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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

F and P.

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

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

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

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

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The Offshore Pirate

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

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

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

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The Ice Palace

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

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

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The Cut-Glass Bowl

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

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Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Book cover above)

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

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Benediction

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

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Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

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

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The Four Fists

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

 

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1920-club

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

 

‘Edith’s Diary’: Madness, Escape, or Creativity?

“I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”    ––– Louisa May Alcott
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Edith's DiaryMy point of contact with Patricia Highsmith’s work is mainly in the movies: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Two Faces of January, and Carol based on her novel The Price of Salt which I’d read. Edith’s Diary, first published in 1977, is a very different work from all the above.

As the book begins, Edith Howland, 35, her husband Brett, and their ten year-old son Cliffie have just moved into small town Brunswick Corner, Pennsylvania, from New York City. The year is 1955. The reason for the move is for Cliffie to grow up in a country environment with more space to roam. Edith’s diary is a precious possession wherein she records her experiences.

Edith is quick to immerse in the community and makes a few friends. With Gert, she successfully revitalizes the local paper Bugle, and she continues with her freelance writing. It’s Cliffie that’s her main concern. Cliffie isn’t a normal boy. He keeps to himself, is indifferent to his parents, unkind to their cat Mildew, makes no friends and doesn’t do well in school. That’s enough for alarm, but Edith’s attitude is concern mixed with appeasement. 

Not long after they’ve moved into their house, Brett’s elderly uncle George comes to live with them, a decision not from mutual consent between the couple. Edith has to take care of George, cook and bring his meals to his bedside, keep the house in good order, write for Bugle and pitch to magazines, all while keeping an amicable social front.

Ten years gone by, life hasn’t aligned much with Edith’s wishes. Far from it. Cliffie can’t make it into any college, no full-time job and turns to alcohol and drugs to pass his days. Old George still hangs in there needing more of Edith’s time and attention. Most devastating to her psyche is Brett, who has left her and moved back to NYC to a new life of his own by marrying his young secretary. Highsmith is meticulous in detailing the psychological world of Edith’s, her frail personality, appeasing her son and yielding to her husband.

But as life’s burdens become heavier and things get gloomier, Edith’s entries in her diary shift to a more and more uplifting tone. She creates a different life for her son in her diary entries, imagining Cliffie successfully graduates from Princeton and begins a good career, marries a sweet girl who later bears her a grandchild.

Edith’s diary is an imaginary narrative that’s totally different from her real life. Towards the end, madness takes over and Highsmith’s ending is both shocking and dismissing. No spoiler here. However, reading the book makes me think of a quote from Little Women‘s author Louisa May Alcott:

I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.    ––– Louisa May Alcott

What’s the difference between Alcott writing jolly tales and Edith’s detailing an alternative life in her diary? If Edith isn’t writing into a diary, which is supposed to be ‘non-fiction’, isn’t she just creating a work of fiction? Where’s the line between escape and creativity?

Highsmith drops obvious clues for us describing Edith’s sinking deep into the slough of madness as she actually prepares for her imaginary Cliffie’s visit to her home for dinner with wife and son in tow. So, it looks like Highsmith is showing us the demarkation, when the two lives, the imaginary and the real, merge into one, therein lies madness.

But, is Edith’s diary an evidence of madness, or an imaginary work of fiction? Hmm… that would be my question to Highsmith if I were a journalist interviewing her. Now, just let me dwell on that thought some more…

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Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Grove Press, New York, 2018. 393 pages.

Note: Patricia Highsmith’s own diaries will be published in the coming year. Now that would be an interesting read.

 

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Thanks to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, I’m introduced to the popular Japanese mystery writer and multiple book award winner Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾), and get to meet the amiable character he created, Detective Kyoichiro Kaga.

Higashino has written two main series of mysteries, one with Detective Kaga, the other Detective Galileo. There are also stand-alone novels. Almost twenty of his books have been turned into movies and TV series in Japan.

I’ve read Malice, and now Newcomer, and become a fan of both Higashino and Detective Kaga. Malice deals with the murder of an author and a possible suspect who’s also a writer; I was drawn to the story right away. However, I find Newcomer even more interesting. Higashino is the accidental tour guide leading his readers to the main roads and side streets of Japanese society.

Newcomer

First off, how do I describe Detective Kaga? Who can I compare him with? As clever as Hercule Poirot, but too sloppily dressed, so, no. As relentless as Harry Bosch, but much gentler and friendlier, so, no. Right, he’s more like Columbo, a young Japanese Columbo, casual in manners, friendly to all, but a gadfly to some. And I did catch him saying, “just one more thing…”

Above all, his very humane way of doing his job is admirable. Here’s a detective with heart. Kaga isn’t only concerned with finding the culprit, but in his own words: “my job as a detective should go beyond that. People who’ve been traumatized by a crime are victims, too. Finding ways to comfort them is also part of my job.” For walking that extra mile, he has made friends but also made himself a nuisance to some, especially those who have reasons to evade him.

The Newcomer in this book refers to Kaga himself, who has just been transferred to the Nihonbashi precinct in Tokyo, a demotion from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Division, something to do with his ‘inappropriate emotional involvement’, an issue that only highlights who Kaga is like. Higashino has dropped a hint for me to find out more from his other books of the Kaga series about what that ’emotional involvement’ is all about. Unfortunately, only Malice and Newcomer have been translated into English in this ten-book series.

Here in Newcomer, a woman newly divorced has been murdered. Kaga not only needs to find the perpetrator of the crime but has to familiarize himself with his new precinct of work, the social geography of the community. We see him following clues to a rice cracker shop, a restaurant, a clock shop and its owner’s dog walking routine, a pastry shop, a theatre company, and a traditional Japanese handcrafts shop. All interesting places to which Higashino leads us to observe the livelihood and human interactions within.

One issue I have with this book, however, is that Higashino introduces a new character close to the end and reveals the denouement with totally new information. Having said that, I’m fascinated by how he weaves together the strands and casually revealing the human tapestry of his society.

I use both the hardcopy and the audiobook, whenever is more convenient. They complement each other perfectly.

 

JLC13

 

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Newcomer by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray. Minotaur Books, New York. Translation copyright, 2018, 342 pages. Audiobook by MacMillan Audio, narrated by P. J. Ochlan, 2018.

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Other Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Canada Reads 2018: Book Review of ‘Forgiveness’ by Mark Sakamoto

Mark Sakamoto’s family memoir was first published in 2014. The book reemerges now due to the Canada Reads 2018 event. The annual battle of the books is CBC’s reading campaign. Five Canadian media and entertainment celebs will defend one of the five shortlisted books in a national broadcast March 26-29. The panelists will vote down one book each day to arrive at the winner. Audience can tune in on the debates via radio, TV and live stream online.

Mark Sakamoto is a lawyer by training and has enjoyed a varied career. In Forgiveness, he writes about his grandparents’ real-life experiences, two contrasting, traumatic WWII accounts. The subtitle of the book is telling, Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents.

Forgiveness (1)Mark Sakamoto’s maternal grandfather Ralph MacLean is from the Magdalen Islands in the east  coast of Canada. In 1940, he enlisted with the army voluntarily together with his friend. After a few months’ training they were sent overseas to Hong Kong, oblivious to the perils into which they were driven. With the British already retreating a hopeless post, MacLean’s garrison didn’t have a chance to defend the then British Colony. In a few short weeks after their arrival, all two thousand or so Canadian soldiers were either dead or turned POWs forced to live in sub-human, horrific conditions under their Japanese captors.

… the fate of 819 men was sealed. They would never return home. The remaining 1,155 survivors would be forgiven if they sometimes felt they were the unlucky ones.

Later, MacLean was shipped to Japan to work for the Japanese war effort, from POW to slave laborer. That he survived at all was a miracle.

Cut to the other side of the world in Canada. Mark’s paternal grandparents Mitsue and Hideo Sakamoto were born in British Columbia and lived in a fishing community. Grandma Mitsue’s father, together with thousands of other Japanese Canadians, had their own boats and were doing well as fishermen in a closed-knit community.

During the time Ralph MacLean was barely surviving as a POW in Japan, the Sakamotos, being Japanese Canadians, went through their own battle in a land they called home. Their families were interned and sent to rural Alberta as forced farm laborers. The family fishing boat, and all their possessions were confiscated. Together with thousands of Japanese Canadians–many Canadian born–Mitsue, Hideo and everyone in their extended families, young and old, were put on a train barely suited for human passengers, under the watchful eyes of policemen with rifles, and transported to Lethbridge, Alberta. There Mitsue and Hideo were separated with their parents as they were sent to different farms to work as laborers, living in shacks of wood planks and dirt floor.

After the war, Ralph MacLean came back from Japan and settled in Calgary, Alberta. Mitsue’s families knew they had no home to return to in B.C. after receiving a compensation cheque of $25.65 from the Canadian government for the loss of all their properties. They decided to remain in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Fate has it that Ralph’s daughter Diane and Mitsue’s son Stan met in a high school dance. When Ralph eventually met his future son-in-law, who looked like one of his wartime tormentors, he knew he needed to leave the past behind. The two families first met at a dinner in Mitsue’s home:

Mitsue and Ralph became instant friends. There was an unspoken understanding between them… they had both discarded the past, keeping only what they needed. They did not compare hardships or measures injustices. They knew there was no merits to that.

Two families who had suffered torments of varying degrees during the war and for very different reasons came together as their children joined in marriage. What a wonderful story. Yet the above short few lines are all that readers can find relating to how the two families came together. Despite the extraordinary personal experiences, the book fell short of delivering a satisfying read.

With the bold, one-word title, “Forgiveness”, it is surprising that the author leaves us with little internal reflections or insights. For Ralph, having gone through so much trauma and physical torments, we are told in only a few lines how he came to the state of forgiveness, that is when he read his Bible during the last days in the Japanese war camp, turning to Mark 25:11, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” That is all being mentioned, just the quote. It seems a lot of the forgiveness is left to the reader’s own assumption and speculation.

It matters little that it lacks literary style, or that the writing is conversational. The short sentences make it a fast read and descriptions are vivid, especially the war years. While the thematic materials are worth telling, the book lacks editorial work to make it a cohesive whole. There are sections that are disjointed, the chapters uneven. There are moments where readers have to join the gaps on their own. The photos are helpful for readers to visualize, but there are no captions right underneath except all stated in a list at the back of the book, not too drastic a fault but an inconvenience still.

Structurally, the first two-thirds of the book about the war years are stark personal experiences many North Americans are not familiar with. These painful, eyewitness accounts told to the author by his grandparents are informative and necessary for us to know. But after that, the last part of the book about Mark and his parents, especially at the end how he had to care for his mother’s debilitating addictions after his parents’ divorce reads like another story unrelated to the earlier part, and Ralph and Mitsue seem to have disappeared.

Nevertheless, for the personal torments of Ralph’s as a POW under Japanese hands during WWII, and the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians had undergone at the same time right here in Canada, Sakamoto’s book is of value as eyewitness accounts to history and a cautionary real-life tale of how we ought to go forward as a civilized society. The last section of the book could well lead to another personal memoir dealing with the urgent social issue of addictions.

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Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto, HarperCollins Publisher, Toronto, 2014.

My review copy provided by the Publisher.

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RELATED POSTS:

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax Book Review

The Railway Man (2013) Movie Review

 

The Portrait of a Lady, Sequel, Remake(?)

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

First, thanks to Bellezza’s open invite to a read-along, posting the photo of John Banville’s newest book Mrs. Osmond, a sequel to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. I’d seen the 1996 movie adaptation directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), but had never read James’s novel. What better time to read both books than now.

The Portrait of a Lady

I got hold of The Portrait of a Lady (Modern Library, just love the cover) read part of it then turned to a sound recording (unfortunately couldn’t find the Juliet Stevenson narrated version). Prompted by JoAnn, I interspersed reading with listening and gleaned much pleasure doing that. Here’s my very short, 5-Star Goodreads review:

“Actually I was listening to the Blackstone Audio version of the book as well as reading  parts of the book to ascertain facts in the story or just savour the passages again. James’s portrait of Isabel Archer is one of the saddest fictional heroines I’ve come across. A reminiscence of Anna Karenina emerged as I read the latter part, but Isabel is a character much more likeable for me. Should she be destined to a ruined life due to a naive misjudgement, ok, maybe even foolishness, by marrying Gilbert Osmond? Osmond is evil personified, and I just can’t shake off the face of John Malkovich (from the movie) whenever I read about his cold, domineering hand over Isabel. Isabel definitely needs redemption and saving grace. So I do hope John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond will grant her that.”

The Portrait of a Lady by Jane Campion

Since the image of John Malkovich kept creeping up my mind as I read the book, I quickly turned to the movie adaptation right after I finished the book. I remember I was most disturbed by Osmond’s callous treatment of Isabel when I first watched it years ago; he appeared as a chilling, silent villain, bullying his innocent victim mercilessly. His stepping on Isabel’s floor-length dress to stop her from walking away was still vivid in my mind.

