Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A Book Review

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

Little Fires Everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

Celeste Ng.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Degrees of Separation or Prophetic Voices of our Time

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

Here’s the sequence of my reading:

Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

The Budapest Hotel: A Grand Escape

 

Jane Austen 200: Room or No Room, She Did It

Today is the Bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. On July 18, 1817, suffering excruciating pain, Jane died of her illness at age 41. As a tribute, I’m reposting my article on Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

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A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.

 

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Previous Post on Jane Austen 200:

Jane Austen’s Persuasion: A Bath Walking Tour

In Other Words: Lahiri’s Reconstruction of Self

In Other Words book cover

A couple of years ago, I was surprised to read about Jhumpa Lahiri moving to Italy to live, even just for a few years. Author of four works of fiction – Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland – at the prime of her writing and teaching career, having received the O. Henry Award in 1999, the Pulitzer in 2000, and her latest The Lowland shortlisted for the Booker in 2013, Lahiri decided to uproot her family and move to Italy to totally immerse in the Italian language. That means speaking, reading and writing in Italian.

In Other Words is Lahiri’s brave and candid account as a language learner. It compiles twenty-one essays and two short stories which she wrote in Italian. She uses the metaphor of swimming out into the lake instead of safely hugging the shore to refer to her Italian language learning experience. From her descriptions of the challenges and risks, the loss of anchor, the inability to express herself and be literate, let alone literary, the disorientation, the total humbling, her Italian venture is more like jumping off a precipice to billowy waters of unfathomable depth.

My hat off to Lahiri’s honest revealing of her frustrations and strive for a new identity; yes, after all, language is a major determinant of identity, one which is, unfortunately, superseded by one’s outer appearance and racial features. So it is heart-wrenching to read that despite her love of the Italian language, her total devotion to adopt it not just to live but as a tool of her trade as a writer, she is often seen as an outsider, a foreigner, barred from acceptance. Even when she speaks to Italians fluently in their language, they would respond to her in English.

English, that’s the rub. I was surprised to read that, while the author had achieved so much in her literary career as a writer in English, she chose to discard it to totally immerse in Italian. In the chapter entitled “The Metamorphosis”, she candidly admits that her writing in Italian (which she had been learning in America for some twenty years before) is a flight:

“Why am I fleeing? What is pursuing me? Who wants to restrain me?
The most obvious answer is the English language. But I think it’s not so
much English in itself as everything the language has symbolized for me…
It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted. I was
afraid that it meant a break between me and my parents. English denotes
a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past. I’m tired of it….”

Of course, that’s also the language that she loved, and succeeded with. The conflict in identity, first as an Indian immigrant with Bangali as her mother tongue, then as a writer in English who had garnered the Pulitzer Prize – an award that she felt she did not deserve – had shrouded her with unresolved tensions. Lahiri had felt deeply the tug of war between her parental heritage and adopted land. A rejection of both had silently crept in. Italian provides a way out:

“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish
myself, I can reconstruct myself, I can join words together and work on
sentences without ever being considered an expert. I’m bound to fail when
I write in Italian, but, unlike my sense of failure in the past, this doesn’t
torment or grieve me.”

Unbelievably surprising and honest, written in Italian and translated by The New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, the bilingual book opens up to a dual English and Italian version. The short essays chronicle the progress of not only an insightful identity search and reconstruction of selfhood, but an invaluable personal documentation of second – no, additional – language learning journey. If this book was published a couple of decades earlier, I would likely have another topic for my thesis in my graduate work on second language learning; not only that, my view of English being the lingua franca, the language holding linguistic hegemony, would have completely changed as well.

After reading In Other Words and my surprising discovery of Lahiri’s ‘tormenting sense of failure’ with the English language (for all its symbolic meaning) or even her ‘undeserving’ feeling towards her award in her writing, I am relieved of a hidden burden. I don’t feel so badly about having had to constantly check and re-check my English: prepositions, idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs usage, subject verb agreement… All the hurdles that confront me every time I write a post or an article. If Lahiri can be so candid about her frustrations and errors when it comes to language learning, why can’t I?

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples 

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My thanks to Asian American Press for allowing me to post my book review here on Ripple Effects. The last paragraph is added in just for my Ripple readers.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

 The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: Book Review

The Namesake (2006, DVD): Movie Review

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

 

 

Write Where You Are

During my New England road trip, I’ve visited several literary places. Now these are my own way of storing my memories. Whatever site I’ve been that relates to a literary figure, I categorize it as such. And it’s interesting to note the different sources of inspiration.

Thoreau went for the minimal, the Spartan way of existence. So he built a log cabin in the woods and kept only the simplest furniture. Why he only stayed for two years two months and two days may be self-explanatory. But no matter, we’re glad he had tasted the bare minimum for us so we can read all about it in his book.

Interior

By comparison, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned those woods where Thoreau had his experiment, lived in relative luxury and comfort. Here’s his residence, not a mansion but still a handsome house.

DSC_0561

And inside the Concord Museum I saw his study with a flashy fuchsia decor which Thoreau might not have raved about. Just might not, but one never knows. They were friends.

Emerson's Study

Ralph Waldo’s grandfather The Rev. William Emerson’s house, The Old Manse (Scottish term for ‘Minister’s House’), wasn’t shabby either. Quietly situated by the river, a historic residence where literary figures gathered and where Ralph Waldo had lived for a while and wrote Nature, which sparked the Transcendental Movement (1834-35).

Manse 2

Nathaniel Hawthorne had lived in the same house too for a few years (1842-45), writing a book called Mosses from an Old Manse. He enjoyed the garden immensely; it was planted by Thoreau in 1842 to celebrate Hawthorne’s marriage to Sophia Peabody. Hawthorne could have found inspiration right there among the beets.

The Beets

Longfellow, on the other hand, was intrigued by an old tavern and boarding house he had stayed one time in 1862. A homestead made into a lodge for itinerant farmers and transient guests had put stories in the mind of the creative, hence the publication of the Poet’s Tales of a Wayside Inn. For its namesake, the premises had since been named Longfellow’s Wayside Inn.

DSC_0193

Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House looks like a warm haven for story brewing too, even though the family could have used more material goods than their philosophically-minded father had provided:

The Orchard House

Back to Nature, the aspiring young poet Edna St. Vincent Millay climbed to the top of Mt. Battie in Camden and beheld the magnificent bird’s eye view of Penobscot Bay. Sky and water pressed close into the impressionable mind of young Edna, triggering a catalyst reaction of permanent change.

View from the top 3

For another, it’s the connection with the land, the toiling of the soil, the gathering of its fruits that inspired. He might have many roads to choose, but aren’t we glad Robert Frost had chosen orchard tending in Vermont and not the ones he did not; we get plenty of thoughts.

Frost's Apple

And for those born into affluence and wed into more, life was a choice of how to use the resources one gets. I’m glad that Edith Wharton had spent her fortune on something that can be left behind for me to set foot on, yes, The Mount.

EW's Garden

I learned too that her legacy had been more than literary pleasures and architectural delights, but something more altruistic after she moved to Paris.

As WWI broke out, Wharton could have gone back to America for safe haven. But she stayed in France, and poured herself in the war efforts, which was inspiration in itself. Here I quote from The Mount’s webpage:

“She set up workrooms for unemployed seamstresses, convalescent homes for tuberculosis sufferers, hostels for refugees, and schools for children fleeing war-torn Belgium. In the first seven months of her efforts, nearly 900 refugees were cared for, “including the nuns and about 200 infirm old men and women, who are ‘children’ too … and could not be left alone in the ruins.” (Edith Wharton, New York Times, 1915)”

and the story didn’t end there… Click on the above link to read more.

Where does one find inspiration, motivation? The answer can vary as much as asking what I should eat today. But one thing I’d experienced on this trip was that life can be lived in myriads of ways, and with it comes inspiration; it could be as simple as a leaf on the ground, or as huge as a war. But I’ll choose the leaf, thank you.

The Leaf

Wherever I am, that’s a good start.

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My New England Road Trip Series:

Serendipity on Route 7

My drive continued south from Bennington, Vermont, via RT 7 to Williamstown, Massachusetts. There I stayed for the night. I knew Williams College was located there. But while exploring the town, I came to this building and saw the huge banner. Upon further investigation, I was excited to discover the campus of Shakespeare & Company:

The Miller BldgDSC_0337 (1)Later I found out that the actor Christopher Reeve met his future wife Dana in Williamstown where they later married. Reeve began as an apprentice at age 15 with the Wiliamstown Theater Festival right in those venues and eventually performed there for fourteen more seasons.

I had the chance to talk to a woman who was working on the grounds and learned that, lo and behold, she was born in Alberta, Canada, my home province! Imagine a chance encounter with an Alberta born American thousands of miles away.

The Berkshires region is beautiful and cultural. I made a mental note to come back to Williamstown for its annual Theater Festival.

My original plan was just to drive south on RT 7 from Williamstown to Lenox to see the Edith Wharton House at The Mount, when another serendipitous find came upon me: Tanglewood Music Center. So here I was at the famous summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on my way to Edith Wharton House.

The Koussevitzky Music Shed was named after the Russian-born conductor, composer and double-bassist, long-time music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949:

TanglewoodI lingered at Tanglewood for quite some time, for the grounds were beautiful and offered magnificent views. Another mental note: I must come back for the Tanglewood Festival in the summer. :

viewAcross the road from Tanglewood, fall foliage began to emerge. That was October 7. I can imagine how beautiful it is now:

across from TanglewoodAnd finally, to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home from 1902 – 1911. I knew she was a prolific novelist and short-story writer, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize (The Age of Innocence, 1921); later I learned too that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times.

So I was a little surprised to find out from the tour guide at The Mount that she was also a house and landscape designer in her own right. Her book The Decoration of Houses is still used today by architects and designers.

