Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

Multiplicity is what makes environmental historian Jessica J. Lee’s writing so unique. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, to a mother who had immigrated from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has since moved back and forth between England and Germany. Her biracial roots and her experience living in different countries have informed her nature writing, a voice that exudes a unique poignancy of a personal quest for identity and home.

In a previous post, I reviewed Lee’s debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water, in which she describes how she swam in fifty-two lakes in the Brandenburg vicinity outside Berlin while completing her doctoral dissertation there, an exceptional and original endeavour to overcome personal issues.

In her new book, Two Trees Make a Forest, Lee writes about another quest that’s more complex and adventurous. In 2013, she visited Taiwan with her mother after the death of her grandfather, Gong . In 2017, she went back on her own to spend a few months to explore the island’s natural environs and immerse in her ancestral language, Mandarin. At the same time, she wanted to get close to a family history that she had just begun to unearth. Upon her grandmother’s death in Niagara Falls, Lee’s mother discovered a sealed envelope containing letters that her Gong had written but never sent, maybe to record his own life before Alzheimer’s snatched his memory away.

Gong was a pilot with the famous Flying Tigers during WWII, at that time under the Nationalist government of the Republic of China, defending the country against Japanese invasion. After WWII, the country was torn by a civil war. As the Communists took control, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. That was when Gong moved to Taiwan and continued his pilot career and became a trainer as well.

Gong met Lee’s grandmother, Po , in Taiwan and made a home there for decades until they immigrated to Canada in the 1980’s. Being rejected his flying credentials and too old to start all over again to be a pilot in a new country, Gong conceded with a job as a factory janitor. A sad but typical immigrant story.

Lee’s grandmother, Po, was born in Nanjing, China, and was there at the time of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident (Lugou Bridge 蘆溝橋事變), which sparked the Sino-Japanese war in July, 1937, often noted as the beginning of the Pacific front of WWII, two years before Hitler invaded Poland. As a young teenager, Po had to escape the subsequent Nanjing massacre in the hands of the Japanese. Lee’s short few pages of Po’s experience succinctly describe the horrors of the atrocity which she read about only in her twenties in the British Library. Po’s war experience had remained bitterly hidden. To some, grandparents sitting by the fire telling grandchildren their life story is a romantic myth.

As they settled in Taiwan, Gong and Po never returned to mainland China even after the travel ban between China and Taiwan was lifted in 1987. The home that each of them had known when they were young had long disappeared.

Lee’s book is a remarkable narrative of a granddaughter trying to piece together a family history while weaving in her own interests and specialization as an environmental historian and nature lover. The storytelling is a beautiful tapestry of multiple yarns. Lee’s use of metaphors from the natural world are exquisite and eloquent; the juxtapositions of natural history with family history alongside the author’s personal quest make Two Trees a multi-layered and intriguing read.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Rivas

Taiwan is an island just eighty-nine miles wide, but with a central mountain range that rises close to thirteen thousand feet, resulting in a huge variety of habitats rich in endemic biodiversity. The Portuguese first gave it the name Ilha Formosa: ‘Beautiful Island.’ But they later abandoned it, same with the Spaniards and the Dutch. Then it was colonized by the Japanese, and after WWII, occupied by the Nationalist Chinese. Records and management of the natural environs of the island fall in with the history of colonization.

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The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: Island, Mountain, Water, and Forest. The title “Two Trees Make A Forest” actually is a simple tip to write the Chinese word for forest, which is made up of two ideographic symbol for wood .

It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, , doesn’t involve water, but an ideogram of a bird hovering over a mountain. One doesn’t need to be surrounded by water to be insular. The natural environs point to that notion. When describing the biodiversity on Taiwan’s mountain peaks, Lee writes:

… for many species there is little place to migrate but skyward. Tree lines creep ever higher, and the realm of the cold-loving species shrinks. Bound to the summits, these species can live a lonely life. And in this way, mountains become islands of their own. (p.52)

The accounts of Lee’s hiking and the rare sightings are not all as idyllic as one would expect, like the frightening moment when confronting a territorial macaque (rock monkey) alone on a mountain trail, or the storm and rain that pounded her hiking group as they climbed the legendary, ‘haunted’ Qilai Mountain range. The feeling of being an outsider is particularly acute in situations like these.

