Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A token of gratitude to Tolkien

10 years ago, as I was searching for Dr Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham on my bookshelf, I caught a glimpse of the novel that would change my life 10 years later: J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Inspiring and magical, The Lord of the Rings has impacted not only my love of writing but also my travel destination choices. Frodo and Sam's gruelling yet moving journey to destroy the One Ring will forever remain my favourite coming of age story.

Here's a one-girl-band cover of a self-arranged LOTR medley in honour of the novel's 60th anniversary. I honestly cannot thank Tolkien, Peter Jackson and Howard Shore enough.

P.S. Apologies for squeaky, out of tune recorder

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sommes nous de si petites choses, si infinitement petites, que nous ne pouvons rien?

No et moiNo et moi by Delphine de Vigan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daphne de Vigan's No et Moi is a moving novel because it captures that golden space of time in childhood during which a guileless child, curious and optimistic, recognizes all that is flawed with the world and tries to change it.

When faced with an upcoming presentation for her social and economic sciences class, our young yet fiercely intelligent protagonist Lou decides to interview No, a homeless girl - or, as the French call it: une femme sans domicile fixé (SDF) - to discover what life on the streets entails.

Even before the day the task was assigned, Lou had already noticed No by the train station countless times. There friendship seems, in a way, 'meant to be.' It is such keen sense of observation on Lou's part, her curiosity and her endless capacity for caring deeply, that is so characteristic of her as the novel develops.

For a while, No and Lou meet regularly for coffee and form an initially tentative, but gradually more natural, friendship while the interviews continue. After Lou's presentation is over, however, No vanishes from her life - Lou, frantic to find her, eventually tracks her down and begs to see her. Yet Lou's request request is rejected by No who harshly responds, "c'est pas ta vie, tu comprends, c'est pas ta vie."

Independent as she is, Lou has a strong desire for companionship. Home is not a warm place; her baby sister died years ago, her mother struggles with depression and her father is often away for work. Thus, it is unsurprising that it is Lou who needs No - while No, despite caring about Lou, is ever-conscience of their different places in society and knows that they could never have a 'normal' friendship.

Yet, for a while, they do. Needless to say, friendship is the most significant theme in the novel. Le Petit Prince is quoted several times as Vigan draws to our attention the story of the fox and the prince. An unlikely pair, but close friends nonetheless because each is unique to the other. Is it not the same with No and Lou? The title of the novel, No et Moi, mirrors No's claim that "on est ensemble, hein, Lou, en est ensemble." Yet their bond is cruelly challenged.

Although the time during which Lou and No live together suggests the possibility of their friendship persisting, and indeed even seems to liven up Lou's family atmosphere, the heartbreaking reality of their relationship emerges without fail at the end of the novel.

No's problems do not dissolve even after she finds herself a social worker and temporary shelter. Forced to make a living, she dedicates herself to tireless working hours that eventually drive her over the edge and send her down the path of drink and smoke.

Bound on leaving and finding the life she deserves, No makes grand plans to leave for Ireland where her lover Loïc supposedly waits, and invites Lou to come along. Finally, however, we find out that Loïc was never there. Eventually, it is only No who quietly slips away, leaving No behind, restoring both of them to their 'proper' places and usual lives. It is a heartbreaking ending that throws into light the grand themes of the novel.

The maxim that encapsulates most of the situations in No et Moi and the one that Lou struggles to defeat, is this: les choses sont ce qu’elles sont. Things are what they are. It radiates pessimism and the very fixedness that divides No and Lou and keeps Parisien streets dotted with SDFs. As Lou aptly and poetically puts it,
On est capable d’ériger des gratte-ciel de six cents mètres de haut, de construire des hôtels sous-marins et des îles artificielles en forme de palmiers, (…) on est capable de créer des aspirateurs autonomes et des lampes qui s’allument toutes seules quand on rentre chez soi. On est capable de laisser des gens vivre au bord du périphérique.

A major theme in the novel is therefore abandonnement. One could say that Lou was abandoned by her mother, who lost herself in her sea of grief. Lucas, Lou's classmate on whom she has a crush, is certainly left alone in an empty apartment while his mother wanders elsewhere. Finally, No herself has been abandoned by not only family and Loïc, but also society.

Beneath the skin of this young-adult novel lies a serious plea for reconsideration - for an evaluation of the way we let our societal constructs barricade relationships across social ranks. For a reassessment of the SDF condition in France. The limitations drawn by rank feature prominently in many French novels; Muriel Barbery, notably, deals with this problem specifically in L'élégance du hérisson, through which she reveals how the clever concierge considers herself worthless due to her social standing.

And here in No et Moi we have an endearing protagonist who battles to overcome these stipulations.A n admirable one-girl-band, Lou reminds us the importance of grit, the unconditional quality of a beautiful friendship and also the need to realize that les choses ne doivent pas être ce qu'elles sont - things do not always need to be what 'they are.'

Vigan leaves us with a piece of advice that No demonstrated so well:
Il suffisait de regarder autour de soi. Il suffisait de voir le regard des gens, de computer ceux qui parlent tout seuls ou qui déraillent, il suffisait de prendre le métro.

