The Library Reopens

For the first time in months, I set foot into a public library yesterday. To be exact, three different branches, to make up for a regular activity I’d enjoyed before the Covid lockdown. Our library system is very modern, creative, and full of resources, a pleasure to visit. The New Central Library opened two years ago had become a tourist point-of-interest even.

Yesterday I didn’t head all the way downtown to the main attraction (picture above). A visit to a branch closer to my home welcomed me with numerous brand new paperbacks. As they’ve been closed for a few months, new books kept coming in and now they have the chance to display them. Piles and piles of them, all brand new. I couldn’t resist but drove to two other branches just to check out their new offerings.

The following is a list of books I got from my library escapade yesterday. Just in time for the summer staycation. All pristine, never-opened (that’s important in this Covid time) brand new paperbacks. Which ones have you read? What books are you reading this summer, this very extraordinary summer. I welcome your two pebbles thrown into the Pond and share some ripples with us.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks –– I was thinking of reading this for ‘Paris in July’ all because of the title, but not sure now since it’s quite late in the month. I’ve always wanted to read a S. Faulks novel knowing his work had been turned into movies and TV series, e.g. Charlotte Gray and Birdsong.

Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand –– I haven’t read any books by Elin Hilderbrand, hailed as the ‘Queen of Beach Reads’. Two of her books are in development now for a movie. I’m far from the beach, any beach, but hope this one can offer some sunny breaks at least during my staycation.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow –– The book cover is the main attraction plus this blurb on the front cover: “Unbrearably beautiful.” And some more on the back, like this one: “A gorgeous, aching love letter to stories, storytellers, and the doors they lead us through. Absolutely enchanting.” How can I resist?

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –– I knew about this book, actually have been debating if I should read it without having read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I’d appreciated Rushdie’s writing, imaginative and original, but also not easily accessible. Will see.


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My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell –– I’ve seen this title everywhere, and know the general story idea, and all the controversies and ripples it has generated. I’d just like to sit down quietly without having to be influenced by the cacophony from all sides, and just read it.

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf –– Subtitle: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’ve started reading it and find it quite interesting. I missed Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid so here’s a catch-up and a welcome update. A scholar, educator and developmental researcher on reading and the brain, Wolf is an advocate for ‘deep reading.’ This is going to be a slow read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

F and P.

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

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

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

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

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The Offshore Pirate

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

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

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

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The Ice Palace

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

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

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The Cut-Glass Bowl

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

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Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Book cover above)

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

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Benediction

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

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Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

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

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The Four Fists

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

 

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1920-club

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

Time to attack those TBR piles

They’re everywhere, on the shelves and in boxes on the floor. Now’s a good time. If you’ve seen my Twitter photo, it’s perfectly alright to stay inside and read when outside looks like this. Look closely, yes, it’s snowing cats and dogs:

 

Outside

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Here are some of them, in no particular order. Where do I begin?

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The Ambassadors by Henry James

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

The Magic of Saida by M. G. Vassanji

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

The High Mountain of Portugal by Yann Martel

Self  by Yann Martel

Confessions by St. Augustine

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor

The Matisse Stories by A. S. Byatt

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

Lit by Mary Karr

The Plague by Albert Camus (O, not now)

O Pinoeers! by Willa Cather

Reborn by Susan Sontag

Cool Water by Diane Warren

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

The last three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

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I’ll stop here.

Your 2 pebbles? What are some of your TBR titles?

 

Staying Home Binge Reading

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and I’m glad to do my social duty to stay home and binge read.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading mysteries from various countries. From the UK, Julian Symons’s The Colour of Murder, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient, to the US, John Grisham’s Camino Island, and my first Mary Higgins Clark All by Myself, Alone, which reads like an American version of Death on the Nile. And now getting through Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, which is a sort of psycho-mystery.

But thanks to Japanese Literature Challenge 13 over at Bellezza’s, I’m introduced to Japanese mysteries. I started with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s (芥川 龍之介) classic short stories “Rashomon” and “In A Grove”, posted here. After that, I’ve been intrigued by the novels written by the prolific Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾). Beginning with Malice, I’ve since binge read five of his mysteries.

There are ten books in the Detective Kaga series but only two have been translated into English: Malice and Newcomer, which I’ve reviewed in a previous post.

From the Detective Galileo series, there are 8 books from which three have been translated, The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and A Midsummer’s Equation. I devoured these in the past few weeks. Not everyone of them is a 4-Ripple rating, but this one definitely deserves it.

