Discovery and Revisit at Home

One day in the future when I have to account for how I spent my time in the months of March to May, 2020, I will come up short for a better answer than cook, eat, read, watch, sleep and then repeat day after day, lockdown except for weekly essential groceries. I admit though, I take to such reclusive, stay-home life quite naturally, albeit I did miss the Pond.

You wouldn’t want to know what I cooked and ate during those months, but I can tell you the discovery and revisit I’d made at home.

The Great Courses on KANOPY

Kanopy is wonderful if you’re not into trendy pop culture movies and TV shows. The streaming service offers classic titles and worthy contemporary films, international in scope, and is free with your local library card or an academic library account. They also carry The Great Courses, numerous subjects to choose from covering a huge variety of interests.

I took two courses, both exemplify the word ‘edutainment’, academically sound and informative. One is “Reading and Understanding Shakespeare” taught by Marc Connor (professor at Washington and Lee U), the other is “Screenwriting: Mastering the Art of Story” taught by Angus Fletcher (Ohio State U). Both comprise of 24 videos. In the Shakespeare course, I learned over 40 tools to decipher the Bard’s plays, and from the Screenwriting course, how to build a story world.

There are many pleasant discoveries but there’s one I find most gratifying. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all: Both lecturers have cited Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, noting how Austen had used Shakespearean elements in her storytelling, and in turn, how her work had influenced modern day screenwriting.

Pride and Prejudice

To illustrate the tone of the Ironic Narrator, an ancient literary device dating back to the Greek and Roman satires, an example professor Fletcher uses is the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

The larger things of the cosmos, ‘universal truth’, is juxtaposed with that which is much smaller and singular, albeit such triviality may well have made up the cosmos of those who are parochial. Examples of such an ironic tone can be found in The Big Short, The Princess Bride, Fargo, and CSI. ‘All of them employ the same basic what and how of Pride and Prejudice, with their own little twists and tweaks.’

Maybe you’ve noticed I used the words ‘most gratifying’ with the pleasant surprise when I hear Austen being mentioned. Yes, Jane would turn in her grave to read what I’m going to write: it feels good to find someone, particularly a male with credentials, to confirm the value of her writing such that her work isn’t being seen as ‘just women’s novels’ or ‘chick lit’. Ugh… saying this is so unnecessary, for Austen doesn’t need to prove her worth among the ignorant. However, in this day and age, it takes movements and hashtags to confirm things that should have been valued. Misconceptions ought to be corrected.

Pride and Prejudice Revisited
(Audiobook cover image above)

So, after these two courses, I was all set to revisit my favourite Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. This time, I downloaded the Blackstone audiobook (2011) narrated by Carolyn Seymour, and listened to it twice back to back; this time, I enjoyed it more. Here’s my ripple stirred by the Bard himself:

Ah ha! Fair is foul and foul is fair
Darcy and Wickham as foils repel
Appearance and sweet words can ensnare
At last! Lizzy learns her lesson well.

Further, the famous ‘block to young love’ conceit, not blocked by an older character as in the Bard’s plays –– surely Lady Catherine de Bourgh is old but she’s no match for Lizzy –– but by the lovers’ own internal flaw, be it pride, or prejudice, or both. How satisfying to see the protagonists mature in their self-knowledge as the story develops, first Darcy then later Elizabeth, gaining clarity of their own true self. Not to mention how gratifying to see that figure of grace, Darcy, as he saves the reputation of the Bennet family with his own silent, altruistic plan all for the one he loves.

Well, what’s a staycation for if not to savour one’s favourite reads over again, doing nothing all day but just dwell in the story world without feeling guilty about time spent. I’m thinking it’s a little like being stranded on a deserted island, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and feeling lucky you’ve got Wilson as a companion, even when there’s no one to actually play volleyball with you.

 

***

 

Related Posts on Ripple Effects

I’ve written many posts on Jane Austen during the early years of blogging. Just put her name in Search you’ll find them. Here are some of my personal favourites:

Art Imitates Life, or Life Imitates Art, or…

Why We Read Jane Austen

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

Bath’s Persuasion

Here’s a link to my articles published in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine

Middlemarch in May: Let the Fun Begin!

A few quotes to set the stage for our Read-Along of Middlemarch by George Eliot.

BBC History Website:

“She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.”

**

From “George Eliot: A Celebration” by A. S. Byatt, as introduction to Modern Library’s edition of Middlemarch:

“She had no real heir as “novelist of ideas” in England… Her heirs are abroad—Proust in France, Mann in Germany. Which brings me to another reason for loving her: she was European, not little-English, her roots were Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, not just, as Leavis’s “Great Tradition” implies, Jane Austen. She opened gates which are still open.”

