Most people I know who love reading novels read at least two books a month. I could not, cannot do that. Excuses: (1) I prefer reading philosophical novels, which require more time (at least for my slow brain) to process, and (2) I have a job, a 4-year old son, and a husband and I do 95% of the housework.
This summer I took a break from reading the Russians (or just Russian, Dostoevsky) and read three “contemporary” (meaning the authors are still very much alive) books – a memoir and two novels. It is quite interesting to me how I chose to read the two novels after the memoir, and only later realized that there seemed to be a link in the order in which I read them.
The first book I read was “Three Brightnessess: The Quintessential Story of Learning Chinese And Falling in Love in China – Over and Over Again” by William Shoemaker. I read it because I know the author, had invited him to my class a couple of times to talk with my students about his short stories which I had let my students read, and promised him I would read his first book.
I enjoyed reading Will’s memoir because, having lived in China a long time, I can relate to the things he wrote about – the place, the people, the culture, what one can like or dislike about them. Several times while reading this book I laughed so hard, and I think that’s a good way to judge whether a writer is good or not – if he/she can make you cry or laugh.
Will speaks fluent Mandarin, dated Chinese women, has Chinese friends with whom he can speak Mandarin. And yet, I don’t think he has ever felt at home or that he belongs.
One of the things he said that resonated with me is this: “In China, no one waits. Nothing stays the same for long. You can try to understand the place, but anything you learn, the moment you learn it, becomes an artifact of the past. The thing that doesn’t change is the memory – the version of the place that you knew.”
If you’re thinking of moving to China or are interested in China or the Chinese culture especially as it is now, read Three Brightnesses.
The second book is called Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones. What attracted me to this book is the quotation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, right at the beginning of the book, which goes,
“Since the inner face of the world is manifest deep within our human consciousness, and there reflects upon itself, it would seem that we have only got to look at ourselves in order to understand the dynamic relationships existing between the within and without of things at a given point in the universe. In fact so to do is one of the most difficult of things.”
The novel is about a thirty-something American woman who is running away from her troubled past (being the beloved daughter of a racist politician), and wanting to start a new life and to find love (in the form of a Chinese man, had to be Chinese), in China. (Why is it so easy for Asian women like me to accept a relationship between a western man and an Asian woman, but we tend to be surprised or even shocked, incredulous when we hear of relationships between western women and Asian men? Well, I know my answer to that one, but I would really like to know how other Asian women think!)
The main character, Alice, being fluent in Chinese, works as translator in Beijing. She translates for an American archaeologist who is doing a research on the Peking Man. Being in China, the American archaeologist has no choice but to work with Chinese archaeologists, one of whom is Lin Shiyang whose main reason for joining the team is to be able to track his wife who was put in a labor camp in the northwest of China during the Cultural Revolution. Shiyang and Alice fall in love, but right after he finds out for sure that his wife died years ago in the camp, he also finds out about Alice’s promiscuities. But that’s not the ending. You will have to read it to find out how it all ends.
It’s a story within a story, as the writer leads us to the story between Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan in the early 20th century, and the love story between Alice and Shiyang in the 21st century.
After reading this novel, I promised myself I would read The Phenomenon of Man.
But I ended up reading Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, which, just like Lost in Translation is a story within a story. The main character in the 21st century is a 40-year old Jewish-American woman, Ella, married to a successful Jewish man and together they have three children, the eldest being in college and the youngest in elementary school. For twenty years she lived what seemed the peaceful and content life of the perfect wife and mother. But one day, she reads a book called Sweet Blasphemy written by a man called A.Z. Zahara, and this book changes her and her life forever. While we are reading about Ella and her life and her consequent meeting and falling in love with Aziz, we also get to read Sweet Blasphemy which is about the spiritual friendship between two Sufi mystics, Rumi and Shams of Tabrizi.
This novel contains so many quotable quotes all from Shams’s Forty Rules of Love. One of my favorites is
“There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.”
