Saturday, December 31, 2016

Its sound is my sound. I can't bear to part with it.

An Equal MusicAn Equal Music by Vikram Seth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When violinist Michael Holme's past lover reenters his life unexpectedly in Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, he suddenly finds himself dealing with both the struggles of quartet life and the unrest of his own broken heart. Julia, now a married mother, is not the woman she was before, and Michael cannot—despite how hard he tries—bring back the music of their past. Yet music permeates the entire novel. At the bass line of the story's main melody, which follows the adulterous duet between the two protagonists, the tensions within the quartet, and Michael's lonely solo life, is music.

Seth clearly knows what he is talking about, musically. The classical music speak throughout the novel is the best thing about it, and makes it a delight to read for music lovers. There are passages in the novel that nail how I feel about Beethoven's Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1 No.3, playing the second violin part, and even my own violin:

"I agree with whoever said it should more properly be called "the other violinist". Its role is different, not lesser: more interesting, because more versatile. Sometimes, like the viola, it is at the textural heart of the quartet; at others it sings with a lyricism equal to that of the first violin, but in a darker and more difficult register."
"I love it and it loves me. We have grown to know each other. How can a stranger hold and sound what has been in my hands so long? We have been together for twelve years. Its sound is my sound. I can't bear to part with it."
At the same time, there were times when I felt I was being lied to—Seth would foreshadow disaster in a concert, only to later reveal that the performance went wonderfully. Towards the end of the novel, as Michael grows sentimental, his narrative voice also becomes poetic and erudite in a way that does not seem to befit his character at all:
"A walk at the end of the world, the earthquake plate, alone; the mudflats of subsidence and flood, and the hermitage of the one who found the true cross. . . . If we had four hands, would Bach's mind have further branched? Let our thumbs be opposable at the opposite edge. Let our teeth be pulled, let us have baleen like whales, that our plankton love might grow, that we might ungnashing plash and play."
This shift in tone, combined with Seth's use of an apostrophe ("the little dog ... knows that what is, is, and, O harder knowledge, that what is not is not"), points towards what Seth wants us to realize: Michael is an unreliable narrator. Indeed, moments in the book make us detest him. "You're a bully, Michael," Julia tells him when he insists that they play in the church. His imperative tone ("make that a promise") and relentless pursuit of her don't help us empathize with him.

But ultimately, his love of music and his love for his violin are what matters. That is the love that, unlike his relationship with Julia, is at the heart of the novel.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

I grew up watching Star Wars—on the clunky TV at home, on Dad's laptop, in the campus library using giant LaserDiscs. We moved once, traded our stout little television set for a sleeker one, and continued watching Star Wars. In 2005, I had my first galactic experience in a cinema when watching Revenge of the Sith. I started watching the films way back in primary school; now at university, I'm friends with a group of people who love the galaxy just as much as I do.

Star Wars has always been an important part of my life, and at the heart of it for me is Princess Leia. Bold, brave, and badass—she saved lives, fought for what she believed in, and sustained a calm wisdom throughout the rebellion. What would have happened to Luke and Han if she hadn't befriended the Ewoks? Where would Han have ended up if she didn't unfreeze him? I always felt a special connection with her (as a girl, as a twin) and know that this connection will live on.

Carrie Fisher herself brought the badassery she took to the big screen to real life. Her character fought to restore galaxy to the empire; Carrie fought to battle the stigmas against mental illness and addiction. She created hope in places of darkness. As she would have wanted us to say, she went in the most eccentric and poetic fashion—"drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra." Rest in Peace, Carrie Fisher—your legacy, both on-screen and off, will live on in galaxies near and far. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rebellions Are Built On Hope

Around this time last year, I watched The Force Awakens. It is fitting, then, that the first film I watched upon returning to Hong Kong was Rogue One.

The prequel to A New Hope, the film tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance procured the death star plans (and hence knew they had to blow up the reactor). Action-packed, suspenseful, and right in the heart of the galaxy, Rogue One thoroughly achieves what it sets out to do—although its aim, as I'll later explain, can be considered problematic.  

