Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Please freeze the time


La Plagne Dec  2013
I feel rather unsettled as another year is ending. Time is definitely moving faster than ever. I am racing through time to finish some of the books I have started reading this month. I am also racing against time in the hope to do more writing in whatever that I started sometime ago amidst my work.  Ideas are scattered.

I remember how one guy I was seeing in my twenties badgered me for not having  a  sense of urgency because in his opinion I had zero sense of urgency and  he was so convincing that I actually felt pretty bad about myself though I had believed then  that  one must go about one’s life  in his or her own time. Now that the sense of urgency is so omnipresent that it is giving me anxiety attacks and causing much distress as  I must  seriously examine what and how I am doing with seemingly endless multitasking and resolve to focus on what I feel really matters.

I know that if something is not right for me, do not ignore the sign or the voices that are telling me so. But the question is how to fix something that is not right and has not been right for a long time. I am still thinking of a way to break out of a habitude and hope to get organized and prioritize what I need to do before things spiral in a manner that is leading towards more disorder and disarray.

I bought Camberwell Beauty written by Jenny Eclair some years back and only got round to reading it last week. Jenny Eclair tells the story of two families who live in South London.

Welcome to  South London, to  one of the nicest streets in one of the country’s vilest boroughs: Lark Groves, SE5.  A determined middle-class oasis of skips and bay trees, where Volvos sniff each other’s bumpers, and men called Giles live with women called Samantha. This is a satellite- dish-free zone of tall houses with big front doors,standing shoulder to shoulder, five floors apiece.Come inside, shut the door and smell the coffee. You could almost be in Kensington.

When Anna and Chris Cunningham  first  moved into the Pink House in the neighbourhood, Josephine Alexandra Travis who is married to Nigel George Metcalf was eager to get to know her new neighbour who was very pretty and very pregnant. Characters like Anna is extremely self-centred and vain. She has a diploma in drama and had nearly been an actress so she ended up doing work in casting.  Jo has always been the kind of woman who is intelligent and capable. At school , she was the head girl and she  continues to try hard to  be a reliable homemaker  and she runs a second hand bookshop that has been bought by Nigel, a phenomenally unfaithful husband. She reasoned why she wanted to befriend Anna: “ Part of wanting to be Anna’s friend was practical; we both had girls around the same age. Useful, you see? A little pal up the road , jolly handy, we mothers can be quite scheming.”

Though the characters are not likeable, the way the story is told has kept me going. The narrations are done by Anna and Jo in first person respectively and also in third person’s voice. 

There are some funny quips.
‘It is only recently that I have realized that the greatest appetite suppressant is abject misery ; Without really trying my waistbands have become loose and I no longer have to lie on the floor to zip up my good Agnés b black trousers’    -  Jo

‘ I am drinking gin today, mother’s ruin. Isn’t it a shame that you can’t edit your life? That’s what I’ve been thinking ; if the last ten years were on tape, I’d just chop out the  bad bits and keep in the good moments. That’s what they do with films, they leave the shit bits on the cutting –room floor...'– Anna

Indeed how wonderful it would be if we could just cut out the bad bits and keep in the good moments only.

Jenny Eclair is observant about contemporary life of  the urban couples . Some of the narrations  are wickedly funny. Voila.

They were all getting older. Age creeps up on you, one day you bend down to tie up your shoe and you find yourself thinking, now is there anything else I can do whilst I’m down here? Women usually fare worse than men in the ageing process, just take a look at the newscasters on the telly. Middle-aged men, despite their spaniel jowls and pink-tie tendencies, manage to achieve some headmasterly gravitas, whilst women of the same age get a faraway, desperate look in their eyes as if they might be about to bolt off to some Caribbean island and marry a twenty- year- old native with a spear and a hundred conch shells around his neck. It’s that ‘last chance’ time.
     Jo thought it might be a good idea to learn conversational Italian. Chris bought himself some golf clubs. Anna began to moisturize her neck and Nigel started taking ginseng and a fungus which he kept in a jam jar in the fridge.

Camberwell Beauty is not like typical chick-lits, its ending is sad and rather upsetting. There are touches of reality in the story. It is true that we cannot edit our lives and often we have to live with the consequences of our actions. As Eclair writes, ‘Some people are luckier than others : they have nicer lives with more things. But luck can run out and whose fault is that ? Fate has a fickle finger, and when you’re least expecting it , she can poke you in the eye.

Jenny Eclair is an English comedian, author and actress and she was born in Kuala Lumpur.  She now lives in South London.  

Park Güell, Barcelona



Saturday, December 17, 2016

Work Smart


On Thursday I attended a meeting held at the land office. There had been some administrative errors that consequently have stalled subsequent  vesting and registrations of various interests in a particular piece of land that involves several landowners. The lawyers concerned were invited to gather at the land office with a view to find an amicable solution. At the end of the meeting, there was no consensus as to the best way to rectify the error.  The property lawyer found efficacy in making a new transfer with the correct description while the litigators were concerned about the costs and stamp fees that their clients might have to bear and possible contingent liabilities. It was apparent that the property lawyers  and the litigation lawyers did not share the same outlook as the former was eager to move forward with registering their clients’ respective interests and the litigation lawyers wanted to safeguard against unclear but possible claims against their clients thus they proposed to make an application to the High Court for the necessary orders which would invariably involve the state legal advisor and the Judge.

The meeting was necessary and not entirely in vain for all intents and purposes just like a lot of other work meetings and consultations. Recently it has dawned upon me that there are those people who work smart and those others  who are opportunistic and if one should lean towards the latter, it connotes that one is inclined to be devious and unprincipled. Quite often truth and lies are almost indistinguishable for subordinates who do not care much about how they perform at work as they just want to carry on with their routines so they can collect their paychecks at the end of each month.

 In  The Room, the novel written by Swedish actor and writer, Jonas Karlsson and translated from Swedish by Neil Smith, Björn is thrilled to discover a small, secret room where he can work in the civilized manner he deserves and his efficiency yields exemplary results but his strange behaviour drives his colleagues to a point of no return. The room might have been a figment of Björn’s imagination as the other colleagues see that he stands by the wall between the lift and the toilets when he tells them there is a room. He asks one of his colleagues about the room. The following extract appears in chapter 23.
        Jörgen, ”  I said. “ I want you to be completely honest now. I want you to tell me what this room is for.”
       “ What room?”
       “ This one,” I said, touching the door with my finger.
        “ There’s the lift,” Jörgen said.”And there are the toilets.”
         “ Mmh, but what about in between them?”
         “ In between? Well ,there’s a recycling bin, if that’s what you mean …”
         “ That’s not what I mean,” I said. “ What’s this room for?”
I slapped my hand on the door, fairly hard. Actually harder than I had expected. I realized that this nonsense was wearing my patience. I had to try to keep a cool head.
   “ Well …” Jörgen said, looking at me.
 I could see that he was extremely uncertain. He was evidently disconcerted at having to talk to me.
“….it’s a wall.”
I glared at him.
“Is that all you’ve got to say?

Jörgen obviously finds Björn weird and yet Björn believes “Whoever was responsible for this deception was on a different level of the hierarchy.”

Here are  some samplings of  the passages from  The Room:
The following passage is from chapter 8
Inhibited people don’t see the world the way it really is. They only see what they themselves want to see. They don’t see the nuances. The little differences.
   A lot of people , more than you’d imagine, think everything’s fine. They’re happy with things the way they are. They don’t see the faults because they’re too lazy to allow themselves to have their everyday routines disturbed. They think that as long as they do their best, everything will work out okay. '

The following passage is from Chapter 33
 On the other hand , it’s good to realize that we aren’t as remarkable as we might imagine. We want to earn a lot , eat well, and generally have a nice time. Listen to the radio sometimes or watch something on television. Read a book or a journal. We want to have good weather and be able to buy cheap food close to home.
 In these terms we are all relatively simple creatures. We dream of finding a more or less pleasant partner, a summer cottage or a time-share on the Costa de Sol. Deep down we just want peace and quiet. A decent dose of easily digested entertainment every now and then.
       Anything more is just vain posturing.

The Room reminds me of The Trial, a novel  by Franz Kafka. Karlsson’s writing is minimalist and easy to read. It is an exhilarating story about how far we will go-in a world ruled by conformity- to live life on our own terms. If we pay attention, everyone of us needs a place or a mode ( physically or metaphorically)  to re- centre ourselves  whenever things overwhelm so as not to be overcome by whatever is happening . 

San Sebastian July 2015

Monday, November 28, 2016

Neither Here nor There



Hongkong
When I was in secondary school, our English teacher in school used to speak to us every week about the sense of belonging. Everyone needs to find and build a sense of belonging as it is a human need, says the teacher. I cannot recall the textbook we were using then. Every human being is looking for a place to settle in and to flourish and grow.
Penang

This year, the theme for the  Georgetown literary event in Penang is Hiraeth, a Welsh word. A poignant theme indeed. It suggests nostalgia and a yearning for some place that probably only exists in our imagination or memory that is in all likelihood distorted. A homeland could be anywhere so long as you are clear about who you want to be.  But awareness is not something that comes naturally, so often we are distracted. Our thoughts are influenced by our desires, our fears, our expectations, our ambitions and our resolve.
Opening Lecture by A.C. Grayling
George Town Literary Festival 2016
Often when things do not go well where one is, one tends to seek another place for better or worse  . Even when things are going well, one may still leave for certain career prospects or a possibility of an advancement or an improved lifestyle . The move could be an exile, a necessity or simply feeling  hopeful for a change and a new start elsewhere. 

In The Wangs Vs the World, a debut novel by Jade Chang, Charles Wong has lost everything. It’s 2008 and Charles has over expanded his cosmetic business and as  he loses all his fortune during the financial crisis , his last resort is to make it to China and make a claim on his lost ancestral lands in China. 

CHARLES  WANG was mad at America.
   Actually  ,Charles Wang was mad at history.
If the death-bent Japanese had never invaded China, if a million—a  billion ---- misguided students and serfs had never idolized a balding academic who parroted Russian madmen and couldn’t pay for his promises, then Charles wouldn’t be standing here, staring out the window of his beloved Bel-Air home, holding an aspirin
in his hand, waiting for those calculating assholes form the bank ---the bank that had once gotten down on its Italianate-marble knees and kissed his ass –to come over and repossess his life.
     Without history, he wouldn’t be here at all.
      He’d be there, living out his unseen birthright on his family’s ancestral acres, a pampered prince in silk robes, writing naughty, brilliant poems, teasing servant girls, collecting tithes from his peasants, and making them thankful by leaving their  tattered households with just enough grain to squeeze out more hungry babies.’

When their whole charmed life disappears, Charles Wang leaves his Bel – Air home and together with his wife Barbra travel in the powder blue Mercedes station wagon that he has earlier given to his Ama as a gift. The car is a 1980 model. He drops his Ama at her daughter’s home, picks up his younger daughter , Grace from boarding school and pulls his college son , Andrew out of college as he makes his way across America to his eldest daughter’s home in upstate New York. He tells his eldest daughter, Saina, “ All. Baba lost all.”  Charles’s parenting style is not the typical strict disciplinarian kind that Asian Americans parents are often portrayed as practicing. While his children are gifted, they are not typically the studious and high achiever type of first generation migrants kids. Saina is a conceptual artist who is nursing her pain and humiliation of being unceremoniously dumped by her artist boyfriend. His college going son, Andrew dreams of being a stand up comedian while the teenage Grace is rebellious and has her own fashion blog.
 
During the road trip, Andrew does his comedy gig when they stop over in Austin.
       “ By the way,” continued Andrew, valiantly, “I know that the only thing that white people love more than jokes about white people is when black people make jokes about white people.  Right, guys , right? But you know what white people really, really , really love? When Asian comedians make fun of their parents. Yep, because you guys just want an excuse to laugh at Asian accents. Black people, no offence, but in this joke you basically count as white people. Admit it, as soon as I came up, you thought to yourselves, ‘Oh man, I hope he says lots of r words, just tons of them, I hope this whole night is brought to you by the letter r.’”

Wang was born in Taiwan.Wang’s parents and their friends had to escape to Taiwan during the cultural revolution. They created an island within an island , a mini-China in Taiwan, but that wasn’t enough.

‘…They were a colony of escaped mainlanders who never accepted their lives among the people who had no choice but to give them refuge; they spoke their home dialects and taught their children the geography of an unseen motherland, taught it so well that Charles knew he could have driven from the wilds of Xinjiang to the docks of Shanghai without so much as glancing at a map.’

Charles’s father had wanted him to stay at National Taiwan University and become a statesman in the new Taiwan, a young man in a Western suit who would carry out Sun Yat Sen’s legacy ,but Charles dropped out because he thought he could earn his family’s old life back.

Charles left  Taiwan for  America.  By the turn of the millennium he became rich enough.

Chang writes,‘Rich enough, probably to buy back all the land in China that had been lost , the land that his father had died without ever touching again.’
Then he over expanded and lost it all .

