Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The idea of enumerating memories, the pockets and satchels of time, seems childish. Yet my 13-year old self would disagree. Don't we already squeeze time into year-long cubicles, tallying up days and minutes - mere numerical units? Years dart past our distracted eyes in cyclic runs of 365 days.

There is much residue left (or maybe 'preserved' is the better word) by each spent year; not at all like the dessert crumbs dismissed by a profligate man but rather like dew on leaves or water soaked in soil after a night's thick rain. Such residue is also man-made - penned, collected and captured in photos. Recorded. 

Indeed this is the finest form of self-preservation. As one watches time sprint past in its running shoes, headed towards the negative axis of time, one jogs on, looking back and trying to memorize its fast-fading back. Not too devotedly as to lose track of one's own path or trip over an obstacle, but there are old threads we keep anyway and knit into our present. There are old violin strings I keep, untangled and coiled, so that they may be restrung again to deliver the concertos I played last year. 

In most of us, there is probably a desire for reuse and recycle - a welcoming of time's relentlessness. Remembering the past is therefore a conscientious form of timekeeping, I like to think. It is the regular recognition of one's past selves and memories that conglomerate to feed the present self, which in turn will carry on to the future self - all of which snuggle within the heart-chambers of one person. 

Thus the advent of each coming year chimes like the tick of a metronome, marking the scheduled notch of measured time; this is where one might slow down to a walk, turn back and marvel (or regret?) at the distance covered before turning around and picking up pace once more, climbing the linear line of life.

All I can do is take comfort in the likelihood that "I have miles to go before I sleep."
"...if this life of ours
Be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry
Because a year of it is gone? but Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come
Whispering 'It will be happier.'"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Only love can thaw a frozen heart

Having churned out mediocre films such as Planes and John Carter in the last two years, Disney finally hit a home run this November with Frozen, a heartwarming (haha) animated musical that sends many harking back to Disney's renaissance era.

Anna (Kristen Bell) and her older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) are two princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa was born with the power to produce and control snow, delighting Anna by sending crystals shooting from her fingertips and snowflakes fluttering to the ground in the middle of summer. Yet after one fateful accident, during which Elsa inadvertently shoots an ice spark into Anna's head, their parents, the King and Queen, tell Elsa to "conceal and don't feel" her powers for everyone's safety. Unable to control her powers, however, Elsa must stay locked indoors, shut off from the world - and Anna. Anna's head, having been cured by a family of trolls (only a lock of white hair remains, Rogue-esque), has been wiped clean of any memory of Elsa's power but - as the chief troll puts it - "the fun remains." And thus Anna cannot understand why Elsa no longer wants to "build a snowman" or play with her like they used to.

Then, the plot thickens: 3 years after the sudden death of their parents, Elsa must make a public appearance at her coronation. Anna is thrilled to finally see the outside world "for the first time in forever" and meets the dashing prince Hans. On the other hand, Elsa is terrified of revealing her powers before so many keen onlookers. All is well until Anna and Hans (having known each other for only a matter of hours) express their wish to get married. Elsa objects, Anna is defiant, and Elsa accidentally "Let[s] it go," plunging Arendelle into an eternal winter.

Determined to right all wrongs and 'open the door' that was always closed to her, Anna sets off and - with the aid of the mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and a charming, optimistic and living snowman Olaf (yes, functional) - tries to reconcile with Elsa and bring back summer.

What ensues is good hour and half of laughs (most induced by Olaf), songs and delightful chemistry between Kristoff and Anna. Sven could also probably give Shadowfax a run for his money (just kidding, the latter shows us the true meaning of haste).

Yet what is best about this film is its overarching emphasis on Disney's favourite, but alas neglected in recent films, theme: love! Although inward cringing is understandable when the chief troll majestically proclaims, "only love can thaw a frozen heart," which is a counsel that sends Sven, Kristoff, Olaf and Anna hurling back to the castle so that Anna can receive her 'true love's' kiss, it forms the basis of the whole film. For it is not only a frozen heart that love thaws, but eventually the winter itself. Thus, it it logical why Elsa never knew how to control her powers; after all, her parents - albeit with the best intentions at heart - kept her powers repressed, seeing her skill as a curse and not as what it truly is: a gift.

When Elsa sings 'Let it Go,' therefore, she is not 'letting go' in angst and rebellion, but rather relieving a long-suppressed desire for well-deserved freedom. I'm glad the screenwriters decided to rewrite her role as a protagonist instead of keeping her an antagonist. The sister dynamic is much more significant when only caution and slight resentment - but not downright animosity - exist between the two.

Of course, Frozen is not without loopholes or the specifics that a live-action film could not ignore (e.g. choreography during the musical scenes), but it's a good-natured and well paced film that ultimately satisfies. Although Let it Go is the only number that stands out (except Love is an Open Door is now my guilty pleasure), and the other songs sound rehashed (For the First Time in Forever = I See the Light), they not only showcase Kristen Bell's singing talent (I had no idea!) but also conglomerate to construct an animated film that captures an essence of Disney cinemagoers haven't seen in a long time.

The best books I read in 2013

13138 pages and 44 books in 365 days:

It's been a wonderful year of reading (in 3 languages!) This year's booklist is definitely more variegated than last year's - it features the occasional textbook, several short story anthologies, poetry collections, a play and even two memoirs. Not bad. Here are the 5 that have made the deepest impressions (not counting Morrison's Beloved, which I technically read last year):

1) Outliers

This is the pithy, informative read that changed my mind about non-fics. It's also a noggin-filler of research-backed facts, anecdotes and stats that one can whip out at any apt moment - why are Asians better at math? How do one's deep-rooted cultural values affect one's success? I'm glad to have been introduced to Gladwell's genius this year.
The 10,000 hour rule is a definite key in success.
2) Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems

My (along with many others', I'm sure) favourite poetry collection. Not my first time reading Plath, of course, but this was the year in which I finished reading/annotating-ish the collection. Can one ever 'finish' a poetry collection? Don't think so - but the special lines one culls from compiled poems run and resonate forever.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
3) This Is How You Lose Her

Speaking of forever, Junot Diaz's short story collection was heartbreaking, funny, clever, authentic... it was a refreshing read (esp. with inclusion of swear words, I confess) to tackle after having a hard time with July's People and All the Names. Diaz also responded to my fanmail, which is really the cherry on top.
The half-life of love is forever
4) Wild Swans

I've seen Wild Swans on countless shelves, but never read it until this year. It not only refreshed my memory of a semester spent studying the Cultural Revolution but also helped me overcome my tome-phobia induced by Plath's unabridged (emphasis on unabridged) journals. Meeting Jung Chang was also sublime - she is so regal.
“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.”
5) Quiet

