Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Everyone, at some time, is a continent of one

Falling Off the MapFalling Off the Map by Pico Ayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having taken a growingly serious interest in travel writing, and having wanted to read Pico Iyer ever since I came across this quote, "Kindness is water, religion is like tea. You can survive without tea, you can't survive without water," I decided to pick up Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World two days ago.

In six eloquently crafted essays, Iyer introduces us to six different places, each fascinating and lonely in its own right.

What makes a lonely place? According to Iyer, lonely places
  • have no seat at our international dinner tables
  • all are marching to the beat of a different satellite drummer
  • develop tics and manias and heresies. They pine, they brood, they molder
  • are generally sure that their time is about to come
  • are often poor places, because poverty breeds wonkiness and a greater ability to visualize than to realize dreams  
  • are often small countries, because smallness gets forgotten
and, most poignantly of all:
  • attract lonely people
Unsurprisingly, the enigmatic and remote North Korea tops the list of lonely places in this collection. Argentina is there, too, a place with people "living in a dream" despite the economic collapse happening around them. It is followed by Cuba, which carries a "sense of wistfulness, of a life arrested in midbreath." Iyer captures the "seduction" of Cuba's loneliness, describing how "the whole island has the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set." Then, there is Iceland, which has a mystic quality to it; we, like Iyer, are swept away by its "certain kind of magic" as well as struck by its darkness.  Bhutan is the "hidden kingdom" that, like North Korea, shuts itself from the outside world (both are vastly different, however). Vietnam is beautifully described as "a pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in." Paraguay is the "orphaned land," and the title of the essay - "Up for sale, or adoption" - is sadly fitting. Finally, we have Australia, which perhaps does not strike the modern reader as that much of a "lonely place" yet nonetheless comes across as "a country that feels as if it has fallen off the planet" in Iyer's essay.

In all essays, Iyer shows how the busiest of regions have a lonely face to them (e.g. the touristy Saigon side of Vietnam vs the abandoned Hanoi). He sews together every place's people, history and geography to present a portrait of loneliness to which local residents may not even be attuned. Iyer also alludes to other writers, such as Márquez and Lawrence (this is something I have noticed travel writers often do).

The reason why it is so lovely to read Iyer is because he comes across as a bold explorer, deciding "to try one last time to walk across the deserted street" in Pyongyang, and daring to accept a stranger's offer to board a new (and risky) plane to Bhutan. He has a keen eye for details, missing nothing about the different dimensions of a city. And he is as much of an intensely involved observer as he is an outsider, a unwelcome guest at certain Korean restaurants in Paraguay. We are often reminded of the fact that lonely places attract lonely people.

Yet beyond the loneliness of deserted landscapes and oblivious dreamers, there are also evolving cultures and reinvented people, foreign influences and more travelers. This book was published in 1993, and not all the places it describes are so lonely anymore. Yet as Iyer reminds us, "there will never be a shortage of Lonely Places, any more than there will ever be of lonely people."

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家變家變 by 王文興
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

沒想到我有一天竟然會在這個博客上用中文寫一篇書評。其實, “書評” 這個詞不太適當。我以下寫的內容應該只能算是十分隨意、非正式的 “讀後感”。想來想去,想要念英文 文學的我以後不會有很多讀寫中文的機會。為了避免我的中文水平下降到太離譜的地步,我還是偶爾讀一本中文書,再將短短的 “讀後感” 登上這裏吧。。。


幾個禮拜前,電視播放了一部關於王文興的紀錄片。主持人解釋了王文興的寫作風格特色,也談到他的代表作,《家變》,所探討到的父子關係 主題。就這樣,《家變》引起了我的興趣,而我決定把它讀完。

在《家變》的第一、二頁以內,故事中的父親就從家門往外走去而消失了。在這個時候,我覺得《家變》的讀者 有百分之90個就會馬上 認為整本書會圍繞著主人公,范曄,尋父親的過程。(另外的百分之10 先見之明的能力比較強)。

可是,《家變》的情節並沒有根據一個線性的劇情。作者通過157 個小段來敘述主人公的過去,以各種小細節反映出他成長的過程。這就是故事的“暗線”。反過來而言,王文興藉由 A 至 O 的小段來敘述故事情節中的“明線”,也就是范曄找父親的發展。

暗線 (許多段路都這麼短)

21     晨霧還迷濛著仄巷,隔著水汗淋滴的玻璃窗板,他聽得到巷口賣豆腐的女人吟喚著唱聲:“豆腐哎——豆腐唉——”他每一天清早都聽到這個唱聲。  
22    狂風呼出嗥號的聲調,窗架子自己作響不歇,一片掌大的紅葉從窗前飛過。  
明線 (每一段,長短,都是由刊登於報紙的廣告開始)

