Top Ripples 2020

This is the most unusual year… I’ve read and listened to more books than I’ve watched feature films. Actually, this is probably the year that I’ve watched the least number of movies. I haven’t gone to the theatre since March nor attended any film festivals in person, but am most gratified by the few titles I watched online. Two particularly stand out, the first two spots of my very short Top Ripple list for 2020.

Movies

1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

A fresh take on the subject of friendship, set in 1820’s Oregon among fur trappers and opportunists, with the arrival of a dairy cow as the inciting incident. Monetary gain is no match for selfless loyalty in human relations. A moving tale of an unlikely friendship, the cinematography augmenting the enjoyment. It has also prompted me to look up the recipe for Fruit Clafoutis. Adapted from the book Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, who had inspired Kelly Reichardt’s previous films. I won’t miss any of her works, poignant richness belying the minimal, naturalistic renderings. Full review to come.

2. Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland features Frances McDormand as a widow who chooses to live in the community of modern nomads, van and RV dwellers in the Western States of America. Zhao is a master of realistic filmmaking. Nomadland is shot in situ among these older itinerant workers called ‘Camperforce’. A revealing docudrama with stunning cinematography and thought-provoking perspective on the essence of living. My review on Vague Visages.

3. Driveway, directed by Andrew Ahn

One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his passing in April this year at 81. A Korean War veteran strikes up friendship with a lonely eight-year-old boy. Here’s an excerpt from my review on AAPress: Driveways shows us the power of caring human relationships and the change love can bring, yet painfully unfurls the precariousness of life. On a large existential canvas, it paints with personal, relatable strokes.

4. House of Hummingbird, directed by Bora Kim

Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is a coming-of-age story of a teenage school girl in a male-dominated family. Young Eun-hee has to live with parental discords, deal with sibling bullying, and face a health issue and a precarious future all alone, but is fortunate to find a mentor in a teacher. Sensitive directing and nuanced performance. My review on AAPress.

Books

For the ones published in the year 2020, here are my Top Ripples. Links to my reviews:

Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Ex Libris: 100 Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Kakutani

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The following are some Worthy Mentions, not all 2020 books or TV, but all have made an impression in my isolated mind this year as I binged on them without needing to snack on chips and sodas. That says a lot.

Normal People (TV Mini-Series, 2020) – Based on the 2018 book by Sally Rooney. A taste of ‘millennial literature’ and adaptation. I first listened to the audiobook, found it absorbing. Then watched the series and then read the book again, this time, word by word. Available to stream on CBC GEM and Hulu.

The Morning Show (2019) – Didn’t realize Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon can be so intense. Streamed on Apple TV+

The Crown (2020) – Season 4. Wonder how the Royal Family reacted to this scandalous take on the Charles, Camilla, & Diana affairs. Or, maybe just me… no surprise to them. On Netflix.

The Queen’s Gambit (2020) – The chess moves might be intriguing, but the overall pace can be more riveting if the TV Mini-Series is cut short by two or three episodes. On Netflix.

Defending Jacob (2020) – When parental love and truth collide. After watching the series on Apple TV+, I went directly to the source material, the 2012 novel by William Landay, a fascinating psychological suspense-thriller. After that went on to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Oh… the hazard of parenting.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder – the non-fiction book that inspired Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand to make the movie, one of the front runners for next year’s Oscars. McDormand will likely get a Best Actress nom and hopefully, Zhao and the film will also be honored.

Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) by Jessica J. Lee – Lee is a newly emerged voice of nature writing à la memoirist. Coming from a fusion of cultural and geographical background: Canada, Taiwan, Britain, Germany, the environmental historian offers personal and fresh takes relevant in our contemporary society of multiplicity.

****

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+

Swans on frozen lake

Half frozen or half melted? Not a trick question, or a philosophical pondering on half full or half empty. The answer is factual. By mid October, the lake was frozen already. But by the end of the month, it began to melt. So there you go, beauty in double measure, not half. As for the birds, they can handle both.

And on that half frozen, half melted lake I saw them. Thanks to some fellow birders alerting me. Who would have expected to see swans stopping by here? They must be migrating from the Tundra, flying south to the US. And we’re their midway rest stop. Just a few days of respite here in sunny (most of the time) Southern Alberta.

The following pics are from a long distance, so quite blurry. I think I saw a Trumpeter here with a juvenile. Ice on lake? No problem. It’s Nature’s dance floor. Let’s just call it a father-daughter dance here:


Here are several Tundra Swans, noting the yellow edge of the bill:

A couple of days later, I saw this solitary juvenile swan at the Pond some distance away from the lake. Not sure if it was lost. Even though just by itself, I could sense its calmness… eat some, swim some, preen some, always congenial, thoroughly enjoying the environs there. How do I know it’s a juvenile? From its greyish plumage, pink bill, and yellowish tan feet:

While I was taking its photos, I saw in a distance a group of large birds in the sky heading my way. What an opportune timing! I quickly snapped these shots as they flew over me. When I uploaded the pics, lo and behold, I saw they were Tundra Swans. This time quite clearly. The yellow patch by the edge of the bill is the distinct difference from the Trumpeter. And learned a new word to call them: a wedge of swans (in flight).

I don’t have a garden, so no canning of harvest for the winter. But these photos and sightings will be my canned treats for the frozen months ahead… yes, something like Proust’s madeleine dipped in tea.

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Related Posts:

Proust’s madeleine? Here it is.

One duck at a time

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Book Review

Parable of the Migratory Birds

Fall is migration season. The Pond is a stopover for avian migrants enroute to coastal NW United States, or further south to the Gulf Coast and even Mexico. This year, for some reasons, the traffic at the Pond and the adjacent lake is particularly busy, all to a birder’s delight.

October came in like a lion and out like a lamb. We had heavy snow by the middle of the month when the leaves had not all fallen off from the trees and the grass was still green. The lowest temperature reached was -18°C, that, my friend to the south, is 1°F. The water at the Pond was frozen by the third week. But after that premature winter, we were blessed with warmer days towards the end of the month, and even breaking a one day record high on Nov. 2, reaching 23°C, or 73°F.

But it’s not the temperature that interests me. What I find amazing is the variety of waterfowl converging here on their way to the south and the way they come together.

Here are some photos in the past couple of weeks. Mallards, Mergansers, and Ring-billed Gulls side by side. I think I heard Lady Merganser say: so what if my Lucille Ball hairstyle or its colour is different from yours, just let me be and swim to my heart’s delight. Whether you dip or dive for your food, these diverse avian species know how to get along and enjoy the warm sun, fresh air, and clear water:


What does it matter that a female Goldeneye is leading a flock of Buffleheads:

From the front of the line: Female Goldeneye, Male Buffleheads (wearing white hoodies), followed by two Female Buffleheads (white patch on cheek).

At a lake nearby, more migrants converged. It was a pool party of diversity: Canada Geese, Goldeneyes, Mallards, Coots, Gulls… those were just the ones I could see from afar. Only when there’s peaceful coexistence can they conserve energy for the long haul, and leisurely soak up the sun, preen their plumage, do yoga stretch, and of course, fuel up on nature’s buffet.

Thanks to other birders alerting me, that’s the first time I saw Swans here. From a far distance, I sighted several of them on the half frozen lake (or, half melting lake):


I can’t decide even after researching online whether they were Trumpeters or Tundra Swans as I was unable to see their bills from so far away, not even from the enlarged photo later. The two on the right in the picture above are juveniles as they’re greyish in colour. The one in the middle in the foreground standing on one leg is a Canada goose. Note the difference in size.

That day, I had my fill of avian sightings, albeit just watching from the shore far from the activity. The swans stood out in their sheer physical impression among all the ducks and geese, yet they were gentle and not bullies.


Maybe the migratory birds know that they’re only here temporarily, as they’re all in transit. As time is short and their presence ephemeral, might as well be at peace with each other and indulge in what they are given: Nature’s bounty, and enjoy their fill of common grace.

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New ‘Rebecca’: First Impressions

Lily James as Mrs. de Winter, Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers. Cr. Kerry Brown/Netflix

‘First Impressions’ sounds like a disclaimer, implying that I could change my mind upon second or further viewing. However, first impressions last; hence, I just might not watch the Netflix movie again. If I do, it would be just the first part, which is the more enticing.

Nobody likes to be compared to, especially to something more definitive, but Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel inevitably creeps into my mind. It’s all subliminal. Ben Wheatley, the versatile English director of some quirky, arthouse works like the surreal adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High Rise (2015), could transpose a book onto the screen in whatever way he chooses. But I’m just baffled by his taking up this traditional du Maurier classic.

First off, the colour palette in the first act is aesthetically pleasing. The pacing moves along well and camera agile and inviting. The Gatsby-esque setting and set design give it a free-wheeling, romantic mood, the golden overtone exuding a reminiscing perspective which is apt as the novel is a remembrance of things past.

Our protagonist, a naive, young assistant (Lily James) to rich and snobbish Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) in a Monte Carlo hotel, meets the aristocratic, widowed master of Manderley, Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) who falls for her in no time. An instant marriage and our protagonist is zoomed back to the iconic estate as its new mistress, an irreplaceable position owned by her predecessor Rebecca, who drowned in a boating accident a year ago.