Another non-fiction! Quiet is the Introvert's Bible. It sings the anthem of each bookworm, outcast, nerd... (sorry, getting stereotypical and carried away). It's well supported, lucidly written and a definite comfort-read for any loner informative. Even those who are Loud (haha) will appreciate its intelligibility.
Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

2014 Reading Resolutions

1) Do not neglect the mother tongue - I'll start adding any Chinese books I read to my Goodreads booklist.
2) Be patient with the esoteric - I was a little restless with E.L. Doctorow...
3) More time on the shorts - I'm still reading Alice Munro's short stories and am about to begin Flappers and Philosophers, which I'll spend more time poring over!
4) Continue blogging!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Merry Brandybuck Christmas, all! I spent my Christmas Eve and Christmas a.m.'s watching The Two Towers, during which je m'ai posé une question: Why did I always maintain that The Two Towers was my least favourite LoTR film? With the Battle at Helm's Deep, gathering of the Ents, soundtrack and epic montages (best montage has to be the one with Denethor eating+Pippin singing+battle, though), etc. The Two Towers is 3-hours of action/cinematographic success goodness. But then all three were nommed for Best Picture. 

Still, there's no way 'Gollum's Song' beats Into the West or May it Be. 

Anyhow, back to le sujet at hand - Christmas - Ah, that day of the year on which talking (rather throwing one-liner 'happy holidays') to random passer bys on the street is socially acceptable for the average introvert. December 25th is the much-commercialized, toy store-occupied conclusion to a month of candy canes and gift wrapping; it marks the penultimate burst of family/friend coalescing before the advent of the new year...

For some, Christmas is a morning spent at mass. For others, it is one spent hungover. 
Although not religious, I fell into the former this year.

All in all, have a convivial christmas!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

life will teach you reality and realism

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Requisites upon finishing The Sense of an Ending:

1) Reread the closing paragraph
2) Revisit the equations
3) Reread the enumerations on page 1 and (this time) understand them

“We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

A significant individual in Anthony ('Tony') Webster's "book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic" youth is Adrian, his 'philosophical' friend who always "grasped life-and truth and morality, and art- more clearly" than the rest of his peers. Even after Tony goes to university and gets his first girlfriend - Veronica, whose family (esp. her mother, the enigmatic Mrs. Ford) he later meets - it is "Camus-quoting" Adrian (in Cambridge) that matters to him the most.

But Veronica and Adrian end up together and Tony has a bad case of sour grapes that extends to after his marriage and (amicable) divorce, prompting him to write a bitter, recriminating letter to the new couple. One day, he receives news of Adrian's suicide and is later notified that the late Mrs. Ford has left him money and Adrian's diary in her will, none of which makes sense to Tony. So Tony spends the remainder of the novel trying to uncover the truth from Veronica and retracing his confabulated memories, all the while harbouring a borderline concocted conception of Adrian, glorifying his death and attributing it to the most 'highest' of reasons (e.g. intense intellectual stimulation).

Victim to the "imperfections of memory [...and] inadequacies of documentation," Tony only comes to term with the rather banal reality at the end of the novel, by which time he concludes also that he himself is but"average at life; average at truth; morally average." He wonders,

“Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? There had been addition and subtraction in my life, but how much multiplication?”

But he can neither change his past or mend his errors, neither can he take back the scathing words in the letter he wrote or reduce the responsibility and remorse he feels,

Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.

The way we make sense of the novel's ending is almost mathematical. Barnes drops us fragments along the way and we scamper along, piecing together our own 'sense' of the ending according to Tony's own "imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened;" only at the end do we realize, like Veronica did throughout, that Tony just didn't "get it" because he would "adjust, embellish, make sly cuts" to his accounts. And as Adrian had said,

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

In which case Tony is the historian and the history in question not that of WW1 as discussed in the lessons of his youth, but his own "small, personal, largely undocumented piece" of time. At the end he learns that “History isn't the lies of the victors" but "the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated” - like him.

Barnes keeps us, like Tony, on the edge, impatient to make sense of the unfurling past. So we follow Tony as he blunders through self-deception, irks Veronica and relies on his imperfect memory to unearth a reality that eventually turns out not the way he had idealized or assumed.

The novel ends by pithily encapsulating the 163 pages of the novel in a sentence:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.

Check, check and check.


View all my reviews
But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
“You get towards the end of life - no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”
“When you're young - when I was young - you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?”
“We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--- it's not useful--- to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”
“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others.Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”
“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”
Here's a rather brilliant, eccentric metaphor:
“History is a raw onion sandwich, it just repeats, it burps. We've seen it again and again this year. Same old story, Same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A quest to reclaim a homeland, and slay a dragon

There's nothing like the blue tint in the still above to make one hark back to Two Towers-esque imagery; however, The Desolation of Smaug is its 'own' film entirely, not as metaphorically attached to the LoTR film trilogy as its predecessor was. 

Apart from the cursory opening scene in Bree (in which Peter Jackson makes a familiar cameo), The Desolation of Smaug picks off nicely where An Unexpected Journey ended, with Thorin and Co. still headed towards the Lonely Mountain to recover the Arkenstone. With Wargs and orcs hot on their heels, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf take refuge at Boern's residence before Gandalf - true to form - ditches them on the outskirts of Mirkwood with the warning, "stay on the path."

...So of course the dwarves lose their way; it is only until Bilbo pokes his head out of the trees (at one of the movie's noteworthy 3D effects scenes) that the path becomes clear; unfortunately, it is also at this point that the dwarves are cocooned by giant spiders and nearly consumed. They are saved by Bilbo - who owes it to the ring, Sting, and courage - and the elves.

Yes, LEGOLAS makes quite the entrée from the treetops, slitting several arachnid bellies en route before landing in front of the dwarves - I swear all his action scenes have been fast-forwarded. Sharp, cold and cutting, this younger Legolas seems to have done more in one film than he did in all three LoTR installations put together, and his very presence emphasizes The Hobbit's dependence on its Academy-Award winning predecessors. Having Benedict Cumberbatch voice Smaug and Ed Sheeran sing the film's song, the producers certainly chose wisely in order to maximize the film's profit - it certainly makes skeptics wonder about Jackson's authentic motives for filming the movie.

But of course, Jackson's decision to film The Hobbit is one for which I am infinitely grateful, for in filming another 9 hours worth of Middle Earthian footage, he takes LoTR fans back into Tolkien's world which is stunningly visualized with the aid of 48 FPS and 3D. Featuring members of the original cast, The Hobbit films are extending the vestiges of LoTR legacy into three new films for the old and new generation.

Thus no matter how irked I may be at the length of screen time the Tauriel-Kili-Legolas love triangle takes up (ah, why water the buds of romance when Kili will perish in the Battle of 5 Armies?), I nonetheless welcome every LoTR morsel with open arms and - let's face it - The Desolation of Smaug was 2.5 hours worth of cinematic epicness. 