The film must primarily be commended for its stellar cast. Felicity Jones was bold and badass (this franchise deserves female protagonists), Diego Luna was kind and indefatigable, Riz Ahmed nailed the stressed-out-rebel-pilot vibe. But I must give a special shout-out to Donnie Yen, who is a Big Deal in Hong Kong and absolutely kills it as Chirrut (I was super happy to see his Yip Man skills strengthened by the Force). The action scenes in the film were well-paced and thrilling— by the time the Jedah scene was over, I had already stress-eaten all of my popcorn.

Rogue One is in many ways a classic Star Wars film—ships jump into hyperspace (and there's always some anxiety regarding this jump), an endearing talking droid is present, the Force is ~there~ but often scoffed at, the Empire is making everyone miserable, the protagonist has unresolved questions about her father, and so on.

But Rogue One is also different from the other films in that it is considerably darker (although that opening slaughter scene from The Force Awakens still gives me chills). ONLY a film like this—sandwiched between existing (and very successful) films, Episodes III and IV—could pull off killing all its main characters. After I walked out of the cinema, I somehow could not remember the names of Chirrut, Baze, Bodhi, and this usually isn't a problem for me. It's almost as if the film set up its characters to be unmemorable, nameless nobodies (Bodhi is more often referred to as "the pilot" than by his name). Through killing off the rebels, the film implicates (without every explicitly saying it) that the rebellion on the ground level is essentially a suicide mission. This perspective puts a *yikes* but also realistic spin on the film, which repeatedly tells us that "rebellions are built on hope".

The ending—despite the predictable yet nevertheless much-welcomed Leia entry—is truly kind of unsettling, given that it was preceded by a string of deaths (and nasty ones, too, at the merciless hands of Darth Vader). Leia tells us in the final scene that the chip she holds represent hope, but that somehow doesn't seem like a very satisfying answer. For me, it represents the tenacity and sacrifice of the rebels we just spent the past two-ish hours following; condensing all their efforts into 'hope' feels unjust.

And how many moviegoers genuinely care that pretty much every character we just rallied for died by the end of the film? They were never part of the 'big' picture. Ultimately, any new Star Wars film will always hinge upon the shadow of episodes IV-VI. That's why C-3PO, R2-D2, Vader, and those familiar headshots of goggled rebel pilots flying their ships had to be in the film. That's also why so much effort was made to extremely impressively and unsettlingly recreate Grand Moff Tarkin and Leia via CGI (honestly, I was floored by the results).

So, Rogue One did feel a little extra in the context of the whole Star Wars saga (the obliteration of the opening crawl already seemed to distance it from the other films). But I do like how it introduces more diversity into the galaxy and presents a view of the Star Wars universe that is less lightsaber-centric than its predecessors were. I grew up watching Star Wars as a kid and am honestly just happy that I get to keep watching these films as an adult.

As the url of this blog will always read, may the force be with you!

Monday, September 12, 2016

So much of life was the peeling away of illusions.

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was National Read A Book Day on September 6th, and I pretty much devoured Matthew Thomas's We Are Not Ourselves. I've had a problem all summer where finding time/energy to read has been difficult, but binge-reading We Are Not Ourselves made me feel a lot better.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Eileen Tumulty (tumulty / tumultuous is not a coincidence). As the rest of the book will reveal, she spends her whole life trying to take care of others and fulfil personal dreams that - although more disillusioned at times than practical - make us sympathize with her nonetheless. She marries Ed Leary (again, Leary / King Lear is not a coincidence), an intense, practical, and extremely productive academic. They have a child, Connell, who is bright like his father and as subject to the pressures to conform as his mother can be. The novel revolves around this trio, usually tracing their shared yet individual lives from one angle at a time, putting distance between each of them in a way that accentuates their different perspectives and concerns. In all ways, we see how they all act in ways that are not entirely themselves - be it Connell's decision to act like a jerk in order to fit in with the cooler kids, Eileen's fleeting cult experience, or -- most distinctly -- Ed's Alzheimer's.