**

From “Why Read George Eliot”, by Paula Marantz Cohen in American Scholar, Spring 2006:

“Eliot’s voice, in its assumption of a wiser, juster, more all-encompassing perspective, is the ligament of her novels. It elevates them from ingenious storytelling to divine comedy…

As Virginia Woolf observed, Eliot wrote novels for grown-up people. Our society and our relationships would be saner and better if more grownups read her.”

**

Last but not least, let’s kick off Middlemarch in May with Henry James’s lively reflections on George Eliot, as quoted in Colm Tóibín’s article “Creating The Portrait of a Lady in The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007 Issue:

“A specter haunted Henry James: it was the specter of George Eliot. He visited her first in 1869, when he was twenty-six, and wrote to his father:

‘I was immensely impressed, interested and pleased. To begin with, she is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous…. Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.’

Three years later, when Middlemarch appeared, James wrote from Rome to his friend Grace Norton:

A marvellous mind throbs in every page of Middlemarch. It raises the standard of what is to be expected of women—(by your leave!) We know all about the female heart; but apparently there is a female brain, too…. To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream. They are to have less “brain” than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form.”

**

Let the fun begin!

 

____________________

 

Other posts from Read-Along participants:

Middlemarch Has Me Laughing So Soon by Gretchen at Gladsome Lights

 

My invite post:

Middlemarch in May Read-Along

My Middlemarch Review Posts:

Middlemarch Book I: What are siblings for?

Middlemarch Book II to IV: Inkblot Test

Middlemarch Wrap: You be the screenwriter

 

 

In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self

In Other Words book cover

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read about Jhumpa Lahiri moving to Italy to live, even just for a few years. Author of four works of fiction – Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland – at the prime of her writing and teaching career, having received the O. Henry Award in 1999, the Pulitzer in 2000, and her latest The Lowland shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, Lahiri decided to uproot her family and move to Italy to totally immerse in the Italian language. That means speaking, reading and writing in Italian.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s brave and candid account as a language learner. It compiles twenty-one essays and two short stories which she wrote in Italian. She uses the metaphor of swimming out into the lake instead of safely hugging the shore to refer to her Italian language learning experience. From her descriptions of the challenges and risks, the loss of anchor, the inability to express herself and be literate, let alone literary, the disorientation, the total humbling, her Italian venture is more like jumping off a precipice to billowy waters of unfathomable depth.

My hat off to Lahiri’s honest revealing of her frustrations and strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features. So it is heart-wrenching to read that despite her love of the Italian language, her total devotion to adopt it not just to live but as a tool of her trade as a writer, she is often seen as an outsider, a foreigner, barred from acceptance. Even when she speaks to Italians fluently in their language, they would respond to her in English.

English, that’s the rub. I was surprised to read that, while the author had achieved so much in her literary career as a writer in English, she chose to discard it to totally immerse in Italian. In the chapter entitled “The Metamorphosis”, she candidly admits that her writing in Italian (which she had been learning in America for some twenty years before) is a flight:

“Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so
much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me…
It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was
afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes
a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it….”

Of course, that’s also the language that she loved, and succeeded with. The conflict in identity, first as an Indian immigrant with Bangali as her mother tongue, then as a writer in English who had garnered the Pulitzer Prize – an award that she felt she did not deserve – had shrouded her with unresolved tensions. Lahiri had felt deeply the tug of war between her parental heritage and adopted land. A rejection of both had silently crept in. Italian provides a way out:

“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish
myself, I can reconstruct myself, I can join words together and work on
sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when
I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t
torment or grieve me.”

Unbelievably surprising and honest, written in Italian and translated by The New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the bilingual book opens up to a dual English and Italian version. The short essays chronicle the progress of not only an insightful identity search and reconstruction of selfhood, but an invaluable personal documentation of second – no, additional – language learning journey. If this book was published a couple of decades earlier, I would likely have another topic for my thesis in my graduate work on second language learning; not only that, my view of English being the lingua franca, the language holding linguistic hegemony, would have completely changed as well.

After reading In Other Words and my surprising discovery of Lahiri’s ‘tormenting sense of failure’ with the English language (for all its symbolic meaning) or even her ‘undeserving’ feeling towards her award in her writing, I am relieved of a hidden burden. I don’t feel so badly about having had to constantly check and re-check my English: prepositions, idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs usage, subject verb agreement… All the hurdles that confront me every time I write a post or an article. If Lahiri can be so candid about her frustrations and errors when it comes to language learning, why can’t I?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

***

My thanks to Asian American Press for allowing me to post my book review here on Ripple Effects. The last paragraph is added in just for my Ripple readers.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

 

 

McFarland, USA (2015): A Worthy Winner

The reason I waited till now to see McFarland, USA is plainly because I thought it would be just another cliché movie on teacher inspiring students, and specifically here, a white teacher coming into a hispanic community, changing their youngsters to what they’re not, the white knight of condescension.

