Wednesday, March 26, 2014

May It Be

As I age, am I getting better and more secured as a person ? I  hope so but I do not think so . I am still learning and I do not know better.

While we must know that wisdom and maturity are what makes aging less daunting, how we feel about ourselves is defined by our sense of fulfilment. Every single thought can affect how we act and may lead to irreversible consequences that affect not only ourselves but all those around us. Every step we take and everything we do in our daily life matters. How we think can definitely affect each step we take in reaching our goals or simply to get through the daily grind.

We say things in a moment of anger or frustration and they can no longer be retracted. Aspersions boomerang, lies not only deceive, they insult one's intelligence while criticisms anger and flatteries delude. Sometimes no amount of  damage control can amend or rectify the effect and impact of the things that had been said, acts or omissions that had been committed. 
Pub/cafe in Lemington Spa 
 You could be on your best behaviour for days, weeks or  months and even years and then you do something that is totally incongruous with how you normally behave, your parents, your spouse, your family and those close to you will find that they have misjudged you or that you have gone awry. You might have just wiped out all the trust they had in you and they feel cheated after  all those years of loyalty and devotion to you.

I believe there are multiple facets to a person. How we portray ourselves to the outside world may largely depend on how we want the others to see us. How we see ourselves is perhaps influenced by what we think how the others perceive us. I  find that the longer I know somebody, I  find it even harder to decipher the person's intentions or describe the person's character.

Human relations are definitely complex as each one of us has our own insecurities. Not everyone possesses the same sense of humour and sensibilities and we are inclined to form our views and perceptions based on  our  predispositions and what we know.

You may think that the society is oppressive when you are not in the position to negotiate what you really want, you feel that life is insufferable.  If you think you are a victim, your brains start to emit all the negative responses and they will eventually become who you are. In the long run you will very likely become resentful and bitter. Life can never be perfect because that is life. Happiness is devoid of meaning if you do not choose to be happy. 

 On Beauty written by Zadie Smith is a satire about two feuding families and their respective family lives. Although they are living across in two different cities from both sides of the Atlantic, their paths somehow cross by reason of the academic world which the patriarchs of both families share. The Belseys and the Kippses have completely different political ideologies and views about affirmative action and art. Howard Belsey is a liberal academic who originally hails from working class London  and is married  to an American African and settles in a fictional town called Wellington near Boston. Monty Kipps  is a right wing conservative who does not believe in affirmative action. When Belsey’s son, Jerome happened to intern in Kipp’s office in  London, ‘he had liked to listen to the exotic ( to a Belsey) chatter of business and money and practical politics ; to hear that  Equality was a myth, and Multiculturalism a fatuous dream; he thrilled at the suggestion that Art was a gift from God, blessing only a handful of masters, and most literature merely a veil for poorly reasoned left-wing ideologies.’ 

As the story continues, the long suffering wives of both archrivals strike out a belated friendship and their children’s lives somehow intertwine with one another. Once  again we are reminded of the complexity  of human relations, the fragility of human emotions and the vulnerability of the human heart. How  messy life is  even in the world of academia, liberal or otherwise.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Time Travel

Nice 2012

If you could travel back in time to undo all the mistakes or rectify situations or  simply revisit those moments, how wonderful it would be. In the movie “About Time”,when twenty-one year old Tim was told by his  dad that the men in their family could travel back in time not to change history of the world but to undo or redo something, he did not believe his dad. What Tim has to do is to find a dark place and clench his fist and concentrate on the time he wants to revisit. The ability to travel in time allows Tim’s father to travel back in time to read again and again some of his favourite books and also to spend more time with Tim. The film is a sweet story about love and time travel.

There were always things we would like to be able to undo or redo. There are always regrets in our lives but we have to move forward as what is done is done. Perhaps  if you had gone a different path, you might not be where you are now, there is no guarantee it would have been a better place.

Sometimes we may find ourselves reminiscing about those glorious days which probably never really quite happened the way we had remembered they did. We tend to feel nostalgic about the past. My younger daughter wonders how her parents had got by without computers while doing their assignments during varsity days. I guess we all make do with whatever available at the time. The ex Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew in his book One Man’s View of the World wrote, ‘There is no going back to the way the world was in the past. We cannot dis-invent the aeroplane, the Internet, the iPhone and iPads. You accept the world as it is , and find the best way of maximizing your fortunes as a society, or you are left behind by the relentless pace of change found everywhere else. The world cannot possibly stop spinning for your sake.

Amidst all the technological inventions and the web world, every man and woman has to soldier on his or her own path in their lifetime. During your time on earth, you will meet your family, your foes, the people who befriended you and the men and women who fell for you and the man or woman your family thought you were going to marry and the man or woman you eventually married. Do we all change over the years and were we changed by some of these people who had tried to change us because they felt that they knew better? We are what they think we are and they think we are pretending to be what we think we are. For self  preservation, we forget what we choose to forget and remember only what we want to remember. We do ultimately become what we think we are about with and without the influences of those we come into contact and the parameters the modern world  might have imposed on us.

Last week, I attended a friend’s birthday lunch and a friend who was present at the party lent me her DVD for the film ‘The Great Beauty ( La Grande Bellezza)’. I was definitely delighted to be given the opportunity to watch the movie that had recently bagged the Best Foreign Language Film  at the 86th Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globe and the BAFTA award in the same category. The movie opens with a quote that I have since learnt and it came from Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night (Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932): To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength. The movie is a comedy that captures the grandeur of Rome. It is about Jep Gambardella, an aging journalist who wrote a novel in his twenties and has not been able to write anything of note since and for the past decades he only fills his life with parties and frivolity. The protagonist seems to  have wasted  and squandered  away his talents and on his sixty-fifth birthday, he takes stock of his life and he thinks about his past. The cinematography is beautifully executed and the mood is melancholic. During the movie, I cannot help thinking that  our lives are full of hypocrisy and shallowness at various points of our lives. While I know that we must not take life too seriously, I still believe that there is a reason to everything that happens and what we do and how we think matter. A few months ago, I was looking through some photos taken of my teenage days. One of the photos was taken with a particular cousin sister who passed away today. A few weeks ago, I  received news that she  had fallen very ill due to onslaught of a couple of strokes and she  was then suffering from fourth stage lung cancer. Her sudden illness had come as a shock to her family and relatives. Over the past years, we had only met up occasionally partly due to geographical differences. It  is very sad for me to learn about her passing as I came to know that she has unfulfilled dreams and unrealized yearning. I will always remember her beautiful soulful eyes. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Mock Turtle Soup, The Fat Duck

Mad Hatter's Tea Party, The Fat Duck Tasting Menu

Thoughts flow in and out of our minds. Apart from improving one’s command of the language one is reading in, reading helps one to string together one’s thoughts and  discover things about oneself . For me reading definitely helps me to identify and formulate  my thoughts about things in general.

If you are bothered or distressed about something, you may find it difficult to switch off your mind and focus on what you read. When reading is a hobby, it is a pleasure. If you are too busy, you have no time to read a book from back to back, perhaps you can try to read something short or just a paragraph or two whenever you can. That is if you want to. I used to welcome the time when I had been kept waiting for my girls when they were held back in their respective classes. I even looked forward to the time when I had a  dental appointment or some routine medical check up as that was the time I get to read what I wanted to read. That was when I managed to get a moment to read a page or two of some good writings. It was not the best way to read a book but if I had not done that I would never get around to reading any books for more than a dozen years. Whenever I had to do the supermarket run in my suburb, I used to grab a coffee at the Starbucks outlet where the supermarket was located so I could sit in one of their sofa chair for twenty minutes or more to read some pages of whatever book I was reading then before I sped through the grocery shopping which was the purpose of my trip. I was dividing my time into different segments so I could get mini breaks to read. 

I  have the habit of reading two or three books contemporaneously. A decade ago, there was this one time when I had to do some laundry, a task I found terribly uninspiring.  I reluctantly picked up the dirty clothes around the house and decided to do a quick wash of the clothes before going to work. While the clothes were being washed in the machine, I had a quick shower and got myself ready for work. Then while waiting for the clothes to spin dry, I wanted to catch up with one of  the novels  that I was reading then. While I distinctively remembered that I had  the book with me when I gathered the clothes, I could not locate the book. When the washing machine stopped spinning, I found bits of paper stuck to all the clothes. I had thrown the book into the machine as I loaded the clothes. Incidentally, the book that I had thrown into the wash  was The Dirty Girls’ Social Club. It is a novel written by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez about six Latina women friends who regularly meet after they have left Boston University and they nickname themselves ‘Sucias’ . Twice a year, every year, the sucias show up for their meetings  of the Buena Sucia Social Club.  The women’s stories are told by Lauren, Elizabeth, Sara, Rebecca, Usnavys and Amber in first person narration that I had found interesting. It is sassy and fun like Sex and the City but the characters are more credible as they have added sorrow.

Nowadays I have more time to read the books I want to read but  I still cannot get  enough time to read as much as I would like to. Also these days it can be a little inconvenient when I happen to step out for lunch armed with a novel and forgetting my reading glasses. I now realize why some people do not read as much when they get older due to poor eyesight. But seriously, what is a slight inconvenience when I can rectify it by wearing reading glasses. It is time to embrace growing old with grace.

It has been more than a week since the plane MH 370 went missing and the incident has sent and continues to send tremors throughout the whole world. While it is heart warming to see how countries amidst their differences have stood together to search for the missing plane and how people from different faiths and ethnic groups  pray for the safe return of  its crew and the passengers on board, it is definitely a harrowing experience for people around the world.

The unresolved tragedy reminds me of the passages from the novel “ Saturday” written by Ian McEwan. Saturday, February 15, 2003, Henry Perowne,  a successful neurosurgeon unusually wakes before dawn, drawn to the window and filled with a growing unease. As he looks out at the night sky, he is troubled by the state of the world and he witnesses a burning plane from his bedroom window .