Figuring out what was wrong with Ed was my main incentive for reading on. I should have gotten the hint because of the Leary-Lear connection, but I kept thinking it was OCD until the reveal. He was the least clichéd character in the novel. Eileen, with her ambition to buy a house + escape Jackson Heights, and Connell, with his adolescent urge to fit in, were the closest to being stock characters. But Ed stood out as the one who was most 'not himself,' not only because of his illness, but also his attempts to masquerade his discomfort around his family and friends when Eileen threw parties. His letter to Connell was one of the most poignant points of the novel.

Matthew Thomas is an alumn, so perhaps it's no big surprise that Connell eventually goes to UChicago. The description of campus - Cobb, the Med, the Rockefeller Chapel all honestly made me feel pretty nostalgic for college.  I'm flying back in two weeks, and am going to make it a mission to leisure read as often as I can. I might not be able to produce a review after every book, but I've decided that is okay - getting the words into my system will be good enough.
“Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve.”
“You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.”
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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Look for the bare necessities

I finally watched The Jungle Book (on the plane, of all places). It only took a minute of Mowgli darting through the jungle for me to start kicking myself for not watching the film in 3D—the animation and cinematography are stunning.
Although the opening scene suggests danger, we realize soon after Bagheera pounces on Mowgli that our protagonist has a special place in the jungle. Raised by wolves, the man-cub calls the pack his family and considers the jungle his home. Yet he has never assimilated completely into the wild; unlike his brothers and sisters, he matures slowly and has a penchant for ‘tricks’ that set him apart from the animals. He lives in contradicting circumstances as someone who is at once accepted in the pack but also a clear exception to ‘The Law,' which emphasizes the importance of being wolf-like.

Mowgli’s sense of belonging is not seriously thrown in question until the water truce brings all the animals—including Shere Kahn, the most feared and menacing tiger of the jungle—to the same place. Bent on killing Mowgli, whose father scarred him with fire (the ‘red flower’) years ago, Shere Kahn will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Thus, Mowgli is told to return to the ‘man village,’ the only place he will be safe.

Threats are abound in the jungle, from the hypnotic Kaa (not the first time Scarlett Johansson’s voice has been used to seduce) to the towering and power-hungry King Louie (truly reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt).

“Don’t run away from who you are,” King Louie tells Mowgli, thinking that he is destined to wield the flower of death and destruction. His advice, however, can be reinterpreted to reflect the truth; Mowgli defeats Shere Kahn by fighting “like a man,” demonstrating the power of channeling one’s true aptitude through devising ‘tricks’ instead of repressing his instinct for tool making.  

It seems symbolic that Mowgli does not finish reciting The Law at the end of the film, for much of The Jungle Book is about the beauty of bending the rules. Bagheera’s very decision to take in Mowgli at the beginning already sets such a precedent. The story is an important reminder that anyone can harness their potential and overcome the stereotypes that entrap them (even the initially slothful and plodding Baloo, who ends up scaling a cliff).

The animals came together once during the water truce, but it is ultimately Mowgli who unites them in a sense of solidarity and shows them that friendship can transcend the barriers in a community that may seem dictated by a food chain.

The film was so enjoyable to watch—intense, humorous (can Bill Murray go wrong?), and moving. I love how the elephants command an Ent-like presence (the similarities are uncanny: both are venerated, walk slowly, and use great volumes of water to their advantage). Of course, I also love the soundtrack (apart from the two swing dance classics performed by Baloo and King Louie, the film’s epic orchestral rendition of The Bare Necessities is what made me want to watch it in the first place).

“I wanna be like you,” sings King Louie. But the film shows us that it is much better to be the individual you really are, no matter where you come from or who you live with. Mowgli is not a man or a cub; he is a man-cub, and he belongs in the jungle all the same.      

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A sliver of light

Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short StoriesFlash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories by James Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been binge-reading a lot of flash fiction lately, which is a pretty easy and wonderful thing to do anytime and anywhere. Riding the MTR, waiting for mom to finish her errands at the bank, sitting on the toilet ... you name it.

As the title of the anthology suggests, the stories in Flash Fiction Forward are each over in a flash, and the authors only have so many pages that they can use to surprise or move us.

Sometimes, the stories end too soon and expectations are not met. Most times, however, the pieces in this collection have shown me the magic of short form.

