Friday, September 30, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson

A while ago, I lambasted Tolstoy for cluttering up Anna Karenina with tangential bird hunts and peasant dances. Bill Bryson's recent books, A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, are entire compilations of tangents bound together by mere filaments, but am I complaining?  No. When Bryson ambles off into the wilds of wig fashions in a chapter ostensibly devoted to dressing rooms, I'm delighted to tag along. Following Tolstoy into a marsh to shoot ducks? No, thank you. 

When Bryson first got the idea to write a book about our homes, focusing on the English parsonage in which he lives, he sighed with relief.
The idea had a certain appeal, I must say. I had recently done a book in which I tried to understand the universe and how it is put together, which was a bit of an undertaking, as you will appreciate. So the idea of dealing with something as neatly bounded and cosily finite as an old rectory in an English village had obvious attractions. Here was a book I could do in carpet slippers.
And he might have done, if he could have contained his insatiable curiosity, but one thing leads to another, and it's not long before the carpet slippers are cast off in favour of shoes better suited to roaming around through continents and centuries.When I read A Brief History of Everything, I felt it was a brilliant survey course of the sciences. Bryson managed, with his odd anecdotes and quirky perspectives, to spark an interest in the sciences that had laid dormant since I was five and which nearly all my science teachers had managed to extinguish. The breadth of Bryson's research was staggering, and to hell with all those scientists who grumble about a lack of depth. That is what a bibliography is for. It's very telling that the bibliography at the back of At Home comprises 25% of the book. If the earlier book aimed to interest us in science, this one is the survey course of the humanities. If you don't want to dig any deeper, fine. There's still plenty of meat in Bryson's "brief" histories.

Do you pine for the good old days? Stop it. They weren't so good, really.
We are so used to having a lot of comfort in our lives – to being clean, warm and well fed – that we forget how recent most of that is...
...We forget just how painfully dim the world was before electricity. A candle – a good candle – provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt light bulb. Open your refrigerator door and you summon forth more light than the total amount enjoyed by most households in the eighteenth century. The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.
...Until well into the nineteenth century, the notion of a well-balanced diet had occurred to no one. All food was believed to contain a single vague but sustaining substance – ‘the universal aliment’...  Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically it killed about half the crew on any long voyage. Various desperate expedients were tried. Vasco da Gama on a cruise to India and back encouraged his men to rinse their mouths with urine, which did nothing for their scurvy and can’t have done much for their spirits either.
...Christianity was always curiously ill at ease with cleanliness anyway, and early on developed an odd tradition of equating holiness with dirtiness. When St Thomas à Becket died in 1170, those who laid him out noted approvingly that his undergarments were ‘seething with lice’. Throughout the medieval period, an almost sure-fire way to earn lasting honour was to take a vow not to wash.
...the last thing privies often were was private. The Romans were particularly attached to the combining of evacuation and conversation. Their public latrines generally had twenty seats or more in intimate proximity, and people used them as unselfconsciously as modern people ride a bus... The most notable feature about anecdotes involving toilet practices is that they always – really, always – involve people from one country being appalled by the habits of those from another.
...there was actually plenty of food in Ireland itself. The country produced great quantities of eggs, cereals and meats of every type, and brought in large hauls of food from the sea, but almost all went for export. So 1.5 million people needlessly starved. It was the greatest loss of life anywhere in Europe since the Black  Death.
...In poorer households – and that is what most homes were, of course – every person was, from the earliest possible moment, a unit of production. John Locke, in a paper for the Board of Trade in 1697, suggested that the children of the poor should be put to work from the age of three, and no one thought that unrealistic or unkind. 

