The Dover Road (Play by A.A. Milne) – Jermyn Street Theatre

the-dover-road-poster

Thanks to Simon of Stuck in a Book’s post I was made aware of this delightful 1922 play by A. A. Milne. Bought the ticket just 2 days in advance, and strolled along to Piccadilly Circus Friday after work. This is exactly the kind of time that makes me so grateful and happy to live in London and work in Soho.

I wonder why I didn’t know about the existence of Jermyn Street Theatre before. It is a tiny 70-seaters basement theatre in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and it seems magical that it survives. It was like entering a different world as soon as you step into the theatre. It’s so small that the seats are only 4 rows and the stage is on the same level as the first row, so you can walk around the stage set- and you most probably would, as the toilets are at the back of the stage.

I’ve never seen and read A.A. Milne’s plays – so this is the first for me (I loved Winnie the Pooh series) and I really enjoyed it. Agree with Simon that the cast was just perfect. And having seen many plays in big theatres, I realised how different, how more personal, and how much I enjoyed small theatre. You can actually see people’s faces and expressions, the voices were loud and clear, and in some scenes the actors were literally 2 metres away from me and I could see all the beautiful details of the props. I promised myself to go to small theatres more, and to go back to Jermyn Street Theatre when I see anything of interest.

The plot moved swiftly in The Dover Road – unlike some plays I’ve seen that seemed to take forever to build the first act. A couple find themselves stuck in the middle of the road to Dover (Dover is where you take ferry to France) in a place that could be a hotel, or a private house. It’s quickly revealed that the woman isn’t the man’s wife, and that the host of the house Mr Latimer isn’t going to just let them go on their way easily. He suggests that the couple, Leonard and Anne, stay for a few days to sort of test-drive their future life together, which would give them time and chance to reconsider if the need arises. Soon it’s revealed that Leonard’s wife is also in the house with her beau, experiencing the same formulae, just starting a week earlier.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about the play, the beginning almost seemed like a mystery or horror (a strange house with strange people that seem oddly prepared for the couple’s arrival), while Mr Latimer seemed slightly sinister with his hobby to detain couple in his house until they are “enlightened”. But it’s none of those things, as this is a comedy – and a thoughtful one at that, as it explores the silliness of romantic love and marriage.

The quadruple in conundrum aspect reminded me a little of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest I saw last year. After seeing The Dover Road, I’m thinking the abundance of wittiness in Earnest was almost too distracting. Milne doesn’t play too much with words, but it’s equally smart and funny. It did feel more modern (Earnest is almost 30 years older) and that possibly made it more digestible. I have full intention to read this play or Milne’s other plays in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

The Guardian’s The Dover Road review

 

The Book of Tea – Kakuzō Okakura

the book of tea Kakuzo Okakura

 

The Book of Tea was first published in 1906 – surprisingly, in English! I only realised this after trying to find the translator, or which translation was best, and a book group friend was looking for “the original”, hah! Here I thought Kazuo Ishiguro was the only Japanese writing in English (I’m sure not the only one, but certainly the most famous?). Apparently Okakura did it a long time ago.

This quote from the book seems apt then: “Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?”

The life story of Okakura himself might be even more fascinating than his little book. He was given a Western education at a missionary school by his father, and ignorant of Japanese culture until he was eleven. He mastered English as a young boy, but had troubles reading Japanese. To remedy the situation, the father then placed young Kakuzo in a Buddhist temple where he studied Confucius, koto (Japanese musical instrument), and calligraphy. A bit late apparently, but better than nothing I suppose.

The Penguin edition has introduction by Christopher Benfey that covers a bit of Okakura’s life. What I gathered was a man who was continuously torn between the East and the West. And this is apparent in The Book of Tea, in which he defends – too hard at times – the Eastern and Japanese culture, which was belittled by the West at the time (probably still is?).

The 89-page book is a collection of essays about tea, “Teaism”, taoism and zenism, art appreciation, and flowers. I liked the first 2 chapters about the history of tea, how it is originated from China, and about the three schools of tea: cake, powder, and leaves – that is in chronological order. Japan remains on the second school (i.e. matcha or powder green tea), as it was separated from the mainland, while China’s powder tea culture was wiped out by the Mongolians, and turned to leaves.

However going a bit further, it was a bit uneven for me in terms of enjoyment level. The chapters on taoism and zennism for example, I don’t have much knowledge of or keen interest in. The art appreciation and flowers chapters are quite interesting – as I love art and flowers. But I still think the book is most interesting when it talks about tea, and kept wishing it’d go back to tea.