In the novel, Ella’s new life entails leaving her husband (he was cheating on her anyway), and her three children, to be with a man she just met and whom she “loves”. I put love in quotation marks, because even after reading the novel and Sham’s Forty Rules of Love, I do not consider passion as love. How can you truly love somebody you just exchanged emails or text messages with? To finally meet that person and find he is even more interesting than the one you have been texting with may be very exciting indeed, but excitement does not equal love. And finally I cannot see any justification for leaving one’s children to pursue one’s happiness. Perhaps if the children are old enough to live without both parents. But for little children, I can only imagine the difficulty of growing up without both parents to guide you and make you feel secure in this world. But I have to say this, leaving a philandering husband is perfectly fine, (also the husband who forgets his wife’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, yeah!) I salute women who do so.
That said, I am grateful for this novel for introducing me to Sufism. I promised myself I would read more about Sufism, after reading about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Phenomenon of Man, that is.
But Dostoevsky’s White Nights is calling….:)
What book are you reading?
“There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom we ceased to love.” (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
The words above quoted from Wilde’s novel were spoken by my favorite character in that novel, Lord Henry Wotton
At my age, I find it nothing but mere melodramatics when people say they cannot live without a particular person in their lives.
Of course I have been in that situation myself when I thought my world had ended because a particular person who I had made responsible for my happiness (and consequently, unhappiness) left me.
There is something inherently wrong in the belief that one cannot live without a particular person in their lives. First is that another person can be responsible for one’s happiness. Second, that one’s world would end when that person is gone.
No one else is responsible for our happiness except ourselves, and the world can and will really continue to exist with our without a particular person in our lives. If you tell a jerk (because even a jerk can fool somebody into loving him) that he is your life, your world and that both would come to an end if he leaves you, then you are giving him enormous amount of control over your life. Not smart. And if you tell an honest and responsible man the same, then you are giving him undue pressure and undeserved feelings of guilt whenever you are unhappy (which may be your aim, and that makes you the jerk.)
When you are truly, madly, deeply in love you seldom think clearly, logically. But when that period comes to an end, then it is like you have just recovered from a psychological cataract, and you see, if you’re lucky, the purity and selflessness of your love, or if you’re unfortunate, the silliness of your thoughts and actions.
When you fall out of love, you become this person that is able to distance yourself from the relationship and see yourself and the former object of your affection and the dynamics between the two of you, like the two of you are characters in a movie or in novel whose plot not only you can relate to, but also you can analyze and comment on objectively.
At first you may feel pity for the spurned person, especially if you have “lost that lovin’ feeling,'” but they haven’t. You may feel dislike or disgust for them, especially if they had betrayed you. Or you just may find them irritating when they cannot let go and keep trying to win back your love.
I think most people have experienced breaking up with someone or being let go by someone. If you broke up with someone that you ceased to love, then whatever they say becomes mere hollow sounds to you. If you’re polite, you will pretend to listen and do a mental eye-rolling when they tell you those saccharine words that you used to love to hear them say to you:
You are my world.
I can’t live without you.
You complete me.
For those who cling to a lost love:
The pain of unrequited love is real. But you have to move on because:
1. It’s not the end of the world. Really.
2. You are responsible for your own happiness. No need to pass that responsibility on to somebody else
3. You CAN move on.
4. You WILL move on.
Let go but don’t let yourself go.
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote is the first True Crime novel I have ever read, and perhaps the only one of this genre that I would read. I have no plans to read another novel of this genre, but not because I did not think it was good, rather it was so well-written that I could not forget it days after I read it; I even had nightmares three nights in a row from reading it. So to me, there is no question that it is a good novel, but it simply is not the genre that I prefer to read.
(Just in case someone reading this would sarcastically ask, “Then why read it?” Let me give you a simple answer, “Because a handsome man, hehehe, gave it to me.)
After I read “In Cold Blood,” I watched the movie “Capote” and my admiration for Truman Capote grew. The novel was written in a journalistic style – the narrator was distant, not cold, but reported “facts” as they came to him. Even the description of Perry Smith’s childhood was detailed in a straightforward manner. However, in the movie (if it was indeed a true account of what transpired between Capote and the two convicts), it was quite obvious that there was emotional attachment between the writer and the convict. Capote, seeing Perry Smith and speaking with him for the last time prior to the latter’s hanging, wept in front of the two men. Was it sadness or guilt or both?