The Devotion of Suspect X

 

The Devotion of Suspect X book cover


(Winner of the 2005 Naoki Prize for Best Novel in Japan, and also winner of both the Edogawa Rampo Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Prize for Best Mystery. The English translation was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2012.)

From the start, the reader is eyewitness to a murder. We know who committed the crime, the murder weapon, the motive, and the actual scene. It happens in the home of single mother Yasuko and daughter Misato. The victim is Yasuko’s ex-husband, a menace in her life. A neighbour, Ishigami, is in his adjacent apartment unit at the time. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase––in Higashino’s leisurely pace––of the police and the suspect and possible accomplice.

Detective Galileo is the nickname the Tokyo Police Department had given Manabu Yukawa, Assistant Professor of Physics at Imperial University. Yukawa is a college friend of Detective Kusanagi and someone whom Kusanagi seeks when he needs to bounce off ideas or just shoot the breeze, an actual phrase from the English translation, curious to know the original Japanese idiom.

Higashino’s novels are like bookish tourism. His story, characters and settings make movie images in my mind of what everyday Japanese life is like. Here in this case, the murder weapon is the electrical cord from a kotatsu. What’s a kotatsu? I wondered, so was happy to divert to some Googling on that. Do go and find out if you’re interested. Lively pictures I did find and a new discovery of a common item in a Japanese home.

Back to the book. The physics professor Yukawa is logical. He analyses and deducts with a clear mind. Funny that the real detective, his friend Kusanagi is often driven by presumptions and impulses. The two make an odd couple in this series. However, it’s in the suspect Ishigami, a high school math teacher, that Yukawa finds his match. From the case, Yukawa reunites with his university classmate Ishigami whom he has not seen since graduation. Yukawa remembers him as a rare genius, someone whom he respects with heartfelt affinity.

When an amateur attempts to conceal something, the more complex he makes his camouflage, the deeper the grave he digs for himself.  But not so a genius.  The genius does something far simpler, yet something no normal person would even dream of, the last thing a normal person would think of doing.  And from this simplicity, immense complexity is created.

It’s Yukawa, the physics professor who finally figures out the mind of the genius, a conjecture he’d wish wasn’t true, for pathos can overwhelm a rational mind. And that’s a parallel to depict Ishigami. For him, something rare had sprouted within: when love and devotion are factored into an equation, it could lead to the most extraordinary scenario.

With an intriguing plot and unexpected development in the final revealing, Higashino captures the emotions and humanity of his characters in a way that’s nothing short of profound. The story idea Higashino has created here is most unique and original, just reflects the ingenuity of the mind of the writer.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

JLC13

 

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander. Minotaur Books, New York, 2011. 298 pages

 

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Middlemarch: You be the Screenwriter

It’s a wrap. Here’s my finale for our Middlemarch in May Read-Along.

You may be a print purist, don’t want to see a movie made. Just take this as an imaginary writing exercise then:

You’re offered the job of writing a screenplay, the tall order of turning Eliot’s 800-page novel into a movie. The task at hand is to choose from the numerous storylines and just focus on a few that your feature will cover.

The following are some of the main storylines and thematic matters in Eliot’s Middlemarch. This list is just off the top of my head, feel free to add in. Which ones would you select and elaborate?

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Sisterhood between Dorothea and Celia

Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon

Celia and Sir James Chettam

Mr. Brooke’s political involvement

Politics, power and influence in Middlemarch

The mysterious cousin of Casaubon: Will Ladislaw’s backstory

Relationship between Casaubon and Ladislaw

Newcomer Lydgate: the young, aspiring doctor

Old vs. New: The introduction of new ideas and methods and their reception or rejection in Middlemarch

Lydgate’s character: idealism vs. practice

The Vincy family: Mr & Mrs., Fred and Rosamund

The Caleb Garth family: Mr. & Mrs., Mary Garth

Fred Vincy and Mary Garth

Fred’s lifestyle, his love and dreams, and his change

Rosamund’s lifestyle, her love and dreams, and her change (or, has she?)

Featherstone: The subjective construction of will and estate

Mary Garth’s moral dilemma in dealing with Featherstone’s order regarding his will

Farebrother and family: Farebrother’s role in joining Fred and Mary despite his secret love for her.

Raffles the disruptor of Bulstrode’s life: the wages of sins, or, the consequences of actions that last beyond the statute of limitations

Ladislaw’s true identity and Bulstrode’s dark history

Raffles’ falling ill and Bulstrode taking him in for fear of reverberation, hence leading to the suspected ‘wrongful death’ incident and the presumed guilty of bribery between Bulstrode and Lydgate.

