Thursday, August 17, 2006

Meezly's Trip to Vietnam

Finally, what everyone has been waiting for, hehe...

vietnam gallery


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book 12: Angels & Insects

by A.S. Byatt

Two novellas are found in this book, “Morpho Eugenia” (what the film Angels & Insects is adapted from) and “The Conjugial Angel”. I sought this out for the former, but frankly, couldn’t get through the latter, despite its cool subject matter: a motley circle of mediums and what they discover in the course of their semi-regular séances.

I’m not an A.S. Byatt fan, as this is the first book I’ve read of hers. But I do have a romantic fondness for 19th century natural science, the era that spawned Charles Darwin, so I naturally sought this work out. And it really delivered what I was hankering for. Byatt is really masterful at what she does, recreating the culture, language, aethetics and mindset of the Victorian period. There are beautiful passages detailing how the protagonist, an English naturalist, is esconced in the categorization of his benefactor’s animal and plant collection, his explorations and discoveries when he takes to long walks in the English countryside:

"His journal was for the first time alive with a purposeful happiness. He began also to collect insects, and was amazed to discover how many hundreds of species of beetle existed in a few square miles of rough moorland. He haunted the slaughterhouse, making notes on where the blowflies preferred to lay their eggs, how the maggots moved and chewed, the swarming, the pullulation, a mass of mess moved by an ordering principle. The world looked different, and larger, and brighter, not water-colour washes of green and blue and grey, but a dazzling pattern of fine lines and dizzying pinpoints, jet-black, striped and spotted crimson, iridescent emerald, sloppy caramel, slime-silver."

The story was also excellent, as I was surprised to find multiple complex and interesting themes and subplots woven into this dense, well-crafted 200 –page novella. Byatt’s obviously a big fan of Darwin, and she doesn’t disappoint in how she capably manages to integrate his evolutionary theories into, yes, a Victorian bodice-ripper. "Morpho Eugenia" deals with the Victorian obsession with Darwinian theories of breeding and sexuality, the parallels between insect and human society, the capture and taming of nature, and the age-old philosophical debate between religion and science. Heavy themes indeed, but hardly tedious at all. What distinguishes this story for me, is that these themes still ring true today, particularly the rift between those who believe in the comforting solace of divine design and those who understand and accept the pandora’s box of natural selection.

The character that portrays the religious side is Harald Alabaster, who’s struggling to write his magnum opus, “the kind of impossible book everyone now is trying to write. A book which shall demonstrate – with some kind of intellectual respectability – that is not impossible that the world is the work of a Creator, a Designer.” Alabaster is an intelligent, even wise, old man who once had his own radical views of evolution: “If I were a young man now, a young man such as you, I would be compelled towards atheistic materialism by the sheer beauty, the intricacy, of the arguments of Mr Darwin…” But now in his twilight years, he feels a desperate need to find some kind of meaning.

On the other hand, the protagonist, William Adamson, is a young naturalist who has accepted a creator-less universe. At Alabaster’s request, he’s invited into his study to read his drafts and play the devil’s advocate. Because Alabaster is also Williams’ benefactor, the naturalist has to bite his tongue at times:

William sat down in his father-in-law’s chair and tried to make sense of it, with mounting irritation. It was a new rehearsal of old arguments, some of which Harald had already, in conversation, rejected as untenable.

“… It may be an emotional deficiency in myself, Sir, that I cannot feel the strength of the argument. I have been much changed by the pattern of my life, of my work. My own father was very much in the image of a terribly Judge, who preached rivers of blood and destruction, and whose own profession was bloody too. And then the vast disorder – the indifference to human scale and preoccupations – in the Amazon – I have not been left with a propensity to find kindness in the face of things.”

Ah, the stuff of genius!

Book 11: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

by Haruki Murakami
(translated from Japanese By Jay Rubin)

I finally finished reading TWUBC back in June after my return from Vietnam, and for my first Murakami novel, it was a surprisingly rich and rewarding read. I didn't know anything about the author, only that he’s a well-regarded “Gen X” writer in Japan and he must have a decent following because I had some trouble finishing the library copy of this book because other people kept placing holds on it!

The novel begins by introducing the daily routine of recently unemployed Toro Okada. While his wife, Kumiko, goes to work during the day, Toro runs errands, makes lunch, reads, takes a nap, and prepares dinner for his wife’s return. The only conflict is that Toro and Kumiko have just lost their cat, and once in a while, Toro gets the odd strange phone call from an unknown woman. Other than that, nothing much happens.

Then Kumiko arranges for Toro to meet with a charismatic psychic to help them find their cat. And Toro starts to take walks around this neighbourhood, partly to search for the missing cat and partly to explore the abandoned house down the back alley. From there, various characters are introduced, and through their seemingly random histories, the novel expands into a multi-layered tale of near-epic proportion where we go back and forth between present-day Tokyo, the Mongolian front, a Soviet prison camp and a Shanghai zoo during WWII, as well as explorations into the subconscious netherworld of the protagonist’s mind. Before you know it, this self-effacing slacker embarks on a heroic quest to save his loved one!

The best thing about the book is that even though it quite capably juggles a confluence of Japanese history, personal tragedies, magic realism, the supernatural, operatic influences of The Magic Flute, not to mention over 600 pages of text… elements which contribute to an epic novel, the author still imbues a very subtle, low-key atmosphere. I hate to sound clichéd, but I find the approach zen-like, very Japanese, yet still familiar to the western reader. The only critique I had was the device of the wind-up bird to "tie things together", the only element which I found a bit too contrived.

Reading TWUBC was like watching a film by Ozu and Jarmusch. There’s a tension between reality and unreality; there’s a real-ness to Toro’s unassuming life, in how people go in and out of it, and a disconnected style to the writing and how the characters speak when describing bizarre events. So when things get progressively more surreal and Lynchian, it also seems to happen in the most normal and natural way. The protagonist, especially, has a sense of quiet acceptance and distance, even when he discovers there’s more to his slacker persona than he realizes. Like dsgran’s review, I appreciated how the story didn’t explain too much, like what exactly was the nature of Kumiko and her brother’s strange power? It made for a more interesting and enigmatic read. I’ll definitely be reading more by this author.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Otto... part cat, part sea otter!

Why dontcha take a load off, little buddy...