I’m glad that’s all a misconstrued perception. True, there’s a white teacher coming into the poorest town in the USA, McFarland, CA, where most of its population is hispanic, Mexican immigrants labouring in the open fields from morn till dusk picking produce. The hope of the parents’ – if there is any – is for their sons to continue picking produce so they can earn a living for themselves.

What’s best about this movie is that it’s a true story. The script is well-written and the production helmed by a competent director Niki Caro (North Country, 2005; Whale Rider, 2002). While its elements seem like the ingredients of a formulaic teacher changing students feel-good movie, it is surprisingly moving and exceeds my expectation.

Sure, the coach can’t be more white… a Mr. Jim White (Kevin Costner) from Idaho. You can’t find a whiter name. The school is McFarland High School, with low morales and expectations, students from blue-collar Mexican immigrant families. We see Mr. White come to McFarland after some unsuccessful employment at another school. Bringing his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher) with him, White soon finds they are a misfit and maybe even unsafe in the town. Yet, he has no choice; this is his only job offer.

McFarland 1

Hired as a biology and gym teacher, White one day discovers some of his boys are fast long-distance runners. There are the Diaz boys, David (Rafael Martinez), Damacio (Michael Auguero), and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez, well, maybe not all of them fast) who are waken up by their mother every morning before dawn to go work in the fields before they head to school. Their only way to get to school on time from the field is by running fast. And then there’s Carlos Valles (Carlos Pratts), whose athletic talent is marred by family and personal conflicts.

White sees the potentials in these boys. With no experience whatsoever, he asks for permission to set up a seven-member cross country running team and train the boys for competition. Being the newest team, they have to compete against well-trained and formidable upper-middle-class schools from areas such as Palo Alto. Physical endurance comes much easier than when the McFarland boys have to deal with low self-image and discouragement.

Kevin Costner is the key to the success of the movie. I can’t think of any other actor who is more suitable for the role. Costner is a natural, even without the chance of him pitching a baseball, even having him ride a girl’s Barbie bike (White’s daughter’s apparently) to keep up with the boys in their practice, as he’s just a bit over-the-hill to run with them. A charmer and very convincing here, Costner shows genuine concern for the welfare of his students, even going to the fields to pick produce with them to make up for the time when he takes them out for practice. He soon wins the hearts of the parents and their community.

The movie captures my attention from the very start, any resistance is soon melted by Costner’s performance, and the natural appearance of the students and their families. Most of them are first time actors, and some are residents of McFarland. One soon finds that it’s not a white knight rescuing the underprivileged, but life-changing for them all. The movie sheds no traces of racism or condescension, but paints a realistic picture of family, community and the humanity that binds.

If you want to avoid spoilers here we have the historical facts in the following:

The triumph comes in the final act of the movie when the McFarland Cross Country Team The Cougars won the California States championship in 1987, and subsequently, a total of nine wins over the next fourteen years. And to his credit, White turned down an offer from a Palo Alto high school to stay where he was, at McFarland.

What is most moving is the final text shown on screen telling how the boys had turned out in real life. All of them have no family member who had gone past a grade 9 education, but all seven of them in the cross country team graduated from college. Some of them had gone back to teach at McFarland High School, one became a police detective, one a writer for the L.A. Times. We see their faces as adults, the fruits of everyone’s labour at McFarland.

The triumph of the movie is in its authenticity and uplifting ending. Uplifting because it’s a true story. Of course, the filmmakers have to tweak and add in dramatic elements to turn it into a watchable movie, but the basic facts remain intact. I can’t remember being so moved by a Disney movie. Kudos to the McFarland community for the inspiration.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

CLICK HERE to watch a featured video of the movie.

Here’s a “History vs. Hollywood” comparison.

Reading the Season: Surprised by Joy

If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. It would bear some analogy to Incarnation. — C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (p. 227)

What an apt analogy for Christmas. surprised_by_joy_the_shape_of_my_early_life_frontcover_large_1thqlUR3XQVIcV2 Chronicle of Joy Surprised by Joy is C. S. Lewis’s (1898-1963) autobiographical account of his experience with Joy in his younger days, that elusive something of which he had a hard time grasping. Subtitled The Shape of my Early Life, it is an honest chronicle of an intellectual journey. As a young teenager going to the junior school of Wyvern, Lewis had shed the veneer of Christianity from home and declared himself an atheist. But his quest for Joy remained. It was to him an ‘inconsolable longing’ for ‘the real Desirable’. As a child, a form of Joy came to him through solitary reading, writing and drawing. In his youth, Joy channelled through Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Norse mythology, or Northernness. As he grew, he began to realize that pleasure did not equate with Joy, neither physical nor aesthetic, neither Nature nor Wagnerian music, neither books nor poetry, nor the intellectual gratification from reading, nor the excitement of Northernness.

