I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out.
Last weekend, I was excited to find not just a couple but a flock of Wood Ducks there. That could well be my last glimpse of them before they take leave. How we need something beautiful to look at this fall. Like canning your summer harvest for winter enjoyment, the photos I take will be my winter treats.
See the fallen tree trunks in the centre of the water in the above photo? That’s their hub. See them? Here’s a closer look:
Some might just walk by and not give them a second look, just some ducks they might think. But in my limited birding experience, the Wood Duck is probably the most beautiful ducks I’ve seen.
Beauty in a tangled mess of broken trunks and decaying wood makes me think of the Japanese notion of Wabi-sabi:
They like to gather on the branches, often just sleeping, preening, or sunbathing. So, it’s a real treat to see them swim out so I can take these photos. I can see how Monet would paint the scene if he were here:
Check out this slide show below:
Don’t know if I have the chance to see them again this fall, so I’ll just bid them adieu until next year. Don’t know much about anything these days, but I’ll take one duck at a time, and be glad to count my blessings, bird by bird.
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.
Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.
Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.
What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.
Episode 1 – Mark Rylance
From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.
Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.
Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan
Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.
Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter
While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.
Vikram Seth’s epic novel (1993) of over 1,300 pages is turned into a 6-episode TV mini-series. The setting is India during the 1950’s. The story is the all-consuming duty of a mother finding a suitable boy for her daughter. The story might be culturally specific, but the mission definitely surpasses ethnic boundaries. The BBC production is helmed by the acclaimed Indian director Mira Nair (Queen of Katwe, 2016; The Namesake, 2006). Screenplay by Andrew Davies, who scripted Pride and Prejudice (1995). He’s done plenty since, more Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo… now Seth. This did stir up some dissatisfied ripples questioning whether he’s a suitable scribe for this series.
Frank Herbert’s 1965 acclaimed sci-fi series is one of the highly anticipated movies to come out in 2020. Helmed by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a notable name with works such as Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Arrival(2016). Screenplay by Villeneuve and Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, 1994, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008). Appealing cast with Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, 2014, Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013) and Timothée Chalamet (Little Women, 2019) as father and son travelling to the planet Arrakis. Top supporting cast with Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (Skyfall, 2012), Stellan Skarsgård (Mamma Mia! 2008), Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go, 2010).
Another book by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt after his Sisters Brothers was adapted for the big screen in 2018. French Exit is a good one for those looking for short and quirky reads. A New York socialite, using up most of her fortunes and years is moving to Paris with her adult son and their cat to escape financial woes. The book isn’t much of a story I feel, so hopefully the movie will work better. Considering the cast, I remain hopeful: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots, and Tracy Letts (the cat).
Paulette Jiles’s National Book Award nominated novel is a Civil War era story about an aging itinerant news reader who agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people. Goodreads says: “exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel … that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.” Tom Hanks is tasked to portray this character, reuniting with his Captain Philips (2013) director Paul Greengrass. Adapted screenplay by Luke Davies (Lion, 2016).
Directed and screenplay written by Joel Coen, I’m curious to see if this is a deadpan version of the Bard’s play. But then again, when I think of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coens or just Joel here, could make it double toil and trouble, plain bloody too. Denzel Washington is Lord Macbeth, Frances McDormand is his Lady. Think Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), this lady can wreak some havoc.
And then there are the remakes. West Side Story and Rebecca are two of the more anticipated ones.
West Side Story (2020)
A cast of 130+ will join the Spielberg team with screenwriter Tony Kushner (Lincoln, 2012) and cinematographer, two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan, 1998, and Schindler’s List, 1993). Additional new music by David Newman. Ansel Elgort plays Tony, and Maria is Rachel Zegler, chosen from 30,000 auditioned. Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie, also stars in this remake.
Directed by Ben Wheatley, Armie Hammer is Maxim de Winter, Lily James, Mrs. de Winter, and Kristin Scott Thomas is Mrs. Danvers. What I’m most interested in, however, is the production design, which will be all burned down or undergo some tricky CGI effects is to be seen. Six-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood heads up that department. Her works include Darkest Hour (2017), Anna Karenina (2012), and Atonement (2007) among many other titles. So, I think Manderley the set is in good hands. But will the whole production beat the classic 1940 Alfred Hitchcock noir with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine?
