The Brothers Karamazov Part II: What Sparks Joy

“They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.”

Nope, not a quote from Marie Kondo, although she’d totally agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky got that way back in 1880.

As the story unfolds, it looks like joy is what all the characters are searching for whether they know it or not, in their own way and circumstance, through the choices they make.

As rivals for the same woman Grushenka, the old man Fyodor is no match for his son Dmitri. Part I ends with his ex-military son storming into his house to look for Grushenka, thinking Fyodor has hidden her there. In a frantic scene, Dmitri ‘seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel.’ (139)

In Part II, Dostoevsky continues with the morning after, painting a comical Fyodor with purple bruises on his forehead which was wrapped in a red handkerchief, and his swollen, notable nose:

“Meanwhile he got up worriedly and looked in the mirror (perhaps already for the fortieth time that morning) at his nose. He also began to arrange the red handkerchief on his forehead in a more becoming way.” (172)

The comic relief could well be to set up for an intense chapter to come later. As he plans to leave for Moscow the next day and never return to this mess of a family, Ivan the intellectual and aspiring writer shares with his younger brother Alyosha his poem, which he relays in prose in the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Referring to the Inquisition instigated by the Roman Catholic Church spanning several centuries in the Middle Ages, where a papal tribunal would judge and send those who were deemed heretic to be burned at the stake, this chapter could well be Dostoevsky’s critique of the Church. He uses acerbic sarcasm to drive his point home.

In this chapter, the ‘heretic’ the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor puts on trial inside a prison cell is none other than Christ Himself. The Inquisitor’s fierce accusation is that Christ is obstructing what the Church is doing – a scornful irony:

“… on your departure, you handed the work over to us… you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?”

Christ’s grave error, according to The Grand Inquisitor, is that He had ‘overestimated’ man in thinking they would pursue freedom and the transcendent, misdirecting them to false gratification such as the spiritual, raising the bar too high. When tempted by Satan He should have turned stone into bread, for man does live on bread alone and would gladly exchange their free will for it, all because ‘man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’ (256)

“Better that you enslave us, but feed us… give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread.” (253-4)

While Christ aims at pointing man to the spiritual, man seeks physical solutions and an end to their poverty. They would rather have the authority take over so they can be rid of the burden that comes with the freedom of choice, and that is exactly what The Grand Inquisitor says he, i.e. the Church, has done.   

Another accusation: Christ did not come down from the cross when taunted ‘because, again, [He] did not want to enslave man by a miracle but honoured faith that is out of free will.’ A misjudgement, the Grand Inquisitor mocked; this too is heresy.

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To counteract such intense and harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, in the rest of Part II Dostoevsky presents another perspective. It could well be the different sides of struggles in the author’s mind, issues that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but which only reflect the complexity and often co-existence of faith and doubt, idealism and reality.

One man who has understood what it’s like to seek what Christ has intended and found transcendent joy is Father Zosima. Part II wraps up with Alyosha’s tribute to his mentor upon the Elder’s death.

In contrast to The Grand Inquisitor, and as if to answer his own critical judgment on the Church, Dostoevsky furnishes his readers with Elder Zosima’s biography and teachings compiled by Alyosha. Despite a childhood devoted to God influenced by the conversion of his brother shortly before his death, Zosima entered the military Cadet Corps in Petersburg and turned into a ‘wild, cruel, and absurd creature’, pulling him into ‘a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.’ (296)

A sudden spiritual epiphany opens his eyes resulting in a conversion that changes his whole being. He asks forgiveness of his servant whom he’d beaten the night before, as well as the adversary with whom he is supposed to have a duel that day.

These ending chapters of Part II are a joy to read, for they are fresh and positive, a huge contrast to The Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of the failure of man. It is here that leads to the quote in the beginning of this post… Zosima’s gentle critique of his fellowmen:

“The idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world… They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.” (314)

From the powerful but fallible religious institution represented by The Grand Inquisitor to the loving and seemingly powerless Zosima who finds joy and meaning in Christ, Dostoevsky has presented a foil in characterization. The last portrait of Zosima is one of peace and serenity:

“he––suffering, but still looking at them with a smile––silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.” (324)

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Have you written a post on TBK Part II? Let me know so I can link you here. Hope you’re enjoying your read.