The plane emerges from the trees, crosses a gap and disappears behind the Post Office Tower. If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea that he’s been summoned; that having woken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for no reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance. But a city of its nature cultivates insomniacs ;it is itself a sleepless entity whose wires never stop singing; among so many millions there are bound to be people staring out of windows when normally they would be asleep. And not the same people every night. That it should be him and not someone else is an arbitrary matter. A simple antropic principle is involved. The primitive thinking of the supernaturally inclined amounts to what his psychiatirric colleagues call a problem , or an idea, of reference………’

“ …..Among the terrified passengers many might be praying – another problem of reference – to their own god for intersession. And if there are to be deaths, the very god who ordained them will soon be funereally petitioned for comfort. Perowne regards this as a matter for wonder, a human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it there spring, alongside the unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer; it’s not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers. The best hope for the plane is that it’s suffered simple, secular mechanical failure.”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Reading Bug

Neal's Yard Covent Garden
Maybe one of the primary reasons we read a work of  fiction is to escape into another world, a world that is created by the writer. To me reading fictions gives me an insight to the human heart, our heritage and the world. Different writings provide me with different types of  food for thought.

Reading is definitely continuing education and I cannot emphasize enough the pleasure of reading fictions. Books may not offer the reasons for why we are here, books do offer us some tips on how to live our lives. Great writings help to interprete life.

Have you heard of the reading bug?  I think if someone in your family is a reader, chances are you will
be infected with the bug. But in this electronic age where there are various types of home entertainment and portable devices, it is probably more conducive to get on the social network and catch up with friends or slouch in front of a television or a game station instead of curling up in a chair and read.

When we read, we tend to interprete the writings according to what we already know or what we think we know. Personally I feel limited by my way of thinking so I try to read with a view to explore new ideas and different ways of assessing certain issues. If I could possess a photographic memory, I would  be an omnivore as I am interested in such  a lot of things and would love to  read, study and generally absorb all the information. Since I have only an average power of memory, I have to be selective and prioritize what I really want to read about from time to time.

If we constantly interprete what we read according to what we know, it may not help us  grow and may even be counter productive . If we do not read with an open mind, we may not exactly nourish our minds since we are reinforcing what we think we already know. Reading is supposed to help one think and reinvent and possibly reconsider and reexamine issues and priorities in life, but if one has already made up his or her mind about how things should be, reading will only make him or her reiterate what he or she thinks.

In The Marriage Plot written by the Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides, Mitchell Grammaticus who is attracted to Christian mysticism lugs along with him books  as he  travels the world to get Madeleine Hanna out of his mind. During his travel to India, he finds himself confronting the questions about the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the true nature of love. An English major college student, Madeleine falls  for  Leonard Bankhead, a loner  who is bad news and when she  is heartbroken, she keeps the book A Lover’s  Discourse by Roland Barthes close by. Eugenides wrote “She had become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.”

It was the morning of her college graduation, there were all those books in the room where Madeleine lay, with a pillow over her head. The story begins with this description:

‘To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Elliot, and the redoubtable Bronte sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly…………..

‘She had read each and everyone ,often multiple times , frequently underlining passages, but that was no help to her now.’

She was glad she’d taken the book. Now, in her morose condition, the elegant prose of Roland Barthes was her one consolation. Breaking up with Leonard hadn’t lessened the relevance of A Lover’s Discourse one bit. There were more chapters about heartbreak than happiness, in fact. One chapter was called “Dependency.” Another, “ Suicide.” Still another, “In Praise of Tears.” The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry ….The slightest amorous emotion, whether of happiness or of disappointment, brings Werther to tears. Werther weeps often, very often, and in floods. Is it the lover in Werther who weeps, or is it the romantic.

A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental , if you recognized that being “in love’ was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny. Madeleine knew all that. The problem was , it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit . The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. She identified with Barthes’ shadowy “I”. She didn’t want to be liberated from her emotions but to have their importance confirmed.  Here was a book addressed to lovers, a book about being in love that contained the word love in just about every sentence. And,oh, how she loved it!

The heroine Madeleine is evidently a bibliophile and an incurable romantic. Incidentally, I came across the essay entitled ‘The Second Shelf” written by  one of my favourite female writers,  Meg Wolitzer on the rules of literary fictions for men and women. Here is Wolitzer’s  opening sentence,

“If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?”* 

I feel that categorizing the book genre is for easy marketing of the book, ultimately good writings would find their readers. The story is set in the early 1980s when the country was in a recession, somehow it seemed self-indulgent for the heroine to fall hopelessly in love despite all the warning signs about the guy she was in love with. I cannot say for certain whether the character is an incurable romantic by reason of  the books she has read. Perhaps she is an incurable romantic to begin with, thus her selection of books.  I think  the great thing about being young is that you can be foolhardy without regard to consequences and how romantic love  can make you feel needy and heavy. The Marriage Plot   makes an engaging read if you are a romantic at heart although it does not have a Hollywood kind of ending. After all books remain books, reading fictions  is a perfect  getaway and it should be very safe just you and your books.