Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee, Book Review

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”  ––  George Eliot


Turning - Canadian edition

The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.

At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence,  traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.

To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.

In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.

Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)

This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.

Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.

Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)

The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?

Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:

In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)

And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.

Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)

Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.

Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.

In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.

Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.


~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples



Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.

Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.

My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.







The Glass Castle: From Book to Screen

Jeannette Walls’ memoir had a “seven-year run on the New York Times best-seller list” after it was published in 2005, according to a NYT article . Now, 12 years later, a movie adaptation. So, the long wait is over. The wait, of course, belongs to those who don’t mind seeing a book turned into a movie.

As I’m a proponent of judging book and film as two different art forms on their own merits, I welcome movie adaptations. With this memoir, a non-fiction, I do feel the movie lacks the emotional punch as the first person narrative Jeannette Walls has so masterfully presented in her book. Walls’s memoir is a much livelier, engaging, and poignant piece of account depicting an extraordinary growing-up experience, a nomadic life of poverty until she and her siblings escaped from it.

As I’d mentioned in my review of the book, I was browsing in a bookstore when I picked up The Glass Castle randomly. The opening line captured my attention right away:

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.

That instantly drew me in. And for the rest of the book, Walls has not stopped captivating me with her growing up experience. She candidly shares how alcohol had ruined the potentials of her dreamer dad Rex, who had always dreamed of building them a glass castle. She tells us how her artistic mom Rose Mary had coped (or not), and the effects of their unconventional ‘parenting style’ had on the four children. Eventually, starting with the eldest, Lori, the children one by one escaped from their parents to NYC to start anew. As Jeanette saw her Mom digging through a Dumpster in NYC, she was a journalist at that time and living on Park Avenue. No judgement here, for the book explains all. The Glass Castle is a detailed account of Jeanette’s incredulous journey.


Now, having said all that, I must state that the movie is still a watchable production. Unlike his previous realistic drama Short Term 12 (2013), writer director Deston Daniel Cretton has a tall order here: from the massive field of information in the memoir, to glean and pick just a few episodes to include in the film and string them up as a whole, while making them as interesting and captivating as the book. I know, Cretton must eliminate and condense, the difficult task of a movie adaptation.

Cretton chose to focus on the love hate relationships between father and daughter, and the actors have delivered, thanks to the performance of Woody Harrelson as Rex and the actors who play Jeannette as a youngster, Ella Anderson, and as adult, played by Academy Award Best Actress Brie Larson (Room, 2015). Harrelson is spot-on and dominates the screen.

Mom Rose Mary is played by Naomi Watts. And with this character, I feel there may be a miscast here. For one thing, since the film is heavily weighed on Rex, mom has a much minor role, which is a shortfall, for she does contribute to the children’s development, and taught them to appreciate reading, art, and the value of resilience, using the Joshua Tree as an object lesson, bent but alive. In my mind, Laura Dern could be a more suitable cast.

While the book is chronological, the movie juxtaposes the past with the present. It is done quite well, no confusion or disjointed feeling here. The editing is smooth and moves both storylines forward effectively. The scene of the accident when Jeanette has to cook as a young child and is burned badly is placed aptly at the beginning of the movie. Scars that can be seen visually is a good reminder of one’s past where memories could fade.

One of the main differences between The Glass Castle the book and the movie adaptation is distance. The book is intimate and close. Walls is such a straight forward writer that it feels like she’s right there sharing, opening up herself candidly to the reader. With the movie here, we are just like that, sitting afar as a spectator. It took me a while to engage.

The major issue is the mood. The book depicts a nomadic existence as Jeanette was growing up. The children were herded from place to place across States, often as dad Rex escaped from debtors. They had slept open in the Mohave desert, so, they could pick their own star as a present. Surely these may all be a disguise for their plight, euphemism offered by irresponsible parents. But none can deny the thrills and exhilaration of escapades and adventures. The togetherness of the siblings, the wonder of life are apparent in Walls’ descriptions. The word ‘dysfunctional’ had never appeared in my mind as I read the book.

The film however, focuses on the darker side. The abusive and volatile Rex dominates the screen. Poverty and gloom take over. The tipping point comes as the eldest Lori graduates from high school, and she makes an exit plan. We breathe an air of relief as the children one by one escapes to NYC. A few years later though, Rex and Rose Mary move out to be with them, so they can all be together again as one family.

Is a family being together always the best? As we see, togetherness may not be an ultimate good to pursue when harmony is impossible to reach. What’s more important is keeping oneself intact, one’s past reconciling with one’s present, the integrity of self. In the film, that is the turning point for Jeannette in the scene at the restaurant with an important client of her husband’s. Jeannette comes out from hiding about her family, albeit at the most inopportune moment.

The final scene is a beautiful wrap. The Walls gather together to have a family meal after Rex has died from illness. The siblings chat about their formative years in laughter. Resilience and loyalty to each other have kept them intact. A rewarding closure and a beginning towards a better future.

Do stay behind to watch the video of the real life Jeannette with her mom Rose Mary as the ending credits roll. And do sit through the credits until the very last line, wherein lies the emotional punch of the whole film:

“To all families, despite the scars, still find a way to love.”

~ ~ ~ Ripples




Related Post on Ripple Effects:

The Glass Castle Book Review

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

This is an important book in that it chronicles the real-life experience of a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese army after the British surrendered in Singapore during WWII. The Pacific War is a part of WWII history that has often been ignored, other than the Pearl Harbour chapter. The British Empire in the Far East was dealt a deadly blow by Japanese invasions, and, British POW’s suffered not a bit less than those in Hitler’s death camps.

Japanese atrocities and war crimes have often been muffled in this our North American society. I don’t want to speculate why but yes, I do have an inkling which I will not discuss here. But as someone who had grown up in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager, I can tell the difference in knowledge and perceptions when I compare the generally uninformed public of the West and those who themselves or their elders’ generation had lived through in Asia during the war.

