Reading and Rereading

Update: As this post is published, the National Endowment for the Arts releases the results of a national reading survey.  Click on the post “To Read Or Not To Read” on December 29, 2007 to find out more. 

A recent poll in the UK revealed that 77% of 2034 people surveyed reread books.  Further, a fifth of them re-read their favorite book more than five times.

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According to this survey conducted by Costa, here’s the list of the most reread books in the UK:

1.  The Harry Potter series, JK Rowling

2.  The Lord of the Rings Series, JRR Tolkien

3.  Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

4.  The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

5.  Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

6.  1984, George Orwell

7.  The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

8.  The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

9.  Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

10. Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Interestingly, there’s yet another survey polling UK readers’ choice of ‘books they can’t live without’.   And here’s the list:

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
8 Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

 Who says the classics  are no longer relevant in today’s day and age? 

Out of curiosity, I wanted to find out whether similar research had been done in North America.  I found nothing for either the US or Canada.  I wonder if that is indicative of something. 

However, I did manage to locate one book-related poll for the US.  According to an Associated Press-Ipsos study conducted in August 2007, one in four adults in the US, or 27% of those surveyed, read no books at all in the past year. 

Again, I wonder if that is indicative of something…umm… just another poll.    

Miss Potter for Christmas

It’s not too early to make up a Christmas gift list, or actually start some Christmas shopping. I’ve a recommendation here for a DVD that you can safely watch with your children. But you’d also want to watch it by yourself too, because then you can savour in solitude the touching moments an adult can appreciate, and yes, shed a private tear, and let the movie work its magic freely in your heart.

Miss Potter (2006) is the story of Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit, one of the best loved children icons of all times. The film is a gem glittering with acting talents. As Beatrix, Renée Zellweger (Oscar for Cold Mountain 2003) brings to the screen a most delightful character, her genuine and innocent demeanor captures the audience’s heart the very moment she appears. She receives nominations this year for a Golden Globe and a Saturn Award for her role in Miss Potter, and well deserved.

Ewan McGregor (of Star Wars and Moulin Rouge fame, no relation to farmer McGregor) plays the slightly comical first-time publisher who has made history with his appreciation and confidence in the talents of Beatrix. The two naturally fall in love. Like a Jane Austen novel, such a relationship is frowned upon by Beatrix’s upper-middle class family and openly forbidden. But this time, a hundred years after Jane, Beatrix boldly confronts the inequitable and restrictive Victorian values and norms.

Emily Watson, herself an Oscar nominee for her role in Gosford Park, (and she is excellent in Angela’s Ashes), plays a lively supporting role as McGregor’s unmarried sister. The social issue of the unmarried female in a male-dominated society is freely explored through her outspoken character, but not without poignancy.

I must mention the song written for the movie, which has won the 2007 World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Song Written for Film. “When You Taught Me How To Dance” is sung by Ewan McGregor in the film during a mesmerizing and moving scene. As the credit rolls in the end, this touching tune is heard again, this time in its entirety performed by Katie Melua. Now, she’s another story to write about.

The captivating soundtrack matches the beautifiul scenery and period costume, together with the excellent script and the whimsical animation of Beatrix’s animal friends, make the movie utterly enjoyable and gratifying, but still delivering effectively the depth of sentiments and the dramatic twists and turns.

The DVD includes background on Beatrix Potter, commentary by director Chris Noonan and a making-of documentary with extensive interview with Renee Zellweger, plus a music video performed by Katie Melua singing “When You Taught Me How To Dance”. A valuable collection and I’m sure, a welcomed gift.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Beatrix Potter: A Journal (2006)

Beatrix Potter A Journal Book Cover

As a companion to the movie, and another great gift idea, is the book Beatrix Potter: A Journal which came out last year. A visual journal in the vein of Nick Bantock, the book is an imaginary scrapbook Beatrix would have made to chronicle her own life, with handwritten entries and notes, amusing drawings, little attached booklets, photo albums, and letters that can be taken out from envelopes. The book corresponds amazingly well with the movie, like a visual commentary.

Here are a couple sample pages from the journal:

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~~~3 Ripples for both Movie and Book

Adora Svitak: “Tiny Literary Giant”

“Knights!  Clear the square of townsfolk!” the Duke cried.  Within a few moments, the square was empty except for the Duke, the Duchess, Myles, Didoni, and the large, burly knights who were guarding the Duke.  The men put the litter down, and the Duchess lay down to rest.  The Duke was telling Didoni what he wanted on his portrait.