Will Ladislaw being victim of class discrimination and racial prejudice in the provincial town of Middlemarch

Family finance, debts and gambling endangering a fragile marriage between Fred and Rosamund

How to choose a mate, keys to a happy marriage

Difference between romance and love, looking at three pairs of relationships: Lydgate and Rosamund, Fred and Mary, Dorothea and Will

And for that matter, how about intellectualism vs. passion, the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon

Choices of actions of the characters based on values (or lack of), principles, and plain gut

Poverty, welfare, and social actions, responsibilities of the rich

Male/Female relationships in marriage and society, and how Dorothea both fulfills prescribed duties and overrides expectations.

Finally, probably the most important element in a movie, the emotional impact it elicits in your viewers: Which of the above storylines will you focus on to bring out such effects?

We all love the Finale of the book. But why does Eliot spend so few pages in describing the love relations between Dorothea and Will? They are seldom seen together, and in the rare occasions that we do see them, they’re caught in awkward and embarrassing situations. Would you give them more screen time together in a positive light?

I think one reason Eliot doesn’t elaborate on their courtship could be because she doesn’t want to mislead her readers that this is a ‘romance novel’. Rather, she brings out a kind of sublime love between the two, particularly on the part of Dorothea, a noble love that motivates her to give up her wealth, position and the familiarity of Middlemarch. These in Dorothea’s views are but shackles restraining her to do what she wants and to love freely.

Finally, any casting suggestions?

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A huge thank-you to all participants and spectators for your input, comments and posts. It’s been a pleasurable ride, even though the length and numerous storylines and characters may have bogged us down occasionally. I appreciate the pebbles thrown into the Pond to make all those ripples.

Enjoy your summer!

 

 

 

 

Middlemarch Book II – IV: Inkblot Test

We’ve come to the midpoint of our tentative reading plan. Hard to believe one month’s gone by already. Instead of a review of all the chapters, how about a Middlemarch inkblot test?

What word comes to your mind when you see the following:

 

  • Dorothea 
  • Casaubon 
  • Ladislaw 
  • Fred 
  • Rosamond 
  • Lydgate 
  • Celia 
  • Mr. Brooke 
  • Mary Garth

 

I’ll just stop with these ones. Have your views about these characters changed from first you met them?

Any surprises in the storylines?

Which characters do you click ‘Like’?

What to do with the ones we don’t? Is Eliot having fun with Austen’s idea of creating characters whom no one would much like?

Favorite Quotes?

Here are some of mine, for various reasons, but mostly for Eliot’s power of association in her descriptions.

Will Ladislaw’s thought about Dorothea:

“To ask her to be less simple and direct would be like breathing on the crystal that you want to see the light through.”

About Dorothea’s predicament:

“I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight –– that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”

And if Eliot were among us today, she would likely be vocal in the #Metoo and #Timesup movements:

“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.”

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Your two pebbles?

Wood Duck.jpg

 

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Other posts from our Read-Along participants:

Men of Middlemarch

Middlemarch –– Ladislaw’s Force of Unreason

Middlemarch by George Eliot –– Completed today

 

Middlemarch Book I: What are siblings for?

Dorothea and Celia Brooke remind me of the Dashwood sisters Elinor and MariAnne. Like MaryAnne, Celia, being the younger, holds much respect and love for her older sister. Unlike the sisters in Austen’s novel however, here in Middlemarch so far, I just wonder who is Sense and who is Sensibility.

What are siblings for if not to act as a sounding board to test one’s opinion? This is a scene fit for a prime time TV comedy. Celia, just learned that Mr. Casaubon is the only guest coming to dinner––the setup to that special dinner she is totally oblivious––thus allowing her to speak her mind freely to Dorothea:

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“I hope there is some one else. Then I shall not hear him eat his soup so.”
“What is there remarkable about his soup-eating?”
“Really, Dodo, can’t you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always blinks before he speaks. I don’t know whether Locke blinked, but I’m sure I am sorry for those who sat opposite to him if he did.”
“Celia,” said Dorothea, with emphatic gravity, “pray don’t make any more observations of that kind.”
“Why not? They are quite true,” returned Celia, who had her reasons for persevering, though she was beginning to be a little afraid.
“Many things are true which only the commonest minds observe.”
“Then I think the commonest minds must be rather useful. I think it is a pity Mr. Casaubon’s mother had not a commoner mind: she might have taught him better.” Celia was inwardly frightened, and ready to run away, now she had hurled this light javelin.