Poor people have always thought it would be lovely to be rich and without worries. Wrong again. Rich people just have different, more ridiculous worries.
At the time of his death Henry VIII had no fewer than forty-two palaces. But his daughter Elizabeth cannily saw that it was much cheaper to visit others and let them absorb the costs of her travels, and so she resurrected in a big way the venerable practice of making annual royal progresses. The queen was not in truth a great traveller – she never left England or even ventured very far within it – but she was a terrific visitor. Royal progresses were nearly always greeted with a mixture of excitement and dread by those on whom the monarch called. On the one hand, they provided unrivalled opportunities for preferment and social advancement, but on the other they were stupefyingly expensive. The royal household numbered up to about fifteen hundred people, and a good many of these – a hundred and fifty or so in the case of Elizabeth I – travelled with the royal personage on her annual pilgrimages. A hapless courtier named Sir John Puckering gave Elizabeth a silk fan festooned with diamonds, several loose jewels, a gown of rare splendour and a pair of exceptionally fine virginals, then watched at their first dinner as Her Majesty admired the silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag.
 ...Visiting his daughter in the 1920s, in a house too small to keep his servants with him, the tenth Duke of Marlborough emerged from the bathroom in a state of helpless bewilderment because his toothbrush wasn’t foaming properly. It turned out that his valet had always put the toothpaste on the brush for him and the duke was unaware that toothbrushes didn’t recharge automatically.
... Blenheim [Palace] was budgeted to cost £40,000. Ultimately it cost about £300,000. This was unfortunate as the Marlboroughs were notoriously parsimonious. The duke was so cheap that he refused to dot his i’s when he wrote, to save on ink.
... Some people needed more help with the rules of table behaviour than others. John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America but not evidently the most cultivated, astounded his hosts at one dinner party by leaning over and wiping his hands on the dress of the lady sitting next to him.
...[William Randolph] Hearst and his wife were not, evidently, the most sophisticated of buyers: when he told her that the Welsh castle he had just bought was Norman, she reportedly replied: ‘Norman who?’ The new rich began to collect not just European art and artefacts, but actual Europeans. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it became a fashion to identify cash-starved aristocrats and marry one’s daughters off to them.
For a client named George S. Rasmussen, [architect Addison Cairns] Mizner forgot to include a staircase and so put an external one up on an outside wall as an afterthought. This compelled Mr and Mrs Rasmussen to put on rainwear or other appropriate attire when they wished to go from floor to floor in their own home. When asked about this oversight, Mizner reportedly said it didn’t matter because he didn’t like Rasmussen anyway. According to the New Yorker, his clients were expected to accept whatever he felt like building for them. They would present him with a large cheque, disappear for a year or so and come back to take possession of a completed house, not knowing whether it was a Mexican-style hacienda, a Venetian Gothic palace, a Moorish castle or some festive combination of the three. Mizner was particularly infatuated with the worn look of Italian palazzos, and ‘aged’ his own creations by boring artificial wormholes in the woodwork with a hand drill and defacing the walls with artful stains meant to suggest some vague but attractive Renaissance fungal growth. Once he used quicklime and shellac to age some leather chairs at the Everglades Club. Unfortunately the body heat from the guests warmed the shellac to a renewed gooeyness and several found themselves stuck fast. ‘I spent the whole night pulling dames out of those goddam chairs,’ recalled a club waiter years later. Several women left the backs of their dresses behind.

