From Dr. Cristina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy to Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, chair of Pembroke University’s English Department, Sandra Oh has proven to be an effective voice for inclusion in the entertainment industry.
The Chair is a notable addition to Netflix’s original series, newly released in August 20, 2021. The six, 30 min. episodes pack subject matters that are relevant in academia and society today. So, if you feel it has not fully delved into such issues, I hope a second season would allow it to elaborate.
The most obvious one is the academic chair, the symbol of authority in academia. Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, aptly played by Sandra Oh in an astute mix of comedic and realistic fervour, is the first Asian American and woman of colour to chair the English Department of Pembroke University, a second tier liberal arts college striving to remain relevant. Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim’s obstacles are duly multiplied just because of who she is, a woman English professor of Korean ancestry.
When talking with Yaz (Nana Mensah), a young, black woman faculty whom Ji-Yoon wants to appoint as distinguished lecturer, Ji-Yoon says, “when I first started, it was like ‘why some Asian lady teaching Emily Dickinson?'”
Ji-Yoon’s troubles are manifold. Enrolment in the English Department has dropped more than 30%, budget has been chopped, and many of the 87% white male faculty have long passed the borderline of retirement. Ji-Yoon’s department is striving to recover its raison d’être. Her own daughter Ju Ju asks her, “Why are you a doctor? You never help anybody.” A question must have lodged in many a minds.
As for Ju Ju, a role superbly played by Everly Carganilla, she’s a heart-breaker. Ji-Yoon faces single-parenthood with added difficulties as Ju Ju is an adopted daughter of Hispanic heritage. Mother-daughter bond doesn’t come easily, especially with an intelligent and challenging child. Ji-Yoon has no other childminding support other than her reluctant, Korean father. The traditional Korean family event (E5) where a baby chooses her future career is interesting and adds spice to the academic scenes.
Characters are realistic, albeit in a comedy it’s expected to see overly dramatized ones like Bill (Jay Duplass), too stoned or drunk to remember he has a class to teach. His excuse, he’s still recovering from the loss of his wife, and a daughter who has just gone away for college and has no intention to return. The class he teaches, Death and Modernism, draws a full capacity all because of his popularity… but not for long.
As a comedy, the writing isn’t your LOL funny type. The humour, especially on the ripe old professors, tends towards cliché; nevertheless, the writing is interesting, especially when they try to include literary allusions into the dialogues. Knowing T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock just might enhance one’s enjoyment.
Overall, a subject matter that’s long due and a new series that deserves many more seasons to come.
The main thrust and climax of the novel is in Part IV with the courtroom drama of Dmitri on trial for killing his father Fyodor Karamazov. Worthy of any writer of legal thriller to emulate, both the prosecutor Ippolit Kirrillovich’s and the defence attorney from Moscow Fetyukovich’s closing speeches are epic in their scope.
The trial is a spectacle not only locally but the case has ‘resounded throughout Russia.” It would have been a viral streaming in today’s online media. Interesting to note that the opinion of Dmitri’s guilt is divided along gender lines: “many ladies quarrelled hotly with their husbands” as they like to see an acquittal while men want Dmitri locked up and sent to Siberia. Now, such polarized views within a family is another phenom we’re familiar with nowadays.
Prosecutor Kirrillovich knows how to pull the strings of the jury made up of twelve men. They all have preconceived ideas of what the name Karamazov stands for: sensual, unprincipled, depraved. They’ve come to take revenge on a reckless murderer who has committed parricide. The Brothers Karamazov could well have inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic film 12 Angry Men.
Kirrillovich’s beginning remark is notable. While the case has caught raving interests across the country, the alleged cudgelling of a father by his son with a pestle is no longer a surprise, and that’s his commentary on society at large:
“We’re so used to all that! And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us! It is this, and not the isolated crime of one individual or another, that should horrify us: that we are so used to it… our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs, such signs of the times, which prophesy for us an enviable future?”
Signs of the times? In 1880? Just wonder what Dostoevsky would think if he were around today.
Defence attorney Fetyukovich draws the twelve men of the jury from their emotions back to rationale, for the evidences presented by the prosecutors are circumstantial as no one has actually seen Dimitri commit the murder. ‘Since he was in the garden that night, he must have killed him’ just wouldn’t stand as an argument, the same with since he had money with him that night, he must have stolen from his father for the sum after killing him. Above all, that Dmitri is ‘stormy and unbridled’ and has offended many in town doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he is the murderer.