(Updated Oct. 10, 2020) As this has been a strange year with lots of uncertainties, the dates and where to see them could change in the coming days or months:
A Suitable Boy – on BBC One TV now. E1 started on Sunday July 26 at 9 pm, and the rest on five consecutive Sundays after that. It’s not available in North America yet. It’s a selection at TIFF2020 Update: Scheduled to stream on Netflix on October 23, excluding the US, Canada and China.
Dune – Release date delayed till Fall, 2021
French Exit – Premiere at New York Film Festival, October, 2020. After that not sure about distribution.
News of the World – in theatres December, 2020 still, but may change.
Macbeth – to be released in USA 2021, details unknown.
West Side Story – Pushed back to December, 2021
Rebecca – Oct. 16 limited theatre release, on Netflix beginning October 21, 2020
Click on the links embedded in this post to read my Ripple reviews.
Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.
Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.
As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.
The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.
Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.
At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.
Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.
Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”
Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.
Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.
Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.
A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.
An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.
Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.
Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.
A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.
~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples
I watched this on CBC Gem. If you’re outside Canada, here’s a link to where you can watch it at home.
Whenever I photograph birds, I try to avoid any human structures in the frame, even houses from a far distance, but that’s not possible all the time. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of human society and nature can be seen aesthetically, and not as a clash. These pelicans are like dancing musical notes flying into the sky. … Continue reading Clashing Beauty
I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out. Last … Continue reading One Duck at a Time
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 … Continue reading ‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: 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 … Continue reading Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review
As an homage to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, as well as a nod to the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation (1985), Asian American author Kevin Kwan has crafted another satire seven years after his Crazy Rich Asians started a surprise breakout trilogy.
If Forster were to read Kwan’s latest work, the stand-alone novel Sex and Vanity, would he be baffled by 21st century opulence, or shocked to see the social issues he wrote about in A Room with a View such as class and gender inequality still exist more than a century later? Kwan also throws in racism, of which Forster was keenly critical in his writing; A Passage to India comes to mind.
While the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was met with resounding applause from the Asian community, not everyone who shared the ethnicity felt represented, for they might not have been Asian born, or have never set foot in Singapore, Hong Kong, or China. This just speaks to the fact that there’s a myriad of cultural and geographical lineages when one uses the umbrella term ‘Asian’ or, ‘Chinese’.
This time, the net is cast out to those who are American born, second and third generations of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the hapas, Hawaiian for ‘half’, people of mixed Asian and white heritage. The net reaches to others too, in particular New Yorkers, and fans of the Big Apple. Indeed, Kwan’s book reads like a love letter to New York City, to which the author pays tribute as: “The City that took me in, nurtured me, and changed me forever.”
Sex and Vanity follows the same structure and plot development as A Room with aView, even keeping the first names of the main characters. Kwan only needs to plug in the modern-day parallels splashed with his over-the-top descriptions of opulence and extravaganzas.
For those who’re apprehensive to pick up the book because of the two words in its title, maybe this would bring some relief: the former wouldn’t even make half a page of note in Normal People (by Sally Rooney) and the latter is wrapped in mirth. The book is pure escapism for summer reading fun.
To his credit, Kwan has a keen eye for social prestige other than materialism. When first mentioned, character names are followed by a list of schools they have attended. Surely, in America and many parts of the world, one is defined by one’s alma mater. Naming even the kindergarten is exactly the case in point. Prestige starts early.
Part One takes place in Capri. Nineteen-year-old, Upper East Side born and raised hapa Lucie Churchill (92nd Street Y Nursery School / Brearley / Brown, Class of ’16) is on the Italian island with her cousin, forty-something Charlotte (Rippowam / Miss Porter’s / Smith) as chaperone. The fun doesn’t end with these bracketed school names. For further reading pleasure, Google them if not familiar.
The cousins are there to attend the week-long celebrations of Lucie’s childhood friend, Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu’s marriage to the son of an Italian mogul. The Hotel Bertolucci fails to give them a room with an ocean view which Charlotte had requested.