Built as a writers retreat, The Mount reflects Wharton’s fondness of symmetry:

SymmetryWhat happened to the left side of the building? That makes it not symmetrical, you might ask. That’s the servants quarter which Wharton was willing to compromise her design principle.

Here’s another view why it’s called The Mount:

The MountI took a tour of both the inside as well as her gardens. Here’s one wall of her library:

One wallWell read in several languages since she was young, Wharton left these books behind  when she moved away to live in Paris the latter part of her life after the demise of her marriage. Her husband Edward had fallen into a state of dementia after lengthy bouts of depression and mental illness. The writer’s years at The Mount had not been as happy as its surroundings could offer her.

The Drawing Room:

The Drawing RoomDining Room, where Henry James was one of several usual guests:

Dining RoomBut where did she write? Not in the library, or at the desk in her room, but right in her bed. She had an assistant who would take her handwritten pages and type them up after her six hours of continuous writing every morning before she got out of bed. I’m sure Wharton would love to have a laptop:

Writing bed (1)And these other items I found interesting. Downton images conjured up in my mind. Typewriter, telephone, telegram:

DSC_0347
An original 1902 ice box, Daisy would love it but maybe not Mrs. Patmore. Give her some time to warm up:

Ice Box
A luggage lift. Definitely would be a fave among the footmen:

Luggage lift

And only after the tour did I find out, The Mount had given a Life Time Achievement Award to Julian Fellowes. The Downton creator had attributed Wharton as a major influence on his works, first Gosford Park (Oscar Best Original Screenplay, 2002) and then Downton Abbey. Speaking upon receiving the Award at the Harvard Club, Fellowes noted that he was particularly inspired by Wharton’s “… ability to judge without feeling the need to condemn.”

I bought the book The Custom of the Country in the gift shop and only just now did I learn that it is being adapted into a TV mini-series, with Scarlett Johansson playing the anti-heroine, Undine Spragg. This will mark Johansson’s first TV role.

As for Julian Fellowes’ new work? I eagerly await. After visiting The Mount, I can see what a natural shift it is for him to create an American version of Downton. The Gilded Age should be a smooth sequel.

From Lenox, I began the last leg of my New England Road Trip. I headed east on I90, a breezy 2.5 hrs. drive back to Wayland, the suburb outside Boston, thus completing the loop and a memorable journey. An item checked off my bucket list.

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Follow my New England series:

Screenwriters Talk and Bloggers Blog

Thanks to blogger Sim at Chapter 1-Take 1 for the heads-up, I watched the whole 54 mins. of The Writers Roundtable via Hollywood Reporter. Gearing up for the upcoming Awards Season, these Roundtable talks give us a chance to hear some possible award contenders talk about their craft. I’m particularly drawn to the writers.

“No great film would have been possible without a great screenplay.” That’s how the clip begins. Sitting around a table to discuss their experience are some of this year’s acclaimed screenwriters.

The panel includes (In alphabetical order of the movie title):

John Ridley: 12 Years a Slave
Julie Delpy: Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener: Enough Said
Jonas Cuaron: Gravity
Danny Strong: Lee Daniel’s The Butler
George Clooney and Grant Heslov: The Monuments Men (release date has since been delayed till next Feb.)

There are lots of interesting exchanges, and it’s refreshing to hear them talk uncensored and unscripted. Take for example the following dialogue relating to independent writing vs. writing for studio:

HR (Hollywood Reporter): Have you written any studio films?
Holofcener: Only for money (chuckle from somewhere). I mean like, not for myself.

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HR (to all): Do you like writing?
Strong: I do. I really enjoy it. I spent years as an actor. You just can’t go do it. You get hired to do it, so I started writing, to get my mind off the auditions…
Holofcenter: What if you can’t act, and you can’t write?
Clooney: You direct.

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There are lengthy discussions on the issue of historical accuracy, the truths vs. dramatization. I feel this is the hot topic lately, with The King’s Speech a couple years ago, to last year’s torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, the accuracy of Argo, and this year’s Captain Philips, and Lee Daniel’s The Butler.

Here’s The Butler‘s screenwriter Danny Strong’s defence:

Strong: Well, in the case of The Butler, I made very clear that this was a fictionalization. So much so that I changed the character’s name to Cecil Gaines in the hope of saying: “This isn’t Eugene Allen. This is something else.” But the history in the film is all true…”

And then comes Clooney’s allegation unplugged.

Clooney: This is a new thing, by the way. This is all, like, bloggers — if that existed when Lawrence of Arabia came out, believe me, Lawrence’s own autobiography would not hold water. Patton wouldn’t. You can go down the list of movies — Gandhi — these movies are entertainment… These are not documentaries. You’re responsible for basic facts. But who the hell knows what Patton said to his guys in the tent?

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Whoa… bloggers? Thank goodness, bloggers get a chance to prod screenwriters to dig deeper into their facts, even if fiction is to be made from them. Because of bloggers, viewers can sharpen their senses to not just accept the dramatization as facts. Because of bloggers posting about movies, people are made more aware of historical events and background info. I see not all sites do, but the ones I frequent can have the effect of honing one’s judgement and critical thinking, even (maybe more so) when opinions differ. How we need these skills as we watch movies nowadays instead of just being passively entertained (or not).