That is precisely the war waging inside Dmitri, while he may be reckless and unscrupulous, and admittedly a scoundrel, he’s also a passionate human being, honest with his feelings and thoughts, and earnestly seeks spiritual redemption for his sins. But the murder of his father he vehemently denies.
Who killed Foydor Karamazov? Before he hangs himself, the lackey Smerdyakov has confessed everything to Ivan, including the premeditated faking of a debilitating fall as an alibi, the detailed sequence of events, the actual weapon used, and how he hid the money stolen from the old man. So, it’s unfortunate he didn’t live to confess in court. Did he kill himself to frame Dmitri? I’m inclined to think so, a scheming fool such as he. Smerdyakov reminds me of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.
While leading the jurors to use their rationale in the first part of his speech, the orator Fetyukovich appeals to their pathos later to conclude. Alluding to Christ and other Biblical references, he calls for the salvation and regeneration of a soul. Dostoevsky has presented a foil between the prosecutor and the defence attorney: one calls for judgement, the other, mercy.
In the forward of the novel, the author has stated that his hero is the youngest son Alyosha, the one who comes out of the monastery and goes into the world. But in the courtroom chapters, Alyosha plays a minimal role. In the wrapping up of the whole book, the last chapter of the Epilogue, Dostoevsky lets Alyosha have the final words. In the school boy Ilyushechka’s funeral, Alyosha rouses up Ilyushechka’s school mates––the next generation of Russian youth––to a pledge of love and goodness:
“… let us all be as generous and brave as Ilyushechka… dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”
“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.
“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.
“We love you, we love you,” everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.
“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”
“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.
“Ah, how good that will be!” burst from Kolya.
“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.
Ah… the redemption of the name Karamazov.
Hope you have enjoyed this Read Along. Here are the links to the previous sections on Ripple Effects:
When you have a cast consisting of French actresses Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche together with American actor Ethan Hawke, that’s attraction enough. Further, a film written and helmed by the Cannes winning Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Shoplifters, 2018) adds an intriguing element, as this is his first non-Japanese film shot outside of his home country.
Deneuve plays an aging French film actress, Fabienne Dangeville, who has just written a memoir. Already 50,000 sold––and boasting to her daughter twice that number––the success in book sales, however, cannot rescue her from the dimming of her career as a film star.
Reminiscent of French director Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) where Binoche herself plays a French actress sinking into oblivion as prime acting roles go to the younger and much more popular personalities. But The Truth is lighter in mood and sprinkled with comedic effects and subtle humour.
Fabienne’s daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a screenwriter living in New York, comes all the way to Paris on the occasion of her mother’s book publishing, her husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), an actor, and daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) in tow. To Lumir, it’s a homecoming after a long while. Cracks between her and her overbearing mother surface as soon as she enters the house.
First off, she’s upset that Fabienne didn’t let her read the manuscript before publication as she had promised. Now reading it for the first time that night, anger replaces disappointment. She confronts her mother the next morning:
“Who are you kidding? I can’t find any truth in here.”
Fabienne, of course, doesn’t care what her daughter thinks. It’s her memoir, her take. In the book, she presents herself as a loving mother, like finding joy in picking her daughter up from school. Lumir says it’s untrue, for her mother had never picked her up from school, always her dad Pierre (Roger Van Hool) or the family’s faithful servant Luc (Alain Libolt). Her memory of Fabienne is an absent mother who basks in the limelight of her own stardom. In reply, Fabienne says:
“I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth. It’s far from interesting.”
As for Hank, effectively played by Hawke, his duty seems to be there only to support his wife. Not knowing French, Hank is a complete outsider. And in the eyes of his celebrity mother-in-law, he can hardly be called an actor. Daughter Charlotte has a few delightful scenes on the subject of truth and fantasy.
The next day, they all follow Fabienne to the studio for the rehearsal of a film she’s in, but playing a minor role with the major star being a younger, reputed actress Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Now the conflict shifts from mother daughter to that of the fading star and rising talent.
The studio setting is another layer Koreeda has created to bring out cinematic ‘truth’. The green screen itself by its very function works as a fake background, ‘deceiving’ in its purpose. Further, special touch up can alter even the eye colour of the actor. And most hilarious of all, but all wrapped in a serious tone, what we see is an intense scene between two characters alone on screen is actually hovered over in a short distance by a horde of people who are not in costume doing their real-life job. Sarcasm and humour are the subtle effects from scenes like that. Koreeda’s insight is astute in revealing what filmmaking is: fiction pretending to be real.