Whether it is during the barrel scene - whoever choreographed that deserves all the best things in life - during which the dwarves' teamwork is as fluid as the rushing waters they traverse (apologies for lame simile), or when Bilbo is sliding in mounds of gold after the blinking Arkenstone, or when Thorin and Co. temper Smaug in order to light up the fortresses, The Desolation of Smaug is brilliantly action-packed, grand-scale and impressive. Newcomers such as Luke Evans (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bloom) and Stephen Fry (yes!) only further embellish the film. 

So the Hobbit trilogy will wrap up in a year's time (The Silmarillion, anyone?), but Tolkien's legacy and the wonders of Middle Earth will be grounded forever. 

Here is my review for the first movie: http://may-theforcebewithyou.blogspot.hk/2012/12/the-world-is-ahead.html

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's clear from Susan Cain's matter-of-fact yet earnest prose that she not only clearly understands her subject matter, but also deeply identifies with it.

In Quiet, Cain goes further than merely delineating the characteristic mannerisms of introverts, or the fascinating science behind introversion (did you know that one's introversion level may be deducible at birth?). She explains, with a slew of authentic examples, why the unsociable often trump the gregarious and why the diffident surpass the assertive. She sheds light on the power of the reticent, the ones who would rather lie in bed with a book than host a gathering, and the astuteness of the reserved. Without being downright partisan, Cain reveals why although sociability may be an enviable trait, the quiet and withdrawn too discover happiness and success in life.

An introvert myself, I connect with nearly all the "introvert-traits" that Cain discusses in Quiet - shyness, a penchant for "living in my head," a proclivity for indulging in solitary activities, among many - making this read not merely an informative experience, but also a personal one.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes non fiction, especially those along the lines of Malcom Gladwell's works.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A hope of something final, terrifying

I found a slot of free time last night at 12:05 am (what has life come to) and so decided to sit down and read what would turn out to be one of the most memorable short stories I've read in a long time. Alice Munro's Images. It is narrated in the same voice of the girl (Del Jordan) from Walker Brothers Cowboy, and when reading it is not only 16-year-old me who chews away at the pages but also my innocuous 6-year-old self who emerges to nibble at each sentence.

Del's mother is ill, her father has returned to his teasing ways, and "the fact of death" survives the sweltering room like a "lump of magic ice;" our narrator attributes all this to the coming of Mary McQuade, Del's father's cousin and the practical nurse attending to Del's sick mother. Thus despite "all the life going on" there is death, its presence acute and fearful to Del until the end of the story.

When Del's father takes her into the woods, hunting muskrats, Del is conscious of not only her father's "uncompromising, even brutal"side but also the "fact of death." And indeed, when a hatchet-bearing man advances upon her father, she is suddenly aware of the possibility of his death -
All my life I had known there was a man like this, and he was behind doors, around the corner at the dark end of a hall. So now I saw him and just waited, like a child in an old negative, with blazing hair and burned out, Orphan Annie eyes.
- but the man, Joe, turns out to be an old acquaintance of her father's and the threat of death passes.

The word death is not mentioned alone in the story (always the fact of death; it is a fact, "nothing but the truth") although its presence and power - whereas imagined by Del to be exercised by McQuade, or intended by the Silases threatening Joe - permeates it

By the end of the story, Del - like she was in Walker Brothers Cowboy - does not completely understand what has happened but is nonetheless left with an imprint of the memory, permanent as an image, and realizes that her fears are "based on nothing but the truth." And so she is eventually no longer afraid of McQuade or "the fact of death."

It is a lovely story of childhood innocuousness,  inadequately summarised above because so much emotion is woven into it that the story cannot be solidified in linear plot but only read and reread the feeling melds into the words to produce an image.

People say they have been paralyzed by fear, but I was transfixed, as if struck by lightning, and what hit me did not feel like fear so much as recognition. I was not surprised. This is the sight that does not surprise you, the thing you have always known was there that comes so naturally, moving delicately and contentedly and in no hurry, as if it was made, in the first place, from a wish of yours, a hope of something final, terrifying.
It was the ending that REALLY got me:
Like children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who had discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared to live happily ever after — like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.

So perhaps one could call this story a mini bildungsroman.

Remember who the real enemy is

Between the release of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence hype boosted exponentially, everyone in the movie seems to have become more attractive and new technology married more honed film direction to deliver - after much anticipation - a satisfying sequel.

By now, Jennifer Lawrence's acting prowess is near-indisputable, Stanley Tucci's bleached teeth and infectious chortle are delightable, and newcomer Sam Claflin (who has come a long way since playing bullied-by-Captain Sparrow Philip Swift), nailing Finnick, is a welcome embellishment to the film.

Jena Malone is also - no other word for it - awesome.

Catching fire confirms that - as Haymitch puts it - "no one ever wins the Hunger Games." Like shell-shocked veterans, both Katniss and Peeta spend the first 1/2 in the shadow of their 'victory' and the bleak darkness of district 12. Both want as much distance between them and the Games as possible but facing the Victors' Tour, they are ushered back into their roles as contrived lovers (oh, the heartbreak in Peeta's eyes).

Yet something is happening in the districts - the people, having seen a scratch on the Capitol's armour, are rioting. Peeta, Katniss, the trick with the berries and the mockingjay, the very symbol of Capitol failure and the power of a simple presence, are spurring revolution against the bombast of Capitol opulence. Even - as the denouement of the Quarter Quell reveals - moles within the Capitol itself are bending the Games itself. In a world still not immune to censorship or war, the Hunger Games is an important film about survival - not only literal survival in the fight-to-death Hunger Games against other  contestants (mere temporary enemies) but also perseverance under government repression, the real enemy.

It's a shame Peeta always seems to be overshadowed (maybe because Josh Hutcherson is short?) although he'll definitely receive more screen time in the final installation, which is in two parts. This film was long, too, around two hours! It would have still achieved impact with concision. [tangent] Why are movies getting longer, pools of resources going into movie-making, and pages of tabloids examining the details of celebrities down to each exacting detail? Entertainment has never been so accessible and desirable. [end of tangent]

When I first read Suzanne Collin's Catching Fire, I was Jonas-brother-loving, innocuous to the hardships of IB life and just getting over my Edward Cullen-phase (about to embark on the Peeta Mellark one, in fact). 2 SAT exams (never again) and a hundred+ books later, much has changed but the pleasure of watching a great, action-packed movie - despite reconfirming throughout that I would never, ever survive the Hunger Games - remains the same.

On a final note:
The repeat counter on listenonrepeat.com is telling me I've been listening to this around 30+ times now.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Growing Old

Possibly my favourite poetry reading ever, followed closely by Sylvia Plath's Daddy and Robert Hayden's Those Winter Sundays.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doris Lessing

I just read The Roads of London two days ago, this is shocking - RIP Doris Lessing. Another Nobel Laureate to leave, but her voice and pen's work will remain.