Now ,now that he had lost the estate in America, all Charles could think of was the land in China.’
    The life that should have been his.
    China, where the Wangs truly belonged.
     Not America. Never Taiwan.

The story of the Wangs is an immigrant story. It is a poignant story about how Charles Wang and his children as first or second- generation immigrants have to wrestle with the reality that no place is truly home.

Hiraeth, the longing for a homeland that is no longer there. The story of the Wangs, indeed. The Wangs Vs the World  is an enjoyable read and from the time  the Wangs hit the freeways  across the continent and fly over to China, the reader warms up to them as the siblings are such  a  delightful and sweet combo. It is a smart debut novel about racial identity and Chinese Americans in search of a homeland.
 Kudos to Jade Chang.

George Town

Friday, November 11, 2016

Believe



Human relations are definitely complex and fragile as each one of us has our own fears and 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 think 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 life is insufferable.  If you think you are a victim or that luck is never on your side, 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. Perhaps happiness is devoid of meaning if you do not choose to be happy.

If you google “the happiest man in the world”, the name Matthieu Ricard appears. Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist monk, originally comes from France and he has participated in a 12- year brain study on meditation and compassion led by a neuroscientist from the University of Wiscousin, Richard Davidson. According to the scans carried out by Davidson, when Ricard meditates on compassion, his brain produces a level of gamma waves and his mind was unusually light. Ricard’s advice for how to be happy is to stop thinking “me ,me ,me”. This is because thinking about yourself, and how to make things better for yourself all the time, is exhausting and stressful. We have to train our mind to  become altruistic and benevolent and not let selfish thoughts creep in. Altruism and benevolence are the answers.

In The Buddha of Suburbia, the first novel written by Hanif Kureishi. Karim Amir, a dreamy mixed parentage teenager is desperate to escape suburban South London and experience the forbidden fruits which the 1970s seem to offer in the city of London. Karim is in his teens and unknown to his dad, he drops out of school to his dad’s disappointment. When he is landed with the unlikely opportunity of a life in the theatre, Karim starts his acting career and  he meets vain and self- possessed Eleanor , a fellow actor whose father is American and owns  a bank and her mother is a well-respected English portrait painter. Karim realizes how naïve and stupid he is when he has thought that Eleanor is less middle class than she has turned out to be as she dresses roughly, wearing a lot of scarves, lives in Notting Hill and – sometimes-talks  with a Catford accent and says ‘shit ‘ and fuck every ten seconds. Eleanor conceals her  social origins and she  appears to have  taken her connections for granted.

Eleanor had been to country houses, to public school and Italy, and she knew many liberal families and people who’d flourished in the 1960s: painters, novelist, lecturers, young people called Candia, Emma,Hasper,Lucy,India, and grown-ups called Edward,Caroline,Francis,Douglas and Lady Luckham. Her mother was a friend of the Queen Mother, and when Ma’am turned up in her Bentley the local kids gathered around the car and cheered. One day Eleanor had to rush away from rehearsal because she was required by her mother to make up the numbers at a lunch for the Queen Mother. The voices and language of those people reminded me of Enid Blyton, and Bunter and Jennings, of nurseries and nannies and prep school, a world of total security that I’d thought existed only in books. They lacked all understanding of how much more than anyone else they had. I was frightened of their confidence, education,status, money, and I was beginning to see how important they were.’ 

 Karim’s main rival for Eleanor’s affection is  a man called Heater. He is the local road-sweeper, ‘a grossly fat and ugly sixteen-stone Scot in a donkey jacket whom Eleanor had taken up three years ago as a cause.

Karim’s Indian father, Haroon is described as small, elegant and handsome with delicate hands and manners. His English mother is described as ‘ a plump and unphysical woman with a pale round face and kind brown eyes.’ His dad gets to know Eva, who is into Oriental philosophy and there are guru gigs where he has been invited to speak on one or two aspects of Oriental philosophy and he is well received and became known as the Buddha of Suburbia. When Karim accompanies his dad to Eva’s house in Beckenham , not only the display of money  impresses Karim, he is seduced by sensuality and intellectualism.

 It wasn’t far, about four miles, to the Kays’, but Dad would never have go there without me.  I knew all the streets and every bus route.

