May has arrived! The Brothers Karamazov Read Along thus begins.
Your part of the world might be all green and colourful, more conducive to outings and nature wandering than reading. But then again, you can read outdoor too. Just bring the book along and sit under a tree … in a lawn chair, and enjoy the warm breeze.
As for me at the Pond, things aren’t that rosy yet. But I have blue sky, white clouds, and buds bursting out on trees.
All are welcome as we start our slow and leisurely reading of the classic which critics hail as Dostoevsky’s culminating, greatest work (pub. 1880, his last novel). Here’s a schedule of our posting dates, according to the four sections of the book:
PART I – May 22
PART II – June 12
PART III – July 3
PART IV & Epilogue – July 24
If you’re not a blogger, you can still read together with us. On the posting date, stop by and leave your thoughts as a comment. Or, you might have read it before, several times, I welcome your insights!
Here we go again. Every few years on Ripple, I’d entertain an urge to have people gather at the Pond to read a book together, virtually of course. As we’re (here above the 49th) riding through a third wave of COVID right now with stay-home measures for many, how we need that camaraderie even more.
And why The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky? Just because I’ve always wanted to read it but haven’t. I know some of you may have read this literary classic already. Maybe now’s a good time to re-read?
I recently bought a Farrar, Straus and Giroux (NY, 1990) edition pictured above, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Opening it, the first line in the Introduction surprises me. But as I read on, the whole paragraph is motivation itself:
The Brother Karamazov is a joyful book. Readers who know what it is “about” may find this an intolerably whimsical statement. It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest is greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness. But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiousity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing. And therefore, finally, in its vision.
And thanks to Bellezza, I checked on Goodreads and found this quote by Madeleine L’Engle:
“The truly great books are flawed: The Brothers Karamazov is unwieldy in structure; a present-day editor would probably want to cut the Grand Inquisitor scene because it isn’t necessary to the plot. For me The Brothers Karamazov is one of the greatest novels ever written, and this is perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, its human faults.”
–– Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
Those familiar with my previous Read Alongs know I’m all for slow reading. I allow ample time to finish a book, mind you, these are usually longer titles. Read Along at the Pond is a leisurely enjoyment. Here are some previous titles:
Here’s a tentative schedule for The Brothers Karamazov Read Along. Read within the three-week time frame for each of the four Parts, then post your thoughts at the end of each. Non-bloggers are welcome to join as well. Instead of posting, just go to any participant and leave your thoughts as a comment in their post.
The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Posting Dates:
PART I – May 22
PART II – June 12
PART III – July 3
PART IV & Epilogue – July 24
Hope you’d join in the fun! Let me know in the comment.
Klara and The Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel and the first after his Nobel Prize in 2017. This latest title is very different from his previous works. Here is a futuristic story in the style of a children’s fable. The language used is simple and descriptions explicit, written from the point of view of Klara, a humanoid robot. Ishiguro has dealt with sci-fi matter before in Never Let Me Go (2005) relating to human cloning, exploring the complexity of love and jealousy. Compared to Never Let Me Go, Klara and The Sun is a much lighter read.
Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, to fourteen-year-old Josie. They meet in a store where AF’s are sold. Klara is displayed at the storefront when Josie comes in; their fondness of each other sparks off at first sight. Every AF is uniquely created, and here’s Klara’s selling points as Manager explains to Josie’s Mother:
‘Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.’ (P. 43)
B3s are the newest and most advanced model of AF, but Josie insisted on having Klara. Mother gives in to her urging and Klara follows them home. Home is in a remote, rural area. The residence is big and offers views into a vast natural area. In this house the story of Klara and Josie begins.
Josie is a sickly teenager, walks with a limp and often bedridden. Klara is a faithful companion to her, follows her biddings to the dot. There are only two other characters in the house, Josie’s Mother and Melania Housekeeper, both are highly protective of Josie. Josie has a childhood friend, Rick, who lives nearby. Father resides in the city, the details are vague in terms of the reasons of the separation, but we know he cares for Josie very much but holds a different view from Josie’s Mother regarding how they should deal with Josie’s worsening health.
And then there’s Klara’s view of what she sees as a solution to Josie’s illness. Klara runs on energy from The Sun, a benevolent being watching over all. She will appeal to her source of life. As the story develops, we see how Klara’s empathy and love for Josie would put humans to shame. Ishiguro paints another picture of the artificial intelligence (AI) alarm which Sherry Turkle has set off when she writes about technology replacing human in Alone Together, or in the film Ex Machina where a humanoid robot eerily eliminating her creator. Ishiguro lets Klara’s story present the scenario where AI would surpass human in heart, thus implicitly posing the question: “What makes humans human after all?”
However, as the writing follows a straight forward, fable-like style of storytelling, questions such as this are not dealt with in any depth, albeit I feel they could have been explored further. For this reason, unlike Never Let Me Go, I find it hard to engage emotionally with the characters. As the story goes, I keep expecting that there would be some twists and turns in the plot or more complex handling of the thematic matter but which never come.
In a recent online conversation with Toronto International Film Festival’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Ishiguro says he does not go into details about the science and technology mentioned in the book, all for the purpose of allowing readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks. Technical details are prone to be outdated easily. He prefers readers to involve in the world building of the story rather than being passive recipients. My response to this point is that, not just with the technical details, he has left the novel quite open for readers to exercise their imagination.
A movie adaptation is already in development. Again, adhering to his personal rule, Ishiguro will not be writing the screenplay and he will give ample freedom to the filmmaker to create their own movie with the name Klara and The Sun, as long as they take passionate ownership of their story.
This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles I watched online. Two particularly stand out, the first two spots of my very short Top Ripple list for 2020.
1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt
A fresh take on the subject of friendship, set in 1820’s Oregon among fur trappers and opportunists, with the arrival of a dairy cow as the inciting incident. Monetary gain is no match for selfless loyalty in human relations. A moving tale of an unlikely friendship, the cinematography augmenting the enjoyment. It has also prompted me to look up the recipe for Fruit Clafoutis. Adapted from the book Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who had inspired Kelly Reichardt’s previous films. I won’t miss any of her works, poignant richness belying the minimal, naturalistic renderings. Full review to come.
2. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao
Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland features Frances McDormand as a widow who chooses to live in the community of modern nomads, van and RV dwellers in the Western States of America. Zhao is a master of realistic filmmaking. Nomadland is shot in situ among these older itinerant workers called ‘Camperforce’. A revealing docudrama with stunning cinematography and thought-provoking perspective on the essence of living. My review on Vague Visages.
3. Driveways, directed by Andrew Ahn
One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his passing in April this year at 81. A Korean War veteran strikes up friendship with a lonely eight-year-old boy. Here’s an excerpt from my review on AAPress: Driveways shows us the power of caring human relationships and the change love can bring, yet painfully unfurls the precariousness of life. On a large existential canvas, it paints with personal, relatable strokes.
4. House of Hummingbird, directed by Bora Kim
Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is a coming-of-age story of a teenage school girl in a male-dominated family. Young Eun-hee has to live with parental discords, deal with sibling bullying, and face a health issue and a precarious future all alone, but is fortunate to find a mentor in a teacher. Sensitive directing and nuanced performance. My review on AAPress.
For the ones published in the year 2020, here are my Top Ripples. Links to my reviews:
Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani
The following are some Worthy Mentions, not all 2020 books or TV, but all have made an impression in my isolated mind this year as I binged on them without needing to snack on chips and sodas. That says a lot.
Normal People (TV Mini-Series, 2020) – Based on the 2018 book by Sally Rooney. A taste of ‘millennial literature’ and adaptation. I first listened to the audiobook, found it absorbing. Then watched the series and then read the book again, this time, word by word. Available to stream on CBC GEM and Hulu.
The Morning Show (2019) – Didn’t realize Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon can be so intense. Streamed on Apple TV+
The Crown (2020) – Season 4. Wonder how the Royal Family reacted to this scandalous take on the Charles, Camilla, & Diana affairs. Or, maybe just me… no surprise to them. On Netflix.
The Queen’s Gambit (2020) – The chess moves might be intriguing, but the overall pace can be more riveting if the TV Mini-Series is cut short by two or three episodes. On Netflix.
Defending Jacob (2020) – When parental love and truth collide. After watching the series on Apple TV+, I went directly to the source material, the 2012 novel by William Landay, a fascinating psychological suspense-thriller. After that went on to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh… the hazard of parenting.
Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) by Jessica J. Lee – Lee is a newly emerged voice of nature writing à la memoirist. Coming from a fusion of cultural and geographical background: Canada, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, the environmental historian offers personal and fresh takes relevant in our contemporary society of multiplicity.
Time for Ripple’s Christmas read, an annual post I name Reading the Season.
In the Pulitzer winning book Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson introduced us to the aging Rev. John Ames in the fictional Iowa town Gilead set in the 1950’s. The book is a letter Ames writes to his seven-year-old son, leaving him with a legacy of family memories, love and forgiveness.
