Listening for Lent

In the old days, say, six years ago, reading for me was, simply, reading. Holding a book in my hands, read through the printed words, turned the pages manually, feeling the paper at my fingertips. But today, I have several ways to ‘experience’ a book. I can still read in the old traditional way, or download the eBook to my iPad using the app ‘OverDrive’, or, listen to an audiobook, on CD’s or MP3.

As a slow reader, I find listening to audiobooks a time-saving way, albeit I still prefer to hold a book in my hands and see prints on paper. But in this day of multi-tasking, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while driving as I can fit in my reading time. I confess, I could be distracted by the story, or the traffic. But overall, listening to audiobooks while driving is a perfect alternative for me, in lieu of time and space for ‘actual’ reading.

Recently I read an article by T. M. Luhrmann in the New York Times entitled Audiobooks and the Return of Storytelling. This insightful piece introduced me to a different reason for listening to audiobooks.

First off, Luhrmann takes down the generally accepted view that reading with our eyes as ‘more serious, more highbrow’ than listening to a story being told orally. She points to the early childhood experience when way before we could read, we were introduced to stories through listening to them. So maybe such a notion extends to our adult life making us feel that listening to stories is a childlike activity than reading the text on our own.

Many great books were actually oral legends, Luhrmann points out, “… for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung.” Noted. Can’t say listening to audiobooks is child’s play.

Luhrmann then comes to the crux of her idea. While we listen to an audiobook, we can do something else with our eyes and hands. That’s just obvious, isn’t it? Exactly what I said at the beginning of this post, the benefit of multitasking. But I was too rash to have thought I knew it so. What I read after this was nothing short of an epiphany for me.

No, not while driving, but when Luhrmann is gardening, she listens. Often, she would listen to the Bible. I love what she has to say next (emphasis mine):

Listening to a book is a different sensory experience than reading it. The inner imagining of the story becomes commingled with the outer senses — my hands on the trowel, the scent of tansy in the breeze. The creation of this sensory richness was in fact an explicit goal of the oral reading of the Bible in the medieval European cloister, so that daily tasks would be infused with Scripture, and Scripture would be remembered through ordinary tasks.

Whenever she looks at the “50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis in the dappled light beneath [her] oaks” she would think of “Gatsby’s extraordinary gift for hope.” Why, Luhrmann was listening to Fitzgerald’s novel while planting those the year before. Now looking at the plants would flash upon that inward eye what she had heard.

Of course, that sounds so simple and natural, a kind of classical conditioning, if you will. We fuse our senses and experience. All the more that we should listen to good books or we’ll have bad memories looking at the tasks we’d performed.

And what a wonderful idea Luhrmann had left me with: Scripture-infused daily tasks. That can’t be more apt for Lent.


Tanya Marie Luhrmann teaches Anthropology at Stanford.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

No Texting for Lent and the End of Solitude

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

Dances With Words

What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?


Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word

If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

In general it can be said that a nation’s art is greatest when it most reflects the character of its people.

—- Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967)

Edward Hopper’s words point to the power of the visual.  I always find Hopper’s realist paintings hauntingly retrospective, convey indescribable feelings, a sense of loneliness, a touch of alienation, yet, it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

Some use the phrase ‘urban loneliness’ to pinpoint the sentiment, as most readily expressed in his famous painting Nighthawks.  But others find the term too parochial even, opting for the more universal description of the human condition, ‘existential loneliness’.

In this visually-driven age, where pictures are instantly produced by a click, eliminating the wait for film processing, and where digitally created images can elicit unimaginable possibilities, has the value of words diminished, both in function and significance? In a time when ‘reading skills’ refer not only to the comprehension of the written language but the deciphering of graphics and visual symbols, has the power of words been eroded?

Does the recent passing of William Safire, called ‘the oracle of language’ by the NY Times, represent the passing of an era?  How many are left to champion the traditional form of communication, to point out word origin, to extol proper grammar usage?  While these gatekeepers are frowning on the split infinitive, the rest of the world has already jumped on board the newer vessel to boldly go where no person has gone before. The reign of literal communication has gradually (or quickly, or___ you fill in the blank) been replaced by the more accessible instant imaging, flickring, youtubing…

Let’s hope too that the traditional art form of painting will not be soon replaced by iPhone sketching.  If the New Yorker’s cover artist is using an iPhone app to touch-produce its cover pages, will the demise of oils and paints be far away?

Of course, I come to praise Hopper, not to bury words, or paints. Rather than saying his paintings defy literal descriptions, let’s just take up this bemusing challenge and do a role reversal:  What words conjure up in your mind when you look at these Hopper paintings? Let’s celebrate words, and paints, while we still have them.

Of all the subjects in his works, I particularly like the solitary figure, or the non-figure, like the room devoid of human presence.  Here are some of them:

Automat (1927):  Layered with subtext, what are the stories behind this lone female customer at the automat in such hour?  What is a good description of her predicament?

Automat 1927


New York Movie (1939): Here’s the reason why I love Hopper’s works.  The contrast, the darker side, the quiet undercurrent beneath the glamorous, the sombre reminder of complexity.



Rooms by the Sea (1951):  A touch of Magritte I feel.  An example of what I call the non-figure.  The philosophical quest of knowing: If nobody’s around to see it, does it still exist?

Edward - Hopper - rooms_by_the_sea


Cape Cod Morning (1950):  Unlike his other works, this solitary female figure is positive, eager,  enthused, and achingly expectant.  Is she a symbol of the optimism of a new age, or will she be disillusioned as reality sets in? 1950 or 2009, is there so much difference anyway?

Cape Cod Morning Hopper (1950)


Gas (1940):  I’m sure it’s not all about gas… does it allude to the lone traveling salesman like Willy Loman, or the gas station owner like George Wilson in The Great Gatsby?



Nighthawks (1942):  Perhaps the most famous of Hopper’s paintings.  As some call it, the depiction of ‘existential loneliness’.  Is that Sartre sitting there all alone at 2:00 am, contemplating in a diner with no exit?



Click here to go to a related post ‘Inspired by Vermeer’ with another Edward Hopper painting, Morning Sun.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


“Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, ‘Read this!'”

— Amy Tan

Unaccustomed Earth is one of the five fiction selections of  New York Times Best Books for 2008.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut work, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and later received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award,  American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and was translated into twenty-nine languages.  Her next work was The Namesake, a novel which was turned into film by acclaimed director Mira Nair.  Unaccustomed Earth is her third book.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, to Bengali immigrants.  Her family later moved to the United States and settled in Rhode Island where she grew up. Lahiri went to Barnard College and received a B.A. in English Literature.  She furthered her studies in literature and creative writing and obtained three M.A.’s, and ultimately, a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies at Boston University.  So, she knows her subject matter well.  In Unaccustomed Earth, characters are Bengali immigrants, mostly academics, their second generation who are born in foreign soil and their non-Indian friends or spouse.  The stories deal with the entanglement of cultural traditions, incompatible values, failed hopes and expectations, and the subsequent internal strives that haunt them all.

But why would we be interested in stories like these?  Herein lies Lahiri’s insight.  While the viewpoint of these characters might be parochial, Lahiri’s stories bring out the larger universal significance.  Who among us doesn’t belong to a community, and at one time or another, question his/her conformity in that very community?   Regardless of our ethnicity, who among us isn’t born into a family with its own peculiar traditions and values?  Who among us doesn’t feel the distance separating generations in our world of rapidly shifting paradigms, be they cultural, social, or spiritual?   And who among us, as one in the mass diaspora of drifting humanity, doesn’t want to lay down roots in fertile soil?

Despite the somber themes, reading Lahiri is an enjoyable ride.  Herein lies Lahiri’s talent.  She is a sensitive storyteller, personal in her voice, subtle in her description, meticulous in her observation of nuances, and stylish in her metaphoric inventions.  Her language is deceptively simple.  The seemingly lack of suspense is actually the calm before the storm, which usually comes as just a punchline in the end of each story, leaving you with a breath of  “Wow, powerful!”  But it is for that very line that you eagerly press on as if you are reading a thriller or a page-turner.

jhumpa_lahiriThe book is divided into two main parts.  The first contains five short stories.  The second, entitled “Hema and Kaushik”, consists of three stories but can be read as a novella on the whole, for they are about two characters whose lives intertwine in an inexplicable way.  While the characters and their situations are contemporary, their quest is the age old longing for love and connection.

I have enjoyed all the stories, but the most impressionable to me is the title one.  In  “Unaccustomed Earth”,  Ruma is married to an American, Adam, with a young child Akash, and pregnant with another.   Her recently widowed father comes to stay with her in Seattle from the East Coast, just for a visit.   During his stay, Ruma’s father builds up a bond with his grandson Akash.   The two create a little garden at the back of the house, a relationship thus flourishes as the flowers and plants blossom.  Ruma struggles with the idea of whether she should welcome her father to live with her for good to fulfil her filial duty, but by so doing, she would be adding a burden to her nuclear family.  What she does not know though is that her father has his secret and internal conflict as well.  He too wants a life of freedom and love.  The story ends with a dash of humor and a little surprise, reminiscent of a Somerset Maugham story.  I will not say more, or the spoiler will lessen your enjoyment.

I have read all three of Lahiri’s work.  And this is my query:  If her first book garnered the many literary awards including the Pulitzer, I just wonder what else could she win with her newest creation, which I enjoy far more.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2008.  333 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


The Best Movies of 2008

It’s that time of the year when film critics choose their ten best.  Here are a few of their lists.  Click on them to see the full content.