To me that was the most moving scene of the movie, and it certainly convinced of the acting prowess of Philip Hoffman. I cried watching that sad scene unfold. I wept for Perry Smith and for the tragic life he lived; for Dick’s parents who loved him dearly, and for Capote who probably lived with guilt for the rest of his life.
If you are into the True Crime genre, then “In Cold Blood” is definitely a must-read; and if you enjoy a good movie that is not sentimental but can make you cry your eyes out, then watch “Capote.” You won’t be wasting your time.
I watched the movie “Lucy” sometime ago and thought the first half of the film was interesting, and then it just got stranger and sillier until the end. But one scene that stuck with me is the phone conversation Lucy had with her mom, where she told her she could feel everything, remember everything vividly, as if they happened just a few seconds ago. She could remember how her mother kissed her when she was still a baby.
Would you like that? To remember everything so vividly? I am guessing most people would like to remember just the happy, beautiful times and not the painful ones. In fact most people would prefer to forget the pain they have gone through.
When I was a little girl, being the youngest, I was very affectionate with my mother. I always liked kissing and hugging her and being kissed and hugged in return. She always smelled of Johnson’s Baby Powder, and I liked that. I went on being like this even when I was already in my late 20’s. My sisters used to tell me off telling me it was disgusting that I still acted like a baby when I was already an adult. But it never bothered me what other people thought.
Those are not the only memories I have of me and my mother in my childhood though. I also still vividly remember the times my mother got angry with me and my sisters. I would not say it was a typical Asian way of discipline, but it was quite common to be hit and scolded in front of family and friends or even strangers. My sisters and I sometimes talk about those times with a little sadness and a lot of laughter, but my mother remembers nothing of those times she was not gentle with us.
Yes, I remember them as well, but those hugs and kisses are the more powerful memories.
So now that I, myself, have become a mother, I hug my son tightly as often as I can, hoping he will never forget how much his mom loves him and makes him feel loved. I want him to always remember the loving look his mom gives him, and how when he is scared or hurt, his mom comforts him and makes him feel safe.
It is useless to wish he won’t remember the times I get angry with him, but I hope those memories will not be as vivid as the beautiful ones.
One of my favorite scenes from Dostoevky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov is at the trial of Mitya (Dmitry) when Dr. Herzenstube was called to the witness stand. He recalled a time when he saw Mitya as a little boy, “barefoot, his little trousers held up by a button…” He felt so sorry for him, knowing that Mitya’s father cared little for the boy, and decided to give him a pound of nuts. After that he did not see Mitya again, until twenty-three years later, a young man came to visit him and reminded him of his generosity. This young man said to him, “I’ve just come to town and I want to thank you now for the pound of nuts you once gave me, because you’re the only person who has ever given me a pound of nuts in my whole life!”
What happens in our childhood may have a major impact in our lives as adults. We remember things that happened to us when we were children as if they just happened yesterday. Some may be good, others may make us cringe or angry.
What’s your best childhood memory?
One day many years ago, when I was still young, free and single, I spoke with a colleague/friend who was only a few years older than I, about a boy who had been calling me almost every day for several months and then one day just stopped. I was telling my colleague/friend, who was married with two toddlers, that I could not stop wondering what happened, and that I could not sleep just thinking how it could just end like that. She looked me straight in the eye and said to me, coldly, “You do not have real problems, so you invent problems.” (I miss you, Nancy GRO.)
I do not know how anyone else would react to that, but I laughed. And even now, I laugh when I remember it. Indeed, that was not a real problem.
A few weeks ago, I re-read “Notes from the Underground” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I highlighted the quotes below as I know I have been guilty of these things myself too many times in my youth, and a couple of times in adulthood.
“How many times, for instance, I’d take offense, out of the blue, for no good reason, deliberately; I’d know very well that there was nothing to be offended at, that I was playacting, but in the end I’d bring myself to such a state that the offense would become real.”