You might as well offer a mutton chop to a man who is dying of thirst as offer sexual pleasure to the desire I am speaking of. .. Joy is not a substitue for sex; sex is very often a substitute for Joy. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for Joy. (p. 170)

Reading and Studying Surprised by Joy is Lewis’s chronicle of his encounters with books and countless authors. As a young boy he was first taught Latin by his mother, who sadly died of illness when he was only nine years old. He went through all forms of education, home, public, boarding school, and the most gratifying to him was after his father pulled him out of Wyvern and directed him to a private teacher in preparation for Oxford. While his father was uncertain about the move, Lewis secretly relished the idea and thrived in the experience. His teacher was Mr. Kirkpatrick, or ‘Bookman’. He was an atheist, a rationalist, a logician. He had acutely sharpened Lewis’s critical thinking with logic and Dialectics, and well prepared him to enter Oxford. He assigned to Lewis readings from classical literature: Homer, Demosthenes, Cicero, Lucretius, Catullus, Tacitus, Herodotus, Virgil, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. On his own, Lewis immersed in Norse myths and the Wagner’s Ring Cycle. His reading expanded to Goethe and Voltaire. It was only later upon a friend Arthur’s influence that he began to devour literature in the English language. “I read … all the best Waverleys, all the Brontes, and all the Jane Austens.” There were of course others, Donne, Milton, Spenser, Malory, Thomas Browne, George Herbert, the Romantics, Yeats, William Morris, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald.

I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. (P. 190)

Yet he could not help but began to revise some of his world views. Yeats, Maeterlinck, and ultimately, George MacDonald informed him of alternative glimpses other than the material world. Unde hoc mihi I admit I had to look this Latin phrase up. And this I found: Unde hoc mihi … translated as “And whence is this to me” (KJV), or “And why is this granted to me” (ESV) A phrase that moved me so. As I was reading, two-third into his autobiography these words leapt out:

Unde hoc mihi? In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. (p. 181)

Lewis describes the epiphany, utterly inexplicable, the moment which came to him when all things seemed so clear, and the presence of something not mythical or magical which he had craved in his mind, but ‘Holiness’. It was then that his Atheism was transformed into Theism (In a moment of divine enlightenment not unlike Levin’s conversion at the end of Anna Karenina.) This humble exclamation unde hoc mihi is used by Lewis as he alludes to Luke 1:43 when Mary, pregnant with the Christ Child, went to see her cousin Elizabeth, who also by miraculous means in her barren state, pregnant with John, the forerunner before Christ. Upon hearing Mary’s salutation to her, Elizabeth felt the babe leap in her womb, and she exclaimed: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Why, a learned scholar, specialist of the Classics, logical thinker skilled in Dialectics, claimed no credits of his own in this enlightenment. But it is only the beginning, he had not met the Person yet. Further, he realized that whatever that had given him Joy before, like Nature,

that those mountains and gardens had never been what I wanted but only symbols which professed themselves to be no more, and that every effort to treat them as the real Desirable soon honestly proved itself to be a failure. (p. 204)

As he began to teach at Oxford, Lewis was surprised to find two fellow professors he respected were, alas, Christians. One of them was J. R. R. Tolkien. But Lewis was an unlikely candidate for Christianity, with his ‘deep-seated hatred of authority, monstrous individualism, lawlessness’ and his abhorrence of a ‘transcendental Interferer’ (p. 172). Yet that unquenchable longing for Joy was ever present. Friendship with Tolkien began to break down some long held biases. He admitted that “I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths… To accept the Incarnation was a further step… It brings God nearer, or near in a new way.” It was another year before Lewis finally “gave in and admitted that God was God… Perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England.” Ironically, as he humbly exclaimed unde hoc mihi, ‘why is this granted to me’, he was submitting to ‘Divine humility’, the Incarnation. Hamlet finally met his Author. And what of Joy? I can’t give out too many spoilers, can I?

**

I read Surprised By Joy along with Bellezza. Do click here to read her thoughts on the book.

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life by C. S. Lewis, Harcourt Publishing, Orlando, Florida, 1955, 238 pages. This is the edition I read with the image posted.

**

Reading the Season is my annual Christmas Read:

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water

Reading The Season: Luci Shaw’s A Widening Light

Reading The Season: Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

Reading The Season: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Reading The Season: Fleming Rutledge’s The Bible and the New York Times

***

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. His idea of solitude has inspired my posts “No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude” and “Alone Again… Unnaturally.”

I’ve not seen any pictures of him, but know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.

It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.

So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.

Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.

As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:

I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life.

That woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:

From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.

Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.

From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.

For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…

By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.

From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.

The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.

From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.

… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?

… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.