Many of the writers use the brevity of their stories to experiment with style: "Currents" is told backwards, "To Reduce Your Likelihood of Murder" is a list of of orders ("Do not go outside. Do not go outside, on dates, or to the store..."), "Test" is a four-part 'exam' that makes you rethink your life (with Extra Credit, "Fully explain the ways in which you are wrong").

A lot of the stories also use their endings to effectively reverse the impressions that we formed at the beginning, meaning that our initial assumptions still linger in our heads by the time a story is over (after all, each one is so short) and make us wonder about what on earth just happened. In "Accident," a car accident that could have gone terribly wrong turns into an opportunity for the protagonist to potentially make new friends and come to terms with his loneliness; in "The Handbag," a crime devolves into an unusual and low-key romance story. In "The Good Life," a woman who seemingly has it all going for her turns out to be stuck in a rather dark place.

Due to their brevity, the stories also have the space to capture single symbols very wholesomely and memorably. In "Parrot Talk," our protagonist - like the parrot she talks about - has also "adapted to a hostile environment" and flourishes in it. In "Toasters," the image of two slices of bread popping out simultaneously (plus the heat/suspense/force that comes with it) echoes the double domestic fights happening in the story.

Short and daring, some stories also just simply throw you something bizarre and let you absorb it for a spell. "My Date with Neanderthal Woman" transfixes you from start to finish in all its brilliant strangeness and unconventionality, the ending of "Crazy Glue" feels like a dream, and "The Orange" is about a fruit that ruled the world (until it was eaten).

The last piece in the collection is called "Death of the Short Story," but the imagination and gusto of the stories in this anthology prove that the short-short story is more alive than ever. Even the ending of that last piece, which reveals how everyone started making up "lies about the Story," demonstrates the immortality of fiction. As writers and readers, we are indeed always waiting for "a sliver of light" to "break loose from the oblong, suspended momentarily like a musical note on fire before streaking recklessly into the surrounding night," inspiring our writing and illuminating our lives with a literal flash of fiction.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Life is jazz-shaped

Jazz PoemsJazz Poems by Kevin Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending such a long time being obsessed with jazz music, I guess it was only a matter of time before I also started reading jazz poetry.

I keep telling my students (I'm currently teaching spoken word poetry to kids) that poetry = music = poetry. Jazz Poems, with its selection of poems written about the genre and for its musicians, confirms this idea through and through. Like a band, the collection is divided into numerous sections: Vamping (early jazz poems), Swinging (my favourite, obviously), Bop, Horn Section, etc. Each section has its own gems, but all demonstrate the undeniable link between poetry and music.

Some poems use onomatopoeia to convey the sound of jazz:
"go husha-husha-hush with the slipper sand-paper"
- "Jazz Fantasia," Carl Sandburg
"Plink plank plunk a plunk
Plink plank plunk a plunk
- "Jazz Band," Frank Marshall Davis
Other poems apply a subtler approach, creating rhythms from the form itself. In "Bringing Jazz" by Maxwell Bodenheim, an author's note at the top of the poem informs us that readers should speak the odd-numbered lines slowly and the even-numbered ones quickly. Here are the first four lines of the poem, to give you an idea:
"Last night I had an oboe dream
Whistlers in a box-car madness bringing jazz.
Their faces stormed in a hobo-gleam,
Blinding all the grinding wheels and singing jazz."
In "Jazz is My Religion" by Ted Joans, the irregularities in punctuation/spacing/letter case echo the improvisational nature of the dance itself, the range of dynamics, the changes in tempo, and so on.

But jazz poems are not exclusively about the music itself. In the introduction to the collection, Kevin Young writes that jazz, apart from inspiring experiment, has "just as often inspired elegy" in poetry. Indeed, numerous poems are written as tributes to jazz musicians. The whole last section of the collection, Muting, consists of poems written for Billie Holiday. One of the pieces I found mot memorable, Lawson Fusao Inada's "Listening Images," pairs composers' names with a couplet:

Acorns on the roof -
Syncopated oakestra


Sunrise golden
At the throat"
The poems in this collection also reflect the historical roots of jazz and its musicians (indeed, Lindy Hop originated from the folk dance created by African slaves). Lewis Allan's "Strange Fruit," for instance, is a poem about racism that was later turned into a song and made famous by Billie Holiday.