"Time," says Nora bitterly. "Will you come by ever again?"

The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquility. Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in. He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist. He was not alive when this century started. I will be barely alive — old, old – when it ends. I do not like to think of it. I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.

I originally planned to read J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians but settled for the work of another Nobel laureate instead - Alice Munro's Selected Stories. I did this for two reasons - the first being that I won't be able to take my time with the former (school life is throwing assessments my way), and the second being I haven't read short stories in ages. Why not Munro, whose collections I've often glimpsed on bookshelves but never read?

I've just read the first story (twice), Walker Brothers Cowboy. A sense of leaving permeates the opening  lines as our narrator and her father (Ben) make their way down a "long, shabby sort of street" towards the Lake, leaving her mother and brother at home, one "sewing under the dining-room light" and one "in bed [...in a] little screened porch."  

They are in "Tuppertown, an old town on [...] an old grain port," where tramps hang around the docks bordering "ancient, rusty, wallowing" grain boats. Such decrepit, decaying imagery works with the feeling of 'letting go' to unfold the enigma of a crack-of-dawn sentiment, harking back to a bygone time. And the past indeed trails behind the characters throughout the story, even presenting itself in front of them when Ben takes his children - our narrator and her brother - to visit Nora (a woman of his past) and her blind mother, taking a detour from his regular salesman trip as the 'Walker Brothers Man.'

It is clear from Nora's cheerful yet aggressive tone that news of Ben's marriage and job as the Walker Brothers Man is a long leap from who he was in their shared past, and as Nora drinks whisky and urgest Ben to dance she attempts to rekindle their history. Nora "whirls [...our narrator] around in" a dance, dragging her too into that enigmatic past. 

Although our narrator initially regarded the trip with a childish "rising hope of adventure," she is offered a glimpse of her father's youth and at the end -unlike her innocuous brother- cannot shake off an acute awareness of the gone yet ever 'present' past.   

As Updike wrote in the NY Times Book Review - "Munro is an implacable destiny spinner, whose authorial voice breaks into her fiction like that of a God who can no longer bear to keep quiet." Indeed. I look forward to reading and rereading the next 27 stories in this anthology. 

I pretend to remember far less than I do, wary of being trapped into sympathy or any unwanted emotion.
So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Writing is a thoroughly shady affair

Self-consciousness: A MemoirSelf-consciousness: A Memoir by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"A life-view by the living can only be provisional. Perspectives are altered by the fact of being drawn; description solidifies the past and creates a gravitational body that wasn’t there before. A background of dark matter—all that is not said—remains, buzzing."

I became determined to hunt down John Updike's Self-Consciousness after coming across this article , and was quite relieved that I managed to locate it at a nearby local library (glad to have avoided the pains of my 3-month search for William Maxwell's So Long, See you Tomorrow). I was - to put it simply -bummed, therefore, when the first few pages did not immediately suck me in, and resignedly headed back to the library to return it a week after. Bored on the bus, I flipped to around page 28 and by the time I got to the bus stop, I couldn't stop reading it... classic.

The essential self is innocent, and when it tastes its own innocence knows that it lives forever. If we keep utterly still, we can suffer no wear and tear, and will never die.

Self-Consciousness is Updike's memoir, throughout which his life is unfolded to us not via chronological accounts but rather six compelling essays. In each, he explains different reasons for his self-consciousness, without which he - "a boy who loved the average, the daily, the safely hidden" - could not have become a "prolific, adaptable, ruthless-enough writer."

The first essay, A Soft Spring Night in Shillington, begins with Updike's lost luggage and ends with his "self-conscious" walk around his hometown, Shillington; the next, At War with My Skin uncovers Updike's long struggle with psoriasis, a skin disease that counted him out of any jobs "that demand being presentable'' yet helped him develop a"thick literary skin" and become a writer. In the third essay, Getting the Words Out, Updike describes his habit of stuttering and fear of "being misunderstood,"hence his eagerness of getting "the words out." The fourth essay, On Not Being a Dove, outlines Updike's self-consciousness (and frustration) regarding being named, in the Times, "the lone American writer 'unequivocally for' the US intervention in Vietnam" and his adolescent teeth pain. The next essay, A Letter to My Grandsons, I skimmed (more interested in Updike's ideas than his family history), and the final - On Being a Self Forever - is the most poignantly written, in which Updike writes of his pensées de la mort and what it means to be a self.

So voilà, through 6 essays Updike has pinpointed the main sources of his self and self-consciousness: his hometown (with the "chilly thrilly taste" of his self), his skin, his stuttering, his teeth, his self... and he has done so in elegant, freely structured prose. In fact, one of the best similes I've ever read is presented in Getting the Words Out, in which Updike describes "a microphone cowled in black sponge" as "uptilted like the screened face of a miniature fencer." The picture of him standing on the stage, anxious to stutter, opened up to me.

Updike also discusses his self-consciousness of being a writer:

As soon as one is aware of being “somebody,” to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. [...] Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the “successful” writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip – all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dinning-room table, with a child’s beautifully clear eyes.

So we see that Updike has struggled and benefited from self-consciousness all his life. Psoriasis may have sent him running to the sun during summer and his "dread of death" left him distressed, but without them, he would have never been impelled to pursue the "papery self-magnification and immortality of printed reproduction" - writing.

"Do I really want it, this self, these scattered fingerprints on the air, to persist forever, to outlast the atomic universe?" Updike asks in the final essay. He gives us all something to think about.

An illusion of eternal comfort reposes in clubbiness,” he explains, “the assurance that no earthly adventure, from puberty to death, is unprecedented or incapable of being shared and that one's life is thoroughly witnessed and therefore not wasted.

It was potentially terrifying to advance into time - every day, a new newspaper on the porch! - toward death.

Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn't it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stoic virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gracefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?

We do find it hard to picture any endlessly sustained condition or activity that would not become as much a torture as live entombment. 

If we picture the afterlife at all, it is, heretically, as the escape of something impalpable — the essential “I” — from this corruptible flesh, occurring at the moment of death. . . . The thought of this long wait within the tomb afflicts us with claustrophobia and the fear of being lost forever; where is our self during the long interval? … The idea that we sleep for centuries and centuries without a flicker of dream, while our bodies rot and turn to dust and the very stone marking our graves crumbles to nothing, is virtually as terrifying as annihilation. Every attempt to be specific about the afterlife, to conceive of it in even the most general detail, appalls us.

In fact we do not try to picture the afterlife, nor is it our selves in our nervous tics and optical flecks that we wish to perpetuate; it is the self as the window on the world that we can't bear to thinkof shutting. My mind when I was a boy of ten or eleven sent up its silent scream at the thought of future aeons -- at the thought of the cosmic party going on without me. The yearning for an afterlife is the opposite of selfish: it is love and praise of the world that we are privileged, in this complex interval of light, to witness and experience. 