From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie “When Harry Met Sally”, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”

A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.

Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.

And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.

To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.

Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, 255 pages.

This article has been published in the Jane Austen Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to go there for more Regency and Austen reads.

CLICK HERE to William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.

Gifts to Myself

December 26 is Boxing Day in Canada.  Like Black Friday in the US, that’s the time to pick up bargains, and pay half the price you did just two days before.  And like Black Friday, it’s the time for legitimate self indulgence for the common good, our economy.

In recent years I’ve avoided shopping on Boxing Day. I know some people getting up at 5 am to line up for a store opening at 6.  My own experience of the Boxing Day craze had been standing 3 or 4 people deep, stretched out my arm to the sale table and grabbed whatever I could out of it, hopefully something I needed.

Out of curiosity, I gave it a try again this time around… and sure glad I ventured out.  I didn’t have to fight the crowds, and waited just a bit longer in line-ups . But well worth it.  Here are some of the gifts I got for myself at half price: wall calendars which I won’t be hanging up.

I know, prices here are not as low as in the US… we’re always paying a few dollars more in printed products. But just about $10 each, these beautiful art calendars are good buys for me. Best of all, I found all my favorite artists.  Those familiar with Ripple Effects would know.  I’ve posted on Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-75) here, Edward Hopper (US, 1882-1967) here, and images of René Magritte (Belgian, 1898-1967) here and here.  So I was really excited to be able to find big prints of their works.

VERMEER 2011


 

The 12 paintings are some of Vermeer’s well known works.  The cover of course is the most famous, The Girl With The Pearl Earring (1665).  If you’re interested, you might like to read my reviews of the book based on this painting and the film adaptation here.

I have seen two of the paintings in the calendar, The Lacemaker (1669) and The Geographer (1668-69), both at The Louvre.  Interesting that the calendar prints are about the same size as the originals, or maybe even a tad bigger, for The Lacemaker.  Here are my photos of them hanging on the wall in the Louvre:

 

But the July print stands out, the only one that has an exterior view.  It’s my favorite of all the twelve months.  The Little Street (1658):

 

 

Edward Hopper 16-Month 2011 Calendar


 

I have 16 prints of some of my favorite Hopper paintings.  A few of them I’ve posted before, asking readers’ opinion on them. Here are a couple more that I’d like to elicit your views:

People In The Sun (1960)

 

 

 

Chop Suey (1929)

 

Magritte 2011


 

The cover is the Belgian artist’s work in 1953, Golconda.  Just wondering… is this the origin of the term “rain man”?  Or, are the men going up like balloons?

René Magritte was born just 16 years after Hopper, and died the same year, 1967.  So contemporaries they had been for some years, but a world of difference in terms of style.  I like the realism and existential elements hidden in Hopper’s works, but I also enjoy Magritte’s surrealist and whimsical images, openly challenging our sense of reality:

The Treachery of Images (1929)

Ceci n’est pas une pipe:  This is not a pipe.  Your take on this?

 

The Interpretation of Dreams (1935)

 

In the past years, I’ve saved up a lot of visuals just like these calendars, as teaching materials for adult ESL.  But this one definitely cannot be used for vocabulary building.  Just hang on… that may well be what Magritte is saying: ‘In a dream world, a horse can be a door, a jug a bird…’  And for that matter, how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?  Mmm… just wondering, has the movie Inception included Magritte in the credits?

 

***

 

 

Arles: In The Steps of Van Gogh

Solution to Arti’s Cryptic Challenge #4: Arles

While Paris has her cultured beauty and sophistication, I’d appreciated the change of scenery and warmer weather as I headed south to Provence.  Three hours via the TGV took us to the historic City of Avignon, site of the Papal Palace before the Vatican. We stayed in Avignon for three days, taking daily excursions out to nearby towns.  Arles was a must-see on my list.

Van Gogh moved to Arles from Paris in 1888, seeking the tranquility that was so elusive to him in the big city.  In his letter to his brother Theo upon arrival to Arles, he wrote:

It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.”    — Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1888.

The fresher and more colourful palette is apparent during this most prolific period of the artist’s life.  Bright yellows, blues, shorter and swirling brush strokes established his signature style.  As for me, I was a bit disappointed to see the sunflowers have already withered in late August.  Fields of yellow were now massive brown.  They would be harvested at a later time for their oil, a good reminder that, for tourists, it’s the view, but for those living here, it’s their livelihood.  The lavenders on the Luberon mountains too had long passed the season.  Note to myself:  Early to Mid July is best if I ever come this way again.

But all was not lost.  I was gratified to follow some of Van Gogh’s footsteps as I explored the clearly posted Van Gogh sites in the town, the scenes and locales where the artist so vividly captured in his paintings.