Because of the general lack of knowledge on the Far East during WWII, Eric Lomax’s first person narrative as a POW in a Japanese labour camp and later military prison is all the more valuable. The memoir starts off with his love for the railways in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. As the colony fell to Japanese hands, Lomax’s life was torturously demented in subsequent decades until the very end.

The Railway Man Book Cover

Eric Lomax was a young 22 year-old when he was captured and moved with tens of thousands of POW’s to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to build the notorious ‘Death Railway’ in 1943. It was a passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. The conditions of forced labour were horrendous. Many POW’s died building the railway. This part of the world was the subject of the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, an unrealistic (even farcical now that I’ve read Lomax’s memoir) depiction of British POW’s inside Japanese military camps.

With his skills, Lomax and several others built a radio secretly to get news of the war. The radio was later discovered, together with a map Lomax had carefully drawn up of the railway line. Six of them were interrogated and savagely beaten by The Kempetai, or goon squad, as Lomax described them. Both his arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more tortures and horrendous treatments followed in the days after. The experiences had left him permanently damaged psychologically for the rest of his life. Decades after the war, Lomax was still being tortured by terrifying flashbacks. The nightmares continued until he met his tormentor and forgiveness replaced hatred and vengeance.

So all in all, a significant story to tell. But while the book’s description is straight forward and clear, it leaves me ungratified as to its writing style and lack of deeper exploration, with all due respect to the author and his horrific, nightmares of ordeals. Yes, he had done a detailed job in reporting his personal journey from childhood to the war, the tortures and his suffering, other victims and their fate. As well, he recorded the aftermath of his horrific experiences as he re-entered ‘normal’ society, and sadly still, to a family that he no longer knew. His mother had died of a broken heart and his father had remarried. I was particularly engrossed with the after war effects in the last chapters.

However, the internal change of heart for the reconciliation with the Japanese interpreter had not been explored. After the bulk of the book describing his painful ordeals, the very last chapter of a happy ending looks off-balanced. It all started with the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who was present at Lomax’s torture, publishing his autobiography in his seventies. In there, he even mentioned the torture of Lomax, but due to his remorse, he felt he had been ‘forgiven’. Lomax’s second wife Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband. Patti’s letter opened up a chance for the later meeting between the tormentor and the victim.

Nagase had shown deep remorse, and dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s, to ‘make-up’ for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In his meeting with Lomax fifty years later, both in their seventies, near the bridge on the River Kwai, Nagase offered his visibly acute and sincere regrets for what the Japanese army had done to the British soldiers. A forgiving spirit suddenly took hold of Lomax and the two became friends. However, Lomax did not go deep into how his ingrained hatred and vengeance were alleviated, except noting that Nagase was a changed man now.

Further, the book had not answered a question I’ve always pondered. No, I understand it was never intended to delve into that issue as it is a personal memoir and not a political or philosophical treatise. But this question has been unsettling for me. What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible? Other than Nagase, we know that many in Japan today still worship their dead WWII soldiers including war criminals as national heroes, unlike Germany’s denunciation of the Nazi regime. History textbooks had even been changed to tone down Japan’s aggression in the war. Even as recent as January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and paid his pilgrimage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The controversial Shrine is a clear symbol of, in Lomax’s words, “an unashamed celebration of militarism”. In the book, we also read that Nagase had taken the unpopular and even dangerous stance of denouncing this war monument. To victims and their descendants of Japanese wartime atrocities, the chapter has not ended; in international politics, the issue remains.

It is always a triumph to see true remorse and subsequent reconciliation. Lomax’s personal story is extraordinary for both himself and Nagase. In that sense, readers are gratified with a light at the end of a long, dark chapter of one life, a bright stroke on the large canvas of WWII history.


The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, first published in Great Britain, 1995 by Jonathan Cape. Movie tie-in edition by Vintage Books, London, 2014, 322 pages.

** Movie Adaptation: I saw The Railway Man the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. So far, there has not been a general, major release of the film here in North America. As much as I’d like to share my view on the film, with Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, and Jeremy Irvine as young Lomax, I intend to wait till there is a public release of the film before I post my review. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait much longer.

Related Links:

Pride and Pain of Patti Lomax

Railway Man’s Forgotten Family

What Japanese History Lessons leave out by Mariko Oi 

12 Years A Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup: A Voice That Must Be Heard

“Is everything right because the law allows it?” — Solomon Northup

This is one of those cases where after watching the movie, I knew I must read the original source material, especially that it was written by Solomon Northup himself. If the movie is an artistic, cinematic account of a dark page in history, Solomon’s narrative is the quintessential eyewitness report, a first-person, authentic voice that is both a victim and a legitimate accuser of an inhumane and unjust system.

Solomon Northup copy

Born a free man in the State of New York, Solomon was happily living in Saratoga Springs, married to Anne and enjoying a loving family life as father to Elizabeth, 10, Margaret, 8, and Alonzo, 5. In March, 1841, his life was tragically altered when he was deceived by two men, Brown and Hamilton, and followed them to Washington, believing that he was to be hired to play the violin in a circus. Solomon was later drugged, kidnapped, chained and beaten. Together with other captured victims, he was smuggled to New Orleans and sold as a slave, his name changed to Platt, erasing any evidence of a previous life.