...Malcolm Forbes, the American publisher, paid $156,450 for a bottle of Château Lafite 1787. This made it much too valuable to drink, so he put it on display in a special glass case. Unfortunately, the spotlights that artfully lit the precious bottle caused the ancient cork to shrink and it fell with a $156,450 splash into the bottle. Even worse was the fate of an eighteenth-century Château Margaux reputed to have once been owned by Thomas Jefferson and valued, very precisely, at $519,750. While showing off his acquisition at a New York restaurant in 1989, William Sokolin, a wine merchant, accidentally knocked the bottle against the side of a serving cart and it broke, in an instant converting the world’s most expensive bottle of wine into the world’s most expensive carpet stain. The restaurant manager dipped a finger in the wine and declared that it was no longer drinkable anyway.
...For a century and a half men got rid of their own hair, which was perfectly comfortable, and instead covered their heads with something foreign and uncomfortable. Very often it was actually their own hair made into a wig. People who couldn’t afford wigs tried to make their hair look like a wig... By the early 1800s nobody wanted them and old wigs were commonly used as dust mops... Female wigs sometimes rose as much as two and a half feet, making the average wearer roughly seven and a half feet tall. When travelling to engagements they often had to sit on the floor of their carriages or ride with their heads out the windows. At least two fatalities were attributed to women’s hair catching fire after brushing against chandeliers.
I was astonished to read that our nomadic, neolithic ancestors ate better than we do. It's hardly an endorsement for domesticity. We've barely evolved in this sense.
It is not as if farming brought a great improvement in living standards either. A typical hunter-gatherer enjoyed a more varied diet and consumed more protein and calories than settled people, and took in five times as much vitamin C as the average person today. Even in the bitterest depths of the ice ages, we now know, nomadic people ate surprisingly well – and surprisingly healthily. Settled people, by contrast, became reliant on a much smaller range of foods, which all but ensured dietary insufficiencies... The average height of people actually fell by almost six inches in the early days of farming in the Near East... So sedentism meant poorer diets, more illness, lots of toothache and gum disease, and earlier deaths. What is truly extraordinary is that these are all still factors in our lives today. Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plant thought to exist on earth, just eleven – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye and oats – account for 93 per cent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. Exactly the same is true of husbandry. The animals we raise for food today are not eaten because they are notably delectable or nutritious or a pleasure to be around, but because they were the ones first domesticated in the stone age.
Many of Bryson's anecdotes are laugh-out-loud funny, but they're not vacuous. He always has a point to make. He just makes his points more entertainingly than nearly any other non-fiction writer. If you want to have a great read and learn some things in the process, indulge yourself in the first 75% of the book. If you feel that Bryson's just teasing you, dig into his bibliography.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wind and Water, by Ang Chin Geok

I recorded this novel upon request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. It's a largely autobiographical family saga, featuring three generations of Chinese women, first in Singapore and later in Australia. Wind and water are elements of feng shui (or, as it appears in the family's Hokkien dialect, hongsui). As the story opens in the 1930s, the first matriarch attributes all her bad fortune to the blighted hongsui of her husband's family. Unless a proper balance can be restored, she believes, future generations will continue to suffer. This woman, uneducated, illiterate and barely ambulatory on her bound feet, is nonetheless a pillar of her community and ruler of her household. She has centuries of Chinese tradition behind her, and living in Singapore does not alter that fact. This is, in the end, a book about culture and tradition -- at their best and their worst.

One of the matriarch's catastrophes is her failure to produce a son. She has borne six daughters, but only a son's prayers will be heard in the other world when she and her husband have died. Not only will the family name die, but the memories of the ancestors will not be properly revered unless a son goes to the temple. One of the daughters explains her mother's desperation.
My mother  had no desire to suffer the cursed fate of a woman who had caused the extinction of her husband's family... She contemplated the  prospect for her husband and herself, condemned for all eternity because they had no sons to pray at the altar for their spiritual well-being.

Her terror leads the matriarch to adopt a son, but her attempt to manipulate the family's hongsui has disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, she must arrange marriages for her six daughters, all of whom are also illiterate, since she insists that girls can only be harmed by education. Their highly cultured father fought briefly to send them to school, but he was no match for the intractable mother. 

The narrating daughter dreads her impending match, as she watches one older sister after the next end up in miserable marriages.  Finding a husband for the narrator is made more difficult by her Chinese zodiac sign, and none of the mother's domineering attitude can overcome that.  
Needle-tongued and quick to take offense, she had been unable to win the approval of several prospective mothers-in-law, who shuddered at the prospect of a bride born in the evening, in the Year of the Tiger. 

Aversion to Tiger brides remains til this day. I know. More than one Chinese person has told me they're not surprised that I'm single. Tigers are bad luck. Female Tigers are best avoided, and a female Water Tiger? They shudder and shake their heads.The Tiger narrator has good reason to be apprehensive, since only the most desperate man would consider linking his fortunes to her.

Her husband, however, turns out to be a decent man, although there is no love between them. His mechanical abilities get him through the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and his wife's tale of those years is a moving example of the Chinese suffering and cameraderie. 

When the war is over, the Japanese are vanquished, but the British colonials return.  The narrator makes plain the Chinese lack of fondness for anyone who is not Chinese. 