And, like jazz, many poems in this collection are bold and unapologetic:

In the last few lines of AM/TRAK, an elegy written for John Coltrane, Amiri Baraka tells us to:
" Live!
& organize
yr shit
as rightly
Baraka's performance of the poem, which you can watch here, also demonstrates the necessity and beauty of performing jazz poems.

As Jazz Poems delightfully and poignantly demonstrates, music is poetry. The rhythms, rhymes, and words that are inherent in both forms create a pulse that inspires dance and song.

So, "Go to it, O Jazzmen!"

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The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter  The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carson McCullers's The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a tragedy told through the lives of five main characters who are ultimately unable to overcome the condition that afflicts them all, loneliness, in a Southern town polluted with racial inequality, poverty, and the disseminating promises of the American Dream.

Without spoiling too much...
Biff Brannon, who runs the café that is the main setting of the novel, struggles with not only defining the nature of his feelings for young Mick Kelly after he becomes a widow, but also his own gender and sexuality. Mick, who is the novel's protagonist and dreams of becoming a conductor one day, must pursue her ambitions alone in the aftermath of a turbulent adolescence and lost friendship. Dr. Copeland is too intellectual for his own good and is unable to rally allies who can understand his views on civil rights, while Jake Boult's plans for violent revolt destine him for isolation. Even John Singer, the deaf-mute who is a "home-made God" to characters like Jake and Mick, cannot escape loneliness. Despite the frequent visits that others pay him, Singer remains lonely due to his separation from his long-time and dangerously obese friend, Antonapoulos, for whom he never ceases to feel an intense (and absurdly deferential) attachment. All these characters, who differ in race and status, are linked in more ways than it may appear at first glance .

Indeed, some kind of disability also afflicts them all. Apart from the fact that a blind/deaf/mute character is always bound to be symbolic, the ideal of disadvantage is particularly important to this novel, which focuses on characters that are unfavored due to reasons that range from class to skin color. Singer and Antonapoulos are both deaf, Biff has "a special friendly feeling for sick people and cripples," Blount gave people the impression that "something was deformed about him," and even the seemingly picture-perfect Baby does not make it out of the novel unscathed (her fate is a harsh reminder that her mother's dream for her child to be in the movies is but a fantasy).

Reading the novel, I was fascinated by the way characters depend on Singer through divulging their feelings to him and considering his stoic silence an anchor of security. Somehow, through his soundless responses, Singer becomes whatever people want him to be (which makes his 'real' life all the more intriguing by comparison, for he himself is ironically and disastrously dependent on Antonapoulos). McCullers captures the core of the desperation in such dependence best as she writes,
"Maybe when people longed for a thing that bad the longing made them trust in anything that might give it to them.” 
"... in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons--throw it to some human being or some human idea."
And such longing/relinquishment of everything personal highlights the need for escape and self-validation in an era and environment of helplessness.

Terrible deaths happen in this novel due to illness, murder, and suicide; love is often unreciprocated; mutual understanding is cripplingly difficult. Perhaps Mick's ending can be interpreted as hopeful as she still aims to pursue music, but I was definitely struck by a sense of defeat at the end of the novel. It's the kind of book I think I would teach in a classroom - there's so much in it that is worth writing about.

I'm utterly blown away that Carson McCullers published this novel when she was only 23; with its complex characters and intricate structure (fun fact: the book was split into three parts to imitate a fugue), The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a work that lives up to its name.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity

Higher Gossip: Essays and CriticismHigher Gossip: Essays and Criticism by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Updike's essays are such a pleasure to read because his writing voice masters the combination of eloquence and amiability. When reading his work, I'm at once acutely aware of how elegant and refined the prose is yet also drawn to its effortless sense of approachability.