Arles is a Roman town.  What more prominent to reflect its past glory than the Roman Arena in the town centre.  Why all the arches?  The free flow of pedestrian traffic.  The full seating capacity, 20,000 people, could exit the Arena in 7 minutes.

.

Used by gladiators in ancient time, the Arena is still the venue for bullfights:

But Van Gogh’s interest was not so much on the violent action of bullfighting than on the people, as his painting Spectators In The Arena At Arles (December, 1888) clearly shows:

The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum was his hang-out, renamed Café Van Gogh now.  The yellow building upon the backdrop of the blue, starry night had deeply inspired the artist:

Café Terrace At Night (September, 1888):

Van Gogh had wanted to make Arles a hub for fellow artists.  Upon his urging, Gauguin came to join him in October, 1888.  The two painters frequented the Café Terrace many a night but only for two short months.  What happened on December 23rd was reported by the local paper the next day:

At 11:30 pm., Vincent Vaugogh [sic], painter from Holland, appeared at the brothel at no. 1, asked for Rachel, and gave her his cut-off earlobe, saying, ‘Treasure this precious object.’  Then he vanished.[1]

After this incident, Van Gogh was admitted to a local hospital, now the Espace Van Gogh in Arles, a cultural centre:

In January, 1889, Van Gogh returned home to the Yellow House, but for the next few months, suffered onslaughts of hallucinations and delusions. His view of his own condition nevertheless was lucid and even progressive for his time.  His letter to Theo is poignant, as he openly faced his predicament and earnestly sought a solution:

And for the time being I wish to remain confined, as much for my own tranquillity as for that of others.

What consoles me a little is that I’m beginning to consider madness as an illness like any other and accept the thing as it is, while during the actual crises it seemed to me that everything I was imagining was reality.”

— Sunday, April 21, 1889.

On May 8, 1889, he checked himself into the Saint Paul de Mausole, the mental hospital at St-Rémy-de-Provence.  Under the care of his doctor Théophile Peyron, the artist’s condition improved and he thrived in the idyllic environment there.  Art therapy had brought healing and prolific output.  Van Gogh stayed there for a year and created more than 150 paintings.

Dr. Théophile Peyron out at the front garden:

.

The olive grove outside St. Paul hospital:

.

To his brother Theo, he wrote on Sunday, May 11, 1890:

At the moment the improvement is continuing, the whole horrible crisis has disappeared like a thunderstorm, and I’m working here with calm, unremitting ardour to give a last stroke of the brush.  I’m working on a canvas of roses on bright green background and two canvases of large bouquets of violet Irises…

My Van Gogh trip ended at St. Rémy, and so be it.  I’ve seen the sites wherein the artist was at his most prolific.  I’ve seen the town and surroundings where he found inspiration.  I’ve seen his final solace where he attained some stability and painted with passion.  I’d like to keep these as memories of my travel to Provence.  I could hardly bear to think of his last days, discharged from St. Rémy just a few days after the above letter, headed north to Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirt of Paris, and in just two short months, succumbed to the recurrence of his illness. He shot himself in the chest with a revolver on July 27, 1890, and died of his wound two days later.

Back to the thoughts I wrote about in my last post: How do we keep art from turning into a cliché?  I think it takes a certain awareness of the artist as a person, plus a measure of empathy and respect for the struggle to live and create… and realizing that the beautiful works are often triumphs in spite of life’s overwhelming adversities, rather than the natural products of bliss and fortune.

To wrap up my travel posts, and taking the risk of turning it into a cliché albeit my motive is pure, here’s the YouTube clip again, Don McLean’s tribute to Vincent:

Some Van Gogh links:

An excellent and comprehensive site for Van Gogh’s letters, 900 of them, poignant account of his life.

The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh Gallery online

Wikipedia: Vincent Van Gogh

***

[1]  Rick Steves’ Provence and French Riviera 2010, published by Avalon Travel, p. 69.

eReaders, iPad, and Home Literacy

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?” — Albert Einstein

.

eReaders and the iPad could well be the best house-cleaning appliances ever invented. All the clutter on your bookshelves, magazines and newspapers strewn everywhere, and even those ubiquitous household bills can all be swept under the eCarpet. Yes, even flyers, ads, and coupons, they are now online or in apps… and maps? Just bring your iPhone.

But wait, what’s with this study done by Dr. Mariah Evans, sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and MobilityAccording to its abstract, the study found that:

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class.

Together with her colleagues at the University of Nevada, UCLA and Australian National University, Evans studied 70,000 children in 27 countries over a span of 20 years, one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted on what influences the level of education a child will attain. The difference between a bookless home and a home with 500 books amounts to an average of 3.2 years of further education. In China, the difference is 6.6 years.

As a sociologist, Dr. Evans is concerned with helping children of rural communities in Nevada to achieve higher education. Regardless of parents’ socio-economic and educational levels, the number of books at home is the single most significant correlate of educational attainment.