Thanks George, for spelling out the importance of the work bloggers do.

You’re right too, George, because of the blogosphere, filmmakers now have to deal more rigorously (or, don’t they?) with the dichotomy between truth and fiction, historical accuracy and dramatization. Yes, the butler Cecil Gaines is a fictional character, but there are many real historical figures in that story context… like, say… Ronald Reagan, whose son Michael Reagan had protested against the film for painting his father with a racist brush.

As someone with a half-baked screenplay in the closet, I know how hard it is to even get to finish the first draft, and after that, hopefully, find someone qualified and experienced enough to read it and advise on rewrite. Then you go and rewrite, and rewrite some more. So I’m all respectful for all who can not only sell their spec script but actually see it produced, and not only produced, but distributed and shown on our theater screens. That’s why I attempt at every review with appreciation and humility.

At the same time, I’m also glad to see that the blogosphere has leveled the playing field for opinions and critiques, for accountability, and for creative expressions with checks and balances. I don’t see an end to the dichotomy between fact and dramatization, accuracy and entertainment, but at least we are free to challenge and critique. Don’t forget, George, bloggers are also the ones ready to defend and promote worthy productions. All for the better.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Before Midnight: Reality Check

The King’s Speech: Fact and Fiction

Zero Dark Thirty and Argo

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: A Tribute to Rootlessness

On April 3, one day before Roger Ebert died, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala passed away from illness at the age of 85. Her death seemed to have been overshadowed in the next few days by Ebert’s. I feel here’s a life that ought to be noted as well, but maybe for a special reason.

ruth-prawer-jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was best known for her Oscar winning adaptations of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View and Howards End. Her other screenplays include Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Henry James’s The Golden Bowl and The Bostonians, among a total of twenty-six.

But for Ruth (to discard formality and to focus on the person, allow me to call her Ruth), adapting screenplays was only a hobby. Her main calling was to be a writer of her own stories. She had heeded that call with fervour since childhood. Guardian’s obituary mentions Ruth once said about her writing time as “the only three hours in the day I’m really alive.”

There are thirty titles by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala on Goodreads, including novels, short story collections, and her works in anthologies. Among her accolades, most well known is the 1975 Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust, about the meeting of East and West in India. Her short stories had been published in The New Yorker since 1957, thirty-nine of them. Her latest appeared just one month before her death. She is the only person who had ever won both the Booker and the Oscar. Two Oscars, to be exact.

Reading her obituaries from several sources, I’m more intrigued by this matter of laying down roots, or rather, of rootlessness in the landscape of our life.

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Ruth was born in Cologne in 1927 to a Polish father and a German mother. Her family was assimilated Jews in Nazi Germany. Her grandfather was the cantor in Cologne’s biggest synagogue. Her father Marcus was a lawyer. Assimilated or not, Ruth and her brother had to flee with her parents in the nick of time in 1939 to England. She was 12.

For the next twelve years, she grew up in London, learned a new language, adopted a new identity, and later graduated in English literature from Queen Mary College, London University. In 1948, upon finding out all members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, more than forty of them, Ruth’s father took his own life.

In 1951, when she was 24, Ruth married the architect Cyrus Jhabvala in London and followed him back to his native country India. Another uproot and transplant, this time, to a whole new continent. They settled in Delhi. For the next 25 years, Ruth immersed herself in her adopted country as a wife, mother, and writer. Colonial and post-colonial Indian life, East-West relationship and caste conflicts became her subject. Despite her effort in total immersion, she had not taken roots in India.

Finally, In 1976, a third continent, as Ruth and her husband moved to New York City. There, she found a place closest to a notion of home, paradoxically, because of “many people like herself: refugees, outsiders, interesting American discontents,” wrote the remaining Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborators, director James Ivory, in Time magazine’s tribute.

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While still in India, Ruth had already collaborated with Merchant and Ivory on several movies. Now in New York, she lived in an apartment on the same block as they. The proximity of actual geographical location fostered a prolific period of their lives. Together, they had joined hands in more than twenty productions. Their forty years of collaboration remains the longest in movie history.

Ivory Jhabvala Merchant
Ivory, Jhabvala, Merchant

How did rootlessness affect her perspective? In Guardian’s obituary, I found this inspiring excerpt:

I stand before you as a writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel—till I am—nothing.” And yet, she said, this was one of her strengths. Many of her stories are about a kind of inner travel: feeling rootless, her protagonists find new ways to feel at home in the worlds they happen to inhabit.

Perhaps, in the vast landscape of literature, such rootlessness is essential for the imagination to take flight. Rootlessness allows flexibility and fluidity of navigation, the freedom to roam. Rootlessness can more readily unlock the wayfaring spirit within, and embrace change.

One result of being rootless could well be the hybrid identity. Amusingly the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team itself is a good example. Producer Ishmael Merchant was a Muslim from Bombay who had settled in America; director James Ivory is the son of a French-Irish American; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was a Polish-German-Jew from Cologne, Delhi, London, and New York City.

Perhaps as Nick Carraways, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, observes, only by being “within and without” can we see “the inexhaustible variety of life.”

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Related posts and links:

Obituaries and tributes from The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Paris Review, Time Magazine, The New York Times.

Since 1957, The New Yorker had been publishing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories, a total of 39, her last appeared only one month before her death. Thanks to The New Yorker, we can now read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short stories online.

My book review of Howards End, my post on the Merchant Ivory production of Howards End, my review of A Room With A View (TV, 2007)

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Photo Sources:

First photo from The Paris Review; Second photo from The Telegraph

Forget About Tiger Mothering, Try Inspirational Parenting

One of the most memorable lines in last week’s Academy Awards is Tom Hooper’s: “The moral of the story is: Listen to your mother.”

What more satisfaction can a mom get than to hear her son utter these words in front of a billion viewers worldwide.

Here’s the excerpt of his speech leading to this final conclusion:

“My mum was invited to a fringe theater play-reading of an unproduced, unrehearsed play called The King’s Speech in 2007She came home, rang me up and said, ‘Tom, I think I found your next film.’

I followed The New York Times reporter/blogger Melena Ryzik’s The Carpetbagger on Twitter through the Awards Season. Of all the Oscar interview write-ups I’ve read, and there are numerous, Ryzik’s “A Chat With The Mother Who Knows Best” has left the most lasting impression on me. And it was in that article that I found these two words, “inspirational parenting”. They were nothing short of an epiphany for me, striking a chord instantly.

Photo Credit: Matt Sayles/Associated Press

Ryzik talked to “The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper’s mother after her son’s Oscar win, calling her “an exemplar of inspirational parenting”. Meredith Hooper is an academic and author of over 60 fiction and non-fiction works for children. Here are some excerpts from Ryzik’s article:

Did she realize she’d caused worldwide guilt among children for not listening to their mothers?

“I did not!” Ms. Hooper protested. “I didn’t say it. My advice is exactly the opposite — that we should all listen to our children.”

Now isn’t that the kind of talk that can make Amy Chua cringe? The kind of parenting style that prompted her to write about her own school of tough love parenting in her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, now 7 weeks so far on the NYT Bestsellers List. It’s all that debate about teacher-fronted or child-centred learning all over again.

I’ve left comments on others’ blogs about my view of this current hot topic of the “Tiger Mom”, but have not posted about it here on Ripple Effects. The main reason is that I have not read the book, so I should not say too much when I haven’t heard all that Amy Chua has to say, albeit I can understand her perspective since I share similar ethnic and cultural roots.

Nevertheless, I’d rather write about ‘inspirational parenting’. It just sounds… more uplifting. Just savor the two words… aren’t they sublime? I think I just might adopt the first word as a personal axiom, ‘inspirational’ anything… in speaking, thinking, writing, being… mmm, something to aspire to.

Ok, back to “The King’s Speech”. After seeing the play, Meredith Hooper saw a great potential for a film in this story so full of human interest, irony and humor. As an Australian herself, she was bemused by Logue’s task to teach an English royal to speak:

Logue came as an Australian, and taught the king to speak. How incredible! Because we colonials — it’s assumed that the English would teach us how to speak. So I loved this reversal of roles, that this Australian would arrive in England with his democratic attitude, and no assumptions about class and society and status, all of which I’ve experienced.

Now this just might work for parenting as well. A practice of role reversal could bring about more empathy for both parents and children. Only when we listen and try to understand can we begin to deepen a relationship. I know, only as a therapy session, for kids would be more than willing to take back their role after momentary reversal. Who would want a more arduous job than they need to?

A story, a film, real life, it all boils down to…

So here it was, this simple need to communicate, in a play or in a film. Brilliant! Because it’s all about communicating, every piece of dramatic writing is all about communicating, and this was about someone who couldn’t.”

It’s interesting that Tom did not take up his mother’s enthusiasm right away. Convinced of the latent power in the story, Meredith explained to her son how the elements of effective storytelling fall naturally in place. They shared ideas. It was five months later that the initial notion began to take shape as a film project.

I must add too that the inspirational parenting ends where the creative spark ignites. A wise mother knows when to stop and allow the seed to grow into a life of its own. That’s what Meredith Hooper did… and the rest is Oscar history.

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Click Here to read Melena Ryzik’s NYT article “A Chat With The Mother Who Knows Best”.

Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Oscar Winners 2011

The King’s Speech (2010): Movie Review

The King’s Speech: Fact And Fiction

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

The first ‘Snow Country’ in the title refers to the 1968 Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s (川端 康成 1899-1972) seminal novel Snow Country (雪鄉); the second refers to Arti’s neck of the woods here north of the 49th parallel in mid December.

Written in the 1930’s through to the 1940’s, Snow Country was later translated into English and published in 1956.  It is probably Kawabata’s most well-known work.  Translator Edward G. Seidensticker had been credited for leading Kawabata’s work to the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1968, a first for a Japanese writer.

The haiku-like simplicity so pervasive in the book is most apt for the Season. Firstly, its meditative descriptions and imagery offer a respite in the midst of our frantic pace.  And secondly, it points to certain relevance during this Christmas time, which I find surprising.

Translator Seidensticker writes in the introduction that the haiku is a juxtaposition of incongruous terms, such as motion and stillness. Within such contradictions sparks “a sudden awareness of beauty.”  Relax in the following poetic imageries:

They came out of the cedar grove, where the quiet seemed to fall in chilly drops.

or this:

[Her voice] seemed to come back like an echo of distilled love.

or this:

The field of white flowers on red stems was quietness itself.

Or savor the interplay of light and shadow, which evokes the poignancy of decayed beauty. This could well be the summing up of the human condition in Kawabata’s novel.

The sky was clouding over.  Mountains still in the sunlight stood out against shadowed mountains.  The play of light and shade changed from moment to moment, sketching a chilly landscape.  Presently the ski grounds too were in shadow.  Below the window Shimamura could see little needles of frost like ising-glass among the withered chrysanthemums, though water was still dripping from the snow on the roof.

The protagonist Shimamura, ‘who lived a life of idleness’ from inherited wealth, would leave his wife and children in Tokyo and go alone to the snow country every year, the mountain region of central Japan, to meet Komako, a young geisha at a hot spring village.  The love affair between the two is starkly off-balanced.  Despite her work in the pleasure quarters, entertaining parties of men, Komako is deeply devoted to Shimamura. Like her meager dwelling in the shabbiness of all, her room is spotlessly clean: “I want to be as clean and neat as the place will let me…”

Sadly, Komako realizes it is but a doomed unrequited love that she has invested in.  Shimamura too is aware of his own coldness.  Even though he is drawn back to Komako by making these trips to the snow country, he feels no obligation at all:

All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her.

Of course, it could well be guilt and a sense of moral ground, albeit his loyalty to his wife and children rarely comes to mind.

Shimamura does not understand the purity Komako seeks in her love for him, and her desire not to be treated as a geisha.  And that is why his nonchalant statement hits Komako so hard. In the climatic scene of the story, he utters, though not without affection: “You are a good woman.”

Instead of taking his words as an endearment, Komako is deeply hurt. Despite having to work as a geisha due to her circumstance, thus selling herself as an outcast, she longs to be removed from her predicament and be transported to a new life. Shimamura’s repeated words “You are a good woman” fall upon her like the gavel of final judgement laden with biting sarcasm.

Kawabata’s characters cry out for redemption, to be delivered from their precarious state. Komako is seeking saving grace in Shimamura, and desperately hoping for a way out of the “indefinable air of loneliness” shrouding her.  But her search is in vain for the man is incapable of love:

He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako’s life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman’s existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin.  He pitied her, and he pitied himself.

Shimamura knows deep down that he needs cleansing as much as or even more than Komako.

The snow country of Japan is also the land of the Chijimi.  It is an old folk art of weaving where a certain kind of long grass is cut and treated, finally transformed into pure white thread.  The whole process of spinning, weaving, washing and bleaching is done in the snow.  As the saying goes, “There is Chijimi linen because there is snow.”  After the linen is made into kimonos, people still send them back to the mountain regions to have the maidens who made them rebleach them each year.  And this is where the universal appeal of snow as a metaphor for purity and cleansing so powerfully depicted by Kawabata, as Shimamura ponders:

The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.

When I came to this description towards the end of the book, a starkly similar image conjured up in my mind:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”              —- Isaiah 1:18

And like the doomed ending of their love affair, death comes as a certainty to all, insects or humans alike.  Shimamura has observed how a moth “fell like a leaf from a tree… dragonflies bobbing about in countless swarms, like dandelion floss in the wind.”  The poetic descriptions do not make death any more appealing.  Kawabata uses insects as a metaphor for the frailty of life and the chilling finality awaiting:

Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room.  Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again.  A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed.  It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons.  Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live.

It is pure serendipity that I picked up this book to read at this time of the year.  The Christmas story too has also cast a vivid interplay between darkness and light.  I was reminded of this reference:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”            — Isaiah 9:2

There is reason to rejoice, for the Able Deliverer had come… He too had lived a life of paradoxes and contradictions: born to die, life through death, strength through weakness.  And beneath the surface of jollity of the Season and the superficial exchanges of good will, there lies deep and quiet, the source of joy and inner fulfillment, and Life’s ultimate triumph over death.

I heard a small voice echo as I treaded on the snowy path alone in my snow country.

It said: “For this reason I came.”

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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Published by Vintage International, 1996. 175 pages.

This concludes my final entry to meet Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4 before the end of 2010.