“Or else I’d try to force myself to fall in love; in fact, I did it twice. And I suffered, gentlemen, I assure you I did. Deep down in your heart you don’t believe in your suffering, there is a stirring of mockery, and yet you suffer – in the most genuine, honest-to-goodness way. I’d be jealous, I’d be beside myself…And all out of boredom, gentlemen, all because I was crushed by sheer inertia.”
We sometimes think people have offended us, when, in fact, if we had important things to do or think about, we would not even remember what they said. And sometimes, when people have nothing to do, they imagine being in an amazing place, with an amazing person living an amazing life. And then this imagination can lead to the illusion that one is in love, when in reality, there is nothing amazing about the subject of one’s imagination.
Idleness can lead to love or anger, both of which may be mere illusions.
One ought to have time for quiet, for introspection, (I maintain that being quiet or introspecting is not the same as having an idle mind) but one also needs a distraction from the tediousness of daily living – a distraction that needs action. Hence, the need for a hobby. As an introvert, I am happy to add photography and guitar-playing to my list of hobbies that include reading and writing.
What’s your hobby?
SCHADENFREUDE AND THE SICK MIND
I just finished re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and thought about how the most important characters all seem to have mental problems. The most interesting characters are the eccentric ones, and the dull ones are the very normal people.
Rogojin loved Nastasia, even though she kept humiliating him in public; but, that love eventually turned to hate and led him to murder her. When she died, he kept her body in his house and watched over it. He did not laugh at her death. He was sick, but he was not happy that she died.
Myshkin understood and did not condemn Rogojin for killing his bride-to-be. They called him the “idiot”, but he was the only enlightened one among all the characters. “The Idiot,” just like “Crime and Punishment” and “Brothers Karamazov” (my number 1 favorite novel), made me think about a lot of things – about myself, my family, friends, and life and death. I started re-reading it at a time when, someone I know, was dying.
After reading the book today, I read, not a fictitious story, but a true-to-life one of a person in terrible pain and with only a few hours to live being visited by some people who made jokes and laughed loudly in the room. Perhaps they did not realize the person was in pain? I do not think it is hard to tell if a person is in pain, especially when they are groaning.
As a child, I was scolded by my father for making my sister laugh while our other sister was crying because she was itching all over from an allergy. Back then I thought what’s wrong about laughing? We were not laughing at or about her. But before I could say anything, my father said, “When somebody is suffering, you do not make light of their suffering by laughing.” It is not only rude, it is evil.
In our life, there are people who love us and those who hate us. There are people who like us, dislike us, or to whom we mean nothing. Being an introvert, I have very few people, apart from my family, I trust and truly like. But should I find myself dying, I would not want anyone except for my immediate family to see me on my deathbed. I do not want visitors who may only come to see how much I am suffering and be happy to see me thus.
Because believe me, there are such people. They look quite normal, so normal that they even managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree even though they cannot spell their names correctly. They look good and are very sociable. They walk with a swagger even though their stomachs are sticking out. They speak loudly in front of their acquaintances but simply to sound important. Yet what little knowledge they have is simply based on hearsay, God knows if they have even touched a book!
These people enjoy watching others suffer. It is difficult to understand because they are supposed to be “normal.” I can understand a mental patient laughing at someone who had been run over by a car, because the person is mentally sick. He has no control over his thoughts and feelings. I can understand a drug addict laughing at someone who fell down the stairs because his brain has been corrupted by drugs. But how to understand people who are not into drugs, talk normally, act normally in front of most people yet laugh at a dying person?
How are people like these different from the rebels who tortured the 44 SAF and laughed while they were doing so? I find these supposedly “normal” people scarier than the MILF rebels who killed the SAF. We can stay away from the MILF. But, these “normal” people are scarier because they live amongst us, watching us, waiting for us to fall, so they can laugh their evil laugh. But they do not scare me. I know their kind, and they can never come near me or my family.
They laughed as she lay dying.
MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.