This is where things begin to unravel, for both the new Mrs. de Winter and the storytelling. Lily James is ubiquitous ever since her breakout role as Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. Her performance is effective in Cinderella, Mamma Mia!, Darkest Hour, just to name a few. For some uncanny reasons, she doesn’t fit in that well as the new Mrs. de Winter. Her performance lacks the power to elicit empathy or to engage. I doubt this is a matter of capability. A shortfall in directing, or maybe not? She’s unsure of her role––a parallel with the new Mrs. de Winter––is this some kind of intended effect in method acting?

Another thing I noticed. Here’s a real disclaimer. I’m definitely not into fashion. But a look at Mrs. de Winter’s costume, I find it odd that she wears pants all the time, except in the very short-lived scene at the ball when she is ordered back up to her room to change by an infuriated Maxim after appearing in Rebecca’s dress. Anyway, her attire looks like the casual wear of the 1960’s or even 70’s, a bit incompatible with a character in this movie setting. I remember how avant garde it was to wear pants in that era as Lady Sybil and Lady Mary demonstrated the new, stylish fashion. Yes, a Downton revelation.

Hammer as Maxim seldom appears in Manderley and doesn’t leave much of an impression, maybe except for his mustard-colour suit. But it is Kristin Scott Thomas that rescues the acting front as the eerily stern and mysterious Mrs. Danvers. Why, of course, with her calibre, she can deliver even without any strong directing. She articulates superbly, her stage presence poised, her expressions nuanced. In this new adaptation that borders on an identity disorder, Scott Thomas’ performance is the one good thing that offers clarity.

The Manderley mystique relies on sound and special effects to elicit outcomes akin to the horror genre. I miss Hitchcock’s subtlety and suspense, and his calmly drawing out the essence of his characters. Without further comparing, judging on its own, this new Rebecca is choppy in its editing, neurotic in mood, and its altered ending leaves viewers with an unresolved moral issue.

[Hereafter Spoiler Warning] While du Maurier did not spell out that the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter live happily ever after, Wheatley’s Rebecca declares such a happy ending explicitly. Even Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) poses the ethical problem at the end of the movie, but here there’s no dilemma. This new Rebecca wraps up like a version of “How to Get Away with Murder,” and offers a dubious way to finding love.

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Rebecca is now streaming on Netflix

Clashing Beauty

Whenever I photograph birds, I try to avoid any human structures in the frame, even houses from a far distance, but that’s not possible all the time. Sometimes, the juxtaposition of human society and nature can be seen aesthetically, and not as a clash.

These pelicans are like dancing musical notes flying into the sky.

A steel and concrete bridge could be a major obstruction to natural beauty, but it’s there because a river runs through it:

A sunset is still a sunset, even from the parking lot of a Costco. This is the first Costco opened on First Nation land in North America. Located in the Tsuu T’ina Nation bordering the southwest boundary of Calgary, Alberta, not too far from the Pond. A sunset is still a sunset no matter where you see it.


That voice from 1992 LA still rings true: we need to get along, human and nature, human and human. Signage in that Costco is bilingual, English and the Dene language (Northern Athabaskan) of the Tsuu T’ina Nation. We’re used to bilingualism in Canada, but this is the first time I see an Indigenous language posted together with English.

A needed directional pointer for things to come, not to stop but to press forward to accommodate multiplicity and live in harmony. That too, is a form of beauty.

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One Duck at a Time

I went to the Inglewood Bird Scanctuary last weekend. The famous migratory visitors there are the Wood Ducks. They come every spring to breed, stay for the summer, and fly away in the fall. But strangely, you can’t always see them there. So it’s a delight just to catch one or two hanging out.

Last weekend, I was excited to find not just a couple but a flock of Wood Ducks there. That could well be my last glimpse of them before they take leave. How we need something beautiful to look at this fall. Like canning your summer harvest for winter enjoyment, the photos I take will be my winter treats.

See the fallen tree trunks in the centre of the water in the above photo? That’s their hub. See them? Here’s a closer look:

Some might just walk by and not give them a second look, just some ducks they might think. But in my limited birding experience, the Wood Duck is probably the most beautiful ducks I’ve seen.

Beauty in a tangled mess of broken trunks and decaying wood makes me think of the Japanese notion of Wabi-sabi:

They like to gather on the branches, often just sleeping, preening, or sunbathing. So, it’s a real treat to see them swim out so I can take these photos. I can see how Monet would paint the scene if he were here:

Check out this slide show below:

Don’t know if I have the chance to see them again this fall, so I’ll just bid them adieu until next year. Don’t know much about anything these days, but I’ll take one duck at a time, and be glad to count my blessings, bird by bird.

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‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: A Book Review


When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).

Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.

Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.”  It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.

Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.

In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.

In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.

Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)

Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.

Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.

Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.

My review of Nomadland the movie is now published on the film website Vague Visages. Free to read one day only Monday, September 28, 2020.

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Related Posts:

The Rider is Poetry on Screen

Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Glass Castle from Book to Screen

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