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Dolce Belleza

Asian Heritage Month Reading List

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) in the US. At the beginning of May I posted a Movie List. Here’s a Reading List to wrap.

There are more than 400 writers, authors, and poets of AAPI heritage in North America listed on Wikipedia. I’ve only read a handful. So, glad to say I’ve many more to explore. Here’s a list of authors and their works that I’ve read in recent years, all with their own style and story to tell. Links are to my reviews on Ripple Effects or Asian American Press.

Ted Chiang – Hugo and Nebula Award winner

Arrival, previously published as Stories of Your Life, is a novella compiled into a short story collection. Chiang’s style is gentle and cerebral, melding together the humanity, psychology, and the transcendence with concepts of science. The New Yorker describes his writing as ‘soulful’. A worthy film adaptation came out in 2016 garnering 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture the following year.

Nicole Chung – Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography

Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is a bold and candid memoir. Born in Seattle but due to extreme health issues and family situation, her Korean parents put her up for adoption. Chung describes what it’s like to grow up in her white, adoptive parents’ Oregon home, and her urge to seek for her roots. The book details her search for her biological parents. What’s poignant isn’t the search but the results.

Mindy Kaling

While you might think of her as an actress, comedian, director, and producer, Kaling first started as a writer for the popular TV series The Office. Her personal essays are candid sharing of how a woman of Indian descent tried to find a place in a white man’s world of TV and movie production, and made it. Her audiobooks which she narrates––Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? and Why not Me?––are both revealing and highly entertaining.

Kevin Kwan

Don’t get misled by the title Crazy Rich Asians, for the heroine in Kwan’s trilogy isn’t rich, or crazy, and her love though rich, isn’t crazy either. Yes, blame it all on the family then. The not-as-popular newest title Sex and Vanity is my favourite just because I love E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation. This one from Kwan is screen ready… and don’t get misled by the title either.

Celeste Ng

Her debut novel Everything I Never Told You describes what it’s like growing up in a mixed race family, a gem of a book. Ng’s subsequent novel, Little Fires Everywhere is a more fledged out story about the intricacies of parent child relationships in the backdrop of a larger community of mixed races. It’s been turned into a TV mini-series. For this one, I’d enjoyed the book more.

Jhumpa Lahiri – Pulitzer Prize winner

I like many of Lahiri’s works describing Indian immigrants in Northeastern US, especially her short stories, from her debut work, the Pulitzer winning Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake, and her later short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. She had moved to Italy since 2011 and started to learn Italian and writing in her newly adopted language. Another unaccustomed earth to inspire new stories.

Jessica J. Lee – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 winner

Born in Canada to a mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee is a unique voice in environmental writing today. Her debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water describes her venture of swimming in 52 lakes in Germany in one year. Her next book, Two Trees Make A Forest chronicles her grandparents’ journey leaving China to settle in Taiwan after WWII and her own search for her roots on that island via its natural landscape.

Mark Sakamoto – Canada Reads 2018 winner

Forgiveness tells the coming together of two families, one a white Canadian family whose father was a former POW in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, and the other a Japanese Canadian family who had to be sent away to an internment camp while living in Canada during the same time. The marriage of their children bring them together. A very unique story, albeit the writing style and structure may not be as gratifying.

Souvankham Thammavongsa – 2020 Giller Prize winner

Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Canada with her family when she was a young child, Thammavongsa has come a long way from learning English to winning the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize with her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. There are trade-offs involved while gaining a new life. Clarity of insights and poignancy mark her stories as she creates with her adopted language on the page.

Madeleine Thien – Giller and Governor’s General winne

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. It details the horrendous experiences of several classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and the aftermath. Thien’s novel is an epic of a historical fiction set in both China and Canada spanning decades, and a poignant reminder that we should never forget history so not to repeat it, a crucial lesson much needed today.

