A change of address!

Short explanation:

I've decided to consolidate my podcast and book reviews into one website.  If you'd like keep following my latest reviews (or read old ones), you'll find them at:  ClassicsConsidered.com .  I just shared my thoughts on Dear Mrs. Bird, a historical fiction novel, and there's more to come this month!

Long, potentially boring explanation:

First off, to anyone who reads my blog - thanks for sticking with me.  I so appreciate the bookish community we have; it's a huge part of my life, and that's no exaggeration.

Since I started blogging back in 2009, I've been through a plethora of "phases," while agonizing on-and-off over my online presence.  In the early years, I had just one blog, where I posted everything.  Then later came Tanglewood, which some of you might remember - it was the first rendition of this book blog.  I went through a long Tumblr phase in college, while still book blogging at Tanglewood.  In 2015, Tanglewood became Noonlight Reads, and for a while there, I attempted to build a "brand" of sorts around "Noonlight."  But it just didn't seem perfectly right.

Last year, I actually found myself getting tired of book reviewing.  It wasn't so much a lack of time or even energy, but I felt like I was starting to lose interest.  I had also lost touch with some of my former reading community and hadn't explored enough new blogs to make new friends.  Basically, I'd lost steam on the one thing I thought I loved.

So it was round about this time that I took a risk and started the podcast.  It was honestly a risk in every way - time, money, commitment, potential embarrassment!  At least, that's what my brain thought.  Anyway, you can hear more of the story here if you like, but in a nutshell, I began podcasting, and it kind of changed everything.  I found a new perspective on literature and a new motivation for talking about it, which bled over into my written reviews as well.  On a personal note, I felt I'd found "my thing" (because sometimes to do what you love, you have to give it as a gift).

At Classics Considered, I'm going to keep sharing book reviews, alongside the podcast.  I've begun the process of moving my archives over there, fixing broken links, all that good stuff...  Also, I'll be sprucing up the site in the coming weeks, to make better distinction between the podcast episodes vs. the book reviews (for those who just prefer one or the other).  So please excuse the moving house, and I hope to see you there!

Books I Gave Up On

I gave up on Moby-Dick the first time - even after getting halfway!

Two weeks ago, I mentioned I was reading The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.  Well...I'm still reading it, and I'm not even halfway.

For a story about a family moving to the jungle, this book is extremely slow.  I keep thinking "I'm finally getting into it!" only to get bogged down by endless descriptions of Allie's (the dad) smart-aleck comments and ego bigger than the commune he's founding.  So yeah, I'm thinking about calling it quits.

It irritates me to give up on a book...I'm a completist by nature.  Since 2012 (when I started keeping track), I've given up on 14 books, which spread out over 6 years is still more than I'd like.  On the other hand, there have been books I wish I'd given up on (Kafka's The Castle) but for whatever reason just couldn't bring myself to do it.

With that in mind, which are the 14 that made the unlucky cut?  In roughly reverse-chronological order:

14. The Kill by Émile Zola - I talked about this a few months ago.  What started out as an interesting family drama turned into a squicky romance novel.  TMI for this reader.
13. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald - This had some of the worst parts of The Great Gatsby (adulterous affairs) without any of the better parts (compelling backstory and interesting characters).  Couldn't relate at all.

12. Rhett & Link's Book of Mythicality - This was a tough disappointment.  I shared some thoughts on Goodreads.

11. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway - The title story really pulled me with its misogynist protagonist.  /sarcasm

10. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I get really, really tired of Christians being the bad guys.

9. Through a Green Lens: Fifty Years of Writing for Nature by Robert Michael Pyle - I was hoping for some interesting anecdotes, but most of the essays I read were more like lectures.  Might try it again in a decade or two, but not now.

8. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu - Fantastic concept: Chinese history and steampunk!  Sadly, after 100 pages I did not care about any of the characters, though I tried very hard.  Needed better character building and less description.

7. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles - This dude is supposed to be under house arrest, but he has a more comfortable lifestyle than your average college student.  After he got a girlfriend (a pushy one at that), I gave up worrying about him.

6. On Basilisk Station by David Weber - This is book 1 in a series which is supposed to be like Horatio Hornblower meets Star Trek with a female protagonist.  My expectations must have been too high - I couldn't get past the first chapter; the characterization and settings didn't ring true.

5. The Republic by Plato - Will probably try again someday.

4. Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power by Zbigniew Brzeziński - Boring start.  Didn't get very far, but I've read another of his books so could sorta guess where it was going.

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - Another one that was hard to get into.  I meant to try it again when the movie came out; will eventually do so.

2. The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark - The language/tone turned me off.  I might try it again someday.

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - This also started out boring, but I plan to try it again.

Judging by this list, it looks like "boring" used to be a big factor, which means I've either got better at giving books a chance, or managed to choose books that are bound to be interesting.  I guess that's a good thing?

Clara Schumann's Lieder - A Classical Cousin

Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has me currently entranced with its gentle, yet poignant questions about women's history - not just in fiction, but in culture and arts generally.

According to a Washington Post quiz (which, given its loaded questions, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt), I come under the umbrella of "Yes, but..." feminists, meaning I identify as somewhat feminist but am also critical of feminism as it stands today.  Without getting deeply into the topic - I am trying, by a thread, to stay apolitical on this blog - I would say that's a fairly accurate summary of my outlook.

My main concern for women's rights are those basic ones which are still lacking in other countries.  In Woolf's book, I am reminded that women in the West underwent similar struggles.  For example, as lately as 100 years ago, a choice of career was limited:
...I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.  (ch. 2)
More to come on this later.  (This will be Monday's podcast episode!)

Here I just wanted to share a piece by Clara Schumann, the talented pianist and composer, best known (for better or worse) as the wife of composer Robert Schumann.  Like Robert, Clara composed lieder, or songs, which put German poetry to music.  (I picture the German gentry gathering around of a summer's evening, listening to a talented family member performing these songs, though whether that is totally accurate, I cannot say.)

These are the lyrics, translated by David Kenneth Smith:

Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884)  Op. 13 No. 4

Der Mond kommt still gegangen  The moon so peaceful rises
mit seinem gold'nen Schein,  with all its golden shine,
da schläft in holdem Prangen  there sleeps in lovely glitter
die müde Erde ein.  the weary earth below.

Und auf den Lüften schwanken  And on the breezes waft down
aus manchem treuen Sinn  from many faithful hearts
viel tausend Liebesgedanken  true loving thoughts by the thousand
über die Schläfer hin.  upon the sleeping ones.

Und drunten im Tale, da funkeln  And down in the valley, there twinkle
die Fenster von Liebchens Haus;  the lights from my lover's house;
ich aber blicke im Dunkeln  but I in darkness still look out -
still in die Welt hinaus.  silent - into the world.

When We Were Orphans - A Study in "Meh"

It's London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England's leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can't forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher's greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships - including his love for a lonely socialite - make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I've raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I'd be able to disagree with Ishiguro's own comment, that it's "not his best book," ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve - in-your-face exposition - I'm afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher's voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher's voice, and I don't mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I'm watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah - well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I'll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher's youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira - a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher's mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It's easy to trace the parallel between Christopher's altruistic career choices and his mother's campaign against the opium trade.  He's simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories - foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it's one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won't divulge spoilers, but the "solution" is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session...  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he'd given it more time, and I'm puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There's some morally questionable elements which I've alluded to, and if that didn't bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won't be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you're new to Ishiguro's work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

What I'm Reading: A Little Bit of Everything...

It's been an interesting week.  As I shared on my personal Instagram, it's been a rough one, too.  What do I do when I'm having a bad week?  Read, obviously.

The last couple of weeks, I've been juggling a veritable carousel of books.  Here's the rundown:

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux - I fully expected to finish this one in time for next Monday's podcast episode.  (It didn't happen.)  Basically, this is a dark comedy about a prepper, Allie Fox, who uproots his family from rural Massachusetts and relocates to Central America.  It's as weird as it sounds.  I find a steady diet of cynicism to be a bit much, but there are some genuinely humorous moments.  Be warned, offensive (not funny) language also abounds, as well as racial slurs.  I am curious to see how it ends, though I can't imagine it ends well.

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - On Goodreads, I described this as "Sherlock Holmes meets Empire of the Sun."  It's not Ishiguro's most gripping novel - for that, see An Artist of the Floating World or A Pale View of Hills - but I'm liking it so far.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor - Last Monday I shared my first impressions of Flannery O'Connor.  Still have a ways to go to finish her short stories, though.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne - My third reading, I think.  Love this book.

About Orchids: A Chat by Frederick Boyle - I keep falling asleep to this!

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman - Reading this for work.  Interesting stuff.

The Book of Daniel (NKJV) - I finished Job (which I appreciated, though still don't fully understand) and then decided return to a childhood favorite, Daniel.  Daniel has an interesting narrative format... I'd forgotten chapter 4 which reads like a proclamation by Nebuchadnezzar.  Really fascinating to re-read it now.

Did I mention I started The Lost City of Z by David Grann?  To be honest, the storytelling style really turns me off in a historical book...  However, the subject matter interests me.  I hope to get back to this one soon.

And Ben-Hur.  No, I have not abandoned my book journal for the year.  It'll be back, soonish.

Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 3

More 19th-century literature!  I get chatty about Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll, and Jules Verne as we finish off this second shelf.  And oh, those wood engravings... <3   Let me know if you've read any of these!

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 3

How does one become the President of China?

If the electoral college seems at times hard to fathom, an election in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is even more esoteric.  According to Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China and former diplomat, the rise of Xi Jinping to the supreme leadership role in China "belonged more to the realm of magic than political science" (p. 92).  The process by which Xi replaced Hu Jintao (2003–2013) was unlike a democratic election, in part because it required a consensus amongst the Party: a one-party state cannot be seen as divided.  This image of unity is one which brought Xi to power and which continues to challenge him as he seeks to maintain that power.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  Please see Part I and Part II, if you'd like to read more.)

Defense.gov photo essay 110110-F-6655M-017
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, 2011 -
by Jerry Morrison

Coincidence and Conviction

Xi's life has been filled with the unexpected - from privileges as the young son of a lauded communist fighter, to harassment in the hands of Red Guard youth, and finally a prestigious career as a provincial manager and globally wise leader.  Was it all luck, or was there something he did to further his appointment as the core leader of China?

From Brown (p. 75–76), we learn that during the mid-2000s there were three candidates with the most potential to replace Hu.  These men were Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Xi Jinping, with Xi literally coming in third place at this point.  It was a tight "race," to put it in Western terms, and what Brown suggests as having settled it were the downsides to the Lis, as opposed to a definite preference for Xi.  
  • Li Keqiang, who is now the premier (head of government), had displayed some inefficacy while dealing with crises in provinces under his care.  His current premiership puts him second-place in hierarchy, behind Xi who once trailed him.  
  • Li Yuanchao, also a former provincial leader, was "more open-minded and international in his outlook than his peers" (p.76) and was relegated to vice presidency, a somewhat nominal role.  In March 2018, his relatively brief term ended, even as Xi's term was secured for life.  Li Yuanchao's rapid transition from potential president to possible early retiree says as much about the Party as it does about him.
Was the Lis' ill-fortune the only reason Xi rose to the top, or was there an additional factor?  While not understating the role of luck, Brown suggests the latter as well, and he goes back to the importance of the ideological, even spiritual, side of Xi.
He is a man who conveys the sense that he does actually believe and buy into a worldview that has arisen from his own experience rather than been handed to him or acquired through years of attending Party meetings. (p. 13)
Essentially, Xi - like every compelling leader, good or bad - presents his story as part of what he brings to the table.  He is the living evidence of his own ideological convictions and his faith in the Party (p. 96).  This is what the Party desires and one of the reasons he gained preeminence, while not obviously appearing to do so.

The Future According to President Xi

The second half of CEO, China is different from the first, but no less fascinating.  In three chapters, Brown covers with insight and detail some topics which take up the entirety of other books:
  • The Political Programme of Xi Jinping (Chapter 4)
  • How Does Xi Jinping See the Outside World? (Chapter 5)
  • What Does Xi Want in the Next Two Decades? (Chapter 6)
It would be inadequate for me to try to summarize these chapters.  What I can do is highlight some of the topics that caught my eye in these sections.

Money, Corruption, and - Democracy?

As China continues to grow, Xi has to address issues such as private enterprise, taxation, and the political implications of both.  For example, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up half of the government's revenue, but they are also becoming increasingly less profitable, even compared to non-SOEs (p. 155)  SOEs are also entities that attract corrupt officials, who are interested in siphoning off profits for themselves.

Taxation is a requirement for maintaining Chinese socialism, but this, too, must be handled with care.  The Chinese taxpayer is not immune to their own interests, and even to allow provincials governments more power in this area is playing with political fire (p. 157, 159).  How can the Party maintain central power, while still meeting the local needs of the common man?  For a nation in which the state has exerted its primacy, this is a challenge that cannot be avoided.  It is not impossible China may give the provinces more fiscal leeway, even while keeping a tight hold on the one-party system.

Technology as Power

Just this month, a young woman named Dong Yaoqiong disappeared after protesting against Xi and the CCP; her Twitter account was deleted, and Radio Free Asia reports she is being detained in a psychiatric hospital.  Last fall, The Washington Post reported that Christian symbols were being forcibly replaced by images of Xi, as part of an anti-religion campaign announced through various media, including the internet.

While China maintains the "Great Firewall," blocking such sites as YouTube and Twitter (with mixed success), Xi like most modern leaders has realized he can use social media to gain insights into Chinese citizens' opinions and wants.  Xi can choose his own methods of reaching the people, in the same vein as Mao and Deng Xiaoping (p. 177).  Ironically, Xi can in this way circumvent Party censorship and spread the message he wishes to share.

Globalism and the Two Centenaries

China has one ruling Party, and it takes advantage of this fact by setting very longterm goals.  By 2021, the 100th anniversary of the CCP, it intends to have achieved a "moderately well-off" status in areas such as urbanization, wealth, technology, and energy.  By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC, it expects to be the paradigm of a "modern socialist country."  Together, these two goals will supply the concrete results of what Xi calls the "Chinese Dream."

In relation to the world at large, China expects to play an important role.  It will continue to maintain a complicated relationship with the U.S. and the E.U., working together with us on issues such as the environment (p. 182) while competing in other areas such as world finance.  The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is poised to rival the D.C.-based IMF and World Bank, having (as of this year) 87 member nations, with the United States and Japan voluntarily among the excluded.

China's interests in neighboring countries has grown to include Africa - see China's Second Continent by journalist Howard French.  Additionally, Xi's renaissance of the Silk Road, now called "The Belt and Road," contains a vast plan to bolster the Chinese economy by investing in other countries' infrastructures.  The end result would seem to be a new polarization of the globe, with Xi's China as the new socialist leader (as opposed to Putin's Russia) on the one hand and the U.S. on the other.

Xi may or may not live to see the second Centenary.  His legacy, however, is already inextricably connected with China's future.

In Summary

CEO, China is not just a biography.  I enjoyed the broader scope of the book and thought Brown was overall a fair author, coming from a Western perspective and yet mostly objective in his analysis.  It's one of my favorite books from this year, filling a hole in my knowledge and provoking me to learn more. Of Xi, I've gained a useful portrait; his life story is an impressive one.  That said, current events and China's human rights violations leave me wary of his leadership and what the ultimate outcome will be.

Elie Wiesel's Open Heart, and Thoughts on Christian Suffering

In his memoir Open Heart, Elie Wiesel takes us through his experiences surrounding his 2011 open heart surgery.  Wiesel is famous for his Night trilogy, and here some of the same themes come back in short, fleeting chapters - the dark memories of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as the perennial question: why does God allow His children to suffer evil?  What should a Jewish person's response be in times of persecution or pain?  Question marks abound in this short work, underlining the great despair we may sometimes feel when evil touches our lives.

One reason I picked up this book was to understand something of what a patient experiences during this medical procedure.  My grandma has faced a myriad of health issues, including two heart surgeries; she endured them with grace even while she was in terrible pain.  What could she have been feeling?  I have never asked her, choosing instead (as with other personal questions) to seek another avenue of understanding in Wiesel's book.

Of course, it is not an exact parallel.  For one thing, Wiesel's perceptions or imaginings of the afterlife are not identical to Christian beliefs on the same.  He describes his picture of hell as "ruled by cruel, pitiless angels" and full of physical tortures.  In this book, he does not seek to systematically explain his beliefs, offer a treatise on death, or even describe the surgery in detail.  Instead, Wiesel presents his thoughts and reactions moving from one scene to the next - a surreal, metaphysical, and ultimately personal exploration.

I've mentioned before Shūsaku Endō's book The Silence, one I've been actively avoiding (yet will ultimately read).  In Open Heart, Wiesel touches on the same theme - the apparent silence of God.
...Auschwitz is not only a human tragedy but also - and most of all - a theological scandal.  For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.  But then how is one to understand His silence?
For Christians, too, this question is not irrelevant.  Many of my family members in Christ are enduring persecution as I write.  Barnabas Aid is a charity I support, and every day their prayer focus features a story of the horrifying, often government-sanctioned brutalization of Christians in other parts of the world.  The Armenian Genocide - which Wiesel worked to bring awareness to - is a historic example. On a personal level, each of us has suffered his or her own tragedy, be it a physical disease, a mental health struggle, the death or loss of a loved one, or something else which we may never tell another human being. 

Wiesel's answer, in part, is as simple as the question: "Since God is, He is to be found in the questions as well as in the answers."  There is certainly wisdom in acknowledging mystery.  Humanity itself involves mystery, from questions such as the Creation of the world and the beginning of a human's soul, to those about the origin of evil and enduring hatred.

To add to this, it is no coincidence much of the New Testament covers the existence of persecution.  I've personally found comfort in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks to His disciples directly on this subject, with empathy:
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  (John 15:18–19, NKJV)
I wish there were words to adequately describe John 17 - epic or poetic seem trite.  But here, too, in His last prayers before death, Jesus speaks of His followers:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.  (John 17:20–23, NKJV)
Suffering remains something of a mystery to me.  Through my own experiences, though - which, while personally crushing, were minute compared to those of others - I can affirm God was never absent.  If even small struggles matter to Him, how much more so the greater ones.

Constructive Rest and the Sad History of Orchids

Since starting my 9–5 desk job a few years ago, my already poor posture has deteriorated quite a bit, due to hunching in front of two monitors all day.  The 8 hours at the desk is not the only problem...when I get home, my first instinct is to switch to my personal laptop (for blogging, etc) or curl up in a chair to read.  Neither of these activities helps my posture, of course.


I've had this problem for years but only recently became seriously concerned with the longterm effects.  While I've tried exercises/stretches in the past, I'm convinced that stretching in itself is not enough.  Breaking it down, the first problem, I feel, is simply how to give my back a rest.

The last couple of days, I've been experimenting with "constructive rest," part of the Alexander Technique (which I have not done, but probably could benefit from).  It's as simple as can be - you just lie down on a flat surface with your knees bent and your head slightly propped up.

Me, I can't just lie down and do nothing.  I have to be reading, or watching a video, or something.  So during my "constructive rest" time - about 30 minutes a day - I have been listening to a LibriVox audiobook called About Orchids, a Chat by Victorian writer Frederick Boyle, read by Peter Yearsley.

One of these days, I will talk about my love of orchids, which actually has a literary origin.  For now, suffice it to say I have recently purchased a new Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) and was happy to find a Victorian "chat" about one of my favorite flowers.  Boyle was a lawyer and journalist who had a penchant for orchids, and listening to him talk about them in an educated, yet chatty fashion is really enjoyable.

Vanda Sanderiana

A sad thing I learned was the troublesome, sometimes disturbing history of how orchids came to Europe in the 19th century.  Boyle talks of orchid importers chopping down whole, perfectly good trees for the sake of literally a few orchids clinging to the branches.  He lists a slew of orchid collectors who died on the job, while trekking through difficult terrain to find specimens.
The honest youth, not very strong perhaps in an English climate, went bravely forth into the unhealthiest parts of unhealthy lands, where food is very scarce, and very, very rough; where he was wet through day after day, for weeks at a time; where "the fever," of varied sort, comes as regularly as Sunday; where from month to month he found no one with whom to exchange a word.
Boyle explains how small the payoff was due to trouble with shipments.  The orchids had to be carefully packed and sent down from the mountains to the port on pack mules.  This was not the worst of it.  An orchid importer could lose up to 1000£ if a batch of orchids did not survive the sea voyage.  (Orchids are rather sensitive to temperature and water). 

All in all, I am left with mixed feelings about my beloved orchids.  I do not feel such risks and waste are worth transporting a tiny, inanimate creature from one part of the globe to the other.  On the other hand, now we have orchids in grocery stores, so I benefit from that history.  I'm glad I did not have to choose one way or the other, because I can understand the collectors' obsession, even if I can't condone it.

Martin Johnson Heade - Orchids and Hummingbirds (14994490788)
Martin Johnson Heade - Orchids and Hummingbirds, [CC BY 2.0 ],
via Wikimedia Commons, Irina, 2014-09-08 22:03

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 2

As president of China, Xi Jinping presides over 18% of the world's population, and he is set to do so for life.  How did Xi rise to such prominence, and what can we learn from his life that will help us understand his future?  Kerry Brown's book, CEO, China, offers some clues as to the man behind the mystery.

(Note: This is a multi-part review, though each part can be read on its own.  You can read Part I here if you like.)

President George W. Bush with Vice President Xi Jinping
George W. Bush and Xi Jinping, August 2008 - by Eric Draper

The Young Xi: Two Sides of History

"The issue of whether Xi is a 'Maoist' is a live one in China," writes Brown (p. 10).  As he goes on to illustrate, Xi's historical and cultural relationship to Mao is not only complicated but personal, with origins that go back to Xi's childhood and his father, Xi Zhongxun.

Xi Zhongxun began his career as a distinguished communist soldier, fighting  both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists throughout the 1930s-1940s.  This was an era of terrifying violence, in which torture and brutality were used by both sides of the communist vs. anti-communist conflict (p. 17).  Xi Zhongxun survived, and his efforts won him the approbation of Mao.  In the 1950s, Xi Zhongxun pivoted to the position of deputy minister of (Maoist) propaganda.

Propaganda, however, proved to be a double-edged sword for the elder Xi.  Kang Sheng, a key leader in Mao's purges, accused Xi Zhongxun of allowing a subversive novel to be published.  It was a strong enough claim that Xi Zhongxun was dismissed from the Party; he would later be beaten and then, with his wife and children, exiled from Beijing.

This was a mild sentence compared to others dealt by Mao's Cultural Revolution, but it was enough to blight Xi Jinping's youth with suffering and continued persecution.  Fortunately for his later career, Xi did not join the Red Guard youth - in fact, he was barred from it, and the radicals found in him an opponent who, in spite of his regard for Mao's thought, proved to be a tough dissenter against the violence of the 1960s.

Mao Zedong rice field
Mao, the "peasant emperor," in civilian country attire

In his teenage years, Xi Jinping experienced xiaxiang - mandatory "rustication" by being "sent down" to the countryside and forced to do farm labor.  During this time of mass "poverty and loneliness" (p. 56), he was compelled to learn a number of skills, including basic medicine and mechanics.  This further toughened Xi, who had begun life as a somewhat sheltered and "bookish" child (Buckley, Tatlow, 2015).

Restoration to the Party and Beyond

Xi Jinping was granted membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1974.  Considering that Party membership was essential to upward mobility, it is no wonder he had tried for so long to gain its good graces.  (His father would not be fully reestablished until 1978).

Though Xi studied chemical engineering in college, he instead pursued a career in government jobs, spending the next three decades serving in various provinces and even attaining the governorship of Fujian (1999–2002).  Interestingly, his leadership in Zhejiang province (2002–2007) foretold his global capabilities, as he supported Chinese businesses such as Alibaba and encouraged foreign businesses such as McDonald's, Motorola, and Citibank (p. 73–74).

All of these experiences bolstered not just his resume but his clout as a man of the world and a capable, profitable leader.  Likewise - and in part by staying in the provinces and out of "central politics" - Xi managed to avoid scandals and accusations of corruption, which were the downfall of some of his Party peers (most famously, Bo Xilai).

One significant detail I had not realized about Xi was how large a role the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics played in his career.  At this point, he had become Vice President of China, and as such he was tasked with the (thankless) honor of overseeing the Olympic Games.   Brown describes some of the risks:
One terrorist attack...one Tibetan demonstration...or, perhaps, worst of all, Chinese sporting failure in the games themselves could have destroyed his ambitions.  As it was, the three weeks of the tournament were a success. (p. 86)
This international spectacle became, in appearance and truth, the pinnacle of Xi's career up to that point.  He had taken on a momentous challenge and, by talent and some luck, pulled it off without a hitch.  As we in the U.S. watched (and re-watched) the entrancing performers beating their drums in sync, we could not have been more delighted and pleased than Xi, the master behind the ceremonies.

Additional Sources:
"Cultural Revolution Shaped Xi Jinping, From Schoolboy to Survivor" - NY Times article by Chris Buckley and Didi Kirsten Tatlow, 2015.

Rejection Scene from Eugene Onegin

This week I devoted an entire podcast episode to one of my favorite novels, Eugene Onegin.  Though I only mentioned it in passing, I also watched Onegin, the 1999 adaptation, after reading the book.

Liv Tyler was brilliantly cast as the bookish Tatyana; this was just before she became famous for Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.  Ralph Fiennes is a good 10 years older than the title character, but he does a decent job at the Byronic Onegin.  Personally, I found the script to be underwhelming and disappointing - too pedestrian (and stylistically British) to really capture the essence of Pushkin's Russia ca. 1830.  It's too bad, given the cast.

That said, I do like the script's translation of this scene from the book.  Tatyana, having professed her love in a letter, must sit through an awkward heart-to-heart from a disinterested Onegin.  While Tchaikovsky's opera infuses this scene with soaring melodies - leading you to think Onegin likes her after all - Fiennes's cool, polite delivery seems more realistic and makes Tatyana's nervousness all the more real.

This is the same scene in the opera, in case you didn't get enough (and because I love it so much).  Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is my favorite portrayal of Onegin:

Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 2

In this second episode, we continue on with more books in my physical bookcase. On this shelf, it's mostly fairy tales and 19th-century literature, from E. T. A. Hoffmann and Mary Shelley, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Brontë sisters. Let me know if you've read any of these!

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes

Yesterday, I finished reading a selection of letters written by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). I read some of her best poems in my latest podcast episode, but really, her letters are even more interesting, showing us a glimpse of one woman's life in mid-19th-century America. Here are some of the most memorable quotes from those letters.

Dickinson and Turner 1859 (cleaned)
This picture is unauthenticated but believed to show Emily Dickinson (left) and one of her friends, Kate Scott Turner, to whom some of the letters were addressed

Emily Dickinson in 10 Quotes on...

Being a Young Lady - 1845
How do you enjoy your school this term?  Are the teachers as pleasant as our old school-teachers?  I expect you have a great many prim, starched up young ladies there, who, I doubt not, are perfect models of propriety and good behavior.  If they are, don't let your free spirit be chained by them.

Valentines - 1848
Many of the girls have received very beautiful ones; and I have not quite done hoping for one.  Surely my friend Thomas has not lost all his former affection for me!  I entreat you to tell him I am pining for a valentine.

Humor and Real Life - 1851
When I know of anything funny I am just as apt to cry, far more so than to laugh, for I know who loves jokes best, and who is not here to enjoy them.  We don't have many jokes, though, now, it is pretty much all sobriety; and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it's pretty much all real life.  Father's real life and mine sometimes come into collision but as yet escape unhurt...

Missing Friends - 1853
...I thought of you all last week, until the world grew rounder than it sometimes is, and I broke several dishes.

Dickens and Stowe - 1853
[Father] gave me quite a trimming about "Uncle Tom" and "Charles Dickens" and those "modern literati" who, he says, are nothing, compared to past generations who flourished when he was a boy...so I'm quite in disgrace at present...

Ice-Cream - 1861
We have at present on cat, and twenty-four hens, who do nothing so vulgar as lay an egg, which checks the ice-cream tendency.  

The Fourth of July Fire - 1879
And so much lighter than day was it, that I saw a caterpillar measure a leaf far down in the orchard; and Vinnie kept saying bravely, "It's only the fourth of July."...Vinnie's "only the fourth of July" I shall always remember.  I think she will tell us so when we die, to keep us from being afraid.

Her Father - 1880
The last April that father lived, lived I mean below, there were several snow-storms, and the birds were so frightened and cold, they sat by the kitchen door.  Father went to the barn in his slippers and came back with a breakfast of grain for each, and hid himself while he scattered it, lest it embarrass them.  

Sisters - 1883
Your bond to your brother reminds me of mine to my sister - early, earnest, indissoluble.

Doubt - 1883
We pray to Him, and He answers "No."  Then we pray to Him to rescind the "no," and He don't answer at all, yet "Seek and ye shall find" is the boon of faith.

Though I've read a fair bit of 19th-century literature, Emily Dickinson's letters showed me another side of it, through one woman's life challenges and her own inner struggles.  Some of it made me smile, and some of it was heartbreaking.

I'm again reminded what a blessing the internet can be and is for those of us who live more introverted lives.  The ability to communicated with like-minded people across timezones and geography is so powerful.  It staves off some of the profound loneliness which people, especially women, have endured in times past, while bringing more perspective to our own ideas of the world.

CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping - Thoughts & Review, Part 1

"What do you know about the man who runs China?" the blurb demanded.

"Nothing," I blinked.  Well, basically nothing.

I couldn't believe it...I knew basically nothing about Xi Jinping, one of the most powerful leaders in the world today.  (I also have some Chinese heritage, which makes it even more embarrassing.)

Xi, in fact, may wield more influence than any other secular leader.  He functions not only as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) but also as their "core leader" - putting him in the same league as Mao.  In parallel, he shows the other communist nations (nominally very few) what a strong communist leader looks like.  With a GDP on track to overtake the United States' in the next decade, China's version of socialism is not to be ignored, and Xi is well placed to be more than just a figurehead.

Search Amazon for "xi jinping biography" and relatively few books come up.  Remove the word "biography" and the results are better, though apparently little read, if we go by the number of reviews.  If Xi is so important, why do we in the West talk so little about him as opposed to, say, Putin?  The mystery in my mind was growing as I picked up Kerry Brown's biography, boldly titled CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping.

Politics, Ideology, and - Religion?

As a professor, writer, and former diplomat to China, Kerry Brown brings a well-rounded perspective to his biography of Xi.  This book covers a vast amount of material beyond the chronology of Xi's life, which is covered in the chapter "Xi the Man" as well as the helpful "Timeline" at the beginning of the book.  Did I mention Brown also includes a list of key players and acronyms?  By the end of the book, you still won't remember the difference between the CNPC and the CPPCC and the CDIC, but you will know where to find it.

The confusion is no fault of Brown's - every big organization serves alphabet soup.  Indeed, Brown offers an overview of the intricate workings of the CPC to start out the book, without which I would have been utterly lost.  Mingling history with his own knowledge and insights, Brown shows us the many-tiered cake that is the Communist Party in China.  Its base is the CPC at large, a political party of almost 90 million members.  From this foundation, you build up to the National People's Congress (NPC), which is the Chinese parliament (about 2-3k members); and then on up to the Central Committee (several hundred members); the Politburo (25 members); and finally, the "Olympians" - the Poliburo Standing Committee, comprised of just seven members.

Chart found on Global Macro Monitor.  The source page appears to be offline.

According to Brown, the Politburo is "one of the best known, and least understood, of modern political bodies."
More important than a cabinet in the Western system of government, yet ostensibly separate from day-to-day decision making, the Politburo owns the crucial function of dispensing ideological, spiritual and political leadership.  This description means it covers nothing and everything. (p. 24)
Understanding how the CPC works is crucial to understanding how Xi came to power.  He did, after all, become the 151st alternate member of the Central Committee in 1997, when at the time, the limit was 150 (p. 72).  Brown illustrates through this, and other examples, that the CPC is something of a flexible network, not a science with hard-and-fast rules, as we tend to envision one-party states (China allows multiple "minor parties," but is de facto one party).

This interdisciplinary leadership, paired with the well-established hierarchy and culture, are part of the reason Brown likens the CPC's structure to that of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the same vein, he compares the influence and challenges of Xi to those of Pope Francis.  Xi, by nature of his role, must offer spiritual inspiration as well as political impetus - this he does in many ways, from speeches about the Chinese Dream to his own installment in the Chinese constitution.

The latter accomplishment, confirmed in March 2018, means that Xi, like the Pope, can stay in office until his death, if he likes.  At just 65 (and if he follows in Castro's footsteps), Xi could easily lead China for another 20 years.

[Well - this review is turning out to be a long one, but it was such an interesting book!  Part 2 to come...]

Jurassic World 2: Dinos and Russians and Clones, Oh My!

Yesterday my sister, brother, and I hit the local movie theater for a viewing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  We're relatively new fans - Jurassic World 1 (2015) was a first for us - but having since enjoyed the rest of the franchise, we were excited for the next installment of prehistoric monsters chasing after the indestructible Chris Pratt.  After enduring 20 minutes of inanity - er, previews - we sat up in our seats with zeal, watching a very tiny, obviously illegal submarine descend the watery coast of Isla Nublar.

Submarine?  Skeletons?  Count me in!

This tremendous opener was, alas, the beginning of a tremendous letdown.  Let me break it down into some coherent chunks of thought.

But First, Science

The movie begins with glimpses of the "Fallen Kingdom": Isla Nublar in decay after the disastrous failure of its Jurassic World theme park.  Cut to a shot of a well-dressed Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) with some actually sound advice - Let it goooo, Let it gooo - which not everyone, including Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is ready to do.  Actually, Claire is now head of a conservation effort to get the surviving dinosaurs off the island, before the active volcano destroys everything.  She is assisted by two new characters: Zia, a passionate paleo-veterinarian, and Franklin, the (properly terrified) IT guy.

Claire, rockin' a ponytail, and the new guy, Franklin

Claire's 180-degree change of heart (this was the woman who shrugged off the "assets" in the first film) can be seen as a sort of redemption attempt, though some, including former researcher Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), share Dr. Malcolm's opinion.  Unbeknownst to either of them, sinister forces are working behind the scenes to sabotage the whole operation.  What starts out as a rescue mission becomes a survival story - for dinos and humans - with our feisty quartet pitted against evil businessmen looking to make millions.  Money, money, money.

Anyone watching a Jurassic movie must suspend disbelief.  However, and as much as we love the dinosaurs, are we really to believe Claire's conservation efforts are worthwhile?  The plan which she agrees to involves moving 11 species to another island, where they'll be allowed to live free.  However, it is unclear how big this new island is, and whether enough of each species will be transported for them to actually be preserved - "for the children."  In fact, if you've ever researched the amount of space required for mere lions to roam comfortably, as well as maintain enough numbers to avoid inbreeding, you'll start to question this scheme.

All that said, let us assume those details have been ironed out off-screen.  After all, they decided not to listen to the mathematician this time... 

Dinos (and Chris Pratt) Just Get Cooler and Cooler

Those looking to get their monster-movie fix will not be disappointed in that department.  Fallen Kingdom features not only our old favorites - "Blue" the velociraptor and the mosasaurus lurking under the sea - but a new hybrid creature, concocted by none other than Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) himself.

Owen's strength is knowing when to fight, but also when to hide

Without giving too much away, I found the new dinosaur to be appropriately scary (even chilling), and that is saying a lot, considering this plotline is a rehash from Jurassic World 1.  (Much of the movie - from plot to characters - repeats former Jurassic elements, something reviewers have been quick to point out.)  Couple this unnatural creature with the natural disaster on Isla Nublar, and you have some pretty awesome scenes throughout the film, where the CGI becomes standalone art in itself.

I mentioned Blue is back, and that is where Owen comes back in.  It's not hard to see why the gruff, outdoorsy, Coca-Cola-sipping Owen has a soft spot for Blue.  The raptor is like a favorite dog, raised from puppy to full-grown bloodhound.  In true animal-character style, Blue has her own important part to play in the unfolding drama.

What's with Those Russians and Cowboys?

While the Jurassic movie series has always borne its share of social commentary, this is perhaps (and I'm going solely by memory) the first installment which goes a step further, into political territory.  Personally, I sit down to a dinosaur movie to escape politics, but from the beginning, Fallen Kingdom refuses to allow me escape.

We very soon see a "BBC" clip about Isla Nublar, where the news ticker text reports that the current U. S. president doubts the existence of the Jurassic World dinosaurs (after they have injured hundreds of visitors).  We can debate whether he would actually disbelieve this, but it's obviously a jab at Trump.  One of the villains uses Trump's "nasty woman" quote in reference to Zia, the (awkwardly stereotyped) feminist character.  The apparently Republican U. S. Congress is also posed as an initial antagonist, because they, like Dr. Malcolm, find it pragmatic to allow nature to take its course.

Dr. Malcolm speaking to the U.S. Senate

It gets even better after the setting switches from the Fallen Kingdom to - an old manor house.  Yes, Jurassic World 2 features the haunted house trope.  To be fair, it is effective, especially from the eyes of the little girl Maisie (Isabella Sermon).  What is she to think when she sees that sinister-looking Russian gentleman walk up the drive?  And...those cowboys!

The appeal of owning a dinosaur is international, but according to the screenwriters, we have to be especially careful of Russians, plus ranchers from the Southwest.  Out of all the diverse people who are interested in these powerful creatures, the camera lingers on those two groups - the former with their glowering stares, and the latter with their bright white hats and shiny bolo ties.  (Convince me I'm reading too much into it.  I would like to think it's just me.)

"Genetic power has now been unleashed..."

The ending surprised me...not in a good way.  In spite of opportunities to tie up loose ends, the screenwriters chose to leave a lot of things open.  I hear they are planning a third film, to be released in 2021.

Can anything save what I fear is a fallen franchise?  Possibly, though if Jurassic World 2 is any indication, I won't get my hopes up.  Apart from a weak plot and a heavy-handed political bent, Fallen Kingdom disappointed where it could have excelled, in its characters (more cliches), plot (mostly rehash), and vision (lack thereof).  At best, it is a visual treat, while the story leaves you feeling a bit sickly afterwards.

Is Fallen Kingdom horrible?  No.  It's just mediocre, the kind of thing you save for a long plane ride.  Collectively, my siblings and I settled on 2.5 out of 5 stars.

The Hound of Heaven - From Tow'rs to Francis Thompson

Lately, I've been enjoying the music of a little-known band called Tow'rs, whose style comes under the "indie folk" genre.  (Indie folk is a wonderful invention of old time instruments - fiddle, banjo, guitar, cello - combined with new lyrics and melodies.)  Tow'rs is from Arizona, and their specialty is infusing their songs with thoughtful meaning, while keeping the instrumentation and vocals gentle.  They also apply Christian themes to some of their songs, with subtlety which fits the music well.

"Two Sparrows" is a song which makes a recognizable biblical reference in its title.  The line that really grabbed my attention, however, was an unfamiliar one:
If Corina sail's stand still
The fields shake and flowers shrill
And the trees, your mother's arms
The hound of Zion seek your heart
And calls for you
Admittedly, I'm rusty in my Bible memory, but I could not place this phrase - "the hound of Zion."  Where did that come from?

A mere Google search away, I discovered there is a poem - a rather famous poem - called The Hound of Heaven, by a poet named Francis Thompson.  (Apparently Chesterton and Tolkien were impressed by it; now I do feel bad I hadn't heard of it.)  It is a quick read and well-worth it if you have never encountered it before.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;   
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;   
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways   
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears   
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

I can only surmise Tow'rs was making reference to that poem in their own lyrics.  The imagery is certainly stunning, in spite of Thompson's dense word choice.  First I had my brother read it to me; then I read it myself...twice was necessary for basic understanding.

It is best maybe to read it as a memoir.  Francis Thompson's life involved a time of homelessness and opioid addiction, so for him to write this poem out of all of that is significant, but also personal.  I would like to read more of his writing at some point.

Bookshelf Tour! - Vlog - Part 1

In this first episode, I'll be going through some books on my physical to-read (and to-reread!) shelf. There's all kinds of classics here, from Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo, to Emily Dickinson and William Faulkner. Also present are a few history books and fiction based on historical events. Enjoy, and let me know if you've read any of these!

P. S. Sorry for the shaky video and abrupt transitions (didn't know there was a fifteen minute cutoff...it was better before the final edit, alas). Next time methinks I'll get a tripod.

Bruch's Violin Concerto - A Classical Cousin

In the spring of 1866, Max Bruch's first violin concerto was debuted by celebrity violinist Joseph Joachim.  Its auspicious beginnings paved the way for its permanent success; the concerto is still popular (here it's played by my favorite violinist, Gil Shaham).  Bridging a gap wider than 150 years, Bruch's passionate melodies still have the ability to move us, bringing to heart a time period that can feel distant in pictures or even on paper.

For comparison's sake, I found a Goodreads book list called "Popular 1860s Books."  It's really astounding to see so many famous books there, at a glance.  High on the list is, of course, Little Women, whose recent Masterpiece Classic adaptation I've enjoyed watching on PBS (tomorrow is the conclusion!).

Clearly great classics of art and literature did not appear within a vacuum.  I'd love to think a writer somewhere in Bruch's audience was inspired by the story he tells with this piece.

A Fistful of Dollars - An Outsider's Review

Mild disclaimer...I'm what you would call a "casual" Western fan.  I've read very few Westerns, and my viewing experience has been largely of the vintage variety, ranging from John Wayne classics to more obscure TV series, like my all-time favorite, The Virginian.  I've mostly avoided heavier fare, a la The Revenant, and to be honest, the first Western I liked was a Gary Cooper comedy called Along Came Jones (1945).

Gary Cooper in Along Came Jones trailer
Gary Cooper's lovably dorky Melody Jones

The above makes me particularly ill-qualified to review Westerns as an overall genre.  But since watching A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with my parents last night, I thought I'd share some first impressions of an early Clint Eastwood film.  (Note: my "first" first impression of Eastwood was his film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which was too gritty for me to really enjoy.)

A Fistful of Dollars is the first of director Sergio Leone's famous "Dollars" trilogy, three "spaghetti Westerns" so-called due to being Italian films set in the American Old West.  Thirty-something Clint Eastwood stars as the American protagonist, the "Man with No Name" who shows up in the town of San Miguel with a gun, a horse, and his signature poncho.  He finds himself in the middle of a family feud between the fierce Rojo family and the less-fierce Baxter family, neither side particularly pleased to have a stranger intruding on the drama.  Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Marisol and a traumatized little boy draw the Man further into the conflict and the darker side of the Rojos.

This is one of those "iconic" films which is all genre and no story.  Ok, there's a story... but it's told in tropes and archetypes.  Here you won't find the moral dilemmas of The Virginian, nor even the psychological depth of Wayne's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We have Evil Guys, Good Guys, and a Small Town - oh, and of course, the Superman figure.

To be fair, what Eastwood creates here is his own archetype, one he became famous for.  Cool-headed, lanky, and with a dry sense of humor, he is an echo of Wayne, clearly from the same "family" but not a twin.  A sense of ambiguity and pragmatism surrounds the Man with No Name.  He makes no promises, and he has no expectations.  With minimalist dialogue, the Man makes his position clear nonetheless; he is on his own side, living and killing by a set of morals which are partly learned yet partly self-defined.

Rojo and his henchman, quintessential villains

What saves the film from being purely violence is Marisol's subplot.  Another layer of the Man's character unfolds as he witnesses her plight, and without saying too much, I felt it added some depth to an otherwise shallow tale.  It would hardly be a Western without a damsel in distress, but in the context of A Fistful of Dollars, the role of a "weak" female character is well understood by the grim setting, as well as balanced by her male counterparts, the innkeeper and the coffin maker.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.  Contains some violence, equivalent to modern PG-13.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan
Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan - Photo by J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan - immortal, magical, and forever lonely - has his origins in a novella called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).  This little story predates the more famous novel Peter and Wendy by some years (the latter I reviewed in my latest podcast episode "Getting Older with Peter Pan").  Like his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan was both a real-life figure and a figment of imagination, a character who would haunt his author for decades.  There are glimpses of this bittersweet legacy in Kensington Gardens, itself an excerpt of a larger novel, The Little White Bird.  Through this iterative story development, one easily senses J. M. Barrie's personal connection to the Peter Pan mythos.

The tale begins with an anonymous father-figure and a boy named David who take walks in London's famous Kensington Gardens.  The narrative drifts from a conversational discussion of the Gardens (and how children like to play there) to the two "remembering" the time Peter Pan first came to live there.  Like all great oral traditions, "Peter Pan" starts as a story that David and the narrator make-believe, later becoming a fully fledged legend in the vein of Robin Hood - someone you are not quite sure is fictional. 

Kensington Gardens in the winter - Photo by Sandpiper

Apart from the day he left his mother for life as a bird-child, Peter Pan's most momentous day is when Maimie Mannering gets stuck in Kensington Gardens after "Lock-Out."  Both somewhere under six years old, Maimie is scarcely older than Peter, but she knows far more about the outside world than he does.  Maimie is the prototype for Wendy, and like Wendy she has a great fascination with fairies, who don't immediately return the courtesy.  Peter, in any case, loves Maimie and asks her to stay with him in the Gardens forever.
She had shut her eyes tight and glued them with passionate tears. When she opened them something very cold ran up her legs and up her arms and dropped into her heart. It was the stillness of the Gardens.
Kensington Gardens is a strange medley of themes.  On the one hand, the conversational tone takes on the air of folklore and the making of a classic fairytale.  On the other, there is all of the poignancy and ghostlike qualities of Peter and Wendy without nearly as much of the humor.  Plotwise, the two stories overlap, but they are essentially different, because one shows us Peter in his "prime" - leader of a gang of boys - and the other is Peter in his babyhood, quite literally a young child and therefore needy.

Peter Pan Put his strange case before old Solomon Caw
Peter Pan and the crow - Arthur Rackham

Of the two stories, I would start with Kensington Gardens if the Victorian Gothic appeals to you (the ending is bizarrely morbid) or if you like the deeper nuances which come with such stories as The Jungle Book.  For those who prefer a lighter read, Peter and Wendy balances pathos with a vivid, if somewhat dated, sense of humor and breathtaking adventure.

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon - Hourly Updates, April 2018 edition

Hour 19
The good news - I finished The Castle!

The bad news...I wasn't expecting it to be such a struggle.  Can you believe, I was ready to give up on it, with just 10% or less left?  It was pretty terrible.

However, The Castle was on my to-finish backlog since freshman or sophomore year in college, so I am very excited to have read it all the way through, even if it was painful.

Anyways, after that, I found myself looking around for something "lighter" to read.  Only I could choose Eugene Onegin as "lighter" fare.  But I love this story - you might remember my Eugene Onegin Read-Along from a few years back.  Roger Clarke's translation is new to me, and it's already proving to be interesting.

This might be my last blog check-in for the night... I may post some more on Instagram later, though, depending how long I can keep my eyes open.  Thanks to all who've stopped by and offered encouragement - it's been fun!

Hour 13

After a scrumptious lunch (Teriyaki!), I took a short nap to offset the effects of getting up earlier and having to work today.  I also read some more of The Castle... as I mentioned on my Instagram, it's kind of a "meh" read.  I'll be happy to get to the end of it.  

I have about 17% left and fully intend to finish The Castle before the end of this Readathon, but I'm taking a break now and looking at picking up either The Island of Dr. Moreau (yes, unplanned) or CEO, China.

Hope it's going well for everyone else still - hang in there!  :)

Hour 10

Due to an emergency at work, I lost about 4 hours of reading time while working from home...

On the bright side, I had already done a decent bit of reading, with both The Kill and The Castle.
  • I am getting major creepy vibes from The Kill (so many creepers in this story), but also enjoying the history lesson as I learn about the Second Empire, of which I knew basically nothing before this book.
  • The Castle is also starting to get more interesting with the side-plot of Amalia standing up to Klamm (also a creeper). 
I'm going to back to The Castle now - I think I have a good chance of actually finishing it!

Hour 3

Joining in already 2 hours into the event... hey, that's better than last year.  :)

I'll be updating this post throughout the event, so stay tuned... Also, please check out Instagram.com/noonlightlife for more updates!

Opening Meme
1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
At home in the PNW, listening to the rain fall lightly on the roof.  <3

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Pretty much all of them!  Ok, ok, that's not the answer you were looking for... if I had to pick one, then it's CEO, China, because I've missed reading it, while trying to finish The Castle.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?
I made some Peach Green Tea Lemonade yesterday, the first of the season!

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!
I wrote about the time I first got a library card - well, I still have that library card.  The plastic coating is starting to flake off and it looks incredibly sad, but I refuse to part with it.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?
Today I'm going "all in" (or at least, my version of it)...I have the entire day set aside for reading, woke up 2 hours earlier, and intend to stay up later.  More importantly, I plan to switch books frequently if I'm not having fun.  :)

My Blog's Name in Books - TBR!

Saw this neat meme/tag on O's blog, On Bookes:

The rules:
1. Spell out your blog’s name.
2. Find a book from your TBR that begins with each letter. (Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your Goodread’s TBR)
3. Have fun! 

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev
Open Heart by Elie Wiesel
The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee
The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The Inheritors by William Golding
Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Either/Or by Soren Kierkegaard
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic
Shackleton's Boat Journey by Frank Worsley

With 500+ TBR books, this was easier than perhaps it should be.  I tried to choose a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and ended up surprising myself with a few titles I'd forgotten about (whoops!).

And now the moment of truth... have any of you read any of these books?  Which would you recommend?!