Writing … is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world — it happens to everybody. In the morning light one can write breezily, without the slight acceleration of one’s pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning in panic to God. In the dark one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches, of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy, weighted as they are with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light — in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it — approaches blasphemy.

Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?

Is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance? Shakespeare over and over demonstrates life’s singularity — the irrevocability of our decisions, hasty and even mad though they be. How solemn and huge and deeply pathetic our life does loom in its once-and doneness, how inexorably linear, even though our rotating, revolving planet offers us the cycles of the day and of the year to suggest that existence is intrinsically cyclical, a playful spin, and that there will always be, tomorrow morning or the next, another chance.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 8, 2013

Albert Camus

Je lis L'Étranger maintenant en français, donc je pense que je dois écrire un poste (?) - un homage  à Camus. C'est très cour...


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Empress Dowager Cixi

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern ChinaEmpress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, Chang amazes me with her ability of translating the incondensable - a life - onto pages. Cixi's image, characterized by most as ruthless and power-hungry, is slightly mediated in this biography, and her life's history compellingly and very readably spelled out. I turned to the first page as a stranger to her policies but closed it bearing sufficiently more knowledge concerning her life (albeit power-skimming the final 100 pages). Of course, Cixi's heartbreak over the eunuch An Dehai is tragic and her vengeance further proof of her bitter streak, an unforgettable tale in the book. Her humble beginnings are astonishing considering the level of power to which she rose later on in life.

Perhaps Chang will never outdo Wild Swans, but Empress Dowager Cixi is nonetheless a telling biography of a woman whose legacy is tarnished with murders/grabs for power but is nonetheless an important figure in Chinese history who sought to not only modernize China but also give women more power and prevent the irrational belligerence of men from hurling China into war.

Meeting Jung Chang (yes!) and getting my copy signed was the ultimate cherry on top.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wild Swans

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since reading Plath's unabridged journals, I've developed a slight phobia for literary tomes but Jung Chang's Wild Swans has reminded me what a pleasure it is to tackle hundreds of pages. An introspective, detailed memoir/family biography that does not on any page expunge the details of the Cultural Revolution's atrocities, Wild Swans traces Chang's family history from the KMT years prior Mao's rise to power to Chang's departure for Britain after Mao's death.

Having studied the Cultural Revolution last year, I was able to link much of my academic knowledge with the personal traumas Chang and her family underwent (e.g. countryside reforms, August rallies), which enhanced my read; moreover, since I'm Chinese, much of what I read struck home. It is astounding to consider how an entire generation was crushed and confined by a single puppeteer - Mao - who built for himself a 形象 so godlike that even in the darkest days of the revolution it remained incontestable. I'm glad I escaped it. It even took Chang, the daughter of 'class-enemies' and at one time even a Red Guard herself, to doubt Mao only after the revolution was well-over even though she had experienced the chaos and brainwashing first-hand.

When Chang came to England, all she wanted to do was forget about her past. Yet when her mother left her after a visit - 10 years later - with 60 hours worth of tape recordings, she knew she had to write it all down.

It may be near-impossible to condense such a past and trove of dark memories into a book, but the matter-of-fact (and at times poignant) way in which Chang chronicles her past - and that of millions of Chinese - sews this book together, making it not only readable but also immensely memorable.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 2, 2013


Friday, November 1, 2013

Bruised bananas

Bruised bananas

At first, there were
10 hanging off
The same thick stem,
Ripe and yellowing.

Now, three sit
In the latticed basket,
Wearing their pockmarked skins,
Bruised and blackening.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Stuck in Love

It's been a while since I've written a movie review; I watched Stuck in Love yesterday. It's a sweet indie rom-com that comes full circle, perhaps somewhat dulled by its rehashed storyline but memorable because of its cast.

Stuck in Love tells the story of a family of writers, starring Greg Kinnear as best-selling writer Bill Borgens. Bill, still in love with his ex-wife Erica (Jennifer Connelly), has lost the will to write; Bill's daughter, Sam (Lilly Collins), is devastated by her mother's 'betrayal' and doesn't believe in love until she meets Lou (Logan Lerman), a good-natured, borderline naive boy who is determined to win her heart (I apologize profusely for the platitude). Sam's brother Rusty (Nat Wolff) is romantic and awkward, falling for and idealizing Kate (Liana Liberato), who is a recovering alcoholic.

Flaws, first: Collins and Lerman's chemistry isn't Dicaprio-Winslet but works sufficiently, partly because they both have an 'indie' vibe to them that works for the movie. The film also had an all-too 'complete circle' feel to it - including irrational plot jumps and lack of theme/character development - that diminished its standing as a 'serious' indie film.

Then again, it wasn't intended as one but succeeds as an artsy film nonetheless, especially with its recurring theme of writing/books.

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

Sylvia Plath

On this day 81 years ago, Sylvia Plath was born in Boston; she would go on to become, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, "one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English." It's a pity, therefore, that when people remember Plath they first think of her suicide and not her poems, which trap her anguish and imagination in strict-tempoed lines, unveiling them to each new reader.

Plath's poems have taught me to rhyme deftly and repeat with subtlety; among her poems, Daddy, Lady Lazarus, A Mad Girl's Love Song, A Life, April Aubade remain as some of my favourites. Her poems carry a feminine grace yet maintain the temperament of a woman who, as Ted Hughes declared, "saw her world in the flame of the ultimate substance and the ultimate depth."

May her poems be ever-treasured and read.

Friday, October 11, 2013

RIP, Cory Monteith

I watched Glee only because of Finn and Jessie's Girl will always be one 
of my favourite performances on the show. RIP Cory. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.

Happy birthday, William Faulkner! As much as I'd like to be re-reading As I Lay Dying right now, I'm swamped in work.

But, an homage to my favourite Faulkner quote (thus far):
“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know where he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

There wasn't really much else to do. Make something, and die.

AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Molly Lane, a flirtatious restaurant critic, dies from amnesia (inferred), her former lovers Clive Linely - a celebrated composer - and Vernon Halliday - editor for The Judge - reconvene at her funeral. Also at the funeral are George Lane, Molly's widowed (and detestable) husband, and Julian Garmony, who is running for prime minister and also once Molly's lover.

The memory of Molly trails Clive as as he works on his chef d'oeuvre, and accompanies Vernon as he struggles to save his declining newspaper. As the debut of Clive's symphony in Amsterdam inches closer, and while Garmony continues his campaign, Clive and Vernon encounter ethical dilemmas that force them to choose between what is 'morally right' - at the cost of their friendship - and what is 'best' for their personal objectives and careers.