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The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Part I: What a family!

Nov. 12, 1959 Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz

And I thought Linus was so ingenious with such self-knowledge and view of mankind! But then again, it could be an example of great minds think alike… Charles Schultz and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Reading this first Part of The Brothers Karamazov (TBK) offers me surprising delights, for I find some well known, thought-provoking quotes in here.

The panel above is the last of the comic sequence where a frustrated Linus replies Lucy when she says he can never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind. In TBK, this line is, interestingly, spoken by a doctor, in an anecdote told by the Elder to ‘a lady of little faith’:

“the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” (57)

Here’s the edition I use, references to page numbers in brackets are from this Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.

As I learn about the characterization in Part I, focusing on the father Karamazov and his sons, I can see why Dostoevsky created such a famous line.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – a man described as ‘worthless’, ‘depraved’, ‘muddleheaded’, ‘a buffoon’, and I’d just add womanizer and child abandoner, ‘for the child would have gotten in the way of his debaucheries.’ (p. 10) His eldest is Dmitri from first wife Adelaida Ivanovna, who deserted him and her own son. His second wife Sofia Ivanovna gave birth to Ivan and Alexi, and died when Alexi was four years old. All the brothers grew up away from their father.

Dmitri – Eldest, recently retired from the military. Abandoned by both his parents from birth, was raised by their servant Grigory and his wife for a while then a distant relative took over and some others. What could such a child turn out to be? The military has suited him well, so, at least his physique is well sculpted. However, the animosity towards his father runs deep, with conflicts over inheritance money and, alas, rivalry over the same woman Grushenka.

Ivan – The first son of Fyodor’s second wife. A rational man, argumentative, and an atheist. Expressed his view forthrightly in writing and in speech. While arguing against the existence of an overarching natural law of morality, he presents the scenario that if there’s no God, no immortality, then “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy.” (p. 69) The Garnett translation uses the word ‘cannibalism’, which is much clearer. Without a universal measurement of good and evil, one cannot say what’s moral or not.

“If there is no immortality of the soul, then there is no virtue, and therefore everything is permitted.” (82)

I find it stimulating and gratifying to see Dostoevsky’s characters discuss issues such as this one openly, which reflects what were the important issues of the time. TBK is a novel of ideas, and Dostoevsky brings them out via lively dialogues and sometimes, surprisingly, in light-hearted strokes.

Alexei – or Alyosha, Dostoevesky’s hero as he states in his Author’s Note before the story begins. A youth who has quit his last year of schooling to return to his father’s town, and enters the monastery to follow the Elder Zosima. A ‘holy fool’ like the main character in Dostoevsky’s earlier book The Idiot. Called ‘an angel’ by his father, for this youngest son “pierced his heart… because he saw everything, and condemned nothing.” (94)

The Elder Zosima – Alyosha’s mentor, a spiritual leader in the monastery who gives advice to seekers. The ailing Elder urges Alyosha to ‘go into the world’ and not stay in the monastery after his death, something his youthful follower is perplexed about at this point in the book.

In a chapter entitled ‘A Lady of Little Faith’ (Bk 2, Ch.4), the Elder offers this advice to a woman who is distressed that she can’t find proof to confirm her faith, and the Elder replies,

“… One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?”

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.” (56)

A crucial chapter is Book 2, Ch. 6, where the three brothers and their father meet at the Elder’s cell in the presence of other monks to seek the Elder’s judgement on the dispute between Fyodor and his son Dimitri. Here’s a prime example of how Dostoevsky lets his characters discuss serious issues embedded with comical effects.

During the meeting, the brothers engage with the monks and discuss serious subjects such as European Liberalism, Russian Liberalism, the role of the Church in the State, and most importantly, the existence of God, while an impatient Fyodor can’t wait to air out the family’s dirty laundry. I find the juxtaposition of these conversations deadpan farcical.

“Dmitri Fyodorovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment … with pistols, at three paces … across a handkerchief! Across a handkerchief!’ he ended, stamping with both feet.

Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.