Nicole Kidman

Now as I saw the movie again, I find the feature more style than content. The tilted camera shots? A bit contrived. Malkovich is still evil, and Kidman still the innocent victim, but there isn’t much complexity in the characterization. The editing and much abridged dialogues leave a vacuum. Considering the rich descriptive prowess of Henry James, much is left to be desired in the film. Yes, I’m one who advocates for the appreciation of books and films as two different art forms, and should not be doing a literal comparison when judging the adaptation. Well, I’m not. I’m weighing the film on its own merits. Yes, set design is rich and some artistic shots, but overall pales despite the sumptuous colours. And, what happened to Nicole Kidman’s hair? As much as I’d appreciated Campion’s works, especially her Oscar winning (Best Original Screenplay) film The Piano, I do feel maybe it’s a good time to do a remake of The Portrait of a Lady.

Mrs. Osmond by John Banville

After the movie I turned right away to Banville’s book. Here’s my review on Goodreads:

Mrs. Osmond

“I jumped to this book right after reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. As I understand this new work of Banville’s to be a ‘sequel’ to James’s book, I had high expectations of the Booker winning author carrying Isabel Archer’s (Mrs. Osmond’s) story forward, taking her through twists and turns and eventually letting her find redemption and a new life. However this was not to be exactly as I’d envisioned.

Mrs. Osmond is divided into two Parts. Maybe for the benefit of those who haven’t read or reread The Portrait of a Lady in preparation for his book, Banville retells James’s story in Part I. While he’s very detailed in his descriptive style, and to his credit, creeping inside the minds of his characters, he repeats himself frequently in reminding his readers how Isabel Archer got deceived by Madame Merle and fell into the marriage trap of Gilbert Osmond’s. So basically the story remains static throughout Part I.

(Spoiler Alert in the following)

Part II leads us to Isabel’s own scheme of turning the tables on Osmond and Merle, and let them have a taste of their own medicine by just transferring the ownership of her residence the palazzo in Rome over to Madame M. and let the culprits be trapped with each other. That’s all there is to her plan, and it’s an expensive vengeance. As for her own dear life and its purpose for the remains of her days, the path is as obscure as before, albeit Banville has dropped a hint of the suffrage movement being a meaningful direction.

While Mrs. Osmond may not be as gratifying as I’d expected, this is an interesting concept, taking literary classics and imagining a sequel. Now that could lead to a brave new genre of fiction writing.”

A Movie Remake, anyone?

If there’s one, who’d you like to see playing the role of Isabel Archer? Gilbert Osmond? Madame Merle? Director?

 

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Related Post:

Can a movie adaptation ever be as good as the book?

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A Book Review

NOTE: I thank Penguin Random House Canada for the reviewer’s copy of the book, and Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here.

Little Fires Everywhere

Chinese American writer Celeste Ng (伍綺詩) had garnered numerous accolades for her debut novel “Everything I Never Told You”, including a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, just to name a few.

Like the stunning opening in her debut work, Ng in her second novel “Little Fires Everywhere”, begins with a dramatic scene: Mrs. Richardson, after being awaken by the smoke detectors, stands on her front lawn in her pale blue robe and watches firemen saving her house from total burnt down. The prime suspect of the fire is her youngest daughter Izzy. With that, Ng leads us into the story of the Richardsons’, an upper-middle class family living in the quiet suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, which was Ng’s hometown during the 90’s.

Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, her scientist parents having immigrated from Hong Kong. Ng graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award.

The thematic elements of race, parenthood, and family secrets leading to devastating consequences as in her debut novel are carried over. Covering a larger scope, “Little Fires Everywhere” expands to other issues as well, offering us views into a myriad of realistic characters and the interplay of two families, specifically, two mothers holding opposite values. Ng’s riveting storytelling skills carry us through the various plot lines breezily, while taking the time to breathe life into her characters, and deftly locks us into mental debates on contentious issues. Although set in the 90’s, the issues raised are as relevant today.

The Richardson family, one could say, is the epitome of the American Dream. They live in a six- bedroom home in a desirable part of town. The matriarch Elena and her husband Bill are well connected and respectable in the community, she a journalist with the local paper the Sun Press and he a defence lawyer. They have four teenaged children, the eldest Lexie heading to Yale. Second son Trip is popular in school, especially among girls. Third child Moody is wrapped up in his own cocoon. Youngest Izzy is the black sheep of the family. She is not happy despite her family’s affluence, or maybe, if Mrs. Richardson is willing to look deeper into her daughter’s mind, Izzy’s discontent could be exactly due to her family’s secure standing in the rule-constraining suburb. Mrs. Richardson would not trade any of her privileges, for she is living “a perfect life in a perfect place.” Her main task now is to smother any sparks that can disrupt the status quo and surface calmness in her family and community.

Celeste Ng.jpg

As the title suggests, metaphors of fire are everywhere. There are flames of passion, fury, dissatisfactions, and the fuse of suburban ennui, as apparent in the lives of the teenagers, potential fire hazards. These are all inherent threats to the idyllic, quiet town, where high school graduates are expected to head to Ivy league colleges, and where parents are oblivious to the secret lives of their teenagers, and vice versa.

The story begins not with the aftermath of the house fire, but the reason leading to it. Mrs. Richardson has just rented the upper floor of her revenue property, a duplex on the other side of town, to new tenants, single mother Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, her medium, photography. She works at menial jobs to sustain her art, and brings up Pearl moving about the country in their VW Rabbit, forty-six different towns since Pearl’s birth.

As they settle in Shaker Heights, Pearl comes to know the Richardson children and is attracted to their lifestyle. Conversely, Izzy Richardson is mesmerized by Mia’s artist life and hangs around in the duplex to help and learn from her art-making. This time, Mia and Pearl may just be settling down.

It is obvious from the start that Mrs. Richardson and Mia comes from opposing sides of ideals. While suggesting Mia take portraits for people in town to earn more money, thinking about her rents no doubt, Mrs. Richardson is confronted with the notion of the artist as a photographer, as Mia replies, “the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as I see them.”

Mia works at the Chinese restaurant Lucky Palace to sustain a living. Mrs. Richardson offers her to work in the Richardsons’ home, cleaning and cooking a few days a week to earn some extra money. Although reluctant about the proposal but to not jeopardize their relationship, Mia agrees. Hence, Mia delves further into the Richardson family life.

As she so deftly deals with in her first novel, Ng weaves into her storylines and characters the subjects of culture and identity. The intermingling of lives between the Richardson family and Mia soon pits them into taking two contentious sides in a prominent court case in town. The Richardsons’ best friends, the McCulloughs, have just adopted a Chinese baby found abandoned at the fire hall, Mirabelle, or May Ling Chow, her birth name. The birth mother Bebe now regrets her decision which she had made in a most dire financial situation at the time. Bebe comes from China, and happens to be Mia’s co-worker at Lucky Palace. Mia is openly supportive of Bebe, while Mr. Richardson represents the McCulloughs. The case has divided the town, and now Mrs. Richardson knows she needs to dig into Mia’s past to discredit Mia and to get back at her for drawing her dear friends the McCulloughs into tormenting legal entanglements.

It is when Ng reveals Mia’s backstory that the narrative is most riveting. We are led to a moving account, a page turner even, on a subject that is complex and crucial: what makes a mother? In her novel, Ng intertwines three possible scenarios of pregnancy, wanted, unwanted, surrogate. And with these contrasting lines, she delves into the issues of adoption and identity. Are babies best brought up by their own biological mothers, especially when culture comes into play? What makes a baby Chinese? American? Or more complex still, Chinese American? The McCulloughs have well intentions to bring Mirabelle up by regular dine-outs in a Chinese restaurant, and finding her ‘Oriental Barbies’ to play with. Are these enough? If not, what is?

Cultural appropriation is a trendy topic nowadays, not only in the adoption circle, but in other realms. These are issues that require deeper pondering and research work, no doubt, ones that should be confronted deeper than Ng can deal with in her novel. Nonetheless, a fictional setting is an interesting place to spark off the debate. Just another one of her little fires in the book.

While “Everything I Never Told You” is a microscopic look at a mixed-race family during the 70’s, dense and intense, not unlike a Bergman chamber work, “Little Fires Everywhere” is looser and more expansive in thematic matters, with sprinkles of laughs here and there, not unlike a John Hughes’ movie in the 80’s. One can feel Ng is freer to roam with the larger, open space. Just as with her debut work, Ng does not shy away from the issues of race and identity, while challenging the notion of ‘success’. One should not be surprised that this is still the fundamental term we are struggling to define in our society today.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Here’s a short review of Ng’s debut novel “Everything I Never Told You” (audiobook) I’d posted on Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation or Prophetic Voices of our Time

I’ve read several books in recent months that are good evidence of ‘six degrees of separation’, and I’ll just end with four here. But more crucial is why such content at this time? They are all published in 2016 but still enjoy current bestselling positions. All are similar in their historical backdrop, authoritarian dictatorship in the 20th Century in two neighbouring countries, China and Russia. Or, maybe these writers of our time are indeed prophetic voices to stress that eerie caution: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Here’s the sequence of my reading:

Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

The top selling book in Canada according to CBC Books, Madeleine Thien’s exceptional novel of three characters, musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the Cultural Revolution in China, leads us through decades of contemporary Chinese history from the Communist takeover after WWII to Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, spanning generations and across two continents. Thien was teaching creative writing when her program was abruptly cancelled in the aftermath of the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ sprouting from the Occupy Central led by teenaged students in Hong Kong. That was a motivating force propelling the writing of the book. Following the most recent news that four young student leaders are given months of jail sentences for their actions, we know how timely a voice Thein is with this book.