The middle part of The Truth about the studio shooting is a little weighed down as a play-within-a-play based on a short story by the acclaimed science fiction writer Ken Liu. This section of the movie is complex and multi-layered. While intriguing, it requires more than one viewing for clarity. This too, could well be Koreeda’s intension as he directs a French film, inserting a story within a story, which is a French artistic device, the mise en abyme. Like standing between two mirrors, one can see multiple images.
Overall, The Truth is a light-hearted feature, leisurely paced with embedded humour. Koreeda’s intention might be more cerebral than comical. The cast in itself is appealing enough, presenting a piece of cinema verité showing that truth is elusive even among the closest of family or the most sincere of artistic expressions.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
The Truth is now on Netflix.
In participation of Paris in July hosted by Tamara at Thyme for Tea
“They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.”
Nope, not a quote from Marie Kondo, although she’d totally agree. Fyodor Dostoevsky got that way back in 1880.
As the story unfolds, it looks like joy is what all the characters are searching for whether they know it or not, in their own way and circumstance, through the choices they make.
As rivals for the same woman Grushenka, the old man Fyodor is no match for his son Dmitri. Part I ends with his ex-military son storming into his house to look for Grushenka, thinking Fyodor has hidden her there. In a frantic scene, Dmitri ‘seized the old man by the two surviving wisps of hair on his temples, pulled, and smashed him against the floor. He even had time to kick the fallen man in the face two or three times with his heel.’ (139)
In Part II, Dostoevsky continues with the morning after, painting a comical Fyodor with purple bruises on his forehead which was wrapped in a red handkerchief, and his swollen, notable nose:
“Meanwhile he got up worriedly and looked in the mirror (perhaps already for the fortieth time that morning) at his nose. He also began to arrange the red handkerchief on his forehead in a more becoming way.” (172)
The comic relief could well be to set up for an intense chapter to come later. As he plans to leave for Moscow the next day and never return to this mess of a family, Ivan the intellectual and aspiring writer shares with his younger brother Alyosha his poem, which he relays in prose in the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’
Referring to the Inquisition instigated by the Roman Catholic Church spanning several centuries in the Middle Ages, where a papal tribunal would judge and send those who were deemed heretic to be burned at the stake, this chapter could well be Dostoevsky’s critique of the Church. He uses acerbic sarcasm to drive his point home.
In this chapter, the ‘heretic’ the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor puts on trial inside a prison cell is none other than Christ Himself. The Inquisitor’s fierce accusation is that Christ is obstructing what the Church is doing – a scornful irony:
“… on your departure, you handed the work over to us… you gave us the right to bind and loose, and surely you cannot even think of taking this right away from us now. Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?”
Christ’s grave error, according to The Grand Inquisitor, is that He had ‘overestimated’ man in thinking they would pursue freedom and the transcendent, misdirecting them to false gratification such as the spiritual, raising the bar too high. When tempted by Satan He should have turned stone into bread, for man does live on bread alone and would gladly exchange their free will for it, all because ‘man is created weaker and baser than you thought him!’ (256)
“Better that you enslave us, but feed us… give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread.” (253-4)
While Christ aims at pointing man to the spiritual, man seeks physical solutions and an end to their poverty. They would rather have the authority take over so they can be rid of the burden that comes with the freedom of choice, and that is exactly what The Grand Inquisitor says he, i.e. the Church, has done.
Another accusation: Christ did not come down from the cross when taunted ‘because, again, [He] did not want to enslave man by a miracle but honoured faith that is out of free will.’ A misjudgement, the Grand Inquisitor mocked; this too is heresy.
To counteract such intense and harsh criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, in the rest of Part II Dostoevsky presents another perspective. It could well be the different sides of struggles in the author’s mind, issues that are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but which only reflect the complexity and often co-existence of faith and doubt, idealism and reality.
One man who has understood what it’s like to seek what Christ has intended and found transcendent joy is Father Zosima. Part II wraps up with Alyosha’s tribute to his mentor upon the Elder’s death.
