The Brothers Karamazov Part II: What Sparks Joy

“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.

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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.

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Dolce Belleza

Asian Heritage Month Reading List

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.

Mindy Kaling

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.

Kevin Kwan

Don’t get misled by the title Crazy 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.

Celeste Ng

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.

Souvankham Thammavongsa – 2020 Giller Prize winner

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.

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‘The Father’ depicts dementia in suspenseful realism

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?’

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

Away From Her

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

And When Did You Last See Your Father

The Brothers Karamazov Read Along Part I: What a family!

Nov. 12, 1959 Peanuts comic strip by Charles Schulz

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)

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Here’s the link to the Intro and Invite Post.

Hope you’re enjoying your read. Have you written a post for Part I? Do let me know so I can link it here.

Dolce Bellezza

What’s That Mark’s Reading!?

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Book Review

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.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Film

Ex Machina Movie Review

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

‘Minari’: The Little Seed that Could

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.

MINARI_00195_R Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

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.

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

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

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I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full.

‘Pieces of a Woman’ Review

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

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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.

Reading the Season 2020: ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

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.

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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

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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.

Reading the Season Posts in Previous Years:

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ by Terrence Malick: a film for the Season

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

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Related Posts on The Intrusion of Grace:

Homage to Flannery O’Connor: Looking for Intrusions of Grace in Films

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Diary of a Country Priest: Film Adaptation by Robert Bresson

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

‘Defending Jacob’: When Love and Truth Collide

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Chris Evans in ‘Defending Jacob’

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+

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Ricardo Rivas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

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

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

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

‘My Grandparents’ War’ is a poignant WWII series

Released in 2019 to commemorate the 80th year of the beginning of WWII, the documentary series is presented by four acclaimed British actors sharing their own search for a piece of family history.

Each of the four one-hour episode is a moving, personal discovery as the acclaimed actors retrace their grandparents’ wartime footsteps. All of them appear in natural situ, devoid of showy costume or make-up but instead, wrapped in authenticity. A remarkable documentary series.

What’s in common is the intriguing fact that these grandchildren had known little about the wartime happening or even heroics of their grandparents until now, and the main reason is due to the older generation’s own reticence about their experience in a traumatic chapter of their life. This in itself is poignant and revealing.

Episode 1 – Mark Rylance

From Shakespearean drama to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, stage and film actor Mark Rylance discovers a real-life horror story as he ponders the facts and conditions of his grandfather Osmond Skinner as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong. He travels to the former British colony and walks the path and talks to those who show him records, and meeting the daughter of his grandfather’s fellow prisoner. Views from both sides of the war are presented.

Episode 2 – Kristin Scott Thomas

Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather was Royal Navy Captain William Scott Thomas whose heroics include a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation and D-Day, as well as the arduous and deadly missions of the Arctic Convoy to transport supplies to Russia. A moving personal journey as she learns the facts and visits Dunkirk to meet a descendant of an evacuee. The tragic death of Kristin’s pilot father in a plane crash when she was young could have severed a link between grandfather and grandchildren in terms of war stories.

Episode 3 – Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan’s grandfather Denzil Booth was just a teenager from Wales when he was fast-tracked to join the Navy. He was A radar operator on a war ship when it was hit by a Kamikaze plane. Touching moments when she goes searching for the details of her grandfather’s ship and conflicting emotions when she finds out the truths about the pilots of these Kamikaze missions when she sets foot in Japan.

Episode 4 – Helena Bonham Carter

While they did not actively fight in the battlefield, both sides of Helena Bonham Carter’s grandparents had performed remarkable heroics during the War. Her maternal grandparents were Jews living in Paris. During the Holocaust, Helena’s grandfather used his Spanish diplomatic influence to save thousands of Jews. While in England, her paternal grandmother was an activist denouncing anti-semitism and was marked by the Nazi’s to be eliminated once they took over. An uplifting episode.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


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My Grandparents’ War is now on CBC Gem. If you’re in Canada, it’s free download. Here’s the link to the trailer. If you’re not in Canada, try to find this documentary series. A must-see.

Related Posts on the Pacific Front in WWII:

WWII Comfort Women Speak Out in The Apology

The Railway Man: Movie Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

Canada Reads 2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Kevin Kwan’s New Book is Screen-ready

As an homage to E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, as well as a nod to the Merchant Ivory movie adaptation (1985), Asian American author Kevin Kwan has crafted another satire seven years after his Crazy Rich Asians started a surprise breakout trilogy.

If Forster were to read Kwan’s latest work, the stand-alone novel Sex and Vanity, would he be baffled by 21st century opulence, or shocked to see the social issues he wrote about in A Room with a View such as class and gender inequality still exist more than a century later? Kwan also throws in racism, of which Forster was keenly critical in his writing; A Passage to India comes to mind.

While the movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians was met with resounding applause from the Asian community, not everyone who shared the ethnicity felt represented, for they might not have been Asian born, or have never set foot in Singapore, Hong Kong, or China. This just speaks to the fact that there’s a myriad of cultural and geographical lineages when one uses the umbrella term ‘Asian’ or, ‘Chinese’.

This time, the net is cast out to those who are American born, second and third generations of the Asian diaspora, and in particular, the hapas, Hawaiian for ‘half’, people of mixed Asian and white heritage. The net reaches to others too, in particular New Yorkers, and fans of the Big Apple. Indeed, Kwan’s book reads like a love letter to New York City, to which the author pays tribute as: “The City that took me in, nurtured me, and changed me forever.”

Sex and Vanity follows the same structure and plot development as A Room with a View, even keeping the first names of the main characters. Kwan only needs to plug in the modern-day parallels splashed with his over-the-top descriptions of opulence and extravaganzas.

For those who’re apprehensive to pick up the book because of the two words in its title, maybe this would bring some relief: the former wouldn’t even make half a page of note in Normal People (by Sally Rooney) and the latter is wrapped in mirth. The book is pure escapism for summer reading fun.  

To his credit, Kwan has a keen eye for social prestige other than materialism. When first mentioned, character names are followed by a list of schools they have attended. Surely, in America and many parts of the world, one is defined by one’s alma mater. Naming even the kindergarten is exactly the case in point. Prestige starts early.

Part One takes place in Capri. Nineteen-year-old, Upper East Side born and raised hapa Lucie Churchill (92nd Street Y Nursery School / Brearley / Brown, Class of ’16) is on the Italian island with her cousin, forty-something Charlotte (Rippowam / Miss Porter’s / Smith) as chaperone. The fun doesn’t end with these bracketed school names. For further reading pleasure, Google them if not familiar.

The cousins are there to attend the week-long celebrations of Lucie’s childhood friend, Taiwanese heiress Isabel Chiu’s marriage to the son of an Italian mogul. The Hotel Bertolucci fails to give them a room with an ocean view which Charlotte had requested.

Overhearing Charlotte’s complaint, fellow wedding guest Rosemary Zao offers to exchange with them their view rooms she and her son George occupy. Why, she’s inundated with ocean views. Her home overlooks the Hong Kong harbour and she has beach front properties in Sydney and Lanikai, Hawaii. But Charlotte doesn’t take this easily. The Churchills have their pride, and prejudice.

Unlike his mother, George (Diocesan Boys’ School / Geelong Grammar / UC Berkeley, Class of ’15) is a man of few words. Actually, he is the perfect son-in-law for any Tiger Mom: on top of his “surfer, pretty boy physique,” he’s a high achiever. He can keep his cool and administer CPR to save a stranger and play “Goldberg Variations” in spontaneity in front of an admiring crowd (not at the same time). What more, George is honest with his feelings and passion.

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

The week-long wedding celebration is screen-ready with Capri’s natural and architectural beauty as backdrops.

Throughout the book, Kwan has dropped a ‘Where’s Waldo’ search for famous names, real-life or fictional, like the Crawleys of Downton, Darcy of Pemberley, “The World of Suzie Wong” (The actress Nancy Kwan being the author’s distant cousin), Monsieur de Givenchy, who comes out of retirement to design the wedding dress, and sightings of one Elizabeth Merchant and Lord Ivory.

What more, the renown diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs in the wedding celebration, singing several operatic numbers and culminating with “O mio babbino caro”, the aria with which she’d swept the film with such a romantic overtone. 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.

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I thank Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer copy of Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan (Far Eastern Kindergarten / ACS / Clear Lake High / UHCL / Parsons School of Design), 315 pages, 2020.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Stillman’s Love & Friendship: More than Book Illustration

Metropolitan: Whit Stillman’s Homage to Jane Austen

Summer Reads before the Coming Movies