Saturday, July 22, 2017

Then and Now



House is empty again. The rooms have not been cleared completely but for now I am glad to have my space back.  I reckon I need the physical space to think about nothing. I need to be alone with my thoughts,  to decompress and let my thoughts wander.

In the morning,  I make scones and work on a client’s matter before hitting the office. I work and return home before 8 p.m. After dinner,  I sit on the couch in my living room and read a little and then I walk to the kitchen to have a drink. After having taken sips of water, I am back to the couch reading The Opposite of Fate, A Book of Musings by Amy Tan.  I am seriously behind in my reading. Since I have been rather inactive considering how I used to exercise five to six times a week, I decide to take our dog, Holly for a walk around the neighbourhood hoping to walk off the butter from the scone I consumed in the morning. I have the last bit of dark chocolate left in the jar before I head out. We manage only a short walk around the neighbourhood as it is past nine thirty and not a good time to wake up the entire neighbourhood with all their dogs barking whenever Holly walks past their gates. Twenty minutes walk is better than sitting on my butt for the same period of time. 

After my shower, I bring my MacBook Air around to the breakfast counter as I feel like writing something. Then I change my mind and end up bringing my MacBook Air to the living room to start typing. I feel almost my normal self again.

I remember a time when I used to be much more welcoming. During my final year in upper secondary school, a classmate had stayed with me because she needed a place to study for our upcoming exams. She told me that she had trouble focusing on her revision in her home. I did not exactly know what she had meant but I vaguely remember that she had stayed in an old bungalow. It could be something to do with her brother and sister-in-law. These days I guard my private space ardently. Given my present mindset, I would not have accommodated such a request. I  recall how some of my cousins would come visit from Indonesia and they would stay with my family for a period of time. Perhaps school was a bore and I would love a distraction. Whenever my mother had guests from abroad, we ate out more and my dad would take our guests around so my sister and I would happily tag along for such outings. That was probably why I  liked having guests at home then.

Amy Tan writes in her memoir, The Opposite of Fate  'A Book of Musings'.

     ' For as long as I can remember, I have been curious about how I remember. The earlier memory I have is of an event that took place under a tree. I was a year and a half old. And I know I was that age because of the season and the details of the yard and the house. I remember that I was sitting on the cool lawn on a hot day. Around me was a low fence and to my right was a white house with dark doorways that led to naps. My big brother and parents were above me. Suddenly something hit my head. My brother laughed. Although it did not hurt that much, I was startled and cried loudly to voice my displeasure, lest it happen again. After a while, I picked up what had fallen on my head. It filled my entire palm, a fuzzy golden ball.

       " It was a peach," I recalled to my mother. 
       She thought for a while, and then said that it was not a peach but an apricot, for the parish house in Fresno was the only place we had lived that had a fruit tree in the yard. And this made sense, that it was an apricot, for an apricot would have filled my eighteen-month-old hand in the way a peach would fill my adult one. '

' There was another time, when I was seven, that I realized that memories were elusive that you could not will them to stay, and that some you could not will to go away. I was old enough to understand that some things were in my memory like waking morning dreams. No matter how much I tried to hang on to them, they slipped away. And when I tried to find a way to remember them, by, say, writing about them, or drawing a picture of them, the result was not even close. And the result then became the memory that replaced the real thing.'

For me, the earliest memory I have is of an event that took place next to a staircase. I was three years old and my family had just returned from our visit to my mother's family in Langsa near Medan, Sumatra. I was playing with toy cooking set, a gift from my Indonesian aunt whom we had recently visited. Even that memory is fading and I used to remember more details, like the blue or red plastic cup and plates but now I am not sure if I have just made them up. Perhaps I should have written them down when I remembered what I remembered. Toys for children tend to be gender biased. Girls play with cooking sets in anticipation of their place in the kitchen.

Whenever I feel misunderstood,  I try to recall the sequence of my conversation to understand how I could have been wronged. No matter how hard  I replay the conversation in my head, I have only the memory of the memory of what I  remember and it may not be accurate. I have since learnt to stop obsessing about silly or angry things that I have said, after all we can only go forward rather than look backwards.