This is not a place I could simply learn, and it is not mine anyway. I belong in a forest in a much bigger, colder country. I am not built for heat any more than my mother was built for winter. I speak in broken tones, making half sense to everyone I meet in Taiwan. My worlds exist in halves. (p.111)

Back to the liminal concept that pervades her previous book Turning about her experience in Germany. Again, Lee finds parallels of her personal situation in the natural world. Like the mangroves growing by the shore in between land and sea, she sees herself existing in such a liminal, in-between space. Having only a child’s level of Mandarin growing up in Canada, Lee finds herself unequipped to communicate in Taiwan. Here’s one encounter:

A taxi driver asked me why my Mandarin was so good for a foreigner. “My mother is from Taiwan,” I explained, and he turned on me in reprimand. “Then why is your Mandarin so poor?” (p. 106)

Wherever she goes, language grants her the potential for more meaningful engagement with the people in Taiwan, or in Germany. Instead of a geographical location, language could well represent home. “And where I couldn’t find words, I fell to other languages: to plants, to history, to landscape.” (p. 17) Indeed, Nature is a language unto its own.

The Taiwan sojourn is her attempt to be in touch with a family’s past. It is Gong’s death that elicits a deep lament in her. When he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s, Po took Gong back to Taiwan, found a care home for him and came back to Canada on her own. Gong died a lonely death, with which Lee strives to come to terms.

Edward Said wrote that the pathos of exile is the impossibility of return… Whatever the circumstances, there exists tragedy in being forced from home… Alzheimer’s brings another exile: from the imagined world of past and memory.

In Turning, Lee takes to swimming in lakes to confront her fears and personal loss. In Two Trees, dealing with regrets and longings for a grandfather who had died all alone, she has turned to the trees and deep woods in Gong’s homeland:

I find in the cedar forest a place where the old trees can span all our stories, where three human generations seem small. The forest stands despite us. (p. 253)

Like her experience in Turning, Nature once again embraces and absorbs her joy and grief; it too is home.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of my Family’s Past among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts by Jessica J. Lee, Catapult, New York, August, 2020, 282 pages.

Jessica J. Lee is the recipient of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She received a doctorate in environmental history and aesthetics in 2016. Two Trees Make a Forest was noted in Best Books of the Year by New Statesman and The Observer. She is founding editor of the Willowherb Review, publishing nature writing by writers from diverse cultures.

My thanks to Catapult, New York, for providing the reviewer’s copy and photos.

More book to screen adaptations 2020 – 2021

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.

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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.

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood, 1961
Ansel Elgort & Rachel Zegler, 2020

Rebecca (2020)

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?

Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, 1940
Why do I think of A Streetcar Named Desire here?
Is Kristin Scott Thomas scary enough as Mrs. Danvers?

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Release Info. (as of today) of the adaptations are listed in the following. 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 in Sept. Hopefully I can bring you all a first-hand review.

Dune – in theatres December, 2020

French Exit – Premiere at New York Film Festival, October, 2020. After that not sure about distribution.

News of the World – in theatres December, 2020

Macbeth – to be released in USA 2021, details unknown.

West Side Story – in theatres December, 2020

Rebecca – Online in October

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Related Posts:

Click on the links embedded in this post to read my Ripple reviews.

More Book to Movie Lists: Here, Here, and Here.

‘The Booksellers’ is a Film for Book Lovers

Before Kindle and Kobo, or even paperbacks, books were meticulously crafted, sewn, bound, and cared for. The Booksellers is a documentary that pays tribute to New York City’s book dealers, and sadly, laments a trade in decline.

Refresh your memory of this scene at the end of Little Women (2019): Jo looks keenly through the window into the printer’s room, her book being crafted, type set, pages pressed and sewn, a gold leaf embossed on the title, finished and handed to her. After she receives it from the pressman, she hugs it close to her heart.

As one bookseller notes, the relationship of the individual to the book is very much like a love affair. This 99-minute documentary directed by D. W. Young is for book lovers, letting them be privy to a trade that’s driven by passion.