“Make me look strong and majestic. I want no one to think that I am a weakling, like my soft older brother the King,” the Duke said imperiously.

“Knights! Clear the square of townsfolk!” the Duke cried. Within a few moments, the square was empty except for the Duke, the Duchess, Myles, Didoni, and the large, burly knights who were guarding the Duke. The men put the litter down, and the Duchess lay down to rest. The Duke was telling Didoni what he wanted on his portrait.  

“Why not paint a suit of armor?” Myles suggested before he could stop himself.

“Yes! The lad has quite the idea!” the Duke exclaimed. “Paint me in a suit of armor, with nothing amiss. Make my eyes as sharp as an eagle’s, and my nose straight and curved at the end. My lips I care for not— but make them solemn.”

Didoni nodded.

“It shall be done of course, your Grace,” Didoni said, already beginning to sketch on his canvas.

                                —- Excerpt from Adora Svitak’s Historical Fiction

  

 Adora Svitak Website

Just as I was saying in my last post that I’d never come across any literary prodigy, the name Adora Svitak came up on my computer screen last night.  The above excerpt is one of the sample writings from her website,  where you can also find her poems and fantasy writing.  Adora is a 10 year-old girl from Redmond, Washington.  Whether you want to label her a prodigy or not really does not change what has taken place in her life.  Here are the milestones so far:

Age 2.5: 

Could read and write simple words.

Age 3.5:

Read her first chapter book.

Age 4:

Started writing short stories.

Age 6:

Got a laptop from her Mom, writing began to take off.

Age 7:

Published 296-page Flying Fingers, a collection of her own fiction and writing tips for others (with her Mom).  Appeared on Good Morning America, interviewed by Diane Sawyer, who called her “Tiny Literary Giant”.  Met Peter Jennings and was given his book The Century For Young People, which remained her favorite.  Started Adora’s Blog.  http://www.adorasvitak.com/Blogger.html

Age 8:

Had written over 400 short stories and 100 poems, typed 60-80 words per minute, read 3 books at a time, 18 books a week.  Oh, that’s nothing, you might say, “My kid could do that.”  Just wait, Voltaire’s Candide?

Another book in the work, a collection of her poems called Dancing Fingers.

Promoted literacy to children in the UK.  Here’s The Guardian report: http://books.guardian.co.uk/news/articles/0,,1713183,00.html

Age 9:

Completing her first full-length novel Yang in Disguise,  serving as a spokesperson for Verizon Reads campaign for literacy, working on an animated computer program to help develop childhood literacy.

Montel Interview: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/439176/adora_svitak_9_year_old_author_criticize_george_bushs_iraq_pol/

Note: According to her interview on Montel, the proceeds of her book Flying Fingers will be going to the National Education Association and she would auction off some of her works to raise money for the victims of hurricane Katrina, rebuilding libraries in schools.

All in all, I feel that this gifted little girl doesn’t really care whether you label her “literary prodigy” or not.  She’s having the time of her life in her reading, writing, cooking, playing, and helping others how to read and write…  And, how many 10 year-olds can have the terms “Writer, Poet, Humanitarian” to describe themselves on their website?   http://www.adorasvitak.com/Main.html

Lust, Caution: The Original, The Translation, The Movie

Let me jump on the bandwagon and join in the discussion of the latest Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; Brokeback Mountain, 2005) movie. Lust, Caution has garnered much praise and recently won the Golden Lion at the 64th Venice International Film Festival.  Before my review, I’d like to offer some background here relating to the original short story on which the film is based, as well as its translation.

THE ORIGINAL

Eileen Chang 1920 - 1995“Lust, Caution” is a short story written by Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), a writer born 1920 in Shanghai. Chang attended the University of Hong Kong from 1939 to 1941, majoring in Literature.  As the Japanese invasion advanced to Hong Kong, Chang had to cut short her education there and return to the then Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1942, where she began her vigorous writing career.  In a few short years she had gained popularity as a novelist, short story writer and essayist.

Eileen Chang had been compared to Eudora Welty and Katherine Mansfield, and was considered one of the few eligible contemporary Chinese writers as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In 1952 she went back to Hong Kong and continued to publish, finally moving to the United States in 1955. A year later she married the scriptwriter Ferdinand Rehyer.  After Rehyer’s death in 1967, Chang continued to be prolific as a writer and translator of her own works, many of which had been turned into screenplays.  The more well known ones include Red Rose White Rose (1994), and Love in a Fallen City (1984), garnering numerous nominations and awards.  Apart from writing, Chang had also taught at Radcliffe College and UC Berkeley.  She lived reclusively in the latter part of her life and in 1995, died alone in her apartment in Los Angeles.

Chang’s style is crisp and explicit, her choice of words sharp and sensual, her subject matter contemporary.  Considered progressive in her days, Chang boldly dealt with the dichotomies of eastern and western cultures, tradition and modernity, and inevitably, male and female power relations, love and betrayal.  “Lust, Caution” the short story exemplifies her style and encompasses these subject matters.

In ‘Lust, Caution’, Chang has demonstrated that she is a master of story-telling.  Her talent lies in her succinct and incisive descriptions, the economy of words.  It is this feature that the 39-page short story is so compelling and memorable.  The story moves swiftly, effectively spilling the thrill and suspense, and bringing its reader to an intense and hard-hitting climax and ending.

Following the succinct style of Eileen Chang, here’s a synopsis of the story.  Wang Chia-chih, a university student, was recruited by a group of amateur student resistance to play a role in the assassination of Mr. Yee, the head of the secret police in the collaborative government in Japanese occupied Shanghai during the 1940’s.  Her mission was to seduce Mr. Yee and gain his trust, setting the stage for her fellow resistance members to strike.  Throughout the story, Chang intertwined the elements of love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, mass patriotism and individual desire to effectively move the story to an explosive climax.

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The Special Limited Chinese Edition I have is some sort of a movie tie-in edition.  It includes the 39 page short story, printed pages of Chang’s orginal handwritten manuscript, an article written by herself in defence of her story against a critic, and another short story published posthumously.  It is published by Taiwan’s Crown Publication, just freshly out in September, 2007.  If you read Chinese, this is a valuable collector’s item.

THE TRANSLATION

Lust Caution English TranslationThis movie tie-in English edition (New York: Anchor Books, 2007) is aptly translated by Julia Lovell, professor of Chinese history and literature at the University of Cambridge.  True to the style of Chang, Lovell’s translation is succinct and incisive, moving the story swiftly and thus enhancing the suspense and intrigue.

I find her Forward particularly helpful in that she included her own insight on the characterization, furnishing her readers with the essential background to Chang’s own life, which paralleled the protagonist Wang Chia-chi.  Her discussion on Chang’s writing style and the political realities during the Japanese occupation of China in WWII is particularly useful for one to appreciate the story.

Lovell’s commentary is lucid: “…[the climax and ending] give the story its arresting originality, transforming a polished espionage narrative into a disturbing meditation on psychological fragility, self-deception, and amoral sexual possession.”

This little book includes as well an Afterword by director Ang Lee, and a provocative essay by screenwriter/producer James Shamus, who also teaches at Columbia University.  A good read on its own.  If you read English, this is a keeper.

THE MOVIE

Lust Caution

I must admit, I had read the story in its original Chinese version twice and the English translation once before I went to see the movie.  Whether this could have affected my opinion can well be a possibility.  I went into the theatre with high expectations after reading the numerous reviews and comments from LC fans.  I was also aware that a movie should be judged on its own merits as a different artistic genre from the literary work.  After all, I had written on this topic in my post Vision not Illustration.

As a Chinese film director, Ang Lee has the advantage of visualizing Eileen Chang’s story as an insider, one who is in touch with the language, and the sociocultural and historical background.  Armed with these qualifications, Lee has successfully created an appealing atmosphere of nostalgia and exotic visualization through cinematography and symbolism.  He has laid out for his viewers a delectable visual feast.

But maybe because of his very attempt at perfecting the mood and setting up in details the scaffold of the story, Lee (or should I say the screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-ling Wang) had taken a bit too much time in the process.  I feel the 158 minutes could be shortened to keep alive the element of suspense. Further, being an experienced and talented director as Ang Lee, I’m sure if he so chooses, he can think of different ways to portray passion and possession without explicitly telling so by mere graphic eroticism scene after scene.  Ironically, the raw erotic displays may have robbed the viewers of the very emotions the director has intended for them.  I long for the swiftness of Eileen Chang and the subtlety of Wong Kar Wai as he did with In the Mood for Love (2000, also with Tony Leung).  Especially when one considers the laconic and intense climax bursting out at the end, the earlier part of the movie seems to be disproportionately long and off-balance.