Breaking the top 10 tradition,  Roger Ebert has chosen 20 for 2008, because in his opinion, there are just too many good films this year.

A. O. Scott of the New York Times tends to agree, but still managed to pick his top 10 among the 650 films he has seen this year… incredible.

His colleague Manohla Dargis has also done the year-end cut from the hundreds she has seen.  Here’s her take on the ten best.  And while you’re there, click on the podcast where she and Scott discuss this year’s movies.

And finally, a Canadian perspective, represented by Johanna Schneller of the Globe and Mail.  I like how she puts it:  the 10 films “that I feel richer for having seen.”

What draws me to these lists is not so much about which movies get picked as the 10 best, but WHY they are selected, and HOW critics come around to that final decision after, I must suppose is a long, struggling process.  Imagine having had to pick 10 out of 650!

Comparing these lists, there are of course titles that are common among them, but not too many.  A few getting up on three of these lists but not all, like Rachel Getting Married, Milk, and Wendy and Lucy.  Only one film gets the nod from all of them and that’s Happy-Go-Lucky.  But for the rest, it seems like each critic has his or her own personal criteria when it comes to choosing what makes a good movie.  And I’m glad to see it this way.

Of course, there are theories, on film, aesthetics, and criticism, and then there are acting methods and execution criteria in camera works, lighting, sound, cinematography, editing, screenplay… it all boils down to one whole package, the final production.  And then there is also the receptive end of the movie, the viewer, and in this case, the critic, each bringing his or her own experience, sense of self, personal values and point of view.  And I’m relieved to see each critic pick what he or she feels is most affective and meaningful to him or her as an individual.

I’ve particularly enjoyed reading A. O. Scott’s year-end article in the New York Times entitled “In The Face of Loss, Celebrating Ties that Bind“.  Although not intended to answer the question: “What makes a good movie?”  Scott has inadvertently expressed his criteria.  When discussing a few movies that he thinks are well done, namely Doubt, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and Frost/Nixon, he comments that they :

are impeccably acted, exquisitely production-designed excursions into the recent past.  And each one is a hermetically sealed melodrama of received thinking, feverishly advancing a set of themes that are the very opposite of provocative.

So, one criterion is originality, and not cliché treatment of subject or idea.

In the midst of our unsettling and troubled time, films could be manifestations of a collective predicament, and expressions of our hidden longings.  I’ve particularly appreciated Scott’s comment at the end of his article:

And while I am suspicious of easy affirmation or forced happy endings, I am nonetheless grateful for movies that, in spite of everything, investigate the possibility of hope.

Another criterion: good films are flowing conduit of hope.  I cannot agree with him more.  If you listen to the podcast on his webpage, you will hear him reiterate this point.

And on this note I end my post of 2008.  To all my readers, visitors, and fellow bloggers, may 2009 be a year of hopes abound and dreams fulfilled!

Happy New Year to All!



Reading the Season: Fleming Rutledge

Two things I always do whenever I go to Vancouver:  Check out the indie movies and visit the Regent College Bookstore on the UBC campus.  I admit before that gloomy December day when I entered the Regent Bookstore,  I had not heard of the name Fleming Rutledge.  Thanks to Regent’s gigantic book sale, I came out with, among others, two of Rutledge’s titles:  The Bible and The New York Times and The Battle for Middle-earth, a commentary on Tolkein’s writing.  For the purpose of basking in the Christmas Season in a more meaningful way, I delved right into The Bible and The New York Times.

The theologian Karl Barth has a famous axiom that says sermons should be written with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  This book is evidence that Fleming Rutledge has taken this motto to heart in her over twenty years of preaching and teaching ministry.  The book is a compilation of her sermons delivered in the 80’s and 90’s from the pulpit of Manhattan’s Grace (Episcopal) Church where she has served for 14 years, as well as from her visits to other churches in Eastern U.S.  As for her writing, Annie Dillard has commented that, “this is beautiful, powerful, literary writing.”

The 34 sermons are arranged according to the liturgical calendar, all eloquent reflections on the meaning of the occasion, from Thanksgiving to Advent, Christmas to Lent.  I’ve heard numerous sermons in my life, countless I dare say, but I admit this is the first time that I read through a compilation of sermons and thoroughly enjoy them all like a page-turner.  They throw light on events of our world, from politics to popular culture, addressing them as springboard to a spiritual perspective albeit not without practical wisdom; her commentaries on the human condition are incisive and spot-on.  I’ve come out heartily admiring Rutledge’s intellectual prowess and literary repertoire, but above all, her boldness in proclaiming what may not be politically correct in this day.