“I thought… I thought,” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancée, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”

 “To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with each word. (73-74)

The most important scene that takes place in this meeting is an action by the Elder Zosima. As if to end the Karamazov father and son confrontation, Zosima gets up, goes to Dmitri, kneels before him and bow, touching the floor with his forehead, astonishes everyone there. (74)

Another character, Rakitin, later interprets the Elder’s action as a foreshadowing, Zosima delivering a prophesy of a crime that will take place which has something to do with Dimitri and his father. I will have to read on to find out.

What a family!

Is it a coincidence that the unlovable head of the family Karamazov has the same first name as our author, Fyodor? I think here is a prime example of Dostoevsky’s humour and acerbic self-sarcasm. I gather that it’s the author’s intention to identify with humanity in all their foibles and failures––the fallen man.

As Dmitri tells Alyosha: “Don’t think I’m just a brute of an officer who drinks cognac and goes whoring. No, brother, I hardly think of anything else, of anything but that fallen man… I think about that man, because I myself am such a man.” (107)

Two other quotes that had sent ripples as I read:

“Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” (108)

“Faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.” (26)

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Here’s the link to the Intro and Invite Post.

Hope you’re enjoying your read. Have you written a post for Part I? Do let me know so I can link it here.

Dolce Bellezza

What’s That Mark’s Reading!?

O Brother (cheerily), First of May

May has arrived! The Brothers Karamazov Read Along thus begins.

Your part of the world might be all green and colourful, more conducive to outings and nature wandering than reading. But then again, you can read outdoor too. Just bring the book along and sit under a tree … in a lawn chair, and enjoy the warm breeze.

As for me at the Pond, things aren’t that rosy yet. But I have blue sky, white clouds, and buds bursting out on trees.

All are welcome as we start our slow and leisurely reading of the classic which critics hail as Dostoevsky’s culminating, greatest work (pub. 1880, his last novel). Here’s a schedule of our posting dates, according to the four sections of the book:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

If you’re not a blogger, you can still read together with us. On the posting date, stop by and leave your thoughts as a comment. Or, you might have read it before, several times, I welcome your insights!

Happy May! Happy Reading!

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For more details:

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Invite Post

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along, May – July, 2021

Here we go again. Every few years on Ripple, I’d entertain an urge to have people gather at the Pond to read a book together, virtually of course. As we’re (here above the 49th) riding through a third wave of COVID right now with stay-home measures for many, how we need that camaraderie even more.

And why The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Just because I’ve always wanted to read it but haven’t. I know some of you may have read this literary classic already. Maybe now’s a good time to re-read?

I recently bought a Farrar, Straus and Giroux (NY, 1990) edition pictured above, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Opening it, the first line in the Introduction surprises me. But as I read on, the whole paragraph is motivation itself:

The Brother Karamazov is a joyful book. Readers who know what it is “about” may find this an intolerably whimsical statement. It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest is greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness. But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiousity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing. And therefore, finally, in its vision.

And thanks to Bellezza, I checked on Goodreads and found this quote by Madeleine L’Engle:

“The truly great books are flawed: The Brothers Karamazov is unwieldy in structure; a present-day editor would probably want to cut the Grand Inquisitor scene because it isn’t necessary to the plot. For me The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest novels ever written, and this is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its human faults.”

–– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Those familiar with my previous Read Alongs know I’m all for slow reading. I allow ample time to finish a book, mind you, these are usually longer titles. Read Along at the Pond is a leisurely enjoyment. Here are some previous titles:

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Here’s a tentative schedule for The Brothers Karamazov Read Along. Read within the three-week time frame for each of the four Parts, then post your thoughts at the end of each. Non-bloggers are welcome to join as well. Instead of posting, just go to any participant and leave your thoughts as a comment in their post.

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Posting Dates:

PART I – May 22

PART II – June 12

PART III – July 3

PART IV & Epilogue – July 24

Hope you’d join in the fun! Let me know in the comment.