My other JLC posts:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

Never Let Me Go: Book and Movie

(Update Oct. 5, 2017: Kazuo Ishiguro has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature)

I must first declare this Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to write about the book and the movie clearly without stating the crux of the story. It is this key ingredient in the plot that instills meaning to the novel and now the film. While Never Let Me Go is a story of slow revealing, author Kazuo Ishiguro, in a Time magazine interview, admits that:

” … in a funny sort of way, I almost wanted the mystery aspect to be taken away so that people could conentrate on other aspects of the book.”

So there, even the author himself condones spoilers, for he knows there are much more to be pondered upon once the veil is removed.

Never Let Me Go (2005): The Book

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s family moved to England when he was six. He is one of the most acclaimed English language writers today, listed by The Times as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s fourth nomination short-listed for the Booker Prize, which he won in 1989 with The Remains of the Day.

Based on a scientific premise, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful love story told with aching poignancy. Children of the exclusive boarding school Hailsham are told they are special from a very young age. They are to keep their bodies healthy and strong for that’s the purpose of their lives. They are told and yet not told, for theirs is a vague notion of who they really are or what is in store for them in the future. Knowing no other worlds, the children grow up in the sheltered, fenced-in compound of Hailsham, accepting their predetermined fate with docility.

Scientific advancement has made it possible. The children of Hailsham are clones, copied from an original, raised to have their organs harvested once they reach the prime stage of adulthood. While sports keep their bodies strong, they are particularly encouraged to pursue art and poetry. A mysterious figure they called Madame comes by regularly to collect their art work to keep in her Gallery.

The story focuses on three students, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Their friendship on the outset matches the idyllic backdrop of the school in the 1960’s English countryside. Kathy is kind, caring and gentle, always watching out for Tommy, who is inept and temperamental. Seeing the bond forming between the two, Ruth slyly moves in and silently snatches Tommy to her side.

After reaching their eighteenth year, the three are transferred to the Cottages to live. There are just two roads ahead of them, donation of their organs and after 3 or 4 times, meets completion, death. Or they could apply to become carers of donors, but only temporarily until they too must fulfill their purpose. Living with other grown-ups who fall into the same destiny, the undercurrents of their love triangle begin to expose. For the first time in their lives, they hear about ‘deferrals’. If genuine love is evident between a couple, they could apply to have their donations deferred for a few years. When you are in love, just another day is precious enough. But what is love, and how do you prove it? There might also be another way out, and art could be the key. Ishiguro has masterfully handled layers of thematic complexity in a shroud of suspense.

While the story is based on an imaginary scientific scenario, the book is not a debate on the medical ethics of cloning. The events that take place which ultimately lead to their determined end explore, ironically, what it means to be human. Using the intricate relationships of the threesome, Ishiguro goes deep into issues of love and loss, dreams and reality, wrongs and their amends, and the ultimate search for the source of being, the very purpose of existence.

Using a first person narrative from Kathy, now a carer at 31 looking back at her past experiences, Ishiguro presents his story with detailed internal depictions and nuanced dialogues. Kathy’s voice is innocent and gracious, and all the more moving when it comes to the end when the story is fully unfurled. The three friends have since parted after the Cottages, but now after years have gone by, they meet again as carer and donors. On the canvas of imminent destiny, against the overwhelming tone of grey, we see three brisk strokes of colours, three lives, however temporal, serving their purpose, and above all, having tasted what it means to be human.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Never Let Me Go (2010): The Movie

Update Dec. 6: Carey Mulligan won Best Actress for Never Let Me Go at the British Independent Film Awards last night. This is her second BIFA win after An Education.



Directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo, 2002), screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, 2002), the film was screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival in September, and chosen to open the 54th London Film Festival on October 13th.

The mood is nostalgic, shot in greyish greens and blues, effectively capturing the general atmosphere of the book. When the future looks dim, the best one can do is to look back and savour what has been. Screenwriter Alex Garland has done an admirable job in being loyal to the source material, visualizing the key events and pertinent scenes, bringing to life the haunting memories of Kathy’s, whose narratives are taken straight out of the book.

Corresponding to the novel, the film is structured in three parts. It follows Kathy (Carey Mulligan, An Education, 2009), Ruth (Keira Knightly, Pride & Prejudice, 2005) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield, The Social Network, 2010) through Hailsham in the 1960’s, young adulthood at the Cottages in the 1970’s, and lastly in the 1990’s where we see the final destination of their lives in completion. While the beginning part is the weakest, lacking the depth and details of the book, such a shortfall is compensated by the excellent performances of the three child actors as the young counterparts, Izzy Meikle-Small (Kathy), Charlie Rowe (Tommy) and Ella Purnell (Ruth). The congruence of young Kathy with her adult role played by Mulligan is particularly impressive.

As the story moves along, almost to midpoint, the unfurling of facts and feelings becomes more pronounced, calling forth some intricate and nuanced performance from Mulligan, Garfield, and Knightly. The three actors are the pillars of the production. While the original music by Rachel Portman (Academy Award Best Music, Emma, 1996) is affective and heart-wrenching, and the cinematography by Adam Kimmel (Capote, 2005) captivating, it is the performance of the threesome that makes the film so real and stirring.