In Home (2008), we enter the house of Ames’ lifelong friend, Rev. Robert Boughton, and meet her daughter Glory. For an ephemeral moment, his son Jack––Ames’ godson––the black sheep of the family appears. Jack returns home after twenty years of self-exile, looking for solace but sadly leaves again without reconciliation.
Lila (2014) is the story about Ames and his young wife Lila, who is homeless and aimless when the old Rev. first finds her on a country road. A beautiful story of how love bridges the great chasm between two utterly incompatible beings and leads to a magical union.
Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Jack (2020) is the fourth and last of the Gilead novels. It brings us back to the prodigal son in Boughton’s family, Jack, but this time, describing a sweet romance, albeit pointing to a challenging future. In terms of the time setting, Jack is a prequel to Gilead and Home. So we know how life unfolds for him. But for a moment, we dwell in some pleasant thoughts. The novel is like a reversal of Lila; here, Jack is the stray redeemed by Grace.
Nothing short of divine providence, Jack Boughton first meets Della Miles on the street, helping her in the rain to pick up papers blown by the wind. Della is a schoolteacher of literature, lover of poetry, witty, intelligent, and fearlessly independent. But, as fate would have it, she is a Black woman in segregated St. Louis during the 1950’s. Herein lies a precarious yet beautiful love story.
Jack and Della meet again one night in a cemetery serendipitously. Jack is destitute, just released after spending two years in prison, albeit for a theft he did not commit outside a pawn shop. Surely, justice isn’t on his side. Jack often gets roughed up or taunted, sometimes for no good reasons, but deep inside, he knows he’s not an innocent man. He’s destructive to others and himself, sometimes steals, and tries hard to remain sober. As mentioned in Home, years ago while still living at home in Gilead, Jack gets a girl pregnant, then just leaves town and disappears. The death of the baby later only adds to more burden and regrets.
Yet in Jack, Robinson’s depiction of the wayward protagonist is not without humour. Take this as an example:
Jack went out walking, trying to get tired enough to sleep, staying sober, so that if he did jump into the river, he could feel his demise has the dignity of considered choice.
Della has no reason to fall in love with Jack, the punishment for miscegenation is jail and being ostracized from her own family and both racial communities. The Miles are a reputable African American family of strong traditions and deep religious roots, the father being a Bishop in the Methodist denomination. No doubt Della is young and not tuned to the laws of a racist society that rewards the conformist and punishes the deviant. Yet, it is her internal light that leads her to defy unjust norms, look through Jack’s outward appearance to cherish his soul.
Della is Grace personified. The concept of ‘unmerited kindness’ is ubiquitous in the book, and Jack knows and is grateful to be the recipient of such. Receiving kindness might just be an understatement. He is redeemed and given a new life upon meeting Della.
Saying grace over pancakes in Della’s home after the cemetery meet, Jack recites spontaneously a verse from the poem “The Paradox” by African American poet Paul Dunbar (1872-1906) :
Down to the grave will I take thee, Out from the noise of the strife; Then shalt thou see me and know me–– Death, then, no longer, but life.
Indeed, the paradox of finding life among the dead is the pivotal moment in the book. They talk through the night as soulmates, treasuring the freeing experience inside the locked gate of a cemetery; for Jack, Della is like an epiphany, life in death.
Flannery O’Connor’s notion of the ‘intrusion of grace’ comes to mind as I read the book, light shining into darkness, even just a spark. Also emerged in my mental association is Dostoevsky’s Sonya, the Christlike figure that is a saving grace to Raskolnikov. Not that Jack is an axe murderer, but he knows too well that he needs to be rescued from himself.
Insight and wisdom come packaged in lightness of heart and humor, often embedded in the bantering between Della and Jack. And yet, they are lovers in limbo; while the subjective force of love prevails, there are uphill battles to be fought in the social and systemic front, and an arduous journey awaits. As the story timeframe takes place before Robinson’s Gilead and Home, we know how their lives turn out, which makes reading Jack such a bittersweet experience.
And here’s an imaginary scenario… if the love which surpasses all human barriers could be frozen in time, and let Grace have the last say, that would be heaven.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
2020 has been a most extraordinary year when we find and admit how fragile human beings are. We all need to be rescued not just from a physical virus but a spiritual one and be saved from ourselves. The Christmas Season is an appropriate time to ponder once again on that first crack of light, the epitome of the Intrusion of Grace.
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 公. 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 婆, 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.
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.
The four main sections of the book are entitled with a single Chinese word: 島 Island, 山 Mountain, 水 Water, and 林 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 木 .
It’s interesting to note too, that the word for island, 島, 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
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.
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.
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.
“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
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
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.
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:
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.
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
. 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. .
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.
. 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.
. 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.
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.
. 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.
. 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.