Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The idea of enumerating memories, the pockets and satchels of time, seems childish. Yet my 13-year old self would disagree. Don't we already squeeze time into year-long cubicles, tallying up days and minutes - mere numerical units? Years dart past our distracted eyes in cyclic runs of 365 days.

There is much residue left (or maybe 'preserved' is the better word) by each spent year; not at all like the dessert crumbs dismissed by a profligate man but rather like dew on leaves or water soaked in soil after a night's thick rain. Such residue is also man-made - penned, collected and captured in photos. Recorded. 

Indeed this is the finest form of self-preservation. As one watches time sprint past in its running shoes, headed towards the negative axis of time, one jogs on, looking back and trying to memorize its fast-fading back. Not too devotedly as to lose track of one's own path or trip over an obstacle, but there are old threads we keep anyway and knit into our present. There are old violin strings I keep, untangled and coiled, so that they may be restrung again to deliver the concertos I played last year. 

In most of us, there is probably a desire for reuse and recycle - a welcoming of time's relentlessness. Remembering the past is therefore a conscientious form of timekeeping, I like to think. It is the regular recognition of one's past selves and memories that conglomerate to feed the present self, which in turn will carry on to the future self - all of which snuggle within the heart-chambers of one person. 

Thus the advent of each coming year chimes like the tick of a metronome, marking the scheduled notch of measured time; this is where one might slow down to a walk, turn back and marvel (or regret?) at the distance covered before turning around and picking up pace once more, climbing the linear line of life.

All I can do is take comfort in the likelihood that "I have miles to go before I sleep."
"...if this life of ours
Be a good glad thing, why should we make us merry
Because a year of it is gone? but Hope
Smiles from the threshold of the year to come
Whispering 'It will be happier.'"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson

Only love can thaw a frozen heart

Having churned out mediocre films such as Planes and John Carter in the last two years, Disney finally hit a home run this November with Frozen, a heartwarming (haha) animated musical that sends many harking back to Disney's renaissance era.

Anna (Kristen Bell) and her older sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) are two princesses in the kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa was born with the power to produce and control snow, delighting Anna by sending crystals shooting from her fingertips and snowflakes fluttering to the ground in the middle of summer. Yet after one fateful accident, during which Elsa inadvertently shoots an ice spark into Anna's head, their parents, the King and Queen, tell Elsa to "conceal and don't feel" her powers for everyone's safety. Unable to control her powers, however, Elsa must stay locked indoors, shut off from the world - and Anna. Anna's head, having been cured by a family of trolls (only a lock of white hair remains, Rogue-esque), has been wiped clean of any memory of Elsa's power but - as the chief troll puts it - "the fun remains." And thus Anna cannot understand why Elsa no longer wants to "build a snowman" or play with her like they used to.

Then, the plot thickens: 3 years after the sudden death of their parents, Elsa must make a public appearance at her coronation. Anna is thrilled to finally see the outside world "for the first time in forever" and meets the dashing prince Hans. On the other hand, Elsa is terrified of revealing her powers before so many keen onlookers. All is well until Anna and Hans (having known each other for only a matter of hours) express their wish to get married. Elsa objects, Anna is defiant, and Elsa accidentally "Let[s] it go," plunging Arendelle into an eternal winter.

Determined to right all wrongs and 'open the door' that was always closed to her, Anna sets off and - with the aid of the mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and a charming, optimistic and living snowman Olaf (yes, functional) - tries to reconcile with Elsa and bring back summer.

What ensues is good hour and half of laughs (most induced by Olaf), songs and delightful chemistry between Kristoff and Anna. Sven could also probably give Shadowfax a run for his money (just kidding, the latter shows us the true meaning of haste).

Yet what is best about this film is its overarching emphasis on Disney's favourite, but alas neglected in recent films, theme: love! Although inward cringing is understandable when the chief troll majestically proclaims, "only love can thaw a frozen heart," which is a counsel that sends Sven, Kristoff, Olaf and Anna hurling back to the castle so that Anna can receive her 'true love's' kiss, it forms the basis of the whole film. For it is not only a frozen heart that love thaws, but eventually the winter itself. Thus, it it logical why Elsa never knew how to control her powers; after all, her parents - albeit with the best intentions at heart - kept her powers repressed, seeing her skill as a curse and not as what it truly is: a gift.

When Elsa sings 'Let it Go,' therefore, she is not 'letting go' in angst and rebellion, but rather relieving a long-suppressed desire for well-deserved freedom. I'm glad the screenwriters decided to rewrite her role as a protagonist instead of keeping her an antagonist. The sister dynamic is much more significant when only caution and slight resentment - but not downright animosity - exist between the two.

Of course, Frozen is not without loopholes or the specifics that a live-action film could not ignore (e.g. choreography during the musical scenes), but it's a good-natured and well paced film that ultimately satisfies. Although Let it Go is the only number that stands out (except Love is an Open Door is now my guilty pleasure), and the other songs sound rehashed (For the First Time in Forever = I See the Light), they not only showcase Kristen Bell's singing talent (I had no idea!) but also conglomerate to construct an animated film that captures an essence of Disney cinemagoers haven't seen in a long time.

The best books I read in 2013

13138 pages and 44 books in 365 days:

It's been a wonderful year of reading (in 3 languages!) This year's booklist is definitely more variegated than last year's - it features the occasional textbook, several short story anthologies, poetry collections, a play and even two memoirs. Not bad. Here are the 5 that have made the deepest impressions (not counting Morrison's Beloved, which I technically read last year):

1) Outliers

This is the pithy, informative read that changed my mind about non-fics. It's also a noggin-filler of research-backed facts, anecdotes and stats that one can whip out at any apt moment - why are Asians better at math? How do one's deep-rooted cultural values affect one's success? I'm glad to have been introduced to Gladwell's genius this year.
The 10,000 hour rule is a definite key in success.
2) Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems

My (along with many others', I'm sure) favourite poetry collection. Not my first time reading Plath, of course, but this was the year in which I finished reading/annotating-ish the collection. Can one ever 'finish' a poetry collection? Don't think so - but the special lines one culls from compiled poems run and resonate forever.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
3) This Is How You Lose Her

Speaking of forever, Junot Diaz's short story collection was heartbreaking, funny, clever, authentic... it was a refreshing read (esp. with inclusion of swear words, I confess) to tackle after having a hard time with July's People and All the Names. Diaz also responded to my fanmail, which is really the cherry on top.
The half-life of love is forever
4) Wild Swans

I've seen Wild Swans on countless shelves, but never read it until this year. It not only refreshed my memory of a semester spent studying the Cultural Revolution but also helped me overcome my tome-phobia induced by Plath's unabridged (emphasis on unabridged) journals. Meeting Jung Chang was also sublime - she is so regal.
“Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.”
5) Quiet

Another non-fiction! Quiet is the Introvert's Bible. It sings the anthem of each bookworm, outcast, nerd... (sorry, getting stereotypical and carried away). It's well supported, lucidly written and a definite comfort-read for any loner informative. Even those who are Loud (haha) will appreciate its intelligibility.
Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.

2014 Reading Resolutions

1) Do not neglect the mother tongue - I'll start adding any Chinese books I read to my Goodreads booklist.
2) Be patient with the esoteric - I was a little restless with E.L. Doctorow...
3) More time on the shorts - I'm still reading Alice Munro's short stories and am about to begin Flappers and Philosophers, which I'll spend more time poring over!
4) Continue blogging!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Merry Brandybuck Christmas, all! I spent my Christmas Eve and Christmas a.m.'s watching The Two Towers, during which je m'ai posé une question: Why did I always maintain that The Two Towers was my least favourite LoTR film? With the Battle at Helm's Deep, gathering of the Ents, soundtrack and epic montages (best montage has to be the one with Denethor eating+Pippin singing+battle, though), etc. The Two Towers is 3-hours of action/cinematographic success goodness. But then all three were nommed for Best Picture. 

Still, there's no way 'Gollum's Song' beats Into the West or May it Be. 

Anyhow, back to le sujet at hand - Christmas - Ah, that day of the year on which talking (rather throwing one-liner 'happy holidays') to random passer bys on the street is socially acceptable for the average introvert. December 25th is the much-commercialized, toy store-occupied conclusion to a month of candy canes and gift wrapping; it marks the penultimate burst of family/friend coalescing before the advent of the new year...

For some, Christmas is a morning spent at mass. For others, it is one spent hungover. 
Although not religious, I fell into the former this year.

All in all, have a convivial christmas!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

life will teach you reality and realism

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Requisites upon finishing The Sense of an Ending:

1) Reread the closing paragraph
2) Revisit the equations
3) Reread the enumerations on page 1 and (this time) understand them

“We live in time - it holds us and molds us - but I never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing - until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

A significant individual in Anthony ('Tony') Webster's "book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic" youth is Adrian, his 'philosophical' friend who always "grasped life-and truth and morality, and art- more clearly" than the rest of his peers. Even after Tony goes to university and gets his first girlfriend - Veronica, whose family (esp. her mother, the enigmatic Mrs. Ford) he later meets - it is "Camus-quoting" Adrian (in Cambridge) that matters to him the most.

But Veronica and Adrian end up together and Tony has a bad case of sour grapes that extends to after his marriage and (amicable) divorce, prompting him to write a bitter, recriminating letter to the new couple. One day, he receives news of Adrian's suicide and is later notified that the late Mrs. Ford has left him money and Adrian's diary in her will, none of which makes sense to Tony. So Tony spends the remainder of the novel trying to uncover the truth from Veronica and retracing his confabulated memories, all the while harbouring a borderline concocted conception of Adrian, glorifying his death and attributing it to the most 'highest' of reasons (e.g. intense intellectual stimulation).

Victim to the "imperfections of memory [...and] inadequacies of documentation," Tony only comes to term with the rather banal reality at the end of the novel, by which time he concludes also that he himself is but"average at life; average at truth; morally average." He wonders,

“Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? There had been addition and subtraction in my life, but how much multiplication?”

But he can neither change his past or mend his errors, neither can he take back the scathing words in the letter he wrote or reduce the responsibility and remorse he feels,

Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.

The way we make sense of the novel's ending is almost mathematical. Barnes drops us fragments along the way and we scamper along, piecing together our own 'sense' of the ending according to Tony's own "imposed meaning on what might or might not have happened;" only at the end do we realize, like Veronica did throughout, that Tony just didn't "get it" because he would "adjust, embellish, make sly cuts" to his accounts. And as Adrian had said,

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

In which case Tony is the historian and the history in question not that of WW1 as discussed in the lessons of his youth, but his own "small, personal, largely undocumented piece" of time. At the end he learns that “History isn't the lies of the victors" but "the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated” - like him.

Barnes keeps us, like Tony, on the edge, impatient to make sense of the unfurling past. So we follow Tony as he blunders through self-deception, irks Veronica and relies on his imperfect memory to unearth a reality that eventually turns out not the way he had idealized or assumed.

The novel ends by pithily encapsulating the 163 pages of the novel in a sentence:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.

Check, check and check.


View all my reviews
But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”
“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”
“You get towards the end of life - no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”
“When you're young - when I was young - you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?”
“We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--- it's not useful--- to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”
“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others.Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”
“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”
“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”
Here's a rather brilliant, eccentric metaphor:
“History is a raw onion sandwich, it just repeats, it burps. We've seen it again and again this year. Same old story, Same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A quest to reclaim a homeland, and slay a dragon

There's nothing like the blue tint in the still above to make one hark back to Two Towers-esque imagery; however, The Desolation of Smaug is its 'own' film entirely, not as metaphorically attached to the LoTR film trilogy as its predecessor was. 

Apart from the cursory opening scene in Bree (in which Peter Jackson makes a familiar cameo), The Desolation of Smaug picks off nicely where An Unexpected Journey ended, with Thorin and Co. still headed towards the Lonely Mountain to recover the Arkenstone. With Wargs and orcs hot on their heels, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf take refuge at Boern's residence before Gandalf - true to form - ditches them on the outskirts of Mirkwood with the warning, "stay on the path."

...So of course the dwarves lose their way; it is only until Bilbo pokes his head out of the trees (at one of the movie's noteworthy 3D effects scenes) that the path becomes clear; unfortunately, it is also at this point that the dwarves are cocooned by giant spiders and nearly consumed. They are saved by Bilbo - who owes it to the ring, Sting, and courage - and the elves.

Yes, LEGOLAS makes quite the entrée from the treetops, slitting several arachnid bellies en route before landing in front of the dwarves - I swear all his action scenes have been fast-forwarded. Sharp, cold and cutting, this younger Legolas seems to have done more in one film than he did in all three LoTR installations put together, and his very presence emphasizes The Hobbit's dependence on its Academy-Award winning predecessors. Having Benedict Cumberbatch voice Smaug and Ed Sheeran sing the film's song, the producers certainly chose wisely in order to maximize the film's profit - it certainly makes skeptics wonder about Jackson's authentic motives for filming the movie.

But of course, Jackson's decision to film The Hobbit is one for which I am infinitely grateful, for in filming another 9 hours worth of Middle Earthian footage, he takes LoTR fans back into Tolkien's world which is stunningly visualized with the aid of 48 FPS and 3D. Featuring members of the original cast, The Hobbit films are extending the vestiges of LoTR legacy into three new films for the old and new generation.

Thus no matter how irked I may be at the length of screen time the Tauriel-Kili-Legolas love triangle takes up (ah, why water the buds of romance when Kili will perish in the Battle of 5 Armies?), I nonetheless welcome every LoTR morsel with open arms and - let's face it - The Desolation of Smaug was 2.5 hours worth of cinematic epicness. 

Whether it is during the barrel scene - whoever choreographed that deserves all the best things in life - during which the dwarves' teamwork is as fluid as the rushing waters they traverse (apologies for lame simile), or when Bilbo is sliding in mounds of gold after the blinking Arkenstone, or when Thorin and Co. temper Smaug in order to light up the fortresses, The Desolation of Smaug is brilliantly action-packed, grand-scale and impressive. Newcomers such as Luke Evans (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Bloom) and Stephen Fry (yes!) only further embellish the film. 

So the Hobbit trilogy will wrap up in a year's time (The Silmarillion, anyone?), but Tolkien's legacy and the wonders of Middle Earth will be grounded forever. 

Here is my review for the first movie: http://may-theforcebewithyou.blogspot.hk/2012/12/the-world-is-ahead.html

Sunday, December 8, 2013


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's clear from Susan Cain's matter-of-fact yet earnest prose that she not only clearly understands her subject matter, but also deeply identifies with it.

In Quiet, Cain goes further than merely delineating the characteristic mannerisms of introverts, or the fascinating science behind introversion (did you know that one's introversion level may be deducible at birth?). She explains, with a slew of authentic examples, why the unsociable often trump the gregarious and why the diffident surpass the assertive. She sheds light on the power of the reticent, the ones who would rather lie in bed with a book than host a gathering, and the astuteness of the reserved. Without being downright partisan, Cain reveals why although sociability may be an enviable trait, the quiet and withdrawn too discover happiness and success in life.

An introvert myself, I connect with nearly all the "introvert-traits" that Cain discusses in Quiet - shyness, a penchant for "living in my head," a proclivity for indulging in solitary activities, among many - making this read not merely an informative experience, but also a personal one.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes non fiction, especially those along the lines of Malcom Gladwell's works.

View all my reviews