Having no free papers to prove his identity, transported and sold like a chattel to the Bayou in Louisiana, Solomon’s fate was sealed hundreds of miles away from home. His agony was heart-wrenching:

Were the events of the last few weeks realities indeed? — or was I passing only through the dismal phases of a long, protracted dream? It was no illusion. My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing … To the Almighty Father of us all — the freeman and the slave — I poured forth the supplications of a broken spirit, imploring strength from on high to bear up against the burden of my troubles, until the morning light aroused the slumberers, ushering in another day of bondage. (p. 77)

Solomon Northup’s eloquent writing immediately draws me in. It has a traditional and formal ring to the ear, but not archaic; it exudes clarity, finesse and grace. I’m struck by his stylish narrative even when he is describing depravity and injustice. After reading, I can see how the book had inspired director Steve McQueen’s beautifully rendered, artistic cinematic work on such an ugly subject matter. 

The movie follows the memoir closely, albeit leaving out a lot of details. Reading the source material after the movie can fill those in, making it so gratifying.

It was strictly forbidden of slaves to learn to read or write; pen and paper were prohibited. Any slave found to have even minimal education would be severely punished. Solomon had to feign ignorance all the years as a slave to survive. His memoir was written after he gained back his freedom in 1853.

I was most impressed that while Solomon yearned for deliverance and justice, he harboured no traces of personal vengeance against his tormenters. He had proven himself a man of integrity. Often he was sought after for his resourcefulness and his skills in playing the violin. He had entertained masters, and offered momentary relief to fellow slaves.

For two years Solomon was under the kind master William Ford, but had to be sold to the ‘slave breaker’ Edwin Epps to escape from Ford’s jealous and murderous slave driver Tibeats. The subsequent ten years with Epps became an extended living nightmare.

While the movie adaptation is an excellent production which I gave 4/4 Ripples, I find  Solomon Northup’s memoir even more engrossing. I’m particularly impressed by the fact that the book is not a self-absorbed account of sufferings, but as a careful memoirist, he records many details that are informative and even interesting, such as the natural vegetation of the Bayou environment, the cotton and sugar cane crops growing from seeding to harvesting, and the geography of the locales.

Like a perceptive ethnographer, he chronicles plantation life as a slave, the dwellings, diet, work load, daily chores, maltreatments. From his candid revealing, we are led into the subjective world of slavery, being sensitized to what it is like living in bondage and helplessness, constantly fearful of severe whipping and even death. Like a suspense writer, Solomon leads us to follow his risky attempts to seek help, and await in bated breath the day of his rescue. 

An incisive observer of human nature, Solomon sharply describes the psychological makeup of the alcoholic psychopath Epps, and the conflicting power relation binding Epps and his wife, complicated by his gratuitous fondness of the slave girl Patsey. We see in the movie Patsey suffers the brunt of her Mistress’ jealousy, and the maltreatment under her Master who tries to please his wife. The traumatic scene in the movie where Solomon is ordered by Epps to whip Patsey is described even more poignantly in the book. I’m surprised that the literary narrative has a more powerful hold on me than the visual rendition in this scene.

Flogging of Patsey copy

The memoir serves its purpose as a piece of personal narrative that’s poignant and deeply moving. The resilience and faith of Solomon Northup is crucial in his later being rescued. His longing for freedom and justice that is devoid of personal vengeance is most admirable and inspiring.

The rescue is a long and testing process, not so short as in the movie which I feel is a bit off balance. The adaptation should have given viewers a sense of the actual attempt especially in his home state of New York among those who try to find and rescue him. Thanks to the free-thinking, itinerant carpenter Bass from Canada who came to work for Epps for a short time, Solomon saw a crack opened for a chance to relay news back to the North by way of Bass.

Solomon had disappeared from the lives of his wife and three children for twelve years. Thankfully they were all well. When he reunited with them, he had the pleasure of seeing his newborn grandson, named after him by a devoted daughter. His youngest son Alonzo had the plan to make enough money to buy back his freedom if he could be located. It was indeed a moving scene as depicted in the following sketch from the book:

Family Reunion copy

After he had regained freedom, the slave trader Burch, ‘a speculator in human flesh’, was arrested and brought to trial in Washington, where he kidnapped and sold Solomon into slavery. However, Solomon was denied the right to be a witness against Burch for he was a black man. Burch was later found not guilty and discharged. Solomon wrote in his memoir:

A human tribunal has permitted him to escape, but there is another and a higher tribunal, where false testimony will not prevail, and where I am willing, so far at least as these statements are concerned, to be judged at last. (p. 319)

His faith in that ‘higher tribunal’ and an ultimate judge had carried Solomon Northup through the twelve years of slavery. His narrative not only is a voice that testifies against the injustice of man, but poignantly declares that freedom transcends physical bondage. Amidst inhumanity and despair, he had chosen to remain human, and to value integrity and faith. Solomon Northups’ ordeal is a glimmer of light in a dark page of history.

The Oscars dim by comparison.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE to read my movie review of 12 Years A Slave


Free Download:

Twelve Years A Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, NY, Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855, 336 pages, with appendix of legal documents and papers. You can download the PDF version of the original 1855 publication free here.


Roger Ebert, A Close Encounter

In memory of Roger Ebert, I will recount an unforgettable experience I had two years ago. I took the following photos, which now are even more memorable.

He was still tweeting just two days before his passing on April 4. Ebert’s presence and influence had been ubiquitous over his four-decade career as a film critic. But it just takes one single encounter to make all the difference to me.


Thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, in September 2011 I had the chance to meet the legend. It was only natural for me to think that wherever there were film festivals, there were film critics. But I never would have thought that I would see Roger Ebert in person and to shake hands with him.

It was pure serendipity. While browsing in Indigo Books on Bay Street, I noticed a sign saying Roger Ebert would be in that store signing his memoir Life Itself a few days later. I had long followed his reviews since his “Siskel and Ebert” days, the two-thumbs-up duo. By the way, Ebert’s right thumb-up had been trademarked. Reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (1975). He remained prolific even unto his last days.