In contrast to The Grand Inquisitor, and as if to answer his own critical judgment on the Church, Dostoevsky furnishes his readers with Elder Zosima’s biography and teachings compiled by Alyosha. Despite a childhood devoted to God influenced by the conversion of his brother shortly before his death, Zosima entered the military Cadet Corps in Petersburg and turned into a ‘wild, cruel, and absurd creature’, pulling him into ‘a life of pleasure, with all the impetuousness of youth, without restraint, under full sail.’ (296)
A sudden spiritual epiphany opens his eyes resulting in a conversion that changes his whole being. He asks forgiveness of his servant whom he’d beaten the night before, as well as the adversary with whom he is supposed to have a duel that day.
These ending chapters of Part II are a joy to read, for they are fresh and positive, a huge contrast to The Grand Inquisitor’s accusations of the failure of man. It is here that leads to the quote in the beginning of this post… Zosima’s gentle critique of his fellowmen:
“The idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world… They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy.” (314)
From the powerful but fallible religious institution represented by The Grand Inquisitor to the loving and seemingly powerless Zosima who finds joy and meaning in Christ, Dostoevsky has presented a foil in characterization. The last portrait of Zosima is one of peace and serenity:
“he––suffering, but still looking at them with a smile––silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as if in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully gave up his soul to God.” (324)
Have you written a post on TBK Part II? Let me know so I can link you here. Hope you’re enjoying your read.
May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI) in the US. At the beginning of May I posted a Movie List. Here’s a Reading List to wrap.
There are more than 400 writers, authors, and poets of AAPI heritage in North America listed on Wikipedia. I’ve only read a handful. So, glad to say I’ve many more to explore. Here’s a list of authors and their works that I’ve read in recent years, all with their own style and story to tell. Links are to my reviews on Ripple Effects or Asian American Press.
Ted Chiang – Hugo and Nebula Award winner
Arrival, previously published as Stories of Your Life, is a novella compiled into a short story collection. Chiang’s style is gentle and cerebral, melding together the humanity, psychology, and the transcendence with concepts of science. The New Yorker describes his writing as ‘soulful’. A worthy film adaptation came out in 2016 garnering 8 Oscar nominations including Best Picture the following year.
Nicole Chung – Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography
Chung’s All You Can Ever Know is a bold and candid memoir. Born in Seattle but due to extreme health issues and family situation, her Korean parents put her up for adoption. Chung describes what it’s like to grow up in her white, adoptive parents’ Oregon home, and her urge to seek for her roots. The book details her search for her biological parents. What’s poignant isn’t the search but the results.
While you might think of her as an actress, comedian, director, and producer, Kaling first started as a writer for the popular TV series The Office. Her personal essays are candid sharing of how a woman of Indian descent tried to find a place in a white man’s world of TV and movie production, and made it. Her audiobooks which she narrates––Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? and Why not Me?––are both revealing and highly entertaining.
Don’t get misled by the titleCrazy Rich Asians, for the heroine in Kwan’s trilogy isn’t rich, or crazy, and her love though rich, isn’t crazy either. Yes, blame it all on the family then. The not-as-popular newest title Sex and Vanity is my favourite just because I love E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation. This one from Kwan is screen ready… and don’t get misled by the title either.
Her debut novel Everything I Never Told You describes what it’s like growing up in a mixed race family, a gem of a book. Ng’s subsequent novel, Little Fires Everywhere is a more fledged out story about the intricacies of parent child relationships in the backdrop of a larger community of mixed races. It’s been turned into a TV mini-series. For this one, I’d enjoyed the book more.
Jhumpa Lahiri – Pulitzer Prize winner
I like many of Lahiri’s works describing Indian immigrants in Northeastern US, especially her short stories, from her debut work, the Pulitzer winning Interpreter of Maladies, her novel The Namesake, and her later short story collection Unaccustomed Earth. She had moved to Italy since 2011 and started to learn Italian and writing in her newly adopted language. Another unaccustomed earth to inspire new stories.
Jessica J. Lee – Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction 2020 winner
Born in Canada to a mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee is a unique voice in environmental writing today. Her debut memoir Turning: A Year in the Water describes her venture of swimming in 52 lakes in Germany in one year. Her next book, Two Trees Make A Forest chronicles her grandparents’ journey leaving China to settle in Taiwan after WWII and her own search for her roots on that island via its natural landscape.
Mark Sakamoto – Canada Reads 2018 winner
Forgiveness tells the coming together of two families, one a white Canadian family whose father was a former POW in a Japanese prison camp during WWII, and the other a Japanese Canadian family who had to be sent away to an internment camp while living in Canada during the same time. The marriage of their children bring them together. A very unique story, albeit the writing style and structure may not be as gratifying.