Amsterdam is a thoroughly personal story; regardless of the scope of events its characters deal with, their each whim has its base on firmly grounded - and even depraved - personal desires. Both Clive, who struggles with writing his "Millennial Symphony", and Vernon, who attempts to save his newspaper, gladly dive into reprobate, degenerate waters to achieve their aims: the former does it to write the piece of a lifetime, and the latter does it for a return to glory.

Amsterdam is darkly humorous, well-structured and poetically written. Especially during McEwan's expressive, elegiac accounts of Clive's music do readers understand why The Times acknowledged him as one of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945." It is a quick yet thought provoking and plot-chasing read that will leave readers thinking about its beginning (spoiler) at its end.

View all my reviews

“We knew so little about each other. We lay mostly submerged, like ice floes with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man's privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy, pure thought, by the irreducible human element - Mind. ”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Furious, wind-whipped flakes

Snow Falling on CedarsSnow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most astounding factoids about Snow Falling on Cedars is that its author, David Guterson, worked on it almost exclusively during mornings hours because he was a full-time teacher (it's tough to imagine Guterson sipping coffee and chewing donuts while chronicling the many death scenes in this novel). Guterson took 10 years to finish the novel but his perseverance paid off: Snow Falling on Cedars would later win the PEN/Faulkner Award (and other awards, too) and even be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film.

The story is set on the island of San Piedro in 1954, a time when Anti-Japanese sentiments were still extant. A Japanese American fisherman - Kabuo Miyamoto - is accused of murder, and his guilt depends not only on empirical evidence but also on the bias of the jury (imagine TKAM + L' étranger). His wife, Hatsue, is his witness and Ishmael Chambers, a marine corps veteran, is tasked with documenting the trial.

Guterson knows no limits in storytelling; he traverses time, distance and culture as he writes of Chambers and Hatsue's childhood romance, the eviction of the Japanese from San Piedro after Pearl Harbour and the agonizing, submissive taciturnity of the Japanese. In one chapter one will readof strawberry fields and yarrow tea and in the next, encounter foul-mouthed soldiers and trenches.

Written immaculately and poetically, Snow Falling on Cedars will appeal to anyone who has an appreciation of fine language and historical fiction. The exotic terms Guterson uses, although at times seemingly redundant, nonetheless add to the novel's prosody and complement Guterson's attention to detail.

Although snow may lay a blanket on the cedars of one's past, Snow Falling on Cedars reveals that it will always melt away and reveal fresh branches of a cruel war and past love that impinge on us all the same. And although the snow that falls throughout the court case is peppered by nature's hand, the separation of Hatsue and Chambers, the prejudice of the crowd and even Hatsue's mother's stringent disposition reveal that "accidents rule every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart."

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Released on July 23rd, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros's new album (titled, funnily enough, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) has been heeded by the band's front man, Alexander Ebert, as the most "rawest, most liberated, [and] most rambunctious" album he's ever produced. One may initially feel slightly disheartened, however, upon listening to the much-anticipated album. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros's previous albums, Up from Below and Here both had distinctive stand-out songs - Home (which is still one of the band's most popular songs) for the former and Man on Fire for the latter.

Better Days, the first single on the album, somehow doesn't strike the same infectiously catchy chords as Home does; nor does it emanate the gentle, guitar-produced ambience of Man on Fire. Nonetheless, one cannot dispute that the track, along with the rest of the album, embodies all the core elements of an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros song.

Listening to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, one will hear the distinctly soulful and wide-ranged voice of Ebert, as well as thick backing harmonies (perks of having a 10-person band) and pulsing, echoing beats. Ebert's voice is without a doubt the band's most prized asset. Those who have listened to Home will already be aware that Ebert is a more than adequate whistler; his singing voice carries the same soaring fluidity as does his whistling.

Given the presence of all classic Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’s qualities, the album is ultimately infectious. Initially not wowed by Better Days, I eventually found myself helplessly listening to the album on repeat. You’ll find yourself listening to Two, appropriately named as it is a duet between Ebert and the band's other lead singer, Jade Castrinos, whose voice is sonorous, easy to listen to, and featured beautifully on the album's 11th track, Remember to Remember. The album closes with the sentimental This Life, which is different from the other songs on the album because it is slower and distinctively more melancholic. Give Me a Sign, a track from the deluxe edition of the album (and a personal favourite), presents similarly sentimental lyrics yet maintains an upbeat rhythm.

Despite the fact that 4 years – a length of time that has led certain mainstream artists to completely revamp their styles – have passed since the release of its first album, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros still produce songs that resonate with the depth and warm-heartedness of its first album.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney

The first time I heard of Seamus Heaney was around three years ago, when I purchased a Wordsworth collection and saw that he had written the preface. Later on, I would read his poems in several anthologies. Sadly, it is only now that I begin to look for more of his own collections. Rest in Peace, Seamus Heaney. Your poetry and prose will delight bookshelves for generations to come.

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Carefully caught regrets

Next to familiarizing oneself with a poet's style, the best part about reading a poetry collection is culling favourites. 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock' won me over immediately, as did the 4 Quartets (especially Dry Salvages). As seen in The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot certainly has a penchant for using 'death' imagery and writing about dry and barren things. He also explores the idea of the "shared agony" of life and death (I definitely prefer his commentaries to Jose Saramango's), and the passage of time. I will never forget how he refers to life as the "dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying."

I have to resist the urge to copy/paste massive chunks of quotes in.
"It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past."
^my favourite passage from The Dry Salvages. What an astounding Quartet - in a matter of lines TS Eliot reflects upon time, the human perception of its passing and happinness.
The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune
Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:
^I'm so accustomed to out of tune violins in August.
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.
^ from The Portrait of a Lady, one of the most memorable poems from this collection.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

So excited

Cameron Diaz as the leopard... Javier Bardem with his hair all gelled up... I CANNOT WAIT
James Franco directing Child of God - amalgamation (?) of two of my favourite people.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Sunset Limited

The first attractive factor of The Sunset Limited is the fact that it's based on the screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy (who, if it isn't already evident from here, here, here, etc.), is one of my favorite authors); in other words, the whole movie is essentially a gamut of golden (like 24 carat) lines.

The second factor (and truly the only other one required to pull you in if the first factor wasn't tempting enough) is the fact that the movie stars Tommy Lee Jones (who is also the director) AND Samuel L. Jackson, aka AGENT K AND MACE WINDU, delegates from two nations on the map of my childhood (MIB and Star Wars)!!

I've never seen Mace Windu  Samuel L. Jackson more animated/passionated than he was in this film; neither have I seen Tommy Lee Jones looking so despondent (not even when Laura returns to Zartha).
Essentially, like all plays, The Sunset Limited's success depends on its screenplay and its actors'  performance; therefore, as the three people involved are Cormac McCarthy, Agent K and Mace Windu, the film didn't go very wrong.

