ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who had ‘passed’ as white. Learning about this hidden past of her family has realigned her own identity and prompted her to appreciate her ancestral roots.
Passing is currently released in select theatres for a limited time, and will be on Netflix beginning November 10, 2021.
A lesser known novella by Wharton. Two sisters run a milliner shop decorating bonnets in a rundown neighbourhood of NYC. Leave them in Pulitzer winning Wharton’s hands, their story must be worth telling. I’m always intrigued by what sparks a filmmaker to take up the adaptation of a particular literary work. This will be another opportunity to find out.
Wharton’s most well-known film adaptation is perhaps The Age of Innocent. Bunner Sisters is a much smaller project and hopefully not less poignant. The TV movie is currently filming.
Capote’s 1958 novella has long become a contemporary classic with an equally renown adaptation that ignited the stardom of Audrey Hepburn. She has turned Holly Golightly from just a character to a symbol, just like Cat, the stray she finds in the alley.
The movie won two Oscars, both for the score and the song. The song? ‘Moon River’ by Henry Mancini of course. I still remember clearly the scene where Holly sits on the open window sill strumming a guitar and singing the song longingly. Thanks to Novella in November, I’ll take this time to reread and rewatch.
Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.
I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.
Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.
In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:
“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).
Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.
The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.
The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.
Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.
The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).
Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.
Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:
“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).
To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.