_______

What follows of course is the bombshell that shatters the sounding board for any sense or sensibility.

Sibling Waxwings
I’ll just throw in this pair of Waxwings, they look like they’re siblings.

 

Another pair of siblings that makes a lively scene is Fred Vincy and his sister Rosamund. Talking about using the word “superior” to denote certain young men, Fred says:

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“Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers’ slang.”
“Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?” said Rosamond, with mild gravity.
“Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.”
“There is correct English: that is not slang.”
“I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
“You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point.”
“Well, tell me whether it is slang or poetry to call an ox a leg-plaiter.”
“Of course you can call it poetry if you like.”
“Aha, Miss Rosy, you don’t know Homer from slang. I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips, and give them to you to separate.”
“Dear me, how amusing it is to hear young people talk!” said Mrs. Vincy, with cheerful admiration.

_______

What are siblings for if not to act as target of javelin or indulgence for a doting mother.

How’s your reading coming along?

________

Some Middlemarch posts from our Read-Along participants:

Dolce Bellezza

Gladsome Lights 

 

‘Middlemarch in May’ Read-Along

In 2015, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari surveyed 82 book critics around the world outside UK, “from Australia to Zimbabwe”, and asked them to rate the greatest English novels of all time. Guess which book came up on top of the list? Guess right. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Why outside the UK?  To find out “What does the rest of the world see as the greatest British novels… for a collective critical assessment… a global perspective”.

For her 19th C. classic to appeal to critics today, George Eliot must have done something right. I must discover the mystery. Interesting that I’d read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a few years ago and enjoyed it even without reading the eponymous work. But I’ve been saying to myself, I need to put an end to this cultural deprivation. You’ll never know, there just might be a new movie adaptation brewing somewhere with a postmodern streak. I have to read the original first.

My personal plan is to read the hard copy and listen to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson whichever and whenever I like during the process. Read at home, listen while driving or doing something else. That usually works best for me. Feel free to use whatever reading format you prefer.

MiddlemarchMiddlemarch Audiobook

As the lovely month of May is approaching, you’re welcome to join me and Bellezza and others here and here to read Middlemarch. We will take it leisurely. While we start in May, I’ll leave the ending date tentatively at the end of June. But if by ‘leisurely’ it means July or even further, I’m totally fine with it. (Bellezza would know how flexible I am with our previous read-along) I always find reading with a deadline more a pressure than pleasure.

You might have read it before, so here’s a chance to dust off your copy from the shelf, as we read or reread together and connect online, no matter where you are, from Australia to Zimbabwe. You may like to share via a blog post, leave a comment, or send a tweet. How’s this for a hashtag: #MiddlemarchinMay on Twitter.

 

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Books to read in pairs

Often I find some books are better read together, back to back. They have similar settings or subject matter, and it’s always interesting to see the different perspectives and connections, intentional or not. A testimony to the six degree of separation.

Here are a few. Can you name some more from your reading experience?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Pachinko is a family saga set in a period of history that’s seldom told in North America, the first part of the 20th century in Korea and Japan. Annexation of Korea is to put it mildly, prelude to the Pacific War later when the Japanese army invaded her neighbouring countries during WWII. The sufferings of those in the frontline and those at home are vividly depicted in Sakamoto’s family memoir: his maternal grandfather as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and later shipped to Japan as slave laborer, while his paternal grandmother and her family mistreated in internment right in their homeland of Canada. (detailed reviews coming up)

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Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien and The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Barne’s biographical vignettes of Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich during Stalin’s reign is like a compendium to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which depicts the three choices one can make when confronting a ruthless, totalitarian Ruler. Thien’s fictional characters struggled to survive during Mao’s cultural revolution and the subsequent years. Speak truth to power, unfortunately, is not a viable alternative. Death and oblivion will be the certain and swift consequences.

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Nutshell by Ian McEwan and Hamlet by William Shakespeare

McEwan’s modern day, in utero version of the Bard’s incestuous mayhem. Very perceptive, considering its from the voice of a baby in the womb.

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Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, West With the Night by Beryl Markham, and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen

Don’t think of the accented Meryl Streep in the movie Out of Africa, just imagine the ‘real’ Karen Blixen, on her farm in Africa, a tough woman on her own most of the time, and then there’s an acquaintance (can’t say friend) Beryl Markham, a female aviator, equally pioneering, a Brit expat in Africa, doing more than the discovery of the land but also of the man in Karen’s life, no, not Robert Redford.