G  父親:您離家已經半個月了,請快快回來吧!  子曄

M  父親您離家已近三月,請歸來,一切問題當照尊意解決。   子曄


王文興就是從這些家庭衝突出發來強烈抨擊 當時傳統、封建家庭 令人窒息的 制度。他批評的其實也就是 家庭 這整個機構:

“在今天台灣的社會上家庭中其所以互相無法藹然相處的原因以我的觀察所得來看至少抓得出兩個原因是主要最要的原因而來:第一——這兒的房子太小,住在一家子的人相相互互妨礙,沒有辦法達到眼不見為淨的田步。往日的仕大夫一般人他們蠻可以精求'孝道',他們的房屋屋敞廳恢,他們具那樣的條件講求孝道當然容易,讓他們來住住像我們這樣隘小狹湫的日本房子住住看——第二:今天一大部份家庭裡面的問題出在我們這些當兒晚的人沒有辦法去嚴格懲處我們自個兒的父母,不能夠去很打他們一陣。假如是家裡面的小孩子們當他們觸犯了誤禍的時候,你可以一任自由地去呵責他們,笞打他們,如斯一來你的心裡面的氣就也跟著消了,問題因此也就隨而化為無形了。可是對於為父為母親了的人卻一點無有可能這麼的個去做去。以是心底里淤積的憤恨愈積愈增! ”



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Monday, June 29, 2015

童年的紙飛機現在終於飛回我手裡 / a very, very long post

Last Sunday, I returned from my 12-day trip to Taiwan with my friend, Angie (if you are reading this, hiiiii!!). It was my first time going there without my family, and my final taste of motherland before I leave for the windy and exciting city of Chicago in September.

Our first stop was Tainan, 台灣的美食之都 (Taiwan's culinary capital) and also my hometown. Two days there were enough for me to realize how much had stayed the same - and all that had changed. 孔廟(Confucius Temple) still has its place in the center of the city, although the surrounding walls have now come down. The 國立台灣文學館(Museum of Taiwanese Literature) remains a welcome shelter for people to 避暑 (avoid the heat) and read about Taiwan's literary past, although the former seems to be the preferred option these days. Most surprisingly of all, the newly-revamped 奇美博物館 now looks like Versailles/The White House/something you'd find in Rome. My family friends tell me that it is the largest art museum in Asia, and I feel a surge of pride.

Here was the sunset we saw on Day 1.

Day 2 was a whirlwind tour around the city via 台灣好行, a travel-bus-package that lets you take any bus in the city (including the 台灣好行 tourism bus) and stop at various destinations throughout the day for just 88 NTD. We first took a nearly-90-minute bus ride to 七股, where we climbed the famous 鹽山 (the salt mountain; a blindingly white spectacle in the middle of nowhere) and began to feel the palpable heat that would pursue us throughout the day - indeed, throughout the entire trip. From there, we travelled back to the heart of Tainan, stopping at the 安平樹屋 (Anping treehouse; we didn't go in, though) and then to the desolate-looking 安平老街 that had been bustling the last time I visited during high season. We ate chocolate and vanilla ice cream from a U-shaped cone (you guessed it, one flavour per tip), the legendary 臭豆腐 (stinky tofu; ah, the smell of home) but saved space for 渡小月, where the most authentic 擔仔麵 (danzai noodles) of Taiwan is served. We went to both the flagship and the original restaurants, experiencing yet again a sense of the new and old in the same city. Time stretched that day as we hopped on and off a number of buses and strolled countless streets. I have never explored my hometown without my family, but I realize at the end of the day - with an almost childish sense of fulfilment - that I have what it takes to do it!

We left 台南 on day 3, catching an early train to 台東, where our biking expedition (the gold star of our itinerary) would begin. I was so nervous about missing the train that when we finally boarded and put our bags down, I didn't even fully realize I was speeding away from family friends I have known for more than a decade, the hospital where I was born, my 故鄉. Not knowing when I'd next return, I left it all behind at 300km/h. (We'd later be biking at around 1/15th that speed).

When we sped past 屏東, however, I was fully (and guiltily) aware. This was probably the first time I had returned to Taiwan and not stopped by 屏東, my parents' hometown. To be truthful, there is nothing left for me there anymore, apart from a childhood-defining meal of 涼麵 (cold noodles with sesame sauce and cucumber), my uncle's family, my mother's cousins and memories that I've recorded in my diaries and poems. Ah, I must admit: 屏東 will always be the one place in 台灣 that has the greatest bearing on me. Nonetheless, I remain seated on the train that flies past it.