As far as the delectable feast goes, the period costumes and setting, the cinematography, as well as the performance by the highly skilled actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen are all laudable and must be given credits.  As a first time actor, Tang Wei is proficient in capturing the ambivalence of conflicting emotions and longings as Wang Chia-chih.  American born singer/actor Lee-Hom Wang is adequate as an amateur student resistance leader.  Ironically, just because of his lack of experience in acting fits well with his role, depicting the raw naivety of the young patriots of the time.

Despite the concerted efforts of the cast and crew and the well intentions of the director, the film is bogged down by a script that ought to have been shortened by at least a half hour to bring out the element of suspense, and keep the integrity of the spy-thriller genre.  In her defence of the brevity of description in her story, Eileen Chang wrote, “I never underestimate the critical thinking skill of my readers.”  If the screenwriters had marked her words, the film would have been much more effective and gratifying.

~~2 1/2 Ripples

Vision not Illustration

Read a post entitled “It’s All About the Story” on the Austenblog relating the controversial remarks the Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway made recently in an international film festival.  He criticised modern blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, dismissing them as “not films but illustrated books”.  As for all the Austen movies sprouting up in recent years, Greenaway said:

Cinema is predicated on the 19th-century novel.  We’re still  illustrating Jane Austen novels—there are 41 films of Jane Austen   novels in the world.  What a waste of time.”

This is my response.  I recognize that not all attempts of turning books into films are successful, many far from being effective.  However, a good movie should be the portrayal of a vision, not mere illustration or graphic representation of the written words.  As I have commented in that post, let’s just say a film is the visualization of the novel, not mere illustration.

And there is a major difference between vision and illustration: the former is seeing through an interpretive lens, rather than simply transferring images from one medium to another like the latter.

That’s why we may like a certain adaptation over another of the same Austen novel, and that’s why there can be more than one movie on the same story… Just as Bach had created Theme and Variations, we can have Story and Adaptations. That’s the reason why we still go to the concert hall and listen to different masters playing the same pieces of music, infusing into their performance their own unique persona and interpretation.  As an art-house filmmaker, Mr. Greenaway should have grasped this very fundamental notion.

As for future endeavors to turn Austen novels into films, I say, “All the best!”

Pride and Prejudice on my BlackBerry

For a more updated post on eReading, CLICK HERE to go to “The Great Gatsby On My iPhone”.

 

pride and prejudice book cover

How do you keep in touch with the Classics in this techno-postmodern age?  Just like you can listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations on your iPod, you can also read up on the Bennet vs. Darcy saga on your BlackBerry.  That’s what I’ve been doing this past month.  Everyday, I receive through my email in serial, one of the total 149 parts of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sent to me by Daily Lit, an on-line elibrary… So, wherever I may be, whenever I can grab a moment, I’m accessible to news from Longbourn and Pemberley just by pressing a couple of buttons on my cellphone…oh the conveniences of modern technology, making time-travel easy.

But of course, if you’re reading the book the first couple of times, I don’t recommend you do it this way.  Nothing can replace holding a real book in your hands, lying in the couch or in bed, turning the actual pages of an Austen classic as you savor every word Elizabeth has to say in response to Darcy’s marriage proposal.  But if it’s your fourth or fifth reading, there’s no harm getting it electronically just to touch base.  It’s pure convenience…no books to carry with me; actually, I’ve more than one book sent to me this way.  Daily Lit carries most of the well known classics, including works by Austen, Balzac, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Eliot, Flaubert,…oh, you name it.

Exciting?  Just imagine reading a section of Moby Dick while waiting for your favorite sushi in a restaurant.  Or, catching up on War and Peace during half-time between the Oilers and the Flames (I’m writing from Alberta after all).  Or how about Taming of the Shrew while anticipating the bride to walk down the aisle in a wedding?  Wouldn’t it be a great use of your idling time in the frenzy of urban living?

…Oh yes, the other book I’m reading on my BlackBerry?  … The First Book of the Bible, Genesis.

 

CLICK HERE to go to my three-part review of Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC Production).