2017年8月19日 星期六

讀後感: 便利店人間(著者: 村田沙耶香)*

    在書店看到這本小書,立刻被書名中的「便利店」吸引。我以前做過兼職便利店員,感覺便利店是個高度程序化和標準化的環境。根據封底上的簡介,此書以便利店為「主舞台」表達「正常」與「異常」界線,我自然對此書感到好奇。與一位日本友人閒談,說起這本去年獲得「芥川賞」的小說,他在日本文學刊物的《文藝春秋》讀過,感覺值得一讀。順帶一提,此部中篇小說的日文原文,在《文藝春秋》刊出時只有大概一百頁,市面上的中譯本,因版面編排和大小的關係,佔了二百一十多頁。

  此小說的主角,古倉惠子,在大學一年級開始一直在微笑超商便利店打工,過了十八年。她聽著便利店的聲音,吃喝著便利店的食品和飲料,生活規律、打扮都根據便利店的需要而定,連說話和表情都模仿便利店的同事。為什麼她對便利店如此「忠誠」?因為它給她一個清晰劃一的指示,讓她扮演店員的角色,令她在這環境中變得「正常」。她自小就被身邊人被認為是不正常的孩子,她很奇怪為什麼人們要為死去的雀鳥而傷心,為什麼不可用剷子擊倒互相打架的男生。大家覺得她是必須改正、被治好的人。直至長大後,朋友陸續結婚生子或在職場略有所成。她卻不明白為什麼他們覺得那些是必須做的事,並覺得她不結婚或不做正職就是不正常。她對「人」這身份不知所措,唯有對自己懂得做一個「店員」,感到比較安心。簡單來說,這小說就是要表達社會規範如何主宰人的生活和人際關係,以及它驚人的限制性和排他性。

  在社會中生活,每人從小就會潛而默化地接受了大大小小的規範(norms) 和價值,用來理解和應對不同的事物。例如,人們會覺得死亡是值得傷心的事情,要表示同情;每個人長大後都有找伴侶的需要等。我們內化那些規範,以評價自己和別人,並在與人相處時,迫使他人接受那些規範,令世界的種種人和事收納至一個人可理解、接受、容納的範圍。小說透過一個不能內化社會規範的人的處境,重新檢視那些規範的真實性,令人明白它們其實只是與「店員」的規則分別不大,都是人創造出來罷了。

  以審視社會主流價值為題材的作品俯拾皆是,由《簡愛》對女性壓迫和限制的書寫,至現今社會對性小眾文學的關注,都是當時被社會規範邊沿的聲音。但是,《便利店人間》的獨特之處是主角完全不以個人的價值抗衡社會,而是積極地融入,不斷提出問題,思考如何令自己正常,為能做社會的齒輪而快樂。讀來非常有喜感和親切感,但同時頗為震撼,因為融入「正常世界」是大多數人會做的,但沒有反思的事。

  另外,小說非常巧妙地,對比古倉這種未能內化規範的人和社會上消極的失敗者(白),令人明白小說不是為所謂的「失敗者」發牢騷。所謂的「成敗」是真實或是虛構的價值,都是作者的提問。白羽雖然經常在控訴社會價值對他的「壓迫」,如要他工作、娶妻等,但他卻以那些價值來批判、排斥其他人。他只不過借批評那些價值,令自己好過一點。而古倉則觀察到了「正常社會」排斥異物這一現象。

  此作品短小簡潔、輕鬆易讀、節奏明快,且內容有深度,非常值得一讀。

*譯者: 王華懋 出版社: 悅知文化

2017年8月12日 星期六

Review: "The Professor" by Charlotte Brontë

  The Professor is Charlotte Brontë's first novel but it was published posthumously. The hero of the story, William Crimsworth, is an orphaned young man who has just graduated from Eton College and is trying to build a suitable career of his own. He first worked as a clerk for his brother, Edward Crimsworth, who is a rich mill-owner. After a few months, he starts to feel that trading is not the right job for him. He is very much bored by his work and is not respected or appreciated by his boss. Then, with an introduction letter by Mr. Hunsden, a gentleman he met at a party in Crimsworth Hall, he went to Brussels to work as a professor of English. The story mainly centers around his relationship with Pelet and Zoraider Reuter, the principals of the two schools he teaches in, and Frances Henri, a teacher-student in the girl's school. It is basically about how William overcomes his obstacles and frustrations, and lead to a fulfilling and happy life of his own.

