Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 -My Year in Books

As the 365-day symphony of 2014 reaches its final bars, I find that a great way to evaluate the music of the year - in both personal and universal contexts - is through books.

Above are the 35 books I read this year (thank you, Goodreads, for helpfully generating the image), listed in chronological order starting from the bottom right.

Well, 2014 was the year of academic reading. 10/35 books this year were read for academic purposes or in an academic context. I have a Goodreads policy of only listing the books I've perused totally as "read," so the number is actually higher. Out of these books, 2 were re-reads (Cormac McCarthy!) in preparation for my extended essay, 2 were Chinese and 1 was French. Despite having read these books "for school," however, I enjoyed them, fell in love with several and was certainly inspired to read further because of what I'd read on their pages.

In 2014, the reading world went crazy for Karl Ove Knausgaard's The Struggle, Donna Tartt won the Putlizer for The Goldfinch and Dave Eggers published Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? I also spent the year catching up on the books that had captured the attention of the literary world last year: Alice Munro's Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You and Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.

This year, I was further convinced that I love reading about the tropical: Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family filled my year with lyrical prose and enrapturing stories. Speaking of Running in the Family, I also ventured into the realm of memoir/personal narrative this year, not only with My Struggle, but also with Jason Ng's No City for Slow Men, Kim Thuy's Ru, Jean-Dominique Bauby's Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon and Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird.

I was also able to complete some to-reads this year: the aforementioned Bird by Bird, Swamplandia, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Blink, for instance. Meeting Junot Diaz was just the cherry on top of the literary ice cream.

These books have bookmarked my year like rehearsal letters on sheet music. Remembering them is to recall how I spent my days in 2014. Once the SATs were over, I sequestered myself in the HK Library and at home to devour Bird by Bird and Swamplandia; I remember reading The Luminaries in the car on my way to my violin teacher's home; I read 9 books over the summer (from Les Choses to The Language Instinct); I read Your Fathers while waiting for my flight to Pennsylvania; I bought My Struggle and Tinkers in Boston; I remember reading the latter in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at in New York; I read The Language Instinct in the final week of summer while my brother was at his internship; I devoured The Goldfinch over the second extended essay week period and loved that bildungsroman with all my heart.

Looking at these books, I'm also able to set myself some New Years' Resolutions. This year, the ratio of French books to Chinese books I read was 2:1; next year, I hope to close that ratio un peu. I will continue to immerse myself in more non-fiction books and memoirs. I'll try to read the Pulitzer/Orange Prize/Nobel/etc. winners of 2015 in 2015. Of course, I'll also keep reading nonfiction (I have a bunch of books about intuition on my desk right now).

2014 has been a year well-spent reading and writing; I hope the new year will bring its wealth of words and wisdom into my life.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


As a long-time James Franco fan, I am generally supportive of his various but oft-perplexing endeavours (his Instagram gallery is more than adequate proof of this). Yet when I first heard that he and Seth Rogen, Hollywood's favourite bromance, were making a movie about assassinating Kim Jong-un - I balked. This is a terrifying and ill-advised idea, I thought to myself. Indeed, when threats from North Korea began rolling in, I could not help but ascertain that Sony should have seen this coming. But when the movie was ACTUALLY pulled from cinemas - what?! That's when the maddening injustice of the whole hacking business and controversy regarding the film began to settle in.

Obama put it best: "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States."

So, The Interview was finally released (not only in select cinemas, but also online - a first for Sony) and I watched it last night. Unsurprisingly, it channels the same crude humour and vulgar language from Pineapple Express and This is the End. Yet The Interview is a standout film from Seth's repertoire, especially in light of the drama it has aroused.

Firstly, the movie is actually pretty funny. Seth makes effective use of juxtaposition throughout: an innocent-looking girl sings a terrorist anthem at the beginning of the movie, Katy Perry's Firework is the soundtrack to the supreme leader's airborne incineration and Dave runs out of the compound clutching a puppy (an ADORABLE puppy).

So, Seth Rogen knows what he is doing! One particular critic has argued that Randall Park and Diana Bang deliver the best performances in the movie, but I disagree. I was especially impressed by Rogen's acting chops in the taxi scene (racist as his Chinese accent was).

His partner in crime, James Franco, pulls off an incredible and memorable Dave Skylark in The Interview. Uninformed, unreasonable, impressionable, shallow, self-centered, unprofessional, caring, goodnatured, presumptuous, unabashed - Franco is all of this and he is brilliant. Watching his energetic performance, one wouldn't imagine that this is the same guy who, with shades over his eyes and a baseball cap pulled down low, shuffles wearily down a line of selfie-ready fans after weekly showings of Of Mice and Men.

Yet it is the goofy Dave Skylark who finally delivers the most serious line of the movie: "So why don't you feed them?" Directed at his interviewee, the supreme leader of North Korea himself, this question segues into great scripted conversation between Dave and Kim that reveals the vulnerability of both men. There's Dave, who - although unabashed on the outside - is hurt by the media's criticism of him (like James??). Well, he gets by through subscribing to his maxim: They hate us 'cause they ain't us. Then there's Kim, who still finds himself living in his father's shadow and has to disguise his love for foreign entertainment (specifically, Katy Perry). Despite the "seriousness" of the second part of the interview itself, however, the movie still retains its farce because Dave (as he even insists on mentioning) only has his great epiphany about Kim's tyranny because of a GRAPEFRUIT.

Structurally, the pacing of the movie is sublime. The plot unravels brilliantly, except for Dave and Kim's first encounter - that segment was slow, uninspiring and unconvincing. Yet the movie as a whole wraps up well and ties the whole storyline together. Dave is saved by a bulletproof vest, he and Aaron get rescued by SEAL and he gets to write his final tell-all (just as he predicted). Democratic elections will be held in NK, Kim is out of the picture and Sook has gotten Skype.

Near the end of the film, however, not everything is all smiles. On the boat with Dave and his adorable puppy, Aaron remarks that he was "honeypotted" by Sook, just as Dave was initially "honeypotted" by Agent Lacey; they were both manipulated to cooperate with others' plans. Although both incidents of "honeypotting" were done for a good cause, the whole concept of "honeypotting" (if a woman is behind it) or "honeydicking" (if a man is behind it) extends beyond the movie.

I cannot believe the following sentence is about to be published on my blog, but - is Kim Jong-un not the greatest honeydicker of all? In the movie, we only see him honeydicking the gullible Dave so that he will ask him 'good questions' during their interview (which, as he furiously says afterwards, failed). In the movie, Kim bursts into tears and destroys his carefully-crafted cult of personality on live TV. In real life, however, he continues to honeydick a nation.

So, The Interiew is entertaining, silly, crude, sometimes gruesome and packed with perfect (actually perfect) LoTR references - but it is also a comedy that exposes the consequences of "honeydicking." You might forever remember The Interview as that-Seth-Rogen-and-James-Franco-film-that-exacerbated-NK-US-relations, but also remember it for its message: don't be honeydicked.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

La Délicatesse

La délicatesseLa délicatesse by David Foenkinos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In David Foenkinos's La délicatesse, the beautiful and enigmatic Nathalie becomes a widow after her husband's sudden death. From thereon impenetrable, she coolly deflects the sexual advances of Charles, her boss, and channels her grief into her work. Yet the unexpected happens when Nathalie - out of the blue - kisses her Swedish colleague Markus on the lips. Although the kiss is merely "un acte gratuit" (an unwarranted act) to Nathalie, Markus - old, balding, single, awkward and unlucky with the ladies - is overwhelmed, stupified and approaches her. Between them, a friendship forms and finally develops into 'something more' that is both unlikely and lovely.

The theme of chance, as evidenced by le baiser gratuit (the unwarranted kiss), runs throughout the novel. The idea of coincidence determining destiny is also clear in one of the most-cited extracts from La délicatesse, the scene in which Nathalie and her husband go on their first date:
"Le jus d'abricot, c'est parfait. Si elle choisit ça, je l'épouse... -
Je vais prendre un jus... Un jus d'abricot, répondit Nathalie. Il la regarda comme si elle était une effraction de la réalité.
It is because Foenkinos makes us wonder at these miracles that we are so easily drawn into the novel. Despite everything that seems to happen by chance in the novel, however, Foenkinos ties the whole story together in 117 'mini' chapters, which are not only told from the points of view of Nathalie, Markus and even Charles, but sometimes also consist of nothing but facts. For instance, one chapter will describe Nathalie and Markus having dinner together and then next will simply enumerate the ingredients used to make their risotto. One chapter will tells us about how Nathalie hops on a train and the next will detail the arrival and departure times of her journey. In some ways, this is the juxtaposition between the surreal and banal, the circumstantial and deliberate.

It is in one of these chapters that Foenkinos cites Larousse in explaining the literal meaning of the title:
La délicatesse : n.f.
1. Fait d’être délicat. (To be delicate)
2. Litt. Etre en délicatesse avec quelqu’un : être en froid, en mauvais termes avec quelqu’un. (To be in delicacy with someone: to be on bad terms with someone)
Indeed, delicacy manifests itself throughout the novel. Nathalie herself is delicate in a petit and charming way and is the outwardly embodiment of delicacy. Yet after she becomes widowed, she finds herself in a delicate situation of which the indelicate Charles hopes to take advantage. As Nathalie herself concludes, even Chloe - her colleague - asks indelicate questions and cares only for "des ragots" (gossip). Nathalie becomes "en délicatesse" with them. On the other end of the delicacy spectrum, however, is Markus. Considerate of Nathalie's feelings and gentle towards her, Markus encapsulates the warmth and understanding of delicacy. It is through such delicacy that Nathalie finds solace and renewed love. For example, we are told in the first page of the novel that is "assez rare pour une Nathalie" (rare for a Nathalie) to not feel any nostalgia. Yet after Markus gives her un distributeur de Pez as a gift, she is transported back into her childhood past. How lovely is it that Foenkinos shows us delicacy in a man whom is otherwise regarded by those around him as graceless and ungainly?

Finally, the novel itself is also a work of great delicacy. In the final chapters, Nathalie reveals that she used to play hide-and-seek in her garden and would open her eyes after 117 seconds. Of course, the question of chance and coincidence now emerges in not only the story but also in the work, for it is in the 117th chapter that the novel concludes with a one-liner: Nathalie ouvrit les yeux. In a poetic and delicate way, it is indeed as if each chapter of the novel was only a second.

It is within one of these "seconds" that Foenkinos writes one of the most striking lines I have ever read in any French novel: "le Larousse s'arrête là où commence le coeur" (Dictionaries stops where the heart starts). So, although Foenkinos intersperses what appears to be fortuitous with facts and definitions throughout La délicatesse, it is finally emotion from le coeur - the impulsive act of un baiser gratuit - that trumps rationality and brings two seemingly disparate, but delicate, individuals together.
La vie peut être belle quand on sait l'inconvénient d'être né.
Pourquoi sommes-nous autant marqués par un détail, un geste, qui font de ces instants minimes le coeur d'une époque?
On peut penser, toujours dans la folie, d'un mouvement presque démiurge, que l'on est au coeur du coeur de l'autre. Que la vie se résume à un vase clos des valves pulmonaires.
Le sentiment amoureux est le sentiment le plus culpabilisant. On peut alors penser que toutes les plaies de l'autre viennent de soi. On peut penser, toujours dans la folie, d'un mouvement presque démiurge, que l'on est au coeur du coeur de l'autre. Que la vie se résume à un vase clos des valves pulmonaires.
La vie peut être belle quand on sait l'inconvénient d'être né.
Le sommeil est un chemin qui mène à la soupe du lendemain.
Après leur dernier échange, il était parti lentement. Sans faire de bruit. Aussi discret qu'un point-virgule dans un roman de huit cents pages.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Joyeux Noël

Every year, I write up and publish a Christmas blog post. So, although I didn't do many Christmassy things today, I - knowing that this is the last December 25th I will spend in Hong Kong as a high schooler - nonetheless want to wish whoever is reading this a convivial christmas!


One year later, Petit Papa Noël is still my favourite French Christmas carol and I still insist on wearing my "Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année" sweater around the house. Yet much has changed. The festive weight of Christmas day is much lighter this year. Wheeling a shopping trolley around a packed supermarket this afternoon, my eyes glued to the feet of distracted shoppers, I couldn't help but wonder - what makes this day ostensibly "Christmas" apart from the obligatory (and flat) carols one hears beneath the din of creaky carts and cashier register beeps? Now, at ~11:58pm, I think that I could have carved out a larger portion of today to reading/writing Christmas poems (or perhaps going all out and baking gingerbread men). I've decided that society does need Christmas - in December, economy soars, depression rates drop (I believe) and the new year is ushered in while the glittery debris of tinsel still sparkle around the house.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Geography of Thought

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and WhyThe Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why by Richard E. Nisbett

Richard E. Nisbett's The Geography of Thought examines the age-old question that has intrigued  psychologists (and anyone, really) for centuries: how do Eastern and Western modes of thought differ, and why?

In the book, Nisbett begins by explaining the core foundations of thought on either side. In the East, Confucianism states that the world is a complex place that "consists of continuous substances." In the West, Aristotelianism asserts that "the world is composed of discrete objects or separate atoms."

So, it is natural that the people who suscribe to the first system of thought value harmony; to them, a world of "continuity" can only exist and function if its units interlink and cooperate. As Nesbitt puts it, a "sense of self was linked in a network of relationships." He discusses the ecology of China to support this thesis, pointing out how the flat plains of the mainland demanded farmers to work together in ancient times (even the irrigation system remained fixed under centralized control). If we consider China's political present and history - communism, communes, cooperatives - it is easy to see that collectivism has taken precedence. Anyone who has grown up in a Chinese family will also understand the importance of family dinners, long meals that take place around a round table with not only one's immediate family, but also one's cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The Chinese developed a strong concept of social obligation that stressed relationships.

On the other hand, Westerners - whose world is composed of discrete objects - place more emphasis on individualism. Indeed, looking to ecological roots once more, Nisbett explains that the sloping mountains of Greece allowed for occupations such as hunting that were more or less independent - and commercial. In the West, we see a culture that is famous for vineyards, not paddy fields. Moreover, debate was common in the political assembly of ancient Greece, whereas arguments were considered threats to the harmony of the East. Here, we already see a Western inclination towards expressing personal viewpoints instead of relapsing into the collective. While Western societies encourage one to "stand out," Eastern societies strive to maintain equilibrium. Thus, it is no surprise that America is capitalist and perhaps the world's staunchest advocator of independence and human rights.

Of course, pros and cons accompany such differences. For example, Eastern societies' reluctance to reduce information into simple models due to their belief in the world's complexity might be justifiable; however, the West does classify its objects into categories and use such groupings to develop simple models, rules and theorems that forward opportunities for scientific and technological breakthroughs. Unsurprisingly, the West has the upper hand in the field of scientific development.

(To explore the Western tendency to categorize and the Eastern preference to focus on relationships, Nesbitt asked students of different backgrounds to group two of the following three organisms together: a chicken, a cow and some grass. Westerners tended to group the chicken and cow - the animals - together. Asians, noting the relationships of cow eats grass, left out the chicken.)

Where the East succeeds, argues Nesbitt, is their readier acceptance of change. After all, they believe that different elements must adapt in order to coexist in a world of continuous substances. Relationships cannot work without compromise. The reason why Asians are thus better at math, Nesbitt proposes, can be attributed to their drive to "work harder" - to change - as opposed to the Western belief that one may simply lack the "innate skills" to be good at math. (To be honest, I found Malcolm Gladwell's argument much more convincing.)

Interestingly, Nesbitt also discusses how the difference in modes of thought affect language. One of the most memorable examples in the book is about how the Chinese will say, "drink more," whereas Westerns inquire, "more tea?" during social gatherings. The former, whose culture revolves around relationships, use a verb; the latter, who focus on the object, use a noun.

The Geography of Thought is a lucid exploration of the differences between Eastern and Western modes of thinking. Yet at the end of the book, I couldn't help but wonder - is that it? Surely, there must be more? How would one categorize Russia, for instance, a country that could be considered Eastern and Western? What about further studies conducted in places like Hong Kong, which Nesbitt himself even acknowledges as a great laboratory for cross-cultural study? What happens to the development of thinking in places that have been much influenced by the West?

Certainly read this book if you are interested in the ways the East and West think differently. I find The Geography of Thought to be is a springboard, a well-researched platform that will push you to read more widely on the subject it investigates.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I turn to paths that lead home

That feeling you get when you walk into the cinema to watch the last cinematographic stretch of Middle-earth greatness is a nostalgic one.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a looong film, much dominated by the battle waged between elves, men, dwarves, goblins and wargs. Trust Peter Jackson to transform a couple of chapters into ~2.5 hours!

Cinematically speaking, the graphics were stunning. 3D HFR is still tough to adjust to, but Smaug swooping into Lake-town was quite the visual experience. Not to mention the choreography for all the battles. Could a chunk of the fighting have been cut out? Certainly, although I must say that Legolas's showdown with the goblin nearly tops his slaying of the Oliphaunt.

In many ways, The Hobbit movies have been much swayed by their marriage and persistent homage to the LoTR trilogy. After all, there are irresistible scenes in this film that only seem to serve the purpose of channeling LoTR:
1) The part where Legolas goes off to seek "Strider" (hence LoTR!!)
2) The final scene that takes us right back to the start of The Fellowship
3) Bilbo with Thorin in his final moments, a scene that poignantly recalls Aragorn and Boromir's mybrothermycaptainmyking scene
4) Galadriel unleashing her full power
5) Alfred is basically Wormtongue

Yet I think this is Jackson's way of ensuring that the film remains quintessentially 'LoTR' to Tolkienites. Most LoTR perceptions have been indelibly defined by the film trilogy.

Hobbit-LoTR comparisons aside, however, The Battle of the Five Armies does further engage its audience with deeper elements of Middle-earth that LoTR hadn't exposed as thoroughly (and no, I am not just referring to how Legolas is finally thrust into an arrow-less situation).

What love means to elves, notably, is explored throughout the movie. Early on, Tauriel struggles with her feelings for Kili because acknowledging them would be a betrayal to her kin. Legolas supposedly loves Tauriel, but speaks to her like a soldier; why is he so icy? Perhaps, as is hinted towards the end of the film, it is because of his mother's death. Thranduil, whom Tauriel accuses of having no heart, seems to be the epitome of the heartless, cold-blooded, unfeeling, immortal elf. Yet he later tells Tauriel that she feels heartbreak after Kili's death because her love for him "was real" just as he himself still mourns his wife.

In this movie (and relevant chapters of the book), we also see in Thorin a King Lear-esque character, someone who admits that he was "too blind to see" under the shadow of 'Dragon sickness' - the autocracy and unreasonableness that overcomes one who lusts after gold and prestige. Indeed, the Arkenstone is Thorin's ring; it seduces and manipulates him.

The one most immune to dragon sickness, and bravest to try and put a cork on the battle, is naturally Bilbo. Thorin's last words to him are,

"If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place."

The hobbit mentality encapsulated in Thorin's words is what has captured LoTR fans for centuries - the homeliness and warmth of the Shire and indeed of home. Bilbo doesn't say much in the movie (mostly just wrinkles his nose endearingly) but whenever he pipes up, we love it. Just as Galadriel is the Lady of Light, Bilbo is the pure token of home in The Hobbit. No matter how far one will bash these three Hobbit movies, there is no doubt that they all share that familiar, quintessentially Tolkien echo of home.

As Billy Boyd sings the end credits of the film, we know that it is not only Bilbo who is bidding "a very fond farewell" to the company, but also the LoTR crew who is bidding adieu to their Middle-earth cinematic journey. Yet I don't think anybody will be saying farewell to the LoTR legacy anytime soon. The mark it has left on literature and film will and should inspire generations of readers, writers and dreamers to come.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It is the things we love most that destroy us

If I had to use a single word to describe Mockingjay: Part One, it would be tense.

The opening of the film takes us to the aftermath of District 13's destruction. Katniss has been directly shipped from the games to the underground base where President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Head Gamemaker/rebel commander Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman; R.I.P) recruit her to be the face of the new rebellion. She agrees - on the condition that Coin will pull Peeta and the other tributes out of the Capitol at the earliest opportunity. The remainder of the film revolves around Katniss's role as "The Mockingjay," tracing the impact she spurs in the other districts and in the Capitol.

So, why tense? Humour is offered to us in sparse doses throughout the film. (The Hunger Games movies are not, after all, comedies.) We laugh when Katniss requests that Prim can keep her cat, chortle when the ever-fashionable Effie Trinket complains about having to wear a bland, grey jumpsuit, and smile as we watch Katniss tease her cat with a flashlight.

So, the film does not thrust us into complete darkness. Yet most of Mockingjay: Part One is destruction and dread. Death swamps Katniss as she witnesses the wreckage of District 13 with her own eyes, seeing her home reduced to rubble. We watch her go through anguish as the threat of losing "them both" - Gale and Peeta - becomes increasingly likely towards the end of the film. It's a tense and heavy first half of a movie to watch.

While Mockingjay: Part One concludes with Coin keeping her word, Peeta's return is not quite what Katniss had imagined. We barely get a look at his gaunt, bruised face before he lunges for Katniss's throat and begins what becomes the most chilling scene of the entire film. What more proof is needed of the Capitol's torture tactics once you see how it turns the antithesis of monstrosity - Peeta Mellark - into a monster?

While that remains the most terrifying part of the film, its best scene is, without a doubt, the singing scene. "You want me to sing?" Katniss asks - and off she goes, delivering a rendition of The Hanging Tree that soon morphs into a full-blown choir of rebels who storm the Capitol's dams in a suicide mission to wipe out its electricity; this is how a revolution kicks off! The political roots of the film run deep. Troops keep to their formations in the navy-blue rain, echoing Nazi rigidity and channeling dictatorship vibes. They remind us that the Capitol is unrelenting and headed by the cold and merciless President Snow.