Roger Ebert autograph Life Itself

So after seeing the sign I was thrilled to know I would have a chance to see Ebert in person, right there in Toronto. To me, such an encounter was not just about an autograph, or seeing a celebrity up close. It was about seeing a man who after torturous cancer treatments and surgeries for his thyroid, salivary gland and jaw, had lost a part of his face and the ability to talk and eat, and yet still maintained his humor and passions, who continued to press on to new ventures… this was about seeing life itself.

In the late afternoon on September 14, 2011, at the signing area in Indigo Books on Bay Street, people had been lining up for over an hour. I was one of them. At 7 pm, Roger came in walking slowly and with aid, stepped on stage and faced the crowd.

Ebert Signing

Together with his wife Chaz, they gave us a wave. Then he sat down and began signing. Photographs were allowed except for the rule of no posing. I waited my turn to go up to him, shake his hand and get his autograph in my copy of his memoir.

The Q & A session also began.

Roger’s wife Chaz was his voice. Personable and a film lover herself, Chaz shared some of her views of the TIFF selections. As executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies”, she answered some questions without consulting Roger. But for most questions addressed to Roger, he would write in a small coiled notebook, handed it to Chaz to read out his answer.

Roger & Chaz

Here are some of the notes I had taken. Keep in mind this was a casual Q & A session in September, 2011. I’m sure Roger’s view towards 3D and CGI had changed considering his 4-star review of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.

Q. Who influenced you the most?
A. He pointed to his wife standing behind him.

Q. Which decade is your favorite?
A. The 70’s… where you had The Godfather, Raging Bull…

Q. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
A. Buster Keaton, albeit both are great.

Q. 3D?
A. Don’t ask. Story is number one.

Q. CGI (computer-generated imagery)?
A. Movies with CGI are soulless.

Q. All time best?
A. Citizen Kane.

Q. Favorite actor?
A. Robert Mitchum.

Q. Contemporary?
A. Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tilda Swinton

Q. Favorite Canadian directors?
A. Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Guy Maddin (thumb up)

Q. James Cameron?
A. Is James Cameron Canadian? Chaz asked in surprise.

Q. Favorite book?
A. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Canadian! A voice came from the back)

Q. Any pressure from movie producers to write a good review?
A. No, he hasn’t been pressured. He was beyond reproach, Chaz answered.

Q. Any movies you haven’t seen?
A. The Sound of Music

Q. If there’s a movie made about you, who’d you want to play you?
A. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chaz added, Oprah to play me. Diana Ross would be good too.

Q. Advice for potential film critics?
A. Do you want to get paid?

Q. Yes and no. (The questioner covered all bases.)
A. Start blogging. Roger replied. 

Q. How does your life influence the way you review a film?
A. It generates every word.

Definitely more than just an autograph. What an encounter. What a night.


Photos of Roger Ebert were taken with just a pocket camera at the event, book autograph page shot with iPhone at home.

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books. Click Here to see what others have posted.

Then Again by Diane Keaton

It’s interesting to read Diane Keaton’s memoir after Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. In contrast to Tony’s hazy past in Barnes’s novel, here we have memories strung together with clarity and adequate documentation. Take a look at these insert photos. I admit, they were the very reasons the second I opened the library copy that I decided I must get my own to keep.

Dorothy Keaton’s Journals

These are journals belonging to Diane’s mother Dorothy Keaton.  She first started with a series of letters she wrote from her California home to her eldest daughter Diane, who had moved to NYC at age 19. Letter writing developed into full volumes of family journals and scrapbooks. Further, she had kept detailed documentation of Diane’s career from 1969 to 1984. With the onset of Alzheimer’s, Dorothy still kept close contact with her daughter through letters and phone calls, leaving phone messages which showed the signs of a mind quickly sliding down the slope.

Stacks of memories

Diane has poignantly interwoven her own thoughts and memories with her mother Dorothy’s, a daughter’s attempt to capture life that was THEN in order to relive the moments AGAIN. Diane’s father Jack Hall died of cancer in 1990, only a few months after the diagnosis. Dorothy died of Alzheimer’s in 2008. This memoir is a joint endeavor of a daughter with her mother who has passed on, yet whose presence is strongly felt:

Now I’m alone, juggling with a memoir that’s also your memoir.

Family Scrapbook

Diane Hall grew up in California and had enjoyed a vibrant suburban family life before she moved to NYC to study at The Neighborhood Playhouse. She kept close contact with her family through letters. I admire her courage to reveal these correspondences, for through them, we see the private side of Diane Keaton, a persona with all the insecurities and non-glamorous aspects of a real life human being. After the Neighborhood Playhouse, she decided to change her name from Hall to Keaton. She got her first break in the musical Hair. This is her letter home:

Hi, Everyone,

Well, I’m in a hit, we opened the 29th… A real job, and on Broadway. Big stars have come to see it, like Warren Beatty (remember my crush on him from Splendore in the Grass) and Julie Christie, who is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and Liza Minnelli… Apparently Hair is the in thing to see. People stand in lines every day to get tickets.

Things are pretty much the same. I’m certainly the same. Will I ever change? I’m still the dumbest person alive. One apparently does not grow out of stupidity. Oh, also I’m on a diet…

And on that note, Diane goes on to reveal her past battle with bulimia in the next chapter, a piece of private history that has been kept secret until now.

From Hair, to Play It Again, Sam, and later from stage to screen. Thanks to Woody Allen, we have many fabulous movies but the most memorable probably is Annie Hall (1977), which brought Diane Keaton the Best Actress Oscar, and Woody Allen the Best Director and Best Writing Oscars. It also won Best Picture. Here’s Diane’s memory of the production:

Woody’s direction was the same. Loosen up the dialogue. Forget the marks. Move around like a real person. Don’t make too much of the words, and wear what you want to wear. Wear what you want to wear?  That was a first. So I did what Woody said: I wore what I wanted to wear…

And her choice of ‘costume’ became a classic:

And yes, there was a real life Grammy Hall. She was Jack Hall’s mother Mary Hall. She could have given Woody the idea of the movie character, for she was just as nasty. Regarding Diane winning the Oscar, this is Grammy Hall’s response when interviewed in the local paper:

People say I’m in the clouds, I ain’t in no clouds. I’ll tell you one thing about the Academy Awards. It’s something big for a small family. That Woody Allen must be awfully broadminded to think of all that crap he thinks of

As for Woody Allen, he didn’t even attend the Awards ceremony nor did he talk about it afterwards.