The film is like a scrapbook in motion, opening page after page filled with fascinating history and photos of the bookselling trade in NYC and informative interviews with the City’s book dealers. They lead us into their lairs––their collection mounting high in their stores and in storage, often in their own apartment––open their treasure troves and share their personal journey. Marie Kondo won’t work here, for every book brings joy.

Independent booksellers set up shops in New York City back in the 1920’s, Strand, Argosy, and many others. At one time in the 1950’s there were 368 but when the film was made last year, one bookseller had counted there were 79.


At first it was an old boys club. Impressions we have of booksellers are probably older white men in tweed jackets with elbow patches. Not that book women did not exist back in the day, but that for a long time, they had not been recognized.

Rebecca Romney, rare book specialist in History Channel’s series Pawn Stars, points to two women of note. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were dealers who began right after the war around 1944-45, their business lasting for over 60 years. It’s never easy for women striving in a man’s world, but they were able to establish their reputation and gain respect in the trade.  

Rostenberg and Stern had made a significant find too. They discovered Louisa May Alcott had “a secret life as a pulp writer… often a very sexy, very violent pulp writer.”

Kudos to Greta Gerwig, again. Remember the scene in Little Women when the serious German professor Friedrich Bhaer is disappointed when he reads some of Jo’s published writing, thinking her talents are misplaced. “With plots like this, duels and killing?” He must be reading her pulpy work. Gerwig sure did her research well.

Sisters Judith, Naomi & Adina run Argosy Book Store on 59th street, continuing with the legacy started by their father Louis Cohen in 1925. Their father had bought the whole building of several floors, that’s why they can stay open now as they own the building. Many bookstores have to close due to high rents. Argosy is NYC’s oldest independent bookstore that’s still in business.  

Booksellers are hunter-gatherers. It’s the hunt, the constant seeking that gratifies. Some rare books could take them a few decades to pursue. But with the Internet, “in 45 minutes, you can locate all the first edition of Edith Wharton’s books.” The mystery is gone.

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A tidbit: Dust jackets are important. Don’t throw them away, especially if you have a first edition. And, if you have this book in first edition with a dust jacket in good shape, it could fetch you $150,000.

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An interesting antiquity is a photo album from 1907 titled “Search for Mammoth”. From an expedition in Alaska the explorers found a frozen mammoth and they actual mounted examples of real mammoth hair from 15,000 years ago into the back of the album.

Bookseller Justin Schiller started young in collecting, in particular, the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. While still a child, he bought the first edition of Wizard of Oz for $5. The person who sold it to him apparently didn’t know it was a first edition. At 12, Justin became the youngest person to loan to Columbia University in its 200-year history when the University was looking for certain items for a Baum centenary presentation. Passion for books and ephemera starts early.

Diversity is the key for the book trade to remain relevant today. Interview with Kevin Young, director and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, points to the significance of the Center in keeping important collections such as Malcom X’s papers to Lorraine Hansberry, or James Baldwin’s notes and papers revealing his writing process. Some say Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, learned to read at the Schomburg Center.

A quietly riveting documentary of a collective history and a beloved artifact, and a prompt to keep it alive for all our sakes.

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples

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

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‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

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 … Continue reading ‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

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Kevin Kwan’s New Book is Screen-ready

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 a View, 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 Blue Grotto: An important setting in the book that is utterly cinematic. Source: Wikipedia

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. 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.

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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.

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Rewatching Little Women


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.

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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. 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Certain Women: To Connect on a Vast Landscape

The Library Reopens

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.


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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.

The Summer Day

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

––– Mary Oliver

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Books to Screen 2020 and Beyond

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 ElegyHillbilly 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.

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Deep WaterDeep 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 DuelThe 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.


9 Perfect StrangersNine 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.


NomadlandNomadland: 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).


ShirleyShirley 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 PeopleNormal 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 SundayMothering 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. 

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Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee, Book Review

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”  ––  George Eliot

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Turning - Canadian edition

The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.

At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence,  traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.

To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.

In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.

Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)

This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.

Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.

Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)

The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?

Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:

In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)

And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.

Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)

Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.

Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.

In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.

Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.

Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.

My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.

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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.