Higher Gossip is a compilation of Updike's thoughts on various subjects, such as people (ranging from Tiger Woods to Kurt Vonnegut), writing, and art. The book also contains the introductions, forewords, and afterwards that he wrote for numerous books. I did not read every essay, but Higher Gossip has been informative and all-encompassing in terms of covering the scope of his non-fiction.

Most of what this book has done, though, is inspire me a lot.

In "A Poetics of Book Reviewing," Updike gives advice that I wish I had read when I first started this book review blog:

In "The Game," Updike once again* shows me how comparisons should be executed by comparing golf to a woman for whom he has an unrequited love: "I fell in love with golf when I was twenty-five. [...] Sometimes I wish she and I had never met. She leads me on, but deep down I suspect--this is my secret--that I'm just not her type." Updike extends the metaphor to describe her "pretty green curves and "snug little sand traps," and the way she lets a long putt rattle in just when "you think she's turned her back on you forever." Golf is an intuitive old girl, a tease, an accountant.

*Fun fact: my favourite simile of all time comes from Updike's Self-Consciousness, in which he captures the intimidating nature of public speaking by describing how the microphone before him was "uptilted like the screened face of a miniature fencer."

Updike continues to inspire in "The End of Authorship," defending the future of books:
"Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity."
All in all, vicariously gossiping with Updike through his numerous essays has indeed been wonderful. Until next time!

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

The English PatientThe English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first Michael Ondaatje book I read was his memoir, Running in the Family. I remember it for its range of intriguing characters and poetic portrayal of landscape. These two elements also marked my reading of The English Patient, which is perhaps Ondaatje's most famous work.

The English Patient is a novel that crosses continents, a fact that is foremost apparent in its characters: Hana, a Canadian nurse, is tasked with treating a man who has been severely burned during the war (Hana thinks the patient is English but later discovers that he, Almásy, is not). She becomes lovers with an Indian sapper, Kip, but kind of has a complex platonic/romantic relationship with Caravaggio, an Italian-Canadian thief whose skills were enlisted for the war. There are also the Cliftons, who become important when we learn about the 'English' patient's backstory. All of the characters are affected by the Second World War, a total war that was dominated by the "choreography of power" and had widespread effects on people. The primary setting of the novel that shapes its characters is a post-war time.

Yet for me, the most striking setting in the novel is the desert. On the one hand, there is the magic of its vast and endless landscape: "In the desert you have time to look everywhere, to theorize on the choreography of all things around you."

At the same time, the desert also reveals Almásy’s wish for "an earth that had no maps," a transnational territory that does not keep us bound to "the clothing of our countries." Nationality is a malady in the novel; on a global level, it is one reason for war. On a personal level, Almásy's nationality is what precludes him from being able to save his lover (a bit more on that later).

As Ondaatje writes, “the desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names." Although Hana speaks in a different context when she asks, “do you understand the sadness of geography?” her comment points to the way we must label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings" even though a cartography that marks us "by nature" would allow us to remain as "communal histories communal books." The desert, like a great mediator of nationalities, removes the territorial frameworks that send people to war and divide humanity.

I've never read about the desert in that way before and I don't think I'm ever going to forget it.

While set in a time of great conflict and combat, The English Patient is also a story about love. In the main plot, there is the love that Hana has for Kip, Almásy and Caravaggio. But it is the affair between Almásy and Katherine Clifton that appears later on in the novel that truly illuminates Almásy's past and grips you. It's tumultuous, romantic and heartbreaking as hell.
“When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian, a bit of a pedant who reminisces or remembers a meeting when the other has passed by innocently…but all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur.”
“A love story is not about those who lost their heart but about those who find that sullen inhabitant who, when it is stumbled upon, means the body can fool no one, can fool nothing—not the wisdom of sleep or the habit of social graces. It is a consuming of oneself and the past.”
The English Patient is a powerful novel, which is relevant as it also explores the power of books and language; we learn about a time in Hana's life when "she fell upon books as the only door out of her cell. They became half her world.”
“She had always wanted words, she loved them; grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape.” 
“A novel is a mirror walking down a road" is a memorable line from the novel and it is striking to think that there are people for whom this novel - with all its heartbreak and war - is a mirror. Yet I hope that this mirror also captures the love and hope for transnationality in The English Patient.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

You’ll realize that this is where your life is

Hello, all!