 

Barnes The Noise of Time.jpgThe Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Dimitri Shostakovich’s music is in the minds of the three musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Thien’s book. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin, is an apt parallel of the situation the trio have to face.

Julian Barnes has crafted an imaginary biopic of Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s tyrannical rule in the Soviet Union (1929-1953). Barnes’ depiction is internal, presenting the struggles, the giving-in and the self-loathing of a world famous composer and pianist who was unable to stand up to a ruthless and manipulative dictator. Speak truth to Power? Who can still stand, or live, after that? And it’s not just about oneself, but one’s family and all those associated.

 

Cometh the hourCometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer (#6 of the Clifton Chronicles)

Jeffrey Archer, a prophetic voice? While his Clifton Chronicles have entertained us with imaginary characters spanning three generations of two British families, Archer does have the political mood of our times firmly held under his pen, and Lord Archer is a savvy political historian in his own right. This summer I binged on Jeffrey Archer, okay, not exactly your serious, prophetic voice, but no less relevant. This is especially true when his fictional character, Russian writer Anatoly Babakov, is imprisoned in Siberia for his book Uncle Joe. Based on his own experience while working under Joseph Stalin, Babakov offers readers an insider’s look into the ruler, revealing the ruthless dictator that he really was.

Babakov is awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature while still in prison. But not long after the announcement, he dies of a heart attack. His wife Yelena although escaped out of the country, wants to return to honour her husband. Archer’s character makes me think of the real life dissident Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, also Nobel laureate, but was denied the freedom to go and accept his Prize. He had been imprisoned for 11 years and sadly, died of liver cancer in July this year, 2017. And even more sadly, Liu’s wife could not see him at his deathbed and had gone missing after his death. Archer’s book was published in 2016. I’d say that’s quite prophetic.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA totally different tone, but the same historical backdrop. Towles has created an interesting and colourful character, the aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, kept in house arrest when the Bolsheviks overrun the country. True to his personality and lifestyle – the major consolation of such a misfortune – Count Rostov serves his house arrest in the elegant Moscow Metropol Hotel across from the Kremlin, albeit in a cramped room in the attic. With his always pleasant demeanour, the former aristocrat makes himself at home at the grand hotel, meeting interesting characters, wine and dine to his heart’s content. He stays there for decades, with the historic changes happening outside the four walls of the Metropol: Lenin, Stalin, post-Stalin, and further. As fate would have it, Count Rostov encounters an idealistic youngster named Nina, and years later, takes up guardianship of her daughter Sofia, and thus his life and view begin to turn into something more purposeful. The Metropol makes me think of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Instead of speaking truth to power and get slapped in the face or worse, Count Rostov thinks of an ingenious scheme to beat Power at their game. If I were a filmmaker, this is one to bank on.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

I return to The Diary of A Country Priest by French author Georges Bernanos, (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936) perennially at Easter time. Like Endo’s Silence, it reveals candidly a priest’s suffering and struggles in the midst of a harsh and unwelcome world. Unlike Silence though, light shines through the cracks more warmly. Power through weakness, life conquering death, the essence of Easter.

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The Diary of a Country Priest Book Cover

A young priest comes to his first parish, the rural town of Ambricourt, filled with humble hopes. All he wants is to serve the people, to give of himself, to bring God’s love. But as soon as he sets foot in the village, he is engulfed by hatred and rejection. There are dark secrets too sinister to be exposed. The young priest is an unwelcome alien. In a town afflicted by hypocrisy, pride, anger and bitterness, he is despised, taunted and ridiculed. His own inexperience is no match even for the children in his catechism class, especially the precocious Seraphitas, a girl ‘with a hardness far beyond her years.’