Dad has been in Britain since 1950 – over twenty years – and for fifteen of those years he’d lived in the South London suburbs. Yet still he stumbled around the place like an Indian just off the boat ,and asked questions like,  ‘Is Dover in Kent?’ I’d have thought , an employee of the British Government, as a Civil Service clerk, even as badly paid and insignificant a one as him, he’d just have to know these things. I sweated with embarrassment when he halted strangers in the street to ask directions to places that were a hundred yards away in an area where h’d lived for almost two decades.
Eva is into mysticism and she is ambitious, a social climber.

‘In the old days, when we were an ordinary suburban family, this pretentious and snobbish side of Eva amused Dad and me. And it has seemed, for a time, to be in retreat –perhaps because Dad was its grateful recipient. But now the show-off quotient was increasing daily. It was impossible to ignore. The problem was ,Eva was not unsuccessful; she was not ignored by London once she started her assault. She was climbing ever higher, day by day. It was fantastic, the number of lunches, suppers, dinners, picnics, parties, receptions, champagne breakfasts, openings, closings, first nights, last nights and late nights these London people went to . They never stopped eating or talking or looking at people performing. As Eva started to take London, coving forward over the foreign fields of Islington, Chiswick and Wandsworth inch by inch, party by party, contact by contact, Dad thoroughly enjoyed himself.  But he wouldn’t recognize how important it all was to Eva.’
 
Apart from Karim, Haroon, Eva and Eleanor, there are other colourful characters who have also had a part in   and caring for the susceptibility of the human heart.
 Karim's coming of age experience. The themes of the book span identity issues faced by immigrants, multiculturalism, oriental mysticism, coming of age, social class, success, suburbia and the city. Hanif Kureishi’s writing is punctuated with wry humour. The story is about how we connect with people we love and it does not matter where you come from and where you settle in, life is about navigating human relations, managing the vulnerability of human desires.

Incidentally the book has been made into a four-part drama series by the BBC in 1993 and the song featured in the programme is by  David Bowie  whose 1993 soundtrack album bears the same name as well. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hullabaloo



You must have heard the expression,  “ Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life”. An ideal work life would be to have a job that feeds both our souls and our bank accounts. Having said that , even a job that you start off  loving and enjoying  can be rough if it turns out to be too demanding and stressful to the point that you find that the monetary reward is not commensurate with the level of stress and responsibilities you have to cope with or for whatever reasons you are no longer happy with what you are doing. Every job comes with its own pitfalls.
Most people have to work to earn a living, some have to hold several jobs to make ends meet. To many people it is not a matter of choice as we live in a commercial world. Some take it all in their stride while some may feel that they are trapped by the circumstances they are in. To those who are determined to escape the mundane trappings of the modern world, they will somehow find ways to attain their dreams even when there is not a chance seemingly, be it thrift, steal, borrow or beg. It takes courage and resolve to live the life we want.

The story of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard  written by Kiran Desai  is set in the Indian village of Shahkot ( State of Punjab). Sampath Chawla avoids the responsibilities of adult life. He is a bored peon , a lowly paid post-office clerk who takes pleasure in reading the postcards that have been brought in for them to be delivered and from these postcards he picks up all sorts of interesting information. ‘He had read of family feuds and love affairs, of marriages being arranged, of babies being born, of people dying and of ghosts retuning, of farewells and home-comings. He had read of natural disasters, floods and earthquakes , of small trivial matters like the lack of shampoo. Of big cities and of villages much smaller than Shahkot.

He turned them over, smelled them, looked at the stamps, studied the names, the strange-feathered words : Bombalapetty, Pudukkottai,Aurangabad, Torik, Coimbatore, koovappally, Piploo, Thimpu, Kampala, Cairo, Albuquerque. He held them up against the light, the envelopes filled with promise, with the possibility of different worlds. He steamed them open over mugs of tea, just prised them open , the humidity in the air having rendered the gum almost entirely ineffectual, and lazily, through the rest of the day, he perused their contents.'