My summer holiday has begun, meaning that this book/film review blog is back in business!
I've accepted the fact that I won't be able to post regularly doing the school year; I still do a ton of reading and writing at school, but mainly for class. When I’m not wrangling with words, I spin poi/tumble with the circus and swing dance instead. All in all, college has been a wonderful time.

Anyway, I wrote most of this yesterday while on a plane back to Hong Kong. I was at an altitude of 31,000, the temperature outside was -56 F, and it was 7:38 pm Chicago time, but since we were flying over The Arctic Bay at that exact minute, who knows what time it really was. I peeked outside the window and saw the ice extend forever. Sunlight scorched the land, making the tributaries look like silver. Snow coated the ridges of dark mountains. The whole terrain was like a lithographic print. I would be on that plane for a total of around 16 hours.

I have yet again managed to watch another emotional, heart-rending film on a long-haul flight (other films I have cried to while in the air: Room, Short Term 12, 海角七號).

~ spoilers ahead ~

I heard great things about Brooklyn, but I’m glad that I watched it at the end of my first year of college (you’ll find out why by the end). In the film, Eilis, played by the brilliant and elegant Saoirse Ronan, leaves her home country of Ireland to work in Brooklyn, New York City. While she feels sad about leaving her mother and sister behind, her decision to go is greatly in her favor: there’s nothing left for her in Ireland, where she is stuck working for the awful Ms. Kelly and—despite her brains—will never be given the chance to engage in meaningful work.

Yet Eilis’s initial foray into Brooklyn is far from smooth. Wracked by homesickness (well-foreshadowed by her boat sickness), she is advised to “act like an American” in order to fit in, to be amiable at work, and to essentially settle in ASAP.  

But settling in isn’t so easy, and doesn’t get any easier until Eilis meets Tony Fiorello, a charming Italian who asks her to dance at a weekly Irish dance. The two begin dating, Eilis gradually becomes less reserved, and completely blossoms in Brooklyn: she passes her book-keeping classes with flying colors and falls deeper in love. It seems like nothing could be better.

Then, when Eilis’s sister Rose dies, Eilis is struck by the urge to visit home and returns to Ireland. Paradoxically, it seems like life there—for the month that she stays—will be even better than her time in Brooklyn. She has returned “a star,” strikingly competent and beautiful. Her time in New York was like a spell; Ireland appears to be where she belongs. She is courted by the wealthy bachelor Jim Farrell, offered a job, and encouraged by everyone to stay.

She is so preoccupied with wishing that this was the way life was before she left that she forgets—until an unpleasant encounter with the gossipmonger that is Ms. Kelly—what life was like in a small Irish town in the 1950s. Eilis remembers what drove her from Ireland in the first place and remembers that she has left her heart back in Brooklyn.

The film is a beautiful meditation on what it means to find a new home and create a new identity for yourself. It was slightly clichéd at times, but lovely regardless. I’m glad that I watched it after my first year of college because its last line resonates with me in so many ways:
And one day, the sun will come out you might not even notice straight away—it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that this is where your life is.
I’m not saying that I have immigrated to America and am going to live there forever with an Italian husband, but there are moments when I realize that I have made a life for myself in Chicago, in a library lounge full of swing dancers, in an open gym with people on silks/flipping/juggling/etc, in a room of friends who have become like family.  

And while I have yet to experience genuine homesickness while studying abroad, I resonate with the advice Eilis gives to the new immigrant she meets on the boat:
When you get to immigration, look like you know where you’re going. You have to look like an American.
I remember being nervous when flying to Chicago on my own for the first time, but I'll never forget how happy I was when I landed in Chicago after winter break and took public transport from O'Hare back to my dorm (ft. two luggages and a violin that has become like my fifth limb) while snow paved much of the ground outside. I'm so grateful that I have a life for me and a family in a city almost 8,000 miles away from the one that I live in now.

The next time I’ll be on another long haul flight is late September; who knows what movie I’ll watch and cry to then. Ah well, I’ll write about it when the time comes.

Happy summer!