Biking began that afternoon. Never have I ever felt so emotionally attached to a vehicle (I mean, even my name is on it!). 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Live in the past, do I?

The SeaThe Sea by John Banville
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read John Banville's The Sea in 2012, but knew when I put the book down that I would be opening it again. Now, three years later, new insights reveal themselves, although Banville's eloquence and diction strike me all the same.

In The Sea, the lonely and ageing Irish-man Max Morden returns to the seaside retreat where he used to spend his summer holidays as a child. Although he mourns for his recently deceased wife, it is the distant past that haunts him as he remembers the wealthy family that he met there: the "god-like" Graces. Throughout the novel, Banville recounts his childhood infatuation for Mrs. Grace, as well as his later fleeting romance with her daughter, the high-handed and unpredictable Chloe Grace. Yet the hulking and hairy presence of the father, Carlos Grace, taints our impression of the affluent family from the onset, just as the mute and enigmatic Myles - Chloe's twin - lends an unshakeable sense of spookiness to the whole story. It is through Max's revisitation of the "rubble of the past" that we discover the tragedy that befell the Graces and understand why our narrator remarks, "the past beats inside me like a second heart."

As a child, Max was a voyeur, scrutinizing the privileged lives of the Graces and trying to unravel the complex relationship between Rose, their governess, and the family. The intensity of the fascination that the Graces held for him explains why his past has such a firm grip on his present. Thus, it is no surprise that Max continues to observe his surroundings in his older years, but now peers into the windows of a bygone time.
To be concealed, protected, guarded, that is all I have ever truly ever wanted, to burrow down into a place of womby warmth and cower there, hidden from the sky's indifferent gaze and the air's harsh damagings. That is why the past is just such a retreat for me, I go there eagerly, rubbing my hands and shaking off the cold present and the colder future.
It is clear that Max, tormented by his deep-seated sense of shame and guilt (the roots of which we do not discover until the huge revelation at the end), is not the most reliable of narrators. For example, he insists that he has made particular references in the novel without having done so, just as readers discover later on that "Max" may not even be his real name.
"I was, one might say, not so much anticipating the future as nostalgic for it, since what in my imaginings was to come was in reality already gone. And suddenly now this strikes me as in some way significant. Was it actually the future I was looking forward to, or something beyond the future?"
Yet we sympathize with him nonetheless, seeing the pervasive alienation, deep-rooted grief and self-inflicted misery that has pursued him throughout his life; such are layers to the novel I had not registered so thoroughly three years ago. Yet The Sea retains its magnetism: it is a lyrical and carefully woven contemplation of a troubling childhood and difficult present, and our narrator's memories return to him with the consistency of waves and the weight of water.

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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Clever how the cosmos can, in a single portent, be ingratiating yet sadistic

Three JunesThree Junes by Julia Glass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading a collection of short stories and a memoir this past week, I found myself yearning for fiction - a world with more interconnected characters and plot twists.

My wish was granted by Julia Glass's Three Junes, a novel in three parts that traces the separate (yet linked) events of three Junes in 1989, 1995 and 1999 respectively.  In the first third of the novel, Collies, Paul McLeod travels to Greece after his wife's death, where he meets new people yet cannot tear his thoughts away from his memories of the past. In Upright, Paul's gay son, Fenno McLeod, recounts his custodiary/ relationship with the enigmatic music critic Malachy Burns. Finally, in Boys, Fern (a girl Paul met in Greece), Fenno, Fenno's lover (Tony, who was also romantically linked to Fern at one point) and Fenno's brother are , and everyone's past and present intertwine.

The most memorable feature of the novel is Glass's use of flashbacks - pieces of the past interspersed everywhere that explain as much about the characters as they do about the present. It is through Paul's memory of his late wife crying about the death of a fellow collie-trainer, for example, that we suspect the possibility of an affair (a suspicion confirmed in Upright). All three parts of the novel are thus connected: they all involve the McLeod family, contain at least one death, and revolve around love. The way the three parts are sewn together, as a triptych, means that each "June" is crucial to our understanding of the other Junes. To some of the characters, fate is the thread that elegantly brings them together:
When it comes to life, we spin our own yarn, and where we end up is really, in fact, where we always intended to be.
And such layering lends the novel its mysteries and complexities. We, looking at the world through Paul's eyes in Collies, believe that his son Fenno is romantically involved with Malachy Burns; however, only in Upright do we learn that Fenno and Mal's relationship (and Mal, for that matter) is far more complex. Similarly, our impression of Fern is shallow at best from Collies, but she is given the depth she deserves in Boys.

The best third of the novel is Upright; it could stand alone and sustain itself marvellously. Indeed, it effortlessly outshines the other two. From Fenno's perspective, we learn about the conflict he feels between meeting his deceased father's expectations of being upright and balancing the complex feelings he harbors for both Tony and Mal. At the same time, we also witness the affection that passes between him and his nieces; such are the joys of family. Furthermore, the dialogue in this story is remarkably witty and its ending is striking (and, I confess, tear-inducing).
Invisible threads connect the three Junes and are understood by the reader, who can often see what the characters cannot. Yet we are also often surprised by what each new June reveals about our understanding of love and family:
To love me, my family does not need to understand me.
Mind who you love. For that matter, mind how you are loved
To have children is to plant roses, muguets, lavender, lilac, gardenia, stock, peonies, tuberose, hyacinth ...it is to achieve a whole sense, a grand sense one did not priorly know. It is to give one's garden another dimension. Perfume of life itself.”
Through Three Junes, I am once again reminded of the true pleasure that reading brings - the intertwining layers of a good story, the secrets of its characters, the sympathy and exasperation we feel towards them. It is certainly a thoughtful, captivating and well-sequenced novel. 
People take their same old lives wherever they go. No place is perfect enough to strip you of that.
Time plays like an accordion in the way it can stretch out and compress itself in a thousand melodic ways. Months on end may pass blindingly in a quick series of chords, open-shut, together-apart; and then a single melancholy week may seem like a year's pining, one long unfolding note.
Splinters in the heart, invisibly and erratically painful: this is how Fern has thought of her accumulating sorrows. Impossible to expel or withdraw; if you’re lucky, they slip out on their own. but perhaps they are more like the seeds inside a brightly patterned gourd, beyond germination but essential to the wholeness of the gourd itself. Without breaking its durable, ossified skin, you cannot remove them; sometimes they will clatter about and make themselves known. It’s just the nature of things.
When it comes to love, there is the timeworn caution that the very qualities you fall hardest for may be those you grow to despise.
Some of us have the infinity of the ocean at our doorstep, others the platitude of a nicely groomed hedgerow. ... And some of us, lucky dogs, see cascading stars while the rest of us see none and think, disdainfully, that they must be a hallucination. ... Some of us get love ... as right as it can be - and others get everything else but.

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

The wild can be human work

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The maxim "do not judge a book by its cover" does not apply to Helen MacDonald's H is For Hawk.

Indeed, it was the beautifully illustrated front cover that first drew me to the book several months ago: the thick, black lines tracing the hawk, the brown hues colouring the print, the bird's piercing gaze.

The allure and details of the front cover accurately reflect the book itself, which contains the most mesmerizing and intricate writing I have read so far this year. This is nature writing at its best: from "shotgun-peppered road signs" to a spider "ascending like an intrepid hot-air balloonist to drift and disperse and fall." One cannot forget the revelation of the hawk, which is absolutely arresting:
...amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.
In H is for Hawk, Macdonald's traces her journey of taming a goshawk after her father's death. Her relationship with birds has always been complex: as a child, she saw the goshawk as a thing of "death and difficulty," as it was through the bird that she had her "first sight of death." Yet it was also through birdwatching with her father that she learned, "when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient."

Macdonald's reflection of the "madness of grief" truly hits the mark in this memoir. There are lessons she learns, such as:
The world is for ever, though you are only a blink in its course.
The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten
What the mind does after losing one's father isn't just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.
Yet her goshawk, which she later names 'Mabel,' brings her a "gulping-down champagne sense of joy." The connection between human and hawk is explored in detail, especially as Macdonald recounts the bitter life of T.H. White, author of The Goshawk, in a parallel, gradually unfolding structure throughout the book. Writing about White, Macdonald reveals how “White saw that the hawk was himself, a bird that was a 'youth who had been maddened by every kind of clumsiness, privation, and persecution." It is therefore fitting that she, too, sees the hawk as "everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” Indeed, "the world with the hawk in it was insulated from harm, and in that world I was exactly aware of all the edges of my skin." Such lines betray Macdonald's throbbing grief, her bruised heart, and her desire for recovery through taming the hawk.