  The story is not as elaborately developed and exciting as her later novels. Bronte intended to create a realistic character who can achieve moderate success by individual efforts, and a romance that is heartwarming but not extraordinary. It is a story that honors the individual spirit, hard work and honesty or sincerity. Charlotte Bronte understood why it was rejected by publishing agency: 'Men in business are usually thought to prefer the real; on trial, the idea will be often found fallacious: a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful and thrilling...- agitates diverse souls that show a calm and sober surface.' Charlotte Bronte did not just write to entertain the reader and to attract attention from publishers, but to try out her own ideas and to express herself through an art form. The novel is her first step to developing the originality of her writings.

  In fact, I was at some point bored by the novel as the plot is unexciting and predictable. But I kept reading because the protagonist is quite relatable and I was curious to see how those mundane characters make a meaningful story. I was a fresh graduate last year and I am also very much frustrated by 'the real world' and not sure about the next step I have to take. Crimsworth is also quite disappointed about his first job and he is trying to make a difference to his life. The story does give me some sort of encouragement that everything will turn out fine if I dare to take a step forward. Having read so many personal essays and novels recently, I was quite surprised by how my experience and emotions resemble many described scenarios. Yet, I somehow feel that my life is too ordinary and sometimes meaningless. If I can write about my experience and other people's stories like those writers do, I might feel like this life is as meaningful and interesting as those character's.

  In terms of the writing, it is much better than I thought it would be.The character's personalities and temperament are described vividly in the novel, especially through the way they speak. Mr. Hunsden, a supporting character, interests me quite a lot. He is outside of the story's central conflicts but does influence the actions of the protagonist and moves the plot forward. He appears as a mean and sarcastic person who is unagreeable and unlikable, but he does care about people and cherishes friendship. He is described as a 'man of originality' by Frances, and he holds on to his own beliefs and loves to challenge others. He is disinterested in many of the protagonist's concerns, and he seems to be providing some commentary to the situations and struggles of Crimsworth in a subtle way. For example, when Crimsworth starts to hate his job, Mr. Hunsden tells him how unsuitable it is for him and how his boss is a tyrant. While the main characters are attached to England more than Belgium. Hunsden tells them that he is a man of the world but not especially nationalistic about his home country. I wonder if this character is to create a more distant and critical point of view of the story.

   The thing I don't like about the novel is that the relationship between men and women are always described as potential love interests. The girl students are described as 'blooming young creatures' and the description of them seems to focus too much on appearances. The novel can explore different possible kinds of relationships between men and woman, such as teacher and students, and friends. I also feel a bit uncomfortable about the kind of prejudice against non-protestant Europeans in the novel. The introduction says it is due to the general mindset of Victorian England.

2017年7月28日 星期五

Review: "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

  A Room of One's Own is an extended essay based on a series of lectures on woman and fiction in 1928. Woolf wonders what it means to talk about women and fiction, and explores what circumstances that affects writings by women, and what conditions that allow or not allow women to become a writer. She argues that 'a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write fiction.' Yet throughout history, they generally did not have these two things.

  In the essay, the narrator, Mary Seton lives in 1860 and is also interested in questions about women and fiction. She wanders around Oxbridge and found herself unwelcome there because she is a woman. She wishes to learn poetry but she cannot enter the library without a letter of introduction. She wonders why women are so poor despite their hard work, why her mother has to spend her life raising thirteen children but not writing or earning her own fortune. In order to find out the answers, she goes to the British Museum to read writings about women. Most writings about women were written by men, who attempted to prove the inferiority of women. Most of these writings are filled with anger, and she thinks that it is because they suspect women would seize their superiority, just like the rich suspects the poor. Women are inferior in the patriarchal society, which denies them the opportunities and freedom they deserve. Mary believes poverty makes one lives in bitterness and fear and lose their freedom and confidence to write.

   Even if some women can write despite these unfavorable circumstances, they cannot help but express their personal grievances, which are their lack of opportunities to explore the world and to express themselves freely. If they are known as female writers, they writings will not be considered important. Men and women are viewed as opposing fractions because of their different status in the patriarchal society. Some focus too much on presenting their manliness or developing their womanhood but ignore the fact that one has both masculine and feminine features. If a writer is too conscious of one's own gender, their creativity might be hindered. When women are given more freedom to earn money or to write what they want in the 1920s, Woolf hopes that they would transform the women's lives in the past. The women who aspired to become a writer but failed because of the unfavorable conditions of the past would succeed in the present.

  This essay is very persuasive because it does not attempt to express any bitterness and grievances as a person of an oppressed sex. It is filled with wonders and a pure impulse to find out the truth by reading and careful thinking. Questions after questions are asked, and there are climaxes when some are resolves and some underlying meanings of the narrator's readings are discovered. Lots of parallelisms are used to emphasize her point. It is quite powerful when a chain of similar sentences and clauses is telling you how fatal something is and emphasizing that she is not exaggerating: "it is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly and man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death."

  Although it was written in the 1920s, A Room of One's Own still brings us some inspirations nowadays. Woolf emphasizes the importance for a writer to express his/her experience in 'perfect fullness' instead of censoring his/her writings according to gender code. Feminism is not just about fighting for women's rights and privileges but for justice and equality, to make men and women cease to be opposing fractions but to work together towards goals that improve human lives, such as to prevent war, to end poverty. Yet in the 21st century, we still need to repeat again and again that feminism is not about man-hating, which is something said nearly 90 years old.

  Moreover, the argument that we need sufficient material condition for artistic creation to thrive is quite relatable to the present. To claim to be a writer or an artist in Hong Kong often is to imply that you are poor. Many of them cannot get the pay they deserve or the space for creation. Nowadays, regardless of gender, to have a room of one's own and the money to idle and wonder seem to be more and more difficult. 

2017年7月17日 星期一

Review: 'Sharp Objects' by Gillian Flynn

  I am interested in Gillian Flynn because of her famous novel Gone Girl. I usually don't read thrillers, but I heard that her novel is very well-written, so I want to get a feel of it. Sharp Objects is her debut novel first published in 2006. The edition I borrowed is a later edition published by Broadway Books. The book cover is full of praises from the media and writers, which promise an addictive story and a book hangover. Chicago Tribune says, "(it) keeps you reading with the force of pure but nasty addiction." This may be a nasty addiction not only because the story is disturbing, but also you are here to find out who is the crazy psychopath who kills people. It is a bit hard for me to get used to viewing the characters of a story as suspects. This novel is really good for its genre but it does not make me like crime thrillers more.

  The novel is about a reporter Camille, who returns to her tiny hometown, Wind Gap,  to cover the murders of two girls. At first, it is a typical crime story, which involves talking to police officers and trying to get a clue of the incidents. Yet as the story unfolds, we understand more about her psychological struggles, her alienated relationship with her mother, and her haunting past in the family and the hometown. Her personal narrative intertwines with the crime story, and this makes the story more interesting and complex. It is a story within a story. 

  I think Flynn is very good at constructing the setting and writing the subtle details. The town's main industry is pig farming and slaughtering, which Camille utterly disgusts. This setting echoes with the abusive relationship among some of the characters in the novel. That her half-sister love eating ham and watching pig-farming reminds readers of her being a bully in school. 

  The novel also strikes me as how suitable it is for movie/TV adaptations. It has the actions, the atmosphere, a real setting, and a chronological storyline with some flashbacks. This is one thing I want to complain about. Although there isn't any cliche, this type of story makes a familiar thriller movie. It kept me thinking about the story for a couple of days, but I learned nothing new about this genre, and it didn't leave me questions to wonder. Yet I still quite enjoyed following the plot. 
 

2017年6月30日 星期五

Review: 'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

It is the first Jane Austen's novel I have ever read. It is such a delight! It has sarcastic and witty prose written from the perspective of the writer. The dialogues artfully bring the characters to life. The plot contains interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear, simple and elegant. When I was reading, I was comparing to Austen's style to that of the Bronte sisters I have read recently. Anne Bronte's prose is like prayers which are filled with determination, faith, and sincerity, and very often has a moral message, and sometimes a bit winding. Emily Bronte's novel is way too dramatic and fills with Gothic elements that haunt the reader. Austen's story seems to be told by an 'actual' storyteller, who can see people's whims and emotions.

The heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Catherine Morland, who is one of the ten children of a vicar. At the beginning, 'no one would have supposed her born to be a heroine'. Neither her family's social status nor her character is extraordinary. She is just an innocent and ignorant girl. The first part of the narratives follows her six weeks visit to Bath, where she goes from parties to parties to meet people and make friends.  After the first week, she met the hero of the story, Henry Tilney, and falls in love. She overcomes some obstacles to become closer with Tilney's sister, Eleanor and is invited by the old Tilney to visit Northanger Abbey, the family's house. The latter half of the novel is about her stay there, where she fantasizes a Gothic story in that ancient abbey.