I know what’s on your mind… how many families have more than 500 books in their home. Well the idea is, the more the better:

Even a little bit goes a long way,” in terms of the number of books in a home. Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’,” she said. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.

In an interview which is available on MP3, Evans explains:

When you have very highly educated parents, you still get some result of additional books in the home. But you get much more of what you might call ‘bang for your book’ for parents who have little education.

So now, back to our house-cleaning issue. How would home literacy be affected if more and more books are being swept away and stored in electronic devices and less and less on our shelves and strewn on the floor? Can the neat and tidy Kindle or iPad have the same effects as a real home library or ‘literacy mess’ for a child? Can 500 books in the eReader influence a child as much as 500 books around the home? Just some thoughts for future research.

.

.

You might ask what good do mere numbers do if you don’t use them. You can’t assume usage with presence, right? Well the question is, how can you use them if they are not around?  Evans claimed that just having them there, and watching a parent read a book is significant enough. If you’re caught reading a book, you are reading a book. But if you’re caught using an iPad, you may not be reading, you could be shopping, checking your stocks, or playing video games.

As for usage, electronic gadgets tend to promote individualized activities. The traditional ways of using books just might not be as compatible with these devices, like the cuddly moments of mother and child sharing a book at bedtime (see those teeth marks on the board books), the intimacy between book and reader, the appreciation and touch, the joy their aesthetics could bring, the picking up of a pen or pencil and marking and doodling around the pages, the practice of real life literacy activities with them, both personal and communal. And oh, the pleasure of browsing in a bookstore and the excitement of looting in a book sale.

Further, home literacy is more than just books. I was involved in an ethnographic study on language learning several years ago. I spent hours in several homes of young children, observing their literacy environment. My observations included materials that could foster language development. I noted, other than books, alphabet magnets on the fridge, newspapers, magazines, calendars, recipes, personal notes, notice boards, TV guides, shopping lists, food packaging, flyers, coupons, and ‘junk mails’, any print materials exposing a child to words and writing. One parent I observed had purposely placed newspapers in the bathroom, making the printed word more accessible to her child.  The rationale behind the study was that preschool children growing up in a home milieu rich in print materials are primed for language and literacy learning long before they even begin formal schooling.

With the arrivals of eBooks and eEverything else, printed matters are on the decline. Sure, it’s not all or nothing. Printed books will still be around.  But with eBook sales now surpassing hard copies at Amazon, the trend is obvious. eReaders and iPads are definitely ingenious and convenient devices, but how would home literacy change with these gadgets? And, how would we change as a human reader? It’s not about holding on to the archaic or being a Luddite, it’s all about our future, our very human future.

Of course, I’d appreciate a clean house. But hey, please don’t touch that pile. I know exactly where to find what under which. Thanks.

***

*And, to satisfy your curiosity, how many families Evans found to have 500 or more books in their homes? In the U.S., 18%.

“Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations” by M. D. R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Trelman. Published in Research In Social Stratification and Mobility, Volume 28, Issue 2, June 2010, Pages 171 – 197. Click Here to go to the article.

Top 2 Over 90

.

Turning 93 this October, my Dad is one of two recipients of the ‘Lifelong Learning Award’ presented to him by Dr. Scott McLean, Director of Continuing Education, University of Calgary.

In the past two years, he has taken courses from the Calgary Seniors College, co-organized by the U of C Continuing Education and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Courses my Dad has taken include Computer, Chinese History, and Chinese Medicine.  Here’s a glimpse of yesterday’s Graduation and Award Ceremony.

No published work, no writing aspiration either.   Just a learner… for life.  Maybe that’s achievement enough.

***

Alone Again… Unnaturally

A year ago around this time, I wrote the post ‘No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude’. It was in response to the news about some Roman Catholic bishops urging the faithful to restrain from texting as a penance during Lent.  And around the same time, I came across the article by William Deresiewicz ‘The End of Solitude’, pointing out the difficulty of remaining alone in our over-connected society.

Now a year after Deresiewicz published his essay, the number of tweets had grown by 1,400%.  Now there are 50 million tweets per day, an average of 600 tweets per second.  So, if you’re calling for ‘No texting’ at Lent, you might as well tell people not to use the phone, the computer, the iPhone, all the smart gadgets, in other words, get off the human race for the time being.

Hey, that may not be such a bad idea.  The current issue of The American Scholar has another article by Deresiewicz, yes, on solitude again.  I’m glad to read articles on ‘Solitude’, why?  There just aren’t too many written on this topic.  And thanks to Deresiewicz, seems like his is the only voice crying in the digital wilderness.  The article is a lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year, entitled ‘Solitude And Leadership’.

If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.

This quote at the beginning of the article just about sums it all up.