...and Europeans from whom we averted our eyes when we passed them in the streets. They seemed to us so very ugly with all that pink skin and orange hair, their women large with hairy arms and loud voices. My father shuddered whenever a Western woman walked near him. "They are so coarse and they smell of mutton," he complained.
This chauvinism, however, has its cost, and in a tiny, newly independent city-state like Singapore, the cost is too high.
As Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew set about the task of getting the various racial groups to discard their difference and to assume, deliberately and consciously, a different level of identity, a distinctly Singaporean one, weaving the disparate ethnic elements of Singapore into a single strong entity, improving the shabby social fabric as it existed, and then breaking the reign of terror imposed by rampant gangsterism. Later, there would be criticisms of his authoritarian style of government and the suppression of civil rights, but during the thirty years of his administration, most Singaporeans enjoyed a prosperity and physical safety unknown in most of Asia.

Few thinking people who spend time in Singapore come away without trying to balance the country's still authoritarian government with the orderliness and security it provides. From where I sit today, I appreciate Lee Kwan Yew's challenge in trying to bring together his island's ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian citizens into some sort of coherent nation. He could have done worse.

The final section is narrated by the woman of the third generation:  Lettie, who is the daughter of her Singaporean-Chinese mother and Australian father. As a Eurasian, she contended with racist epithets growing up in Australia, and again when she visits her family in Singapore. Singapore, where to this day they still call Eurasians grago, the same word they use for the krill the Portuguese fishermen in Melaka collected in nets and made into the foul-smelling briny sauce called chincharo. "Gragos stink," my mother explained. Her Chinese relatives refer to my father as the angmo-kau kiasai, the red-hair ape bridegroom. They still call all Westerners red-hair apes. The Chinese are efficient insultors, succinct and cruel. My mother's family, like most Chinese, are terribly racist; they believe themselves superior to everyone else, and the other people who share their island are referred to as pigs and apes. 

I believe that, if threatened, most Han Chinese, regardless of dialect group, would bind together for mutual defense. In the absence of external threat, however, they often disparage each other. In Kuala Lumpur, most Chinese are Cantonese; those in Penang and Singapore are more predominantly Hokkien. "Those Hokkiens, so superstitious, lah!" my Cantonese friends tell me. "And have you listened to them? Ugh! Hokkien is so coarse and rough-sounding! It's because they all sell in shops and markets."  I smiled as Ang described the Singaporean Hokkien view.
...the Hokkiens considered themselves far less superstitious. Safe in their pragmatism and sophistication, the Hokkiens murmured that the Cantonese were naive and nonsensical. The Cantonese, they sniffed, would believe anything; they fall over themselves in veneration of numbers such as double eight, because in their noisy singsong dialect, the word eight is a homonym for luck.
Dialect, customs and superstitions are the glue that hold these Chinese women together and give them strength and resilience. That same culture can also serve to limit their horizons. In the final chapter, Lettie wonders whether she is more Chinese or Australian, whether her ancestors' hongsui is still haunting her, or whether her misfortunes come from Aboriginal curses. Ang treats all of her narrators, from the first to the last, with great sympathy and respect, and she extends the same to her readers, allowing us to reach for own conclusions.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

I spotted this in a collection of e-books I'd downloaded and decided to indulge in a bit of childhood nostalgia.  A Wrinkle in Time and I both arrived in 1962, so I suppose my re-reading can be in preparation for our mutual 50th birthdays.

This was the cover of the edition I first read, and $1.25 seems about right for those times. Remember Scholastic Book Club? We took the little catalogs home from school. The following month boxes arrived in the classroom containing our orders and -- just as exciting -- the next catalog. That was probably how I came to read A Wrinkle in Time. I remember enjoying it, and I recall the characters and the grossest plot outline, but I'm astonished at what I either forgot or failed to notice the first time through.

I remembered the particle physics, for example, but was utterly oblivious to the Christian message. I remembered very well how gratifying it felt that the 3 child-heroes -- Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace -- were all gifted misfits, but I'd completely forgotten that the planet Camazotz felt so evil because of enforced uniformity. Re-reading this novel on the brink of 50 gives me a glimpse into my 10 year-old mind.