Born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and arrived in Canada with her family when she was a young child, Thammavongsa has come a long way from learning English to winning the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize with her short story collection How to Pronounce Knife. There are trade-offs involved while gaining a new life. Clarity of insights and poignancy mark her stories as she creates with her adopted language on the page.
Madeleine Thien – Giller and Governor’s General winne
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is also shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. It details the horrendous experiences of several classical musicians during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China and the aftermath. Thien’s novel is an epic of a historical fiction set in both China and Canada spanning decades, and a poignant reminder that we should never forget history so not to repeat it, a crucial lesson much needed today.
Dementia is a land where its inhabitants can never come out, and visitors can only look in from the outside. To add to the isolation, they speak a different language outsiders don’t understand.
In his role as an 80-year-old man afflicted with dementia in The Father, Anthony Hopkins has shown he’s an apt interpreter of that language. With his astute performance, the iconic British actor becomes the oldest person to win an acting Oscar this April, his second after The Silence of the Lamb in 1992.
The Father is based on the 2012 play Le Père by French playwright director Florian Zeller. It received the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014. The English version was translated by Christopher Hampton in 2016 and performed on Broadway. Hampton and Zeller co-wrote the adaptation to film. At this year’s Academy Awards, they won Best Adapted Screenplay. This is Hampton’s second Oscar win for writing; his first was for Dangerous Liaison in 1988. And for Zeller, his debut feature garnered six Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
Zeller’s intriguing way of storytelling lets viewers experience vicariously what a dementia sufferer goes through. First off, it is uncanny that Hopkins’s character is named Anthony. The film is shot from his point-of-view.
The editing by Yorgos Lamprinos strings together seamlessly the conflicting perspectives of Anthony’s: the mingling of memories, the confusion of happenings and imagination, the loss of a timeframe for past events, the distortion of present realities, and perhaps most disturbing for those close to him: unrecognizable faces. Describing how Zeller achieve these effects will be like giving out spoilers. I’ll just say this, The Father is like the Rashomon of dementia.
Zeller’s film is cinematic realism depicting the condition of dementia. The confused, bewildered look of Hopkins in close ups is accompanied by repetitive, eerie music, rendering the scenes suspenseful, not far from a Hitchcockian thriller. When one has lost the capacity of one’s brain, it is a scary experience. Anthony knows his way down the hallway to his room, but is this his flat? Where’s his watch, again? And, what happened to that painting that used to be hanging on the wall? The cast of seven brings out a powerful narrative in just 97 minutes.
Another realistic portrayal is Olivia Colman as the daughter Anne, who has to convince her father that he needs help. She struggles with the conflict between filial love and personal freedom, her husband (Rufus Sewell) does not make things easier for her either. And to complicate matter further, Anne is not her father’s favourite but her younger sister Lucy…
We’ve had a couple of excellent films on the subject of aging and dementia in the past. Away from Her (2006) directed by Sarah Polley who adapted Alice Munro’s short story is about a wife stricken by Alzheimer’s, and Michael Heneke’s Amour (2012) narrates an aging husband caring for his debilitated wife after her stroke, both received Oscar nods. Zeller has contributed to this repertoire of films with a perspective from the point-of view of the patient, adding to it a daughter’s internal conflicts.
No matter how much Anne tries to keep her father living with her, his condition needs professional care and monitoring, something she finds hard to get through to a dementia patient who is determined to be self-reliant. Colman’s performance is sensitive and moving.
A very clever man, this father hasn’t totally lost it. The scene where he meets his new caregiver Laura (Imogen Poots) in Anne’s home shows how sharp he can still be, and not just Anthony the character, but Hopkins the actor, who is in his top form.
Original music is by Ludovico Einaudi (Nomadland, 2020) whose score reflects the mental state of Anthony’s, enhancing the cinematic effects. The opera music at the beginning of the film which Anthony is listening to, and later reprises is from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles. The poignant piece is his link to the person he once was, the song entitled Je crois entendre encore: ‘I believe I still hear.’
Eventually, the inevitable question has to be asked by Anthony, an antithesis to a cathartic ending: ‘Who exactly am I?’
And I thought Linus was so ingenious with such self-knowledge and view of mankind! But then again, it could be an example of great minds think alike… Charles Schultz and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Reading this first Part of The Brothers Karamazov (TBK) offers me surprising delights, for I find some well known, thought-provoking quotes in here.