Diane is also candid about her ‘romantic failures’, beginning with Woody Allen, then Warren Beatty whom she co-starred in Reds, and Al Pacino as they worked together on Godfather II & III.

At age 50, Diane stepped out to make a most courageous move: she adopted a newborn baby girl, Dexter, and  five years later a baby boy, Duke. Her role as a single mother bringing up a daughter and a son is probably the most gratifying.

In between some serious skirmishes–like when he refuses to have his diaper changed, or when he starts crying because he’s been put down or Dexter has stolen his waffle, or when he bangs his head on the sidewalk… –in between these scuffles, there are moments that feel like an eternity of bliss.

The final pages of the memoir are the most moving for me. Diane Keaton as daughter who ultimately had to say farewell to both parents, writing at 63 and as mother to a 14 and 9 year-old, she could hear as if Dorothy is telling her: “Dear Diane, my firstborn, take a deep breath, be brave, and let go…”

Here’s her reply:

I’m trying, Mom, but it goes against every instinct I possess. I promise you one thing though. I promise to unleash Duke and Dexter from the stranglehold of my need before it’s too late. I promise to give them their freedom no matter how much I want them to hang on. I promise to let go of you too, the you I created for the benefit of me…

Through her memoir, moments Then are relived Again. It is also a catch and release, the challenging process of gathering and letting go.

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Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I woke up at 1:30 am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Casually grabbed Joan Didion’s new book Blue Nights I got from the library and started reading, thinking I could read myself back to sleep. But I was kept awake the next few hours until I finished it. I simply could not put it down.

Blue nights are the span of time following the summer solstice when the twilights turn long and blue… and over the course of an hour or so, this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as if darkens and fades… Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

A poignant ‘sequel’ to The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about the death of Didion’s husband of 40 years, the writer/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. That all happened in December 2003. John had a heart attack right in the living room of their home as Joan was preparing dinner in the kitchen. That was also a few days after their daughter Quintana Roo was hospitalized with septic shock and a coma.

Blue Nights is a memoir of Quintana, who died of her illness twenty months after her father’s passing. To say it’s a memoir is sanitizing it. In her sensitive and moving voice, Didion describes a searing separation. She recalls the memorable moments, and the mementos around her NYC apartment that prove so futile in evoking a life, a daughter adopted since birth.

Didion remembers the leis Quintana wore at her wedding in NYC’s St. John the Divine on July 26, 2003. Thus begins the book. The wedding reflected Quintana’s yearning for her childhood in Brentwood Park, California.  In the garden were stephanotis, lavender and mint. And it was stephanotis that she wore on her braid as she walked down the aisle.

All the deaths that Didion had encountered among friends and all the ICU visits of others seemed to foreshadow the ultimate fate of her own daughter, dead just 20 months after her wedding.

But nothing can prepare one for the death of one’s child. In fact, Didion painfully states that, time and time again in the book:

When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.

Deaths of friends since had only reinforced the looming weight of a blue night. In the spring of 2009, upon a short notice, one of those phone calls everyone dreads, Didion went to say farewell to Natasha Richardson in a NYC hospital, transported there from Montreal. It was only a minor fall on a bunny slope of a Quebec ski hill, but she succumbed to a brain injury soon after. Didion had known Natasha since she was a young teenager, daughter to Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, among Didion’s closest friends.

She is particularly disturbed by those who label her and her family ‘privileged’. As I read the book, I can see why she rejects such a term. Death befalls all, even the ‘privileged’, and spares no one with the subsequent pain. It is the starkest common denominator. And with both her husband and only daughter passing within months of each other… she has a reason to rage.  But the pathos lies in the muffled cries she lets out.

And to say one still has memories to cherish is the most ironic euphemism ever to console the grieving:

Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs…

Alas, Blue Nights is exactly that book, an attempt to capture memories before they slip away, and a grief made public so others can share and maybe by so doing, preserve a life.

This is not just a grief observed and incisively expressed, it is also an attempt at keeping the momentum to live. Writing down the pain and loss could well have a certain therapeutic effect as we see the slight humor sprinkled towards the last chapters in an intense and poignant recollection. And yet the end is still the loss, albeit now is shared and hopefully a suffering lightened, however minute the relief.

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Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2011, 188 pages.


Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

Natasha Richardson, Nell & the White Countess
Reading the Season: C. S. Lewis

Roger Ebert in Toronto: A Close Encounter

Thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, I have the chance to encounter the legend. It’s only natural that wherever there are films, there are film critics. But I never would have thought that I would see Roger Ebert in person and shake hands with him.

It was pure serendipity. While browsing in Indigo on Bay Street, I noticed a sign saying Roger Ebert would be in that store signing his memoir Life Itself a few days later. I’d followed his reviews since his “Siskel and Ebert” days, the two-thumbs-up duo. By the way, Ebert’s right thumb up had been trademarked. Reviewing films for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, Roger Ebert was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (1975), prolific all the way till his last two days.

Roger Ebert autograph Life Itself

This was not just about an autograph, or seeing a celebrity up close. It was about seeing a man who after torturous cancer treatments and surgeries for his thyroid, salivary gland and jaw, had lost a part of his face and the ability to talk and eat, and yet still maintained his humor and passions, who continued to press on to new ventures… this was about seeing life itself.

In the late afternoon on September 14, 2011, at the signing area in Indigo Books on Bay Street, people had been lining up for over an hour. I was one of them. At 7 pm, Roger came in walking slowly and with aid. He came on stage and faced the crowd. Together with his wife Chaz, they gave us a wave. Then he sat down and began signing. Photographs were allowed except for the rule of no posing. The Q & A session also began.

Chaz was his voice. She was personable and a film lover herself. She shared some of her views of the TIFF selections. As executive producer of “Ebert Presents at the Movies”, Chaz answered some questions without consulting Roger. But for most questions addressed to Roger, he would write on a small spiral notebook, handed it to Chaz to read out his answer.

Here are some of the notes I’d taken:

* Who influenced you the most?
He pointed to his wife standing behind him.

* Which decade is your favorite?
The 70’s… where you had The Godfather, Raging Bull…

* Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin?
Buster Keaton, albeit both are great.

* 3D?
Don’t ask. Story is number one.

* CGI (computer-generated imagery)?
Movies with CGI are soulless.

* All time best?
Citizen Kane.

* Favorite actor?
Robert Mitchum.

* Contemporary?
Al Pacino, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tilda Swinton

* Favorite Canadian directors?
Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Norman Jewison, Guy Maddin (thumb up)

* James Cameron?
Is James Cameron Canadian? Chaz asked in surprise.

* Favorite book?
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Canadian! A voice came from the back)

* Any pressure from movie producers to write a good review?
No, he hasn’t been pressured. He was beyond reproach, Chaz answered.

* Any movies you haven’t seen?
The Sound of Music

* If there’s a movie made about you, who’d you want to play you?
Philip Seymour Hoffman. Chaz added, Oprah to play me. Diana Ross would be good too.

* Advice for potential film critics?
Do you want to get paid? Roger answered with a question.
Yes and no. The questioner covered all bases.
Start blogging. Roger replied.

* How does your life influence the way you review a film?
It generates every word.

Definitely more than just an autograph. What an encounter. What a night.


CLICK HERE to listen to an interview of Roger Ebert on CBC Radio during TIFF. Roger used a text-to-voice software as his speaking voice.


Writing from Memory and Imagination


Upon a request from her friend and Granta Magazine editor to submit a birdwatching article, journalist Lynn Barber instead sent in a piece of memoir.   Well it was published just the same, in the 2003 Spring Issue of Granta… good to have friends in the right places.  But why not, it was an entertaining piece, albeit the name of the article might be a bit of a surprise to the editor:  ‘An Education’.  And who would have known that six years later, the short memoir would evolve into a full length, award-winning film.

In her recent article in Granta, Lynn Barber reminisced on the creative process and the adaptation from print to screen.  I find the article both amusing and enlightening.  Here are some tidbits.

Soon after her memoir was published in Granta, Barber was contacted by film producer Amanda Posey about turning it into film.  (Now that’s quick! But no… don’t think I’ll start writing a memoir, not just yet.)  But Barber was too preoccupied with other personal matters at that time to take it seriously.  Nevertheless she said okay to the proposal.  Months passed, and a contract ‘the size of a phone directory’ arrived.  Then she realized it wasn’t just talk after all.

Now to the screenwriting process.  Barber declined to write the screenplay herself, to the delight of film producer Posey, who had someone in mind already.  That was her then boyfriend and now husband the writer Nick Hornby.  Hornby’s books include About A Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity, all turned into well-received movies.  But what caught my attention is Barber’s comment:

I found it odd (still find it odd) that this pre-eminently ‘boy’ writer should so completely understand what it felt like to be a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who was on the one hand very bright but on the other very ignorant about the world but, miraculously, he did. He even seemed to understand my parents, which is more than I could ever say myself.

Do writers always understand their own gender better?  Are they necessarily less equipped to write about their opposite sex?  Barber’s comment mentioned Hornby had grasped an understanding of her parents just as well.  Maybe it’s not so much a gender issue but one of sensitivity, empathy, and observational skills:  A good writer is a good reader of people, regardless of their gender, or age, for that matter.

It took years for the screenplay to evolve, after eight drafts to be exact.  The last one is quite a divergence from the very first.  Herein lies another interesting point.  The first draft is close to the memoir, while the last has taken a life of its own, reality has been altered to fit the screenplay genre.  The ending has also been tailored to elicit intended effects.  It speaks to the creative writing process:  Memories may be the initial springboard, but imagination is the fuel that propels the work to a visual realm.

The adaptation from memoir to screen has been a long process.  Barber notes:

Years passed, draft screenplays came and went, possible backers came and went. I would have given up by year two, but Nick and Amanda and their partner Finola Dwyer persisted and eventually, last year, the film went into production.

Apart from creativity and talent, persistence and diligence could well be the key ingredients in all sorts of production.

And finally, it boils down to memories again.  When asked about her thoughts upon seeing her sixteen-year-old self being portrayed on-screen, Barber, now at sixty-five, has no immediate answer.  She is lost in memory, again.  What exactly was her feeling at sixteen?  Or, for that matter, what had happened at twenty, or thirty?

Poignantly she asks:  Who owns memories after all?

Do memories belong to one’s subjective self?  Or to those around you who had shared your experience?  Is it merely age that has blurred the boundaries between memories and imagination, or is it our creative mind?

Or, does it even matter anyway… as long as you don’t call it non-fiction.


To read my review of the movie An Education, CLICK HERE.

To read Lynn Barber’s personal essay on her memoir, CLICK HERE.

Photo:  Banff, Alberta.  Taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, August, 09.  All Rights Reserved.

The Glass Castle: Book Review

For my 100th post, I’d like to share an extraordinary personal narrative by writer Jeannette Walls.

The opening of the book grabbed me right away as I was browsing in a bookstore. The author, a successful journalist and writer, was in a taxi, all dressed up for an evening event in New York City. As she glanced out the window, she saw a homeless woman scavenging a garbage bin. A closer look made her realize that was her own mother.