I have a few adult reader's observations: The ending felt too precipitous and tidy. The characters didn't seem to wrestle hard or long enough with the villain to warrant such an abrupt victory. On the other hand, I think it was a remarkably creative story for that time, when the idea of rearranging atoms to allow passage through a solid wall seemed sensational, especially in children's fiction.

There were passages and concepts that appeal to me now and eluded me completely as a kid. Calvin, a bright but eccentric teenager, meets Charles Wallace Murry. He discovers that this child, widely held to be retarded, is actually an eerie genius in a 5 year-old package. It's one of L'Engle's many reminders that judging anyone by his (or its) appearance is unwise.
Charles Wallace nodded. "What kind of family?"  
"They all have runny noses. I'm third from the top of eleven kids. I'm a sport."  
At that Charles Wallace grinned widely, "So'm I."  
"I don't mean like in baseball," Calvin said.  
"Neither do I."  
"I mean like in biology," Calvin said suspiciously.  
"A change in gene," Charles Wallace quoted, "resulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring."  
“What gives around here?" Calvin asked. "I was told you couldn't talk."  
"Thinking I'm a moron gives people something to feel smug about," Charles Wallace said. "Why should I disillusion them? 

In their search for Meg and Charles Wallace's missing father, the three children enlist the help of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, three guide figures who assume different forms on different planets and who are expert (well, most of time) at exploiting time-space distortion to move about the universe. They deposit the children on Camazotz, a planet shrouded in a dark force, where their father is imprisoned. Camazotz is governed by IT, an oversized brain on a dais, and IT subscribes to the theory that total subjection and uniformity are key to happiness.

"You see, what you will soon realize is that there is no need to fight me. Not only is there no need, but you will not have the slightest desire to do so. For why should you wish to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble? For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision."
"We will make our own decisions, thank you," Charles Wallace said.  
"But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Why don't you trust me, Charles? Why don't you trust me enough to come in and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make."

I don't think my young mind fully grasped either the allure or the danger of abdicating all responsibility, relinquishing control over one's own life and mind. As a child, I was always bucking for more autonomy, so Charles' resistance probably seemed only normal to me then. Today I appreciate the temptation and peril that L'Engle illustrates.

After leaving Camazotz, the characters land on another planet, inhabited by large, furry and sightless grey beasts. One especially caring citizen, whom Meg calls Aunt Beast, asks the girl why the humans are always going on about light and darkness, or what things look like. Meg discovers that explaining the visual world to the blind is all but impossible, and moreover, not everyone equates seeing with believing.
We do not understand what this means, to see."  
"Well, it's what things look like," Meg said helplessly.  
"We do not know what things look like, as you say," the beast said. "We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing."

Although Meg and Calvin manage to get her father off Camazotz, IT has Charles Wallace in ITs clutches. Distraught that they've left him behind, Meg erupts with anger toward her father, whom she had trusted to save the day. She has, in other words, a total crisis of faith.
She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn't able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Black Thing pushed her down into hate.

In a few passages, L'Engle is still more specific about her Christian faith; here she just lets us feel the agony of disappointment when one's faith is tested and found lacking, when the Father doesn't make it all right. As I said, all of this sailed blithely over my childish head when I read the book the first time, just as C. S. Lewis' Christian themes eluded me when I first read the Narnia books.  It seems to me now that children read all stories as myth:  the hero battles the villain and, with the help of a guide or a teacher, eventually prevails. Whether the hero is a Christian, a Muslim, a wizard or a rabbit doesn't much matter to the child, who just wants to know that evil can be successfully confronted. I don't think Madeleine L'Engle's books ever made children into better Christians any more than I believe Harry Potter made them into worse ones. The most important thing is that they are reading well-written books.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong herself read this audio book, and her purposeful contralto voice was the ideal instrument for it. In November 2007, TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) awarded her a grant of  USD100,000 to further her work to improve the world. "I knew immediately what I wanted," she said. "Religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem." As a religious historian, Armstrong set out to put the Golden Rule, which is at the core of nearly all the world's spiritual practices, into action.  She gathered leaders of Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism, and together they drafted the Charter for Compassion.

Like the 12-step programmes for Alcoholics Anonymous, Armstrong intends readers to do more than flip pages.  This is not an academic treatise or political manifesto; it's a plan of action.

