More on the Brontës

I recently watched “To Walk Invisible,” a film by Sally Wainwright, which sketches the Brontë family through flashbacks to childhood and brief, poignant scenes in the present where they all live in the parsonage, the sisters toiling at household chores, the father going blind, and the brother, Branwell, sliding into dissipation and dashing the hopes of the family for his success (at something, anything). Soon, he is tormenting them all with his need for money and drink, his weakness and rages, and his debts. It is painful to contemplate the four bright, wildly inventive children thriving on their imaginative play with Branwell as their leader and then jump ahead to see what a disappointment he is to all of them and most pitiably to himself. I knew the story of his misdemeanors and demise, but the movie helps us pity rather than despise him for the inadequacies of which he was only too aware.  The movie hints at the parental indulgence shown to the only male child, and the high expectations they all had of him,  and which the father continues to cling to long after the three women have realized the truth about their brother. Meanwhile, the sisters seek salvation in writing as the only thing they can do and the only thing, as Anne says, that makes her “feel alive.”

I disagree with the review in The Atlantic which faults Wainwright for focusing too much of the story on Branwell. To my mind, his disgrace and decline form a powerful backdrop to the sisters’ rise, and his misdemeanors and eventual demise bookend their story.  We all know what they became – Wainwright’s tight focus on the family dynamics  illuminates their unlikely success story, telling us from whence they came and how they became great.


Murakami Redux, Part II

I was thinking of IQ84 after plucking Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World off of a friend’s bookshelf.This is an older Murakami (1985) which has the author’s signature hypnotic writing about bizarre situations that the bewildered but doggedly normal (usually male) ‘hero’ finds himself in. I found the ending slightly surprising, but the decisions of the nameless main character on how to spend his last 24 hours on earth are amusing and thought-provoking. “A person with twenty-four hours left to live ought to have countless things to do. I couldn’t think of a single one.” Ridiculously, even to himself, he ends up in a laundromat waiting to use a clothes-dryer. Murakami writes playfully, and the adventures undergone by our protagonist are amusing as well as suspenseful. This includes thrilling narrow escapes and chases through underground passages and threatening visits from mob underlings as well as many chance encounters along the way – the bureaucratic workers at ticket windows, the “rock taxi” driver, “Mrs. Video Shop” and more – all fully realized, natural vignettes. There is a whole alternate story and universe interspersed with the ‘Hard-boiled Wonderland’ narrative which seems a precursor to the alternate universe in IQ84. In retrospect you wonder if the “End of the World” is a kind of heaven. When he thinks about his life ending and achieving immortality in this other reality, he can’t quite get his head around it. Will he be a different person? Can he be? He has tried to change in the past, but “like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.” The ‘End of the World’ existence includes a kind of ‘mindlessness’ that is described thus: “You are fearful now of losing your mind, as I once feared myself. Let me say, however, that relinquishing your self carries no shame….Lay down your mind and peace will come. A peace deeper than anything you have known.”

Murakami Redux, Part I

I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami’s novels and short stories for a long time and have often struggled with how to describe his works. His understated writing style, slight, not-always-apparent playfulness, and ultimate compassion for the human condition combine with a fearless creativity (one of his stories features a giant talking frog) to compel the reader’s concern for the central character–often a subdued Japanese everyman/woman, usually living alone in a cheap, high-rise apartment, who gets caught up in events and forces that are beyond his or her control.  The man in the aforementioned story, for example, just comes home to his apartment after a routine day, a briefcase in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, and there is the frog. Giant. Talking. There is often a mystery at the center of Murakami’s fiction. Often the mystery is left unexplained at the end. The bewildered protagonist struggles to understand what is happening, but never does.  The reader can relate.  A sort of dreamy vagueness pervades some of the works and can leave a reader vaguely dissatisfied, which how I have felt occasionally upon finishing one of his books. Yet, the unsolved mysteries represent a reality that the characters have to deal with whether they understand them or not, which is how life is, really.

The last Murakami I read was IQ84, 6 years ago, and I blogged about my excitement at starting the book here and more about it here.  It’s a blockbuster that weighs in at 900 plus pages, there are plenty of mysteries, lots unsolved at the end (again, like life), but the story is anything but dreamy. The two central characters, Tengo and Aomame, are both caught up in dangerous missions, they both sense that they are in some kind of alternate world (the extra moon in the sky is a clue), and they are both trying to find each other before it is too late. There is an Orwellian subtext, but I have to admit, I didn’t think of it that much. The story itself pulls you in and keeps you engrossed until the end.

It’s a big book, and this is a short review, but I found IQ84 to be amazing.  It was gripping, suspenseful, shocking, bizarre , and, finally, quite moving. After all, life can change quickly, a metaphorical second moon can appear in our skies at any moment and utterly change our version of the universe. And, in Murakami’s world, there are people who accept reality, whatever form it takes, and deal with it, and find that they can protect themselves, their  inner selves and integrity, despite what outside forces seem to prevail. There is something rather beautiful in that.

The Other Brontë Sister

I am sorry to say that I never got around to reading any of Anne Brontë’s work. Of course, I knew of her, but her books were not on the family bookshelf, as was Jane Eyre, which I read with avidity, yet some slight distaste (I can’t explain it, but there is a lingering disaffection with the work, a sense of something lurid and overwrought. That said, I admit its greatness and liked Villette quite a bit.) Wuthering Heights I read later and still appreciate for its wild strangeness and bursting of literary bonds.  Yet, I am an Austen fan, and prefer the comic subtleties of human behavior in which Austen excels, and perhaps I resent a bit Charlotte’s belittlement of Austen, likening her writing to a “carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden.” My awareness of Anne grew with the screening on PBS of “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” and then by a cartoon by Kate Beaton wherein the two older sisters are admiring brooding, rude men whom Anne calls out as arrogant dirt bags (paraphrasing here). They say to her “no wonder no one buys your books.” I guess I fell for the tall, dark and scornful type through literature (and, it must be said, trashy romances), but was saved by Austen’s real men – kind, generous, humorous and dutiful. Even Darcy who appears to be the former turns out to be the latter. Now, upon reading Agnes Grey, I find it delightfully Austenesque in the well-drawn character studies, amusing interchanges, the earnest schooling of self-interest and inclinations to the demands of duty by the main character, and the sardonic observations of the socially elevated circles with whom Agnes comes in contact while working as a governess. That said, all of the Brontës share with Austen a striking intellectual and moral rigor that seems old-fashioned, but painfully relevant to any person who aspires to a well-lived life. Austen and Anne have a touch that is lighter than that of the older Brontë sisters, but at the same time more steely (more age-of-reason than romantic). I think the morality of Anne Brontë and Austen is more brave and beautiful precisely because it exists among the humdrum of daily cares, of petty slights, of dullness and loneliness– like that of Anne Eliot or Elinor Dashwood.

Vietnam, revisited

I listened to “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, beautifully read by Francois Chau, and found it intense, gripping, bitterly funny, heartbreaking and brutal. The character, who I believe is never named, but often called Captain for his rank in the secret police of South Vietnam, is nuanced, flawed, complex and conflicted; his fatal flaw being the ability to see both sides of a question. As a spy for the Viet Cong, embedded within the ranks of South Vietnamese army and recruited into the military police, he has to interrogate captives from the North with whom he sympathizes and is secretly working; he also has to report to his superiors on the movements of the South Vietnamese with whom he lives and works. This duality is present in his origins as the son of a Vietnamese maid and a French priest who never outwardly acknowledged him. The book begins and ends in southeast Asia, with the hero on the last plane out of Saigon and at the end, preparing to embark on a perilous journey as one of the ‘boat people’ to escape the oppressive regime of the conquerors. The long, middle portion is a fantastic tale like something out of Dostoeyvsky as the Captain continues in his dual role, spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in California and plotting their return. His convoluted, even horrifying, maneuverings to avoid arousing suspicion in the General and Madame, his wife, while wooing their wayward daughter; the incredible interlude where he advises a movie director and is present at the making of a movie about the Vietnamese war, almost getting killed in the process; and his disastrous return to Vietnam, make for a suspenseful read (or listen). Best of all is the lush prose sprinkled with double entendres and near puns, that make for a fresh, distinctive style, sometimes airy and delightful, at others clinical and disturbing. The last part of the book is less humorous, more brutal (extremely difficult at times) and even a little tedious (as being a prisoner in a concentration camp probably is in reality), and the resolution of the plot threads is slightly less than plausible, but these are quibbles. The plotting is mostly superb, the characters are realistic and the situation is compelling to say the least.


I read Crime & Punishment without effort some years ago, but I had a lot of trouble getting back to this book after starting it in 2013. Thanks to Audible.com, I spent 36 of my commuting hours listening to the whole thing, and enjoyed it immensely (the Constance Garnet version, read by Frederick Davidson, who did an excellent job with most of the voices). The first thing I noticed was the digressive style, as the narrator would often pause in what seemed to be the main thread of the novel and divert our attention to some other incident or person that we needed to know about and fill us in with all the relevant details. It all came together in the end and this style of writing resulted in a broad study of Russian characters and of the changing times. The Karamazovs (Father and sons) seemed to illustrate certain Russian ‘types,’ and Smerdiakov (also one of the brothers, it seems) was a brilliant study of the resentful peasant on the rise. The account of the trial where the lawyers for both the prosecution and defense built up their edifices of conjecture was handled masterfully, although I had a growing sense of dread as to the outcome. The reader knows the truth, but facts seem irrelevant as each person believes what they want to believe.

Writing – why bother?

So, it’s been a couple of years.

Sometimes, it seems that everything has been said, everything written, but then you realize that it doesn’t matter. If writing matters to you, then writing matters. I woke up so early this morning and realized that blogging was missing in my life, and that social media can’t replace what I get from blogging – a chance to ponder deeply about something, without caring if anyone else reads it. Of course, I could just journal, but the fact of writing something public, however unnoticed, adds a certain frisson to the process, a certain feeling of risk, even excitement, that takes the writing up a level, or so I hope.

A few or maybe 10 years ago, I was trying to get myself into grad school for English and met with admissions people at a University. When I mentioned that I blogged, I noticed right away their disdain. Blogging didn’t count, not being informed by research or deep thinking, I guess. I can understand that. It is a long time since I wrote lengthy, well-researched papers and maybe blogging seems amateurish and self-indulgent, but then again, it matters to me and gives me a sense of peace in my heart. That is worth something.

I was trying to remember a certain quote about writing, and thought it was by Gertrude Stein, so spent an enjoyable 20 minutes reading clever quotes by Stein; finally, a new google search led me to the correct author of the quote, Gloria Steinem (pretty close, right?) and it is a quote that rings true for me: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”  (Well, I have to add cooking and exercising as the other only things, but often they just seem like calming activities between attempts at writing.)

and now, let’s hear from Gertrude: “An audience is always warming, but it must never be necessary to your work.”