That is one dramatic opening of a book. Knowing that it is the telling of a real-life story intrigued me all the more.

Since its publication in 2005, the award-winning childhood memoir of Jeannette Walls has garnered high acclaims and been on the New York Times Best-Seller List for 100 weeks.

Growing up nomadic is a succinct description of Walls’ childhood. At age four, she had already moved eleven times. Upon the direction of her eccentric father and idealistic mother, and often to escape debts or consequences of misdeeds, the four Walls children were herded across the United States from Arizona to California, across mining towns and even living out open in the Mojave Desert, moving on a whim and often given just minutes to pack up whatever meager possessions they had.

Afflicted with alcoholism, dad Rex had trouble holding down a job. But he was a man with a brilliant mind and a wealth of knowledge which he readily passed to his favorite daughter Jeannette. She learned from him science and engineering, mathematics and history. The glass castle is his promise to her, assuring her one day he would strike gold with the Prospector he had invented, and build the family a glass castle they could all live in. The glass castle remained a glimpse of hope, yet sadly proven to be one illusive dream.

Mom Rose Mary was an idealistic artist and writer. Besides teaching her children to appreciate nature, art and literature, she had taught them adaptability and instilled in them the spirit of resilience. Once driving through the Mojave Desert, they saw an ancient Joshua tree. Growing through the wind swept years, the tree was permanently bent and yet was still firmly rooted. Later, Walls found a sapling growing not far from the old tree and wanted to dig it up and replant it near their home:

I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.

This book could well be named The Joshua Tree.

Rex’s alcoholism left the family in dire poverty. In this candid and personal account, Walls remembers that often she had to go without food for days. While in school, she would scavenge garbage cans for leftovers after lunch. Often they would have no electricity in the makeshift shack they called home, and took a shower once a week.

Mom was plagued by depression and often lived in a world of her own ideals. Her laissez-faire style of child-rearing often left her kids to fend and provide for themselves. Even if she found a job as a school teacher, she would soon grow tired of it and wouldn’t get up in the morning. The kids would have to drag her up, usually in vain.

I’m surprised the term “Dysfunctional” never occurred in my mind as I read the book. The Walls children were tenacious, resourceful, bold and confident. They were avid readers and did well in school.  What more, they were devoted to each other and loyal to the family. From an early age, they had to learn to handle an alcoholic father, a moody and depressed mother, and mediate their occasional fights and conflicts. The kids had to parent their own misfit mother and father. The Walls might be financially crippled, they were able to maintain strong relationships and an exuberant zest for life.

Walls’ account is candid and personal, poignant with cutting humor. One time in winter, when icicles were formed in their kitchen ceiling because the roof was not insulated and there was no electricity in their home, Walls describes her mom’s response:

All seasons have something to offer,” she said. “Cold weather is good for you. It kills the germs.

How we view the Walls parents of course depends solely on how their daughter presents them in her memoir. And this is precisely my point. Jeannette Walls has painted a loving picture of her parents depsite their failings. She is sympathetic to their struggles with their own demons. Through out the book, I am touched by her capacity to forgive, to persevere, to hope, and to plan for a better future, not only for herself, but for all her siblings.

The last chapters of the book detail how the author and her siblings pursued a new beginning by establishing an independent life in New York City, while still as teenagers. The story of resilience moved on to another phase. Readers are gratified to see a rewarding end to Walls’ years of perseverance.

Film rights have been optioned for the book.  If it is ever turned into a movie, from a visual sense, it is easy to illustrate the hilarious and sensational parts. However, my sincere hope is that the film will keep the integrity and poignancy of the memoir. Often, it is not what has happened that is worth telling, but how the narrator sees what has happened that makes the storytelling moving and memorable. In this case, both the what and the how are extraordinary and uplifting.

The following is a video clip of Jeannette Walls and her mother talking about The Glass Castle.

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The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, published by Scribner, NY. 2005. 288 pages.

NOTE: Here is the latest (April 23, 2012) regarding the film adaptation of the book. Lionsgate has bought the rights and Jennifer Lawrence is in talk for the lead. CLICK HERE to read more.



And When Did You Last See Your Father? Book Review

when-did-you-last-see-your-father-book-cover2I saw the movie When Did You Last See Your Father? at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, twice. I didn’t have the chance to read the book until a couple of days ago, about 7 months later. But as I read, all the scenes came back to me, and I appreciate the film even more than before. Yes, this is definitely a successful attempt at turning Book Into Film…and a hugely impressive one at that. The stellar cast with Jim Broadbent as the father and Colin Firth as the adult son, plus the exceptional supporting roles have brought out the spirit and the essence of the book poignantly, thanks to the very artistic and sensitive treatment by director Anand Tucker. To read my review of the movie, click here.

Blake Morrison is a contemporary British poet and writer. He was literary editor of The Observer and the Independent on Sunday before writing full time in 1995. AWDYLSYF is a memoir of his relationship with his father, Arthur Morrison, who died of cancer at age 75. Published in 1993, the book has won literary awards, and has been translated into many languages, from Japanese to Syrian.

The name of the book has its source in a painting of the same title by the Victorian artist W. F. Yeames. Yeames depicted an imaginary scene during the English Civil War. The young son of a Cavalier (Royalist) was questioned publicly by the enemy, the Roundheads (Parliamentarian), as to the whereabouts of his father. The question posed a serious dilemma for the boy. If he answered truthfully, he would endanger his father. If not, he would be commiting the immoral act of lying. Click here to read the story behind the painting.