The panel above is the last of the comic sequence where a frustrated Linus replies Lucy when she says he can never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind. In TBK, this line is, interestingly, spoken by a doctor, in an anecdote told by the Elder to ‘a lady of little faith’:
“the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons.” (57)
Here’s the edition I use, references to page numbers in brackets are from this Pevear and Volokhonsky translation.
As I learn about the characterization in Part I, focusing on the father Karamazov and his sons, I can see why Dostoevsky created such a famous line.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov – a man described as ‘worthless’, ‘depraved’, ‘muddleheaded’, ‘a buffoon’, and I’d just add womanizer and child abandoner, ‘for the child would have gotten in the way of his debaucheries.’ (p. 10) His eldest is Dmitri from first wife Adelaida Ivanovna, who deserted him and her own son. His second wife Sofia Ivanovna gave birth to Ivan and Alexi, and died when Alexi was four years old. All the brothers grew up away from their father.
Dmitri – Eldest, recently retired from the military. Abandoned by both his parents from birth, was raised by their servant Grigory and his wife for a while then a distant relative took over and some others. What could such a child turn out to be? The military has suited him well, so, at least his physique is well sculpted. However, the animosity towards his father runs deep, with conflicts over inheritance money and, alas, rivalry over the same woman Grushenka.
Ivan – The first son of Fyodor’s second wife. A rational man, argumentative, and an atheist. Expressed his view forthrightly in writing and in speech. While arguing against the existence of an overarching natural law of morality, he presents the scenario that if there’s no God, no immortality, then “nothing would be immoral any longer, everything would be permitted, even anthropophagy.” (p. 69) The Garnett translation uses the word ‘cannibalism’, which is much clearer. Without a universal measurement of good and evil, one cannot say what’s moral or not.
“If there is no immortality of the soul, then there is no virtue, and therefore everything is permitted.” (82)
I find it stimulating and gratifying to see Dostoevsky’s characters discuss issues such as this one openly, which reflects what were the important issues of the time. TBK is a novel of ideas, and Dostoevsky brings them out via lively dialogues and sometimes, surprisingly, in light-hearted strokes.
Alexei – or Alyosha, Dostoevesky’s hero as he states in his Author’s Note before the story begins. A youth who has quit his last year of schooling to return to his father’s town, and enters the monastery to follow the Elder Zosima. A ‘holy fool’ like the main character in Dostoevsky’s earlier book The Idiot. Called ‘an angel’ by his father, for this youngest son “pierced his heart… because he saw everything, and condemned nothing.” (94)
The Elder Zosima – Alyosha’s mentor, a spiritual leader in the monastery who gives advice to seekers. The ailing Elder urges Alyosha to ‘go into the world’ and not stay in the monastery after his death, something his youthful follower is perplexed about at this point in the book.
In a chapter entitled ‘A Lady of Little Faith’ (Bk 2, Ch.4), the Elder offers this advice to a woman who is distressed that she can’t find proof to confirm her faith, and the Elder replies,
“… One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”
“How? By what?”
“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul.” (56)
A crucial chapter is Book 2, Ch. 6, where the three brothers and their father meet at the Elder’s cell in the presence of other monks to seek the Elder’s judgement on the dispute between Fyodor and his son Dimitri. Here’s a prime example of how Dostoevsky lets his characters discuss serious issues embedded with comical effects.
During the meeting, the brothers engage with the monks and discuss serious subjects such as European Liberalism, Russian Liberalism, the role of the Church in the State, and most importantly, the existence of God, while an impatient Fyodor can’t wait to air out the family’s dirty laundry. I find the juxtaposition of these conversations deadpan farcical.
“Dmitri Fyodorovich!” Fyodor Pavlovich suddenly screamed in a voice not his own, “if only you weren’t my son, I would challenge you to a duel this very moment … with pistols, at three paces … across a handkerchief! Across a handkerchief!’ he ended, stamping with both feet.
Dmitri Fyodorovich frowned horribly and looked at his father with inexpressible contempt.
“I thought… I thought,” he said somehow softly and restrainedly, “that I would come to my birthplace with the angel of my soul, my fiancée, to cherish him in his old age, and all I find is a depraved sensualist and despicable comedian!”
“To a duel!” the old fool screamed again, breathless and spraying saliva with each word. (73-74)
The most important scene that takes place in this meeting is an action by the Elder Zosima. As if to end the Karamazov father and son confrontation, Zosima gets up, goes to Dmitri, kneels before him and bow, touching the floor with his forehead, astonishes everyone there. (74)
Another character, Rakitin, later interprets the Elder’s action as a foreshadowing, Zosima delivering a prophesy of a crime that will take place which has something to do with Dimitri and his father. I will have to read on to find out.
What a family!
Is it a coincidence that the unlovable head of the family Karamazov has the same first name as our author, Fyodor? I think here is a prime example of Dostoevsky’s humour and acerbic self-sarcasm. I gather that it’s the author’s intention to identify with humanity in all their foibles and failures––the fallen man.
As Dmitri tells Alyosha: “Don’t think I’m just a brute of an officer who drinks cognac and goes whoring. No, brother, I hardly think of anything else, of anything but that fallen man… I think about that man, because I myself am such a man.” (107)
Two other quotes that had sent ripples as I read:
“Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” (108)
“Faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.” (26)
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.
Minari is a semi-autobiographical narrative based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood experience. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant father striving to succeed in America while his wife strains to keep their family together. In the midst of the struggle for a better life, two children watch and learn and grow.
Chung’s counterpart in the movie, seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), follows his parents Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), together with his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), to relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980’s. Driven by the ambition to be successful, especially in the eyes of his children, Jacob has purchased 50 acres of land to start a farm growing Korean produce. With the influx of Korean immigrants coming into the country during that time, Jacob sees a wealth of opportunity.
Jacob and Monica still hold a day job at a hatchery doing chicken sexing, separating the male chicks from the female, but Jacob sees no future in the routine work. The farm is his dream. In the sexing process, the male chicks are discarded, for they don’t taste as good and can’t lay eggs. A ready object lesson for him to teach his young son: be useful. And when he digs a well, he dismisses the dowsing method offered to him. “Koreans use their heads,” he tells David.
Monica, however, sees a very different picture. The dream home in the country for Jacob is for her, realistically, a trailer on wheels held up by cinder blocks. Water is from a well which later is drained dry to the crops. There’s no community nearby. Her main concern is living far from a hospital as David has a life-threatening heart murmur. “Don’t forget to keep praying,” she tells David. The couple’s opposing views lead to frequent conflicts in front of the children.
The tipping point comes when Monica’s mother is recruited to help with the kids. Arriving from Korea, Grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) brings with her Korean spices and rarity not found in America, as well as Korean songs, memory of courtship that has long been buried by her daughter and son-in-law.
For David, Grandma is far from what he has expected. She is a raucous card player, swears, doesn’t cook or bake, uses half his room and, aggravating his annoyance, snores. The interplay between grandma and grandson make up some light-hearted scenes which elicit from Kim performance in his natural poise alongside the veteran, seasoned Youn. The key element in their eventual bonding is love. Kudos to Chung for his screenplay and directing.
Another supporting role that has added spice to the film is Paul (Will Patton), a practical farm help to Jacob. A devout Pentecostal, Paul’s eccentricity is a laughing stock even with church kids. Jacob does not subscribe to his beliefs. Admirably, the two can still work in harmony.
Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and winning both its Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Minari has come a long way this past year garnering accolades. The film is now an Oscar nominee in six categories including Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay for Chung. Yeun becomes the first actor of Asian descent to be nominated for Best Actor. Youn gets a nod for Best Supporting Actress and composer Emile Mosseri for Best Original Score.
Compared to his acclaimed debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), an arthouse, experimental film about two youths in post-genocide Rwanda, Minari is a conventional take on a personal, family story. The storytelling is linear and captured in realism, as we follow the Yi family’s first arrival to rural Arkansas and the daily struggles as an immigrant, farm family. The film’s subject matter and Chung’s handling is deceivingly simple.
Thanks to the eponymous vegetable, the minari, Lee transfers the specific to a wider scope in different layers. Minari is a Korean watercress that grows hardily in wet soil. Grandma has brought some minari seeds with her from Korea and sows them beside the creek near their home. As days go by, the plants thrive on their own, an apt metaphor for the resilience and adaptability of immigrants taking roots in a new soil.
In contrast to a grim lesson of discarding the male chicks at the hatchery David learns from his father, the minari along the creek is a visual reminder of being alive and useful. Grandma sings its praises, for the versatile vegetable can be put in kimchi, stew, and soup, and used as medicine when sick. “Minari, Wonderful.” Grandma and David burst out in an impromptu song. A delightful scene is captured by the camera. As the wind blows, the plants bow as if acknowledging their praises. A moment of magical realism.
As time goes by, the minari plants thrive, and David’s heart condition has improved on its own such that surgery is no longer needed. In the climactic scene and its fallout, a contrast is particularly notable. Jacob sweats and labors on his crops which can be gone in an instant, but the minari grows naturally in the wild and David’s illness healed, pointing to a harvest of transcending grace that is beyond human efforts. The denouement is a gratifying close to a chapter of childhood memory.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.
For the first 30 minutes before the title comes out on screen, viewers follow almost in real time a home birth gone awry. They witness the intense moments of Martha (Vanessa Kirby) giving birth, the contractions, the unbearable pain, the difficult labor, the birth, the joy, and then the tragedy. That first section is absorbing and the shaky handheld camera increases the intensity.
The movie is inspired by screenwriter Kata Wéber and director Kornél Mundruczó’s real-life experience of losing a baby during pregnancy. In Pieces of a Woman, the duo depict not just the court of legal proceedings, but the court of public opinion, and within the family, generational and relational adversary when faced with the loss of a baby.
Martha and her partner Sean (Shia Labeouf) maintains a precarious relationship to start. She dresses chicly, works in a modern tower and has her own office; he works in construction outdoor building a bridge. It’s not so much their jobs but the incompatible personalities between them. Martha is soft spoken and reflective; Sean, sporting a bushy beard, is boorish (his own word, albeit sarcastically) and physically abusive. The dashed hope of a child tears apart an already fragile relationship.
Kirby doesn’t let her previous role as Princess Margaret in The Crown S1 & 2 define her. Here as Martha, she is everywoman expecting her first baby, mixing hope with trepidation. Reticent in her demeanour, after the death of her newborn, she withdraws deeper into her own self, grieving in her own way, picking up the pieces of what’s left of a woman. She is the main attraction of the movie.
Labeouf’s psyche is a mixed bag too, but with different elements. His hopeful excitement of imminent fatherhood is obvious, but is it another aspect of domination? Considering Labeouf’s real-life legal charges against him of domestic violence and sexual battery, it’s eery to watch him befitting the role of a needy abuser.
It is the veteran actor Ellen Burstyn’s performance as the overbearing mother of Martha’s that bring out the two main characters. Burstyn plays Elizabeth, domineering and combative. The beginning scene sets the tone as she buys a minivan for Martha and Sean. Not a good thing to let your mother-in-law buy you a new car, or the mother of your girlfriend, same thing. Elizabeth despises Sean and belittles her own daughter. So much for the symbol of the big gift.
Elizabeth’s reaction to the tragic home birth is to push Martha to sue the midwife Eva (Molly Parker) for negligence. In her view, that’s the way to get justice and compensation. While the legal trial leads to an unexpected resolution at the end, the climax of the movie comes a little earlier, in Elizabeth’s classy, tastefully decorated home. It highlights the court of domestic interactions, setting up a scene reminiscence of August: Osage County (2013). Elizabeth’s survival and combative instinct challenges Martha’s reticence. This is one of the two best scenes of the whole movie. The other during the court recess of the trial, but I won’t elaborate or it will be a spoiler.
Here in Elizabeth’s home where the family has gathered, the camera follows Martha in a long take as she moves agitatedly around the living and dining room, a woman reacting to pieces of casual conversations aiming at making the mood light, but which soon crescendos into a full blown mother-daughter confrontation.
Well acted and absorbing. A takeaway could be that, experience is subjective and personal; what one generation has gone through and even lessons learned can best be shared and hopefully inspire but can’t be transferred or expected to elicit the same results in the next generation. Amidst the tension, Elizabeth relays her wartime moment of resilience when as a young child, how a doctor held her weak body up by her feet and said, “if she tries to lift her head, then there’s hope.” And, she did. Now that she’s an ageing mother, a new lesson to learn might be to realize that such an experience cannot be imposed on her daughter, for Martha has her own way to deal with grief and ‘lift her head’, as shown at the conclusion of the trial.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Pieces of a Woman won the Arca Cinema Giovani Award and Vanessa Kirby Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival 2020. Now streaming on Netflix.
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.
I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.
Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.
One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.
What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.
Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.
Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?
The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.
Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?
Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.
This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.
The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+