So, the film owes its appeal to its daring themes - but also its characters. Again, Gale emerges as the loyal and stubborn best friend (emphasis on stubborn and friend), Haymitch makes welcome cameos (the sober life does not suit him), doe-eyed Sam Claflin sheds light on the exploits of the Capitol, but of course it is Katniss - or should I say Jennifer Lawrence - who completely robs the spotlight. Katniss is the face of the rebellion just as JLaw is the face of the movie. And, why not? She and Katniss are both bold and unafraid to speak up. (I just wish Katniss wouldn't be so self-effacing.)

Mockingjay: Part One was tense - but it has set the stage for its next half, which I wait for with anticipation.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

“Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When life gives you lemons, read anything written by Junot Díaz. I thought This is How you Lose Her was good, but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao hits it out of the ballpark with infectious wit and 335 pages worth of what Michiko Kakutani from The New York Times aptly called, “adrenaline-powered prose.”

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz traces the family history and life story of Oscar de Léon, an overweight "ghetto nerd at the end of the world" who is fluent in Elvish, spews out words like "copacetic" in everyday conversation and is obsessed with, but sadly hopeless at wooing, women. Oscar is later nicknamed "Wao" because of his apparent resemblance to Oscar Wilde. I'll never know how Yunior, Oscar's roommate/best friend and the boyfriend of his sister (Lola) ever drew that comparison. While the novel is mostly set in modern-day New Jersey, its characters' stories often take us back to the time of Rafael Trujillo: the ruthless dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.

Before we even meet Oscar, our narrator announces that his whole family is victim to fúku - "a curse or a doom of some kind" - that was cast on Oscar's grandfather, Abelard, after he upset the Trujillo. We are offered compelling evidence, such as the cruel deaths of Abelard’s wife and his daughters, that suggests fúku has indeed plagued the de Léon family for centuries and continues to work its voodoo on poor Oscar.

The main reason why Oscar is so unpopular with the ladies is that he defies the traditional qualities of masculinity. As our narrator informs us, “he wasn't no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy with a million hots on his jock.” Unlike Yunior, whose muscle mass and success with women make him an alpha male of sorts, Oscar is an absolute nerd whose “commitment to the Genres had become absolute” by high school. Such nerdery is exemplified by the countless allusions to nerdfare throughout the novel: Yunior and Oscar’s exchange of “Mellon” (I was over the moon when I read this), the fact that the Gangster  "wasn’t no ringwraith but wasn't no orc, either," the X-wings and TIE-fighters hanging from Oscar’s ceiling… Oscar and Yunior would have nothing to do with each other if it weren’t for Lola and their mutual, Santo Dominican-love for women.

Yet it is fitting that Oscar is obsessed with the fantastical, for he himself is often submerged in his own fantasies. For example, he believes that “La Jablesse” is “the one” although, ironically enough, La Jablesse (which means “Devil Woman” in French) is infamous in Caribbean folklore for seducing men and luring them astray. Similarly, Oscar wholeheartedly believes that Ybón will leave the police for him, although his relentless attempts to win her over eventually lead to his death. Fúku at work?

The very existence of fúku reflects the deep-rooted historical context and tradition in the novel. On the one hand, Díaz reveals the Trujillo’s tyranny through the extensive footnotes that recur every few pages. (The size 8 pt font was unbearable at first, but grew on me.) More effectively, Díaz sheds light on the dictator’s omnipresence through the characters’ stories. For example, there is a comic juxtaposition between the casual and fatal in Beli and the Gangster’s affair: she is naïve and infatuated while he is part of the Trujillo’s ruthless and dictatorial family circle.

Furthermore, a strong sense of cultural identity penetrates the novel. There is frequent mention of diaspora and the idea of running away from home; Lola, of course, tries to do this many times. Yet the motherland will always call you back. The pungent and familiar smell of home hits Oscar hard when he returns to the DR to find:

 "... the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital - the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin' Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, [...] the mind-boggling poverty, the snarl of streets and rusting zinc shacks that were the barrios populares, the masses of niggers he waded through every day who ran him over if he stood still, the skinny watchmen standing in front of stores with their brokedown shotguns, the music, [...] the mind-boggling poverty ..."

That’s the most fabulous run-on sentence I’ve read in a while.

Of course, Díaz’s style contributes most to the indelible mark of culture in the novel. Our narrator is well versed in Dominican lingo, hitting us with “homeboys” from the very beginning. Thanks to Junot Díaz, I’ve learned my fair share of Spanish swear words. On a more serious note, however, such coarse language also mirrors the undercurrent of violence in the novel.

The brutality that increasingly emerges towards the end can be so shocking that you almost don’t believe it. We move from reading about LoTR in one page to Oscar’s beatings in another. Yet Díaz has a way of effortlessly planting dark humour in the midst of the horrific: “We’ll let you go if you tell us what fuego means in English. Fire, he blurted out, unable to help himself.” The storytelling way in which the novel unravels itself and the everyday naturalness of the surreal events that occur (e.g. the appearance of the mongoose) reminded me of the magic realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s The 100 Years of Solitude. What you read seems impossible, but – on mere pages – becomes utterly believable.  

Although the narrator of the novel is almost invisible, a seamless and flawless transition reveals Yunior to be our the storyteller. Perhaps this is why the title is not The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar de Léon, but rather The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – after all, Yunior came up with that nickname.

Just as when I read This is How You Lose Her, I'm struck by how effortlessly I support the protagonists. I mean, if I met anyone as stalker-ish and gaming-obsessed as Oscar in real life, I'd most likely make a run for it. Yet I wait impatiently for him to reappear in the novel as I read on, my fingers crossed that he will lose his virginity before his brief, wondrous life is over. I suppose this is the power of literature: it connects readers and characters, relays the impossible and elicits sympathy for the hopeless. Although Hong Kong and Santo Domingo are 22+ hours apart by plane, I was actually able to see a sliver of myself in Oscar:

“He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favourite librarian had said, Here try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and his heart hurting too much.”

There is much respect for the written word in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Early on, Yunior tells us that writing the book is his zafa, the counterspell to fúku. Indeed, when Oscar writers 15 pages in one sitting, is he not also writing to save himself? Yet regardless of whether or not fúku truly exists, “that’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough.”

So, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an extraordinarily funny and moving tribute to nerds, the culture of the DR and – of course – “the beauty!” of life.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Quotes from The Goldfinch

Fabulous graphic from the NYT:

I didn't want to post these quotes with my review (because we would then be looking at ~2,000 words), but here are my favourite passages from Donna's Tartt's The Goldfinch.

"To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole; but ever since the painting had vanished from under me I'd felt drowned and extinguished by vastness -- not just the predictable vastness of time, and space, but the impassible distances between people even when they were within arm's reach of each other, and with a swell of vertigo I thought of all the places I'd been and all the places I hadn't, a world lost and vast and unknowable, dingy maze of cities and alleyways, far-drifting ash and hostile immensities, connections missed, things lost and never found, and my painting swept away on that powerful current and drifting out there somewhere: a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea."
Weren't we, as sentient beings, put upon the earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us?
“For humans-trapped in biology-there was no mercy: we lived a while, we fussed around for a bit and died, we rotted in the ground like garbage. Time destroyed us all soon enough. But to destroy, or lose, a deathless thing-to break bonds stronger than the temporal-was a metaphysical uncoupling all its own, a startling new flavor of despair.”
“The world is much stranger than we know or can say. And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do.”
“Because--isn't it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture--? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it's a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what's right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: "Be yourself." "Follow your heart."
Only here's what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can't be trusted--? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?...If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?
If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see and think and feel, you don't think, 'oh I love this painting because it's universal' 'I love this painting because it speaks to mankind'. That's not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you. An individual heart shock. . . .A really great painting is fluid enought to work its way into the mind and heart through all different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby: Him


When I first heard about the genius of an idea that is Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby, my first thought was: wow, lucrative. Indeed, Benson tells the same story of a married couple three times in three films: once from the perspective of "him," once from the perspective of "her" and once from the perspective of "them."

Him opens at the peak of Connor and Eleanor's relationship. They're about to leave a diner but neither of them can pay for the meal. So, they make a run for it - laughing, breathless and in love. We absorb all of this, of course, but there is one more thing we should keep in mind while watching this scene - Eleanor is the one who gets up from her seat and leaves first.

In The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby, we learn through snatches of conversation that the reason for Eleanor's depression is the death of her two-month-old baby. So, there are two disappearances in the film: Eleanor's and her child's. In this way, the film focuses on how we deal with the unsaid. "Why does it feel like I had to go through all of it on my own?" Eleanor asks Connor early on in the film. Indeed, Connor looks distressed at the beginning of the film (short-tempered at work, wearing black), but it is Eleanor who - bed-ridden and pale - is truly suffering.

The cast of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby is one of its greatest selling points, and for good reason. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain (especially her!!) are stellar. Ciarán Hinds is brilliant as the hesitant, counselling father, and Billy Hader is effortlessly amusing.

We quickly arrive at conclusions about the characters the first time they appear, but Benson does a wonderful job at changing the way we think about them. When we first meet Connor's father, he seems thoroughly unimpressive while sitting on the couch and battling short-term memory. The next time he reappears, however, he is all decked out in suit and tie, owner of a highly successful bar in New York. Our impression of Eleanor certainly shifts as well, as we - from Connor's perspective - spot her new hairdo and wonder, both relieved and puzzled, about her seemingly impulsive decisions. Eleanor is, without a doubt, the "star" of Connor's life. Like Connor, our whole movie-watching experience revolves around her disappearances and sudden reappearances.

Yet Him left something to be desired. At one point in the film, Alexis, the waitress at Connor's restaurant, says that it is "indecent to have things so worked out." Even so, things sort of do patch themselves together by the end of the film. For example, Connor eventually becomes the successor of his father's restaurant albeit having staunchly refused his offer many times. Even the subdued ending shot of Eleanor walking behind Connor seems too "perfect." While romantic, it lacks the depth I had expected to find in the film.

Yet one cannot judge The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigsby solely through the lens of Him. When Connor follows Eleanor to one of her classes, we can hear the professor in the background giving a lecture on Descarte's concept of "subject and subjectivity." Indeed, subjectivity is what Benson addresses through these three films. He presents us with one relationship yet reminds us that it is subject to three different perspectives. So, even though Him was a mild let-down, I'll still be heading to the cinemas to watch Her and Them!

Friday, October 17, 2014

“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life."

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I needed Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch the same way I needed Steven Toltz's A Fraction of a Whole. Please give me a considerably-sized work of literature, my body had been begging for weeks, and preferably a bildungsroman.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt traces young Theo Decker's journey from childhood to adulthood. In this whirlwind of an adventure, Theo's life is turned topsy-turvy. After his mother is killed by an explosion at an art museum, from which he escapes, he sojourns at the home of his wealthy childhood friend, Andy Barbour. Then, the sudden reappearance of his alcoholic father - whom he detests - sends him to Las Vegas, where he meets his best friend for life: the reckless, fearless and foul-mouthed Russian emigrant, Boris. The death of Theo's father, however, prompts Theo to return to New York and once more into the antique-filled, homey shop of James "Hobie" Hobart, the furniture restorer who was once business partners with Welton "Welty" Blackwell. Welty is the elderly man who, in the wreckage of the museum, had given Theo not only a ring that sent him to Hobart, but also instructions that - in the eyes of 13-year-old Theo - had urged him to seize and salvage the most precious painting in the room: The Goldfinch.

No matter where Theo is, be it in the Barbours' pristine dining room or the god-forsaken Las Vegas desert, The Goldfinch is the undercurrent that anchors him to his childhood, to his beloved mother and to the lovely red-haired girl who had wandered through the museum with Welty and lives in his antique shop: Pippa. The Goldfinch, beautiful and impenetrable (as all age-old paintings are), makes Theo feel "less mortal" and "less ordinary." As he says, it "was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am. And it's there: in my notebooks, every page, even though it's not." Because of The Goldfinch, however, Theo's whole life is "balanced atop a secret that might at any moment blow apart." Indeed, he lives in perpetual fear of someone discovering his well-kept secret and jailing him for art theft. Although Theo keeps the painting well hidden and is initially protected from this fate, his arrest becomes increasingly plausible when he discovers, years later in New York, that Boris had taken advantage of one of his hangovers to steal The Goldfinch and trade it in underground black markets for cash (nasty surprise).

So, page ~750 onwards is dedicated to Boris and Theo's (mostly Boris’s) hunt for the precious painting. How did Boris even end up living the gangster life? How did Theo manage to run into him in New York? Indeed, one of the most significant themes in this novel is chance. Channeling Dickens in plot twist after plot twist, Tartt creates a level of suspense that leaves readers attributing all the near-impossible yet somehow explainable happenings in the novel to the machinery of fate. The idea of ‘if’ is introduced to readers early on in the novel, as poor Theo torments himself with the ‘ifs’ that may have saved his mother—what if they had gone to eat lunch first? What if they had left the museum earlier?
Chance also strikes the reader through the other deaths in the novel: the death of Theo’s father (and the fact that he even turned up to begin with), the death of Mr. Barbour and Andy (the absolutely innocent!), the death of a gangster at the unwitting hands of Theo…
The authority of chance is also hammered into Theo as his gambling, astrology-trusting father tells him, “there’s always more to things, a hidden level.” Theo’s father, "waiting to make the big bets when Mercury was in retrograde, reaching for a knowledge just beyond the known,” had always insisted that “there’s a pattern and we’re part of it.” Yet Tartt also alludes to the cruelty of such chance in saying that you would “hit an emptiness so dark that it destroyed, categorically, anything you’d ever looked at or thought of as light,” if you “scratched very deep at that idea of pattern.” It does seem merciless that Theo is inevitably driven to adulthood by chance, so much that is not in his favour.

Perhaps the one silver lining in Theo’s world of arbitrariness is that chance also sends him back to The Goldfinch (albeit temporarily):
I was different, but it wasn’t. As the light flickered over it in bands, I had the queasy sense of my own life, in comparison, as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.
What also strikes me about The Goldfinch is how ‘true’ it is – not that anything close to Theo’s unique adventure could ever happen in real life (ah, fiction!), but Theo’s decline into the world of booze and meth is certainly plausible and perhaps even predictable given the unmentioned, yet definite, post-traumatic stress order he battles after his mother’s death.

For instance,
“Sometimes even a bad movie or a gruesome dinner party cold trigger it, short term boredom and long term pain, temporary panic and permanent desperation striking all at once and flaring up in such an ashen, desolate light that I saw, really saw, looking back down the years and with all clear-headed and articulate despair, that the world and everything in it was intolerably and permanently fucked and nothing had ever been good or okay, unbearable claustrophobia of the soul, the windowless room, no way out, waves of shame and horror, leave me alone, my mother dead on a marble floor, stop it stop it, muttering aloud to myself in elevators, in cabs, leave me alone, I want to die, a cold, intelligent, self-immolating fury that had – more than once – driven me upstairs in a resolute fog to swallow indiscriminate combos of whatever booze and pills I happen to have on hand.”

The novel seems even more “realistic” because the painting itself is indeed real – not fictional – and was painted by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius in 1654. What also keeps Theo’s story grounded in modern-day life are the 21st century allusions consistent throughout the novel. For example, Boris insists on nicknaming Theo “Potter,” a reference that is so deeply familiar to me that I was often thrown off whenever anyone yelled, “Hey, Potter.” Tartt also references Lady Gaga and – I’m sure of it – Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter.
Although Boris calling Theo “Potter” was hilarious, I’ve always found that fiction loses some element of its magic when brought to the surface of “real life,” and The Goldfinch is unfortunately no exception.

Speaking of reality, The Goldfinch revolves around the theme of illusion. At the beginning of the novel, Theo’s mother suddenly has the sensation of a “time warp” as she makes her way down Park Avenue. It’s a “way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.” Similarly, Theo himself is tricked countless times throughout the novel – by the absolutely unreliable Boris, by his father who pretends to be interested in setting up a bank account for him (only to use his social security number to try and leech his savings) and by Kitsey Barbour, who – alas – cheats on him. Even the painting itself is a trompe-l'œil that creates the illusion of distance. Indeed, Theo (in one of his more pessimistic moods) considers life a nasty illusion in general:

“Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. ... But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.”
Yet Theo also experiences a sweeter kind of illusion in childhood with Pippa (whom he calls his “morphine lollipop”—so childishly tender):

“And the flavor of Pippa's kiss [on my cheek]—bittersweet and strange—stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.”
Of course, it is tragic that Pippa eventually settles for the mediocre Everett while Theo is lovelessly engaged to Pippa’s polar opposite, the cool and upper class Kitsey Barbour. Here, Theo’s illusions are crushed by reality as Pippa reminds him that they, both vulnerably PTSD victims, wouldn’t be good for each other.

So, what makes The Goldfinch so irresistible? So worth staying up late and getting up early for? On the one hand, it’s most certainly the plot. Tartt teases the picture of the painting on the cover of the novel, names the novel The Goldfinch, yet hides the painting away for 7/10 of the book. Where is it, we wonder, as we maddeningly read on.
Apart from plot, there is no doubt that Tartt’s style is next in line as the most significant element that sustains your read. Fabulously long run-on sentences propel you through Theo’s story; Boris’s long-winded rambles are infectiously entertaining; Tartt’s frequent use of parenthesis (almost exorbitantly so, at the end) are your windows into Theo’s anxiety and frustration; as long as someone is speaking, which is often the case, the book refuses to be put down. Watching Tartt’s interviews, I realize that she speaks as she writes – quickly, keenly and clearly.

At times strenuous, repetitive and factually dubitable, however, The Goldfinch was not always an easy read. There are certainly passages in the novel that demand a “cut to the chase” response (especially during one of Boris’s self-indulgent rants), just as the plausibility of a great number of incidents deserves to be questioned (so much simply left to chance!). The Goldfinch is a rollercoaster ride. It’s exhilarating, but too many repetitive loops and turns do leave you feeling a bit light-headed.

Nonetheless, The Goldfinch deserves the Pulitzer because what we hear in Theo’s voice is the magic that keeps us turning the pages. We hear Theo’s longing for his mother, a childish anxiety and naivety that drive him to hide the painting, an adolescent frustration that sends him into the hallucinatory world of drug and drink, an omnipresent terror of being discovered and arrested, and a growing sense of mature understanding that emerges most profoundly at the end of the novel.

I recently read the first chapter of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, which won the Pulitzer in 2005. The Goldfinch is probably its polar opposite in terms of style and pace. In the former, a pastor speaks to us throughout the novel in a slow, steady voice; in the latter, everything seems to tumble out of the pages in a magnificent storytelling way. The Luminaries (another huge novel), which won the Man Booker Prize last year, also has this effect. But regardless of whatever ‘kind’ of novel now sits on the crest of literary acclaim,
“I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
Theo does this for The Goldfinch, and I certainly hope to do it for books.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Umbrella Revolution

I haven't blogged for over a month, I know, which is sort of considered a crime in the blogging world. In light of recent events, however, I feel compelled to write.

On Sunday, a group of university students in Hong Kong - after a week of going on strike - finally pushed HKU professor Benny Tai to launch his Occupy Central movement three days before its official launch date, October 1st (the Chinese National Day).

First proposed in March last year, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement is a plea for true democracy in Hong Kong. Our current voting system only presents the illusion of choice: not only have all the chief executive candidates been carefully screened by the authorities in Beijing, only a hand-picked group of powerful figures in Hong Kong have the right to vote.

Personally, I don't see why China is so uptight about the idea of a democratic Hong Kong. After all, how anti-Beijing would our next leader truly be? It is common knowledge that China is the economic giant of Asia and Hong Kong's lifeline; we're not about to elect someone who would severe that connection - we just want our basic freedom of choice. 

So, I wholeheartedly support Hong Kong's fight for universal suffrage. Nothing would be more heartbreaking than to see Hong Kong, an international city that places so much value on liberalism and freedom of expression, swallowed under communist China's iron fist. Our economy, culture and people demonstrate that we are not China and therefore have every right to remain a special administrative region.

Tragically, Hong Kong's future is looking quite dire in China's hands. Having already refused to give Taiwan - a country that is perfectly self-sufficient - the independence she deserves, China will surely be unwilling to grant Hong Kong the right to democracy.

But do such bleak prospects and a "fool's hope" deter Hongkongers from fighting for the human rights they deserve? From the images and videos I have seen so far on social media, the answer is a brave and resolute no. 

Most incredibly, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement is exactly what its name suggests: a mass-led and civil occupation of Central, Hong Kong's busiest business center. The students are mature, well-organized, responsible and have even taken to cleaning up after themselves. Hence the name "Umbrella:" the emphasis is on defence, not attack. The support system that the wider HK community has given the protestors is also heartwarming: free lunchboxes, donations, food... the Occupy Central movement truly shows what sets Hong Kong apart from China. We are people who can speak up for ourselves and do so while having each others' backs.

Of course, the police's use of force (guns in Central?!) has been shocking and uncalled for. Yet the overwhelming majority of the police are victims of China's unbendable authority, forced to succumb to a higher power. I hope that Occupy Central can, to the best of its ability, bend that authority and continue to provoke an international response. The world should be watching.

Maybe I'm being an idealist - maybe the students are being exploited by the authorities in China who are only concerned with making ends meet in their power struggle. However, the occupiers clearly have their drive and united goal for democracy and transparency. That should not be a judicial right reserved to China.

Long live the Umbrella Revolution!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

When we construe an aspect of the world as something that can be identified and counter or measured and that can play a role in events, language often allows us to express that aspect as a noun, whether or not it is a physical object.

The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates LanguageThe Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished reading the most challenging non-fiction leisure book I have ever read: Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. It was a close call, but I'm relieved that I powered through.

Before I dive into my review, I'd like to clarify that I found it challenging not because my knowledge of linguistics prior to reading this book was terribly basic, but rather because there is so much information packed into The Language Instinct. That is, however, its greatest merit - and the reason why my mind was being blown after every chapter.

In The Language Instinct, Pinker argues that humans' ability to acquire language is not dependant on education or imitation. Rather, it's instinctual. It's "wired into our brains by evolution."
According to Pinker, "evolution did not make a ladder. It made a bush." That is to say, Pinker disagrees with Darwin's theory that we evolved from Monkeys.

That's why computers will never be able to learn language the way a child could, and also why apes will never be able to speak English or Learn American Sign Language. Indeed, Pinker's research shows that those who claimed that laboratory apes' gestures resembled sign language were actually overanalyzing what they observed.

Of course, there are many Darwinists out there who would shake their heads at such a thought (Pinker, however, is pretty convincing). All it would take, however, is the discovery of an evolved trait for an aesthetic, and not pragmatic, purpose, to defy the theory of natural selection.

Anyway - because Pinker is trying to prove that language is an instinct, he begins at the roots of language acquisition. There is a lot of research on children. Such research is especially interesting when Pinker discusses 'creoles,' mother tongues that are developed as a result of several languages meshed together. The possibility of such 'meshing' suggests that an universal grammar underlies all language.

The existence of a "universal grammar," however, would not wholly verify that language is an instinct. After all, we have words for 'water' not because our DNA dictates it but because we need to refer to water. Neither is there a 'grammar gene - an American-born Chinese can just as easily learn English as his or her American peers. So, it seems that "complexity in the mind is not caused by learning; learning is caused by complexity in the mind."

The Language Instinct is also in many ways a defense of language. Pinker argues that there is no reason to look down upon primitive dialects because primitive cultures have complex language systems and, after all, a language is also a dialect - just one with "an army and a navy."

In his chapter on language mavens, a.k.a grammar nazis, Pinker also explains why certain grammatical errors are perhaps even preferable. For example, language mavens will argue that "Who did you see" should be "Whom did you see" or at least "Which person did you see" according to the rules of grammar. Yet can you imagine, Pinker asks, saying something like "Whom did you sound like?" Moreover, the final option ("which person") restricts the 'who' from being an animal or multiple people.

The Language Instinct is an enlightening read that leaves reader with a deeper understanding, and growing curiosity, of language. Pinker writes in a clear and sometimes almost conversational way that renders a PhD-worthy subject into one that general audiences can grasp. Of course, certain sections are utterly perplexing and almost impossible to retain:

Above all, however, Pinker convincingly presents the thesis that language - contrary to what many believe - is instinctual.

As he says, "this is news." If language is innate, much more could be; such a revelation would revolutionize the way we consider education, study the human brain and even assess the validity of Darwin's theory of evolution!!


  • We are told that a noun is the most important part of a sentence because it is the doer; however, a noun cannot operate without verb. So, the verb is the boss of a sentence
  • Mentalese: the hypothetical "language of thought, or representation of concepts and propositions in the brain in which ideas, including the meanings of words and sentences, are couched.
  • Listeme: an element of language that must be memorized because its sound or meaning does not conform to some general rule. All word roots, irregular forms and idioms are listemes.
  • When your tongue is high and at front of your mouth, you'll produce high-frequency sounds (e.g. e in teeny); when your tongue is low and at the back of your mouth, you'll produce low-frequency sounds (e.g. a in large). Now, this is especially fascinating when we consider words such as frobbing, twiddling and tweaking. To frob is to move a dial or switch by drastically adjusting its range; to twiddle is to adjust the switch by a smaller margin; to tweak is to adjust the switch by only a litte. Interestingly, it's always the word with the high front vowel that goes first in expressions such as ping-pong and chit-chat. Hip-hop, flip-flop, the list goes on...
  • English is an isolating language, meaning that you must say "to go" to indicate the act of going somewhere - two units are used to express one definition. The french aller, however, does the deed in one word.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grâce à l'exil, mes enfants n'ont jamais été des prolongements de moi, de mon histoire

RuRu by Kim Thúy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kim Thúy's Ru is a moving, elegantly written and deeply personal work that demonstrates the relentlessness of the past and the immortal pull of home.

A semi-autobiography that draws on Thúy's own experiences as well as those of her kin, Ru recounts the musings and recollections of, Nguyên An Tinh, a Vietnamese woman in her 30s who spent her youth running away from a cage home in Saigon, escaping the communist terror in Southern Vietnam and travelling by boat with her fellow refugees to seek safety.

Ru is recounted in snippets, des bribes, as Thúy takes readers back and forth in time, distance and memory. Initially, it seems that we are only reading the story of one woman; as the novel progresses, however, the gates of history open up as we learn the stories of soldiers in the war, the host family that supported the refugees, the Vietnamese women who worked in the rice fields...
Much tradition and culture is also discussed in Ru as Thúy writes about noodles and soup, staples of Vietnamese breakfasts, and how touching another's head is a grave insult in Vietnamese culture.

Thúy tells the most memorable and horrifying stories in simple and poetic ways, moving and shocking us all at once. We learn of diamonds etched into the teeth of escapees, a Vietnamese woman dying after falling into an open-air toilet, soldiers needing to sleep with ice to forget the heat of war. All stories are told in an interrupted and graceful stream of thought, which is fitting since ru means 'flow' in French and 'lullaby' in Vietnamese.

So in a string of short and non-linear flashbacks, we begin to piece together not only Nguyên's story, but also that of the boat people, those expelled from their homeland by war and armed with only the courage to live.

In this way, Ru demonstrates the power of literature in helping readers become more accepting, empathetic and internationally-minded people. One's heart goes out to Nguyên in compassion and pity as she recollects the lure of the American dream; one cannot help but feel for her when she remembers the nostalgic pull of Bounce. It is through the characters we meet in books that we come to love our protagonists regardless of their race and gender and eventually develop a world view considers human beings by character and not premeditated judgement.

In Ru, there is a scene where Nguyên explains that she tells her son, Pascal, a Vietnamese story so that he learns something no schools will teach today - so that he carries on a part of that lost history. If such passage of information is Nguyên's aim in writing Ru, she succeeds. She not only captures the essence of childhood, young adulthood and motherhood in a style that is beautifully poetic, but also captures the hardships of the "gens du pays" to whom the novel is dedicated.

Ru is a beautiful and evocative tribute to all who lost their lives - both in death and in displacement - in seeking a better future. It's a novel that reminds us to be grateful for our present - but to never dismiss the past.

Mes parents nous rappellent souvent, à mes frères et à moi, qu'ils n'auront pas d'argent à nous laisser en héritage, mais je crois qu'ils nous ont déjà légué la richesse de leur mémoire, qui nous permet de saisir la beauté d'une grappe de glycine, la fragilité d'un mot, la force de l'émerveillement. Plus encore, ils nous ont offert des pieds pour marcher jusqu'à nos rêves, jusqu'à l'infini.

J'avais oublié que l'amour vient de la tête et non pas du coeur. De tout le corps, seule la tête importe. Il suffit de toucher la tête d'un Vietnamien pour l'insulter, non seulement lui mais tout son arbre généalogique.
Si une marque d'affection peut parfois être prise pour une offense, peut-être que le geste d'aimer n'est pas universel: il doit être traduit d'une langue à l'autre, il doit être appris. Dans le cas du vietnamien, il est possible de classifier , de quantifier le geste d'aimer par des mots spécifiques: aimer par goût (thích), aimer sans être amoureux ( thuong), aimer amoureusement (yeu), aimer avec ivresse ( mê), aimer aveuglément ( mu quang), aimer par gratitude (tinh nghia). Il est donc impossible d'aimer tout court, d'aimer sans sa tête.

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Monday, August 18, 2014


TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who is a tinker, and what does a tinker do?

Simply put, a tinker is a repairer - someone who mends various contraptions, fixes broken instruments and gets into the tiny, metallic, brass-filled heart of appliances to make necessary adjustments.

In Paul Hardings' 2010 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Tinkers, we meet two such characters: George Washington Crosby and his father, Howard Aaron Crosby.

Throughout the novel, each either tinkers with clocks, various paraphernalia in the drawers of wagons, and finally - in an attempt to revisit the past or as a result of being helplessly thrown back in time because of a hallucination - their own memories.

The novel begins with George Washington Crosby, who is suffering one such hallucination:
"George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died."
Using variations on that same sentence, Harding places markers throughout the novel that gradually count down the hours to the day George dies (the end of the novel).

The story itself, however, does not progress so linearly. Rather, key moments in the childhoods of both George and Howard are fleshed out in the span of 191 pages in prose that is at once devoid of quotation marks yet punctuated by italicized text and the occasional 'extract from a manual' (more on that later). Indeed, why should there be any quotation marks? After all, everything is happening inside George's/Howard's head. It is therefore fitting that Harding also heavily uses parentheses to indicate interruptions in otherwise ceaseless trains of thought - thought that is often spelled out in long, Proust-worthy sentences.

(don't feel obliged to read the quote below, but it's a great example of 1) Harding's style 2) George's reflection on death as he considers his future )
“And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is the space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array [...272 words...] why can't I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simple even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn't stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.”
Apart from these long sentences, extracts taken from various manuals (e.g. The Reasonable Horologist) also appear in Tinkers and deal mostly with clocks: their parts, their history, their inner workings: time. After all, the characters are all so immersed in time and revisit it throughout the novel. In remembering his past and remembering about his father, George is 'tinkering' with time and his memory of his father. In changing his name after running away from home, Howard is tinkering with his identity.

Another defining stylistic feature of Tinkers emerges in Harding's very detailed descriptions of nature.
Here's a lovely example:
Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green. He crouched to look at a daffodil. Its six-petaled corona was fully unfurled, like a bright miniature sun. A bee crawled in its cup, massaging stigma and anther and style. 
Indeed, nature is omnipresent in Tinkers and tied to its characters. The mute and enigmatic Gilbert practically seems like wild nature in homo sapien form; at one point, Howard's brain is likened to branches that flare in the "metallic blue of dusk" before they are "drained from the sky."

When Howard has his epileptic seizures, a thick stick shoved into his mouth saves him from biting off his tongue and leaves him with bark caught between in teeth. So the presence of the natural world in Tinkers isn't 'light;' such an image brims with violence. Nature in this novel is described with such detail, strength and rawness that Harding's language itself is what powerfully transforms the experience of reading Tinkers. His diction, although not always reader-friendly, is what magnifies an otherwise short 192-page novel into a work that transcends time.

I don't think Tinkers changed my life or is a book that will, mostly due to its inaccessible prose. But I can still see why it won the Pulitzer - Tinkers is deep despite its brevity, thought-provoking and absolutely, ABSOLUTELY beautifully written.
Choose any hour on the clock. It is possible, then, to conceive that the clock’s purpose is to return the hands back to that time, a time which, from the moment chosen, the hands leave and skate across the rest of the clock’s painted signs and calibrations and numbers. These other markings on the face become irrelevant in themselves; they are now simply clues pointing in the direction of the chosen time. It is then possible, too, to conceive of the clock’s gears and springs as each having its own intrinsic function, but within a whole mechanism, the larger purpose of which is to return to the chosen time. In this manner, the clock resembles the universe.
Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it?
And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember : You will be dead and buried soon enough.

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This is Berk...

^struggling to find the right words to describe my experience of watching How to Train Your Dragon 2 

Today, I did what I did not have the guts (or time) to do two months ago: watch How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel that I feared would ruin my impression of my favourite 21st century film, How to Train Your Dragon.

Post-movie, I am glad to say that no dreams have been crushed and that I hope
1) there will be a third movie (pretty please, Dreamworks) and that
2) How to Train your Dragon 2 gets recognized by the Academy!!!

Unless you, like me, have watched these shorts on Youtube, you arrive at a very different Berk at the beginning of How to Train Your Dragon 2. The villagers are no longer the conservative, dragon-fearing Vikings they were five years ago (Berk-time) but happy dragon riders who, like our protagonist Hiccup (Jay Baruchel)  have adopted the dragons as pets and consider them their friends. There is even an old cat-lady, or should I say dragon-lady, who makes sporadic and amusing appearances throughout the movie.

But Berk's dragon-viking alliance is soon threatened by the dark and hulking Bludvist, who has an evil plan to eradicate the dragon race by building an army of dragons and turning them against each other - OR, as Hiccup accurately surmises, by using the dragons' power to conquer the world. Classic.

While Bludvist is plotting away, Hiccup is having a mild identity crisis: he is unsure about becoming chief, much keener on mapping new lands with his dragon, Toothless, AND - on top of all this - finds his long-lost mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett), who is as much of a dragon-lover as he is and has made the dragon lair her home.

It is in this lair that we meet, for the first time, one of two beasts whose species is the "king of all dragons:" The Bewilderbeast.

These Bewilderbeasts have the power to summon and control all dragons at will (hence, bewilder). The  Snowy Bewilderbeast in the lair uses his powers to take care of his fellow dragons and feed them; the Muddy Bewilderbeast, however, is vicious, dangerous and the tool Bludvist uses to rally up his dragon army.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about change: there's Hiccup, who is initially uncertain about chiefship but finally realizes that he does not have to be the same kind of chief his father was. There are the aforementioned Bewilderbeasts who can change and control any dragon's actions. Even Eret, Son of Eret, changes his mind about dragons after Astrid's (America Ferrera) dragon saves his life.

At the beginning of the movie, however, Stoick (Gerald Butler) tells Hiccup that - despite all the change Berk has experienced - change is impossible. Drago Bludvist is quite set on this idea too, and decides to prove it to Hiccup by using the Muddy Bewilderbeast to turn Toothless against him, a tragic move that results in Stoick's death.

Stoick's funeral is moving, the monologues are tear-inducing and everything, as a Youtube commenter rightly put it, has a Qui-Gon-Jinn's-funeral vibe. It's the darkest and most moving moment in the whole movie.

But Hiccup, as his mother reminds him, has "the heart of a chief and the soul of a dragon." So the dragon riders return to Berk to catch Bludvist in the middle of rallying all the dragons there.

Then, in an incredibly moving scene that captures everything I love about the How to Train Your Dragon films, audiences witness the truest proof of change: Toothless fights and throws off the Bewilderbeast's hypnosis as Hiccup says to him, "you're my best friend."

That is how you win the loyalty of the dragon.

Of course, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is not without its flaws - numerous happenings are unexplainable (HOW did Stoick find the lair?) and, thanks to CGI, many improbabilities are dismissible (all those insane dragon turns). There are also illogical but hilarious (therefore, forgivable) moments that crop up, such as Ruffnut's whimsical infatuation for Eret. Sometimes, I also felt like the action was a bit much.

Yet How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a maturer movie than its precursor. It is more of a bildungsroman although it has less plot development since the milestones that made How to Train Your Dragon so beautiful and important, such as Toothless and Hiccup's friendship and Hiccup and Astrid's relationship, had already been established.

But How to Train Your Dragon 2 succeeds as a sequel because it takes us a step further in Hiccup's coming of age journey, amplifies an already spectacular soundtrack and reinforces the strength of a one-in-a-million friendship - not a bond that Bludvist and his pathetic iron staff can destroy so easily.

P.S. Thank goodness puberty hit Hiccup *swoon*

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A token of gratitude to Tolkien

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder My Struggle is so wildly popular.

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

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