The Sunset Limited opens with Black and White (I'm not being racist, those are really their names) sitting at a table, White looking depressed and Black consolatory. We learn that White planned on jumping in front a train, the Sunset Limited, and would have succeeded had Black not yanked him out of harm's way.

For the remainder of the night, the two dispute over many thing, at the core of which is the veracity of the Bible. Perhaps the most expedient way of understanding the film is to simply make the direct (albeit pithy) connection that the Sunset Limited = death, yet to White, death = more than just the Sunset Limited. In a line that will remain in my head forever, White claims that all despondent beings are merely "terminal commuters in a moral leper colony" and death is the  reprieve. Black disagrees, and attempts (with a slew of jailhouse stories) to waylay White's escape attempts and convert him. But White is resolute and acclimatized to sorrow. Ultimately, he is the one 'wins' the argument, leaving Black alone to wonder why the God he trusted did not arrive to settle the conflict. in his favor.

I don't regard my state of mind as some pessimistic view of the world. I regard it as the world itself. Evolution cannot avoidbringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing, and one thing above all else. And that one thing is futility.
Show me a religion that prepares one for nothingness, for death. That's a church I might enter.Yours prepares one only for more life, for dreams and illusions and lies. Banish the fear of death from men's hearts...They wouldn't live a day. Who would want this nightmare but for fear of the next? The shadow of the axe hangs over every joy. Every road ends in death, every friendship, every love. Torment, loss, betrayal, pain, suffering, age, indignity, hideous lingering illness...and all of it with a single conclusion for you and every one and every thing you have ever chosen to care for. That is the true brotherhood, the true fellowship. And everybody is a member for life. You tell me that my brother is my salvation? My salvation? Well, then damn him. Damn him in every shape and guise and form. Do I see myself in him? Yes, I do. And what I see sickens me.

I want the dead to be dead - forever. And I want to be one of them. Except that of course you can't be one of them. You can't be one of the dead, because what has no existence can have no community.

White is not repudiating the antediluvian beliefs known to men, neither is he merely 'upset.' Cognizant that death is the terminus for everything on earth, the one for which we are not prepared for, perhaps he seeks death simply (ok, understatement) because the passage of life is a redundancy. To White, death is a nostrum for the "futility" of life. In Black's perspective, White's presentiment is a dark pessimism, but to White, it is the truth. Who is correct? As it is aptly stated on the film's epigram, "nothing is ever Black or White."

Ah, McCarthy gives one such substance to mull over.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer.

I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book and it was worth the effort.

First published in The New Yorker, So Long, See You Tomorrow by Williams Maxwell is a 70% pulled together and 30% "hazy half-recollection".

Lloyd Wilson, a tenant farmer, is found dead with one of his ears missing (why the ear, we never find out); Clarence Smith, his friend and husband of his mistress, is the definite culprit. Cletus Smith, son of Clarence, takes to wandering somberly in the hallways of the MoMA, stumbles upon a painting - the Palace at 4am - and meets then befriends our narrator. Although both come from different social classes, they are equated by their age and circumstance. Cletus is trembling under his mother's treachery, his father's retreat and the inevitable fragmentation of his family; our narrator is dealing with the death of his mother, his father's remarriage and a new town. Both face the impossibility that comes with the passage of time of ever "getting around to the way things were."

Not long after, Cletus' father suicides, forcing Cletus "over the line into maturity." When the two young boys meet again, our narrator, perhaps due to his never-pitied "physical inadequacy, fear [and] humiliation," fails to reach out to Cletus and allows Cletus - his momentary companion - to slide out of his life.

Yet the past is a metaphysical friend (or foe) to whom we can say "so long, see you tomorrow." This is exactly what our narrator does, for the memory of his ignorance is to him a betrayal as deep as Lloyd Wilson's affair was to Clarence, and follows him his whole life.

Upon his attempt to reconstruct the past, Cletus' first step is to "invent a dog," and this dog trots throughout the recollected past, as Clarence's pet, an observant companion that runs parallel to the boys' lost childhood. In fact, when our narrator cedes his recollection, and when Cletus's childhood is decidedly terminated, the dog is the first to go, put to sleep by chloroform, vanishing into the obscure past like a tarnished memory.

Tenderly recounted in the perspective of an old man yet recollected in the voice of the innocuous child he once was, So Long, See You Tomorrow reveals the vilifying power of betrayal, heartbreaking naivety of a child, and most of all, how a neglected gesture can turn into a lifetime's regret.

“Innocence is defined in dictionaries as freedom from guilt or sin, especially from lack of knowledge; purity of heart; blamelessness; guilelessness; simplicity, etc.”
“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
“Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.”
Best chunk from the novel:
“Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops. His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it. Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.”
“A gentleman doesn't have one set of manners for the house of a poor man and another for the house of someone with an income incomparable to his own.”
“Love, even of the most ardent and soul-destroying kind, is never caught by the lens of the camera.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The half-life of love is forever

After dragging myself through All the Names and July's People, I decided to read something more contemporary with a fair bit of cussing (joking about the latter). I first spotted This Is How You Lose Her in an airport bookstore, read the line "the half life of love is forever" in the blurb (mind you, I was studying radioactive decay then) and have hungered to read it since.

It took me a while to realize that I was reading a collection of short stories, not a novel - Diaz's narrative tone is so autobiographical throughout and his characters recurrent that the stories, like Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, string together effortlessly.

This Is How You Lose Her revolves around, Yunior, a reckless yet innately sensitive womanizer who goes around breaking hearts but always eventually gets his fair share of karma and learns that he's become prone to "losing 'her,'" whoever 'she' may be - his high school teacher, his fiancee, or maybe even just some 'sucia' he met at a club.

From being subconsciously aware of his father's dishonesty (I may be wrong but it was heavily insinuated) to watching his brother recycle helplessly stricken girls, Yunior finally becomes the fickle, mercurial "Dominican man" most girls in the stories come to stereotype and avoid; he is left in adulthood, suffering from stenosis and sour.

The best in this collection are: The Pura Principle (the funniest), Invierno (the tenderest) and The Cheater's Guide to Love (the most confessional and heartfelt one of all).

Sadly, one story - Otravida, Otravez - fits uncomfortably into the collection because it is written in the perspective of a woman and trammels the otherwise continuous flow of Diaz's narrative; nonetheless, This Is How You Lose Her is a quick and hilarious read.

I'll definitely read Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; from what I've heard, they embody the same, if not more, explosive literary energy Diaz pours into This Is How You Lose Her.

“A father is a hard thing to compass.”
“In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace--and because you know in your lying cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get.”
“Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn't do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.”

July's People

I unfortunately didn't cling on to this novel as much as I was hoping to - I'll revisit certain pages and remember particular phrases but eventually think: 

What I did manage to grasp, with aid of the blurb: July's People is set in the late 1980s. July, a servant, helps the white family he serves - the Smales family - escape the violence of the African Americans' violent retaliation to apartheid. The way Gordimer sews the human relationships together in this novel is tender and masterful (I'm definitely rereading this novel).