She begins at Step 1: Learn about compassion. She discusses the central role of the Golden Rule in all the world's major religions, and yet how often it's lost amidst trivial obsessions with clothing and dietary laws. Start with learning more deeply about the historical roots of compassion in your own religion or culture, she advises, and then learn about others.

In Step 3, she counsels us to show compassion for ourselves. If we fail to acknowledge our own pain and grief, how can we respond compassionately to others?

Step 6 calls for action (as do many of the others, actually).  At least once a day, put the Golden Rule -- in both its positive and negative forms -- into practice. Treat someone as you would wish to be treated and refrain from treating someone as you would not wish to be treated, at least once a day. If you realise at bed-time that you neglected to do so, refer to Step 3 and show yourself a bit of compassion, resolving to do better the next day.

Step 8: How do we speak to each other? In short, nowadays the answer most often seems to be in shouts. We debate to win; our aggressive discourse is aimed to discredit or undermine our opponent. The more polite, questioning dialogue of Socrates and the Buddha, aimed to elicit enlightenment, is nearly extinct.

Here, Armstrong addresses how today's combative communication methods have failed us. Every fundamentalist movement she's ever studied, regardless of which religion, is rooted in a deep fear of annihilation. This fear begins with a perceived assault by the liberal or moderate establishment. If we respond with anger, it just reinforces the fear. Fundamentalism is "an expression of anxieties that no society can safely ignore." She concedes that it's difficult to be calm and objective when we feel that fundamentalism is an attack on values that we hold dear -- freedom of speech, women's rights, etc. But aggression and insult only make matters worse. "We need to break cycle of attack and counter-attack. We've seen what happens when fundamentalist fear hardens into rage."

Linguists point out that when we hear something that sounds odd or false, we automatically try to find a context in which it makes sense. The same is true when we translate from a foreign language. They call this the principle of charity.  As part of this step, Armstrong urges, start with the assumption that the speaker shares your view, then question to gain more understanding. You have to recreate the entire context from which the words come.

Step 12, the last in terms of order and challenge though not in the sense of being final, is to love one's enemy. Armstrong pulls in all the scholarship and guidance that went into the preceding 11 steps as she encourages us to develop empathy for and a deeper understanding of an individual, state or culture that threatens us deeply. Remember, she says, the word love in Biblical times was a legal term. To love one's ruler, for example, was to show support and loyalty. I appreciate that bit of philology -- Armstrong is an excellent scholar. This is not a self-help book sloshing with emotion. If we develop our knowledge of someone who seems inimical, empathy will develop naturally, and from that, we will realise that we cannot annihilate our ostensible enemy without doing terrible injury to ourselves.

In her postscript, Armstrong reminds us that a programme to live with compassion is not something that can be achieved by reading a book, nor in 12 easy steps. It's a lifelong project, ending only with death, and it will be riddled with failure. Perseverance is critical. Daily practice is critical.  She also, however, encourages those of us who might object that we do not have the heroic qualities of a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Mother Theresa. People will flock to a compassionate person, a quiet and peaceful person, because they see in that individual a momentary haven of serenity. Being that person is living a worthwhile life.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Up Above the World, by Paul Bowles

When I'm fed up with traveling, I threaten to stop buying airline tickets and, with the money I save, buy travel books instead. When you've got someone like Paul Theroux describing the Trans-Siberian Railway, why vex yourself with vodka-sodden berth-mates and watery borscht?

Up Above the World is a novel which left me equally soured on both fictional and real travel.  Or maybe it just left me soured on Paul Bowles.  Bowles' best known novel is The Sheltering Sky, in which an American couple ventures into the North African desert in a misguided effort to reinvigorate their marriage. The married couple travelling to an unnamed Central American country in Up Above the World have no such agenda but come to an unfortunate end all the same.

They are unremarkable people, Dr. and Mrs. Slade -- upper middle-class, educated, worldly. They are not feckless. It's not carelessness nor stupidity putting them in harm's way. They simply cross paths, quite coincidentally, with the wrong man. In that regard, this story reminds me very much of Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers: People who are very much like me travel to a foreign place, strike up a casual conversation with a person they meet there, and come to very bad ends within a couple of hundred pages.  Bowles' villain is actually another American -- a charming expatriate. He's not even a wicked foreigner.

Maybe I expect certain things from books set in foreign countries. Sometimes there's a lesson:  Scott didn't prepare sensibly for the antarctic and is now buried in a glacier somewhere. Sometimes I just soak up the scenery:  The fact that the Finns are mad about tango is no less delightful in print than it is in Helsinki.  If the writer is gifted, I just tag along on her prose: Why risk dysentery when someone else can make New Delhi sound poetic?

I was completely frustrated with this novel. Bowles' prose is ordinary. There was no cautionary wisdom. It might have been set in Guatemala, or in East L.A., so as a travelogue, it failed.  I had the sense that I should have appreciated the book more, which only exacerbated the frustration.  Should? Why should I have admired it?

Decades ago, I was in love with the idea of Morocco, and in feeding that infatuation, I ran across Jane and Paul Bowles. At that time of my life, the idea of living as an expatriate in Morocco was beyond fabulous. They had done it and thus became my mentors. Now I can look back on Paul Bowles (1910-1999) with a more temperate view. He was first and foremost a composer. If I read The Sheltering Sky, I've since forgotten it, which doesn't bode well. In retrospect, I was smitten with them and what I imagined their lives to have been. That doesn't necessarily recommend his novel.

Second, the copy on the book jacket misled me:
On the terrace of an elaborate hilltop apartment overlooking a Central American capital, four people sit making polite conversation. The American couple -- an elderly physician and his young wife -- are tourists. Their host, whom they have just met, is a young man of striking good looks and charm. The girl, who is his mistress, is very young and very beautiful. Sitting there, with drinks in their hands, watching the sunset, the Slades seem to be experiencing the sort of fortunate chance encounter that travelers cherish. But amidst the civilities and small talk, one remark proves prophetic. The host says to the American woman: "It's not exactly what you think."

My mind jumped to the story I wanted to read. I hoped for a story of a long-time expatriate gradually exposing a place to a visiting tourist. We've all gone here or there and murmured, Ah, this is paradise. Most of us have the good sense to realise that, after two weeks or beyond the boundaries of the resort, it may be less exquisite. There's no substitute for living in a place, day in and day out, for years. Only then can we tell the starstruck newcomer, "It's not exactly what you think."  I am captivated by the disparity between those two views, and I was really looking forward to a novel based upon it.

I was disappointed.  Does that mean Up Above the World is an unworthy novel?  I can't step far enough away to say. I wish there were someone at hand to defend the book, to tell me that I'm not seeing it clearly enough, perhaps because I didn't spend enough time with it.  With enough time and attention, we see everything differently.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mark, an English bibliophile, recommended this novel to me as we chattered about fiction over glasses of icy London gin at my Kuala Lumpur dining table. He was homesick, I think, and the gin could only do so much to help.  This book, he insisted, was the best of armchair travel to Yorkshire.

"Early Evening"
by Winslow Homer
Set in the coastal town of Monkshaven at the end of the 18th century, Sylvia's Lovers is a scenic, atmospheric story.  Gaskell's ear for local dialect rivals that of Dickens and the Brontes. Galraverging was in fact one of the words that made Mark's eyes shine.  It means roaming about: Sylvia had been off galraverging. I searched every obscure on-line dictionary I could think of, and the only reference I found was to Gaskell's use of the word in this novel. Maybe she coined it? 

Sylvia herself would not be impressed, as she shuns literacy and her cousin's dogged efforts to teach her: 

"It's bad enough wi' a book o' print as I've niver seen afore, for there's sure to be new-fangled words in 't. I'm sure I wish the man were farred who plagues his brains wi' striking out new words."

They're a proud, stubborn and independent lot, the Yorkshire folks.  They remind me of the old-time Mainers who were my neighbours when I was a child. The Winslow Homer painting, in fact, was the cover art for Penguin's edition of Sylvia's Lovers, and it portrays figures on the Maine coast. Rugged landscapes produce rugged people. Neither Mainers nor Yorkshiremen take kindly to intrusive government. Sylvia's mild cousin Philip tries to discuss the laws of the land with her outspoken father, Daniel Robson.