The last chapter talks a lot about tea-room – an idea that is both idealistic and impractical to my modern mind:
“The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance. It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty. Yet we must remember that all this is the result of profound artistic forethought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than that expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples. A good tea-room is more costly than an ordinary mansion, …”

That sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. I’d love it if tea-room is just really humble and minimalist. Sure quality can still be important, but to compare it with richest palaces and temples and mansion? Pushing it a bit far I’d say. I think this also makes the text feel a bit dated. Not sure how it was in early 1900s, but in this day of age the whole tea room concept seems only for the very wealthy and the elite few, a luxury that is the exact opposite of the humble cuppa that can be enjoyed by all, no matter which class of society you’re in.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

2 Graphic Novels: Habibi and Kiki de Montparnasse

Habibi by Craig Thompson (2011)

habibi

I read Blankets by Craig Thompson a couple of years ago and found it very good and nostalgic (unfortunately I didn’t write my review on it). It’s about many things but what I remember the most is it’s a coming-of-age story about a protagonist who struggles with the Christian religion that he’s born in. Some struggles I’m familiar with, as I was born in the same faith environment.

Thompson’s second book, interestingly, touches again another subject that I have keen interest on – the other popular religion, Islam. I was born and raised Catholic/Christian in the country with the biggest Muslim population on earth, while retaining some traces of Buddhist religion from my ancestors. So though I end up rejecting all faith and not religious at all, I’d always be fascinated by the story and history of religions.

It seems that Craig Thompson has similar fascination, as he explores Christianity in his first book and Islam in his second book. Perhaps I’m bound to love Habibi based on my background that I stated earlier, and I did. It’s an absolutely beautiful book. And like Blankets, its number of pages alone (672 pages!) indicates the ambitiousness of the scope.

How do you even do graphic novel of 672 pages? I can understand normal book, which you can edit many times before it goes, especially with the use of computer these days. But how about drawing? Do you perhaps do a rough drawing of the entire book first, make sure the pace and plot are all right, before drawing in the details? I’d love to know his process.

In essence, Habibi is a love story between the two characters shown on the cover. Met as a little girl and an even younger boy, Dodola and Zam are not related by blood, but what they go through together create as strong a bond as any blood relation. In the harsh world they live in, their love fluidly changes according to time and circumstances, as they have only each other to cling on. The word Habibi means “my beloved”.

I kept trying to figure out the setting of the book, but I couldn’t. The architecture resembles Turkey, the landscape resembles Arabian dessert, and the clothing looks a mix of Moroccan. I couldn’t figure out the period too, as it seems to start sometime in the past, but goes to modern time in the course of the book. I think it’s on purpose that it wasn’t set in a particular real life country or time, more like an alternate universe with all the Islamic elements. I love how the book touches on the common heritage of Christianity and Islam, and the slight differences between the books (the Bible and Quran).

In reading Habibi I’m continually impressed by what Thompson did. The narration isn’t linear, the subject matter is deep, the illustration intricate, and he takes story telling with graphic novel as a medium to a completely new level. Simply amazing.

Mee’s rating: 5/5

Kiki de Montparnasse by Catel (Illustrator) and José-Louis Bocquet (2007)

Kiki de Montparnasse

This book tells the story of Alice Prin – who later was nicknamed Queen of Montparnasse and often known as Kiki de Montparnasse. She was a favorite model of many Parisian artists in the twenties. Hemingway wrote an introduction to her autobiography (one of the two books Hemingway ever agreed to write introduction for).

I read Kiki de Montparnasse not long after Habibi. That probably affected my reading a little, as I thought Kiki was way TOO linear (something that I never thought would be a bad thing). It literally goes from one event to another, like historical notes, almost text-book like. At this time this happens, next this happens, next that happens.

I also suffered a similar experience with reading Pablo, in the way that the book zips through who’s who in the roaring twenties in Paris, mainly painters in Kiki – a slightly different group than those appear in Pablo, but also writers, photographers, and film makers (the majority of whom I still don’t know). To make sure you get everyone, the book provides an extra index of people-you’re-supposed-to-know at the end, with a page of description for each person.

Both Pablo and Kiki are told from a woman model point of view in similar period of time and setting – the woman on the sideline, the muse of the famous male artists. I wonder how many of those they had back then? Probably plenty.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5

1984 – George Orwell

1984

I might be one of the last people on earth that had not read 1984. I ony read Animal Farm a few years back. Absolutely loved it. Since then I’ve been reading a few of his essays here and there. I’m a huge fan of Orwell. I know he’s not a terribly literary type of writer, and some people may disagree with his style of writing with a political purpose, but I’m inclined more to his side rather than the other extreme of “art for art’s sake”.

In his essay Why I Write (1946) – which I read a while back, but it really made an impression on me even though it’s only a few pages long – he mentions 4 great motives for writing prose for any author. The last point is political purpose – “using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

From the get go I roughly knew what 1984 was about. A dystopian novel was my impression. And it is. But it is bolder and even more political than what I imagined – almost like a political essay dressed in a novel. The scary thing is, it’s still as relevant today than it was when it’s first published in 1949. North Korea definitely came to mind. In fact, just the weekend after I finished the book, I met someone from Angola who told many stories about how she and her family went through the communist regime – which lasts to this day. A lot of what she described was very similar with what is described in 1984.