Ultimately, only someone like No - whose curiosity leads her to wonder about subjects ranging from "le sense de rotation de la la langue" to those qui "dorment enfouis dans des sacs de couchage" - has the sensitivity and acute awareness to notice the injustices of society and has the admirable drive to remedy them as best as she can.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

If a dream can tell the future it can also thwart the future

Happy Birthday, Cormac McCarthy! 81 and still writing!!
Thanks for everything.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.

My Struggle, Book 1My Struggle, Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgård
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I heard of Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle was when I came across a New Yorker article in which the irrefutable link between the title of his novel, and that of Hitler’s manifesto, was discussed.

I skimmed through the piece and didn't think much of it – next thing you know, books 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are in bookstores EVERYWHERE.

The novel is receiving near-universal praise; Zadie Smith compared it to
crack and the Guardian calls it the “latest literary sensation.” Whoever reads My Struggle seems to agree that it is very, very addictive. So I put aside my fear of big books for a moment (cough The Luminaries cough Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals) and decided to give the first couple of pages a go…

… and then I was hooked. It doesn’t particularly help that there are no chapters - only part 1 and part 2 - so you read on and on and on.

My Struggle is Knausgaard’s autobiography. I devoured the first volume in roughly six hours. I considered calling it quits at one point (maybe I’ll just finish the first volume, I thought); however, since Knausgaard left me hanging after the last page, I NEED more.

My Struggle begins with the following introspective line:
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

Readers are at once introduced to the theme of death that eventually becomes central to the novel’s development and conclusion. The way Knausgaard begins his autobiography is thoughtful: indeed, long paragraphs of philosophical reflection recur throughout the novel. Then, Knausgaard’s style switches to the narrative voice: he lets us in on his childhood fears, his vision of a face in the water and his frequent anxiety. Knausgaard wrote My Struggle at forty-something and in the middle of his second marriage; however, the novel ends with him in his younger years, still attached to his first wife.

So, both form and time melt away in this novel. We jump between philosophical reflections to classic storytelling, from adolescent years to the afternoons of adulthood. Such versatility is of course a part of what keeps readers hooked on My Struggle. Although high school English teachers boycott this word, it must be said: My Struggle is interesting. Knausgaard’s life is worth reading about and the way he exposes it is unreservedly honest and captivating. I mean, he wrote 2,700 pages on his own life: he takes it seriously, and so do we.

Much of the first volume is centered on Knausgaard’s relationship with his father. We know from the beginning that Karl Ove and his brother, Yngve, are afraid of him. He can drive them to tears; they move around him tentatively. As Karl Ove himself admits, he most certainly wrote the novel for his father just as his need for others to ‘approve’ of him is influenced by the way he, as a child, badly wanted his father’s attention. The father is no doubt an enigma. He always seems to know, by intuition, whatever Karl Ove is hiding. Karl Ove is equally perplexed when, after his parents’ divorce, he sees his father wearing new clothes and surrounded by people who – seemingly out of the blue – are all his relatives. Even his death is an enigma – how exactly did it happen? Can the grandmother be trusted?

We encounter a Madame Raquin-esque figure in Karl Ove’s grandmother. It was in reading the parts where she was present that I nearly forgot I was reading an autobiography. Her sleepwalking, repressed alcoholism, enigmatic air and steady “unraveling” all transform her into an utterly unforgettable character that is not so much unlike the lonely women we meet in fiction.

It’s astonishing how Knausgaard tells all and recalls all with such thoroughness. At one point in the novel, Knausgaard reveals how his adolescent policy of drinking generally revolved around the “go hard go home concept.” The same could be said for his writing. Remarkable detail fills up The Struggle. For example, Knausgaard manages to evoke so much Norwegian culture and childhood nostalgia in just a simple span of pages when he describes the fish his family used to eat. All this detail has earned Knausgaard both praise – and trouble. The price of being honest in an autobiography means, of course, that those written about can get hurt.

“His wife had agreed to be included, telling him only: "Don't make me boring," and he gave her the manuscript to read on a long train journey. Having finished it, she called him three times. The first time she said she thought it was OK, but that she didn't like it. The second time, she told him that their life could never be romantic again. Finally, she called him and wept.” http://www.theguardian.com/theobserve...

Nonetheless, we are left with a lot of questions at the end of the autobiography. How did Knausgaard end up leaving his first wife? How exactly did the father die??? At what point in his life did he and his mother really grow apart? The desire to know is maddening!

No wonder My Struggle is so wildly popular.

P.S. more discussion on the struggle itself will come after I finish books 2-6.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

"I believe that you are destined to be evaluated by a clinical psychologist, and they'll determine that you have delusions of grandeur, and display acute antisocial behavior, and have monumental control issues."

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So... I cheated on Gabriel Garcia Marquez by taking a break from 100 Years of Solitude to read Dave Eggers’ Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Exist?