When Sampath loses his job, he does not mind it as he does not want the job. He needs to find a solution to his misery.
‘How would you approach this problem?
 Strangely for some odd reason, from way off in the distance, he remembered the taunting voice of Father Matthew Mathematics at the classroom board at the Mission School.
Show all steps leading to the end result for full marks.
           In his mind, the days, his work, his life and even his thoughts all whirled. The same days. The same place. The one road –
          The post office at the end of  his journey like a full stop.
          He did not want another job.
          He wanted open spaces.
        And he wanted them in large swathes, in days that were clear stretches he could fill with as little as he wished. Here a person’s experience of silence and space squeezed and warped into underground forms that were forced to hide, found in only a few places that Sampath could discover. In his small lapses from duty; between the eye and the print of a newspaper held by someone who never turned a page; in a woman who stared into the distance and past the blur of knitting needles in her fingers; behind muttered prayers, once in a long while in eyes that could look past everything to discover open spaces. But no, Sampath was to be allowed no peace whatsoever. He was found out and turned away from every refuge he sought.'
When Sampath’s family departs to attend a wedding, leaving him at home, he lets himself out of the house and  catches the first bus he sees. He  has taken the bus that takes the milk sellers home after they have brought their milk to be sold in town. When an old woman sits next to him and does not leave him alone by badgering him with questions, he leaps from the window of the stalling bus and runs with a feeling of great urgency through an old  orchard. He ends up  on top of a large and magnificent  guava tree.

When he settled among the leaves, the very moment he did so- the burgeoning of spirits that had carried him so far away and so high up fell from him like a gust of wind that comes out of nowhere, rustles through the trees n melts into nothing like a ghost.

‘Yes, he was in the right place at last. Tiredness rolled over him like a wave and, closing his eyes, he fell into a sleep slumber, lodged in a fork in the guava tree.

When his family finds him sleeping on top of the tree, there is a lot of hullabaloo. His quest for a contemplative life is invariably disrupted and  many people come to visit him. When these visitors ask him for advice, he makes use of the information he has gathered from reading the letters secretly and he thus appears to be bestowed with second sight. Due to his simple-minded love of adages, he manages to utter very seemingly wise sayings that builds him a reputation for unfathomable wisdom. He becomes Monkey Baba in his treetop hermitage and his father makes use of the situation to make a lot of money by setting up a tea stall for tourists and churn out posters, fliers and newspaper articles. When the monkeys come to live in the guava tree with Sampath, they start to attack people and steal alcohol and become very drunk. There are many colourful characters including Sampath’s eccentric mother and sister, the town officials charged with containing the monkeys and there is also a spy for the local Atheist Society who wants to expose Sampath as a fraud. It is indeed hullabaloo in the guava orchard.

Kiran Desai based her book on real life story in which a man, Kapila Pradhan lived on a tree for 15 years. The story is comical and the author has composed a parable based on Indian culture and an absolutely delicious satire describing the follies of humankind, the behaviour of public servants,  entrepreneurialism and the credulous creation of gurus.
Journey to Infinity MC.Escher's World of Wonder , Artscience Museum, Singapore

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Something's gotta give


Corner House, Singapore
Lewd comments are repulsive and uncouth. At times I tell the person off but at other times, I let them pass because even if you make a fuss about it, they will never get it. When grown men's sense of humour is like they were still in their adolescence, it is best to ignore them. 

We live in a materialistic world that measures people in terms of power and money. Just as much as I want to believe that success cannot be measured in terms of power and money, I also want to believe that it is not nature but nurture that makes the women behave the way they behave and the men act the way they act. Even if nature plays a part, education at home and in school play a significant role in how a person conducts himself or herself.

I have often believed that women play an important role in bringing up a child since traditionally, it has been the women who stay home and take care of the domestic front but the men of the house must be supportive of the way the women are bringing up the children. If the adults of the house behave badly, the child would not have a  good role model to emulate. According to scientific researchers, a mother’s genetics matter while the father’s makes no difference. The xx chromosomes transmit intelligence genes. If the cognitive functions are primarily determined by the xx chromosomes, does that mean that if women who are mothers have it in them that women must be given due respect and equal treatment, they will inculcate the right mindset in their  male children? I guess it will be a tall order if the man of the house has been brought up in a traditional home where sons are given preferential treatments and women are expected to obey and serve as it happens in some cultures around  the world.

I find that working women have to be calculating and shrewd in order to stay in control and be on par with or get ahead of their male peers in the same industry. Apart from focusing on their own interest, women must train themselves to be  resilient, street smart and calculating in order to take care of her family and herself. In the present world, many women work so that they can be autonomous and financially independent but they find that they face certain challenges such as gender bias at work and difficulties in balancing their work life with their home and personal life.

Opening  Belle is written by Maureen Sherry, a former Wall Street insider who tells us a story about women working in finance. After twelve years on Wall Street, Maureen Sherry quitted her managing director position at an investment bank and studied MFA at Columbia University.She writes mysteries for middle school audiences. Opening Belle is her first novel.