The novel satirizes marriage being the means to enhance social status and secure wealth. Isabella, a good friend of Catherine since she comes to Bath, is engaged to Catherine's brother, James. Yet, after learning that James' family will not give much allowance to them after their marriage, Isabella flirts with Frederick Tilney, who is from a much richer family, despite her disgusts with him. Another character, the old Tilney is especially amiable to Catherine only because he thinks she is an heiress. Their snobbishness forms a stack contrast with the heroine, who is artless and sincere. I think Austen does not only tries to satirize particular persons but the whole society that yields a kind of pretentiousness. The society requires people to form social circles and networks to be able to enjoy themselves and not to feel awkward. Yet, somehow, self-love exceeds our ability to understand and empathize other people. For example, it is quite ironic that Mrs. Allen, who longs to meet an acquaintance in Bath, only likes to talk vainly about her gown, when she finally met an old friend from school.

A thing I love very much about this book is its vivid portrayal of the characters. Although there is not much description of the appearance of Henry Tilney, we know how charming and intelligent he is through his dialogues with Catherine. A reader would not only regard him as the heroine's lover but an attractive person in general. When he first dance with Catherine, he says "I shall make a poor figure in your journal tomorrow." When Catherine denies, he creates an agreeable version of himself in her 'journal'. He wittily expresses his wish to be flattered by the heroine. The depiction of Catherine as a naive and simple girl is also very remarkable. It is quite amazing that she can be uplifted very easily after a grave disappointment.

Let's end this with a quote: 'To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability to administer the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid'

2017年6月22日 星期四

Review: 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë

I remember reading a translated classics for children's edition of Wuthering Heights when I was a child. I do not remember the plot but it produced a tumultuous storm in my head during the two or three hours reading it. It is extremely dramatic and quite fast-paced. I know it is probably not my kind of book because I usually like fictions that are richer in thoughts and emotions instead of dramas. As expected, I do not enjoy reading this book but it was not a waste of time. I am actually interested to know why this revenge story is written. I do not mean to find out the author's intention but the cultural meaning of the novel.

The story is about two related families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons in a remote area of Yorkshire, who reside in two big houses four miles apart, namely Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is set between the 1770s and 1802. It starts when Mr. Lockwood becomes the new tenant of the Grange and pays a couple of visits to his landlord Mr. Heathcliff, who lives in the Wuthering Heights. Lockwood becomes very curious of his neighbours and Nelly Dean, who served in the two houses, tells him an epic story happens between the two houses.

Nelly Dean's narrative starts when the old Mr. Earnshaw adopts an orphan from Liverpool and names him Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw's daughter, Mr. Earnshaw adores the orphan very much and Catherine develops a very close bond with him since childhood. Yet the elder son, Hindley disgusts him and tries to stop Catherine from being too close to him. Mr. Earnshaw died when the children are still in their teenage years. Hindley thus can abuse Heathcliff as he wants. Catherine, although declares her tremendous love for Heathcliff, later marries her cousin, Edgar Linton of the Grange. Heathcliff disappears on a stormy night when he overhears Catherine's declaration to Nelly. He reappears three years later and tries to revenge against the masters of the two households, Edgar Linton and Hindley, who 'separates' him and Catherine. When the two die, he shifts the target to their offspring, who is also the daughter and nephew of Catherine.

The story is mostly composed of one outburst of quarrel or temper after another but without enough description of emotions or relationships that yield those outbursts. From the narration of Nelly, we just know that Hindley, Catherine, and Heathcliff are naturally very tempered people since their childhood, who just shout and throw things when they cannot get what they want. There are always not many detailed descriptions on the bondage between the two lovers in childhood besides them being good playmates. The lack of psychological descriptions makes the characters development too shallow and the story too melodramatic. With the commentary of Nelly Dean, the revenge of Heathcliff seems like a melodrama of an evil monster destroying an innocent village and finally destroying himself. I think the novel will be much better if it adopts a third person narratives that provide more details of the internal worlds of characters.

However, the reason for Heathcliff's revenge interests me. I think that merely his love for Catherine is not enough to yield his motivation for revenge. He tries to seize the dignity and power of the masters of the two households, who humiliate and bully him when he is young. He then reproduces his suffering to the younger generation, Hareton, and young Catherine. The revenge story is a result of an outsider, an orphan from the city's streets, failing to be accepted in a relatively exclusive social circle of countryside middle class. It reflects how power and class differences are detrimental to human relationships.

When Heathcliff is adopted, he does not regard himself as lower than Earnshaw's children as he receives more adoration from Mr. Earnshaw. When he is hit by Hareton, Nelly thinks 'he would have gone just so to the master, and got full revenge by letting his condition plead for him, intimating who had caused it'. Yet, he is not regarded as equal as other Earnshaw's children. Even Catherine does not defend him. Nelly, in order to avoid Hindley being blamed, 'persuaded him (Heathcliff) easily lay the blame of his bruises on the horse.' When old Earnshaw dies, he is deprived of respect. He runs away when he hears that she says it would degrade her if she marries him. Although Heathcliff plots a revenge to seize the property and status of his former oppressors, he fails to gain their respect and dignity which are granted by blood but is regarded as a devil instead. This reflects how unbreakable social differences are and how detrimental they are to people.