From pop culture point of view, I’m glad to have read the origin of things like Big Brother, Room 101, and doublespeak. It’s amazing how the book has penetrated many aspects of society and culture, and not just Western society, as I remember an occasion when an author from a communist regime at a literary event told the story of how 1984 was the book that everyone was smuggling between revolutionaries. It’s like a secret code. A shorthand for the worst society humanity could possibly become. But it’s not a mere distant possibility, not just a cautionary tale. Some elements are too familiar. They make you realise how easy it is for humanity to slip into this kind of regime – and in fact it does exist in some parts of the world, at different times perhaps, but it never totally goes away. We are still part of the 1984 world! The book is important in many ways, and there is still no other book like it.

Another quote to close this, again from Why I Write, at the very end: “I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” 

I feel like he allows me to have a political purpose in my own writing. Thank you Orwell.

Mee’s Rating: 5/5

Fairy Tale Themed Writing Class

Last week I was invited to a writing class sponsored by Universal Pictures with Naomi Wood as tutor at Faber Academy. Couldn’t believe my luck, as fairy tale is right up my alley, as with writing. And I’ve got Naomi Wood’s book Mrs. Hemingway on my Kindle for a while (just haven’t got around to reading it).

The class was small and felt private, unlike the usual publication tie-in events with several dozens of people in a room. There were only five of us from various blogs, with one PR person and another girl from Universal – that made seven of us sitting at the big table.

The Huntsman class

This workshop was in conjunction with the home entertainment release of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, which is based on Snow White tale. It’s sort of a prequel/sequel of Snow White and the Huntsman (released in 2012). I haven’t watched the first movie (nor had I the second at the time), but we all know Snow White story. I received the press DVD after the class, and watched The Huntsman since then. I’d say you really don’t need to watch the first film to watch the second one, as Snow White was not even in The Huntsman, only referred to once or twice.

Naomi Wood is a writing teacher apart from an author, and it shows. She’s done this a lot! We went through the materials (with slides!), alternating with clips from The Huntsman, text reading of fairy tales (excerpts from Snow White, Rapunzel, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber) and some actual writing.

We discussed what constitutes fairy tales, the typical fairy tale characters, and the traditional fairy tale story structure; and expanding on those, what we could or would do to give those elements a fresh perspective, a new twist or angle for modern audience. Naomi Wood herself has done something along the line with her book Mrs Hemingway, in which she tells the perspectives of Hemingway’s four wives.

During the class we had a few sessions to write down our ideas then discussed them with the class (i.e. how would you make the villain different, the antagonist, the setting). After the class and watching The Huntsman, I think I have a whole new appreciation of fairy tale retellings. It is not easy to come up with wholly fresh ideas of an old work but still cater to mainstream audience.

In The Huntsman, some elements are modern (no more damsel in distress with kick-ass Jessica Chastain), while some elements are still stuck in the past (single lonely women are evil, woman is miserable without baby). The fairy-tale setting however does forgive many “rules of the old world”, as we play with the imagined once upon a time. It’s exciting to think how much more we can do to break the boundaries and expand the fairy tale box. I love retellings and hope to see more movies and TV series on that (yep, I absolutely love Once Upon a Time). If you’re interested in fairy tale and its retelling, the movie is great, for consumption and for study. It also features fabulous costume galore, funny scenes with the dwarves, and plenty of beautiful stars :)

Thanks Juliana and Universal for inviting me to this interesting workshop!

The Huntsman class
We also got The Huntsman mug :P

 

Runaway Horses – Yukio Mishima

runaway horses

Runaway Horses is the second book in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy. You do have to read the books in order, so there will be spoilers for the first book below (My review of Spring Snow).

The book starts with Honda – Kiyoaki’s friend in the first book, who is now a middle age judge. He meets a young man named Isao, who he finds out later to be Iinuma’s son. Iinuma was Kiyoaki’s tutor, who after his dismissal went to marry the lover from the same Matsugae house. So some old faces from Spring Snow, which I was quite glad about. The prince that Satoko was supposed to be engaged with also makes appearances and plays quite an important role, albeit from the sideline, just like his role in Kiyo and Satoko’s story.

It should be well known from those following or intending to follow the series that the main character dies and is believed to reincarnate in each book, with Honda as the persistent character witnessing the existence and life of his friend and the subsequent lives he was born into. In Runaway Horses, Honda believes that Isao was Kiyoaki reincarnate.

Isao is a patriotic 18-year-old who has problem with the direction Japan goes (the story is set around 1930s). The governmental body is gaining power, reducing the power of the Emperor and the imperial family. There’s reformation of samurai class, which bans the carrying of swords in public. There are many references to real life events – so wiki became my friend (or our friend, since I read this together with my GR Japanese Lit bookclub). I wouldn’t even pretend to understand the many layers of Japan political situation in this period at the end, but I did learn a great deal more since I started. Lots of history to digest.

But don’t worry too much if you don’t know this period well, as I think it doesn’t hinder you from enjoying the story. An idealistic young man wants to do something radical (and illegal) that he thinks is good for the country. That’s something that everyone can recognise, right? But just because this is Japan, there’s a heightened perception of suicide and taking one’s life to preserve one’s honour and purity.

If you know a little bit about Mishima, you’d know that he committed suicide not long after he finished writing this tetralogy. In a way it’s hard to read Isao without having Mishima at the back of your mind. I’m thinking among the 4 characters in the 4 books, Isao is probably the closest to Mishima himself in terms of ideals and personality. The subsequent characters in the series will be younger and younger, as the timeline is bound by Honda’s age, so I’m very interested to know Mishima’s take on them.

Similar to my experience with Spring Snow, I found the beginning to be slow. There’s a whole chapter early in the book, that is sort of a book within a book – a propaganda pamphlet that Isao gets his idealistic inspiration from. In a way it was a bit boring to read, but it really set the stage of what is to come. And just like Spring Snow, I found Runaway Horses to be a satisfactory and worthwhile reading at the end. I definitely intend to continue to read the third and forth book.

Mee’s rating: 4.5/5

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

the vegetarian - han kang
First published in 2007, in English in 2015, translated from Korean by Deborah Smith. Winner of Man Booker International Prize 2016.

I found this book at my library and couldn’t believe that it was free to borrow and nobody had reserved it. At the time Man Booker International Prize 2016 was still ongoing, and The Vegetarian was one of the shortlist. I knew that unlike what I do usually with other books (renew them again and again), I had to read it within the allotted time period. Sure enough it won the prize, and I couldn’t renew it as it was reserved by someone, so I decided to read it quickly. By my standard, quickly means a few days, but it was 181 pages of big font, so even for me it was a short read.

The book started the way I liked it. Our main character Yeong-hye is an average Korean wife, when out of the blue she had a dream that turned her into vegetarian overnight. Her family, most of all her father, reacted violently.

I really liked the beginning. It is a subject that I wonder why someone hadn’t written about earlier. Vegetarianism by choice is something that only got really popular in the recent decade or two. In Western world, surely many years after the war. I can’t speak about Korea, but in many parts of Asia, not eating meat is often associated with religious reasons. Refusing to eat meat just because, is still an odd thing.

As I grew up in a country where meat is a luxury and fish a daily staple, I always equate vegetarianism with fussiness. Honestly you can only be so selective when there is food in such abundance. Tons of people in many parts of the world would be happy to just be able to eat. I can understand not liking meat, or not wanting to eat too much meat for ethical and environmental reasons, but I don’t understand the need to declare “I’m a vegetarian” and openly refuse and reject meat, no matter what the circumstances, for example when people have cooked for you. This is probably one point that readers from certain culture would be hard pressed to understand, as in most Asian culture, it is quite rude to refuse food offered to you. It’s like saying “Your food isn’t good enough so I won’t have it”.

Another point is wastage. I’ve seen vegan friend putting egg aside on his plate in a restaurant, not because he doesn’t like egg or allergic to it, but because he was a vegan. It’s outrageous. The egg was already broken and cooked, and you threw it away just to make a point? To who? To the waiter? To me?

Yeong-hye’s family reactions, her father’s in particular were slightly exaggerated, but I don’t think it’s too far fetched. I could only imagine if I go back to my big family reunion, and openly tell everyone I don’t eat meat anymore, by choice. All hell would break loose, and I’d have to explain myself to no end. Even if I were a vegetarian, I’d just quietly eat a little, and save all the drama. I just don’t get the need to make a declaration, to insist on your point in expense of people’s feelings, and the waste of food. I don’t think I ever will.

So The Vegetarian started nicely. However it becomes very strange as it goes. The book is divided into 3 sections, all revolving Yeong-hye. The first section is the perspective of her husband, the second is her sister’s husband, and the third is the sister. There are plenty dream scenes, flower images, and trees. Seems Yeong-hye wants to become a plant. It is strange, but somehow the strangeness felt familiar in a way. This is the first time I read a book by Korean author, but it reminded me of Chinese and Japanese literature – somewhere halfway in between.

At the end I’m not too sure what to make of the book. My rating is for its readability and being different. The “world literature” aspect of it is also a plus. But I can’t say I totally understand the book.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

Han Kang
Han Kang

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...