The four Advent Sundays are preparatory for the main event of Christmas.  Rutledge reminds us that without recognizing the darkness we are in, there is no need for the Light.  Oblivious to unresolvable conflicts and the depravity of our human condition, we would not be desperate enough to search for truth and redemption.  Without being shattered by tragedies and wounded by sorrow and grief, we would not be genuinely seeking solace and healing.  And, not until we see the absurdity of our human world, we would not humbly seek meaning in the transcendent.

In one of her Advent sermons, actually exactly today, the last Sunday of Advent, Rutledge relates the spiritual experience of John Updike one time when he was alone in a hotel room in Finland.   He was besieged by a sense of awareness that pulled him to confront what he called a “deeper, less comfortable self.”   She quotes Updike’s own words:

“The precariousness of being alive and human was no longer hidden from me by familiar surroundings and the rhythm of habit.  I was fifty-five, ignorant, dying, and filling this bit of Finland with the smell of my stale sweat and insomniac fury.”

Rutledge notes that at the time:

Updike is in the prime of his life, at the peak of his powers and the pinnacle of his fame.  Yet even a celebrity has to be alone with himself at three o’clock in the morning, even as you and I.

If we approach Christmas in such a state of  “deeper, less comfortable selves”, then we might come closer to appreciate the magnitude of its significance and meaning.

Annie Dillard has commented that Rutledge “writes as a person who knows she is dying, speaking to other dying people, determined not to enrage by triviality.”  The world situation today is grave, our hope lies not within but beyond ourselves.  For this reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Emmanuel, God with us …

This is the meaning of the Virgin Birth:  God has moved.  God has moved, not we to him in our impotence, but he to us.

This is not the Season to be merely festive and jolly.  Christmas is the celebration of the Grand Entrance into humanity, thus reason for deep rejoicing.

“All hopes and fears of all the years,

Are met in Thee tonight.”



Art images:  Rembrandt’s Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and Adoration of the Shepherds

‘Reading The Season’ Posts over a Decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s 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

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

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

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Jane Making The List of Best Movies Ever Made

With January to April being Jane Austen Season on PBS where The Complete Jane Austen is being aired on Masterpiece, it’s just refreshing to know that three Austen movies made it to the list of 1,000 Best Movies mentioned in my last post. I’m sure Janeites do not need anybody’s approval, but it’s good to have it just the same.

Again, here’s the link to New York Times’ The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. It should be noted that the list is based on the second edition of the book The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made which was published in 2004. The New York Times on-line edition still have the icon and link for readers to click even as recent as March 3, 2008, apparently they have not updated the list since the publication of the book.

The following are the three Jane Austen movie adaptations that made the list.

Persuasion (1995)Persuasion (1995) with Amanda Root as Anne Elliot and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. Here’s a little excerpt from the NY Times:

Of course, Austen’s protagonists are never dumb, but Anne, being somewhat older, is also a good deal wiser, and the characters around her accordingly take on greater dimension and subtlety. Naturally, this being an Austen story, all ends well, but the path is somewhat less straightforward than in other films adapted from her work.


Pride and Prejudice 1940

Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. The New York Times had this tidbit about the classic adaptation:

Though Austen’s novel was set in 1813, the year of its publication, the film version takes place in 1835, reportedly so as to take advantage of the more attractive costume designs of that period.


Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Sense and Sensibility (1995) with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. New York Times critic Janet Maslin summed it up:

We need no further proof that this material is ageless.


It’s interesting to note that a modern version of Emma also gets a nod from the critics. Thus begins the review of Clueless (1995) on the NY Times:

“Jane Austen might never have imagined that her 1816 novel Emma could be turned into a fresh and satirical look at ultra-rich teenagers in a Beverly Hills high school.”

              Clueless (1995)

Jane Austen’s novels are indeed timeless.

New York Times: Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made

Here’s the link to the list of 1,000 Best Movies Ever Made according to New York Times movie critics. The list is based on the book The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, second edition, published 2004.

Do you find your favorites here? If not, which movies do you think should be on the list? Which should not be? A list of 1,000 movies spanning almost a century, you might think there should be a lot of choices, right?

My view:

  • I agree maybe Bambi (1942) should be there, but no Out of Africa (1985) or Shawshank Redemption (1994)?
  • Ok, so Bull Durham (1988 ) is in, but where are Field of Dreams (1989) and Dances With Wolves (1990)?
  • I regret to see The Last Temptation of Christ (1988 ) is on the list but not The Passion of the Christ (2004).
  • So they have The Pianist (2002) but ignore Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Life is Beautiful (1997).
  • I see that Chicken Run (2000) gets to rub shoulders with Ben-Hur (1959)….ookay….and, if Working Girl (1988 ) can get a nod, then where’s my Bridget Jones’ Diary?

… and so on and so forth…

Your view?