And Painting by W. F. Yeames, When Did You Last See Your Father

Such a dilemma finds a parallel in the book. And it is apparent that Morrison has chosen to do the former, for the story he tells is incredibly candid, up-close and personal. As a reader, I’m glad he has done that. Eulogies are sometimes euphemism honoring the dead in order to please the living. But what Morrison has delivered is a courageously honest narrative of a precarious father-son relationship marked by ambivalence and love-hate sentiments. I can sense the pain such exposure could bring to the people involved, his mother, his sister, close family and friends. But I feel Morrison has burst the romantic bubble of the naturally congenial relationships we assume as we look at other people’s family portraits, or see families depicted in movies and novels. Love does not come naturally because of the tie that binds. Respect still needs to be earned, and loving acts need to be learned, for both parent and child.

The 20 independent, short chapters darting back and forth across the landscape of memory record the poignant reminiscence of a son living under the shadow of a powerful father. Arthur Morrison was a revered doctor in the town of Earby, in the County of Yorkshire…revered because of his imposing, domineering and callous demeanor. He could always get his way, and get out of troubles. In his recalling of childhood episodes, son Blake has aptly intermingled humor with pathos, all the more bringing out the complexity of character, and the ambivalence we sometimes feel towards our loved ones.  And to be fair, Arthur had cared for his family, albeit in his own patriarchal and egotistic manner.

He was gregarious.  In all social situations, he was the one leading the conversation and successfully avoiding topics that he was ignorant about…and was sure to stay away from games like Trivial Pursuit.

He hates feeling fallible: ‘I may not be right but I’m never wrong’ is the motto on a horrible brass wall-plate he has. He isn’t a vain man, but he is a proud, even bumptious one, a man with a puffed chest who learnt to water-ski in his fifties and thought he could go on forever.

How can such a character be brought to face his own imminent demise? Blake Morrison describes his father’s fast deterioration after diagnosed with cancer. The preparation though seemed to be harder for those who were going to be left behind than the patient himself. There was a relationship that needed mending, and, there were truths to be revealed. For years, Morrison had suspected the intimate relationship between his father and Auntie Beaty, a family friend. It had affected his perspective on his father, and on himself as a son. But he wasn’t given such a privilege. Other people’s secrets are theirs to own, even though that person is your father. And the living won’t tell: “Please leave me one last small piece–it’s mine” Auntie Beaty pleaded.

So the pressing question is: How is a son to prepare for the imminent demise of his own father, having lived in such a precarious relationship? The revelation comes at the end of the book. Death and mortality has a way of helping us put things in perspective:

Don’t underestimate filial grief, don’t think because you no longer live with your parents, have had a difficult relationship with them, are grown up and perhaps a parent yourself, don’t think that will make it any easier when they die.

Faced with the finality of death, all grievances one has towards the dying seem minute in comparison. As a son now, Blake has to learn to let go of his father, ironically, a lesson his father had failed to learn in the raising of his own son. Grievances give way to caring, to the consoling of the living, to the respect of a life lived on its own terms, to forgiveness, to closure.

In his Afterword, Morrison writes:

When young, we were impatient with our parents: now we want to atone for our callowness, and to acknowledge what they were and all they did.

Poignant words for us to ponder.

And when did you last see your father? by Blake Morrison is published by Granta Books, London. 1993. 230 Pages.

A movie tie-in edition by Granta Books is published October 2007.
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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: The Memoir


This is one book that should be read after watching the film.  Without visualizing what Jean-Dominique Bauby had gone through after his massive stroke, the reader simply could not empathize or appreciate enough of Bauby’s effort in ‘writing’ his memoir.

But in case you missed the theatre screening and are still waiting for the DVD to come out, you may like to read my review of the film by clicking here.

At age 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of France’s Elle magazine, was paralyzed after a massive stroke.  The only ability left in his whole body was the blinking of his left eye. With the help of his speech therapist, he learned to communicate with the outside world by blinking to the corresponding French alphabets held in front of him.

When the physical body fails us, what elements remain that can qualify us as a human being? Our beating heart?  Our brainwave?  Bauby’s memoir has so poignantly shown us the two essential functions that kept his soul alive:  memory and imagination.  Locked-in syndrome may have encased his physical body, the butterfly within escapes to the expanse of limitless skies.

The 140-page memoir expertly translated by Jeremy Leggatt comprises of 29 personal essays, ‘written’ one blink at a time, and published shortly before his death in 1997. What is trapped inside a totally debilitated body was a vivid memory and lively imagination, that despite being confined to a hospital bed, can set free a soul that yearns for love and intimacy, a soul that still basks in the humor and pleasures of life.

No words can speak more powerfully than Bauby’s own.  Here are some excerpts from his book.

Shortly before his stroke, he visited his 92 year-old father and helped him shave:

I complete my barber’s duties by splashing my father with his favorite aftershave lotion.  Then we say goodbye…We have not seen each other since.  I cannot quit my seaside confinement.  And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year-old legs.   We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way: myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment.  Now I am the one they shave every morning…

One would never know how potent memories and the imagination can be:

Once I was a master at recycling leftovers.  Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories.  If it’s a restaurant, no need to book.  If I do the cooking, it is always a success.  The bourguignon is tender, the boeuf en gelée translucent, the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness.  Depending on my mood I treat myself to a dozen snails, a plate of Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut, and a bottle of late-vintage golden Gewurztraminer, or else I savour a simple soft-boiled egg with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter.  What a banquet!

Or how poignant the little gestures of love and intimacy are:

While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celest are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy.  I will never tire of seeing them walk along side me, just walking, their confident expressions masking the unease weighing on their small shoulders.  As he walks, Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips.  his movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful, as if he were dealing with an animal of unpredictable reactions.  As soon as we slow down, Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over, “You’re my dad, you’re my dad,” as if in incantation.

As I finished the book, I could not help but ask myself:  Do I have enough ingredients to practice ‘the art of simmering memories’ if I ever needed to?

~ ~ ~ ½ Ripples