Overhearing Charlotte’s complaint, fellow wedding guest Rosemary Zao offers to exchange with them their view rooms she and her son George occupy. Why, she’s inundated with ocean views. Her home overlooks the Hong Kong harbour and she has beach front properties in Sydney and Lanikai, Hawaii. But Charlotte doesn’t take this easily. The Churchills have their pride, and prejudice.
Unlike his mother, George (Diocesan Boys’ School / Geelong Grammar / UC Berkeley, Class of ’15) is a man of few words. Actually, he is the perfect son-in-law for any Tiger Mom: on top of his “surfer, pretty boy physique,” he’s a high achiever. He can keep his cool and administer CPR to save a stranger and play “Goldberg Variations” in spontaneity in front of an admiring crowd (not at the same time). What more, George is honest with his feelings and passion.
The week-long wedding celebration is screen-ready with Capri’s natural and architectural beauty as backdrops.
Throughout the book, Kwan has dropped a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search for famous names, real-life or fictional, like the Crawleys of Downton, Darcy of Pemberley, “The World of Suzie Wong” (The actress Nancy Kwan being the author’s distant cousin), Monsieur de Givenchy, who comes out of retirement to design the wedding dress, and sightings of one Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory.
What more, the renown diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs in the wedding celebration, singing several operatic numbers and culminating with “O mio babbino caro”, the aria with which she’d swept the film with such a romantic overtone. And yes, Kwan is a Downton fan, remember S4 E3? The diva is a guest at the house party.
For Lucie, however, the short yearning in her heart for George is soon suppressed as the week-long Capri escapade draws to a close.
Part Two sees Lucie in her niche, NYC, five years later. An up-and-coming art consultant, Lucie is engaged to Cecil Pike, a billennial (billionaire millennials) raised with new money from oil-rich Texas. A Venetian canal flows through his New York West Village town house with full-time gondoliers in service. His marriage proposal to Lucie outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art involves the NYC Ballet, a marching band, the Mayor’s office, and the Big Apple Circus. Exactly.
Lucie has always been torn about her bicultural heritage, especially when she and her brother Freddie were left on their own with their mother after father Reggie Churchill died of a heart attack when she was just a child. The Churchills always boast about their pedigree being Mayflower descendants, rising in financial prowess through banking and inheriting Gilded Age fortune. In the building that matriarch Granny Churchill lives, even the doormen are snobbish.
Not that Luci’s Chinese lineage has nothing to be proud of. Her mother Marian Tang (Seattle Country Day / Lakeside / Harvard / Columbia PhD) is a well-established academic endowed with skin so young to look like a twenty-something. Despite being born in America, to the Churchills, Marian is a foreigner.
Lucie sees her situation clearly: “To Granny, no matter how graciously she behaved, no matter what she accomplished, she would always only ever be the poor little china doll.” So, marrying her WASP, crazy rich fiancé Cecil Pike should end all spite. But what she lacks is the view that she’s just a thing to boost Cecil’s ego and his brand.
Then George reappears. Kwan keeps his cues interesting to lead Lucie to see a clearer view of her situation, an obvious parallel with Forster’s story. Further, Kwan pinpoints racism even within families, as Lucie notes “it’s possible to love someone without realizing you’re being racist toward them.” Without getting serious and didactic, he handles these issues with bold, comical strokes.
If by the likely chance the book is picked up for a movie adaptation, my choice for a director would be New York born and raised Whit Stillman (Collegiate School / Millbrook School / Harvard) to balance with some soul and subtlety. Indeed, Kwan and Stillman (Love & Friendship, 2016; Metropolitan, 1990) would make a fine filmmaking hapa.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
NOTE: Reading Forster’s A Room with a View and watching the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation would enhance your reading pleasure of Sex and Vanity.
UPDATE: Sony Pictures and SK Global have acquired the film rights to Sex and Vanity.
I thank Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer copy of Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Far Eastern Kindergarten / ACS / Clear Lake High / UHCL / Parsons School of Design), 315 pages, 2020.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is on Amazon Prime Video now. I watched it twice in the theatre last year, now rewatching it at home gives me another kind of pleasure: more intimate, easier to observe nuances, and replay memorable lines on demand. It remains one of the best films I’ve watched in recent years.