Another interesting point to note is the way the characters subject to the power. Hareton is neglected and degraded and suffers very much because of Heathcliff's revenge. Yet he does not hate him but is very loyal to him or maybe even love him. Nelly just thinks it is due to his habits. Maybe Hareton cannot find his place beside obeying his oppressor. What will happen if it is a common response to oppressive power?

I recommend people to read some critical writings about the book after reading it. I was surprised to find out its many different interpretations, which maybe even more interesting than the novel itself!

Wuthering Heights is in the public domain- Project Gutenberg.

2017年6月16日 星期五

Further Notes on 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'

*spoiler

Yesterday, I posted a review on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is mainly about its general themes and my feeling about the story. I think I should elaborate more on The Tenant as a feminist novel. Guilt is a central emotion that drives the actions of the characters. The novel reflects how the society uses the feeling of guilt to restrict women's behaviors and suggests how one might try to resist it.

Some of the negative reactions of Linden-car's residents upon the arrival of a solitary widower presupposes that women living independently of men are guilty. It is because women are not supposed to think for themselves. Mrs. Markham tells her daughter, "Rose, in all household matters, we have two things to consider, first, what's proper to be done, and secondly, what's agreeable to the gentlemen of the house-- anything will do for ladies." She also teaches Gilbert to choose a wife who does not attend to her own pleasure but the men's, 'it's your business to please yourself and hers to please you.' If a woman's business is to take care of the 'gentlemen' at home, a woman who has no gentlemen to attend to is a challenge to that inborn duty. She assumes that Mrs. Graham is not a good person simply because she lives on her own and talks about the rumors attempting to shame Mrs.Graham.

In many parts of the novel, the female characters are using this sense of guilt to sanction each others' or even her own behaviors. In addition to spreading rumors, parental authority teaches girls to feel a sense of guilt when they disobey. For instance, Millicent Hargrave reluctantly marries Mr. Hattersley because she is fear of disobeying her mother whose wish is to have a rich son-in-law. She believes that she should love her husband out of duty despite her disapproval of his behavior and she is guilty having said against him in a letter. Esther, Millicent's younger sister, is being pressured by the family as she rejects the arranged marriage by her mother. She is not sure if she should be the guilty one.

The heroine, Helen Huntingdon resists that sense of guilt when she finds out that the marriage is infelicitous. When Helen knows that Huntingdon and Lady Lowburough have an affair, she hesitates to go down for breakfast the next morning. But then she tells herself, 'let me remember it is not that I am guilty: I have no course to fear; and if they scorn me as the victim of their guilt, I can pity their folly and despise their scorn.' In earlier occasions, when Helen and Huntingdon have a quarrel, she refuses to be a submissive 'good girl' but detests the arrogance of her husband. She also helps her young friend Esther by relieving her feeling of guilt for not obeying her mother.

The book gives us a historical picture of women's situations in.the Victorian era. I think the lesson of this book is not to be ashamed of thinking for yourself and making yourself happy even if people judge you unfavorably.

2017年6月15日 星期四

Review: "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Brontë

It is a moral tale of marriage from a woman's point of view.  Similar to Jane Eyre, it is claimed to be one of the very first feminist novels. It directly rejects that a submissive housewife is 'a good woman'. It encourages woman to have their own judgement and own voice to be heard in the face of abuse or unjust treatment. The protagonist also does not afraid to displease people by stating her opposite stance or be sorry for her own opinions. The novel does not only challenge the conventions of the conservative Victorian society but it is also quite relatable to the issue of woman's rights in modern society.

The story is about Mrs. Graham, a new tenant of the desolate WildFell Hall, who causes lots of gossips about her identity in the neighborhood. She and her son Arthur make friend with Gilbert Markham, a young local farmer, and landowner. Although Mrs. Graham is not amiable but rather is content with desolation and solitude, Gilbert falls in love with her for her sophisticated and mature character. Mrs. Graham reveals her real identity and secret to Gilbert by letting her read her diary. The diary follows the course of Helen Huntington's marriage and how she finally determines to escape from her husband with her son. 