Ambricourt is a world afflicted by the ‘leprosy of boredom’, a microcosm of the human condition. Bernanos uses diseases to illustrate his point well. The young priest himself is being slowly consumed by terminal illness. The pain in his stomach ultimately defeats his body, cancer. His diet consists mainly of bread dipped in wine which he makes for himself, and some potato soup. Poverty in materials parallels the frailty of his body to take in solid food. None of these though can compare to the sufferings in his spirit. Many a times we see him in the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading for strength in anguish. But he faithfully presses on, using his diary to confide his deepest thoughts, a means to commune with his God.

On the outskirt of Ambricourt is the Château of the powerful M. le Comte. The Count needs no priest to know about his adulterous affairs, this time, with the governess Mlle Louise. His wife Mme la Comtesse is totally absorbed by her long-held bitterness and grief from the loss of her young son. And his daughter Mlle Chantal is a deeply disturbed girl eaten up by anger and jealousy. Soon, she will be sent away to England, a most convenient plan devised by her father.

It is with this deep mess of a family that the young priest finds himself entangled. The most intense scene of the whole book, the climatic moment, comes when the priest goes to the Château to meet with Mme la Comtesse. She lost her beloved son when he was only eighteen months old, a child hated by his jealous older sister Chantal.

On his last day they went out for a walk together. When they came back my boy was dead.

Mme la Comtesse is fully engulfed by hatred for her daughter, grief for her lost son, and bitterness towards God.

Hearing her speak, a tear flows down the face of the young priest. “Hell is not to love any more, madame.” The young priest responds. And with miraculous strength, he delivers the following words.

… But you know that our God came to be among us. Shake your fist at Him, spit in His face, scourge Him, and finally crucify Him: what does it matter? It’s already been done to Him.

Towards the end of some soul piercing exchanges, Mme la Comtesse kneels down, releases her pain, and receives blessings from the young priest. Afterwards, she writes to him in a letter:

… I have lived in the most horrible solitude, alone with the desperate memory of a child. And it seems to me that another child has brought me to life again…

And this young child, a priest, consumed by illness, wreaked by frailty of spirit, can only marvel at the power through weakness:

Oh miracle — thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Not long after this, he succumbs to his illness. A life too short, a mission seems unaccomplished. But his last words faintly uttered on his deathbed are as powerful as the God who sends him:

Does it matter? Grace is everywhere…

And in the film, these three words leave me with one of the most poignant endings of all the films that I’ve seen:

“All is grace.”

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

English Edition of The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, translated by Pamela Morris, Perseus Books Group, Philadelphia, PA, 1965, 298 pages.

Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1936, was winner of the Grand prix du roman de l’Académie française.

Upcoming Post:

The Film Review of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951).

Related Post:

Silence the Movie Arrives in the Most Unwelcome Time

Silence by Shusaku Endo

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

April 3rd UPDATE: Do Not Say We Have Nothing shortlisted for the Baileys Prize.

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First the Booker, then the Giller and the GG, and now longlisted for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, this voice must be heard. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full, and Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer’s copy.

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Just a few months after it was published in May, 2016, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and had won the top two Canadian literary awards, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. That is extraordinary achievements for the Vancouver born, Montreal based writer.

Thien creates her third novel on a large canvas, spanning from the decades leading to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China and onward to the Tiananmen Square protests and government crackdown in 1989. Even though her novel does not stem directly from a personal experience like others’ such as Dai Sijie’s semi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or the eye-witness account of journalist Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, Thien’s outsider’s stance is far compensated by her extensive and detailed research, not just 20th Century history of China but down to the streets and local teahouses. Further, the absence of a first-person experience is replaced by an exuberance of imaginary characters and storytelling, all intricately woven with actual accounts of historical figures and events.

While not being an eye-witness, Thien’s cultural lineage could have brought her into a kind of insider’s realm. Born to Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents in Canada, Thien’s previous writing had depicted the unique perspective framed by her upbringing. The stories in her collection Simple Recipes (2001) have revealed poignantly the cultural and generational conflicts that could exist in a North American Asian family. Further, Thien’s previous novel Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) had prepared her well to venture into the abyss of human atrocity, with the backdrop of Khmer Rouge’s infamous killing fields in Cambodia. Do Not Say We Have Nothing presents a larger landscape and a more ambitious undertaking than her previous works.

Madeleine Thien

This is how the book opens, simple yet powerful:

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”

Here we hear a voice, seemingly nonchalant, but still lucid and sad. This is the voice of the protagonist, Marie. She was ten years-old and living with her mother in Vancouver when she learned of her father’s suicide in Hong Kong. The year was 1989. Not long after this news, Marie’s mother took in nineteen-year-old Ai-ming from China, alien and undocumented, escaped out of the country during the Tiananmen crackdown.