Speaking to this class of freshman, all eager and gung-ho to fall in line with the rank and file of this prestigious Military Academy, Deresiewicz has the audacity (ok, guts) to tell his audience to shun conformity, break away from regimentation, to ask questions, to seek their own reality, to form their own opinion, and to exercise moral courage.  And his main crux: it is only through solitude can they do this.

Facebook and Twitter, and yes, even The New York Times, only expose you to other people’s thinking. Whenever you check your tweets, or get on to your social network, or read the newspaper for that matter, you are only hearing other people’s voices:

That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

He urged them to read books instead.  Well aren’t books other people’s opinion too?  True, sometimes you need to put them down too to visualize you own reality and formulate your own stance.  But, books, especially the time-tested ones, have weathered social scrutinies and oppositions, and yet still stand today offering us wisdom of perspectives in finding our own path.

Further, the major difference between a well-written book and a tweet, or a Comedy Central episode, or even a newspaper article, is basically, time.

The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Of course, this may sound reductionist.  But, I like the idea of slowing down in this rapidly shifting world. Deresiewics urged the freshmen of West Point to practice concentrating and focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking. He charged them to take the time to slowly read, think, and write, in solitude, an axiom that’s so rad that his audience probably had never heard before.

In this über connected world we’re in, it’s unnatural to be alone.  A solitary moment has to be strived for with extra effort, and much self-discipline.  That means unplugging the phone, turning off the computer and anything smart, yes, including friends, real or virtual.   For Lent or not for Lent, it could well be the only way to find out who we are and where we are heading.  Even if we’re not aspiring to lead, at least we know whom we should follow.  And, you’ll never know, others may be attracted to our slowness and surety that they just might step right behind us.  So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff.

Screenwriting: The Visual and the Word

My screenwriting course is wrapping up soon.  For the past six months, I’ve been learning a new language, the language of the visual.  It’s not as easy as it looks.  I’ve to un-learn a lot of ingrained principles of prose writing to re-learn a whole new genre.  And it has been an ego-shattering process.

Take this for example.  A comment on one of my assignments:

“… I’d also like to see you snip away at excess verbiage in both dialogue and action paragraphs.”

Ouch!  That hurts!  Honestly, it took me a few weeks to get over that one.

‘Verbiage’.  When the word is not used by yourself as a self-deprecating joke, now that’s tough to hear.   The reason for such a judgment?  Simply because I used complete sentences in my descriptions.  The language of the screenplay, I’ve learned, is condensed language, not unlike poetry.  It should be spot on, visually driven, and clear.

Readability is the key.  I’ve been learning to write a ‘good read’.   Reality is, my script will first be sent to the ‘gatekeepers’ of the film industry, and many of them may not be readers (that, I was told).  So, nobody wants to see a bunch of words crowding the page.  White spaces are what keep them interested.   So, make it swift, succinct, use minimum number of words to convey maximum information.  Yup, just like that, easy.

Right… so, here are some notes to myself, gleaning from the books I’ve read on the subject of screenwriting, to personalized feedbacks:

  • Sentence fragments, though frowned upon by English teachers, are welcome in scripts.
  • Action speaks louder than words: Whatever that can be conveyed by actions, no need for dialogues.
  • Enter a scene as late as you can and get out before it finishes.
  • Think minimalist and evocative.
  • Layers, layers, layers
  • Avoid clichés like the plague, both visuals and words.
  • Avoid ‘On The Nose’ dialogues: stating directly what the writer needs to convey, instead of the more realistic everyday mundane, allusive, cut-off, inarticulate, real life conversations.
  • As with all literature, learn to write subtexts, the undercurrents of emotions and contexts that are meant to be hidden, but only revealed by actions and dialogues.
  • Do the above with razor-sharp clarity.
  • The central dramatic question should be clear and simple, but not simplistic.
  • Have the proper proportion of words and pictures to create a synchronicity of content and poetry.
  • Don’t insult your actors by writing down specific reactions, or telling them their tone of voice…etc.
  • Write organically: If a writer knows what is going to happen before writing, then the scene will often feel contrived because it will fail to surprise the writer, therefore the audience.

Now, come to think of these points, aren’t they useful for writing in other genres as well?  Except the sentence fragments recommendation, that is, if you’re writing prose.  And, the last point exactly echoes what I’ve heard Michael Ondaatje say:

“I don’t know what would happen, I don’t want to know”

Let the scene breath on its own, take its shape and grow.

Or the advice given by Anne Lamott reinforcing succinct writing:

“You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.”

And… the wonders of paradox:  ‘Expressing the visual in words’,  ‘Be clear in conveying subtext’,   ‘The minimalist creating layers of complexity’, ‘Write organically within the structure’…

Oh… the bittersweet experience of screenwriting.

****