I have to re-read Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan but I cannot find my copy of the book. I will have to get one from an independent bookshop nearby soon. 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Comfort Zone

Wheelock Place, Singapore

My houseguests will not be leaving soon and there is nothing I can do about it. The feeling I have reminds me of the feeling that I had as a child when I sat in my father's car feeling sorry that all the movie tickets were sold out. Looking back I know it was sheer feeling of powerless. I have to adapt to television noise, chatter and activities around the house. How I miss the empty space and quiet at home. I get disorientated. A month ago, my younger daughter was home and she asked me if I had the SD card reader. I knew I had it somewhere and I just could not recall where I had tucked it away and then weeks later,  I came across not just one but two of them. I can usually place where I have kept my things and as I had to shift my books and papers out of their comfort zone i.e. the study, I  could not recall where I had shifted these things to after clearing up the space to make it into a guest room.

The fabric at home has changed. I know I need to change my mindset to embrace the situation. People are distractions to me and there are good days and bad days, some days I cope better than others.  I feel unsettled, so distracted and distressed that my reading has much slowed down and I have not been able to write much. I have to curb that feeling of dismay when another unproductive day bites the dust. 

Julian Barnes is one of my favourite writers. He writes with such elegance and efficacy. Since I first read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I have bought almost every book written by the ever brilliant author. I find his prose witty and his observations insightful. In Talking It Over, every character narrates the story through his or her perspectives. It is about Oliver Russell, the never do well flamboyant friend of Stuart Hughes, his very old friend since school days. It is a love triangle story about how Oliver steals Stuart's wife, Gillian Wyatt.  Oliver falls in love with Gillian on the day she marries his good friend, Stuart. From their monologues, you get to know that Stuart is a young banker who is careful with his finances and not a confident person. Oliver is pedantic and yet a wilder type, an unfulfilled soul who winds up teaching at Shakespeare School of English and even manages to get himself sacked from the institution. Stuart and Oliver have struck an unlikely friendship throughout the years. Gillian is an art restorer and a former social worker. 

Through the different accounts by Stuart, Gillian and Oliver and several minor characters, the story is told. 
Stuart       Everything starts here. That’s what I keep repeating to myself. Everything starts  here.
            I was only average at school. I was never encouraged to think that I should aim for university. I did a correspondence course in economics and commercial law, then got accepted by the Bank as a general trainee. I work in the foreign exchange department. I’d better not mention the Bank’s name, just in case they don’t like it. But you’ll have heard of them. They’ve made it fairly clear to me that I’ll never be a high-flier, but every company needs some people who aren’t high-fliers, and that’s all right by me. My parents were the type of parents who always seemed faintly disappointed by whatever it was you did, as if you were constantly letting them down in small ways.

Oliver     I have to be near her, do you understand? I have to win her, I have to earn her, but first I have to be near her.

Gillian    I love Stuart. Now I love Oliver. Everyone got hurt. Of course I feel guilty. What would you have done? 

Again this is from Stuart.

'One of the first things people tell you about money is that it’s an illusion. It’s notional. If you give someone a dollar bill it’s not ‘worth’ a dollar – it’s ‘worth’ a small piece of paper and a small amount of printer’s ink – but everyone agrees, everyone subscribes to the illusion that it’s worth a dollar, and therefore it is. All the money in the world only means what it does because people subscribe to the same illusion about it. Why gold, why platinum? Because everyone agrees to place this value upon them. And so on.

         You can probably see where I’m leading. The other world illusion, the other thing that exists simply because everyone agrees to place a certain value on it, is love. Now you may call me a jaundiced observer, but that’s my conclusion. And I’ve just been pretty close up to it. I’ve had my nose rubbed in love, thank you very much. I’ve put my nose as close against love as I put my nose to the screen when I’m talking it over with money. And it seems to me there are parallels to be drawn. '

Each character is giving his or her own version of the story from his or her point of view and when we place these accounts together, they give a fair picture of what happens. You know it is fiction yet it is credible and it is dark when these characters are taken over by what and how they think about love. 

Years ago I read Love,etc, a sequel to Talking it Over. Love, etc is set ten years later and was written some ten years after Talking it Over. In Love, etc, we know that Stuart has since remarried, got divorced again but he has a successful organic food business. 

Life is work in progress so are we. As we grow up, there are always difficult situations that are thrown at us and years later, we probably end up in a place where we look back and wonder," What was all that about ?". I feel that whatever circumstances we are confronted with and whatever decisions or indecisions we may have made at the time, they are all necessary so we can be in a better place from where we once were. In the meantime,  we have to focus on the present and look forward to brighter days ahead. 





Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Growing Up


Whenever I stumble upon a good book or interesting narratives by a writer in terms of voice and writing style, I think of getting another copy of the book as I am so excited about the find that I want to give a copy of it to a friend. 

Storytelling is an essential part of our collective understanding about humanity. Be it through fiction, non-fiction, writers translate facts, figures, ideas, perceptions and experiences into empathy and understanding. When a story is being told, it is the writer’s voice that  engages a reader’s attention.

This year I picked up the novel I am China from Borders and then I picked up 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth from an independent bookshop that sells used and overrun books. I had unwittingly picked up two novels by XiaoLu Guo click without realizing that both novels were by the same author.  Guo’s writing style comes across as a hybrid between Chinese and English. Twenty Fragments was originally written in Chinese, then when it was translated into English, Guo rewrote in English on top of the translation.

After reading books by writers whose native language is English, Guo’s voice offers a breath of fresh air and a certain charm. Her voice is authentic, instinctive and effective.
20 fragments of a Ravenous Youth reminds us of the frailty of youth and modern city living. The story is about Fenfang, a young film extra who has travelled 1800 miles to seek a life outside her sweet potato fields back home. She wants to have those shiny things in life.  When she is in urban Beijing, she works as a cleaner in the Young Pioneer’s movie threatre, falls in love with unsuitable men and her dinner is UFO noodles when she is dire straits.

“ Heavenly Bastard in the Sky” is Fenfang’s favourite phrase. Betty Blue -37’2 le matin is Fenfang’s favourite film.

Even after 15 times. I could never forget the end. Betty was dead and her man Zorg was writing alone at a table. Suddenly, his cat jumped on the table and stared at Zorg. And then it spoke. Oh, Heavenly Bastard in the Sky. The cat started to speak and it was Betty’s warm voice asking Zorg, are you writing now? Zorg looked at the cat. And that was it. The End. Heavenly Bastard in the Sky! Even just thinking about this made me want to cry.'

The novel is written in twenty fragments in the protagonist’s voice and each fragment is a segment of her youthful experience. It is  a coming of age story.

In Fragment Seven, Guo writes,
I HAD ALWAYS WANTED TO LEAVE my village, a nothing place that won’t be found on any map of China. I had been planning my escape ever since I was very little. It was the river behind our house that started it. Its constant gurgling sound pulled at me . But I couldn’t see its end or its beginning. It just flowed endlessly on. Where did it go? Why didn’t it dry up in the scorching heat like everything else?’

 ‘I used to imagine the source of the river. Some faraway hidden cave that was home to a beautiful fairy. From there, the water flowed through our world to yet another world, a magical place close to heaven where lucky people lived, or animals perhaps-foxes maybe, or rabbits, owls, even unicorns. Wherever it was , it was not a place the people from my village could ever enter.

In Fragment Nine, Guo writes,
Kafka said, anyone who can’t come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to wave away his despair and the other to note down what he sees among the ruins. I thought about the diary I used to keep. I wished  I still had it. By now I would have had a whole library of my thoughts to look back on. But I stopped writing it when I was with Xiaolin. He treated it as his evening newspaper. He would leaf through its pages when he was bored, looking for stories. So instead, I kept my true thoughts , desires and dreams hidden deep within. I became a person who was very good at hiding her emotions. Maybe that was why people thought I was heartless. Apparently my face often had a blank expression. Huizi, my most intellectual friend, would say, ‘Fenfang, yours is the face of a post-modern woman.’
20 Fragments of A Ravenous Youth is melancholic yet hopeful. I have been to a few big cities in China and I  find that Guo’s narratives about modern China are insightful and aptly descriptive. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Back to the Present



There are days when my mind is so divided that I cannot hear what I think. Sometimes, when I react to situations and know my inner thoughts, I see the monster in me. I believe that there are many versions of us with traces of every trait that we see in others. Every individual is ultimately a few versions merged into one.

No matter how hard we try to erase some stuff from our memory bank, they tend to replay in our head like a broken record. The ghosts of these past form part of us and after some time they become blurred and we can no longer recall why they had mattered. We have to decide what and who should matter in our lives. We have to be mindful of our thoughts and try to understand why we are affected by what is going on around us. From time to time we land our own reality so as  to move on with  life.
All Our Wrong Todays written by Elan Mastai is the story of a time traveller. The year is 2016.

First there is Tom Barren who lives in a techno-utopian world that we are supposed to have, that is with ‘ flying cars, robot maids, food pills, teleportation, jet packs, moving sidewalks, ray guns, hover boards, space vacations, and moon bases.’  It is a ‘techno- utopian paradise of abundance , purpose and wonder’.
Imagine a world where every avocado you ever eat is perfect and all the banal functions of daily life are taken care of by technology. The menial and manual jobs are automated and mechanized.

Getting dressed involves an automated device that cuts and stitches a new outfit every morning, indexed to your personal style and body type. This fabric is made from laser-hardened strands of a light-sensitive liquid polymer that’s recycled nightly for daily reuse.

 Tom’s father, Victor Barren is a genius.

After finishing his third PhD, Victor Barren spent a few crucial years working in long-range teleportation before founding his own lab to pursue his specific niche field – time travel.

In the techno world that is built on the limitless energy of the Goettreider Engine , oil is irrelevant and basic resources are plentiful yet not everything is perfect because people still get anxiety and stress and there is still corruption, unrequited love  and failed marriages, childhood could be a playground or a dungeon.  Pharmaceutical use is rampant.

In his voice, Tom writes,
‘I’ve never succeeded at anything, so for me failure is pretty much synonymous with life itself.

In  the techno- utopian world, his mother is dead. When she was alive, she was more like a mother to his father because his father needed  everything that didn’t involve his big brain managed for him. So within a few months of her sudden death, everything became a total disaster.

Tom is unable to find his place in this dazzling and technology advanced world and he makes a rash decision by travelling back in time to drastically change not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. He wakes up into his own dream and find him in the world that is similar to our  real world but for him, our world seems like a dystopian wasteland. He discovers a different version of his family.

Tom  is John, a successful, driven and impressive architect in another reality. His dad, Victor Barren, a tenured professor of physics at the University of Toronto with a specialty in photonics who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He has a sister, Greta  and he has his parents’ rapt focus yet he chronically shrugs them off.  He meets Penny and he tells Penny that he is an accidental plagiarist. There is Tom in John.

Okay,” she says, “but what if every creative idea that someone has is unconsciously borrowed from that person’s experiences in another reality? Maybe all ideas are plagiarized without us knowing it, because they come to us through some cryptic and unprovable reality slippage?

Does that mean, like, the version of you that had the idea in the other reality also stole from another version of you in yet another reality ?’ I say.

The conversation between Penny and John continues.

Or maybe we’re giving individual human beings too much credit. Maybe a vast alien intelligence is seeding original concepts into our minds to test if they can pass through whatever boundary separates us from other dimensions. Like, some ideas are porous, while others are impermeable and can’t escape their root reality. Maybe the best ideas are the ones that travel freely and don’t really belong to any one person.

I often find that ideas flash through fast and freely as if someone channels them , some inconsequential while a lot of it are elusive and some of it make sense vaguely. Here is a passage in Tom's voice,

The truth is , there are no alternate realities. At least not the way Penny describes them. Maybe an infinite multiverse is born from every action, whether it’s two atoms colliding or two people. Maybe reality is constantly fluctuating around us, but our senses aren’t equipped to detect those quantum variations. Maybe that’s what our senses are, an ungainly organic sieve through which the chaos of existence is filtered into something manageable enough that you can get out of bed in the morning . Maybe the totality of what we perceive with our senses is as clumsy a portrait of reality as a child’s chalk drawing on a sidewalk compared to the face of the woman you’re already falling in love with lying next to you in a mess of sheets and blankets, her lips still pursed as they pull away from your mouth.

The story is cleverly crafted and told in an engaging voice. I am  a fan of time travelling stories and thus I have enjoyed reading  All Our Wrong Todays,click a smart and witty debut novel by Elan Mastai. click A mind-bending story where the protagonist gets to decide which version of his life he wants to live in. 

The idea that what if there is another me in another timeline is intriguing but for now , I have to get on with my reality whatever that makes sense to me as John narrates, 
But in terms of our actual experience, there’s just one reality , this reality” 




Thursday, May 4, 2017

Bright and Precious Days


A couple of months ago, we had to convert our study into a guest room. Before its conversion, the study was spilled with my books  that I could not  stop buying and in constant need and urgency to devour them. Some of the books have now taken residence in my daughters’ room while some unread journals, exercise books, folders and papers are packed in boxes and tucked away in the storage room. I had been thrown off my daily rituals and for a few weeks, I was not able to do much reading let alone writing. I knew I could easily settle on a new corner for my personal space yet I was on edge for days and weeks! Despite my rational self telling me that I was acting immaturely and that I was not practising  what I believe : One must get out of one’s comfort zone, I was feeling out of sorts when I could not settle into my reading and writing. I knew why I was  resisting the change yet I could not think clearly and hear what I think. Now  that I  have returned to  my  reading and  writing rituals, bright and precious days ahead. 

I have the habit of reading multiple books at one time. In that way whichever book that I can engage in  gets read faster than the others. Whenever I have my free time during the week, I try to make sure that I alternate my reading between books so as to be able to read them all eventually in whatever time it takes. There are times when there is too big an interval between the last time I read a particular book  and the time I resume reading it,  I usually conclude  that  it is just not the right time for me and it   has absolutely nothing to do with the writing as I would not have bothered picking  up the book otherwise. Certain books have to be read more leisurely as they require more attention and concentration . For me  the momentum of reading a particular book only picks up when I get into the rhythm of the voice and theme of that particular book.The past long weekend was idyllic and I managed to  read Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney, the last installment of the trilogy by the author. It must have been a decade ago when  I last read  Brightness Falls ( published 1992) and The Good Life ( published 2006). The story about an attractive couple, Russell Calloway and Corrine Calloway continues in Bright, Precious Days. It is the portrait of a couple who live the dream that first drew them to Manhattan and continue to  face  challenges in their union as they enter into  their 50s. McInerney captures ordinary life with wit and apt observation. He has an acute narration describing the glamour and life in New York City and he is deft at capturing personality traits of the characters in his fiction.

Here are the opening lines of the book. 
ONCE, NOT SO VERY LONG AGO, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters. ‘
Russell Calloway is from Michigan. He  is an independent publisher who has excellent credentials as a book editor but minimal cash flow. 

And if the realities of urban life and the publishing business had sometimes bruised his romantic sensibilities, he never relinquished his vision of Manhattan as the mecca of American literature, or of himself as an acolyte, even a priest , of the written word.

Corrine has long quitted her job as a stockbroker and devotes herself to raising the children and help feed the  hungry poor in the city. Soon they find themselves being priced out of their loft in TriBeCa, a neighbourhood that has become newly fashionable and too expensive to remain in. They find their marriage tested more severely than ever with their twelve year old twins, a  son and  a daughter caught in the balance. As they move past each other’s  past indiscretions, the memory of their best friend, Jeff Pierce begins to haunt them. Their life becomes complicated when  Corrine, feeling unappreciated and discontent, faces a moral dilemma with the reappearance of Luke McGavock, a man she met while she volunteered at Ground Zero during the time of 9/11. When Russell’s publishing business has a tumble, his resolve begins to erode.

He’d always been an optimist, able to convince himself that the best was still ahead, that every day held the promise of new adventure, but now he seemed increasingly conscious of his failures and anxious about the future. It was impossible to be optimistic at three-forty-five in the morning, at the age of fifty-one, and there were times when he was absolutely terrified at the prospect of his own extinction. Finally, he took half an Ambien or a Xanax and waited for the panic to subside.’

How was it that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was – less so, most of them ---- except perhaps in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition. Partly, he knew, it was his lack of the mercenary instinct. Never caring enough about getting and keeping and compounding, he’d felt himself above such considerations and stayed true to the ideals he’d formed in college, at the expense of his future. If he’d been savvy and resourceful, he could have bought this house years ago, or , more important, a place to live in the city, but as things stood, he owned nothing; he’d missed the biggest real estate boom of his lifetime and even now that the bubble is bursting, his own finances were more precarious than ever. It was increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that he was, by the conventional measures of familial and professional achievement, a failure.

Bright, Precious Days is set against the financial crisis of 2008. Although the story of the Calloways is straightforward, the middle-age malaise and restlessness felt by the main characters are well depicted and the ensemble of the interesting side characters make the fiction a pleasurable read. Alas I did want the book to end partly due to the fact that I was eager to  get back to my pile of books despite the author's  prolific prose.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tutoyer ou Vouvoyer?


We establish rituals in our everyday life. 
There were times I  used to pick up a coffee from Starbucks on my way to work just like how I used to pick up a kit kat from the newsagent after my law lectures.At times, these rituals seemed addictive and compulsive. At other times, certain rituals would provide me a structure in my otherwise directionless life.

When my children were in their growing years, my daily life was organized around rituals like school pick up times, groceries shopping, yoga and tennis. I read whenever I had a moment but the kind of books I read were more chick lit or books that I could easily pick up from the page where I last left in between errands, commitments and my work. I binge on written words wherever I am. I used to  read whatever that I could  get hold of while waiting for my children to get out from their tuitions and extra curricular activities . Now that my children are grown up, I have since established new rituals that involve more reading and writing and learning  French intermittently.

While I was in secondary school, I wrote a script for a mime and my classmates acted in it. At sixteen going onto seventeen, I was thinking about meaning of life: Are we supposed to live in pursuit of money, material comfort and success, fame, knowledge or academic success? I have since resolved that  it is entirely up to each of us to decide what to make of it. Once upon a time, I started learning French and the man I was dating then asked ‘ What is the purpose of you doing French?”  I could not answer the question and I quitted doing French . I so obviously lacked self-possession then.

You do not need a reason to do something. If it is something you want to do during your lifetime, you must go ahead and do it. More than two decades later when I was well into my middle age, I resumed learning French as a beginner and ten years later I am still learning the language. I do not like to acknowledge that age does matter when come to acquiring another language. I find it disheartening at times when I seem to take forever to learn the language. There were times when  I had to appear before a registrar in court, I found myself answering “Oui”  instead of “ Ya” in Bahasa, I was appalled. Perhaps it is a good sign that the French language is battling for a place in my brains.


In Flirting with Frenchman How a language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My HeartWilliam Alexander wrote about his journey in mastering the Art of French speaking and in his memoir, apart from sharing his frustrations and aspirations in learning French, he also shares his insights about learning French from linguistics to biology and brain science. The following facts are established in his memoir:

Firstly, age does matter when come to acquiring another language  as biology plays a role. Apparently babies are born with a head start on language. 
Secondly, declining testosterone also affects our rate of speech, word retrieval and fluency.
The author writes that language acquisition is ‘ directly affected by the levels of both dopamine and acetylcholine, neurotransmitters that play critical roles in the brain in everything from cognition to emotion and that , like testosterone, decline with age.’

William Alexander, at fifty–seven , an unrepentant Francophile, was well into ‘what politely referred to as late middle age’ and yet he persevered. His memoir is funny, insightful and informative about linguistics research, Noam Chomsky's grammar theories and the difficulties baby boomers  face in learning a new language, 

Here is how his memoir begins:
Last night I dreamt I was French.
This mainly involved sipping absinthe at the window of a dark, chilly cafĂ© , wrapped in a long scarf that reached the floor, legs crossed, Camus in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other. I don’t remember speaking French in the dream, and just as well, for in real life I once grandly pronounced in a Parisian restaurant, “ I’ll have the ham in newspaper, and my son will have my daughter.”’

William Alexander dropped French after his sophomore year and fell in love with France after spending several months backpacking throughout Europe at age twenty-two. When his love for France took root,  he decided to bury the ghost of Madam D--- , his French teacher in high school and started learning to speak the French language in his late middle age.

William Alexander wants to be French and he has such an inexplicable affinity for all things French that he wonders if he was French in a former life. But he also writes this: The world has changed greatly since France ruled during the Enlightenment, but one thing hasn’t changed : language follows economic power. Thus I may love French, but when I have grandchildren, and they’re ready to study a foreign language, I‘m going to advise them to learn Mandarin Chinese.

William Alexander agonized about the usage of vous and tu in French. When you first meet someone, you generally address each other as vous and you change it to tu when you have chatted and become well acquainted with the person.   In his memoir, he has  even drawn up a chart entitled ‘ A Short Guide to Using Vous and Tu’. There is also a recipe for Julia Child's croissants adapted by him for the 21st century home. When his wife, Anne a physician gets home, she asks if it was a lot of work making  croissants, he replies, "About as easy as learning French." 
She takes a bite. " Oh, God, these are good! Let's do this every Sunday!"

Reading Flirting with French motivates me to continue learning the language and the memoir is transcendental in reminding me that  baby boomers can still acquire a new language . Courage!!click


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Past is Read Only


The Rocks, Sydney
Before Samsung and Apple, I purchased a Hewlett Packard handheld PDA thinking that I could use it for my jottings. Sadly, that  has since become a white elephant lying somewhere amongst my possessions. Although I possess an iPhone that has an expansive storage space, I resort  to notepads or scrap papers  for  scribbling my thoughts and ideas. A notebook serves well as a writing pad for  fragments of my ideas, doodlings, bits and pieces of information about everything else and also titles of  books that I need to acquire or look up. There are times when I cannot quite make out my own notes as they are too sketchy and unintelligible and at other times when I revisit what I have written , it feels a little dreamlike.

The Black Notebook written by Patrick Modiano  has been translated into English from French by Mark Polizzotti. The story is  about Jean, a writer who discovers a set of notes that sets him on a journey through Paris in search of a lost past.  He tries to recall Dannie , his former girlfriend from years ago, a mysterious woman with  multiple pseudonyms and she seemed to hang out with gangsters who lived in the Hotel Unic in rue du Montparnasse. Dannie had lived under the name of Mireille Sampierry and she could be involved with a possible homicide. When she disappeared, Jean was summoned by a certain Langlais who was conducting the investigation about the possible homicide. Jean retraces the nocturnal footsteps he made decades earlier. As he remembers it, he always felt on his guard in that neighbourhood, could he possibly have left behind a double? He knows it wasn’t a dream. The proof is that he still has this black notebook that contains names, telephone numbers, appointments and short texts etc .

‘On one page of my black notebook I had written : “Country house, With Dannie.” Nothing more.
  “ Country house with Dannie.” I hadn’t recorded the name of the village. Leafing through the black notebook, I experience two contradictory feelings. If these pages are lacking in precise details, I tell myself it’s because nothing surprised me back then
Youthful unconcern? But I read certain phrases, certain names, certain indications, and it seems to me I was sending out coded signals to the future. Yes, it’s as if I wanted to leave clues, in black and white, that would help me clarify at some later date what I’d been living through at the time without really understanding it. Signals keyed blindly, in total confusion. And I’d have to wait years and years before I could decipher them.'

He and Dannie went to a country house at La Barberie and he had left his manuscript in the sitting room.

‘NOW AND THEN OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE THOUGHT about retrieving that manuscript, the way you recover a souvenir – one of those objects connected with a moment in your life, like a dried flower or four-leaf clover. But I no longer knew where the country house was. And I was overcome by lethargy and a vague apprehension when leafing through my old black notebook; moreover, it took me a long while to discover the name of the village and the phone number, written as they were in such tiny script.
Today , I’m no longer afraid of that notebook. It helps me to “scan my past”, and that expression makes me smile. It was the title of a novel, A Man Scans His Past, that I’d come across in the library of the house – several shelves of books, next to one of the windows in the sitting room. The past? No, it ‘s not about the past, but about episodes in a timeless, idealized life, which I wrest page by page from my drab current existence to give it some light and shadow. This afternoon, we are in the here and now, it’s raining, people and things are plunged in grey, and I’m impatiently waiting for night when everything will stand out more sharply, thanks to those same contrasts of shadow and light.
Arc de Tromphe
            The other night, driving through Paris, I was moved by those lights and shadows, by the different varieties of street lights and lamp posts, which I felt were sending me signals from the avenues or street corners. It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: a feeling of both presence and absence. Behind the glass pane the room is empty, but someone left the light on. For me, there has never been a present or a past. Everything blends together, as in that empty room where , every night, a light shines. I often dream that I’ve found my manuscript, I walk into the sitting room with its black-and-white tiled floor and rummage through the drawers under the bookshelves.
               
                I am learning French and it has taken me forever. I certainly hope to read Patrick Modiano's novels in French one day.  Click

Jean's memory about Paris is akin to my memory about Sydney, a city where I used to spend my growing years in. Sydney is a young and modern city thus it does not have the grandeur and old charm that Paris has to offer but  it is a city that means  a lot  to me.

Harbour Bridge, Sydney
            For a decade or so, whenever I returned to Sydney, nostalgia hit me. As years go by, Sydney has changed its landscape so much so that the connection I have with the city is becoming increasingly distant. Nonetheless I recall possessing the melancholic feeling years ago when I was up in Collins Bookstore at Broadway (near Central Railway Sydney) looking down  at City Road,  the road that I walked plenty of times during my varsity years. During my  trip to Sydney in October 2015 , although nostalgia no longer hit me as much as it used to, like Jean in The Black Notebook, I tried to retrace my steps  around Circular Quay and locate the kiosk where I used to work part-time selling fresh bread and lamington cakes to early commuters. I also walked along Glebe Point Road where I used to catch films at Vahalla Cinema. It was another lifetime and it feels like a dream. But you know it is not a dream. How I used to take youth for granted.  
Sydney Opera House





Friday, March 24, 2017

Stranger than fiction


Books are my primary indulgence followed closely by coffee and chocolate. I believe that reading expands our consciousness and if only more people read, there may be greater empathy and tolerance amongst the people. Although we are entitled to form an opinion  thus inclined to take a stand , we must read with an open mind when we read. Every reader  reads  about stuff that interest him or her . Every reader has his or her own preferences.

find that words persuade, dissuade, describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. Poignant writings touch our hearts, humour tickle and make us see the lighter side of life while thought provoking passages find its way to stir our conscience. Without words, we are mere beings. click

Some people prefer non-fictions to fictions for the former is intended to be informative and educational. I read fictions and non-fictions but I tend to read far more  fictions than non-fictions as I can get through fictions more quickly than  non-fictions that require more time and concentration. I take to fictions more simply because I  binge on books. I need to feast on words and in reading fictions, I gain a better understanding about humanity. What draws me to a particular fiction is its narratives, the voice,  the words chosen and how the sentences are structured
Hilary Mantel’s prose never fails.  Here is  the opening paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. It had me hooked right away.
     September 1984
       IN FLIGHT
‘ Would you like champagne?”
        This was the beginning ; an hour or so out from Heathrow. Already it felt further;watches moved on, a day in a life condensed to a scramble at a check-in desk, a walk to a departure gate; a day cut short and eclipsed, hurtling on into advancing night. And now the steward leaned over her, putting this question.
      ‘ I don’t think so.’ They had already eaten; dinner, she supposed. So much smoked salmon is consumed on aircraft that it is a wonder there is any left to eat at ground level. The steward had just now whisked her tray from under her nose.’You could give me some brandy,’ she said.

Eight months on Ghazzah Street written by Hilary Mantel is a story about an English couple who has to relocate to Jeddah when the husband is offered a job after his contract in Botwana has ended. They are doubling his salary and offering free housing, a car allowance, paid utilities, yearly leave ticket, school fees. The only reservation is how the wife will settle in as she is a working woman and she won’t be able to work when they are there. Here is the exchange between Andrew Shore and his wife, Frances.
Well, if you ‘re going to earn all that money, I’m sure I can occupy myself. After all, it’s not for ever, is it?’
‘No, it’s not for ever. We should think of it as a chance for us, to build up more security-’
‘ Will you pass me those salad bowls?’
Andrew was silent. He passed them, one by one. Why, really, should she share his vision of their future? She had come to Africa at her own behest, a single woman, one of the few recruited for her line of work.

Frances Shores is lost within Jeddah’s ever developing streets. The regime is corrupt and harsh, the cynical expatriates are money-grabbing and they tend to have the habit of  laughing  at everything as if it is the safest way of expressing dissent. She hears whispers from the “empty’ apartment above her. You can feel her sense of creeping unease. She has met her neighbours, one Pakistani couple with a small child and a young Saudi couple, also with a baby. Frances feels frustrated as her only source of information is from her husband, Andrew. During her stay, she finds her warily curious Muslim neighbours remain mysterious. Frances ‘is the sort of person who rings dates on calendars, and does not trust to memory; who, when she writes a cheque, does a subtraction and writes a balance on the cheque stub. She knows where all their possessions are, everything that belongs to her and everything that belongs to him; she remembers people’s birthdays, and retains telephone numbers in her head. She likes to make sense of the world by making lists, and writing things down.      She keeps a diary.
          FRANCES SHORE’S DIARY : 14 Muharram
At last the doorway has been unblocked, and I feel that I am going to end this rather peculiar isolation in which I have been living. When I began this diary I described my first morning in the flat as if it were going to be exceptional. When Andrew locked me in , I thought it doesn’t matter, because  I won’t be going out today. As if not going out would be unusual. I didn’t know that on that first day, I was settling into a pattern, a routine, drifting around the flat alone, may be reading for a bit, doing this and that, and daydreaming. I can see now that it will need a great effort not ot let my whole life fall into this pattern.
Andrew thinks that perhaps after all we should have gone to live on a compound, where, he says, it is all bustle and sociability, and the wives run and out of each other’s houses the whole time. I’m not sure if I’d like that. I still think of myself as a working woman. I am not used to coffee mornings. I think of myself in my office at Local Government and Lands. I was run off my feet, or at least I like to think so. Being here is a sort of convalescence. Or some form of sheltered accommodation. You think that after a dose of the English summer, after the hassle of getting out here, you will need a recovery period. You need peace and quiet. Then suddenly, you don’t need it any more. Oh, but you have got it . It is like being under house arrest. Or a banned person.

Eight months on Ghazzah Street is chilling and reads like a thriller  but it ends in suspense. Perhaps that is the way things are as we will never find out what has happened or know what is actually happening. In the present era of media frenzy, we have to decipher the information that is available and decide for ourselves what to believe and what not to.