I am really impressed by the emotional intensity of the novel. The pages overflow with the internal struggles the protagonist has been through. The words are sometimes the cries of the heart or the prayer to God or the whisper to herself. It is really heartbreaking to see a young woman slowly dashes her hope for a happy marriage. After accepting Huntington's proposal, Helen realizes that he is not as good as she thinks: 'My cup of sweets is not unmingled: it is dashed with a bitterness that I cannot hide from myself, disguise it as I will.' After knowing he cheated on her, she writes, 'Oh! when I think how fondly, how foolishly I have loved him, how madly I have trusted him, how constantly I have studied, and prayed, and struggled for his advantage...' When I read this sentence, I flipped back to the start of diary, which is written by that innocent girl in love a few years ago, and sighed. 

Helen's story makes me think of a documentary on domestic violence I watched recently. I was surprised that some women stayed in their marriages for many years although their husbands constantly abuse them. Some of them are afraid that their children will have to grow up in a broken family so they do not divorce. Yet the violence is already detrimental to their kids' moral character. If a girl can write a story in the 19th century about a young woman running away from her husband to protect her kid from moral degrade, why the society in the 21st century cannot sufficiently protect women and children from physical violence in families?

On the other hand, The Tenant is still somewhat limited as a feminist novel. It does not explore the possibilities of women staying out of marriage or firing a divorce. There is a minor character, Jane Wilson, who want to marry someone rich and prestigious, ends up failing and becomes an old maiden. Although she is disliked for annoying gossips, why the author does not 'award' her with a 'reform' or a happy life despite her being single?

2017年6月5日 星期一

3 Relatable Coming-of-age Novels that are Over 100 years old

The first time you leave your home, the first time you move to another city, the first time you get a job… These new experiences often become inspirations of a story. We imagine the lives of young adults very different from ours nowadays. The education might be different. We have more career choices and shopping choices. The ideas of success might have been changed. Yet a coming-of-age novel published over 100 years ago may still be relatable to us nowadays. They inspire us to reflect on our relationships with society, family and ourselves in the face of new challenges.


Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (originally published in 1847)

When 19-year-old Agnes Grey considers going to work to support her family, she decides to become a governess. Similar to many young people getting their first jobs, Agnes is full of hope and excitement. Yet she is not without fear. When she first enters her employer’s house, she tells herself, ‘for the first time in my life I must stand alone: there was no retreating now.  I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants.’ Her pupils are spoiled and unteachable, and her employers are mean and demanding.  She is shocked by her masters’ lack of moral feelings. She is lonely and sometimes she is desperate be alone to be depressed. It is difficult to find someone who shares her interests and values in the workplace, needless to say someone who cares about her.
This novel reflects the disappointing truths about work, unchanged in these two centuries: it can be hard, lonely, boring and makes you feel unfree. You have to be obedient to your employer, at the same time, stand for yourself. You work so hard but the ones you serve may not be thankful since you are paid to do the job. One has to learn to hide their emotions and dislikes. Learning to deal with that unhappiness and loneliness seems to be something we are always doing in the modern life.


Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki (originally published in 1909) 三四郎  夏目漱石

When Sanshiro, a village boy, enters university in Tokyo, he is thrown into a big city in its process of modernization. The speed of electric tram as well as the pace of this city amaze him but also confuse him. He feels like so left out, separated from the present reality. His relationships with fellows, especially with his crush, are puzzling. As the story progresses, there are more disappointments but at the same time more experiences and reflections for him.
A major theme of how technological advancements affect humans’ fellow feelings. Although it was written more than a hundred years ago, it is surprisingly relatable to people in the modern days. When the news reports a person commit suicide, it becomes a piece of information. Tomorrow there will be other pieces of news on the paper. We cannot feel the emotions, or do not have the time to feel the emotions caused by the incident. I think of social media, which present our social circle just as pieces of news, and how I have been growing up with them…


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (originally published in 1916)

Stephan Dedalus grows up in a conservative Catholic Irish family and is educated at religious schools. The story follows his spiritual journey from an obedient, meek model student to an independent young man who decides to leave his society to become an artist. When he was very young, it seems that he does not have an independent spirit. He always’ found himself doing something’, instead of making decisions. He listens to the priests’ preaches and is often so afraid that he has sinful thoughts and desires. However, as he grows older, he begins to question the values he has been taught. Instead of following the rules, ‘he would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul’.
The novel reminds me of my school days, when I was also an obedient student who was so afraid of breaking any rule, like drinking water without permission and eating in the classroom. After leaving school to enter university, I started to think critically about those rules and found out that many of them are unnecessary and inflexible. I remember teachers justify those rules as a preparation of student to the hidden rules of the workplace. But isn’t it more important to teach student to think for themselves before following others? The transformation of Stephan Dedalus seems to be something lots of young people hope for: to be free of the constraints of an oppressive society, to love life, to create values and meanings…

2017年5月13日 星期六

My thoughts on 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J. D. Salinger

  I am happy that I found a story that I can relate so much.

  Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old who is a terribly 'bad student'. To most adults, he seems to be throwing his life away. He got kicked out of school several times because he fails most of the courses. He thinks most of the people around him are 'phonies', his schoolmates and teachers, even the girl he finds attractive. The story is the days about he left the boarding school he kicked out from. He went back to New York, his home city, and goes 'underground' for three days to wait until the start of Christmas holiday to get home. He does not want his parent to know that he got kicked out of school before they receive the official notice.

  The characters Holden hates or described as phonies are the people who do things not out of sincerity but only to impress others, make themselves feel good or simply to follow the rules. One scene that I like very much is Holden's description about 'digression' in English oral exam. Each student will choose a topic to give a speech in front of the class. If the student is out of topic, the audience can shout 'digression'. This makes some students nervous and unable to continue. 'What I think is, you're supposed to leave somebody alone alone if he is being interesting and he's getting all excited about something.(240)'  I think the reason he hates this is that the teacher's lack of empathy of student's feeling and respect of student's voices. They just want them to do what they are supposed to.    This is also what I hate about my school or education in general. I really hate school stresses on competition all the time. In our speaking exam, in which a group of students are assigned a topic to discuss, we even have to compete for a chance to voice out our opinions! My teacher sighed, 'Are the students that are good at speaking exam (those who are outspoken and spontaneous) really what the society needs?' Maybe we should ask the question, 'is this what we want to be?'
   Holden is also sarcastic about people who deliberately impress the person of a higher hierarchy or to 'like' something that is considered high class. During a break of the show 'the Lunts', he thinks, 'you never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play that everybody could hear and know how sharp they are'(164).
  This kind of snobbery exists everywhere. I really hate to introduce myself as a Philosophy major since many people will start to name drop, asking whether I have read this one and that one. But they actually mixed up some of the ideas. When I was younger, I was also very annoyed by the phoniness of adults. I even thought my parents are phonies sometimes. My parents are being extremely nice when they are talking to relatives they don't know very much and even offered to pay the lunch. Now I get used to it and this is just what they are supposed to do.

   I think Holden is a very good-natured boy who cares about people genuinely. 'The catcher in the rye' is what he really wants to be: 'I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all...And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everyone if they start ti go over the cliff... (224)' He wishes everyone to be happy genuinely and be safe and sound. He loves people who really care about others but not to just do so to make themselves feel good about themselves.

  I do not mean to agree with everything that Holden thinks. People are much more complicated than what a 16-years-old sees. But we need an angry and innocent voice to talk about the phoniness in society and embrace love and sincerity.

2017年5月3日 星期三

Review:Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

    I really like Kazuo Ishiguro as a novelist so I was curious to check out his short stories collection. As the title suggests, these five stories are about music and four of them are about musicians. Similar to most of Ishiguro's works, they are stories of memories, more specifically, dreams and wonders when one was young. These short stories that are not as good as his novels. Quite easy reads, and not many deep implications and messages. They are simply stories that are shorter, capturing an event in a short period of time, but do not express some inspiring truth or have an interesting twist as great short stories do. The character also does not change much after the story. Yet they are still quite enjoyable and fun to read. Some of them make me wonder how I would I think of myself when I get older.
    My favourite story is Cellists. The narrator sees his previous band mate Hungarian bandmate, Tibor, when he was performing music in a piazza. Then he remembers a Summer several years old when they were in Italy. Tibor met an American woman who claimed to be a famous cellist in a cafe in a piazza. That woman, Eloise, claimed that he has a special gift but have not fully developed his potential. She offers free tutorials in her hotel room and Tibor was very inspired by her for the first time and then kept seeing and playing for her. Yet, it turns out that she finally confessed she has never played the cello since she was eleven and she claimed that it is to protect her special gift. Tibor still had faith in that 'special gift' and kept seeing her until he had to leave for a job as a cellist in a hotel.  Tibor has not made a name as a famous musician in that seven years.
     This story strikes me as the weirdest among the five. It is quite ridiculous that the musician would believe one still have a special gift of music after many years not playing the instrument. They may be misunderstood the metaphor of a talent as 'a gift': It is still good enough when you just leave it there. I think of the compliments a child received when he did something good. One may be smart, gifted or creative but somehow life makes a person ordinary. Maybe Tibor indeed has a special gift, but somehow a repetitive job destroy it?

2017年4月29日 星期六

My Thoughts on Albert Camus' The Outsider

Penguin Modern Classics 2013 edition 

    I heard about Albert Camus in a Philosophy class that touched on existentialism and knew that The Outsider/The Stranger is one of his famous novels.

      The book is about a French man, Meursault, in colonial Algeria, The story begins when Meursault's mother died in an elderly home and he had to take leave from work in order to attend the funeral. He does not really feel sad or show any emotions in regard to his mother's death. In the first part of the novel, his life goes on as usual: he made a girlfriend, a friend, goes swimming to the beach on weekend...... He happens to kill an Arab man, who hurt his friend Raymond and pull out a knife in front of him. This puts Meursault on trial and his reactions towards his mother's death and his encounters afterwards all becomes important matters to the judgement of him as a criminal, or as a person in general.

      The novel questions the reality of the values we used to make sense of our lives. Throughout the novel, Meursault expresses indifference to the things that are meaningful and significant to the people around him: death, relationship, marriage, friendship, religion... In the trial, such indifference is literally judged as evidence of soullessness and evil. The novel strikes me as a glimpse of the truth which is seldom noticed. This shows that there is no escape to these values and meaning when we live in society. We either conform or reject them and we will finally be judged according to them. They are constructed to make life seems meaningful and worth living but they have no significance once society ignores them.

    The novel also reflects people's strong desire to make sense of lives using stories. Meursault's thoughts on the prosecutor's concluding speech is very unforgettable. The prosecutor constructs a 'story' of a plotted murder by linking up the events happens in the first part of the novel. Meursault thinks his arguments are completely logical and plausible. I think this challenges our way to make sense of the world by constructing logical and coherent narratives. We think that happenings in out life can be constructed into stories, in which everything can have clear causes and effects and we can judge what is good or bad in those stories. However, things happened in lives can be very random that there is no clear intention that leads one event after another.

     I really like the story and its Philosophical thoughts. This novel is very successful in portraying Meursault as an 'outsider' of society by contrasting him with strong emotions of the people around him. He also constantly forgets who he is supposed to be, i.e. a soon-to-be-married man and a criminal. He is an outsider to his own identity. I also like how other stories are used to echo with the main story, such the Czech story, in which a mother and a sister accidentally killed his son/brother and a man who killed his father. Many things may just happen because of coincidences instead of intentions. Yet we judge them as if it is caused by the latter.

      There are so much to say about this novel and I don't think I understand it thoroughly. I would recommend to people who love to challenge their beliefs and common sense.

2017年4月26日 星期三

Review: Kazou Ishiguro- The Remains of the Day

        It is the fourth book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro. I learn about this author from about a year ago when I happened to pick up one of his earliest novels- An  Artist in the Floating World, which is a powerful story that sticks with me until now. Ishiguro is interested in narratives about memories and seems that he, as a writer, is more interested in how people remember the past than what actually happened. I became interested in Ishiguro's works as I was fascinated by the idea of 'afterwardness' of memory. It is an idea I learnt from a class on narrative theories in my second year of university. It means that memory, although it is directed towards the past, is shaped by how we feel about the present. Thus, it changes continuously when our present situation changes. It is very inspiring since we usually concern whether one's memory is reliable or not, meaning how it reflects the actual past events accurately. Yet this idea brings out the importance of the subjectivity of memories.

     The Remains of the Day is also about one's memory triggered by the present. Set in 1956 England, the novel is about an English Butler, Stevens, remembers his days when he was serving Lord Darlington between the two world wars. Lord Darlington is a master who had considerable influence on British foreign policies between the two world wars. Stevens recounts the days when there were unofficial international conferences happened in the Hall Darlington and how he took pride of serving important political figures. He thinks about how his contribution is significant to his career and recounts his relationship with his former employer and fellow worker Miss Kenton. The moral and political ideas and the professional ideals of English Butlers have changed a lot since then. The novel touches on themes like dignity, professionalism and historical responsibility. It leaves the reader lots of important questions such as whether one should change his judgement on the moral characters of a person, because of his contribution to the negative consequences in which he can hardly foresee when he took those actions. This is the question that also sticks with me when I was reading An Artist in the Floating World.

   I like the subtlety of this novel. I feel like I was in a mist that I am not sure why Stevens considers those memories significant. It is not only over the second half of the novel I understands what he really struggles with about the past. At the same time, I am not sure whether he is a reliable narrator or not or he is just trying to present himself as a dignified and successful butler; and I also cannot tell whether he really feels the way he tells us as he is used to repressing his emotions in order to perform his duties as a dignified butler. Although this novel is both subtle and serious, it is not lack of comic relief and climaxes, which made me enjoy it even more.

    I would recommend this book to readers who are interested in British culture and histories or narratives about memories or moral questions.