Ai-ming’s short refuge in Marie’s home bonded the two like sisters. As well, she opened the eyes of young Marie to life inside a totalitarian regime. The radio played only eighteen pieces of approved music. Her father, Sparrow, would listen to illegal music secretly and hum the melody of his own composition when he thought no one was around. Ai-ming’s interactions with Marie have prodded her—now twenty years later and a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University—to search for the truth about her father Kai and his mentor, Ai-ming’s father Sparrow, as well the tragic personal and national history that had consumed their lives.

With Ai-ming’s help, Marie and her mother began to decipher a secret hand-copied manuscript Kai had kept, “The Book of Records”, passed on to him from Sparrow, an allegorical account of their life in China, outward journey and clandestine dreams, “things we never say aloud”. As a young child, Marie was overwhelmed. Now as an adult, she is driven all the more to pursue the truth of her own family history.

It is not easy to follow Thien’s story in the first few chapters as there are many characters introduced with their own backstory. Time frame switches back and forth, spanning two continents. As I entered Chapter 4, I had to draw up a character chart, as I was looking into a kaleidoscope of three generations and other colourful figures against tumultuous events. If the book had included such a chart at the beginning, it would be most helpful for readers.

We follow Marie’s discovery as she comes to learn that her father Kai used to be a gifted piano student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Sparrow, a prominent composer, was his teacher there. Together with Sparrow’s young cousin Zhuli, a prodigious violin student, the three forged an unspeakable bond. They cherished each other’s dreams with youthful fervors, which all were altered if not extinguished when Mao ignited his Cultural Revolution.

When she was small, Zhuli discovered by accident her parents’ secret storage where they hid their treasures of western classical music records and books. This led to her parents, Swirl and Wren the Dreamer, to be charged as counter-revolutionary. They were publically criticised and humiliated, then sent to separate labour camps in the remote northwest of China in the name of ‘re-education’. Zhuli was taken secretly to her aunt, Big Mother’s Knife, Sparrow’s mother, and there she grew up. The woman who brought her there had met her aunt only once while on the train. As she ate a lot of the White Rabbit brand candies, we know her by that name. The White Rabbit told Zhuli about her parents’ situation matter-of-factly:

“They’ve been sent for re-education, that’s all… Since you’ve never been educated at all, it seemed pointless to send you along with them.”

This is just one incident where Thien deftly dispenses humour amidst somber events. This is what makes the book enjoyable to read. The subtle humour often is the wrapping of the resilience of human spirit hidden among tragic happenings.

Thien’s story is embedded in historical facts. The prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music was shut down in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, its five hundred pianos destroyed, denouncement and physical battering of the professors and students had resulted in deaths and suicides. Bearing the brunt of the persecution was the unyielding Conservatory President He Luting, beaten but not bent.

Due to their political affiliation, Sparrow’s parents Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute are spared, but what remains in Sparrow is a compromising existence, being sent to work as a factory work for twenty years after the shutdown of the Conservatory. Kai the pragmatist chooses to follow the mainstream and becomes a Red Guard. Young Zhuli sets foot on a tragic path.

With such a setting, it is only natural that Thien would use classical music as the leitmotif of her composition. Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach are like witnesses to the unfolding of human atrocity, their melodies the fuel that sustains whatever internal fervour that remains. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin’s rule, is an apt metaphor of the situation the trio have to face. The different choices made by Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli well represent the paths that are opened to an artist facing political persecutions.

On another note, and true to her Canadian root, Thein lets pianist Glenn Gould and his two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations be a recurring motif in her story. Bach’s ethereal and invigorating theme and variations belong to Sparrow, the sustenance for his inner life despite deadening circumstances outside.

As the canvas is huge, Thien’s subject matters are numerous. The details and complexity may be a hindrance to readers’ enjoyment. Yet Thien’s voice is close and personal. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the title taken from the workers anthem the ‘Internationale’, deserves our listening ears. As an instructor of the then newly established MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010, Thien experienced first-hand the abrupt cancellation of the program in 2015 “as a result of internal and external politics” as stated in her Acknowledgement at the back of the book. In her article in The Guardian (May 18, 2015), she notes that students from the Program had published essays in support of the Occupy Central student-led democracy movement, the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, that brought Hong Kong to a standstill. That personal experience could well have informed and given her the potent, insider’s voice in her novel writing.

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~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples