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

 

 

Wonder by R. J. Palacio: Required Reading for All

Wonder Book Cover

I woke up this morning thinking about Auggie. I missed him.

His extraordinary face with the unevenly positioned eyes, one half-shut all the time, the cleft lip and misshapen ears, abnormal features (I’ve learned not to use the word ‘deformed’ now) indelibly imprinted would elicit fear from those who see him the first time, especially unexpectedly. The shock may send out an uncontrolled gasp or even a scream. And if one is  maliciously driven, tiny-framed Auggie is a ready and easy target for bullying, especially in the setting he’s in now, middle school, the breeding ground for raw emotions and unchecked cruelty in both words and deeds. The ten year old has had twenty-seven surgeries big and small so far in his life. Homeschooled until now, Auggie is stepping out into 5th grade with unimaginable trepidation, mustering a courage no less than that required for all the surgeries he’d faced in his life.

Auggie, or, August Pullman, is a fictional character from R. J. Palacio’s book for 9-12 year olds, but he’s as real as my neighbor’s son, or even, my own. That’s the power of Palacio’s nuanced and realistic writing. This is a book for all ages, a required reading for every human being if I have my way, for Palacio has painted a perfect world.

In a perfect world, there are still babies born with facial abnormality. But that little life is still wrapped with warmth and cuddled with love and acceptance.

In a perfect world, that child will grow up not thinking himself ‘different’ or deficient, but as normal as any other kid his age. He can still enjoy reading his comics, be read to and tugged in at bedtime, master video games, watch Star War movies, play with his light saber, hug his doggie, and all those he loves: mom, dad and older sis. The child knows no deficiency.

In a perfect world, even after that child steps out of his well protected, comfort zone and ventures precariously into the reality of middle school, he can still find friends, however few at the beginning.

In a perfect world, there are still bullies and jerks. The child will still have to face incredulous challenges and learn to ignore horrible remarks more distorted than his facial features. In a perfect world, even in this seemingly cruel microcosm of the human society, this child can still find love, support, acceptance, and life-sustaining kindness.

In a perfect world, that child is considered a gift and a blessing, a challenge for us to be better human beings.

In a perfect world, good will overcome evil.

Seldom does a children’s book has such power over me. Actually, seldom do I read a children’s book, haven’t for a long, long while. But glad I’ve discovered Wonder. Auggie will live in my mind for a while even now that I’ve finished the book. I wish author R. J. Palacio’s Choose Kind anti-bullying movement will continue to flourish.

A book like this deserves a good movie adaptation. A recent announcement has given me hope that a worthy one might be on the drawing board. Well, just with the two being cast so far. Jacob Tremblay, the wonder boy who plays Jack in the acclaimed movie adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room is to play Auggie. His mom? Julia Roberts. As a mother of 10 and 8 year-olds, Roberts would have some insights to instill into her role.

 

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Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Second Encounter

As one who is interested in the adaptation process, I’m always eager to find out how filmmakers choose movie materials.

I first read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn a few years back when it was first published. I admit I found it uneventful and a bit bland at that time. On the shelf it went after my reading, and I didn’t bother to think too much about it.

Only in recent months when I knew about its upcoming movie adaptation that I was drawn back to it. My major quests this time: to give it another chance and to find out what in it that appeals to filmmakers.

Well, glad I reread it, for I’m actually giving myself a second chance. This time the ‘uneventful’ narratives become a quiet and gentle portrayal of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, a coming-of-age story told with nuance and grace.

I read it more carefully this time, noting in particular the subtexts and inferences. I paid attention not only to the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings from Tóibín’s direct statements, but his descriptions of their actions and find that he’s a master of subtleties.

Brooklyn_Colm_Toibin

Brooklyn is about migration, this time around, I can see how relevant and timely it is with our present global situation. From the small town of Enniscorthy, Wexford County, Ireland, Eilis sails across the Atlantic on her own to reach the shore of America just for a better future.

The initial foresight is however from her older sister Rose, the financial supporter and all round sustainer of both Eilis and their widowed mother. It is no wonder that Eilis feels it’s Rose that should be the one to go to America, Rose, the good golfer, glamorous, fashionable, capable and confident.

And Eilis? Here’s a little episode while still in Enniscorthy. She goes to a dance with her best friend Nancy and watches her being invited to the dance floor by a promising young man George. Sitting on the sideline Eilis watches her every move and then we read:

“Ellis looked away in case her watching made Nancy uncomfortable, and then looked at the ground, hoping that no one would ask her to dance. It would be easier now, she thought, if George asked Nancy for the next dance when this set was over and she could slip quietly home.”

When this set is over she isn’t given such a chance, for then George brings Nancy and Eilis over to the bar for a lemonade and we are introduced to his friend Jim Farrell, who “just nodded curtly but did not shake hands… his face emotionless.” Towards the end of the book we will see Jim Farrell appear again as some sort of a nemesis who poses a moral dilemma for Eilis.

Tóibín has given us an unlikely heroine in Eilis, a reluctant emigrant. Always the recipient of Rose’s support and encouragement, Eilis is in fact pushed out of her comfort zone by her well-meaning older sister. In her personal journey we see how Eilis grow and mature, and most importantly, with her good nature intact.

In Brooklyn, Father Flood helps her settle in Mrs. Kehoe’s rooming house and secures a job as a sales clerk at Bartocci’s department store. She gets a taste of rooming house politics, and at Bartocci’s, learn work ethics and the soft skills that are so essential to survive socially. And yet, she is plagued with homesickness as soon as she receives the first letters from home.

At the mid-point of the book, Eilis meets Tony, not Irish but from an Italian immigrant family. No matter, Tony’s authentic charm and devotion break down all cultural barriers and alleviates Eilis’s homesickness.

Tony is gentle with her, courteous and considerate. How do we know? As a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, Tony never mentions baseball in front of Eilis. Instead, he listens attentively to her and having learned of her night class at Brooklyn College, waited for her after class just to walk her home.

Eilis discovers Tony’s love of baseball when he brings her home for dinner over conversations with her brothers at the dinner table. His family? That’s another charming story.

Just as she begins to settle in and fully enjoy her new life in Brooklyn, Eilis receives a tragic news that sends her back to Ireland for a short while. Now we are at the last part of the book with only fifty-one pages left. Here we have the major conflict of the novel, a moral dilemma that Eilis needs to resolve.

I much appreciate Tóibín’s storytelling. After presenting us in details a successful immigrant experience, a young woman becoming independent in a new land, finding herself, meeting a love interest, and even planning for a future with him, Tóibín drops a bombshell shattering all that has been built and invested. And all this while, he’s been so calm and quiet leading to it.

Further, Tóibín shows us how we can be a different person in different settings and environment. Once back in Ireland, the independent and confident Eilis is changed back to her old self. Under the roof of her mother, she is the dutiful and accommodating daughter once again, but this time, with the added burden of guilt.

Tóibín’s narratives are often quiet and mild, but his characterization is shrewd. We see the acerbic Mrs. Kelly who runs a tight ship in her grocery store where Eilis works on Sundays, and her American counterpart Mrs. Kehoe, Eilis’s landlady. Then there’s the curt Jim Farrell who doesn’t even cast Eilis a glance but earnestly woos her when she comes back after dipping in American waters; and finally there’s Eilis’s mother, subtly scheming and manipulative.

With the subject of migration, the ultimate quest is finding a home. As we read Eilis’s personal journey across the Atlantic from Ireland to America and back again, we see her tossed by the waves of loyalty and belonging. Like her first voyage over the turbulent sea, unsettling and gut retching, her return to Enniscorthy is an even more acute challenge. But at the end we see Eilis make her choice, and it is gratifying.

She is finally ashore.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Movie review of Brooklyn is here.

 

Go Set A Watchman: Sequel or Prequel?

 

Go Set A Watchman Book Cover

 

Background

Go Set A Watchman is Harper Lee’s first draft of a novel (See links at the end of the post). In 1957, Lee’s agent submitted it to Tay Hohoff, an editor at the now defunct publishing house J. B. Lippincott. Hohoff did not see it adequate to be published; however, she did see promising elements in it, “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she later recounted.

The draft’s protagonist, 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch, Scout, now a New Yorker, goes back to visit her childhood home in fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, and finds discrepancies about her father Atticus now from the man she thought she had known all the years growing up. To her alarm and disillusionment, Atticus, while a good father and a good man to all the rest in Maycomb, holds racist views and is firmly a segregationist.

Hohoff advised Lee to rewrite the draft but this time, instead of writing Jean Louise Finch as an adult, focus on her reminiscence of her childhood growing up in Maycomb with her brother Jem, living under the roof of her father Atticus, and summer days spent with a boy next door called Dill. After more than two years of editing and rewriting, To Kill A Mockingbird was born. And the rest is history.

So here’s the query I have: If your novel, after two years of editing and re-inventing, had developed into a final form and published in 1960, some 50 plus years ago, had gained high acclaims, won the Pulitzer, become a beloved American classic, been adapted into an Oscar winning movie, and achieved international recognition, why would you want your very first draft as a novice be published to the world now?

At 89 years old, Harper Lee now lives in a nursing home, a stroke survivor who has lost most of her hearing and eyesight, and just months after her sister Alice Lee – guardian of her privacy and legal advisor – had passed, and suddenly a ‘newly discovered’ Harper Lee novel appeared.

In a recent New York Times Op Ed article entitled “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Fraud”, columnist Joe Nocera vehemently argues that the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins had “manufactured a phoney literary event.” The publishing house had sold more than 1.1 million copies of the book in a week, the ‘fastest-selling book in company history’ according to the publisher, to which Nocera decries “Go Set A Watchman constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”

The above is the major challenge surrounding this phenomenal ‘literary event’. So how should one read the book? Controversy aside, what can we reap from reading Go Set A Watchman?

Definitely not as a sequel and not a prequel either, but take it as it is: A first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Only when comparing the two books as a ‘Before and After’ transformation can we see how the writing process had taken place. By reading Watchman as a first draft, we come to appreciate how a seasoned editor had helped a novice and an aspiring writer to achieve her goal to become a respectable, published author. And this we know Hohoff had done most successfully.

To Kill A Mockingbird Book Cover

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Reading Go Set A Watchman

First off, to all readers, a major reminder: Harper Lee is a real person, and Atticus Finch is a fictional character. In Lee’s first draft, Go Set A Watchman, Atticus is a good father, but a racist. Yes, he had successfully defended Tom Robinson and gained him an acquittal, that was a court appointed case. This is anecdotally mentioned in Watchman. But Atticus is a self-professed Jeffersonian Democrat, one who subscribes to Jefferson’s view that: “A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man… He had to be a responsible man.”

Lee spends a climatic chapter towards the end describing the arguments between father and daughter on the issue of race. While both are polar extremes, and I don’t want to quote the words from Atticus pouring forth his arguments about how “white is white and black’s black”, I must point out that it is Scout who loses her cool during the debate. She is the one who blows right out, foul-mouthed and accusing her father with hurtful, derogatory terms. Throughout the verbal confrontation, Atticus remains a gentleman. “I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestions.”

And I’m quite impressed by the next episode, and that’s when Scout cools down and goes back to her father, seeking reconciliation. It’s not just a simple case of ‘agree to disagree’, but somewhat laying out a more complex relationship with the ambivalent stance of ‘I can’t beat you, I can’t join you,’ but love can still triumph over all. That is the spark of an inspiring writer I can see in the conclusion of Lee’s Watchman. As Scout apologizes for her foul-mouthed diatribe aimed at her father the day before, this line from Atticus will remain with me: “I can take anything anybody calls me as long as it’s not true.”

Hohoff might just have seen this character trait in Atticus that she advised Lee to expand on in her rewrite. I see this admirable element as I read. Let the fictional character Atticus be created as an ideal type of a man, open to others’ opinions, upholding his ground with firmness but with no malicious hostility. And yes, we can all appreciate this change of heart in Lee’s rewriting in Mockingbird. Let Atticus be the ideal father and friend, a deserving, honourable man.

Further, in Watchman, the racist turn in Atticus has not been well accounted for. Since Jean Louise has come back to Maycomb annually to see her father, why the sudden discovery of his racist stance? And why had she not known about his views considering her close relationship with her father all her growing years and only in recent years in her adult life had she moved to NYC. But most important point of all Lee had not explained in Watchman, why had Atticus changed his view? These could be flaws in the plot line that Hohoff had Lee re-think.

As recounted, Lee based her Atticus character on her own father, the lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee who had actually defended two black men but failed to have them acquitted. According to reports, the elder Lee had been a segregationist but later changed his views to support integration. The real life parallel is obvious. The details we could only speculate, was it the man that had influenced the change in the book, or maybe vice versa?

In the rewriting process, there is the elimination of two significant characters in Watchman, Hank, Jean Louise’s suitor, and Uncle Jack, holder of family secrets. Once a clear storyline is established, with the equally moving minor plot of Boo Radley, a parallel Mockingbird theme with Tom Robinson as both being vulnerable victims, Hank and Uncle Jack would not be needed to uphold the story lines. So, no matter how much a writer had invested in a character, cuts and alterations could be the outcome, quite like the deleted scenes we see on DVDs, the rational choices we have to make in the long creative process. On the other hand, a character that exists only in memory, Jem, who had died in Watchman, is revived to his lively self, and we are all grateful for that revision.

One of the main reasons Hohoff had rejected the first draft was that it was episodic, lacking a unified story arc as a novel. Readers of Watchman will find this so, especially when Jean Louise switches back and forth from the present to the past. As I read, the past holds much more attractions as Scout describes her growing up days in Maycomb. We see the children in a different perspective, something like a ‘behind the scene’, a ‘making-of’ featurette. Thanks to Hohoff, such episodes are restrung into the gem of a book called To Kill A Mockingbird. Indeed, Hohoff had grasped the social psyche well, there was a need for a noble, heroic character in her time then, and maybe even more so in our time now.

 

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LA Times (With video)

The Telegraph

New Republic

The New York Times (Jonathan Mahler)

The New York Times (Serge F. Kovaleski and

The Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post

The Washington Free Beacon

Wikipedia

 

Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Every year before Christmas, I read something that can draw me closer to the meaning of the Season. Amidst the busyness of the festivities, I try to carve out a piece of quiet. I name these annual posts Reading The Season. You can click on the links at the bottom for previous entries, dating back to 2008. This year, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third Gilead book, Lila, is a most timely read.

GileadGilead (2004) – Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award winning novel introduces us to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. We hear the gentle voice of the narrator, the ageing Rev. John Ames, as he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son Robby, leaving a legacy of family heritage, love, forgiveness, and serenity.

HomeHome (2008) – Based on the same Gilead characters, but from a different point of view allowing us privy to the household of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’s life long-friend. Glory, Boughton’s daughter, comes home to take care of her ailing father. She is there when her brother Jack returns after an absence of twenty years. The black sheep of the family, Jack’s estranged self yearns for reconciliation like a prodigal. The book, in all its complexities and depiction of alienation, escape, return and lost yet again, suggests home may not be a solace as sweet as one hopes.

Lila

Lila (2014) – Robinson’s newest, and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It is the third novel based on the characters in the town of Gilead, offering yet another point of view. But one can just read it on its own, albeit best to have read Gilead first, then the kind face of John Ames can be conjured up more readily. In this book, the perspective is from Ames’s much younger wife Lila, at first lonely and desolate, slowly drifting into place.

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Lila Dahl

At the outset, we see Lila as an unwanted child, “cold”, ‘all cried out’. She is rescued by Doll, a destitute woman herself yet still has room in her heart for an abandoned little girl. Doll wraps Lila into her shawl and decides to bring her up. “Lila was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila later takes up Doll’s name as Dahl.

The two joins a small group of itinerant field workers led by Doane, living in camps out in the open. But the Depression breaks up the cohesive work party. Lila is later left on her own and for a little while, works in a brothel in St. Louis. Knowing she can’t stay there for long, she slips out one night, escaping from a blackhole of hopelessness.

After that she finds herself a cleaning job at a hotel, from which she has to escape again after seeing her nemesis whom she first encounters while in the brothel. She packs her bag and leaves town, taking rides from strangers going to wherever they drop her. Ultimately, Lila drifts to the outskirt of Gilead, finds an abandoned shack and takes shelter there. She cleans up the shack for a place to sleep, having no plans except to find odd jobs in the town yonder, earn enough money, then moves on, maybe to Sioux City.

Lila lives a life of poverty, loneliness and fear, mistrusting everyone. Doll may have been like a mother to her but she too has her own rough life and struggles. Doll knifes and kills a man who might be Lila’s own father, could well be out of protecting Lila. She is later jailed, leaving the knife in Lila’s possession. Lila keeps it with her all the years as a memento, a murder weapon, yes, but also a symbol of Doll’s loving protection and Lila’s own desolate past.

One day walking into Gilead Lila stumbles into a church to escape the rain, that is the turning point of her life. She sees the old man at the pulpit, the Rev. John Ames, and, he sees her.

John Ames

We know a lot about Ames from Robinson’s first book of Gilead, set in the 1950’s. A Congregationalist pastor in the town, Ames is sixty-seven years old when he first meets Lila, “a big, silvery old man”. Coming from a family tradition of ministers, John Ames is a man with a pastor’s heart.

Ames has had his share of personal grief. He had to bear the death of his beloved wife of his youth and his newborn son as she died in childbirth. Such unspeakable pain he had shared with his best friend Robert Boughton, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead.

Ames and Boughton have been life long friends. They share pastoring advice, discuss foreign policies, debate theological problems, and bear the burden of each other’s family woes. Boughton has his in his son Jack, who takes John Ames’s namesake.

After seeing Lila at the church as she comes in from the rain, Ames keeps her in his heart. Residents of Gilead befriend Lila, giving her jobs, welcoming her in their midst, but Lila is aloof and skeptical, an outsider still. Ames personally engages her to talk and to know her more. One day, he goes to seek her out at the shack. She sees him coming as she walks towards Gilead. There on the path he reaches out to her and promises marriage. An inexplicable love story takes shape.

Sunset

Ames and Lila

“… the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary…”

After they are married, however incompatible it looks in Ames’s home, Lila still keeps Doll’s knife with her as a memento and as a symbol of her own tumultuous past, a part of herself. Ames is unperturbed. He lets her keep it, and he even uses it, taking it as a normal tool around the house. Total acceptance.

If condescension is present in the relationship, it is Ames who wants to learn from Lila. His utter humility is what moves her. Barely literate, Lila yearns to know about the Bible, study it and grasp its richness and meaning. They talk about the difficult books of Ezekiel and Job. Ames shares his thoughts about this elusive notion called existence, and listens attentively Lila’s perspective and experiences. Total respect.

Lila has questions rooted in her bitter past, the why’s of misfortunes, cruelty, and the hardships in life. She asks Ames with an inquiring heart. Ames, a pastor of many years, can find no easy answers. He ponders Lila’s queries, and readily and honestly admits his own limitations in knowing, while loving her all the more. Total humility.

Even after they are married, Lila sometimes still conjures up thoughts of leaving. Ames  knows this and gives her the freedom:

… if you ever change your mind, I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you. You might want to sell it. That would be all right. It’s yours, not mine… ” He cleared this throat. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.” He leaned forward and looked into her face, almost sternly, so she would know he meant want he said.

She chooses to stay, a genuine response to his love.

When I read the book, I see a tender love story between two utterly incompatible beings, like an allegory and a parallel of the Christmas story, how the Creator God reaches out to take our hand, initiating an unfathomable relationship. Love for the reason of pure love. An unlikely and inexplicable union.

The Christmas Story

I first felt a little uncomfortable about the obvious incongruous pairing of Ames and Lila, yet, their love relation comes to fruition, albeit looking tentative at first. The gap between Ames and Lila is just a crack in the pavement when compared to the abyss separating Creator God and His creation. I see Ames and Lila’s story as an allegory, if you will, a parallel, however meagre, illustrating the joining of two utterly disparate sides.

The essence of the Season is in the reaching out to bridge that huge chasm. As Ames and Lila’s newborn son at the end of the book is an evidence of their love, we too receives a child, born in a manger that day in Bethlehem, a sign of ultimate mending. Total reconciliation.

***

Other Reading the Season Posts:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: A Hidden Life, a film by Terrence Malick

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, C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light, Poetry by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle 

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

2008: A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis

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The Dinner by Herman Koch: A Timely Read, for Lent?

Why is this book compared to Gone Girl? It’s nothing like it. The Dinner belongs to a totally different calibre. If I have to compare it to something, then I’d say, reading it conjures up Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Are there really some in our society who think themselves so superior that they ought to be above the law? The law, after all, is a human construct. Can we not bend it to serve our own interest, when the interest is out of love for our son, or wife, or husband?

The Dinner

The Dinner is Dutch writer Herman Koch’s sixth novel. It has sold over a million copies and translated into twenty-one languages. The book deals with subjects that are soul-searching: The dichotomy between nature and nurture; how much of our being and psyche is hereditary? What portions of our actions are a result of our own waywardness as lost souls? As I was reading, the movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011) came to mind. However, what is not present at least in the Kevin movie is the accessory after the fact component.

The Dinner starts off with quite an original concept. The author parallels the story development with a gourmet dinner two couples are having in an upscale restaurant. The Apéritif and the Appetizer are the foretaste of what we will get for the Main Course. What appears to be petty, disgruntled complaints and personal biases of the narrator’s in the early chapters turn out to be only a light appetizer, for the main course is when a horrific crime is revealed. The ‘horror’, though, isn’t limited to the crime per se, for it is chilling to read how everyone involved deals with the aftermath.

The main course is a gripping thriller based on a real-life crime. After reading the novel, I googled and did find the report on it. Koch tells the story effectively with his straight-forward descriptions written with journalistic detachment, and incisive observation as the notes of a perceptive psychoanalyst. Further, he informs us with the detailed thought process of his narrator. Here is a disturbing look at someone who is capable to love his wife and son deeply but hates everyone else that crosses his path. This is more than a thriller though, for the moral dilemma or rather, its characters’ lack of sensitivity to it, is what makes the book provocative.

I don’t think we are expected to ‘like’ or even ‘identify’ with any of the characters. The book is effective in that we are left as observers. And with that, hopefully, we just might think a little deeper into issues concerning our humanity, and in the next generation of humans we bring up. How much are our children a result of our parenting and examples, how much are they a result of their own choosing and decisions? Can nature or nurture excuse us from our errors? If Freud were around today, The Dinner just might be on his reading list. But, would he be able to offer a remedy to save us from ourselves?

The ending shares a similar thought with the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). Now, as soon as I said this, some of you familiar with the movie might think I’ve dropped a spoiler in here. So, that’s the farthest I’ll go in describing the plot and details of The Dinner. The aftertaste may be haunting, but it is something that we should face as a human society.

Today is the beginning of Lent. I always feel such is an opportune time not so much about refraining from pleasure like abstaining from going to fancy restaurants for gourmet dinners, but in dwelling on the meaning of Easter. The Dinner may just have, inadvertently, reinforced the notion that we as individuals in a human society do need some form of saving grace after all.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett, published by Hogarth, 2012, 320 pages.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and I’m stunned.  The title is simple enough, but the subject matter is expansive, haunting, and unresolvable. Yes, from the title, you could assume it’s about family, and true, we have the story about two sisters Ruth and Lucille abandoned by their mother Helen. After leaving her two young daughters with their belongings at her mother’s home in the remote town of Fingerbone, Idaho, Helen goes out and drives her car off the cliff.

The book won the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for Best First Novel in 1980, and nominated for a Pulitzer that same year.

It’s about sisterhood, how Ruth and Lucille grow up first under the care of their aloof grandmother, then after her death, their two grand aunts, who can’t wait for a younger person to raise these children. So, finally, their mother’s younger sister Sylvie, the estranged daughter of their grandmother, the aunt they have never known, comes back home to Fingerbone to take care of them.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson

So yes, we can expect some dysfunctional upbringing. But that’s not it. Robinson’s narratives are lyrical, internal, thought-provoking and poignant. Rather than making a social comment on a dysfunctional family, it searches deep into the human condition.

It’s about loneliness, that haunting, inconsolable feeling that can drive one off the cliff of sanity. It’s about survival, how being constrained by such loneliness, one can still go on, striving to find some meaning in blood and kin, facing others during the day and oneself in the deep darkness of the night.

It’s also about personhood, how you might think after such a childhood experience, the two sisters would have clung to each other in an inseparable bond, and yet, one can still escape to another life by squeezing out of the relational cocoon.

And it points to the larger scheme of things, that all are transient, however static we may feel about our situations. No matter how well a housekeeping job we do to keep up an orderly life or fulfill expectations, we cannot ignore our inner chamber. We’re all a diaspora of transient humanity longing for home.

So the transients wandered through Fingerbone like ghosts, terrifying as ghosts are because they were not very different from us… Sylvie was an unredeemed transient, and she was making a transient of me.

I read Gilead years ago. I don’t know why I’ve waited until now to savour Robinson’s other fictional works. Housekeeping is hauntingly true and intellectually satisfying. I know this is a book I need to reread many times in order to grasp all that the author is saying… if I can ever do that, gleaning all that Robinson had meant to say. So many thoughts in just 219 pages.

Many images from other books and movies conjured up in my mind as I was reading: the movies Thelma and LouiseStand By Me, and Jeannette Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle. And Chapter 10, where Robinson puts the story in the context of Biblical allusions, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life came to mind. But of course, those are merely images, or interactive memories. What draws my attention page after page is  the voice of Robinson’s narrator Ruth, and her heart-wrenching and yet unsentimental storytelling.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, published by Faber and Faber, London. Third Edition, 2005. 219 pages.

***

Related Post:

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Dances With Words (where there’s a short write-up on Gilead)

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Tree Of Life Movie Review

***

Dubliners by James Joyce

This is my fourth and final instalment for Ireland Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. What first attracted me to this newly published edition (August 2012) by Modern Library was its cover. I’m very fond of Modern Library’s classics in trade paperbacks, mainly because of their elegant covers as well as the size of the type. Interesting how type size has become a factor for my reading enjoyment in recent years… ok, no more elaboration on that.

While Joyce’s later works Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are considered iconic works of 20th C. literature, for some reasons I have no desire to take up the formidable challenge of deciphering them. But Dubliners, a collection of short stories written in his early 20’s, looks to be a much more manageable task.

With this new edition comes a new introduction, written by the Booker Prize winning author John Banville (The Sea, 2005). For me, two points stand out in his introduction. First is that Joyce himself had indicated that Dubliners could well be his best work. An admission that he might not have wanted to be publicized.

Second, Banville has slipped into a sentence an implied definition of ‘greatness’ in a literary work. Here’s it is, as he talks about the story “The Dead”:

It is indicative of the greatness of this story that after nearly a century of critical commentary and scholarship dissection it remains an enigma.

If the inscrutable is used as a qualification of greatness, then there are a few great ones in this collection.

Dubliners compiles fifteen short stories. In order of their arrangement, they cover the point of view of childhood, adolescence, to adulthood, yet they share similar themes based on love and loss, life and death, religion and conscience. It’s interesting as I caught myself while reading that I did not see the characters so much as residents of Dublin. They appear borderless. Their particular location and life situation might be tied to Dublin and Ireland at a certain point in time, but the issues they have to deal with transcend boundaries.

A twist that the stories seem to share is: people are not what they appear. Often, the picture presented in the first part of a story leads to an ironic ending. Further, below the surface of a character, there are unfathomable depths of feelings, conflicts, memories, longings and desires. Joyce’s superb writing takes the reader with him as he peels off layer after layer to show us the human soul… but not devoid of charm and humour.

Most of the stories are swift and short, some maybe like scenes and vignettes, their descriptions and character depictions sharp, precise, and succinct. The last one ‘The Dead’, the one that Banville notes as an ‘enigma’ in the introduction, is the longest with 55 pages, the highlight of the whole book.