I bolted down 100 pages of this book at 2am last night (bad idea) but thankfully pulled myself together for the ending, which is gorgeously written. This novel is a delicate clash between love and angst. Although its plot line is tough to follow (due to the prose), this novel has at least told me one thing: continue reading Nadine Gordimer!!
The humane creed [...] depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings. If people don't all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation in the same way, what claim can there be for equality of need?

All the Names

Senhor Jose is a clerk at the Central Registry, an establishment headed by the inscrutable and incontestable Head Register. Jose, like all the other employees who work at the Registry, is tasked with the job of "transforming life and death into mere paper;" of recording the date of births, marriages and deaths of all citizens.

With a myriad of files at his disposal, Jose begins a dangerously unconventional hobby - collecting the files containing the information of famous people. Then, he makes the discovery of the file of an 'unknown woman' that changes his life and puts his career at risk.

A recurring theme in Jose Saramago's novels is that of the unbreakable union of life and death; although this theme is definitely portrayed in All the Names, what I found most enlightening was the idea of order(almost Big Brother-esque)that is encapsulated in the workings of the registry. Everything follows orderly processions and unquestioned regulations - perhaps the most magical moment of the novel is when Saramago abruptly switches to the first person narrative, right after Jose 'spills the beans.' It is only in the wake of his emotional dispatch, one compressed for years, that Jose may become an individual only fugaciously free from the bonds of the Registry.

"In order to die, you need only be alive." It is not an amalgamation of life and death that Saramago suggests, but rather the inevitable nature of their non-mutually-exclusiveness. The dialogue, free of quotation marks, may send readers down a path as tortuous as that of the Registry's archives, but perhaps quotation marks are too 'lively' for this sinister novel.

...I really need to start reading novels that have likable protagonists.

As a result of a fall he might have lost his life, which would doubtless have a certain importance from a statistical and personal point of view, but what, we ask, if that life were instead to remain biologically the same, that is, the same being, the same cells, the same features, the same stature, the same apparent way of looking, seeing and noticing, and, without the change even being registered statistically, what if that life became another life, and that person a different person.
Fame, alas, is a breeze that both comes and goes, it is a weather vane that turns both to the north and to the south, and just as a person might pass from anonymity to celebrity without ever understanding why, it is equally common for that person, after preening himself in the warm public glow, to end up not even knowing his own name.
When we announce the beginning of something, we always speak of the first day, when one should really speak of the first night, the night is a condition of the day, night would be eternal if there were no night.
There are, after all, so many coincidences in life, for one cannot see any close or immediate relationship between that fact and a sudden need for secrecy, but it is well known that the human mind very often makes decisions for reasons it clearly does not know, presumably because it does so after having travelled the paths of the mind at such speed that, afterwards, it cannot recognize those paths, let alone find them again.
There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world, and for a short while they manage it, but only as long as they are there to defend their collection, because when the day comes when it must be dispersed, and that day always comes, either with their death or when the collector grows weary, everything goes back to its beginnings, everything returns to chaos.
It has long been known that death, either through innate incompetence or a duplicity acquired through experience, does not choose its victim according to length of life, a fact which, moreover, let it be said in passing, and if one is to believe the words of the inumerable philosophical and religious authorities who have pronounced on the subject, has, indirectly and by different and sometimes contradictory routes, had a paradoxical effect on human beings, and has produced in them an intellectual sublimation of their natural fear of dying.

Friday, August 2, 2013


How many Oscars is this film going to snag? Best director, actor, supporting actors/actresses, picture (tentative) and ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY?!!? Every single line enunciated in this movie will have been WRITTEN by CORMAC McCARTHY.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pests... or pets?

I haven't posted in AGES, but here's what's been happening recently:

1) I watched How to Train your Dragon and it's now become my favourite animated movie ever (apart from the old Disney classics) - not only is the soundtrack (you go, John Powell) sweeping and breathtaking, the movie's message, albeit rehashed, is poignant and important. It takes but a friendship between a semi-tailed dragon (an incredibly mignon and Stitch-resembling dragon) and a viking-underdog to stress that we should never judge a book by its cover, but definitely embrace our own differences. Toothless and Hiccup are both outcasts, but are finally seen for who they truly are - HEROES!

2) I'm reading All The Names by José Saramago, a Nobel-Prize winning Portugese author. Saramago absolutely eschews quotation marks (or line breaks between dialogue for that matter), signifying new dialogue with only a comma and capital letter; this means I have to be painstakingly prudent when reading this book, but it's worth it! Besides from the fact that the main character is far from likable, Saramago spews out an intellectual sentence every few paragraphs, so I've got a whole bunch of quotes lined up on another post, which I'll release when I finish the book, along with a review.

3) I've fallen in love with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. by T.S. Eliot. I liked it before, but I'm now REALLY absorbed by it. Did a mini happy-jig upon realizing that it's included in this collection of poems I have at home. Tedious argument, insidious intent... the rhymes are astounding!

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michaelangelo.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

A Tale of Two Cities is similar to Great Expectations. In both novels, readers meet a cruel, domineering woman, and - true to Dickens - elements of gothic fiction. Whether they spill from the 'sharp female called La Guillotine' or are found at the bottom of the graves Cruncher digs, blood and death are prevalent during the French Revolution, the turmoiled time in which the characters of this novel live.


A Tale of Two Cities is a story of tyranny, self-sacrifice, and of course, love. It tells the story of two men, strikingly similar in appearance yet distinct in character: Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. Darnay is wrongfully convicted for a crime he did not commit, but saved from a sure death by Carton (spoiler alerts: clever foreshadowing on Dickens's part) Both men fall in love with the Lucie Manette, the daughter of a French doctor, and although Darnay ultimately weds Lucie, the fates of both men, in the "shadow of the guillotine" (as the blurb on my copy eloquently puts  it) are inevitably intertwined.

Although many 'flat' (quote E.M. Forster) characters in A Tale of Two Cities simply do not undergo as much character development as Pip does in Great Expectations, the ingenuity of this novel's plot line and the eloquence of Dickens's narrative make up for all the minor foibles in this triumphant work. Just as how Cosette's plain nature does not impinge on the tremendousness of Les Mis, Lucie's one-sided disposition does not affect the ultimate achievement of A Tale of Two Cities either.

This novel was both difficult and lovely to read, the former due to Dickens's oft-archaic prose (not to mention the weight of the volume) and the latter due to the novel's perfect pace and mind-blowing revelations. All the motifs and imagery in the novel - such as the jackal, game of cards and knitting (perhaps I'll write separate posts discussing these motifs) are masterfully used to portend and symbolize the happenings in the novel. It is a truly rewarding - yet heartbreaking - 5-star classic.
I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out...
A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!