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Page to Screen Adaptations 2021 and Beyond

2020 is history. Hopefully 2021 will resume as 2019 was. Huh? Right. Things fall apart and don’t appear as they used to be. We’re learning to live with uncertainties. But books are still being written; movies are still being made. Here’s a list of upcoming adaptations. Some have just been announced, some are filming, some completed.

Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway (1950)

The last of Hemingway’s novels published in his lifetime. A love story about a war-ravaged American Colonel, Richard Cantwell, in post WWII Italy. His encounter with a Venetian countess stirs up reminiscences and pondering of love, youth, war, and death. Liev Schreiber and Josh Hutcherson star. Spanish director Paula Ortiz takes the helm.

Anatomy of A Scandal by Sarah Vaughan (2018)

A British upper-class wife Sophie believes her husband James is innocent of the serious criminal charge against him. Prosecutor Kate sets out to prove her wrong. A timely legal case about consent. Michelle Dockery is Barrister Kate, Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend the elite couple trying to hang on to their marriage. The popular thriller will be adapted into a six-part series on Netflix, created by David E. Kelley (Big Little Lies, but all the more, the creator of legal series like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal…), directed by S. J. Clarkson (Jessica Jones).

The Dig by John Preston (2007)

The historical novel is about the 1939 Sutton Hoo dig in Suffolk, England. On the verge of WWII, the burial ship and treasures of a 7th Century Anglo-Saxon ruler were excavated. Book reviewer Michael Pye in the NYT called it “an archaeological event almost as glamorous as the finding of Tutankhamen.” Filmed on location of the actual site, starring Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, from whose property the treasures were unearthed, and Ralph Fiennes as the archaeologist Basil Brown. Lily James joins in the search. With this cast, I hope it’s not just about dust and mound.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (2020)

Even before its publication, Alam’s third novel has already been longlisted for the National Book Awards and rights snatched up by Netflix, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington on board. A middle-class white family rents a remote dwelling in Long Island for a weekend getaway ends up having to share the place with strangers––the owners, a black couple. An interesting and realistic scenario in our polarized society. Throw in a lockdown, the tension and suspense can be Hitchcockian. Will see how Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot, Homecoming) scripts and helms it.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

Larsen’s novel (Harlem Renaissance) would be ever relevant now as it tells the story of two biracial women, Clare and Irene, ‘passing’ from black to white. The issue is multi-layered and never simple, involving the search for identity, loyalty, social construction of self, ideology of race, and the agency of choice in matter of racial affiliation. The adaptation is the directorial debut of British actress Rebecca Hall. Now, that can become another contentious issue. Nevertheless, just shows nothing is as simple as black and white.

The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1959)

Howard’s novel depicts the relational dynamics of a playwright’s entourage which darts between England and America: his wife, his manager, and later a young secretary. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the wife as well as takes the helm of the movie. Can she add some spice in this her directorial debut? Playing the young secretary is The Queen’s Gambit’s Anya Taylor-Joy, aka Emma Woodhouse. Hopefully the interactions of the two women, no, all four characters, can generate some cinematic sparks. Actors for the men have yet been announced. Your choice?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

How about this as reality TV. A Shakespearian theatre troupe tries to rebuild civilization in an apocalyptic society after a flu pandemic had wiped out most of the world’s population. Canadian author Mandel’s fourth novel won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015, and was a nominee for the National Book Awards, the PEN/Faulkner Award and Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. On HBO in 10 episodes. And yes, you’ve guessed it. The Glass Hotel is also on the drawing board. More info later.

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Top Ripples 2020

This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles I watched online. Two particularly stand out, the first two spots of my very short Top Ripple list for 2020.

Movies

1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

A fresh take on the subject of friendship, set in 1820’s Oregon among fur trappers and opportunists, with the arrival of a dairy cow as the inciting incident. Monetary gain is no match for selfless loyalty in human relations. A moving tale of an unlikely friendship, the cinematography augmenting the enjoyment. It has also prompted me to look up the recipe for Fruit Clafoutis. Adapted from the book Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who had inspired Kelly Reichardt’s previous films. I won’t miss any of her works, poignant richness belying the minimal, naturalistic renderings. Full review to come.

2. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland features Frances McDormand as a widow who chooses to live in the community of modern nomads, van and RV dwellers in the Western States of America. Zhao is a master of realistic filmmaking. Nomadland is shot in situ among these older itinerant workers called ‘Camperforce’. A revealing docudrama with stunning cinematography and thought-provoking perspective on the essence of living. My review on Vague Visages.

3. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn

One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his passing in April this year at 81. A Korean War veteran strikes up friendship with a lonely eight-year-old boy. Here’s an excerpt from my review on AAPress: Driveways shows us the power of caring human relationships and the change love can bring, yet painfully unfurls the precariousness of life. On a large existential canvas, it paints with personal, relatable strokes.

4. House of Hummingbird, directed by Bora Kim

Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is a coming-of-age story of a teenage school girl in a male-dominated family. Young Eun-hee has to live with parental discords, deal with sibling bullying, and face a health issue and a precarious future all alone, but is fortunate to find a mentor in a teacher. Sensitive directing and nuanced performance. My review on AAPress.

Books

For the ones published in the year 2020, here are my Top Ripples. Links to my reviews:

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani

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The following are some Worthy Mentions, not all 2020 books or TV, but all have made an impression in my isolated mind this year as I binged on them without needing to snack on chips and sodas. That says a lot.

Normal People (TV Mini-Series, 2020) – Based on the 2018 book by Sally Rooney. A taste of ‘millennial literature’ and adaptation. I first listened to the audiobook, found it absorbing. Then watched the series and then read the book again, this time, word by word. Available to stream on CBC GEM and Hulu.

The Morning Show (2019) – Didn’t realize Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon can be so intense. Streamed on Apple TV+

The Crown (2020) – Season 4. Wonder how the Royal Family reacted to this scandalous take on the Charles, Camilla, & Diana affairs. Or, maybe just me… no surprise to them. On Netflix.

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) – The chess moves might be intriguing, but the overall pace can be more riveting if the TV Mini-Series is cut short by two or three episodes. On Netflix.

Defending Jacob (2020) – When parental love and truth collide. After watching the series on Apple TV+, I went directly to the source material, the 2012 novel by William Landay, a fascinating psychological suspense-thriller. After that went on to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh… the hazard of parenting.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder – the non-fiction book that inspired Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand to make the movie, one of the front runners for next year’s Oscars. McDormand will likely get a Best Actress nom and hopefully, Zhao and the film will also be honored.

Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) by Jessica J. Lee – Lee is a newly emerged voice of nature writing à la memoirist. Coming from a fusion of cultural and geographical background: Canada, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, the environmental historian offers personal and fresh takes relevant in our contemporary society of multiplicity.

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Reading the Season 2020: ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

Time for Ripple’s Christmas read, an annual post I name Reading the Season.

In the Pulitzer winning book Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to the aging Rev. John Ames in the fictional Iowa town Gilead set in the 1950’s. The book is a letter Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, leaving him with a legacy of family memories, love and forgiveness.

In Home (2008), we enter the house of Ames’ lifelong friend, Rev. Robert Boughton, and meet her daughter Glory. For an ephemeral moment, his son Jack––Ames’ godson––the black sheep of the family appears. Jack returns home after twenty years of self-exile, looking for solace but sadly leaves again without reconciliation.

Lila (2014) is the story about Ames and his young wife Lila, who is homeless and aimless when the old Rev. first finds her on a country road. A beautiful story of how love bridges the great chasm between two utterly incompatible beings and leads to a magical union.

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Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Jack (2020) is the fourth and last of the Gilead novels. It brings us back to the prodigal son in Boughton’s family, Jack, but this time, describing a sweet romance, albeit pointing to a challenging future. In terms of the time setting, Jack is a prequel to Gilead and Home. So we know how life unfolds for him. But for a moment, we dwell in some pleasant thoughts. The novel is like a reversal of Lila; here, Jack is the stray redeemed by Grace.

Nothing short of divine providence, Jack Boughton first meets Della Miles on the street, helping her in the rain to pick up papers blown by the wind. Della is a schoolteacher of literature, lover of poetry, witty, intelligent, and fearlessly independent. But, as fate would have it, she is a Black woman in segregated St. Louis during the 1950’s. Herein lies a precarious yet beautiful love story.

Jack and Della meet again one night in a cemetery serendipitously. Jack is destitute, just released after spending two years in prison, albeit for a theft he did not commit outside a pawn shop. Surely, justice isn’t on his side. Jack often gets roughed up or taunted, sometimes for no good reasons, but deep inside, he knows he’s not an innocent man. He’s destructive to others and himself, sometimes steals, and tries hard to remain sober. As mentioned in Home, years ago while still living at home in Gilead, Jack gets a girl pregnant, then just leaves town and disappears. The death of the baby later only adds to more burden and regrets.

Yet in Jack, Robinson’s depiction of the wayward protagonist is not without humour. Take this as an example:

Jack went out walking, trying to get tired enough to sleep, staying sober, so that if he did jump into the river, he could feel his demise has the dignity of considered choice.

Della has no reason to fall in love with Jack, the punishment for miscegenation is jail and being ostracized from her own family and both racial communities. The Miles are a reputable African American family of strong traditions and deep religious roots, the father being a Bishop in the Methodist denomination. No doubt Della is young and not tuned to the laws of a racist society that rewards the conformist and punishes the deviant. Yet, it is her internal light that leads her to defy unjust norms, look through Jack’s outward appearance to cherish his soul.

Della is Grace personified. The concept of ‘unmerited kindness’ is ubiquitous in the book, and Jack knows and is grateful to be the recipient of such. Receiving kindness might just be an understatement. He is redeemed and given a new life upon meeting Della.

Saying grace over pancakes in Della’s home after the cemetery meet, Jack recites spontaneously a verse from the poem “The Paradox” by African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) :

Down to the grave will I take thee,
Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me––
Death, then, no longer, but life.

Indeed, the paradox of finding life among the dead is the pivotal moment in the book. They talk through the night as soulmates, treasuring the freeing experience inside the locked gate of a cemetery; for Jack, Della is like an epiphany, life in death.

Flannery O’Connor’s notion of the ‘intrusion of grace’ comes to mind as I read the book, light shining into darkness, even just a spark. Also emerged in my mental association is Dostoevsky’s Sonya, the Christlike figure that is a saving grace to Raskolnikov. Not that Jack is an axe murderer, but he knows too well that he needs to be rescued from himself.

Insight and wisdom come packaged in lightness of heart and humor, often embedded in the bantering between Della and Jack. And yet, they are lovers in limbo; while the subjective force of love prevails, there are uphill battles to be fought in the social and systemic front, and an arduous journey awaits. As the story timeframe takes place before Robinson’s Gilead and Home, we know how their lives turn out, which makes reading Jack such a bittersweet experience.

And here’s an imaginary scenario… if the love which surpasses all human barriers could be frozen in time, and let Grace have the last say, that would be heaven.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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2020 has been a most extraordinary year when we find and admit how fragile human beings are. We all need to be rescued not just from a physical virus but a spiritual one and be saved from ourselves. The Christmas Season is an appropriate time to ponder once again on that first crack of light, the epitome of the Intrusion of Grace.

Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Related Posts on The Intrusion of Grace:

Homage to Flannery O’Connor: Looking for Intrusions of Grace in Films

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation by Robert Bresson

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

‘Defending Jacob’: When Love and Truth Collide

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Chris Evans in ‘Defending Jacob’

I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.

Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.

One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.

What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.

Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.

Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?

The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?

Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.

This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.

The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+

‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: A Book Review


When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).

Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.

Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.”  It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.

Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.

In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.

In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.

Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)

Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.

Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.

Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.

My review of Nomadland the movie is now published on the film website Vague Visages. Free to read one day only Monday, September 28, 2020.

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Related Posts:

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Glass Castle from Book to Screen

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

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 . 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 , 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.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Rivas

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.

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The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: Island, Mountain, Water, and 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 .

It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, , 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

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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.

‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

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.

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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.

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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

I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.

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