Macdonald's detailed account of training her hawk ties into her reflection on her own grief. While she stresses the importance of being "invisible" when first being acquainted with a hawk, she also notes that invisibility is "a habit you can fall into." 
And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world.
At the same time, however, there is a palpable sense of healing that emerges near the end of the book, as the hawk's taming becomes complete and the tone of Macdonald's writing grows warmer. She goes from "jobless, homeless" to wondering "if home can be anywhere, just as the wild can be at its fiercest in a run of suburban back-lots." By the end, the "shape" of her grief has turned into something that was "simply love." 

In this memoir, we learn as much as we do about hawks as we do about Helen - who, in the process of taming her hawk, also tames herself, swaps society for wilderness, recognizes the depth of her grief and experiences the soaring joy of watching her hawk fly. The memoir exposes not only the weight of her staggering struggles, but also her unflinching patience and persistence. H is for Hawk, and H is for Helen, too. 
You can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you.
There is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our views of the world.
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.”

A History of the World in 10½ ChaptersA History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first question one asks about Julian Barnes's A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is, of course, "why the 1/2?"

We don't arrive at our answer until we read the 8.5th chapter, Parenthesis, which, unlike its fictitious predecessors, is more akin to contemplative musing than short story. It synthesizes the stories that have gone before to show that, as we are told in one story, "Everything is connected, even the parts we don’t like, especially the parts we don’t like." But before we get there -

We begin with the gem of the book, a fictitious account of Noah's Ark recounted by a mysterious (not to mention unreliable) narrator who repudiates everything we know about the ark and only reveals his identity in the last sentence of the story, brilliantly crushing any barriers to the imagination that might have stood inside the readers' heads. Anything can happen if woodworm were aboard Noah's ark!

None of the stories that follow can match the wit and surprises of the first, yet all demonstrate Barnes's inexhaustible capacity for wit and storytelling. In The Wars of Religion, he demonstrates his versatility through legal-speak (the story is of a man vs woodworm trial before the court). The Survivor, with its mentions of "persistent victim syndrome" and "fabulation", puts a modern take on the 'ark' - in this story, a boat carrying a doomsday-fearing woman and two cats. Upstream! is hilarious and consists of letters written by a pretentious and ignorant narrator filming a movie with an Indian tribe.

Thus, all stories differ wildly in terms of plot; however, the best part about reading this book was discovering the common motifs that bind them. One is the woodworm, which is seamlessly referenced in nearly all stories; the other is the ark, which crops up in the form of a raft in Shipwreck and the St. Louis ship in Three Simple Stories. An element of the holy is present in nearly all stories as well, with the curious pilgrimage in Project Ararat and the description of 'heaven' in the final story, The Dream.

The first Julian Barnes book I read was The Sense of An Ending, and a memorable line from it is: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

I was reminded of this quote when reading this line from A History of the World in 10½ Chapters: "We know how to distinguish myth from reality. We are sophisticated people". The ironic tone this claim carries, however, along with the fabulations in this novel, suggest that we do not always know how to make this distinction. Barnes also quotes Marx, saying that "history repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce". History is certainly repeated as farce through the fictitious tales in this novel.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters is a clever, intelligent book, not as accessible or captivating as some make it to be, but one that challenges us to ask big questions, doubt its narrators, and look for the connections that sew together the many "histories" - from biblical to personal - explored in it.

“History isn't what happened, history is just what historians tell us.”
“The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections. We lie here in our hospital bed of the present (what nice clean sheets we get nowadays) with a bubble of daily news drip-fed into our arm. We think we know who we are, though we don't quite know why we're here, or how long we shall be forced to stay. And while we fret and write in bandaged uncertainty - are we a voluntary patient? - we fabulate. We make up a story to cover the facts we don't know or can't accept; we keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them. Our panic and our pain are only eased by soothing fabulation; we call it history.”
“Perhaps love is essential because it's unnecessary.”
“You can deal with the brain, as I say; it looks sensible, whereas the heart, the human heart, I'm afraid, looks a fucking mess.”
"Well, at least it produced art. Perhaps, in the end, that's what catastrophe is for.”
“We must be precise with love, its language and its gestures. If it is to save us, we must look at it as clearly as we should learn to look at death.”
"‘I love you.’ Subject, verb, object: the unadorned, impregnable sentence. The subject is a short word, implying the self-effacement of the lover. The verb is longer but unambiguous, a demonstrative moment as the tongue flicks anxiously away from the palate to release the vowel. The object, like the subject, has no consonants, and is attained by pushing the lips forward as if for a kiss. ‘I love you.’ How serious, how weighted, how freighted it sounds.”

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