Here are my favourites:

An Encounter – sometimes a most unlikely stranger can help us see ourselves a bit more clearly.

Araby – famous story that many of us might have read in school, adolescent infatuation, missed chances and the uncontrollable happenings in our everyday life.

Eveline – One may feel discontent with one’s claustrophobic life, but given the chance to escape, freedom may just be too risky a choice to make.

A Little Cloud – Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, but some people may just be destined to stay in less green pastures… Our lot, is it by fate, or, by choice?

A Painful Case – Anna Karenina in short story form… well, maybe just a coincidence.

The Dead – A 55 page and by far the most gratifying story for me. Joyce sets the stage with a Christmas party and presents some lively characters, slowly focusing on Gabriel, a loving husband, and maybe drenched in a bit too much self-importance and confidence.

All’s well until the twist comes at the last 10 pages. A song at the party resurrects his wife’s memory of a young lover who died for love of her at 17. As the husband excavates his wife’s long past story, he comes to a humbling self-realization. His initial passionate sentiments for her change to jealousy but finally turn into a greater clarity of what love is.

I must quote this last sentence of the story, don’t worry, no spoiler, I’ve already given you that, but just for the beauty of the prose, and the meaning that runs silent and deep:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Here is my take on this ‘enigma’ of a story…

as the snow falls upon all
it is love that connects
among the living
and with the dead.

***

Dubliners by James Joyce, with a new introduction by John Banville. Published by Modern Library, NY, Paperback Edition, August 2012, 249 pages.

My other reviews for Ireland Reading Challenge 2012:

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Take the Literary Journey before the 3D Experience

CLICK HERE to read my review of Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi in 3D

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“I have a story that will make you believe in God.” — Life of Pi

I usually like to read the book first before seeing the film. I know full well that the two are different forms of artistic medium, but I’m intrigued by the adaptation process of transposing the literary into the visual. So, before Ang Lee’s 3D production comes out in the fall, I’ve recently reread Life of Pi, the 2002 Man Booker Prize winner by Canadian author Yann Martel.

After finishing Midnight’s Children a couple of months ago, also in preparation for the upcoming film version, I feel like I am all toned-up for magic realism.  Life of Pi leads me to retake a magical journey. This time around, I am much fonder of the delightful tale, deceptively simple and yet full of insights. The reader might first find the tidbits of animal facts and behavior amusing, only to resonate with their parallels in the human society.

Martel’s allegory is at times humorous, at times poetic and poignant, and throughout, engaging storytelling with heart and soul.

Pondicherry entered the Union of India on November 1, 1954. The Pondicherry zoo is in the Pondicherry Botanical Gardens. It is founded, owned and operated by Santosh Patel, father of Piscine Molitor Patel, more succinctly, Pi, the protagonist of our story.

Pi grows up in the zoo, animal lover by nature, animal keeper by nurture, and God seeker by creation. So when his father decides to sell the zoo, due to a lack of interest from the public, Pi, though young, understands it is only a sign of the times. The zoo and religion, both are misconstrued as confinement:

I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.

Pi’s father plans to leave India and start a new life in Canada. Other than the lack of prospect in the zoo business, Mrs. Ghandi’s government measures also play a part in his decision. In June, 1977, the Patel family steps on board the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum and set sail for Canada, with them are the animals sold to various zoos in North America.

Here begins the adventure of Pi. Unable to sleep one night, Pi walks out of his cabin only to hear an explosion moment later. Thus his life is spared as he is thrown into a lifeboat while his family is still trapped below deck. All alone, 16 year-old Pi looks back from the lifeboat in horror and watches helplessly as the ship carrying his family quickly sinks into the dark, oblivious ocean.

For 227 days, Pi drifts in the vast open sea in a 26-foot lifeboat. Not quite alone, for there with him are a zebra, an orangutan named Orange Juice, a spotted hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Soon, there remain only two of them, Richard Parker by his mere physical might, and Pi, by his intelligence and resourcefulness.

Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind.

Wise beyond his years, Pi has to use available resources to get food and water, set up routines, defend himself from predators, assert his spacial and social dominance, and above all, conquer loneliness and despair. Ironically, in the minimal existence on the 26- foot lifeboat, Pi finds motivation to live in the company of the hungry Bengal tiger Richard Parker. He has successfully turned a threat into comradeship.

After many days, they drift towards an island of meerkats. There Pi finds an abundance of algae and meerkats as food. Complacency begins to set in until the chilling discovery of human teeth drives him out to sea again.

What sets this book apart from just another survival, castaway story is its spiritual quest lyrically expressed. Pi is a deeply religious soul. While he has embraced various paths in his search, his ultimate goal is to find God. It is in his tumultuous ordeal, a tiny speck in the vast ocean, tossed and thrown by unconquerable elements that Pi experiences the presence of God. The author’s seemingly straight forward adventure embeds a magical, existential allegory.

In bare existence, Pi can still find exhiliaration in the smallest of blessings:

… You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.

And in the midst of utter despair, the spiritual faculty can still respond. Amidst turmoils and rough seas, Pi rejoices as he beholds the wonders of creation, the inexhaustible menagerie of life, and nature displayed, raw and uncensored. One time, a magnificent bolt of lightning arouses a thunderous cosmic effect without and within, striking him speechless:

This is miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity. .. this thing so vast and fantastic. I was breathless and wordless. I lay back on the tarpaulin, arms and legs spread wide. The rain chillded me to the bone. But I was smiling… I felt genuine happiness.

That momentary happiness is finally realized in true salvation. Pi and Richard Parker are saved as their boat drifts near the shore of Mexico where they are rescued. Richard Parker quickly disappears into the jungle. But the story doesn’t end there. It’s the last bit that makes Life of Pi even more thought-provoking.

Two Japanese employees of the shipping company come to interview Pi in order to find out the cause of the shipwreck. As they question the lone survivor of the Tsimtsum in a Mexican hospital, they respond to Pi’s retelling of his ordeal with polite skepticism and denial. The magical is not easily accepted by realists.

Author Yann Martel tells us a compelling survival story only to have it negated by two people convinced of its implausibility, rationalists bent on seeking evidence based only on reasoning. Fantasy and imagination are often readily presumed to be falsehood.

With Pi’s tale being dismissed by the interviewers, Martel has ingeniously crafted an allegory showing us the value of stories, teasing us with the definition of truth and reality, while transporting us to a realm beyond the limits of the intellect… maybe on that level, somehow, like Pi, we can get a glimpse of God.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Vintage Canada Edition, 2002, 354 pages.

The three cover images on this post: Vintage Canada edition, U.S. Mariner Books edition, and movie-tie-in edition coming out October, 2012, also from Mariner Books.

This review has been published in the August 31, 2012 print issue of Asian American Press. Online edition here. For those curious about what Arti is like, the mystery is revealed there.

CLICK HERE to watch the TRAILER of the film, opener of the 50th New York Film Festival on Sept. 28th, 2012.

CLICK HERE for a list of highly anticipated film adaptations from literary sources coming out this fall.

***

Coda

I had the pleasure to meet author Yann Martel in a reading two years ago. He was very friendly and affable, took time to chat with me, signed my copy of the book and another one I’d intended for my son. Not a tale, here are the photos:

In the title page of my son’s copy, he wrote:

“To ___,

May you reach the coast of Mexico.”

Don’t we all need to find shore to land?

***

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Book Two (Part A)

CLICK HERE to read my Movie Review of Midnight’s Children

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While Part One of the book is a macro view of historical background and family genealogy dating back a few generations, Part Two is what we’re all waiting for, the emergence of Midnight’s Children, in particular, our young hero Saleem Sinai. This present section of our Read-Along is the first part of Book Two, ending with the chapter ‘Alpha And Omega’.

We see Saleem Sinai growing up from a protected infant doted on by mom Amina and maid Mary to a thinking, mature, yet mildly timid and clumsy ten year-old. He shares his childhood in the family with his sister Brass Monkey, one year younger, ‘untamed, unfeminine’. Faced with the ambivalence of sibling rivalry and camaraderie, he learns in time the axiom that blood is thicker than water.

By all standards, Saleem’s first ten years (so far) have been eventful. Not long after his birth, Ghandi is assassinated. Saleem’s father Ahmed’s assets are frozen but later rescinded by the court. He spies on his mother and follows her secretly as she meets her ex-husband, now the Communist Party leader.

Saleem’s great sense of imagination is nurtured by various cultural traditions, a generous share of fairy tales, super heroes and the cinema.

Hatim Tai and Batman, Superman and Sinbad helped to get me through the nearlynine years… I became Aladdin, voyaging in a fabulous cave… I imagined Ali Baba’s forty thieves hiding in the dusted urns… I turned into the genie of the lamp… I was mild-mannered Clark Kent protecting my secret identity…

Other memorable episodes include a first taste of unrequited love from his crush on Evie Burn. As for school, colonial traditions stay. Saleem goes to a Christian mission school where he gets his multi-cultural exposure. Some learning is hard, that’s expected. But he gets more than his fair share as he tastes the ultimate in corporal punishment and humiliation as a clump of his hair is pulled out by his Peruvian geography teacher. Later in the school dance, in front of his new crush Masha Moviac, he shows her he is a man after all as he knees his insulters. Mayhem ensues that ends with a mutilated finger in the emergency room.  I can see lots of movie moments, hilarious yet endearing.

But above all, growing up in Methwold’s Estate and his part of Bombay is a close encounter with multiplicity. And to a young boy tossed in the net of a myriad of interwoven cultural strands, Saleem is preoccupied with the search for an identity. Further, with his secret, supernatural gift of tuning into other people’s mind, he eagerly looks for a purpose and meaning to his life. And here is how Rushdie so brilliantly parallels Saleem’s birth to that of a nation.

On my tenth birthday, everyone at Methwold’s Estate tried hard to be cheerful, but beneath this thin veneer everyone was possessed by the same thought: “Ten years, my God! Where have they gone? What have we done?

Saleem holds a Midnight’s Children Conference right in his mind, he himself the self-imposed leader of the 581 surviving Midnight’s Children, all born with unusual gifts. His leadership is challenged by none other than his changeling, Shiva, born at the stroke of midnight with him. While Saleem ponders on the purpose and reason for his supernatural power, his counterpart Shiva, coming from the slums, opposes him with the facts of life:

Rich kid,” Shiva yelled, “you don’t know one damn thing! What purpose, man? What thing in the whole sister-sleeping world got reason, yara? For what reason you’re rich and I’m poor? Where’s the reason in starving, man? God knows how many millions of damn fools living in this country, man, and you think there’s a purpose! Man, I’ll tell you–you got to get what you can, do what you can with it, and then you got to die. That’s reason, rich boy. Everything else is only mother-sleeping wind!

Crisp and simple. Existential pondering a luxury to many… ?

How I look forward to the rest of the book, and the movie. BTW, it has been shown to selective previewers, who were told not to write any reviews as yet. They sure know how to build up expectations and curiosity.

***

CLICK HERE to BOOK TWO: Part B
CLICK HERE to BOOK THREE CONCLUSION

Read-Along Participants’ Posts for Book Two (Part A):

Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza 

Gavin of Page247

Janell of An Everyday Life

Jerika at averydisorientedreader

ds at third-storey window

If you’ve written a post on this section, do let us know in a comment. I’ll add your link on the list.

Next section: Book Two, Part B. From ‘The Kolynos Kid’ to the end of Book Two. Share your view May 31st. You still have time to catch up if you like to start the book now.

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A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I’ve been following William Deresiewicz’s articles in The American Scholar for a few years. His idea of solitude has inspired my posts “No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude” and “Alone Again… Unnaturally.”

I’ve not seen any pictures of him, but know that he has taught English at Yale for ten years. So I’ve always thought him to be one calm, cool, and collected (older) academic. Well, I was totally surprised as I read his book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Expecting a book on literary criticism, and from the title, maybe a dash of personal anecdote, I found it to be much more than these.

It is all of the following: literary analysis, biography, memoir and even confessional. Introduced to Jane Austen by his professor in graduate school, Deresiewicz had encountered numerous ‘eureka moments’ of self-discovery from reading her six novels. He unabashedly discloses how his own life experiences, and often youthful foibles, parallel those of Austen’s characters from each book. For us who have savored Austen’s works, we already know how wise and perceptive she is. But Deresiewicz has gone much deeper by being so brave as to reveal his self-absorbed psyche of younger days, his romantic mishaps, true friends and those who appear to be, the painful conflicts between his parents, and his search for self apart from a domineering father, all in light of Austen’s colorful literary canvas.

So before the calm, cool and collected guy emerged, there was one rebel, alienated follower of the modernists. Seems like every guy who comes to Austen is being dragged along with much reluctance, “just thinking about her made me sleepy.” But his reading, studying and writing a dissertation chapter on Austen’s works totally reshaped his views, and life.

Here’s an outline of Deresiewicz’s journey of maturity, of finding true love, and most importantly, of becoming one who has the capacity to love, all due to Austen’s novels. Too good to be true, isn’t it? I admit at times I found there were too many coincidences and perfect parallels, a bit contrived. But as I read, I knew I must decide one way or the other. And I was persuaded to see it as audacious honesty. His self-deprecating and revealing account of his journey towards maturity and improvement is entertaining, bold even as he mentally draws the line between friends and ‘foes’, true and fake, albeit keeping them anonymous. I’m sure those he’d described would definitely recognize themselves in the book.

As with Austen’s opening lines in her novels, Deresiewicz’s opening line sets the stage of what’s to come:

I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life.

That woman, of course, is Jane Austen. Here are some of the key lessons:

From Emma, he learns to put aside his academic snobbery, that there’s no one too lowly for him to know, nothing too trivial or common for him to pass by. For these are the very ingredients that make up life.

Not that I hadn’t always taken my plans and grand ambitions seriously–of course I had. What I hadn’t taken seriously were the little events, the little moments of feeling, that my life actually consisted of. I wasn’t Stephen Dedalus or Conrad’s Marlow, I was Emma. I was Jane Fairfax. I was Miss Bates. I wasn’t a rebel, I was a fool. I wasn’t floating in splendid isolation a million miles above the herd. I was part of the herd. I was a regular person, after all. Which means, I was a person.

From Pride and Prejudice, he learns to grow up.

For [Austen], growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct… Growing up means making mistakes… to learn to doubt ourselves…

By making mistakes, and recognizing her mistakes, and testing her impulses against the claims of logic, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice learned the most important lesson of all. She learned that she wasn’t the center of the universe.

From Northanger Abbey, he learns to learn, and by so doing, to teach.

The habit of learning: if Catherine could learn to love a hyacinth when she was seventeen… I could keep learning to love new things my whole life. Of course, it was my professor himself who had helped me learn to love Jane Austen in the first place, against expectations at least as stubborn as the ones that Catherine brought to Northanger Abbey. But I was starting to get it now: the wonderful thing about life, if you live it right, is that it keeps taking you by surprise.

From Mansfield Park, he learns to see it as a mirror of “the rich Manhattanites” circle he was trying to get in.

… the greed beneath the elegance, the cruelty behind the glow–and what I myself had been doing in it… If my friend was a social climber, then what the hell was I?… my attraction to that golden crowd, my ache to be accepted by them, what did it amount to if not the very same thing? Who was I becoming? Who had I already become?

… we also have an aristocracy in this country, and I was looking at it.

From Persuasion, and from his own experience, he learns to prove Nora Ephron wrong. Unlike her movie “When Harry Met Sally”, man and woman can be friends, without “the sex thing getting in the way.”

A man and a woman, even two young, available ones, could talk to each other, understand each other, sympathize with each other, be drawn to each other, even share their intimate thoughts and feelings with each other–as Anne and Benwick did–without having to be attracted to each other–as Anne and Benwick clearly weren’t. They could, in other words, be friends.

Anne and Harville shared a common footing in the conversation, debating each other with mutual respect and affection and esteem. Men and women can be equals, Austen was telling us, so men and women can be friends.

And finally, from Sense and Sensibility, he learns what it means to fall in love.

To Austen, love at first sight is a contradiction in terms… As dull as it sounded, I now saw, Elinor’s way of going about things is the right one: to see a great deal of a person, to study their sentiments, to hear their opinions. … And it is a person’s character, not their body, with which we fall in love.

Like all Austen’s novels, Deresiewicz’s book ends with a marriage, his own. But without first reading the six Austen novels, he would have been totally unprepared for such a relationship. “Love, for Austen, is not becoming forever young. It’s about becoming an adult.” The book is the best way to show his gratitude to the matchmaker.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, 255 pages.

This article has been published in the Jane Austen Online Magazine. CLICK HERE to go there for more Regency and Austen reads.

CLICK HERE to William Deresiewicz’s website, and watch interviews of him with the editorial director of Penguin Classics, Elda Rotor.