Mulligan’s portrayal of Kathy and Garfield’s Tommy are particularly riveting. The hidden love Kathy has been holding for years is given a channel for expression only briefly at the end. All through Mulligan has carried her role with admirable restraint. Garfield’s portrayal of Tommy is achingly real, especially when he ultimately realizes the finality of his fate, the cry in the dark is haunting and powerful. And kudos to Knightly for accepting a role that puts her in a less than glamorous light. Her change at the end too is moving, giving depth to the exploration of what makes one human… other than love, there is also the courage to admit wrong, seek forgiveness, and the attempt to make amends.

Is it melodramatic or is it evoking deep emotions? Within context here, emotional sentiments or even a few tears at the end of the film might well be a healthy response, nothing to shy away from. Should the scenario arise some day in the future when we need to prove that we are human, and that we have a soul, what better ways to demonstrate but by our capacity to emote love, empathy, compassion, pathos, and the fear of facing such a scenario. May this all remain as science fiction for our enlightenment only.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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To read other Book Into Film posts, CLICK HERE.

Paris: The Latin Quarter

Solution to Arti’s Cryptic Challenge #3: Paris

It was pure serendipity that I’d picked a hotel right in The Latin Quarter.  At the time of my booking I wasn’t aware of so culturally rich a Parisian sector I’d be staying, and with many attractions on my list within walking distance.   The Latin Quarter derived its name from the fact that Latin was widely spoken in the area during Medieval time.  This has been the academic and literary part of Paris, and remains so today. Bookstores are everywhere, almost all in French though, many specializing in philosophy.

Our hotel is situated right across from the Sorbonne, Universite de Paris.  Unfortunately it was closed during the summer months, the guard at the gate making sure people stay out, so I did not get a chance to go inside or browse in their bookstore.

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The Panthéon is also located in The Latin Quarter, about a 15 minutes walk from where we stayed.  It is the burial site of several renowned intellectual and literary figures of France, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Pierre and Marie Curie:

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Not just as a memorial ground, the Latin Quarter is a vibrant sector where writers, intellectuals and academics congregate, meet each other to engage in discourses over coffee or a glass of wine. Here is a restaurant where Camus and Sartre were among its prominent patrons, now a tourist point of interest on the map, Le Brasserie Balzar:

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Heading down rue St. Jacques from Balzar, I walked towards the River Seine.  I could see from afar the Notre Dame:

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But I wasn’t going to make my way across just yet, for I’ve found the number one item on my must-see list situated on this side of the Seine, the Left Bank, and that was the legendary bookstore-library, Shakespeare and Company:

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On November 17, 1919, American expatriate Sylvia Beach opened the English language bookstore-library in Paris, and turned the page in literary history.  Beach was not merely a bookseller, but a multi-faceted literary personality, a writer and a subject for other writers, the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, the proprietor of a literary hub that welcomed expatriate writers to mingle, read, write and stay.  In one of her many literary parties she introduced F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce, the former was too intimidated to approach Joyce himself.   Many icons of the ‘Lost Generation’ had been affiliated with the literary hang-out, including Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, to name a few.  Click here for a historic photo of Beach and Joyce in front of Shakespeare and Company.

Hemingway and some of the ‘Lost Generation’ found on the walls of the bookstore:

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Closed down during WWII, the new owner George Whitman, another American expat and a friend of Beach’s,  re-opened its doors in 1951 in the present location on the Left Bank of the Seine.   Now in his 90’s, Whitman has stood by his commitment not to sell his little bookstore to developers, and kept the tradition alive: a sanctuary for writers.  For almost 60 years now, Whitman, himself a writer and a poet, has offered lodging and writing opportunities to countless aspiring souls.  The bookstore is now run by daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman.  According to its website, Shakespeare and Company has served more than 50,000 heads on the pillows of its 13 bed facilities for free, accommodating such literary figures as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and Alan Ginsberg.  Click here for a personal account of what it’s like staying at Shakespeare and Company, and some house rules.

A mementos from Lawrence Durrell:

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Upholding the spirit of hospitality:

Typewriter for use, tradition alive and well:

Some impromptu music-making:

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Just last week, even the editor of the New York Times has declared the inevitable, that the print version of the New York Times will end some time in the future. Under the sweeping torrents of eBooks and ePublishing, seems like independent bookstores are fighting an uphill, if not a losing, battle.  I wish the Whitman family well in standing strong against the tide.  From a little bookshop-library, it has stayed true to its tradition, and by so doing, gained a spot on the historic map of Paris.  In 2006, Whitman was honoured by the French Minister of Culture with the Order of Arts and Letters. More than just a point of interest for tourists, Shakespeare and Company has now become a cultural institution that just, hopefully, might not be so easily demolished to make way for new development along the Seine.

Click here to read an interesting article and personal interview with George Whitman from Bloomberg, yes, Bloomberg.

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All Photos Taken By Arti of Ripple Effects, August 2010.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.