In Opening Belle, Isabelle McElroy, aged thirty- seven,  has a top paying job as a managing director Feagin Dixon, a firm on Wall Street in the midst of a financial boom. She is married to a handsome husband who stays at home to look after three adorable children in their apartment at Upper West Side.  She finds herself losing respect for her husband who seems to breeze through life with yoga classes and in search of six-pack abdominals. Enters Henry her ex-fiancé whom she never quite got over, tempting her with  a glimpse  of how their life together could have been and he happened to be the second in command of her largest client. When the subprime mortgages she has stocked in investor’s portfolio starts to tank, she begins to see that the finance world does not make any sense. While she takes a good look at greed and the money she has made, her pragmatic self compels her to endure rampant sexism and disregard lewdness that exist at the male- dominated firm. As she comes to realize that the glass ceiling is quite impossible to break, she decides to start her own firm with the hope to achieve an optimal work-life balance by determining her own work environment and culture.

In the story, the women at  Feagin Dixon  formed the Glass Ceiling Club to tackle issues on pervasive sexism and gender inequality at their firm and Belle was invited to join them. It is sad when the club that she had been practically begged to join deserted her due to her unsuccessful performance at the lunch where a dozen senior women of the firm had been summoned to meet the big boss, B. Gruss to address the women's concern about glass ceiling. She was the only GCC member who was invited to lunch.  The story has been written in the protagonist’s voice.

Candlenut, Singapore 
‘“ I requested that the most senior women of the firm be gathered so we can talk about issues of concern to women,” he says. “I see some memos running around here that I don’t like and I thought a good place to start would be by discussing the glass ceiling.” I blush and then hate that I’m blushing.

“ However,” he continues,” since you’re all sitting here, it’s obvious there is no glass ceiling at Feagin or you’d all be taking steno downstairs.” He guffaws at his own humor and I scan the room thinking someone here must be too young to even know what steno is, but no, I at almost thirty-seven am close to the youngest.  “ So let me now throw the podium your way and let anyone discuss anything she’d like.”
          An uncomfortable pause follows, which he uses to pick up his cigar and inhale the contents deeply. His fingers roll it around with absentminded affection while we wait.
         “ I’d like to say,” pipes up the woman from corporate communications, “ that Feagin has been such a wonderful experience for me and I’d like to tell other women how great it is here.”
         I take a hard look at this woman, whose job includes spinning everything and who doesn’t work for a profit center of the bank. Her sprawling Upper East Side apartment is dependent on smooth relations everywhere and she will be of no help to me today and I start to wonder if she’s been invited here for that very reason.
      “ And the meritocracy here, “ boasts a British banker.  “ I’d have never gotten this far had I stayed at my other bank.”
        I can’t believe this . I’ve dropped into the bleachers of a pep rally.’
   
 So Belle decided to speak up and when she tried to explain why it’s so difficult to attract female college recruits, she found herself all alone as none of these senior women supported her.

She told Gruss that many women trainees “ don’t  even make it through the two years. They feel abused here. They don’t see any women on the executive board so they don’t see much future here for themselves. 

       ‘“Nonsense.” Gruss looks up from the cigar. With that single dismissive word he gets up and uses a phone on the sideboard to connect with someone presumably more interesting than us.’

When Belle tried to elaborate, Gruss shot her down and guffawed,
“ Let the quitters go home”
When  Kathryn, another senior woman suggested that they should only entertain clients in ways suitable to a professional business and Belle proposed that reimbursing expense accounts for entertaining at strip clubs ought not to be  allowed, Gruss dismissed and retorted that ‘ if women are that sensitive, they’ll never cut it in the business and don’t belong here.” 

Gruss left the room without touching his lunch as he concluded that he had not heard anything that sounded remotely like a moral or ethical issue and he told the senior women that they had to get along with the male partner sitting next to them and be the most productive they could be.

While I am far from earning a million a year, I do find that  my male partners generally stand in solidarity with each other when come to decisions making  and as  my partners and I do not share the same dynamics, I have difficulties making them see how we should run the  small firm we share. I do not think that  I am being overly sensitive when I encounter situations where I need to employ tactics in managing some subordinates in order to get them to execute the tasks according to how I want them. I remember decades ago, one senior lawyer uttered, “ Female lawyers are only good for  crying in court.” That is so wholly untrue.

Story, London
Opening Belle is set around 2007 and it gives an acute insight of  the corporate jungle on Wall Street and  how someone who earns a million dollars navigates her work life and home life. Can you have it all? The answer is  something’s gotta give or perhaps more appropriately something has got to trade.

I read that Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard,  is developing the film adaptation for Opening Belle  and Witherspoon is expected to star as Belle.  The name Belle reminds me of the spirited headstrong village girl, a fictitious  character in the Walt Disney animated feature film  Beauty and the Beast. Could it be the reason that the author has named the character Belle? 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Adversaries


We cannot trust what we remember completely because our memories are unreliable and inclined to be distorted. We may not recollect things in the right order. Often our memories are made up of our impressions of how things were and what we remember is our perceptions and what we are given to understand. There are days when my senses are all over the place and I get a little disoriented. I will not trust my judgments on such days as I am afraid my perceptions of things can be skewed and inaccurate.

Very often we should not  trust what we hear and what we see. We have a tendency to form opinions about stories we hear and people we know. All of us are multi-faceted but in this social media frenzy era,  we see  only nice posts and pictures of people having a good life. We can conjure up our own images of people we know and passers by but we will never know their lives and what they experience.  It is probably best to stay that way unless you are prepared to be in for a shocker.

The Girl on the Train written by  Paula Hawkins is a page-turner. It is one of those books you might want to  drop everything you are doing so you can get to the last page in one sitting. The characters in the book are not likeable but they get your attention and somehow you empathize with their sufferings some of which appear to be self-indulgent. There are three unreliable narrators, Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is a self-loathing alcoholic and she has lost her job due to her drinking problem. She is broken and a cliché of a damaged individual. Anna is the woman who is married to Rachel’s ex husband, Tom. She and Tom have a child and they live in  the same house that Rachel used to live with Tom.  She is happy with her life but for Rachel who does not seem to stay away. Every day Rachel takes 8.04 train from Asbury to Euston. She has a perfect view into a trackside house. It is number fifteen, Blenheim Road  and she used to live at number twenty-three  on the same road.  She sees a picture perfect couple and imagines the life they live. She names them Jason and Jess when their names are Scott and Megan. When Rachel commutes on the train, she sees Megan and Scott and  imagines the life she could have had if she were still  married to Tom. As the story unfolds, Megan goes missing one day and  Rachel has seen something that has shocked her when she is on the train. Due to her drinking problems, the police finds that she is an unreliable witness.

Rachel feels unattractive and undesirable. She is a very lonely woman and she struggles to keep afloat.

I am not the girl I used to be . I am no longer desirable, I am off- putting in some way. It is not just that I’ve put on weight , or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep ; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me , they can see it on my face ,the way I hold myself, the way I move.

Not only Rachel’s narration is unreliable so are Megan’s and Anna’s. Megan has a dark secret that she is not telling Scott. You know she is extremely troubled and depressed. She has insomnia  and  difficulties telling things to anyone, whether it is Scott or strangers. Scott suggests that she has to see a therapist and she ends up seeing Kamal, a  mental health professional. Her big brother,  Ben is the big hole in her life . She and Ben were going to be road trippers. They had dreamt of following Che Guevara’s tracks from Bueno Aires to Caracas but she did not get to do all that as Ben died on A10 in a motor accident but that was not the crux of what has been  troubling her.

'So , I’m going to see a therapist! Which could be weird, but it could be a laugh, too. I’ve always thought that it might be fun to be Catholic, to be able to go to the confessional and unburden yourself and have someone tell you that they forgive you, to take all the sin away, wipe the slate clean.'

Here is an entry from Rachel.
She’s missing.Jess is missing. Megan is missing. Since Saturday. I googled her- the story appeared in the Witney Argus, but with no further details. I thought about seeing Jason- Scott  - this morning , standing on the terrace, looking at me , smiling at me.I grabbed my bag and got to my feet and ran out of the library , into the road, right into the path of a black cab.’

Megan Hipwell is missing and Rachel tries to tell the police what she thinks she knows.

Rachel is barren and she is not allowed to get away with it. Failure to conceive cloaks her like a mantle. When she and Tom were trying for a baby, she was not having a drinking problem. As it turned out, Tom was virile since he managed to impregnate Anna. When a guy drinks a lot, he is just partying and having fun. When a woman drinks, she is frowned upon. Rachel has to clean herself up. Your heart does go to her as you see her fail to quit drinking once and once again. You could feel her sadness and misery.

It is a psychological thriller. It is gripping and taut.  But there is more to it than just a thriller. I look forward to reading  the next novel by Paula Hawkins.