Friday, March 30, 2007

The Individual

I’m currently reading Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, and I’m intrigued about what they have to say about individuality in Chapter 3:

“Modern people usually seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments. I’ve got to be me. I must be true to myself. The more we can be free of parents, children, spouses, duties, the more free we will be to ‘be ourselves,’ …Yet, what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life? Where is there some ‘self’ which has not been communally created? By cutting back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”

It’s not the conventional modern understanding of individuality and freedom. That conventional idea often angers me when I see it in books or movies (or worse, real life). I’m reminded of Julianne Moore’s portrayal of an apathetic housewife in The Hours: she isn’t in an abusive relationship, but she gets stressed out because she can’t bake a damn cake (a symbol for her repressed frustration), and she decides that the only way to truly be herself and be free is to run away from her husband and child. It manipulates the audience into admiring her for breaking free from traditional female roles or something, but it infuriates me—there is no glory in abandoning your child or breaking your vow to a husband. If she’s that unhappy, her family are obligated to help her.

In contrast is Hauerwas and Willimon’s idea that we fulfill our individual potential by investing ourselves in the lives of others. I immediately think of two movies that illustrate this artfully. In Blue, Juliet Binoche, grieving the deaths of her husband and child, attempts to withdraw from the world and cut off all human contact but ultimately finds it impossible—freedom from her grief is found in others rather than away from them. In one of my favorite movies, About a Boy, Hugh Grant is an utterly boring, selfish, unlikable guy who wants no commitments and claims he is “an island.” An awkward adolescent boy adopts him, and he starts to change against his will. There’s a powerful scene where he meets Rachel Weisz at a dinner party and is fascinated with her, then suddenly he realizes that she is going to realize he’s a useless, vapid person and lose all interest in him. She does momentarily, and you don’t blame her, but he starts talking about the boy and his personality suddenly blossoms for the first time in the story.

At first this seems like an odd concept to me. I’m an introvert, and I feel like my individuality flourishes when I’m spending time alone. But the more I think about it, even in the time I spend alone I am taking others with me—so much of who I am is derived from my parents’ examples, the experiences I share with my husband, and even the books I read. Some folks see books as a method for withdrawing from society, but you’re reading something that someone else has written and that many other people have read and thought about. With books, as with art and music, you are in communion with others, even if those people are dead, far away, or fictional.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Fall of Man is Kinda Depressing

Last night I finished Fallen by David Maine. Maine has written a string of novels that are extensive retellings of Old Testament stories. The Preservationist (which I listened to part of on audio book before I had to return it to the library) is about Noah and the flood; The Book of Samson is self explanatory. Fallen is about Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. The chapters flow in reverse chronological order, beginning with Cain as an old, dying man and ending with Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden. The reverse chronological order greatly contributes to the suspense of the story; the reader already knows what’s going to happen in general but wonders about the personal details.

Maine certainly gives you the personal details: Cain’s relationship with his brother and parents; Cain’s scandalous birth; Adam and Eve’s miserable struggle to survive outside of the Garden; their relationship with each other, their many children, and God. In addition, there are mysteries Maine touches on: the appearance of other people in the land (did God just make them appear?), why God rejected Cain’s harvest offering, etc. The Biblical stories are so brief, and it’s impressive to experience a portrayal of these icons as very real people.

When I completed the book, I told Ickie I found it captivating but sad, and as he pointed out, “Well, it is about the Fall of Man after all!” Maine's sparse writing style also conveys the tragedy as a blunt pain. I don’t know what Maine’s religious beliefs are, but he somehow succeeds in staying true to the Biblical narrative while infusing it with imagination and modern thought. I did find a photo of him on the web, and he looks like a “sweaty-toothed madman,” or perhaps a modern John the Baptist. The book is a quick read, and I think it would stimulate interesting discussion at any book group, be it religious or secular.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Great Website for Readers

For the past week I've been having lots of fun on, rating books I've read and creating an extensive to-read list (which is much more helpful than having random paper scraps with scribbled book titles in every nook and cranny). Now I never have to be disorderly and forgetful when it's time to go to the library! Furthermore, you can get your friends and family members to sign up and then scorn them because they didn't rate your favorite books highly enough.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Full of Blood and Bile

Ickie and I just finished delicious Chicken Parmesan and the bottle of Clendenen Nebbilolo that we've been saving for over a month. I should probably call it Chicken Piave instead because I substituted the far superior piave cheese for ordinary, cloying parmesan. During supper, Ickie noticed that after I'd had a glass of wine, my ears turned bright red. This is something that happens to me when I am severely agitated or embarrassed as well as when I've had a bit to drink. I can feel all the blood rushing to my ears; oddly, I don't blush in my cheeks like other pale-complected people do. It's convenient at the office because I can hide my tell under my unruly hair and still appear to be collected while I'm mortified on the inside.

This sparked a conversation about Hippocrates' four humours (of which I'm evidently very sanguine because of my pinkness, but I've got plenty of the other three as well). Think of the levels a person contains of each of the four humours as an ancient personality survey (you'll find many of the characters in Canterbury Tales classified accordingly). Upon reflection, I decided that the four houses at Hogwarts can be easily categorized as the four temperaments! Note the characteristics of each below:

Griffyndor: Sanguine (courageous, romantic, innovative)
Slytherin: Melancholic (moody, traditional; according to Aristotle: acquiring assets)
Ravenclaw: Phlegmatic (calm, brainy; according to Aristotle: logical)
Hufflepuff: Cholergic (idealistic; according to Aristotle: morally virtuous)

It's just another way in which Rowling's books are eclectic. It also proves that Myers-Briggs isn't all that original because folks have been INFPing themselves since 400 B.C. I certainly take narcissistic pleasure in it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Life on a Vermont Hill Farm

Several weeks ago when we found out we were moving to Maine, I began looking for books set in the area. I just finished Northern Borders by Howard Frank Mosher, about a young boy who grows up with his grandparents on a hill farm in northern Vermont. It did give me some fascinating impressions of New England life, although it was set in the 40s and 50s in a more remote area than we’ll be living. Moreso, the story was captivating, emotional, and familiar. I had expected a charming book about a bucolic existence, but instead I embraced a tough, stubborn family’s morbid passion for the grueling hill country life.

The narrator is young Austen Kittredge who, after his mother’s death, is sent to live with his grandparents and attend the Kingdom County school (all graduates of the local school receive a free education at the state university). Austen is a sympathetic kid, a “famous reader,” who works hard on the farm, is devoted to his relatives, and doesn’t mind being the tool his grandparents use to provoke one another. The grim old couple spends their 40-year marriage in constant battle, which might seem like a stressful affair, but Mosher somehow manages to make it dynamic and amusing.

Other quirky highlights include a retired circus elephant, a plague of flies, a bank robber aunt, and two old uncles (one a preacher, the other a bootlegger). The back stories of all the Kittredge relatives are bewitching. Almost as much remains secret as is revealed in the end about each character, enriching them all the more. Austen’s stern grandfather has a particular obsession with maps and traveling north into the Canadian wilderness, which I found appealing.

I really can’t recommend this book enough, and I’m planning on looking into Mosher’s other novels. The characters remind me of my own cantankerous Scottish relatives as well as Ickie’s admirable farmer grandparents. Northern Borders shared the pleasantly scandalous nature of the Southern novel Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns, which I enjoyed as a teen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Society for Putting Things on Top of Papery Things

Among my latest stack of books from the public library is a Wodehouse novel titled The Purloined Paperweight. Ickie made an amusing discovery when he read on the jacket that this edition of the book was published by The International Paperweight Society in Santa Cruz, California. They only print books about paperweights, including the following gems:

The Art of the Paperweight, L.H. Selman
The Art of the Paperweight: Challenging Tradition, L.H. Selman (I love that the first volume wasn't enough; Mr. Selman had to CHALLENGE TRADITION.)
The Encyclopedia of Glass Paperweights, P. Hollister
Songs Without Words: The Art of the Paperweight, Rick Ayotte (Aaah, the wordless song of the paperweight.)
All About Paperweights, L.H. Selman

Mr. Selman has certainly been busy. Apparently he also mediates the enigmatic paperweight discussion group at the IPS website, delving into bountiful topics well beyond my imagination. You can also view their incredibly detailed slideshow about glass paperweights here.

I just love how wonderfully random this is, and I think I need to start a society. I did instigate a Spontaneous Summer Gelato Society last year, but it didn't last very long. Obviously I haven't found my muse in the same way Mr. Selman has. Ickie and I often joke that our cat, Greta, is a member of the Society for Putting Herself on Top of Other Things. Speaking of which, all this has put me in a Monty Python mood, so here are some links for your enjoyment:

International Philosopher Match
Pantomime Horse
The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch
Knights of the Round Table in Lego

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

As a child I read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, but I only have vague recollections of it. I remembered it was sad at the end, and I remembered the magic was only in the creditable imaginations of the children. This was a bit of a disappointment to someone who was always trying to crack through the backs of wardrobes, knowing Narnia DEFINITELY existed. I do also remember that it was the first Newberry Award book I read, impressing upon me as a child that Newberry books were good but not always the most fun.

That said, when I saw the trailer for Bridge to Terabithia, I was aghast. Something was very wrong; it appeared that Disney had taken the book, more about childhood friendship and struggles than fantasy, and turned it into some kind of unrecognizable CGI atrocity to capitalize on the recent popularity of Peter Jackson's butchering of The Lord of the Rings (which I still refuse to watch because I love the books so fervently) and Disney's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (in which I quite liked the young actress who plays Lucy but was otherwise underwhelmed without being particularly offended).

Fortunately, I read this review by a writer who shared my own concerns, and I was pleased to hear that the trailer was misleading and the movie was indeed faithful to the book (aside from changing the time period and location). Memories of the story came back to me when I was watching the movie last night, and I may have enjoyed the movie as an adult more than I did the book as a child, probably because I was too young to appreciate the pathos. I certainly cried an ocean of tears, and I was impressed by the principal actors (young, independent, and likable without seeming cloying or melodramatic). I must say, my favorite person in the movie was little May Belle, who was so adorable she sent me into spasms of delight. She may have been even more endearing to me than the little actress who played Lucy in LW&W. It's hard to say because I'm so overcome with my recent May Belle love.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Generational Strife in a Foreign Land

I've just finished reading two positive reviews of The Namesake, which will be released in theaters this weekend. It intrigues me partly because I'm a fan of director Mira Nair (she directed Monsoon Wedding, which we saw twice in theaters and is primarily responsible for a brief Bollywood film stage Ickie and I enjoyed). I'm also intrigued because I read Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of short stories, Intepreter of Maladies. Each story is deliciously plaintive, concentrating on the crosscultural and relational struggles of its Indian and Indian-American characters.

I've read quite a few books by anglophone authors and always especially appreciate those that deal with the adjustments among generations of immigrant families in America. I had my own experience with culture shock when I lived overseas and returned home. As an ESL tutor in the States, I witnessed firsthand my Chinese student's confusion towards her teenage son. She and her husband just couldn't understand him or communicate with him, a fact made more complex by the fact that he had grown up as an American while his parents remained utterly Chinese.

Speaking of which, I'm also a big fan of Amy Tan. Her books are a bit pulpier and very female-centric, but they have tender, believably strained relationships, usually between a Chinese mother and Chinese-American daughter. Of her novels, my favorite is The Hundred Secret Senses, which focuses on two half sisters. (Tan can also tell a wicked ghost story, of which I'm a devotee.)

The struggle among generations is always a clash. We never seem prepared that our children will be growing up in a different world than our own. Even if three or four living generations have spent all their lives in the same town, our culture changes quickly enough to disconnect each generation. Moving to a new country and watching your children grow up without knowing your native language and retaining none of you native culture must be heart-rending. Everyone who moves away from the familiar and to a new and strange place makes sacrifices and hopefully gains something to account for those sacrifices. In most of these stories, the characters overcome their differences enough to recognize their love for one another, and that's why they are meaningful to me.

Recommended Reading: Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri; The Hundred Secret Senses, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan; When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka.
Recommended Films: Eat Drink Man Woman, Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, In America.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tread Not Upon My Thesaurus

I just returned from our weekly lunch discussion open to faculty, staff, and students of the college. This week an English professor led an engaging discussion about being stewards of language. It is an issue that has been on my consciousness often: every time I read a novel by Charlotte Brontë or Wodehouse and bemoan our shrinking vocabularies, or wince as yet another person begins her spontaneous prayer with “I just really…,” or read a letter hemorrhaging the word “awesome.”

The professor provided a poignant quote from Orwell’s Essays:

“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”

It in turn reminds me of a lovely quote by Nietzsche, in which he challenges us to reexamine our stale ideas (which are indelibly linked to the words we use):

“Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus: one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and gray. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him.”

One statistic I heard today astonished me—44% of all American adults do not read one book in the course of the year. If that is the case, no wonder our vocabularies are shrinking and we can’t order our thoughts or share them coherently! I think the solution is simple—if we read scholarly books and emulate the language, if we write more and cultivate what we are writing, and if we willingly pause in silence while speaking instead of using “filler language,” just imagine how much clearer and more elegant our communication could be!

Recommended Reading: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s a classic that I first read in the 8th grade, and thanks to Messrs. S&W I vehemently protest every time I hear someone saying she is “nauseous” (i.e., nauseating to others) instead of “nauseated” (i.e., feeling sick).

Monday, March 5, 2007

Antiquities, Books, and Great Chinese Food

Before we moved out West, I never thought there would be much to like about LA. I believed it was a filthy, sprawling city with bad traffic and gang violence, and I was pleased to live far enough north of it to avoid it. Picturesque, pedestrian-friendly cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Charleston have always had more appeal for me. However, shortly after arriving, we drove south and went through Hollywood, Venice Beach, and Malibu, had some great food, and I started to wonder if there was more to LA than all the negative stereotypes I’d assumed. I watched LA Story and Mulholland Drive and started to understand something about the culture and mystique of LA—it’s a strange place where it’s easy to feel downtrodden but unacceptable to face one’s depression in the wake of so much sunshine. Although I still wouldn’t want to live there, I always enjoy taking daytrips.

This past Saturday we drove down to the Getty Villa in Malibu. It was a perfectly sunny, warm-but-not-hot day, and our view of all those colorful cliff-side homes overlooking the aquamarine surf mirrored Tuscany. The villa is a great way to spend several hours—it’s full of antiquarian art, and the building and garden design emulates the ruins of an ancient villa. It’s set in a canyon, and the approach down modern stairs into an amphitheater creates the feel of an archeological dig, an especially nice touch.

After refreshing our scant memories of Greek and Roman mythology and ogling a lovely exhibit on ancient blown glass vessels, we headed over to Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. Its excellent inventory lines dark wooden shelves crammed into the store at haphazard angles, and you can climb the attached ladders to the high ceilings without being chastised (take that, B. Dalton’s of my youth!). Ickie and I bought little but compiled two lists of potential fictional gems, and I salivated over the photography in a bread and sandwich cookbook.

Later, we met friends at Triumphal Palace in Alhambra for some tasty Cantonese food—the crispy, spicy-sweet green beans were my favorite dish, if you can believe such a thing. After dinner we all enjoyed tea next door at one of Ten Ren’s teahouses and then drove home.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Two Series by Garth Nix

Jackamo and I are big fans of Garth Nix. We've read two exceptional fantasy series by him: The Keys to the Kingdom and the Abhorsen or Old Kingdom trilogy.

Last night I stayed up late finishing the newly released fifth book of the seven-book Keys series. These stories are written for young adults or older children, and the main characters are around 12 years old. The language of this series is straightforward without feeling juvenile, and the hero Arthur makes hard, honorable decisions while still being very human—he is often fearful and uncertain but very admirable. An adopted child who struggles with severe asthma, Arthur is unwillingly pulled into another world called The House where he has to contend with seven daunting characters named after the days of the week. Each antagonist clearly represents one of the seven deadly sins. It’s an impelling adventure story for any age. Each volume ends with a cliffhanger, so I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of the two final installments in the series.

Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy is aimed at older readers with more sophisticated language and adult themes. Similar to The Keys series, it is a solid fantasy story enriched by Catholic imagery that is thought-provoking but never dogmatic. Nix also does not shy away from death in his books, and I admire him for including a very realistic depiction of it for younger readers. I found the Abhorsen trilogy extremely difficult to put down the first time I read it and am looking forward to rereading it this week. I am both distraught that Nix hasn’t written additional Abhorsen novels (he has written a short story that I haven't yet read) and pleased that his trilogy ended well and never became tired. It’s a bittersweet reading experience when a superb conclusion leaves you wanting more.

The Books in The Keys to the Kingdom Series: Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday (not yet published), Lord Sunday (not yet published).

The Abhorsen Trilogy: Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen.