Pre-Christmas reading feels

Nothing between human beings isn’t uncomplicated and there’s no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.

– Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys 

Updates on my progress re Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys – I’ve finally finished it, and believe it or not, the last 50 pages flew by pretty quickly, which goes to show that there are rewards to be reaped from bibliographic perseverance, or just that Oates didn’t do that great a job with her overall narrative architecture in this book.

Either way, I think it’ll probably be quite some time before I pick up another family saga. Still, I give mega creds to Oates for her stylistic elegance – there’s no denying that this prolific lady has a way with words.

She’s worth reading, maybe just not at urban speed.

Over this period of sluggish struggle with Oates’ book, I happened to have re-read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which is a considerably shorter classic about the life of two American labourers during the Great Depression era.

I was surprised by how much it touched me, especially when I don’t recall feeling much the first time I read it. Then again, I didn’t even register that Pride and Prejudice was a love story when I first read it at 10, so perhaps first impressions gained at a time of literary immaturity usually aren’t reliable.

Having read and loved his short stories, I maintain that John Steinbeck is the American realist par excellence, perhaps second only to John Updike (my all-time favourite DWM*), and that his works are sine qua non for the personal library of any self-professed 20th century literary lover.

Exploring Lennie Small – a giant who is anything but small 

In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s portrayal of the mentally retarded Lennie Small is masterfully heartbreaking, because he paints Lennie as a walking paradox who has very little agency over what he does, says or feels: he is a child trapped in a man’s body, a purist in a practical world, an animal lover who kills animals and doesn’t realise it until he does, and a male labourer who is even more sentimental than the only woman in the book.

Lennie is so pure in mind and so untainted in soul that he emerges a saintly anomaly when compared to all the ruthless, wily, worldly characters around him.

Notice how people who are radically ‘different’ often meet two fates: if eventually accepted by the masses, they will be haloicized (e.g. Jesus); if ultimately rejected, they will be persecuted (e.g. Othello). As the adage goes, fortune favors the bold, so those who are not endowed with the confidence of asserting their ‘different-ness’ (because the word ‘difference’ doesn’t suffice to underscore just how different these characters are) would naturally fall to the sidelines of the marginalized, deemed freaks of nature or specimens of failure.

In Of Mice, Lennie almost always steps on toes, and it is precisely because his mishaps are such bumbling examples of comic awkwardness that they are so heartrending, and that he is able to incite such sympathy on the reader’s part.

A. C. Bradley, one of the seminal Shakespearean scholars, was often criticized for commenting on dramatic characters as if they were real people, but I sometimes wonder how it’s possible for anyone not to conceive of fictional constructs as real people, because isn’t that ultimately the point of literature – to use novels as interpersonal sandboxes, to imagine the fictional as stand-ins for the real, and as such, to strengthen our capacity for empathy?

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Granted, it’s difficult to imagine myself as a mentally retarded person (for which I’m incredibly thankful), but there are definitely times when I have felt like the inadequate moron in the corner, or the sore thumb that’s grossly unaware of her unwelcome presence.

The thing with Lennie is that he doesn’t mean for his presence to be so glaringly unwelcome; most of the time, this Steinbeck character is genuinely sorry and helpless about his physical ineptitude, which all the more compounds his sympathy quotient in the reader’s eyes.

Lennie

John Malkovich as Lennie Small in the 1992 film adaptation

A good example of this is when George, Lennie’s understanding but also understandingly irate sidekick, tells him off for picking up stray mice and secretly hoarding them as pets:

“You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?”

“Give you what, George?”

“You know damn well what. I want that mouse.”

Lennie reluctantly reached into his pocket. His voice broke a little. “I don’t know why I can’t keep it. It ain’t nobody’s mouse. I didn’t steal it. I found it lyin’ right beside the road… I wasn’t doin’ nothing bad with it, George. Jus’ strokin’ it.”

George stood up and threw the mouse as far as he could into the darkening brush, and then he stepped to the pool and washed his hands. “You crazy fool. Don’t you think I could see your feet was wet where you went across the river to get it?” He heard Lennie’s whimpering cry and wheeled about. “Blubberin’ like a baby! Jesus Christ! A big guy like you.” Lennie’s lip quivered and tears started in his eyes. “Aw, Lennie!” George put his hand on Lennie’s shoulder. “I ain’t takin’ it away jus’ for meanness. The mouse ain’t fresh, Lennie; and besides, you’ve broke it pettin’ it. You get another mouse that’s fresh and I’ll let you keep it a little while.”

Lennie sat down on the ground and hung his head dejectedly. “I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember a lady used to give ‘em to me – ever’ one she got. But that lady ain’t here.”

George scoffed. “Lady, huh? Don’t even remember who that lady was. That was your own Aunt Clara. An’ she stopped givin’ em to ya. You always killed ‘em.”

Lennie looked sadly up at him. “They was so little,” he said, apologetically. “I’d pet ‘em, and pretty soon they bit my fingers and I pinched their heads a little and then they was dead – because they was so little.”

Killing something without meaning to: this has got to be one of the greatest moral dilemmas known to man. Without intention, can even the greatest of crimes be forgiven, despite the irreversibility of the act?

Lennie’s ‘crime’ is that he is too big, and as such, his force is often too great for most delicate creatures to bear, as they die beneath the burden of his lethal Midas touch. Lennie, this big-hearted bumbling bloke and poor child of deterministic tragedy, is a serial killer, albeit an unwilling one.

mouse

Can you, then, sympathise with this accomplice of Death, notwithstanding the complete lack of control he has over his deadliness?

* * *

On a merrier note, Christmas is in the offing, and if tradition stands in the Chan abode, soon the turkey will also be in the oven. In a capitalist haven like Hong Kong, this festival is really just another excuse to go shopping, not that I take too much issue with that, being a native product of a product-crazed culture.

I wonder when I’ll be able to experience a white Christmas again – I miss winter in England, although when I was there, I would often curse my toes off so much from the cold I didn’t need frostbites to remind me which part of the Northern Hemisphere I was in.

Have a happy, happy Christmas, everyone. Read a book or something, or failing that, spend more time with your loved ones. Actually, reverse the order, because as much as virtual living procures its own enjoyments, it is never worth letting imagined figurines get in the way of real flesh and blood, chock full of love and hugs.

christmas twin

 

*Dead White Male: a controversial term for Caucasian male authors who have gained eminence and been posthumously canonised in Western literary history (used tongue-in-cheek here) 

Photo credits: The Paris Review, Unsplash, MGM
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An interview with Samuel Ferrer, Man Asian Literary Prize-nominated author

“I find it amazing that the most prominent kingdom of the Indian diaspora completely evaporated, leaving nothing behind other than these stones.”

– Samuel Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine (2016)

I will admit it – I’m a picky reader.

There are certain genres that I used to love but now wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (chick lit lad lit I’m lookin’ atcha), and I secretly wish that Top 10 Bestseller shelves could be consigned to the dusts of bibliographic oblivion.

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Fie! Fie! Get thee gone

I’ve written about my (much contested) aversion to sci-fi before, and I’ve always found the idea of fictionalising history a bit unsettling.

This is why, when author, double bassist and jazz musician Samuel Ferrer reached out to me a while ago with an invitation to read his historical fiction novel, The Last Gods of Indochine, I was skeptical. Looking back, I’d say I was thrown out of my ‘reading comfort zone’, given that a large part of it is set in medieval Cambodia – a period in history which I have absolutely no knowledge about.

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How women show their strength

What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.

– Susan Sontag

Back in October last year, I took up strength training as part of my fitness routine.

Since then, I have been lifting weights every week in full badass mode; headphones in, West Coast hip-hop on, huffing and puffing while I bust out 20 squats with 20-pound dumbbells in each hand.

workout selfie shot

Not the most flattering self-portrait, I know, but no one looks flattering when they’re working out. And if you disagree, you’ve either not worked out before, or you weren’t actually working out when you thought you were.

#FACT #sorrynotsorry #keepinitreal

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Why I’ve been MIA these few months

CLIFF: Anytime I want to, I can close my eyes and call it back. Then it’s like I’m really back there and I can practically hear that field buzzing. In a way, it’s like I never left that field. In a way – it’s like I can’t.

(The single light fades, and bright summer sunshine fills the stage. Dorothy is on the ground, reading a book.)

-The Land of Cockaigne, David Ives (1995)

In the past few months, I’ve taken a brief hiatus from this blog to focus on sorting my life out living.

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Retrospective: 2016 – A Poem in 3 Acts

As I take my digital labour of love – Classic Jenisms – into 2017, I have decided to take part in my first WordPress Discover Challenge.

In the spirit of a brand new year, the challenge is titled ‘Retrospective’, and the Editors are asking us bloggers to “look back over our past years’ worth of blogging… to build on or synthesize our best work of 2016”. Since I’ve only ever published prose on this blog, I figured that it’d be a nice change for me to write a ‘found’ poem using lines from my 10 most popular posts to date. For ease of reference, I have hyperlinked all of the lines to their original posts.

I hope you enjoy it, and in contrary to my customary urge of offering ‘literary critique’, I will leave you, dear readers, to ‘interpret’and glean from it whatever you will. 🙂

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6 surprising things I learned about New York in 6 days

new-colossusNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’ (1883)

Have you ever experienced moments in life when you feel restless and reckless, like there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet got round to doing because of [insert excuse 1][excuse 2][excuse 3]?

For all the stultifying effects that a life of routine poses on the mind, thoughts of reckless abandon hit me on a regular basis, but if I were to act on them every time they came knocking on the door of my consciousness, I would probably be the poster child of millennial bohemianism by now, living like a troglodyte in a ranch ten thousand feet below some random Idahoan mountain for half a year and jet setting in a perennially airborne state for the other half, courtesy of parentally accumulated mileage points and savings.

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This is a book you will either love or hate

“Life’s great happiness is to be convinced we are loved.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Among the many types of mental fallacies, confirmation bias has got to be my favourite. Mostly because I’m so often guilty of it. Confirmation bias means the tendency to seek out information that validates your assumptions and beliefs, in the process screening out those which don’t.

The example most relevant to this blog would be my awareness of a constant uncanny ‘echoing’ between my daily reading and my daily living, which I’ve written about here and here and here.

As much as I’d like to think of myself as some Minister of Literary Humanism, deep down I suspect that these ‘coincidences’ are less so manifestations of an uncanny ritual, as they are simply a testament to the fact that I read a lot of humanistic fiction, which, of course, is made up of events drawn from this activity called human living.

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