Reposting here my review. Hope you have a chance to watch it.
Little Women is not just about heart, but mind, aesthetics, and other enjoyment
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.
So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.
The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.
Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.
The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War.
A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.
The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.
A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.
Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:
And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.
In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:
Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.
The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth.
For the first time in months, I set foot into a public library yesterday. To be exact, three different branches, to make up for a regular activity I’d enjoyed before the Covid lockdown. Our library system is very modern, creative, and full of resources, a pleasure to visit. The New Central Library opened two years ago had become a tourist point-of-interest even.
Yesterday I didn’t head all the way downtown to the main attraction (picture above). A visit to a branch closer to my home welcomed me with numerous brand new paperbacks. As they’ve been closed for a few months, new books kept coming in and now they have the chance to display them. Piles and piles of them, all brand new. I couldn’t resist but drove to two other branches just to check out their new offerings.
The following is a list of books I got from my library escapade yesterday. Just in time for the summer staycation. All pristine, never-opened (that’s important in this Covid time) brand new paperbacks. Which ones have you read? What books are you reading this summer, this very extraordinary summer. I welcome your two pebbles thrown into the Pond and share some ripples with us.
Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks –– I was thinking of reading this for ‘Paris in July’ all because of the title, but not sure now since it’s quite late in the month. I’ve always wanted to read a S. Faulks novel knowing his work had been turned into movies and TV series, e.g. Charlotte Gray and Birdsong.
Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand –– I haven’t read any books by Elin Hilderbrand, hailed as the ‘Queen of Beach Reads’. Two of her books are in development now for a movie. I’m far from the beach, any beach, but hope this one can offer some sunny breaks at least during my staycation.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow –– The book cover is the main attraction plus this blurb on the front cover: “Unbrearably beautiful.” And some more on the back, like this one: “A gorgeous, aching love letter to stories, storytellers, and the doors they lead us through. Absolutely enchanting.” How can I resist?
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –– I knew about this book, actually have been debating if I should read it without having read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I’d appreciated Rushdie’s writing, imaginative and original, but also not easily accessible. Will see.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell –– I’ve seen this title everywhere, and know the general story idea, and all the controversies and ripples it has generated. I’d just like to sit down quietly without having to be influenced by the cacophony from all sides, and just read it.
Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf –– Subtitle: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’ve started reading it and find it quite interesting. I missed Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid so here’s a catch-up and a welcome update. A scholar, educator and developmental researcher on reading and the brain, Wolf is an advocate for ‘deep reading.’ This is going to be a slow read.
As things go these days, uncertainties abound as to when movies will come out and in what way, big or small screen. So, for those who like to read before you leap, summer’s the best time to catch up with some of these books before their adaptations are released.
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
The runaway bestseller of 2016 is now an upcoming movie on Netflix, directed by Ron Howard. Born and raised a ‘hillbilly’ in Ohio, Vance’s memoir narrates his struggles to arrive at Yale Law School, a personal victory over poverty and a dysfunctional family and culture. He shares insights as an insider of an impoverished social sector. Screenplay by Oscar-nominated Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, 2017). Early Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards and Amy Adams a possible nom.
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith is no stranger to fans of suspense and psychological thrillers with Carol (2015), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951). Deep Water (first pub. 1957) is another marital suspense thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d given us Fatal Attraction (1987), Unfaithful (2002) and the like. So, we know it’s in good hands. Gone Girl‘s Ben Affleck should be quite familiar with playing such genre, add in Ana de Armas, who’s superb in Knives Out, this one should be a thrilling escape.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
The historical novel is The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, sounds like a sensational movie subject. Author is Eric Jager, medieval literature prof at UCLA. Director is the iconic Ridley Scott, who has brought us numerous big screen epics, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Alien (1979, 2017), just to name a few. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-write and co-star, with Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame also in.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Another TV series (Hulu) from popular Australian author Liane Moriarty whose Big Little Lies has been turned into two successful, star-studded Seasons on HBO. Nine strangers meet at a wellness resort dealing with their own issues and discovering secrets behind the place. Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy co-star. Moriarty has written 8 novels, so far, 5 of which are in various stages of development for the screen.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Nowadays you hear a lot about migrant workers. Back in the time after the Great Recession, there were workers living like nomads in their trailers and vans, travelling across the western states to look for work. Bruder’s book is about one such ‘workampers’, a woman in her sixties who becomes a nomad worker after losing her home. Frances McDormand stars. Written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the soulful The Rider (2017).
Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell
Based on the second novel by Merrell published in 2014. Shirley here refers to the American horror/suspense writer Shirley Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss. The story’s about a graduate student Fred and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) move in to live with professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic teaching at Bennington College and his wife Shirley Jackson. Drama ensues when the characters interplay in their peculiar relational dynamics. Directed by Josephine Decker.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Irish millennial lit turned TV. And you thought the upstairs-downstairs kind of stories happen only in Downton Abbey. Rooney’s acclaimed book is about the clandestine romance between rich gal Marianne and Connell whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The 12 episode TV series adaptation is affective and well performed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal under the helms of Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) and Hetti Macdonald (Howards End, 2017) On Hulu, BBC3, and CBC Gem now.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Just announced. Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift’s novel will be adapted into film with a stellar British cast. Mothering Sunday was a day given to domestic servants time off so they could go back home to visit their mother and family. Again, a clandestine romance between two young people of different classes. Eva Husson (Hanna, 2020) directs onscreen royalty Olivia Coleman (QEII in The Crown), Colin Firth (KGVI in The King’s Speech), Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown), and Odessa Young.
Yesterday while driving I heard the stirring theme music of the movie The Piano (1993) played on CBC Radio 2. Memories flooded my mind. I recalled watching it in the movie theatre way back then. A deaf-mute unable to speak but can overwhelm others as she plays the piano to express herself.
I thought of Jane Campion, writer/director of the film, marvelled at her skills in conveying thoughts and emotions via the visual medium, and thought of other women directors who’d helmed many of my favourite films. I’ve had two previous posts on Women Directors here and here. Now taking stock mentally of the recent movies and series I’ve watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy while home-staying, I notice several of them are created and/or directed by women.
Consider the following list with my capsule reviews an update of my previous Women Directors posts.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Amazon Prime) – Directed by Marielle Heller
Director Heller and the screenwriters transport Mr. Roger’s child-friendly, essential human wisdom to realistic, adult situations. The film isn’t so much about Mr. Rogers but the real-life story of journalist Tom Junod’s life-changing encounters with Fred Rogers for a magazine assignment. Tom Hanks is ideal as Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys is effective in playing journalist Lloyd Vogel.
Who’s Matthew Rhys, you might ask? I highly recommend you watch “The Americans” series. Or, if you’re an Austen spinoffs fan, he’s Mr. Darcy in the mini-series “Death Comes to Pemberley”, adaptation of the novel by P. D. James. And, if you were around to watch the original Raymond Burr detective series on TV, the Wales-born actor is the new Perry Mason in our time.
Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon Prime) – Created and screenplay by Liz Tigelaar, Directors Lynn Shelton and Nzingha Stewart.
The 8-Episode mini-series is the screen adaptation of Asian American novelist Celeste Ng’s second novel. My full book review can be found here. The thematic elements of race, motherhood, family secrets, clashes of generations and values are visualized and made more acute as Kerry Washington is cast as an African-American artist playing against Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Richardson, the gatekeeper of the white upper-middle-class community of Shaker Heights, OH. The artist Mia Warren in Ng’s novel isn’t black, but turning her into one makes the conflict of the story more timely and pressing.
Four episodes are directed by Lynn Shelton who sadly died in May, 2020. Another female director Nzingha Stewart helmed two.
Never have I Ever (Netflix) – Created by Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling. Directors Linda Mendoza and Anu Valia
Here’s a recent trend that’s encouraging. Movies and series are created to feature minority cultures in America. The talented Mindy Kaling, who wrote the screenplay and co-starred with Emma Thompson in Late Night (2019) plus many other credits, created this comedy series about high school girl Devi’s experience growing up Indian-American, something Kaling knows full well. Many LOL situations and dialogues throughout the ten episodes. Kaling scouted Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in Mississauga, ON, Canada, to play Devi. A fresh look into the multi-cultural humanity that our North American population comprises. In recent years we talk a lot about representation. This is a humorous and realistic look into a vibrant sector.
The Half of It (Netflix) – Directed by Alice Wu
Here’s another lens to look into our younger generation growing up bi-cultural. The full length feature directed by Chinese-American Alice Wu is this year’s Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Narrative Feature winner. A shy academic ace, Ellie Chu, earns her pocket money from writing essays for her fellow classmates. When one day, she’s recruited by the school jock Paul Munsky to be a ghost writer of poetic love letters to a girl he tries to date, Ellie begins to feel a moral dilemma. The characterization and storyline make this feature a contemporary twist on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Humor is situational with some poignant scenes, making the film all the more enjoyable.
Unorthodox (Netflix) – Created by Anna Winger, Directed by Maria Schrader
Inspired by the memoir of Deborah Feldman, who broke away from her strict Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and escaped to Berlin where she changed into a new persona and started a different life. I haven’t read the memoir but I know the four-part mini-series take the liberty to re-imagine how she goes about changing her life while in Berlin. The series is captivating as viewers are introduced to the Hasidic, male-dominated and authoritarian community. Again, there are many cultural sectors in our society and through films we get to know a little bit more of how others live and the struggles they go through.
Ophelia (Netflix) – Directed by Claire McCarthy
Adaptation of the book by Lisa Klein, screenplay by Semi Chellas, Ophelia is a re-imagined story of what happened in the royal castle of Elsinore and in particular, Hamlet’s sweetheart. Lots of liberty in tweaking and twisting but still interesting to watch, albeit a lightweight Hamlet compared to the original. Notable cast includes Naomi Watts as Gertrude, Clive Owen as Claudius. Hamlet is played by George MacKay before his titular role in the WWII movie 1917, and Ophelia is Star War‘s Rey Daisy Ridley.
Hamlet (Kanopy) – Film Direction by Margaret Williams, London Stage Direction by Sarah Frankcom
A filmed recording of the play performed in Royal Exchange, Manchester. This Hamlet is a fresh take with Maxine Peake as the emotionally devastated and revengeful Prince of Denmark. Only after watching that I Google search to find the first female to play Hamlet dates back to 1796 in London Drury Lane, then 1820 in New York. Several others had followed since. But this is my first time watching. Maxine Peake’s performance almost instantly cast away all my preset feelings. She’s high-octane energy; her voice, physical stage presence totally captivate, convincing yet delicate. She’s herself and not an impersonator. Modern costume makes it more natural and, love her haircut. Peake makes me look at her not as a female taking up a male role, but a superb actor playing the ‘Everest of roles’.
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.
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:
What I find walking in the woods can be redundant and mundane, that goes for my photos too. But looking up into the trees can be therapeutic psychologically, especially these days, not to mention beneficial for the neck muscles.
Mundane or unusual, here are some sightings during my walks in the past weeks.
You see them everywhere, their by-products littering your grounds. But the Canada Geese in my neck of the woods don’t gather at the Pond or on the ground, but high up on trees. I think they nest there too:
Here’s one taking the abode of a previous tenant, the owl family. How do their young come down from so high up? They’ll have to learn to fly first, just like other birds, another birder said when I asked. Or, the mother could carry them on their wings, my imagination added.
A Robin, never too common for me, especially when I capture a handsome one:
One time, I saw this ball from afar:
Walked closer and found this. Do porcupines nest on trees too, or just for naps? Or, is it something else? The next day I went back to look for it and it was gone.
Mundane or unusual, my curiosity is piqued walking the same paths year after year. This curious Yellow Warbler well represents my feelings:
Here’s another curious one:
In a previous post about the Yellow-rumped Warblers, I’d noted that the white-throated one is called the Myrtle Warbler of the East and far north, and the yellow-throated one the Audubon’s Warbler from the West. Just curious, what do you call this one with both white and yellow on the throat:
Curiosity in the mundane. Maybe that could get me out of bed on those days when I get too used to that stay home mandate.