"But, asking pardon, laws is made for the good of the nation, not for your good or mine."
Daniel could not stand this. He laid down his pipe, opened his eyes, stared straight at Philip before speaking, in order to enforce his words, and then said slowly --
"Nation here! nation theere! I'm a man and yo're another, but nation's nowheere."

During these years, men were at risk of being shanghaied by the government's 'press gangs', carried off against their wills to serve in the British Navy.  Others risked life and limb on whaling ships. Sylvia falls in love with Charley Kinraid, a seaman, but when he disappears and is presumed dead, she capitulates to her mother's wishes and marries her cousin Philip. Philip, having worked his way up to co-ownership of a well-respected fabric shop, is madly devoted to Sylvia and offers her every comfort he can think of. Poor Philip -- he's heart-broken and bewildered when Sylvia responds with weary indifference.
Now she was married, this weekly church-going which Philip seemed to expect from her, become a tie and a small hardship, which connected itself with her life of respectability and prosperity. 'A crust of bread and liberty' was much more accordant to Sylvia's nature than plenty of creature comforts and many restraints. 

Sylvia's Lovers lacks the high drama of Wuthering Heights. It is not, though, without its virtues. And maybe, in the end, the moral of the story is just that: those who make emotional, impetuous choices come to regret them. High drama has high cost. Unfortunately, when it comes to great literature, the meek inherit earthly obscurity.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Teohlogy, by Patrick Teoh

I recorded this book by special request for Malaysian Association for the Blind. The author is well-known to most Malaysians -- he's a very popular television and radio personality, and Teohlogy: The Word According to Patrick Teoh is a collection of his columns for Off the Edge magazine.

These are the writings of a Malaysian curmudgeon.  In this case, you should judge the book by its cover, because this photo captures the very essence of the essays.  With scathing wit, colourful language (not all of it bowdlerised with random punctuation marks, $^%I*@#!) and a profound, nostalgic sadness, Teoh discusses what's going on in Malaysia, and what's wrong with it.

Off the Edge was a Malaysian magazine with a local readership. Non-Malaysians (by which I mean those who are unfamiliar with the local scandals and the scoundrels responsible for them) should give the book a miss. Not only will they fail to appreciate Teoh's jabs at politicians, much of the local jargon will sail over their heads.  (He thoughtfully includes a glossary at the back, which even locals might find helpful, as he peppers his writing with expletives in Cantonese, Hokkien, Tamil, Malay and Manglish, or Malaysian English.)  Wonder what it would be like to sit in a kopitiam and tokkok with Patrick Teoh?  Aiyoh, lah, just buy the book! You one of them mata-mata flers? You should read the book, lor. Patrick tell you what to do with the kapchai flers who got new name, mah, now call mat rempit. And politicians? Comedians can't hold a candle to them. Want a good laugh, one til you cry what, read Malaysian politics issinit.

He does, of course, write most of the essays in flawless English, which he learnt from the Malaysian education system of nearly 50 years ago, before the politicians started mucking about with it in the name of nationalism.  He comments in one essay about the uncanny Malaysian ability to forget.  It must be something in the air or in the water, because his essays from only 4-5 years ago recall scandals and outrages that I, too, had forgotten. Maybe it's because there seems to be no end to news that leads us to bang our heads on our desks.  Maybe our forgetfulness is from the concussions.

Although I laughed out loud while recording it, Teohlogy also had me fighting back despair. I've lived in enough places to know that governments do crazy and silly things. Period. Fine, the Albanian government is sillier than, say, the Danish one, but I bet the Danes grumble in coffee shops, too.  I know better than to expect sanity here. What saddens me, though, is Teoh's assertions that the country is deteriorating. It's not dysfunctional in a stable sort of way -- it's going downhill. He forced me to acknowledge that race and religion are even pricklier topics today than they were when I arrived in 2004. Patrick Teoh describes himself as a patriot, Malaysia as his country.  I'm not Malaysian, but I love this country, too. I can't vote nor speak out, but I hope Malaysia's politicians are heeding 'the word according to Patrick Teoh.' The baarger is pandai, lah!