 

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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

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thanks to the 1920 Club, I’ve the chance to explore the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. After reading his debut short story collection Flappers and Philosophers which was published in 1920, and now that the week of the Club read has passed, I continue with seeking out more of FSF’s works published in subsequent years.

BB Book CoverAs I can’t go to bookstores now, I turn to my shelves to see what I have in my stockpile, and unearthed this one which I’ve never read: A designer’s copy of FSF’s short story first published in 1922, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in hard cover and fully illustrated, a thin little gem hidden between thicker books. Illustrated by Calef Brown, published by Collins Design, NY, in 2008 when the movie adaptation came out.

What could have motivated Fitzgerald to write a story about a baby born as an old man then gradually grows younger and younger, creating an imaginary scenario that’s opposite of the human trajectory? FSF’s reply had been cited as thus:

‘This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” FSF seems to be offering a hypothetical answer with a question: Is growing younger necessarily more cheerful than growing older?

All along I’m aware of the premise of the story. So with much curiosity I open and read it through.

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First off, no need to use logic or your rational mind to wrap around this scientifically impossible happening. Just take it as a fantasy and let curiosity be the guide. The setting is 1860 and forward in Baltimore. Benjamin is born to Mr. Roger Button, president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, a well-off businessman and a respected figure in the community.

The baby is born with a long beard, “a man of threescore and ten”, in other words, 70 years old, with a ready-formed personality and full mastery of speech to communicate with his dumbfounded father, whose immediate reaction is this:

Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror. “What will people say? What must I do?”

Have you caught it? Indeed, what he’s worried is what people will say about this horrifically different offspring of his.

What follows is a story, while whimsical, is quite sad. Mr. Roger has trouble accepting this undefined being in his home. Fitzgerald’s storytelling is light humour with an acerbic tone. His father calls him Benjamin, albeit a more appropriate name in his mind at first was Methuselah. Benjamin ‘grows up’ being ostracized due to age disparity among his peers, barred from Yale University for his advanced age (I’m sure by now the system has changed). One good thing is, later he does find a young woman to marry, Hildegarde Moncrief, daughter of a general, for by that time the age gap though still large is overcome by love.

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But as years go by, as Benjamin becomes more youthful and Hildegarde much older, he begins to grow tired of her, and their relationship deteriorates. Some years later, he has  turned so youthful that his son feels uncomfortable to be seen with him and his grandson surpasses him in intellect. Eventually, Benjamin degenerates into a state without memory, a baby that responds to mere instinctive urges. Despite the lively book illustrations, this is actually a very sad story.

This curious case reads like a cautionary tale of Ageism that applies both ways: one can be discriminated for being too old, or too young. Fitzgerald could well be using a fanciful tale to depict the norms of social acceptance which seem to be strictly dependent on appearances. Further, in response to Mark Twain’s comment that first prompted the story, Fitzgerald seems to conclude that what an old man has but a baby doesn’t is the wealth of memory he has stored throughout the years. Without an iota of memory, does that make it ‘the best part of life’?

A cautionary tale? Maybe. A whimsical literary farce? That too. Definitely something that’s very different from FSF’s other realistic stories of the Jazz Age.

 

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‘Flappers and Philosophers’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald: My entry into the 1920 Club

Learn of the 1920 Club early this week and am instantly sold. I’m to pick a book published in the year 1920, read it and share my thoughts in this one week April 13-19. This past month and likely some more to come will probably be indelible in our collective memory. Joining The 1920 Club is an excellent diversion as I follow the Stay Home and Stay Safe directive during this Covid-19 Pandemic.

1920, exactly one hundred years ago, saw F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) rise in America’s literary horizon. In March, 1920, he published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and later that year, a short story collection Flappers and Philosophers. Upon the end of his short life of 44 years, Fitzgerald had left a prolific oeuvre of four novels and 164 short stories published in magazines, some included in his four short story collections.

F and P.

I found Flappers and Philosophers online from Project Gutenberg. Due to time constraints, I thought a short story collection would be a good choice. Glad I picked this up as it’s a pleasant surprise. Reading Fitzgerald’s stories has altered my previous impression of the Jazz Age author.

I must admit, I was attracted to the title first. What’s a flapper? I’d to look it up for a precise definition. Several online dictionaries offer similar, succinct ones. But I like the Wikipedia’s more detailed descriptions:

“Flappers were a generation of young Western women in the 1920s who wore short skirts (just at the knee was short for that time period), bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behaviour.”

But when I delve into the eight stories in this collection, I’m pleasantly surprised and have much enjoyed Fitzgerald’s versatility, humour, descriptive prowess, and his observations of the American life which is so different from the impression I got from The Great Gatsby. Long story short, here’s my synopsis of the tales.

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The Offshore Pirate

Imaginative and fanciful, a story that takes place out the shore of Florida. A 19 year-old heiress who wants to break out of the mold of the upper echelon cautiously falls prey to Stockholm Syndrome when a pirate storms her yacht, taking her captive in both mind and soul. The opening lines draw me in instantly:

This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colourful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea––if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset.

A word of caution though, Fitzgerald’s language reflects that of his time. When it comes to race references, modern day readers might find it uneasy to come across such descriptions.

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The Ice Palace

19 year-old (apparently the author’s favourite age for his female protagonists) Sally Carrol, a Southern girl in Georgia, swept by ennui, plans to venture to the great Northeast by marrying his boyfriend Harry from there. She soon finds the North may not be as ideal as she has dreamed of. Fitzgerald’s own life and marriage could have a little influence on the creation of the story. The author’s fictional take on the North South divide.
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Head and Shoulders

So far we’ve seen two ‘flappers’. But who’s the ‘philosopher’? Here’s an interesting story, again, with Fitzgerald’s humor and irony, tells how a brainy academic prodigy falls for a chorus girl, and how the two manage to invent a new life together. Horace gets into Princeton at 13 and into the Masters program at 17, but life takes a 180 degree turn when he falls in love with show girl Marcia. Under Fitzgerald’s pen, life can be altered into the most ironic and unimaginable.

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The Cut-Glass Bowl

A cut-glass bowl, a popular wedding gift in the Middle West, is Evylyn Piper’s treasure in her home. It is also, sadly, a metaphor for fate, the misfortunes that will befall her. Fitzgerald’s more serious story here but equally vivid in the description of marriage life, and the journey Evylyn has to travel alone. Here’s what her friend Carleton, the beau who’s lost her to Evylyn’s future husband Harold, says to her: “Evylyn I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” That of course is the cut-glass bowl. I love the suspense Fitzgerald embeds in even a metaphor.

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Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Book cover above)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Marjorie’s cousin Bernice comes to stay in her home for a few weeks. At first disinterested with the homely-looking and socially inept girl, Marjorie suddenly sparks excitement as the miserable Bernice looks to her for advice. Marjorie teaches her lines to memorize when speaking to boys at parties, and getting her hair bobbed seems to be the key to attract them all. Well, what follows is an episode that even our dear Jane herself would LOL.

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Benediction

The most serious story in the collection as Fitzgerald depicts the struggle between the flesh and the spiritual. Lois is at the crossroads, trying to decide if she should continue to see a man who takes her only for sexual pleasures, albeit the desire is mutual. Lois’s internal struggles face a haunting experience as she visits her brother who’s in a Jesuits monastery getting ready for priesthood. Fitzgerald possibly had built the story upon his actual visit to a seminary in Woodstock, Maryland, when he accompanied his cousin to visit her brother there.

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Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

Could be Fitzgerald’s brief version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with a twist. Coming back from the War, ex-star-soldier Bryan Dalyrimple has no luck in the work world for which he’s ill equipped. He’s stuck in a job with no future and low pay, albeit he thinks highly of himself knowing he deserves better. He then schemes to commit a series of petty crimes. Unlike the doomed Raskolnikov, Bryan is spared Siberia and on track to reaching the American Dream.

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The Four Fists

Throughout his life, Samuel Meredith has had four punches laid on his face, each time results in an epiphany of some sort, changing him a bit, and even leading him to a totally different life course. A most ingenious story told with much humour. Once again, looks like Fitzgerald is saying, life is full of surprises; what comes as a blow could well elevate one to a path of success. But most importantly, do what is right.

 

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1920-club

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, April 13-19, 2020.