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Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Hours by Michael Cunningham

One day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway can have so much meaning under the pen of Virginia Woolf. The Hours are equally perceptive, internal depiction of three women in different periods of time. And throw in The Hours the movie after, an excellent adaptation and hauntingly worthy of Woolf’s literary style.

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Mrs. Osmond by John Banville, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. 

Mrs. Osmond is Banville’s imaginary sequel to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Seems it all point to bad choices when the protagonist naive and a little too idealistic. I’m exploring how George Eliot’s Middlemarch may be a precursor to these novels of the young and restless and marital mismatch.

And here’s an invite, Middlemarch in May (makes a nice hashtag) is a read-along I’ll be joining with Bellezza and other readers. It starts in May, and it’s our intention to finish before summer, hopefully. Feel free to join us and explore the Dorothea Brooke connection to Isabel Archer, and I’m sure other delights as well along the way.

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Reading the Season: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

For the tenth year, I’m sharing a Christmas read here at the Pond. For the first time, it’s a book written for young readers but is ever so relevant for us grown-ups. Herein lies the ingenuity of writer Madeleine L’Engle. Time to dig out that copy that you might have read when you were a youngster. If you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.

 

A Wrinkle in Time

 

Newbery Medal winner A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in the Time Quintet series of fantasy YA fiction about the Murray family, scientist parents and four children Meg, twins Dennys and Sandy, five year-old genius Charles Wallace, and that special friend of Meg’s, Calvin O’Keefe. The deceptively simple odyssey in time and space is packed with wonder and wisdom.

The book not only exudes insights but shows L’Engle’s remarkable foresights. Take this for an example, dematerializing and materializing  for easy transport. Published in 1962, the book came out four years before Scotty beamed Kirk up using the same method in the first season of Star Trek.

Or this fancy idea, ‘tesseracting’, that is, travelling through space and time via a wrinkle in time. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but through a wrinkle when two points are folded. That’s fifty years before Christopher Nolan sends Matthew McConaughey interstellar travelling.

All concepts held in a simple plot. Meg, Charles Wallace, together with friend Calvin, go on an interstellar quest to look for Meg and Charles’ physicist father who had gone missing for almost a year while doing some classified scientific work for the government. This little, unequipped search party is initiated and aided by three celestial beings: Mrs. Whatsit, who’s much wiser than she appears, Mrs. Which, who doesn’t bother materializing but remains as a shimmering beam, and Mrs. Who, who speaks in quotes.

The more a man knows, the less he talks.

Their odyssey brings them finally to the planet Camazotz, where they find Mr. Murray confined by the evil Dark Thing, or IT (Surprise! 24 years before Stephen King’s book and now movie) The smart alecky Charles Wallace is easy prey and quickly influenced by IT. (And for Luddites, what better parallel to address our technology now, the evil IT) Ultimately, it’s Meg, our reluctant and timid heroine, who has to be the one to go fight IT to rescue her little brother.

The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.

Meg knows Charles Wallace is not himself but trapped and deceived, and must be snatched from the evil force IT. She has just one weapon as her ammunition, given to her by Mrs. Whatsit, that one thing IT doesn’t have: LOVE. With her single act of bravery, she brings the family together again.

When I was a child, I read like a child, I thought like a child. When I became an adult, I can read like a child and like an adult too. That’s the joy of reading A Wrinkle in Time. One can find pleasure in the adventure and feel the vulnerability of the children, as well delve deeper into its symbolism and parallels, and ponder its layers of meaning.

L’Engle writes to the child and the adult in us. She can convey scientific and spiritual concepts at the same time and in a way that both young and old (and those in between) can enjoy. There’s no conflict between the cerebral and the spiritual; they co-exist comfortably in L’Engle’s work. Not only that, they fuse together and from that alchemy rises a whole new, inexplicable entity: Faith.

That first Christmas day when a baby was born in a lowly manger, the war against IT had started to win. Although the last, painful battle on the hill of Calvary had not been waged, the outcome was cast, just because LOVE came.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

 

The Movie

‘Tis the Season to read or reread A Wrinkle In Time before the movie adaptation comes out in 2018. Helmed by Selma (2014) director Ava DuVernay, screenplay by Frozen (2013) scriptwriter Jennifer Lee, with some stellar beings including Rees Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine et al.

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Past Reading the Season Selections:

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle

2010: A Widening Light, Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season 

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

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis