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 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 [ 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.