The story kicks off immediately with tense dialogue between Thomas, our angry and snobby protagonist, and his unfortunate captive: Kev, an astronaut and Thomas' former schoolmate. Thomas’ tone is know-it-all and bluntly prying; Kev is bewildered and quite frankly disturbed. Such polarity generally sums up the nature of most interrogations conducted throughout this all-dialogue and immensely thought-provoking novel.

Among Thomas's mercilessly questioned (perhaps challenged is the better word) victims are:

1) Kev, of course: the trained astronaut who did everything right / attended MIT / is engaged but is denied his journey to space due to the cancellation of a space shuttle launch

2) An ex-congressman and war veteran who was tangentially involved in the aforementioned cancellation

3) Mr Hansen, the math teacher who technically sexually harassed Thomas and his friend Don Banh instead of teaching them math

4) Thomas's mother, who depended on drug and drink instead of raising her son (she, needless to say, is not at the prime of her physical health at the time of her capture)

5) The young cop who was involved in the police shooting that killed Don

6) The lady behind the hospital counter who was on duty when Don was brought in, and who denied visitor access to both Thomas and Don's mom

7) And finally, perhaps the most intriguing kidnap of all: that of Sara, the woman Thomas meets on the beach and considers to be 'the one'

All of these captives contribute to Thomas's dissatisfaction. All of them are certainly not so happy themselves. And all of them - including Thomas - represent the ways in which society is rippled by flaws that are too often left unquestioned.

"It's not a kidnap,” Thomas repeatedly insists. Rather, the purpose of his conquests can be described as a quest for pinpointing blame: blame for Kev’s crushed dream, blame for Don’s death, blame for the way he himself turned out misunderstood and unloved at age 35.

Should the congressman - the government - take responsibility for the dissolution of people’s aspirations? Should teachers, or parents, be accused for the way their students and children turn out? The magic of Eggers’ novel lies in his clear use of representation: the congressman is our window into the legislative system, the cop reflects the failures of a crippling police force, the nurse demonstrates the passivity of an ignorant bystander prey to the rules and regulations of society.

Indeed, all the characters in this novel are victim to a set of blindly followed guidelines and expectations laid out by unquestioned authorities. Kev, for example, tries to achieve what he set out to do through the standard approach: do well in high school, attend a prestigious grad school, etc. The congressman claims he wasn’t the only man responsible for the decommissioned shuttle - “others” were behind the steering wheel instead. The nurse doesn’t allow Don’s mother to see him for the last time because of some “standard procedure.” Finally, and most ridiculously of all, Mr Hansen attempts to talk his way out of his quite blatant pedophilia through getting all specific with the exact connotation of ‘harassment’ and what is and isn’t ‘legally condoned.’

It is ironically fitting that the congressman is the one who ‘mentors’ Thomas and even attempts to guide him to security. Even when shackled to a pole in God-knows-where, the congressman wears the politician’s shoes - he is the peoples’ man. The victims are only pulled out because the search team came for him.

How likable is Thomas as a protagonist? At the beginning, he’s irritating albeit interesting. As the novel goes on, we allow ourselves to give him some degree of sympathy, understanding and finally pity. After all, he is on a helpless one-man quest to clarify the past, understand the present and change the future. Yes, he is delusional and victim to the idea that things should turn out the way they should. His illusory ideas are best exemplified through his kidnap of Sara, expecting her to also sense the ‘love at first sight' moment he feels so strongly and escape with him to some forsaken island. Her inability to ‘understand,’ however, only further reinforces Thomas’s isolation.

Regardless of the crude means through which Thomas attempts to arrive at enlightenment, he is making a bold effort - that is why he is our protagonist.

On the structure of the novel: in Chinese class, we spoke of the main plot and subplots as bright and dark lines - 明線和暗線. Thomas’s interrogations take up, of course, the bulk of the 明線. Don’s story, however, is reserved for and progressively revealed through the 暗線. Such plot structure mirrors Don’s tragedy: just as his death was quickly covered up by the police, his story is swallowed up by the interactions between Thomas and his captives.

But Don’s death reveals the bigger issue that Thomas eventually sees. Whereas Thomas began his quest hoping to discover why the ‘perfect’ guy (Kev) didn’t see achieve his dreams, the more serious problem he deals with is finally why Don, a misguided kid, is abandoned and ultimately shot for no reason.

As a huge fan of setting description, I was initially hesitant to read an all-dialogue novel. Having read it, however, I realize that it works and indeed portrays human relationships in a way that leaves much to the readers’ imagination. Such an effect supports Eggers’ aim, I think, in urging readers to contemplate the types of people he portrays in the novel and the too-often unchallenged problems of society. In telling the whole story through speech, Eggers simplifies the scenarios and tells everything ‘as it is.' In this way, everything that is unsaid and hidden becomes more evident. I suppose readers will either love or hate this novel, depending on whether or not they can accept Eggers' style or appreciate his rather unique form of introspection.

I loved this novel because it is a treasure trove of questions. It’s one of those novels that 1) reminds me of the importance of reading-thinking not just reading 2) encourages me to read more contemporary novels!!

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